Thursday, February 12, 2009

Michael5000's Guide to Awesome Science Fiction, Part II

Literary Science Fiction

"Literary Science Fiction" is generally a code for books that treat traditional scinece fiction tropes -- futurism, the impact of new technologies, space travel -- but which are written from outside of the genre. Among your classics, the dystopian future of Orwell's 1984 was a sort of Literary Science Fiction; in the 1980s, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale was a blockbuster, if flawed, speciman.

Literary Science Fiction brings with it the advantage of fresh approaches and voices. Often, an LSF writer escapes some of the stylistic conventions and cliches of the genre. Traditional Science Fiction prose, if we are honest, tends to be either fairly spare and hard-boiled, or heroic with a tendency towards pomposity. LSF writers, by contrast, are generally more -- duh! -- literary, with a tendency toward a more poetic, lyrical use of language.

The disadvantage of LSF is often that, having no grounding in the issues that good science firction writers have already been thinking about over the decades, they often lovingly depict an imagined world that is not really very well thought through. This is what I remember most from The Handmaid's Tale, although in fairness it has been over 20 years since I read it: it worked, more or less, as a grim feminist parable, but it didn't contain the sense of a plausibly imagined world or future.

The difference between genre Science Fiction and Literary Science Fiction is of course largely a matter of convention and marketing. Ursula LeGuin certainly writes with a literary voice, but she is generally considered a genre writer -- indeed, one of the genre's core masters. So yeah, to an extent this is a pointless distinction. But it is a pointless distinction that gives me the priviledge of recommending the following four books.

Haruki Murikami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. -- Murakami is a sort of stand-in here for an entire spectrum of postmodern "magic realist" fiction that arguably trades in the core concepts of Science Fiction. Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, Jose Saramago, Kazuo Ishiguro -- all of these guys have written books that, with different cover art, would be right at home in the Science Fiction ghetto of the booksotre. Saramago's Blindness and Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go are straight up, undeniable, classic Science Fiction stories -- awesome ones -- but they are clad and marketed in carefully literary clothing.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland, although not the best of Murikami's work, is probably the one with the most Science Fiction elements. Unabashedly trippy and weird, with a strong dose of melancholy, it is certainly not for everyone. But maybe it's for you?

Molly Gloss, The Dazzle of Day. Mrs.5000 introduced me to this book. I tend to forget the title and call it "Quakers in Space," which is far more descriptive of the content. The novel follows the practical and societal adventures in a space habitat inhabited by pacifist religious non-conformists on a multi-generational journey to colonize a new planet. Gently paced and concerned with exploring the benefits and problems of decision by consensus, the story takes place within a richly imagined microecology.

Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife. The Time Traveler's Wife falls, consciously or not, in the great Science Fiction tradition of stories that sets up a simple counterfactual scenario -- in this case, what if there was this guy who sporadically travelled involuntarily back in time? -- and explores what the ramifications might be. In this case, we end up with a beautifully rendered story about the nature love, loss, and the passage of time. These are universal themes, of course, the same ones that are explored in much mainstream literature. But The Time Traveler's Wife also serves as a good example of, how by imagining people in unprecidented and extreme situations, the Science Fiction author can provide fresh insights, or at least a fresh viewpoint, into human nature.

In addition to being good Literary Science Fiction, incidentally, this book offers a great romance, strongly drawn characters, and an intricate puzzle of twisted and overlapping timelines. The two primary characters experience events in different orders, often knowing what lies in store in the future of the other; as readers, events are revealed to us on yet a third timeline. It is an intricate puzzle of cause and effect, and Niffenegger has structured the book masterfully to keep us thoroughly engaged in what will happen next. Or what will have happened next. It is a wonderfully crafted text.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas. Another brilliantly constructed book, this is an intricately nested series of stories. Initially the components of the novel seem completely unrelated, and only as you approach the end does the overall pattern cohere. It can be read as a dystopian adventure story, as a meditation on the nature of individuality, as (perhaps) a study in chaos theory, or simply as a series of strange, highly evocative sotries with some quirky common threads connecting them together. Fabulous.


Jenners said...

Great post! The Time Traveler's Wife is one of my favorite books ever. Glad to see it included here!

But what do you think of Ray Bradbury???? You never mentioned him as far as I saw. I think he deserves to be mentioned whenever writing about science fiction.

And you gave me some great books to check out.


Rebel said...

I hated the Time Traveler's Wife.... HATED IT. I don't even know why. I think it was because it really didn't live up to the hype. Yeah, I think the author explored time travel in a slightly different way than I've seen it before... but still. This casts a shadow of doubt over all your other recommendations. =(

DrSchnell said...

I'm imagining the voice from the Muppet Show now....


Anonymous said...

All taken down for the library visit. I hope there is some on audio.

Especially interested in Time Traveler's Wife which may or may not have to do with my off and on crush on whomever is playing The Doctor at the moment.

Michael5000 said...

@Jenners: Ray Bradbury has never been a favorite. At any event, he's another one that's considered a pretty core genre writer, so it wouldn't have made much sense to put him on this list.

@Rebel: Was there hype? I'd never heard of it, and only picked it up because it won an obscure award for Science Fiction novels. I note that it has won or been nominated for several awards; also, that it has one of the highest ratings of all the books I've got listed on GoodReads. So, my fondness for it may cast a long shadow for you, and that's fair enough, but I'm hardly coming out of left field by praising it.

@Doc: Exactly!

@Boo: You flatter me. TTW is available on audio. I very much doubt Dazzle of Day is, although it would work pretty well. The other two would probably want to be read, especially Cloud Atlas, just because of the way it's set up.