This is the week that we celebrate books that have been banned or challenged. Usually, the books are banned from school libraries or from being taught in school. The reasons given seem valid–sexual content, dirty language, racism–but dig a little deeper and you’ll generally find that the true reason is that these books seem dangerous. Often the ideas they contain are challenging–to authority, to established institutions, to the status quo. Perhaps this is why so much effort is made to keep these books out of the hands of children. Yet, the very act of challenging these books brings them to our attention and creates a handy reading list full of dangerous ideas. Here is my recommended reading list of banned or challenged books, one for each month in the year. Share them with a child you know.
I am a great fan of science fiction. I have been reading it all my life, and I read across the spectrum of the genre, from the very soft to the very hard. I enjoy it all, as long as it’s well written. But I realize that science fiction is not for everyone. Some people find it difficult to suspend their disbelief far enough to get into a story about aliens on other planets or traveling between alternate dimensions.
I developed this list as an introduction to science fiction for people who haven’t read a lot of it and don’t think they’ll like it (such as my husband). I don’t think anyone (except me, perhaps) will like every book on this list, since there is a lot of variety here, but you may find something you do enjoy as an entry into the genre.
I start each recommendation with an author who isn’t primarily known for writing science fiction but who has contributed to the genre. If you’ve enjoyed some of that author’s books, you may want to try their more science fictional offerings. Or perhaps you’ve read some of these already and didn’t realize that you were reading science fiction. I follow each of these authors with a recommendation of a similar author who does primarily write science fiction and who you may also like. I also provide a suggested title to start with.
Additional suggestions are welcome in the comments.
Mark Twain wrote a satirical time travel novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which I highly enjoyed when I read it as a child.
If you like this, you should try Douglas Adams, who also wrote very funny satire. Start with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Kurt Vonnegut is not typically considered a science fiction author, but Slaughterhouse-Five is a time travel novel with aliens, and Cat’s Cradle is about the end of the world. His novels are satirical, darkly funny and often mind-bending.
If you like Vonnegut, you might also enjoy Ray Bradbury. Start with the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451.
Stephen King is of course classified as a horror writer, the reigning king of the genre, but many of his novels can also be considered science fiction. The Long Walk and The Running Man, both collected in The Bachman Books, are the most straightforwardly SF, but The Dark Tower series has science fiction elements as well. His most recent novel, Under the Dome, is a good example of a blurring of the genres.
King fans might like the Larry Niven-Jerry Pournelle collaborations. These are much harder science fiction than King’s books will ever pretend to be, but they also feature large casts of characters and larger-than-life situations. Start with Lucifer’s Hammer.
Margaret Atwood is well known for her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and she has recently published two inter-related apocalyptic novels, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. However, she is still primarily known as a mainstream writer of feminist novels.
If you like Atwood, give Octavia Butler a try, who writes about feminist themes in dystopian settings. Start with The Parable of the Sower.
P.D. James is well known as the author of the Adam Dagliesh series of mysteries, but has contributed an excellent apocalyptic standalone novel, The Children of Men, to the genre.
You might also enjoy Ursula K. Le Guin, who writes about human culture and philosophy but in alien settings. Start with The Left Hand of Darkness, which is probably her best book.
Michael Chabon enjoys playing with genres and wrote an excellent example of the alternate history as well as a good mystery, The Yiddish Policemen’s Detective Union.
If you liked the alternate history elements of Chabon’s novel, give Kim Stanley Robinson a try. His books are dense, detailed and also explore questions of religion and culture. Start with The Years of Rice and Salt.
Kazuo Ishiguro surprised many of his readers with his moving novel Never Let Me Go, about human cloning in a dystopian alternate history.
I’m not going to pretend that Kate Wilhelm is as literary a writer as Ishiguro, but her novel Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is another compelling exploration of the consequences of human cloning.
Jonathan Lethem is not really considered a science fiction author but has written too many books in the genre to discount. Gun, with Occasional Music is probably his most accessible, but there’s also the post-apocalyptic Amnesia Moon and As She Climbed Across the Table, about alternate dimensions.
If you liked Gun, with Occasional Music, you might try Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, which explores similar themes but in a more straightforwardly science fiction milieu.
Charlie Huston is known for his crime novels, but his new book Sleepless sets the noir thriller in an apocalyptic, tech-obsessed Los Angeles.
William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk, writes noir fiction about technology set in the near-future. A good starting place is Virtual Light, the first book in the Bridge trilogy.
I have been having fun writing and posting themed reading lists on my book review blog, Books Worth Reading, and they have proved to be popular. Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations has reprinted a couple of the lists, which I am now sharing with you: These Books Will Help You Survive After an Apocalypse and I Want to Live Forever: An Immortality Reading List
Also see: The endless quest to live forever
Remember a while back, when I wrote a neat little piece about our obsession with obtaining immortality. You don’t? Well, let me refresh your memory. And there has been news since then! Some scientist has come out and said we will achieve immortality within the next 20 years, using nanotechnology and robotic body parts. Sound like science fiction? Well, it is, because he’s just making a wild prediction based on technologies that don’t yet exist. But still, take care of yourself and let’s all try to mitigate the effects of global warming. Because you never know.
Anyway, all of this thinking about immortality turned my brain on to some good speculative fiction books that address the theme. So as is my hobby, I put together a little reading list, which Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations, a blog of book lists, has published. Please go by and check it out. While you’re there, why not browse all the intriguing book lists and maybe buy a book or two? (They are an Amazon.com affiliate.) You know you want to.