Thursday, January 22, 2009

Michael5000's Guide to Awesome Science Fiction, Part I

OK, first things first: much science fiction is dreadful. But worse than that, much of the "classic" science fiction is dreadful, or at least dull, and many of the supposedly "great" science fiction writers are in truth downright poor writers (I mean, seriously, try reading Phillip K. Dick sometime). This lack of good signposts makes it a genre that can be really difficult to get a foothold in.

Yet science fiction can also be awesome. By placing humans into unprecidented situations and imagining the outcomes, it can be a powerful tool for casting light on human nature. By posing cultures and species against each other on a interstellar scale, it can give us analogies for our own Earthbound sociopolitics without all of the baggage that is entailed in writing about real-world events. Science fiction can warn us or give us hope about what we humans might in time become, about how events on the future path of technology might be best or worst dealt with.

But how to separate the wheat from the endless chaff? Me, I look for three elements in my science fiction.

I: Plausibility and Coherence -- Taking "Plausibility" with a grain of salt, perhaps. Most science fiction relies on futuristic technologies that may well be completely pie-in-the-sky, as far as we can tell from the here and now. What concerns me is, how are the societies for whom these technologies are available appropriated adapted to and affected by the technology? In the very worst science fiction, all you get is the author's contemporary society with a sprinkling of new gadgets.

II: Ecology -- If you are on another planet, that is pretty interesting! It's not likely to be much like Earth! So, what is it like? What of the natural processes we experience here on Sol III are also present there? What happens very, very differently? What kind of critters are there, and how do they survive in that strange alien environment? Do tell!

III: Character Development -- Fiction doesn't pull much weight without well-drawn characters. Generations of science fiction writers have been too excited about technologies and aliens to think about motivation and human (or non-human) experience, and thus there is a vast literature in which the characters are one-note cardboard cutouts. Dreadful.

Let's cut to the chase! You can now avoid the crap, and treat yourself to the official list of Science Fiction approved by michael5000! Lucky You!

The Official List of Science Fiction Approved by Michael5000, Installment #1

Iain Banks, the "Culture" Novels. Hugely popular in the U.K. and almost unheard of here, Iain Banks is probably too clever for his own good but not too clever to write extremely compelling science fiction. From 1987's Consider Phlebas, a rip-snorting episodic action-adventure, to 2008's Matter, a sort of historical romance set in a complexly nested hierarchy of civilizations at differing levels of technological achievement, the novels set in the fictive universe of "The Culture" are a diverse but hugely engaging collections. Often gruesome, always inventive, and beautifully imagined, these are probably my favorite books in all of genre fiction.

Orson Scott Card: the Ender Trilogy. Ender's Game, Xenocide, Speaker for the Dead, and Children of the Mind are a terrific four-volume trilogy (as one often finds in science fiction) that explores of what contact with alien intelligences might actually be like; the series can also be read as a metaphor for intercultural contact here on dear old Earth. The middle two books are the strongest, the fourth is strictly optional. It is vitally important that you do not read any of the more recent books that Card has accreted on to the trilogy, or for that matter anything that Card wrote after the mid-90s, when he inexplicably went dramatically from being an excellent storyteller to the worst kind of hack. Quite sad.

Sherri Tepper: Raising the Stones and Grass. Sherri Tepper can be a mixed bag, but these two, the best of her books, are dynamite. In both, characters face mysterious challenges that spring from the quirks of an inventive but plausibly rendered planetary ecology. Grass, in particular, puts a grim, grim face on the idea of symbiosis.


Elizabeth said...

I've enjoyed all of Sheri Tepper's works, and I have to agree with you on Orson Card. I do enjoy his fiction based on biblical characters (see The Women of Genesis series, or even better, "Stone Tables" - this might be an interesting adjunct for your alterbible character). And I would add Sharon Shinn's novels as well - extremely well-written, I think. The only one of hers I didn't particularly like was her virtual (deliberately so) recreation of "Jane Eyre" set in outer space. But if you haven't read her Samaria novels, do so immediately. Well, I like them, anyway. Kate wasn't impressed.

Rebel said...

Although it's a movie/TV show, and not a book, I feel like Serenity and Firefly score well on points one and three, point two is addressed a bit in at least one episode... but overall one of the better bits of sci fi out there. Keep going with the good book recomendations. BTW - I could not get into Xenocide however much I tried.

Anonymous said...

I am constantly on the look out for good sci-fi, trying to recreate the excitement of reading it as a teenager. Frequently I'm disappointed (last week decided not to finish a much hyped Neal Stephenson). So I'm off to the library to get me some Banks - already read Tepper and Card (or Scott Card??) I'll let you know how it goes...
Looking forward to installment #2.

Nichim said...

Thanks for the referral to SF I haven't read(!) and, sadly, don't really have time to read :( . I'll request from the library, however, and let you know what I think. Look for a corresponding post on my blog soon!

Nichim said...

I mean, I've read the Enders books, but not the other ones. Listened to Enders Game on audio book the last time I took a long car trip, too. That was lovely. Eastern Oregon is a great setting for SF.

DrSchnell said...

True, Phillip Dick is a mediocre writer of prose, but nobody can do dystopian paranoia quite like him. And for some reason, I've always had a soft spot for dystopian paranoia, even prior to the Bush II years.

Anonymous said...

I agree with all of your points about what makes good science fiction, so I'll have to add some of these to my goodreads queue. (I've already read Ender's Game, though I haven't read the sequels yet. I'm always wary of sci-fi sequels because they seem to drop off in quality quite quickly.)

Kritkrat said...

I enjoyed Bean's side of the story even more than Ender's. Orson Scott Card is awesome. I'll have to check out the other two.

I highly recommend Guy Gavriel Kay - Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan in particular. And, of course, the George R.R. Martin Song of Fire and Ice books.

Kritkrat said...

Hmm, I guess my suggestions would fit more in the 'fantasy' catagory than a strictly SF genre. But they are awesome on the character development and are all awesome reads.

Michael5000 said...

@Elizabeth: I read one of Sharon Shinn's angel books, and liked it well enough, but not enough to dive in for seconds. Those are the "Samaria" series, right?

@Reb: What is this "TV" you speak of?

@Sandy: I have read "Snow Crash" more than once, and find much to love in its sprawling energy. But I have been consistently disappointed by everything else he has written. Bummer. Hope you like the Banks....

@Nichim: Audiobooks, maybe?

@Doc: Say what I like about Dick, he left a gold mine for the screen writers to dig around in.

@Melissa: I'd say Xenocide trumps Ender's Game by a country mile. But Rebel disagrees. But, she's probably been drinking.

@Kadonk: Well, it's funny how people can have different opinions. The first "Bean" book was maybe my least favorite book ever published, not only for its own inate shittiness (in my my own crankish opinion, of course) but also for the smear of shit it left by association on "Ender's Game." I would not dream of reading the subsequent Bean books, as I'm sure you can imagine.

But, I rejoice at your pleasure in them and hope I haven't reduced it any here!

@Kadonk, encore: We'll get to fantasy eventually, where we will find that I could not agree with you more about the Song of Ice and Fire books. The best fantasy series ever written, and yes, I love Lord of the Rings as much as the next dork. It's THAT good.

Rex Parker said...

I would like to announce that I like Dick.

Edmond Hamilton was married to Leigh Brackett, my beloved.

Card is deep in writing for comics now. There are also comics adaptations of his early (non-hack) work currently running, and they are quite enjoyable.


Chance said...

It's also vitally important to not read anything Card writes about politics, unless you enjoy realizing that someone can we good writer and a colossally uninformed idiot at the same time.

I wrote about my disappointment in revisiting PKD here

Jenners said...

Love Orson Scott Card and the Ender's Game stuff. Rocked my world back in the day. Have you read his Alvin Prentice stuff? Kind of set in the West and fully of Native American mysticism.

I'll await Part II until I start reaming you for not mentioning Ray Bradbury.