A Science Fiction Primer

One of the things I regret about my adolescence is not spending nearly enough time with books. A big part of that was lack of resources–and not so much the books themselves (my local library could have provided me anything I'd have asked for), but the knowledge of which books would be the right blend of substantive and topical for an adolescent.

Today, such a dearth of information is scarcely believable, but my formative years were 1988-1998, in which the internet was still in its infancy. It may be hard to imagine, but just two decades ago, the internet was not nearly as information-saturated as it is now, and there were strong social preclusions against internet-based information (you should ask an expert or do meticulous research!). In addition, online shopping was practically non-existent (how can we possibly trust the internet with something like a credit card number?).

Nowadays, there is no excuse. If I could go back in time, I would hand my fourteen-year-old self a science fiction reading list that would introduce him to all the major movements of science fiction, and here's what it would look like:

1. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Scholarly discussion of science fiction tends to agree that the genre begins with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. First published anonymously in 1818, Shelley managed to get her name on the second edition of the book, released in 1831.

Frankenstein is important for the young reader, because of the first mental shift that the serious reader of science fiction must make: underneath all the ephemera of science fiction–aliens, ray guns, space ships, parallel universes, cyborgs, clones, etc.–what science fiction is really about is the effect of technology's advance on our relationship with our environment and our relationships with one another.

When Dr. Frankenstein's scientific discoveries endow him with the ability to create life, what responsibilities does he inherit as a creator? Is society prepared to deal with a rapid increase of human power? The speed of technological development appeared rapid even to people of the early nineteenth century. Today, we race forward ever faster than before. The ideas Mary Shelley explored almost two centuries ago are just as relevant today.


2. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne


Jules Verne can be a hard sell for the modern reader. The joy of his prose lies along two vectors: the wonder created by fantastic technological apparatuses, and the discovery associated with adventure. To our modern sensibilities, Verne's fantastical technology (things such as submarines and handheld electric lamps) are mundane, and the areas discovered on his sea voyage around the world are all now clearly delineated territories of world.

Still, I would recommend Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea to a young person interested in science fiction, even knowing that these elements will fall flat. Why? Because we need to remember that there was a time before the internet, when a book that wove the genetic classification of sea life into its narrative would have been a treasure in a world where knowledge, which is power, was difficult to access. We need to remember that our technology is fantastic, not mundane. And we need to remind ourselves regularly to find wonder in all the parts of our world we are used to glossing over.


3. The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells

One of the most important things that science fiction can do is give the reader insight into his own prejudices and preconceptions about the world. In H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, colonial England was given a new view on colonial conquest. What if invaders from outside their country, in this case, Mars, arrived and decided to pillage the countryside in the same way that Britain and other European powers had done to the rest of the world?

Young people especially are prone to assuming that their perceptions of things are The Way Things Are. The War of the Worlds is not only the first step in throwing some cold water on such assumptions, it also happens to be an entertaining and engaging narrative with an interesting protagonist to boot.


4. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin


Many young people will read George Orwell's 1984 as part of their high school curriculum, and some others will likely be introduced to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Both novels are great recommendations, but for early-twentieth century anticipation of social absolutist horror, I cast my strongest support behind Yevgeny Zamyatin's We.

1984 covers totalitarian dictatorship well, while Brave New World shows how the vices and weaknesses of society's constituents can be used against them to create the kind of dictatorship in which everyone thinks they are happy and free, when in fact they are being controlled by their own desires. We utilizes both models productively, and manages also to address the rampant destruction of the natural world. It is an excellent starting point for the budding young science fiction reader to ask the kinds of questions such as, "how free and fair and equitable is our society, really?"


5. Foundation, Isaac Asimov


As we move into science fiction's so-called "Golden Age," things get a little trickier, as, in my opinion, finding something I can whole-heartedly recommend to a young person (or any person) gets a lot more difficult. It is quite easy, however, for me to recommendation Foundation by Isaac Asimov.

How does society work? How do you get people "on your side" and keep them there? What does mean to wield social power, and is it fair to other people for one to do so? Foundation begins with the assumption that ultimate power over society can be wielded, and proceeds from there, using a far-future galactic empire modeled on Ancient Rome as its setting. The political maneuvering of its many protagonists will draw the young reader in, just as surely as the outcome of said maneuvers will make great fodder for discussions of what is ethically right and wrong on the macro-political level.


6. Dune, Frank Herbert


Dune treads some of the same landscape as Foundation, with its powerful political entities vying for power. However, Dune introduces the young reader to the idea that spiritualism can effectively be blended with science fictional settings. It is also a great candidate for introducing the young reader to ecological themes that are subtler and more nuanced than those expressed in We (while, "we're destroying our environment," is an important message, so is, "here's how we might handle ourselves in an alternate ecology").

As I mention above, it is difficult to find Golden Age science fiction without pitfalls, and Dune has some serious ones, in my opinion. Readers' attention should be drawn to Herbert's problematic choice of perhaps too closely populating the Fremen with real-world Arab cultural details, and also the implicit homophobia inherent in the depiction of the character of Baron Harkonnen.


7. Solaris, Stanisław Lem


Once we get past the Golden Age and into the New Wave, it starts to get easier to find recommendations again, and the first of those on my list for the interested young reader is Stanisław Lem's Solaris. Remember in War of the Worlds how the idea of the book revolved around inverting your perceptions so you could see taken-for-granted behaviors from someone else's perspective? Well, Solaris is like that, except for the entire human experience.

The question at the core of Solaris is whether or not the experience of aliens and humans will ever be even remotely relatable. The novel's name is the name to the planet where all the action takes place, and that planet's surface is entirely covered by an organism with the following properties: it is a liquid ocean, it forms itself into shapes and structures with some regularity, but often seemingly at random, and it is also powerful enough to "steer" its planet's orbit.

The existence of such a creature, capable of perpetually thwarting attempts at communication with human visitors, calls into question the very basis on which each of us perceives the universe, and the bias we give our own perceptions in making sense of our reality. A difficult lesson to learn, but one the interested young person would do well to internalize.


8. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick


We now come to another novel that asks us to question our society, with echoes of 1984, Brave New World, and We, but this time around, we will never really be certain whether or not we live in a just society, since our perceptions of right and wrong are, at least to some degree, culturally constructed.

The Man in the High Castle takes place in an alternate reality 1960's in which, having won World War II, Japan controls the Western half of the former United States, and Germany controls the Eastern half, with a neutral zone in the former Rocky Mountain states. Within the world of the novel there is a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. The contraband novel depicts a world in which the Allies won World War II, but certain historical details make it clear that it is not our real world that Grasshopper depicts, but another Allies-won-WWII world entirely. The characters, naturally, begin to question the goodness and rightness of their world, which leads in turn for the reader to assess his or her own.

Layered against all of this is yet another productive level. Dick extends the perception metaphor to the artifacts created by artists, showing that aesthetic works operate in much the same way, and by drawing our attention to signals and signifiers, the rationalization of meaning and a creator's intent of a creation is itself similar to the rationalization of comparing one's reality to imagined realities.

Ostensibly, The Man in the High Castle can be read as an action adventure novel with protagonists escaping Nazi persecutors and navigating the rigors of an occupied society controlled by hostile foreign powers. Beneath the surface lie unfathomable depths of productive philosophy.


9. The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin


No New Wave reading list is complete without a novel by Le Guin. Many will probably recommend The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. Both are fine choices and should definitely be on one's longer term reading list. My first recommendation to the young person is The Lathe of Heaven.

We return to questions of power and control, somewhat similar to the ground tread by Foundation, but this time with a critical inflection toward change and the expression of one's will upon reality. George Orr has been keeping himself from entering REM sleep for years, because his dreams have the power to change reality. But when he accidentally overdoses, he is sent to counseling before he'll be allowed near medications again. When his psychiatrist discovers that George's power is real, he also happens upon the discovery that while putting George under hypnosis, he can shape the changes George's dreams have.

As with the other two New Wave books listed here, The Lathe of Heaven takes a previously explored theme in science fiction and poses deeper, more probing questions, calling our most basic presuppositions, even our own perceptions themselves, into question.


10. The City and the City, China Miéville


It would have been impossible to introduce my younger self to this novel in the 1990's, since it was published in 2009, however much I might wish it had been available. From the 1980's onward, science fiction branches out to explore many different facets of the human condition, and Miéville more than any other author, in my opinion, proves himself expert at crafting something new from very commonplace components.

On the surface, The City and the City is a noir detective novel. However, the setting of the crime (the two eponymous cities) and the details of the crime itself lead the reader toward questions surrounding nationalism and the arbitrariness of human political boundaries. In Miévillian fashion, the fantastic nature of the cities' geographic layout is itself a critique of nationalism and global trade in the modern world.

The City and the City is also an excellent gateway into other more complex novels in Miéville's oeuvre, such as the Bas-Lag trilogy and Embassytown.