DON’T BE AFRAID OF SCIENCE FICTION: THE NEXT READING CHALLENGE CATEGORY

As many of you know, this year The Field Library is running a reading challenge in which we have a number of different categories in which people are encouraged to read, ranging from how-to book to cozy mysteries, from manga to books about natural disasters (yeah, we are deliberately all over the place; the goal is to get everybody to read outside their comfort zones).  Our latest category is “Read a Science Fiction Book”, and if you’re the kind of person who sees the words “science fiction” and automatically thinks, “not for me, that’s not my kind of book,” allow me to disabuse you of that notion and encourage you to try one of the many different kinds of science fiction books we have here at The Field Library.

Of course we have the classics, the books by H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and the names you’ve probably heard many times before.  If you’re a fan of classic science fiction, you might want to check out one of our collections of short stories from the classic era, like Women of Wonder: The Classic Years: Science Fiction by Women from the 1940’s to the 1970’s, or Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, to add to your repertoire.

But what if you’re not into classic science fiction?  You still can find something in this category you’ll enjoy reading, because the category is so broad.

Let’s say you want something funny to read, something not too deep, something that will make you laugh aloud.  Try Space Opera by Catherynne Valente (reviewed here), or try any of the books in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams.  The destruction of the earth to make room for an interspace bypass is just the beginning of this very quirky and funny series, which leads us to the reason the earth was built in the first place and the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything (42, just for your information), not to mention the causes of the most deadly war in galactic history.  You get to meet the one-time President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (my favorite character), Marvin the Paranoid Android (immensely quotable), and a host of other bizarre creatures. Better yet, all the books are relatively short and fast reads, so you can devour them quickly. Oh, and if you saw the ill-conceived movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, don’t let that prejudice you; the book is so much better.

Or perhaps you’re more of a graphic novel kind of person.  There are some terrific science fiction graphic novel series, but let me point you in the direction of two that I particularly love.  There’s Y: the Last Man, by Brian Vaughn.  The premise is that all of a sudden, all male mammals in the world (including those in utero) died, with the exception of one man, Yorick Brown, and Ampersand, his Capuchin monkey.  An all-female society struggles to deal with the immediate chaos and the question of what actually happened and whether it can be fixed, with the probability of human extinction looming over them all. Filled with fascinating characters and a plot that twists and turns, the series keeps you turning pages.  Saga, also by Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples, isn’t finished yet (and we all know my rule about not reading series until they’re finished, a rule that I have violated from time to time), but it is so wonderful I’m willing to wait for each installation. You might say Saga is a story of star-crossed lovers from different races which are at war with each other, and that is part of the story, but only part.  Alana and Marko shouldn’t have anything to do with each other, but they fall in love and have a child, Hazel (who grows up over the course of the series), and it seems as if everyone in the galaxy is out to get them for various reasons. Just describing the cast of characters gives you an idea of the breadth of the worlds Vaughn and Staples have created: a ghost babysitter, a giant cat that announces whether someone is telling the truth or not, robot people, amphibian characters, winged people, horned people, people who look like giant insects.  And all of them are characters, with families and politics and relationships and issues of their own.  Somehow the authors keep all the plot lines clear and ever-developing. The art is amazing, wonderfully visualizing the worlds and the people who populate them.  Try just the first volume and you’ll be hooked.

You can also get your mind blown by big concept science fiction, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, reviewed here, which talks about what the world would be like after catastrophic global climate change causes all the oceans to rise dramatically, focusing specifically on how New York City would deal with being partially underwater.  Or you could read Semiosis by Sue Burke, which I reviewed here, a book that follows generations of settlers on a world where the dominant intelligence belongs to plants rather than mammal-like beings.  

Or, if you’re not sure whether you’re going to find something you’ll like, try short stories.  One of the best ways to see what speculative fiction is all about is to check out what the people in the field think is the best stuff being written.  Try one of the Nebula awards compilations, or any one of the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year collections, and you’re sure to find something that speaks to you.

In retrospect, maybe I should have narrowed the category down when I was setting up the challenge for this year, because there’s so much science fiction here at The Field Library, and of such variety, but that should just make it easier to test the waters, try something new and get a sense of how broad and wonderful the genre actually is.  Come to The Field Library and check out our display if you want some more ideas.

 

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A DIFFERENT KIND OF FIRST ENCOUNTER: SEMIOSIS

If you would like to experience a new and unique perspective on the cliche of “humans colonizing a different world and encountering aliens there”, I heartily recommend the book Semiosis, by Sue Burke.

The colonists fleeing a dying earth and finding their way to a planet they name Pax happen to land on the wrong planet, not the one they were aiming for, but in the circumstances they decide to make a go of it here even though it’s not ideal (few of the minerals they need to keep their machinery running can be found on this planet, and the gravity is greater than they’re used to).  The world, described in great and enlightening detail, is very strange to the colonists. They’re prepared to deal with potentially dangerous and hostile animals, but it takes a real effort of imagination for them to realize that the most dangerous and potentially hostile beings on this planet are the plants, and that their only hope of surviving is to ally themselves with the right plants.

The book proceeds by generations. Each chapter is told by a different narrator, from a later generation than the one who narrated the last one, though one of the characters, Stevland, a rainbow bamboo who develops from a completely strange being into a citizen, and even a moderator of the colony, shows up in a few chapters, his* perspective changing over time and as a result of his interactions with other moderators.

The humans’ interactions with Stevland are fraught and complicated, partly because it’s difficult for humans to understand what Stevland is really trying to do. He helps them tremendously, providing them with food and with necessary supplements to keep them healthy or to help them solve some of their physical problems, but that ability to help them by adding things to their food could also allow Stevland to make them passive slaves or to change their personalities altogether.  How much can they trust him when he’s so different from them? The pull between survival, albeit in a sort of symbiotic relationship with a plant, and independence, albeit with the potential for utter destruction, plays out in different ways over generations.

One of the threads that runs through the book is the Glassmakers, another alien species which preceded the humans on Pax, developed a relationship with Stevland and then abandoned him and the elaborate and beautiful city they’d built. Who were they?  Why had they left? Are they still around? Can humans and Glassmakers live harmoniously together?

The world-building in this book is outstanding. Everything works together, even as most of the things are different in fundamental ways from their closest equivalents on earth. The intrusion of the humans (and the Glassmakers) into this ecosystem causes a major upheaval that takes generations to work out. What I really liked about this book, and why I recommend it so heartily, is the characters, the human beings (and no matter how the planet and Stevland change them, they are still recognizably and relatably human beings) and Stevland, their attempts to deal with their unusual circumstances, and their struggles to remain true to their principles as those principles are tested by a world so different from the world in which the principles were incubated.

 

*Stevland chooses his gender, as he chooses the name the humans use for him.