I read a lot as a kid. In high school, a few of us even persuaded a teacher to offer a special course on SciFi as literature. Since then I’ve amassed hundreds of titles. About 10 years ago, I cleared out about half of my collection (those deemed of lower quality); and should probably do another cull today. For the past ten years, I’ve been reading more on my Kindle than in hard copy, but I keep at it. My tastes run more to SciFi than fantasy and to the more cerebral than pulp-ish (although I am not above a good space opera from time to time). For me, SciFi is a literature of ideas and of understanding the nature of humanity.
So, here are a few of the best of what I have read (not in any order), offered (as Rod Serling used to say) “for your consideration”:
* Pretty much anything by Ursula Leguin, a writer of great insight and sensitivity. There are many riches in her shorter works and her fantasy (The Wizard of Earthsea) is also fine. Her novels of the Ekumen and, in particular, The Left Hand of Darkness, still resonate decades later.
* Neal Stephenson is of more recent vintage. His historical novels are great fun, but there are a fair number of flops. Snow Crash created the concept of the metaverse (in 1992) and is a great romp. SevenEves is filled with both action and stunning ideas.
*I cut my teeth on Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke (back when all were still alive). Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (far better than the recent TV adaptation) was a revelation when I read it (for the first time) in the ‘60s and is still so today. Nightfall and other stories are around in multiple anthologies. Bradbury was a lyrical writer, best known for The Martian Chronicles, among dozens of beautiful stories. Arthur Clarke helped develop radar during WWII and came up with the concept of geostationary satellites. 2001 was good, but the movie is better. He wrote dozens of short stories with provocative ideas, mostly technology-based.
* Ian Banks’ “Culture” is depicted in a series of novels (try “Look to Windward,” “Consider Phlebas,” or “Player of Games”) in which humans, AIs, and a few other species fill much of the galaxy. It’s sensitively written with a host of interesting social observations.
* N.K. Jemison is a brilliant recent stylist with genre-busting novels (start with the “Broken Earth Trilogy”) that take on human relationships and societal structures with insight and creativity. Her latest, The City We’ve Become, mixes SciFi and fantasy and twists around a New York City that you will hardly recognize.
* I’ve talked about Malka Older’s Infomacracy previously. I enjoyed the story, the characters, and the tech, but loved the geopolitics.
* In his four-volume set Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson blends some SciFi and some fantasy and some espionage thriller. The story is pretty good, the setting is immensely creative and, as I have noted elsewhere, provocative in its construction of its geopolitical environment.
*Ted Chaing specializes in shorter pieces. His two collections, Exhalation and Stories of Your Life, are diverse, inventive, sensitive, and surprising.
* Orson Scott Card wrote a stunning novel called Ender’s Game in 1985 and since followed it up with a host of sequels (most recently this past year). As is often the case with SciFi books that get continued, it would be best if the author was more tightly edited as they go along. The original and the following two (Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide) are the best. The Ender movie should be skipped.
* Speaking of novels that should not have been carried on too long, Frank Herbert’s Dune is deservedly a classic, despite being extended for another two volumes and having been made into two bad movies and one (the latest) which is pretty good.
China Mieville’s alternative worlds are immersive and sufficiently weirdly speculative to be not projections of the future. Endlessly inventive in both substance and language, they are filled with different social structures. Start with Perdido Street Station.
* Kim Stanley Robinson writes thoughtful and well-researched books about possible futures, including terraforming Mars, and dealing with climate change, most recently in The Ministry for the Future.
* Paolo Bacigalupi writes about techno-dystopias. The Wind-up Girl and The Waterknife are both highly energetic and vastly more creative than the usual germs/climate/tech run amok stories.
* Qntm – I know, it’s a slightly affected nom de plume, but the author is creative and quirky. Cutting edge SciFi; start with There is No Antimimetics Division.
* Octavia Butler wrote some classic, poetic, and sobering stories, particularly the Parables.
* My friend Trevor, who tends more towards fantasy, will rightly insist that I include Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem. Not only is it remarkably inventive and finely satiric (writing in China, he has to be), but it challenges some of the premises of our entire view of space exploration. Liu is part of a surge in foreign language and non-Western SciFi in the last ten years, the best of which add a needed diversity of views, premises, and sensibilities to what has been a predominantly Anglo-American genre.
Almost by definition, the best SciFi (in my view) does not translate well to the screen. Much of what is put up there (theater, TV, or streaming) is the coarsest space opera, superhero nonsense, or superficial mysticism. Fortunately, e-tablets and paper are still available.
It’s a great way to stretch your mind; check some out!