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Science Fiction For Those Not Entirely Sure They Like Science Fiction

I don’t think it is a problem if what you want is a literature of ideas. And that’s what Asimov claimed science fiction was. Asimov almost gave writers permission not to go deeply into characters, because they want to focus more on plots and premises and logical extrapolations and so on. And I don’t think it’s bad that there are writers that want to pursue that. If you’re really interested in character, science fiction might not be the best genre in which to pursue. On the other hand, some science fiction writers really do pursue characters by putting their characters in situations that are so out of the ordinary that they kind of call for “new” human responses.
Guy Beckwith, Auburn history professor and science fiction guru

Confession time: These words, and every other word you’ve read with my name attached on this site, are a direct result of Star Wars. Specifically Star Wars books. My parents, being the great people they are, promised to buy as many books as I would read. And all I read for a long stretch was Star Wars books. I probably read every Star Wars book published between 1983 and sometime in the early 2000s. (Trying to cement an actual date might be embarrassing for everyone involved.)

“What do you want to be when you grow up, Ben?” Don’t say Jedi. Don’t say Jedi. Don’t say Jedi. “Uhh, I haven’t really thought about it. . . ummm maybe a veterinarian?” If I was being truthful with myself, I would’ve said: “I want to write grand adventure tales set in outer space centered around mystical, virtuous, brave, sword-wielding warriors who are capable of single-handedly defeating the countless legions of evil.” But the job “science fiction author” seemed, and to a certain extent seems, so far, far, far above my head. I have an immense amount of respect for those who can create and make believable imaginary worlds.

A lot of writers and thinkers, David Foster Wallace and David Shields among them, like to bifurcate books — that which takes you out of life, escapism, and that which takes you into life, literature and its ilk. With age, I’m drawn more to the latter. But I also think to get pompous about the split, to dissolve books into genres and say, “Science fiction and mysteries and true crime can never be on the same level as literature, poetry, or philosophy.” is ridiculous and the sign of a shallow thinker. There are always exceptions, books that transcend and cross supposed genre boundaries. Consider a lot of Kurt Vonnegut or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or the recently-buzzed Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart or even Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire — all science fiction presented as literature.

There are those of you reading this who will know more and have read more science fiction than me. This list is meant to be a sort of beginner’s guide. Books and authors are listed in descending order according to the challenge of reading; the first being the “easiest” and etc. All the listed is firmly entrenched in the science fiction genre, i.e. if you went to your local bookstore pretty much everything below would be located on that one aisle which smells of Mountain Dew, untrimmed beards, and virginity.

Fahrenheit 451

It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through radios and televisions, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself.

A subtle, seemingly-simple tale about censorship that blossoms into a story about the awakening of the human mind and the constant struggle for freedom of thought. A great one-sitting read. Ray Bradbury filled Fahrenheit 451 with warnings and doubts for modern America, even if that doubt was primarily directed at the mind-destroying powers of the recently-introduced television.

Ender’s Game

The story of a child genius and his struggle to save humanity from invading aliens. Sounds trite. But Scott Orson Card, through writerly talent and imagination, avoids the pratfalls of cliché and creates a very good book about the taxing toll of war, told through the eyes of children. It also has spaceships and gravity-less, gladiator-style battles. And aliens. And it kinda predicts how the Internet can be used to create power and personas through propaganda and polemics. Perhaps even better: Ender’s Shadow.

1984/ A Brave New World

The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. Which you can go and chuck out of the window in the name of liberty, Mr. Savage. Liberty!
A Brave New World

The yin and yang of science fiction. THE fiction concerning the problems inherent in dystopia and utopia. Two very different books, but yet, I at least, view them as different attempts to get at the same truth. Both are warnings, but each of a different sort. The government in 1984 is a brutal quasi-fascist system bent on controlling its subjects through fear and censorship. Oceania is not a fun place to live. Huxley in Brave New World creates a world ruled not by fear but by pleasure and comfort — fueled by orgies and “feelies” and soma. It sounds awesome in theory, but where is the meaning in that life? It’s like a life of pure hedonism — fun for a while, but eventually the meaningless collapses in upon itself.

The Forever War

An example of how science fiction can be used to emphasize a particular truism, such as, in The Forever War, the idea that war changes people; you return an entirely different person to an entirely different place. Joe Haldeman, who fought in Vietnam, uses space travel and time dilation to age his protagonist, William Mandella, months while Earth ages centuries. Lots of “hard science fiction,” but it is, at its heart, a narrative about war and change.

The Big Three

The godfathers of science fiction. Perhaps the earliest and greatest proponents of “hard science fiction,” or science fiction concerned mainly with science and futurology, as Beckwith said, the “literature of ideas.”

Isaac Asimov

Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy is so humongous in scope it almost, by necessity, minimizes individuals. We’re talking civilizations and generations spanning across an entire galaxy. It’s hard to even imagine, much less grasp. The Trilogy is the only Asimov I’ve read, so I can’t be called upon to fairly judge. I generally think in romantic terms. I’m not a scientist. Asimov is loved and respected, and the Foundation Trilogy was rewarded with a Hugo Award for best all-time series in 1966. Maybe he’s for you.

Arthur C. Clarke

I haven’t been able to read Clarke. His prose reads stilted; his dialog flat and unoriginal. I feel like I tried Clarke too late, when I was already entranced by words and characterization and narrative structure. If you’re into pure science and considerations of, say, what would happen if an alien spaceship suddenly appeared in orbit around Earth, then maybe Clarke’s worth reading. He and Asimov are more about theory, which, by most all accounts, is brilliant and well-considered, than actuality.

Robert Heinlein

My favorite of The Big Three. A man who wrote himself to greatness. A giant. A proponent of both hard science fiction and literary social commentary. An intellect both curious and slippery. He covered more diverse, difficult topics than any science fiction writer who ever lived. His three most noteworthy, and perhaps best, books:

Starship Troopers

This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted . . . and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears. Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain.

Nothing like the movie of the same name. A book concerned with the responsibility of the individual to his or her society. A hard look at the democratic assumption of suffrage for all. And a treatise on the necessity of a military. Heinlein leaves the reader puzzled as to what he actually believes.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein’s shot across the bow of sexual and social mores of the early ’60s. It challenged ideas of monogamy, sexual freedom, organized religion, and was a key text in the evolution of the counterculture and free love movement of the ’60s. One wonders how much the hippies grokked. All this from the man who published a novel extolling the virtues of war and servitude two years earlier.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

“True. But I will accept any rules that you feel necessary to your freedom. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”

Originator of TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) and basically the Bible of libertarianism, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress might be Heinlein’s masterpiece. Structured as a lunar colony’s revolt from its Earth-bound rulers, it focuses primarily on personal freedom and the importance of personal responsibility and self-reliance. Bursting with ideas and character. An almost how-to-manual for rational anarchists.

The Dispossessed

Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety of seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.

The story of twin planets, one ruled by democracy and all its trappings and the other ruled by anarchy. Important for its consideration of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (language shapes cognitive thought) and Le Guin’s construction of a totally believable “alien” society that closely mirrors our own. Hard to describe. One of the best novels, not just science fiction, I’ve read. Read it.

Philip K. Dick

What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me—into us—clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.
A Scanner Darkly

The paranoid prolific genius of science fiction. Dick’s work constantly changes viewpoints and enters alternate realities, often forcing the reader to reconsider what’s “real,” in the book and in life. I often found myself shocked reading his work — Where’d that come from? How did he think of that? Where can he possibly go next? Virtuosic. The Man in the High Castle, which considers a world in which the Axis won World War II, might be the best alternate history novel ever written. Dick, a heavy and avowed drug user, questions and refracts himself and his friends with A Scanner Darkly. (If nothing else, read the afterword.) With Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? (basis of Blade Runner), Dick asks what constitutes humanity. Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said considers celebrity and all its psychosis, as well as censorship and fascist rule. Great, tragic writer.


Herbert’s work is deeply rooted in history. He did a long study of comparative religions and of Islamic cultures before he wrote Dune. I got a chance to interview him back when I was an undergraduate. Long, long conversation. It was really great. And he said that he writes in such a way as to suggest a whole world that he doesn’t come out and explicably talk about. But he’s written it up elsewhere. He’d have these files in which he’ll be writing about the ecology of Dune, the politics of Dune, the this that and the other. And that stuff may not get into the novel directly. But he said it’s all there in the background of his mind. So when he adds a little detail it will suggest this background to the readers. They will feel it is there. Even if they aren’t able to explicitly tell you what Herbert has put in those lines.

Frank Herbert created an incredibly complex, breathing, teaming world with Dune, which both contains a fairly commonplace narrative and hints at untold depth. Surprisingly philosophical. Great story and a great book, one which I really need to reread.

The Book of the New Sun

Four books composing a larger whole set thousands, maybe millions of years on future Earth (Urth). All four are presented as the written record of the young torturer Severian. Severian has a perfect memory (a neat narrative trick, that) which allows him to sit down and write his entire life history out more or less flawlessly, while adding jarring future anecdotes which remind the reader these books are by a writer writing as another writer. In the appendix to each, Wolfe, writing as himself, acts as if he has somehow come across Severian’s transcript which he has translated from the language of Severian’s time and presented to the reader.

The Book of the New Sun is presented as a fantasy, with beasts resembling horses and swords and magic and all that. But, through careful reading and inference, the reader realizes various “buildings” are actually non-functioning spaceships and “cacogens” are aliens from parts unknown. Wolfe explains nothing. The whole is viewed through the eyes of Severian, who some have said is a pathological liar. Not easy, these books. One critic said they’re the science fiction equivalent to Ulysses. Gene Wolfe is alive and still writing.

Again, this is not a comprehensive list of science fiction. It is simply my attempt to provide a springboard for those interested in sci-fi but perhaps unsure where to begin. I hope you enjoyed reading. I’m going to sleep now.

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