Librarian’s Choice: Sci Fi

This blog comes from Liam, an assistant community librarian based in the east of Leeds.

Sci-fi has been unfairly maligned within the literary community for many decades, mainly by folk who believe literature equals being beaten around the head with a 19th Century thesaurus. Those of us who actually read it know that it is in fact an endless source of creativity and imagination, a way of reflecting today’s society through futuristic funhouse mirrors, and an important and compelling method of examining what’s ahead. It isn’t just aliens and spaceships and planets with names like Zygolythkah-7. Not only that, anyway. So I have compiled a list of sci-fi novels, some more well-known than others, but all of which I believe would stand up against any classic 20th Century novels. I could have talked about so many more, but hopefully this will whet your appetite!

Liam Left HandThe Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

No list of classic sci-fi would be complete without Ursula K. Le Guin, a true heavyweight of the genre. The Left Hand of Darkness won the Hugo and the Nebula Award, and remains as popular today as it was in 1969, when it was published.
Genly Ai, an envoy for Ekumen – a coalition of humanoid species – is sent to Gethen to encourage its leaders to join the union. He spends two years trying to persuade Karhide and Orgoreyn, the two dominant nations, to join, but encounters scepticism from both. Though capable of a type of telepathic communication, he struggles to understand the Gethen concept of ‘shifgrethor’, a system of social rules and status, and the effeminate mannerisms of many of the ‘male’ folk he meets. His task becomes all the more difficult as both nations distrust one another, and he gets caught in the middle.

The Left Hand of Darkness is an early example of feminist sci-fi, and explores themes of androgyny, sexuality and gender and their effects on society, particularly when you take gender away. Genly, for example, is unable to understand how his sexuality affects his way of thinking, and thus finds it incredibly difficult to communicate with the ambisexual Gethenians, who in turn find his motivations hard to understand. Another fascinating aspect of the story is the idea of ‘shifgrethor’, a complex system used by Gethenians extensively with regards to their society. So much of this story is as relevant today as it was when it was written. A particular passage about the dangers of patriotism rings true, especially with what’s happening in the world at the moment: “No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression.” Another longer part about nations and borders should be mandatory reading. In fact, the entire book should be!

Liam CandidateA Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for anything post-apocalyptic. Oryx and Crake, The Road, Earth Abides, Station Eleven, I Am Legend, Greybeard, The Gone-Away World… the list goes on. Show me society collapsing and I’m all over it. I chose ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ for this blog as it is widely regarded as one of the finest examples, and hasn’t been out of print since it was first published in 1960. It’s the only novel Walter M. Miller ever wrote, which I guess proves the old adage of quitting while you’re ahead.

At the beginning we follow a religious sect that seems to live in the Middle Ages, but as we progress, we learn that this desolate landscape is actually 600 years after a terrible nuclear war. One of the few survivors, Isaac Edward Leibowitz, collected and stored any books he could find. Centuries later, they have become the basis for a new religion called the ‘Albertian Order of Leibowitz’. The story follows humanity as it tries to rebuild civilisation and is split into three parts, with a six-century time-jump in between. Much of the novel focuses on the aspects of religion versus state, and cyclical history – how we’re doomed to repeat it if we fail to learn from our mistakes. A true masterpiece which is well worth a read.

Lilith’s Brood (The Xenogenesis Trilogy) by Octavia E. Butler

Though less so today, sci-fi in the past was often a reserve for straight white male authors. Octavia E. Butler, an African-American lesbian, broke that mould and helped pave the way for a more diverse representation of voices in this genre. Her Xenogenesis trilogy – Dawn, Adulthood Rights, and Iago, recently released as an omnibus titled Lilith’s Brood – was written between 1987-89. Nuclear war has left the earth uninhabitable and humanity on the brink of extinction. The Oankili, an alien race, takes the handful of survivors left and holds them in suspended animation while they make the earth safe for life once more. Lilith Iyapo, our hero, is one of the first to be awoken aboard her new home, and is trained to help the other survivors come to terms with this new earth. The Oankili, however, know what the humans cannot accept – that humanity holds an innate self-destructive gene manifested in a need for hierarchical systems that will once again lead to their downfall – and wish to interbreed, removing this gene and thus allowing humanity the chance to flourish. But some of the survivors believe these hybrid offspring won’t truly be human, and will only cause the extinction of humankind. Some rebel…

Lilith’s Brood is a fantastic story about human nature, biological determinism, gender, sexuality and race. It could be seen as an allegory of immigration and integration that we see in society today. Though it could be argued that Butler doesn’t hold humanity in much regard, her characters are nevertheless brilliantly written and believable, the prose is tight and efficient, and the ideas are out of this world. Lilith herself is a true feminine hero, an archetype we need to see more of in sci-fi, and all genres.

Liam SiriusSirius by Olaf Stapledon

One of our librarians, Chris, recommended Sirius to me. Though the plot – a scientist breeds a super-intelligent dog with the ability to speak – sounds like it could’ve been lifted from a straight-to-DVD flop voiced by Rob Schneider, the result is actually a poignant study on consciousness, innate nature, the relationships between human and animal, and the fear of the ‘other’.

In rural Wales, a scientist begins using steroids to increase the cognisance of farm dogs. Though most fail, one little pup, Sirius, grows and develops until he holds the intelligence of a human. Born at the same time as the scientist’s daughter Plaxy, the pair forms a tight bond despite their sibling rivalry. While the family tries to keep Sirius’ intelligence a secret, locals soon begin to wonder about the dog’s smart behaviour, and react with fear and hatred. Sirius, neither man nor beast, struggles with his own identity and battles his innate wild nature against his carefully nurtured character.

‘Sirius’ is a remarkable novel by a true sci-fi legend, Olaf Stapledon, who influenced a whole generation of authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Stanislaw Lem, Brian Aldiss, C.S. Lewis and many more. First published in 1944, its main themes are still just as relevant, and have been explored in other novels such as Flowers for Algernon.

Liam AndroidsDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

With the recent release of ‘Blade Runner 2049’, and the current TV anthology series ‘Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams’, now would be the perfect time to revisit Philip K. Dick’s seminal novel. Set in a future San Francisco, a devastating nuclear war has seen the majority of the surviving population leave Earth to live in off-world colonies. A group of androids, used as labourers throughout the solar system, go rogue, murder their owners, and flee Mars for Earth. It’s down to Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter, to track them down and ‘retire’ them, while the androids hide out with John Isidore, a simpleton who lives in an abandoned apartment building. These androids, though superficially identical to humans, are incapable of empathy. Though they’re trying to learn…

The novel explores what it means to be human; whether it’s our emotions, experiences, souls, or simply biology. It’s darkly funny in places too. Early on, Deckard and his wife use a ‘Penfield Mood Organ’ which feeds them the emotions that their lifeless world has taken away. Deckard’s wife Iran uses this organ for a “six-hour self-accusatory depression.” With the nuclear war devastating animal life most people can only afford mechanical replicas, such as the title’s electric sheep. Yes, the film’s popularity has overshadowed its source, but this remains a noteworthy book and is a must-read for anyone with an inclination to enjoy one of cyberpunk’s original sources.

Liam More thanMore Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

I put up a Gollancz sci-fi masterworks display at Headingley Library, with their gorgeously cheesy 30s pulp style paperback covers or the yellow with pink lettering hardbacks. This was one I found that I’d never heard of before, and quickly became one of my favourites. Theodore Sturgeon, a New Wave sci-fi author, and one of the few to escape a middle initial, was prolific in his writing – before his death in 1985 he had written over 200 stories. ‘More Than Human’ was one of his most famous and won 1954’s International Fantasy Award for best novel.

The story follows six individuals who, when apart, are societal misfits with weird powers – a 25 year old with a very low IQ who can control minds; two teleporting twin toddlers who can only say “he-he” and “ho-ho”; a severely disabled baby (described in the books as “mongoloid”… different times) who can think like a computer and answer any question; and an 8 year old telekinetic girl. But when these characters come together they form a symbiotic being capable of almost anything – they are“homo gestalt” humanity’s next evolutionary step.

I loved this book so much. From the first chapter where two girls, hidden away from society by their over-protective father, come face to face with the feeble-minded Lone, ending in tragedy, to the accidental creation of an anti-gravity machine while trying to build a tractor that works in both wet and dry conditions. It is truly a story that stays with you long after you’ve finished.

Top 10 – Science Fiction

These are the top 10 Science fiction titles borrowed from Leeds Libraries during November. Science fiction isn’t everyone’s bag – but why not try one of these for something different?

Heart goes lastThe Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.

The Long WarThe Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

A generation after the events of ‘The Long Earth’, mankind has spread across the new worlds opened up by Stepping. Where Joshua and Lobsang once pioneered, now fleets of airships link the stepwise Americas with trade and culture. Mankind is shaping the Long Earth – but in turn the Long Earth is shaping mankind.

The Long MarsThe Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

2040-2045: In the years after the cataclysmic Yellowstone eruption there is massive economic dislocation as populations flee Datum Earth to myriad Long Earth worlds. Sally, Joshua, and Lobsang are all involved in this perilous work when, out of the blue, Sally is contacted by her long-vanished father and inventor of the original Stepper device, Willis Linsay. He tells her he is planning a fantastic voyage across the Long Mars and wants her to accompany him. But Sally soon learns that Willis has ulterior motives.

A Storm of swordsA Storm of Swords by George R R Martin

The Seven Kingdoms are divided by revolt and blood feud. Winter is approaching and the wildings are poised to invade the Kingdom of the North. Robb Stark must protect himself from them and the threat of his enemies in the south.

Lock InLock In by John Scalzi

Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. 4% suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And 1% find themselves ‘locked in’ – fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. 1% doesn’t seem like a lot. But in the US that’s 1.7 million people ‘locked in’ – including the President’s wife and daughter. Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can fully restore the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge…

Fools assassinFool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Tom Badgerlock has been living peaceably in the manor house at Withywoods with his beloved wife, Molly, for many years, the estate a reward to his family for loyal service to the crown. But behind the facade of respectable middle-age lies a turbulent and violent past. For Tom is actually FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard scion of the Farseer line, convicted user of Beast-magic and assassin: a man who has risked much for his king and lost more. On a shelf in his den sits a triptych carved in memory stone of a man, a wolf and a fool. Once, these three were inseparable friends. But one is long dead, and one long-missing. Then one Winterfest night a messenger arrives, seeking Fitz, only to mysteriously disappear leaving nothing but a blood-trail. What was the message? Who was the sender? And what has happened to the messenger?

Raising steamRaising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Change is afoot in Ankh-Morpork – Discworld’s first steam engine has arrived, and once again Moist von Lipwig finds himself with a new and challenging job.

Wards of faerieWards of Faerie by Terry Brooks

There was an age when the world was young, before the coming of humans, a time when magic was the dominant power. It was during this age that the Elfstones protecting the Elven disappeared. Now a clue to their location may have surfaced in the diary of a princess, and it will be the beginning of an adventure that no-one expected.

DragonbaneDragonbane by Sherrilyn Kenyon

Out of all the mysterious boarders who call Sanctuary home, no one is more antisocial or withdrawn than Maxis Drago. But then, it’s hard to blend in with the modern world when you have a fifty foot wingspan. Centuries ago, he was cursed by an enemy who swore to see him fall. An enemy who took everything from him and left him forever secluded. But Fate is a bitch, with a wicked sense of humour. And when she throws old enemies together and threatens the wife he thought had died centuries ago, he comes back with a vengeance. Modern day New Orleans has become a battleground for the oldest of evils. And two dragons will hold the line, or go down in flames.

BattlemageBattlemage by Stephen Aryan

Balfruss is a battlemage, one of a vanishing breed, sworn to fight and die for a country that fears and despises him. Vargus is a soldier, and while mages shoot lightning from the walls of his city, he’s down in the frontlines getting blood on his blade. Talandra is a princess and her father’s spymaster, but the war may force her to take up a greater responsibility, and make the greatest sacrifice of all. Known for their unpredictable, dangerous power, society has left battlemages untrained and shunned. But when a force unlike anything ever imagined attacks their home, the few remaining magic users must go to war – to save those who fear them most, and herald in a new age of peace, built upon the corpses of their enemies.

‘Dune’ celebrates its 50th birthday

DuneThe science fiction classic Dune is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year.

On release it was the winner of both the prestigious Hugo Award and the inaugural Nebular Award.  It has gone on to sell over 12 million copies since then and frequently appears on sci-fi must read lists. Dune has been favourably compared to Lord of the Rings trilogy for its grand scope and sighted as an influence on numerous creative projects from Star Wars to Game of Thrones, it even inspired an Iron Maiden The great Dune trilogysong “To Tame the Land”.

Set in a heavily feudal society of the future where “spice “mined from treacherous sand dunes is the most valuable commodity in the galaxy Dune is the first book in an epic saga charting the life of Duke Paul of the House Atraides. When his family is betrayed by another Noble House, Paul is forced to flee with his mother Jessica into the unforgiving terrain of the desert planet Arrakis. Far from perishing in this punishing environment as their enemies anticipate, the pair survive and Paul discovers that the dunes and their inhabitants are key to fulfilling a destiny far greater than any he could ever have imagined.

Author Frank Herbert masterfully pulls together multiple layers of political intrigue, adds complex themes of religion and culture, mixes in a healthy dose of adventure and frames the story within a meticulously constructed fictional universe. The resulting novel is considered ahead of its time in exploring issues of ecology and environmentalism but has faced criticism for what some see as its poor development of female characters.

Herbert went on to wright five sequels before his death in 1986. His Dune legacy lives on thanks to his son Brian HerbertDune who along with established science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson has written a number of prequel novels beginning with the Prelude to Dune Trilogy published from 1999 as well as two sequels Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune based on Frank’s own 30 page outline for the continuation of the series.

If you have already read Dune or would like to try some other great science fiction titles which also explore themes of politics, culture and religion try these compelling reads:

The sparrowSand by Hugh Howey. Staying with the desert theme Sand is the new novel from the acclaimed author of the bestselling Wool trilogy. An old civilization is literally buried under massive sand dunes. It’s up to four siblings born into this barren new to world dig deep and uncover the secrets of the lost one.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Jesuit priest Father Emilio Santoz leads an expedition to meet a sentient alien race after he is moved by their use of music but the consequences are devastating.  Russell makes excellent use of her own experience as a paleoanthropologist to injects a sense of real life into her alien world and its strange new species. Exploring human concepts of morality and faith this and sequel Children of God are as intelligent, compelling and challenging as science fiction gets.

 Perdido Street Station (New Crobuzon 1) by China  Mievelle . Welcome to the sprawling city of New Crobuzon where humans live side by side with all manner of strange creatures from khephris (insect headed women) to winged garuda. When one such garuda who has been stripped of flight approaches an amateur scientist to help him regain it they unwittingly set in motion events which will leave the whole of the city gripped with terror. This is a massively ambitious story which mixes politics, ethics, science and fantasy to astonishing effect.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.  Introducing The Justice, the AI mind of a destroyed warship trapped in the Sandreanimated body of a single dead human or “corpse soldier”. Used to controlling thousands of “corpse soldiers” simultaneously The Justice must adjust to this reduced state if she is to complete one last mission and exact revenge on those who destroyed her. Author Leckie became the first person to collect the Hugo, Nebular and Arthur C Clark awards for Best Novel in the same year with this her 2014 debut novel. Its sequel Ancillary Sword is also available now.

The Player of Games by Iain M Banks. Between 1987 and his death in 2013 Banks wrote a series of highly acclaimed novels and short stories set in and around the supposedly utopian interstellar society of The Culture.  Essentially space operas the novels are less concerned with scientific fact than exploring complex themes such as identity and politics. The Player of Games is an accessible entry point into this Universe. It tells the story of Gurgeh a man famous throughout The Culture for his mastery of board games.  Coerced into participating in a game called Azad in an Empire far from home Gurgeh soon realizes that he will not only be player but also pawn and that the stakes are literally to die for.

Post by Gemma Alexander, Information and Research Library