I can remember talking about Ray Bradbury with some very well-read classmates and the professor during a creative writing class. We were all discussing our favorite authors, and he’s one of mine.
“Isn’t he dead?” someone asked.
“No! He’s like, ninety, but he’s not dead. I would know.”
“He’s kind of crazy, though.”
I would have argued, but the professor was nodding sagely, as professors are wont to do. They told me about his “Ray Bradbury Theater,” which admittedly sounded a bit crazy.
“But ‘Fahrenheit 451,'” I protested to unimpressed ears. “‘Illustrated Man.’ ‘Martian Chronicles.’ Some Twilight Zone episodes! The guy practically invented science fiction as we know it.”
It turned out the problem wasn’t entirely with Bradbury – it was with science fiction itself. They (like many) didn’t consider it literary enough. Even the genre itself occasionally hides under other names, like “speculative fiction,” in attempt to disassociate from the pulp stigmas of “sci-fi”. As a result, and as in many genres, some readers overlook it entirely, and they miss out on some incredible works that have shaped not just the genre, but other books and pop culture as a whole.
So for today’s Top Ten Tuesday, here are my recommendations to people who think they’re too literary to try science fiction. A huge flaw in this list is that I haven’t read many of the genre’s greatest – primarily Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. LeGuin, Neal Stephenson, or Philip K. Dick. I can’t really endorse them, having never read them…but I’ll endorse them anyway, especially Asimov and Dick, since many popular sci-fi movies are based on their stories (“I, Robot,” “Minority Report,” and “Blade Runner,” to name a couple).
1. “The Illustrated Man” by Ray Bradbury. If I was trying to win someone over to Bradbury, this is the book I’d force on them. A mysterious tattooed man takes shelter with the narrator, and his cursed tattooes come to life and tell stories of space travel, nuclear apocalypse, Martians, and robots, complete with themes of discrimination, religion, censorship, human purpose and destiny, and family.
2. “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. Oh, dystopias. What is it about them that makes us actually enjoy reading them? Is it because we’re safe in our comfortable non-dystopian world? “Handmaid’s Tale” will destroy your comfort within a couple pages, but the beauty of speculative fiction is that it won’t necessarily happen…right? Right?
3. “Perdido Street Station” by China Mieville. You want literary science fiction? Give “Perdido Street Station” a try and let me know when your pulverized brain makes it to the last of its 623 pages. The city of New Crobuzon is neither a utopia nor a dystopia – it’s a city, a grungy, Dickens-in-Marrakesh city full of artists and criminals and politicians and cactus-people. It touches on just about every theme it’s possible for a book to touch on, and it does so with refreshingly little exposition – what? There’s cactus people? No explanation given. Deal with it. Your disbelief has been suspended and you didn’t even realize it.
4. “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. The world has been ravaged by an unspecified disaster, and an unnamed man and his son struggle through a dead, gray, brutal wilderness towards the coast, for no other reason besides needing a destination and the tiny glimmer of hope it provides. It’s exhausting and sometimes painful to read, but the characters in “The Road” never lose faith, and they don’t let us, either, in spite of everything.
5. “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells. Giant Martian tripods annihilate nineteenth-century England and all its Victorian sensibilities. There’s no Will Smith with big guns or Doctor Who with a sonic screwdriver to help save the day – it’s just one ordinary dude, trying to stay alive and find his wife in a world gone utterly to hell. I yearn for a steampunk-ian period film adaptation, although I did enjoy the surprisingly faithful Tom Cruise version – the death rays, an attack at a ferry crossing, and crazies who want to fight back are all from the book.
6. The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. Okay, I never managed to finish these books either, but that’s because I tried to read them when was twelve or thirteen and “Red Mars” was just too boring. Maybe I’ll put them on my 2013 reading list…
7. “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. I found this easier to read than “1984” (another one I never finished – I suck!). I think what drew me to it was its more morbidly compelling “positive” dystopia, where the people don’t even know they’re repressed, as opposed to a “negative” dystopia where people are aware of their forceful subjugation. People in the world of “Brave New World” are genetically engineered and sorted into castes, then further controlled via drugs and orgies. This was essentially the first dystopian novel and it addresses many of the concerns of the 1920s when Huxley was writing it, like increasing consumerism, loss of individuality in an industrialized world, and the international political uncertainty following WWI.
8. “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut. An American POW is abducted by aliens later in life and spends the rest of the book time-traveling and/or going crazy. If you’re literary-minded, you’ve probably read this anyway.
9. “Dune” by Frank Herbert. Come on, it’s “Dune.” It’s like the Star Wars of science fiction literature. It’s a coming-of-age tale, a religious allegory, and a courtly intrigue all in one huge, imaginative package.
10. “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro. At first glace, you won’t even know this is science fiction. Then the mysterious dystopia beautifully unfolds itself, Atwood-style, and you realize this near future has a horrible, tragic secret.