10 Science Fiction Books That I Love (And You Will At Least Like A Lot)
As the new ‘Sci-Fi guy’ here at LitReactor, it only seems proper to formally introduce myself. I really enjoyed writing my first piece contrasting John Carter as a book and a film, but thought a more expansive entrée might be fun. And rather than the standard recitation of resume and influences, why not throw myself upon the mercy of the comment section and offer a list of my favorite books in the genre?
Lists like these are imperfect in their very conception, so feel free to tell me where I went awry. (My theory: not taking a year off between high school and college to devote myself to becoming Jay-Z’s intern by any means necessary.) Some of these titles are very well known, others less so, but as a whole I think they reflect my admittedly idiosyncratic taste. At best, I’m hoping to provoke passionate discussion and inspire you to check out some truly rad books. At worst, we’re going to have an old-tyme, AOL circa 1996 thermonuclear flame war. To be completely honest, both sound sort of awesome.
Two caveats, then: First, these are in no particular order. Trying to winnow my packed bookshelves down to ten titles was traumatic enough; I’m not going to parse superlatives. And second, my definition of ‘science fiction’ is pretty far-reaching. High, low, near future, alternate history, literary – all are welcome. I’m a big tent kind of guy. Who doesn’t love big tents?
Enough prologue, on to the books!
Yeah, I know, liking Kurt Vonnegut is hardly groundbreaking stuff. But the old Hoosier has been my favorite author since I first starting ransacking my parents’ library in middle school. Of course, choosing one title by Vonnegut is basically impossible (Slapstick almost won out). This pitch-black adventure about a world devastated by a military technology that freezes all the water on Earth really captures Vonnegut’s signature blend of humor and dread. It also boasts an insanely economical narrative - my copy is just 191 pages! And if that's not enough, in Bokononism Vonnegut invented a postmodern religion that substitutes 'calypsos' for psalms. Sold.
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress
Robert Heinlein is a genius at remixing history by combining familiar stories and then setting them in unexpected places or times. Only Heinlein could recast Jefferson as a polygamous, multiracial computer geek; George Washington as a self-aware supercomputer; and Ben Franklin as a horny old man. I mean, where does he get this stuff? I actually grew up with a Revolutionary War battlefield in my backyard, so I especially love this book's retelling of a lunar revolt informed by America's own, along with elements of the French Revolution and Indian Independence Movement. (My hometown even shows up when the lunar delegation visits Earth!) This title is also a founding member of the How Has This Not Been Made Into A Movie Yet? Club.
One of the best and strangest looks at a post-apocalyptic world I have ever read, this book also features a truly badass invented language (a weakness of mine - as you can probably tell from many of the other titles on this list). The title character is a twelve-year-old boy living in an Iron Age England several hundred years after a nuclear war destroyed civilization. That author Russell Hoban also wrote the Frances The Badger series of children's books only adds to the whole thing’s mind-shattering weirdness.
Speaking of strange, the only thing odder than the premise of Carol Emshwiller’s book is its cover. Set in a distant future society where humanity has been domesticated by a race of aliens, the story manages to brilliantly address both the nature of self and – I swear - the predator/prey relationship. Emshwiller’s prose is the real star here, simultaneously spare and poetic, resulting in a surprisingly emotional story.
Time And Again
As you might guess, based on my bio below, I love time travel stories. And this one from Jack Finney, the author of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is one of my favorites. It takes a unique angle on the genre and posits a version of time travel that forgoes theoretical physics in favor of verisimilitude. The main character journeys back to 1882 through a combination of self-hypnosis, a period appropriate lifestyle, and interior design. Finney also made this a graphic novel by brilliantly repurposing 19th century photographs, using them to 'depict' his setting and characters.
I mean, if I like invented languages and religions, how can this not be on here? So dense with details it reads like history in the best possible manner (a feeling that was only amplified after I read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom). I love any art form that demands the sort of attention that Frank Herbert’s masterpiece requires, especially when it stands up so well to repeated readings. And let us never forget that John Hodgman referring to Barack Obama as the “Kwisatz Haderach” at the 2009 Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner might have been the Geekiest Moment Of All Time.
Easily the best book about a hacker with a samurai sword and a skater with a cyborg dog written in the 20th century. It’s also the book that I have bought the most times, both as gifts and because I keep lending it out with such abandon that I never know who has my copy. It's deservedly in the canon for innumerable reasons, but is also one of the most engrossing and fun literary experiences you can have. Right up there with The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress in terms of the HHTNBMIAMY?C. I've enjoyed everything Neil Stephenson's done before and since - particularly The Baroque Cycle - but the tale of Hiro Protagonist will always be my favorite.
OK, I know what you're thinking: Ease up Korn, we're talking Sci-Fi! But what else would you call a story set in a near future U.S. rife with speculative technology and major geopolitical changes? Add in the undeniable love David Foster Wallace shows for anyone obsessed with math, chemistry, film, RPGs, etymology, or grammar and you’re basically in Geek Heaven. Yes it’s a big boy, page-wise, but hopefully as fellow science fiction aficionados you also share my admiration for long books – more to love, right? Infinite Jest is one of my favorite things ever, regardless of genre or medium, so I'm including it here, dammit.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World
Hey, give me a literary inch and I'll roll in with the whole metafiction posse. (New goal: convincing someone to tattoo 'metafiction' on their torso, where Tupac had 'Thug Life.') Haruki Murakami is another favorite of mine and this early work is a minor classic that often gets overlooked. The narrative is split into two discrete settings - a menacing pastoral and a grim dystopia – both of which get to deeper idea of consciousness while remaining addictively readable.
The Collected Stories Of Philip K. Dick
Now I'm really flouting the rules. But I bought this five-volume collection over several visits to the U.K. twenty years ago and I've been rereading it ever since. I'm not ashamed to admit that I love Dick (zing!), and for me his most successful work was in the short form. I'm always amazed by the variety of ideas, techniques, and styles on display here. Not to mention the ever-growing list of adaptations, which range from the relentlessly dreadful Paycheck, through the wonderfully dreadful Total Recall, to Minority Report, which I like enough to list sans adverb.
That’s the list, friends. Let me know what you think and remember: Start the reactor - free Mars!
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