Happy Monday, you guys! As I mentioned last Friday, I have been in a little reading slump, so I don’t have a review prepared for you today. So instead, I thought I’d bring back one of my favourite posts. It’s time for Part Two of the Beginner’s Guide to Science Fiction!
If you’d like to check out Part One, you can find it here. What I try to do is recommend science fiction books that you might like based on your favourite books, themes, etc. There won’t be any young adult books on this list – I’m still so new to the genre and quite frankly, someone else will have better knowledge of YA sci-fi than me. Here we go!
I love Star Trek, particularly the Original Series
Redshirts by John Scazli
We all know the jokes about red shirts – the crew members who always seem to get bumped off by horrible space monsters on away missions with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. But what if those characters had their own story?
Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory.
Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that:
(1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces
(2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations
(3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.
Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.
I make no secret of the fact that I’m a huge Star Trek fan. I grew up on the Original Series and have since been working my way through all the series. I can safely say that Red Shirts is the perfect book for Star Trek fans. It gets a bit weird further along in the plot, but it is just so funny, moving, and incredibly meta. You can tell that Scalzi is a huge fan of the show.
Bonus points for Trekkies: Wil Wheaton does the narration of the audio book.
I love Star Wars, particularly the original trilogy
The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn
I’m going to go ahead and throw out a controversial nerd opinion: the Star Wars expanded universe is pretty much all garbage. I’ve read many of the books – old and new – and they’re just not very good except for nostalgia. However, there is one exception to this rule, and that is the Thrawn trilogy:
It is a time of renewal, five years after the destruction of the Death Star and the defeat of Darth Vader and the Empire.
But with the war seemingly won, strains are beginning to show in the Rebel Alliance. New challenges to galactic peace have arisen. And Luke Skywalker hears a voice from his past. A voice with a warning. Beware the dark side….
The Rebel Alliance has destroyed the Death Star, defeated Darth Vader and the Emperor, and driven the remnants of the old Imperial Starfleet back into barely a quarter of the territory that they once controlled. Leia and Han are married, are expecting Jedi twins, and have shouldered heavy burdens in the government of the new Republic. And Luke Skywalker is the first in a hoped-for new line of Jedi Knights.
But thousands of light years away, where a few skirmishes are still taking place, the last of the Emperor’s warlords has taken command of the remains of the Imperial fleet. He has made two vital discoveries that could destroy the fragile new Republic—built with such cost to the Rebel Alliance. The tale that emerges is a towering epic of action, invention, mystery, and spectacle on a galactic scale—in short, a story that is worthy of the name Star Wars.
Timothy Zahn is a legend in the Star Wars expanded universe. He has written a number of books in the Legends (pre-Disney canon, read more here) universe, but the Thrawn trilogy reigns supreme as some of the best. Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command take place five years after the events of Return of the Jedi. If you have any interest in Star Wars, I so highly recommend these books. Zahn has such a knack for getting the dialogue just right – you really feel like Luke, Han, Leia, and others are actually speaking and interacting. It feels just like a new Star Wars adventure in the spirit of the original films and is just so much fun.
If you need even more convincing, the Thrawn trilogy has had a huge impact on the franchise. It is credited with revitalizing interest in Star Wars in the 90’s, leading George Lucas to show there was an audience for a prequel trilogy (I’ll let you decide whether or not this was a good thing or not). Zahn came up with the name Coruscant, which is the seat of Imperial power and the location of the Senate and Imperial Palace/Jedi Temple. This name stuck when the prequel films came out and the name Coruscant became canon even though the books technically were not – cool, huh?
I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones, particularly the politics and family saga
Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald
If you’re anything like me, the best part of Game of Thrones/The Song of Ice and Fire is the political machinations, family saga, and incredible cast of characters. Fantasy novels are great for this kind of plot, but what about science fiction? It turns out that Luna: New Moon is pretty much Game of Thrones in Space, at least as far as I’m concerned.
The Moon wants to kill you.
Maybe it will kill you when the per diem for your allotted food, water, and air runs out, just before you hit paydirt. Maybe it will kill you when you are trapped between the reigning corporations-the Five Dragons-in a foolish gamble against a futuristic feudal society. On the Moon, you must fight for every inch you want to gain. And that is just what Adriana Corta did.
As the leader of the Moon’s newest “dragon,” Adriana has wrested control of the Moon’s Helium-3 industry from the Mackenzie Metal corporation and fought to earn her family’s new status. Now, in the twilight of her life, Adriana finds her corporation-Corta Helio-confronted by the many enemies she made during her meteoric rise. If the Corta family is to survive, Adriana’s five children must defend their mother’s empire from her many enemies… and each other.
This book is so good. Unlike Game of Thrones, it is a very slow burn but the payoff is incredible. You have your family, the Cortas instead of the Starks, who range from the flippant to the dedicated. You don’t only get the point of view from the Cortas – one of the best characters in the book in Marina, who is plucked up from absolute poverty by Ariel Corta after a chance encounter.
The world building in this book is absolutely stunning. Everything from the oxygen allowance to the Cora homestead of Boa Vista is just incredible. The stakes are so high not just because of the tensions between ruling families, but the environment they live in. The ending of this book is explosive and so incredibly good. Fortunately for you, the second book is out now too.
I read a lot of literary fiction and want something to ease myself into sci-fi
Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber or Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Book of Strange New Things and Never Let Me Go are two incredibly different, but beautifully written examples of literary science fiction from two of the best authors out there. First, The Book of Strange New Things:
It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling. Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.
Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable. While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer, Bea is struggling for survival. Their trials lay bare a profound meditation on faith, love tested beyond endurance, and our responsibility to those closest to us.
I loved this book so much. It’s weird and wonderful and a new take on the space exploration narrative. Peter is the first Catholic missionary to be sent to another planet. Oasis is galaxies away from Earth, but the USIC is willing to shoulder the cost of sending him to preach to the native population. His wife Bea is his anchor in life and, while they can communicate via messages, she must stay behind. Life on Earth begins to crumble as life on Oasis flourishes, and two people separated by a huge distance must rely on each other as their lives take completely different turns. Ugh I love this book so much. It is so powerful, raw, emotional, and gorgeous.
Now for Never Let Me Go:
As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were. Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life, and for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special—and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together.
This doesn’t sound much like science fiction, does it? I promise you that it is! If you haven’t had this spoiled for you, run out to the bookstore and pick this up right away. If you have, go pick it up anyway. Ishiguro is an incredibly talented writer across multiple genres – The Remains of the Day is one of my all-time favourite books – and his take on sci-fi is no exception. This book dives deep into so many ethical issues in a way that only a sci-fi novel can. Grab your tissues, y’all. This book made me cry so hard.
Show me some sci-fi that messes with gender norms and expectations
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
To only recommend Ancillary Justice on the basis of the book’s gender bending does it a huge disservice. This is an absolutely incredible work of science fiction that’s exciting, fast-paced, and mind-bending:
On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Once, she was the Justice of Toren – a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.
You read that right. Breq is a person, but once was a starship. Technically, Breq was the sentient artificial intelligence that inhabited the starship and all the ancillary soldiers that were part of that ship. There are parts of the book where she flashes back to the past and says things like, ‘I was in the room with the general. I was also down the hallway guarding the room. There were two of me patrolling the square’ and so on. It takes awhile to get used to this, but it becomes very natural.
The main thing people talk about when discussing this book is that there is no real gender differentiation. The Radch, the culture Breq served as an AI, refer to all persons as ‘she’. Again, this is confusing at first (especially for Breq, who cannot tell if she’s speaking to a man or a woman when she’s outside of Radch space and people care about these kinds of things) but you get used to it. This gendering is not done with any kind of social justice behind it. It is not something that the author uses as a message. It is an incredibly well-executed aspect of a culture she creates. I really, really enjoyed Ancillary Justice and plan to read the rest of the trilogy. It is fast-paced, well-written, and deserving of all the praise it has received.
That’s it for The Beginner’s Guide to Science Fiction: Part 2! Have you read any of these books? Do any grab your interest? Let me know if you’d like me to do more of these beginner’s guides – I really enjoyed putting them together!
I’m also thinking of pulling parts 1 and 2 into a video – what do you think? Let me know in the comments!