About a month ago, I guested on a podcast with the Sectarian Review, on science fiction & theology. As I wait for the episode to drop this Thursday, I wanted to put together a short list of some of my favourite science fiction stories. (In fact, depending on when you get around to reading this post, the episode may already by out!)
These are stories that have stuck with me, their themes lingering at the corners of my consciousness. Some are funny; others, thought-provoking. All are memorable. I’ve included novels I mentioned on the show (they’re just that good!), but I’ve tried to include a few I didn’t get a chance to mention, as well.
I’m not very good at writing those little “hooks” that are meant to sell stories. So instead, I’ve listed the books below, using the “to read when” blurb to provide a clue to the themes of the novel and then simply adding a note about what I appreciated.
In no particular order, here the novels are:
To read if you’re new to science fiction: War of the Worlds, by HG Wells. To be fair, when I taught a course in science fiction, my students didn’t altogether appreciate this story; they found it dull. But this was the first true science fiction novel I ever read (I was about fifteen at the time) and the slow dawning of strangeness in the novel, the utter alienness of the Martians, horrified and fascinated me. I could not, I found, read the novel at bedtime, lest I be unable to sleep for terror, but the gulf here between what was real and what was imagined whetted my appetite for science fiction. Delightful.
To read if you want more alien aliens: A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge. This is a seriously underappreciated novel; I almost never meet anyone who has read it. But when even the bulbous Martians of Wells’s novel are prosaic, the aliens in Vinge’s novel are thrillingly different. One is a hive mind. Another is (I kid you not!) shaped like a bush, and uses a voder for a voice. The cast of characters reads like they were recruited from the Star Wars cantina.
Along with its really alien aliens, the novel has some impressive world-building, essentially creating a tiered or ringed universe, along with a brand-new planet for its characters to explore and survive.
More seriously, the novel raises some really good questions: Are we created good or evil? If we are created evil, can we escape our destiny? How do we treat those who are different than us, especially if (we imagine that) they are responsible for destroying parts of our civilization? I read this novel when the debate about accepting refugees kicked into high gear in the US, in December 2015, and I found the novel very relevant to that debate.
To read when you need a laugh: The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde. (Yes it’s spelled with two Fs.) Full of British humor, full of literary puns, this novel is set in an alternate-timeline version of 1985 England and follows the adventures of literary detective Thursday Next, as she tries to rescue Jane Eyre when the heroine is literally kidnapped from the pages of her own novel.
One of the things I appreciate the most about science fiction (and fantasy, for that matter) is creative world-building. This novel had creative world-building in spades. The whole set-up is strange, and hilariously so: There are vending machines that dispense Shakespearean verse, it’s against the law to impersonate Byron, literal bookworms allow you to enter into (and exit from) your favourite novels, and people travel back and forth in time arguing about what colour to paint the walls. The novel has some thoughtful themes, but honestly? You can’t think seriously all the time, and this novel is a nice break from some heavier reading material.
To read if you’re a book-before-the-movie person: Children of Men, by PD James. I have both read the movie and seen the book, and despite the praise heaped on the movie, I find the book better. More nuanced, better characterized, the novel, through the growth of the central character Theodore Faron, tries to explain what makes humankind worth saving, and where our inner moral compass, particularly courage and hope, comes from.
I especially found the novels’ fertility motif interesting. Obviously, the whole premise of the book is that humanity cannot have children and therefore stands on the brink of (a passive) destruction, but its sterility crops up other ways, too: people’s inability to maintain real relationships, their preferences for animal over human companionship, and the difficulty in committing to faith, in the presence of doubt.
Or, still in the book-before-the-movie vein, you could read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by PKD, the basis for cult classic Blade Runner. Again, I’ve seen the movie and read the book, and I got more out of the book. The Sectarian Review episode prior to mine addressed the social critiques that this book levels, against consumerism and social media (over)usage, against our lack of empathy, but what I found truly interesting were the religious themes of this novel. At the heart of the characters’ spiritual lives is Mercerism, a kind of mashup between Buddhism and Christianity founded by a guy named (duh) Mercer. People who follow this religion get in touch with Mercer through one of the technical devices available in the time period; but its not clear how real this faith actually is. Regardless, the novel wonders whether the religion can do its characters good, even if it turns out to be fake? Can faith be justified even if we suspect that the object of our faith is misplaced?
Since the main character of the novel is a self-described bounty hunter, the novel also argues that sin is pervasive, an inescapable part of being human:
“You will be required to do wrong wherever you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature who lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all human life.”
To read with Wendell Berry: Feed, by MT Anderson. The title of the novel does not (as I originally thought) refer to animal feed but rather to the feed of the Internet, which has been implanted in our brans. Impressively, the novel invents and consistently maintains a peculiar speaking style for its protagonist Titus, a teenager; broken and filled with advertising blurbs, the style complements the novel’s themes of thoughtless consumerism, and wealth inequality. Darkly humorous.
To read when Amazon debuts its newest drone: The Circle, by Dave Eggers. This novel follows Mae Holland in her first months at a new Internet company, a mashup of Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Twitter. I already worry that the Internet’s arms have grown too long, and this novel simply fed that worry. In particular, I appreciated its suggestion that the Internet’s greatest tools – the ability to track things, the ability to provide complete transparency – are perhaps not the pure goods we imagine they are.
To read whenever you think humankind is about to destroy itself: Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller. Set in the world of post-nuclear war, this novel follows the fortunes of an abbeyful of monks entrusted with the safekeeping of humankind’s accumulated knowledge. I loved the black humor and abrupt style of this novel, its suggest that perhaps scientific knowledge is not all its cracked up to be, and that for all our wisdom, we are prone to destroy ourselves. Delightfully, tantalizingly, Canticle ends with a touch of magical realism, a hint that our salvation lies not in science but in the incomprehensible divine.
To read for a good AI: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein. The novel is set on the Moon (now Earth’s penal colony and its chief supplier of ice and water) and charts the political revolt that the lunar inhabitants engineered, to defend themselves against the rapaciousness of Earth.
Like Feed, this novel creates and maintains an impressive slang for its (criminal underclass) lunar characters; the slang seems to be loosely, and appropriately, based on that of Australia, similarly a penal colony. But the best part of Moon is its AI, the supercomputer who makes the entire revolt possible: funny, and more human than nearly any other character, the computer is the star of the show and makes what could be a grim political tale a heartwarming one.
To read when you want to know more about science fiction: Of Other Worlds: Essays & Stories, by C.S. Lewis. This was some of the first literary criticism I ever read, let alone the first literary criticism on science fiction. Lewis does an excellent job articulating the qualities that makes science fiction, science fiction. He divvies the genre into several different categories (for instance, dividing mechanical science fiction such as Verne’s novels from stranger ones like David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus) and he amply defends the value of a genre devoted to exploring the strange and otherworldly.
For what it’s worth, Lewis packs his essays full of examples, and so for someone looking to dig up more science fiction, particularly very early science fiction, his essays are a good place to start.
To read when you’re feeling down: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. I reference this novel, a longstanding favorite, on the show. It’s a first-contact novel, always a delight, and peopled with an interesting cast of characters who I wish existed in real life so I could befriend them, eat with them, and explore with them.
But it’s also refreshingly honest about what suffering feels like. We Christians, knowing that God has a purpose for our pain, all too easily gloss over genuine suffering. Faced with someone who is in pain, we reassure them that God’s sovereignty will make all well in the end, skipping over the very painful experience they are living right now.
The Sparrow does not do this. Rather, it captures well the unresolvable tension we feel between knowing that God loves us and finding ourselves in the midst of great, and sometimes unbearable, suffering:
There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists.”
So God just leaves?”
No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.”
Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.”
But the sparrow still falls.”
And I’ll leave you there.
If my busy semester (grading, lesson planning, designing one online course and taking another!) leaves me time, I will post a list of recommended SF films in the next few weeks.
Till then, happy reading!