More book reviews! Science fiction by women…

I was pleased to contribute three of my book reviews to SF Mistressworks, a blog devoted to reviewing science fiction written by women and published during the 20th century.

The reviews:

I appreciate what SF Mistressworks is doing to highlight science fiction written by women, a strong interest of mine. Please check out the rest of the reviews while you’re there.

Recommended science fiction reading for people who don’t like science fiction

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.

The first science fiction novel?

I posted an essay on Frankenstein as the first science fiction novel on my book review blog. You may be interested.

Science fiction is my mythology…

A post about why I love science fiction so much in all its forms over on my book reviews blog.

I recommend some great reads about immortality

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.

Hell is repetition: The theme of cycles in science fiction

Recently, I have become fascinated with the notion of cycles. We humans tend to regard everything linearly, with a beginning and an end, because that is our individual experience. But taking a wider view, we can see that events tend to happen in cycles, that an end leads inexorably to another beginning. It’s easiest to see this in nature, with our regular seasonal cycles and the cycle of growth to death to fertilizer to new life again. In physics, the concept of eternal return posits that the universe has been recurring and will continue to recur in a self-similar form an infinite number of times. According to Eastern religions, we are all caught up in the Wheel of Life, an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth, until we can escape via enlightenment.

Post-apocalyptic literature, a favorite of mine, is obsessed with endings, an interesting mind game in itself. What would happen if everything, as we know it, just stopped? But the concept of repeating patterns, of endless cycles, is even more of a mind bender. Recently, a couple of favorite TV shows have explored this theme.

**Spoilers for Battlestar Galactica and Lost follow, so stop reading now if you don’t want to know.**

Battlestar Galactica‘s controversial finale, seen as a happy ending by some and as a silly warning to be nice to your robots by others, was, in my view, highly pessimistic. Despite all their efforts to break the cycle of Cylon uprising and mutual destruction, even to the point of sacrificing their technological advantages, the surviving characters only managed to put the inevitable off for a few thousand years. But all this has happened before, and will happen again — and the cycle begins anew on modern-day Earth.

Lost is exploring similar themes, although it is not clear yet whether the pattern can actually be broken. Still, last night’s excellent season finale asks the question: If the pattern is destined to keep repeating, why take action at all? Why not just opt out? In my opinion, the show has not taken a side. We’ve seen characters opt out (Bernard and Rose), and they seem perfectly happy. We’ve seen other characters take action to try to change the pattern, break the cycle, but we don’t know if they will be successful. Even if they are unable to change the pattern, will just trying be enough for some kind of personal salvation or redemption? Is what matters making a choice and doing something, rather than the effects of that action? These are great questions to ponder on a sleepless night.

I am now getting interested in science fiction novels that explore similar themes. Here are a few that I could think of (ahoy, there may be spoilers ahead):

  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which is structured in a cyclical manner progressing forward and then back through time.
  • The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, in which Roland seems doomed to relive the events of his quest for the Dark Tower until he can find a way to break the cycle of repetition.
  • The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, in which an alien civilization is doomed to cause its own apocalypse and then rise from the ashes over and over.
  • Replay by Ken Grimwood, in which a man relives his life again and again (I haven’t read this).

Does anyone have other suggestions? I would love to hear them.

Is Margaret Atwood a science fiction writer?

This is a cross-post from my Books Worth Reading blog.

The Handmaid's TaleImage via Wikipedia

I have read three novels by Margaret Atwood (and I have two more waiting on my ‘to read’ shelf), and I have found her to be a consistently satisfying writer. I wouldn’t say that I loved all of her books, but they have all kept me interested and engaged, which is saying quite a lot. Even more impressive, I think, is that Atwood is considered a mainstream writer, but she gets away with writing fiction that could be called science fiction. And she wins major awards for it! She doesn’t write only science fiction, though, but also tries her hand at other genres, such as historical fiction. Not many writers can be successful at genre-hopping, but more are trying it. Michael Chabon and Kazuo Ishiguro spring to mind.

My favorite book by Atwood has got to be The Handmaid’s Tale. I first read it when I was younger and then reread it fairly recently. This novel is unabashedly science fiction. It is set in a dystopian future, in which the U.S. government has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists and a lot of basic rights have been stripped away. Due to extreme pollution, many people have become infertile. Those women who are fertile are enslaved as Biblical-style handmaids, conceiving and bearing children for wealthy, infertile women.

Despite being science fiction, I think this novel was so successful and has been so widely read because its core message is a frightening warning about how quickly and easily the freedoms we take for granted can be stripped away. What struck me the last time I read it is the method of depriving women of their rights that was used: Their bank accounts were frozen, and electronic access to money was cut off. As we are well on our way to a cashless society, this struck me as an all-too-real danger, one we placidly accept. The feminist themes, presented in a very compelling way, also make the novel more accessible to a wider audience.

I recently finished The Blind Assassin, which won the Booker Prize and which I also enjoyed very much. The genre of this novel is not as straightforward, but it does contain science fiction elements. In fact, its structure is very unusual, in that it is a novel within a novel within a novel. The framing structure is a straightforward historical novel about a wealthy Canadian family’s fall from grace during the Depression and World War II. Within this novel is an intertwined story of two unnamed lovers and their clandestine affair. During their meetings, the lovers — one of whom is a pulp writer — tell each other a bizarre fable that takes place on an alien planet, which underscores their unspoken feelings for each other. The fable, titled The Blind Assassin, is turned into a novel by one of the characters that develops a cult-like following. The intricate structure makes this an engrossing novel, but it is questionable whether it can be called science fiction. Nevertheless, Atwood is definitely experimenting here.

Finally, Alias Grace is the Atwood novel I liked the least, even though I still enjoyed it. It is a historical novel, but also a bit of a psychological suspense thriller. It is set in 19th century Canada and tells the story of Grace Marks, imprisoned for the double murder of her employer and his housekeeper/lover. Grace does not remember the events of the actual murder, and a group of churchgoers, who believe she is innocent, have engaged a psychiatrist to find out what really happened. The real story must be pieced together from newspaper accounts, letters and the points of view of two unreliable narrators: Grace and the psychiatrist, who has become obsessed with her. The reader is never left entirely satisfied as to what actually happened. So again, Atwood is experimenting with structure and story.

Oryx and Crake is the next Atwood novel I plan to read. Again, this is a novel with science fiction elements that cannot be considered strictly science fiction.

I really enjoy it when authors break the artificial boundaries of genre established by publishing companies and bookstores. Traditional science fiction has its own formula, not one that I typically enjoy, except in the hands of a really skilled writer. But the brand of science fiction that Atwood writes — or perhaps I should call it speculative fiction – resonates much more strongly with me.