Friday, February 8, 2013

Five Things on Friday - Intro to Sci Fi Edition

A couple of weeks ago, my bookclub met to discuss Divergent by Veronica Roth. At some point in the discussion I used the term "Sci Fi." This was met with silence. This is not science fiction, seemed to be resounding message. I made my case that a book that takes place in our future and features technology that we don't currently have is absolutely science fiction.

But it made me think about how we define science fiction. Wikipedia defines Science Fiction as such:
Science fiction genre fiction imaginative but more or less plausible content such as settings in the future, futuristic science and technologyspace travelparallel universesaliens, and paranormal abilities. Exploring the consequences of scientific innovations is one purpose of science fiction, making it a "literature of ideas".[1] Science fiction has been used by authors and film/television program makers as a device to discuss philosophical ideas such as identity, desire, morality and social structure etc.

To me, science fiction isn't about crazy technology or aliens or space or time travel. It's about humanity. When you read something that takes place thousands of years in the future on a spaceship made out of a giant tree, the way people act and react is the same as the way people act and react now. What makes us human is transcendent of setting. Which gives SciFi the ability to explore really large issues like religion, philosophy, war and government without being preachy. The best science fiction holds a mirror up to what we are doing right now and asks, "Really?"
Which is, of course, why I love it.

And why I decided that what this here blog needs is a list of

Five Sci Fi Novels for the Person Who Thinks 
They Don't Like Sci Fi

1. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

  • Synopsis: Ender's Game is the story of Ender Wiggin, a rare third child, whose birth was allowed because of his genetic value as a soldier. When Ender, as a relatively small child, is taken to Battle School, he is forced into harder and harder "battle games" to train him for a future at war with the Formic, an alien insectoid race. 
  • Why It's SciFi: Well, aliens. Also, the school is in space. There's lots of future technology and it takes place in Earth's future. 
  • Why You Should Read It: At the end of the day, Ender's Game is about children and our society's tendency to exploit them for the "greater good." Whether that good be as soldiers, workers, or entertainment value, we are missing the larger question of "Does the end really justify the means?" 

2. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

  • Synopsis: In a world where knowledge has been devalued and books outlawed, firemen actually use flamethrowers to burn any house found to contain them. Guy Montag, a fireman begins to question his vocation as a fireman and the society around him when his neighbor, a bright young girl is killed and his wife, a woman deadened by her addictions, shows no concern over the event. 
  • Why It's SciFi: It's the future and in fact, the author spells out very specifically how our world became that world over the course of mere decades. There is also futuristic technology, mostly focused on entertainment, but also including the completely fire resistant houses that allow this crazy flamethrowing world.
  • Why You Should Read It: Bradbury claimed that the book was about television and the downfall of the written word, rather than censorship, but it works on multiple levels. Watching Guy awaken and start to live for the first time after reading is one of the greatest joys a reader can experience.

3. I am Legend by Richard Matheson

  • Synopsis: Robert Neville is apparently the sole survivor of a parasite that causes the infected to act like vampires. As he kills vampires, studies the parasite and seeks companionship, the world around him is changing.
  • Why It's SciFi: Future, pandemic started by war (and implied viral warfare). What makes this vampire book SciFi instead of horror is the constant presence of science as Robert tries to figure out what made him immune and if anything can be done for those around him.
  • Why You Should Read It: What starts out as a simple survivor story, grows and morphs and finally asks, "What makes us human anyway?" Clearly, the answer cannot be as simple as genetic composition, so what separates us? 

4. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

  • Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, accompanies a crew on a voyage to a planet populated with two disparate intelligent races. After forty years, Sandoz is finally returned, alone, disfigured and psychologically damaged. As he relates his tale to the church that sent him, he must heal from the pain caused to him and the great pain he and his companions caused to a foreign world.
  • Why It's SciFi: Aliens, space travel, future. This is pretty clear cut.
  • Why You Should Read It: This story is heartbreaking and terrible. It's almost difficult to read, but for all the right reasons. It's a beautiful telling of "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." As the explorers try to help the indigenous people, they actually cause great unrest and imbalance to their world, resulting in a truly horrific outcome. Finally, Emilio realizes that their initial assumptions about the culture were fallacies anyway. It's an allegory of "advanced" civilization trying to "fix" less "advanced" cultures. It is also a good hard look at the mission field. 

5. "The Minority Report" by Phillip K. Dick

  • In the future, rather than punish people for crimes they have committed, thanks to "precog" humans, criminals are punished for the crimes they would have committed without intervention. When Officer Anderton is identified as a would-be murderer, he begins to question the validity of the precog reports.
  • Why It's SciFi: Precogs are created with technological enhancement and their visions are "watched and reported" by computer systems. 
  • Why You Should Read It: First of all, you should read it because it's by Phillip K. Dick, one of my favorite authors. Chances are that if you've seen a SciFi movie in the last couple of decades, it was based on one of his short stories. Secondly, the story here is about human nature and free will and the question is whether or not it's okay to remove free will to diminish violence. Which is a wonderfully sticky wicket. Also, there is a larger underlying story about the dehumanization of the precogs for the "safety" of society.
All of these stories are Science Fiction in the broad landscape, but as all science fiction does, tell the story of the human experience. 

So, fellow SF readers, what did I miss?


Strangeite said...

One of the biggest roles of science fiction is to prepare people to accept the future without pain and to encourage a flexibility of mind. -Arthur C. Clarke

For me personally, what makes Sci-Fi Sci-Fi (or as Clarke would have preferred to call it SF), is plausibility.

A general rule of thumb for SF writers is that you are permitted one impossible thing (faster than light travel, instantaneous communication, etc.)and then everything else needs to be rooted into reality. Star Wars is clearly fantasy. Greg Bear novels are clearly SF.

As for your question, what SF novels that work well for the uninitiated, I have a few suggestions.

A Greg Bear novel. EON, Blood Music and Darwin's Radio are all excellent choices. EON will blow your mind on the scale of the universe. Darwin's Radio is a navel gazing exercise that humbles you and shocks you at our potential. Blood Music.... well Blood Music is so shockingly weird, beautiful and scary that forever after, whenever you hear about improvements in nanotechnology, your skin will crawl a little.

Almost any Heinlein. He was an arrogant ass, but damn he is fun. Juball in Stranger in a Strange Land is still to this day who I strive to be like when I grow up.

The Doomsday Book. Not only does it encapsulate the SF rule of only one impossible thing (a time machine) but is the best history lesson you will ever receive on life in the 14th century.

I am going to gone a limb and suggest something that verges on fantasy, but it does only possess one impossible thing. Zombies. World War Z by Max Brooks offers such a refreshing and unique take on the genre that it is tragic that Hollywood is going to butcher it in a few months.

Jessi said...

Good suggestions. I guess I have a pretty open concept of plausible, though.

Suze said...

This isn't normally my genre. Would you call Hunger Games Sci Fi? I think I would, and I loved those books. And Ender's Game rocked, though I read it in high school and don't really remember it now. My mom read The Sparrow, which is kind of a stretch for her.

I'm deep into Anna Karenina now, which isn't SciFi of course, but I'm liking it a LOT more than I thought I would.

Jessi said...

Suze - Hunger Games is totally Sci Fi. And awesome. You should re-read Ender's Game and the new series (starting with Ender's Shadow). They are so good. I've never read Anna Karenina, although it's somewhere on my list.