10 Books You Need to Read if You Love Sci-Fi Part 1
I recently started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time. When I posted about this fact, because it seemed something worth sharing, I had my “nerd cred” challenged jokingly by a couple of people. And I thought to myself, “do you really wanna play this game?” But then I remembered that my particular brand of nerdom stems from books and that, much to my disappointment, reading is not the most popular form of entertainment these days, even among nerds. I remembered, one’s exposure to good stories can always be improved, so I’m going to share some of my favorites with you all. If you’re a nerd and if you like sci-fi and you like to read (and I have to wonder if you’re using the word “nerd” correctly if neither of those two things are true about you), here are some excellent books that you should read if you haven’t already:
Seriously, if you haven’t read this book, you really shouldn’t call yourself a sci-fi fan. If you read one sci-fi book in your life, it should probably be I, Robot. Asimov is one of the most influential writers of the genre. He brought psychology and a human element to a genre that previously was composed largely of ray guns and bug-eyed monsters. He made sci-fi matter. He invented the word “robotics” for crying out loud. (EDIT: Previously I had claimed Asimov coined the word “robot.” This is incorrect, and I should have known better. He coined “robotics,” which is still pretty impressive. “Robot” was coined by Josef Čapek, and first used by his brother Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). My apologies for the error.) It is hard to get more important in sci-fi than Asimov, and I, Robot is his quintessential work. I, Robot also has the added benefit of being a collection of short stories, so your attention doesn’t need to last all that long if you don’t like books. You philistine.
Behind Asimov, Heinlein is often the next name that comes to mind as one of the most important sci-fi writers. Heinlein wrote a lot of books, for adults and for children, and he wrote a lot of things that were exceptionally progressive for the time. His books often took an optimistic outlook at humanity, or at least what humanity is capable of becoming should we choose to do so. He explored politics and cultures that were exceptionally a-typical to 1950s America, and acceptance of others and love for all are themes I found in many of his books.
While Stranger in a Strange Land is his most famous work (and also very good), The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has more sci in its fi, and isn’t quite so mind-bendy with its social discussions, and is an excellent introduction to his particular blend of writing. Besides, who doesn’t love a good story of revolution and social upheaval…on the moon?
Heinlein is so damn important I had to include two of his books in this list, however Tunnel in the Sky is representative of Heinlein’s juvenile fiction. Unlike many books written for children, Heinlein never dumbed down his books for kids. Heinlein’s juvenile works are roaring tales of adventure, most of them coming of age stories, but in each he finds room to have a discussion about society and what it means to be an adult. You know, important stuff.
Heinlein was also notable for writing smart, capable female characters, even if they were seldom the main protagonist. If there is a criticism to be leveled it is that Heinlein’s women are TOO perfect. He also had the habit of slipping in characters of heritage (people of color) as the protagonists right under his editor’s noses. Rod Walker in Tunnel in the Sky, for instance, is black. Johnny Rico in Starship Troopers is Polynesian. But regardless of the character’s sex or ethnicity they are intelligent, capable youngsters. The kind of person any child would want to emulate.
Larry Niven is one of the great “hard sci-fi” authors. Ringworld is the fanciful adventure where a cunning human, a warrior space cat, a girl who is genetically lucky, and an insane cowardly alien all take a spaceship to visit a mysterious object in hopes of finding a solution to surviving the exploding core of the galaxy. I shit you not. This was written, mind you, back when the center of the galaxy was thought to be a massive cluster of super old, super massive stars, and not the super massive black hole we now know it to be. But that’s ok. Heinlein wrote about navigating the stars with a slide rule. Despite all the fantastic things that happen in Ringworld, there’s actually a fair bit of science behind it all. It’s classic sci-fi. You should read it.
Technically Sundiver is the first book in the Uplift Saga, but I find Startide Rising and the sequel The Uplift War more interesting, and Sundiver doesn’t have much to do with with actual plots of the later novels. What make’s David Brin’s Uplift Saga fascinating is the galactic culture and the aliens. The Humans and Neo-dolphins and Neo-chimps are cool too, but I like the aliens. CUZ THEY’RE FREAKING ALIEN! In the world of Uplift, sentience is spread through the galaxy by one species genetically engineering near-sentient species and shepherding them along until they are capable of being citizens in their own right in galactic society. Which costs them only 100,000 years of servitude. Not a bad deal, right? Except no one knows who uplifted Humanity. No one’s claiming the wolfling race, and to make matters more complicated, by the time Humans made Contact, the little shits had already gone and uplifted dolphins and chimps. So the galaxy HAD to treat the hairless apes as full fledged members of galactic civilization. If you haven’t figured it out already, galactic politics are amazing in this series. Brin populates the galaxy with a wide variety of interesting and intensely alien species. The driving forces and cultures of the aliens are complex and totally believable. They’re just understandable enough that the reader can relate, but still weird enough as to be totally alien.
We’ll conclude our list on Thursday with 5 more excellent, and slightly less heady sci-fi novels. I figure, this list should give ya’ll plenty to read between now and then.