Nov 21, 2010
A List of Science Fiction Books for Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson has an ad agency (PJA) and also likes to read books. One day I asked him if he ever read science fiction and he said he didn’t. He asked me then to assemble a list of science fiction books I would recommend. I agreed to do so but thought, “Why should this list just sit in Phil’s inbox? Why don’t I, in fact, share it with the world via this worldwide, web-like platform I normally use for blogging about atheism, communism, and heavy metal?”
I’m no science fiction fanatic, and there’s probably a ton of great stuff out there that I’ve never even heard of (if you think so, PLEASE leave suggestions in the comments!), but this is the list I put together for Phil with the understanding that he has not even read some of the “classics”.
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – The book upon which Blade Runner was based, of course, though much more engaging, involved, and philosophical than the film. It also contains at least one passage that, I believe, induces a palpable experience of existential vertigo. Watch out!
- Spaceman Blues: A Love Story – Brian Francis Slattery’s relatively recent vignette hits you with a heady melange of beat prose, hard-boiled pacing, and an undying love of New York City. It also depicts the banal horror of alien conquest.
- Dune – Speaking of melange, I was surprised to learn that Phil had never read this. The epic weirdness of David Lynch’s movie version aside, this novel is a virtuosic display of world-crafting that functions as political allegory, alternative history, and mystic tome.
- Neuromancer – William Gibson is a reserved—at times almost austere—stylist with a keen eye for future probabilities and a good record collection. Oh, and he coined the term “cyberspace”. One of his most recent books, Pattern Recognition, was about marketing.
- Schismatrix – I read this right after I read Neuromancer and thought that it actually contained more interesting ideas about social evolution, humanoid psychology, and the polymorphy of culture. If you like hallucinogenic drugs and societies built around the practice of sewing, you’ll love this.
- The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Speaking of hallucinogens, Philip K. Dick’s novel about the extreme ennui experienced by space colonists, their flight into a world of Barbie dolls and pharmaceuticals, and the appearance of drug-peddling cyber-god works both as a parable of the 60s and a prophecy for the future.
- Radio Free Albemuth – This is the last Philip K. Dick novel I’m going to recommend but, in many ways, it is the best written (possibly because it was published posthumously and bears the trace of careful editing?). Dick had a religious experience in 1974 that obsessed him until his death. He wrote a lengthy exegesis of this experience and incorporated many of its details into his later novels (Valis, The Divine Invasion, Flow My Tears). It plays a central role in this novel as well but is handled in a more human, and less cartoony, way.
- The Deathworms of Kratos – This was Book 1 in a series called “The Expendables” (I also read The Rings of Tantalus). It is totally adolescent science fiction that made a big impression on me when I read it in seventh or eighth grade. The lesson here isn’t that this is a great book; the lesson is that, with science fiction, sometimes you just have to pick up a book because it has a cool cover or weird title and start reading (that is in fact what I did with Spaceman Blues above).
- The Alegebraist – This guy Iain Banks (or Iain M. Banks) is prolific and a very solid writer except that he sometimes gets too many plot threads cooking for his own good. This book definitely suffers from that but the weaknesses in plotting are more than made-up-for by the phantasmagoria of worlds, beings, and circumstances Banks conjures.
- A Deepness in the Sky – Vernor Vinge is the guy who invented “The Singularity” and he’s written a bunch of cool science fiction novels. Some may argue that this book’s predecessor, A Fire Upon the Deep, is better, but this creepy, slow-burning study of intergalactic colonialism, mind control, and revolt has stuck with me much longer.
I could recommend a bunch more, but that’s enough for now. Like I said, if you’re reading this and got something to add, go for it!
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Great post. I haven’t read some of these, so I think a trip to the Library is in order. I’d add Spider Robinson to the list…he’s a protege of Ben Bova and Robert Heinlen, but he’s the only great Hippie/Science Fiction writer I know.
He’s the real deal…I’d recommend the Lifehouse Trilogy as an introduction…it’s available as one complete volume or you could pick them up separately: Mindkiller, Time Pressure, Lifehouse.
As a frequent science fiction reader, I have to add a few to this list (which is fantastic, by the way):
Old Twentieth, by Joe Haldeman
In a post-apocalyptic society that has achieved medical immortality, the characters become fixated upon the twentieth century, and repeatedly use a simulation facility—kind of their version of the holodeck—to visit it, particularly times when death was central to the experience of the living. What fascinated me was how their “time machine” became a mirror in which these characters ultimately saw their true selves—struggling to find meaning in a new kind of existence, just as afraid of death as they were when aging hadn’t been conquered, and naively unaware of the mounting threat of artificial intelligence.
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
I first heard about this novel from an interview with the author on NPR about the idea of the novelist as God. I was so charmed by the author that I sought out the book right away. The core of this book–a story of a Jesuit mission to a newly discovered alien world–is a beautiful character study of a man who’s faith is challenged by unimaginable circumstances and is confronted with the reality of how our choices are interwoven with the grand scheme of the universe.
The Light of Other Days, by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter
The story centers around a man, who, with the less-than-voluntary help of his two sons, creates a technology that, though intended for a fairly innocent business communication application, actually allows people to see into the past. Nevermind the scientific explanation of how this all works- the point is the affect this technology has on society: the end of privacy. Seeing in time allows you to see into the past in any increment, whether to spy on your parents a decade ago or to spy on someone one second ago. Clarke portrays a very realistic and human reaction, which imagines some finding ways to live “cloaked” lives, while others dive headfirst (and sans clothing) into their newly public lives.
Never Let Me Go, By Kazuo Ishiguro
A slight genre change for Ishiguro–the author of The Remains of the Day–but a typically tragic story exploring the fates of English children raised at a mysterious and secluded prep-school that prepares them for their future…providing replacement organs for others.
Rollback, by Robert Sawyer
An octogenarian woman famed for interpreting the first extraterrestrial signal 40 years before is offered a controversial “rollback” procedure, which promises to return her to the physical state of a 20-year-old, in order to give her more time to continue the emerging long-running dialogue between worlds. The story explores the costs of radical life extension and the human experience of dying when her procedure fails yet her husband’s succeeds.
Phil, I hope you find something you like!
A few more or more-than-a-few-more scifi books worth considering:
1. Alistair Reynolds, Revelation Space + Chasm City
2. China Miéville, Perdido Street Station + The City and the City
3. Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas + Use of Weapons + Excession + Matter + Surface Detail
4. Greg Bear, Eon + The Way + Slant + City at the End of Time
5. Candas Jane Dorsey, Black Wine
6. Michael Swanwick, Stations of the Tide
7. Philip K. Dick, Ubik + Man in the High Castle
8. Larry Niven, Ringworld
9. Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy
10. Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness + The Dispossessed + The Telling
11. Charles Stross, Accelerando + Halting State
12. Cory Doctorow, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town
13. Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
14. Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon + Woken Furies + Thirteen
15. Stanislaw Lem, Solaris + Memoirs Found in a Bathtub
16. Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man
17. Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
Thanks for the comment and the recommendation, Jim. I’m quite intrigued. I love hippies who also happen to be spiders!
Cool list, Chris. Thanks for supplying it in detail! And since Phil said he didn’t “get” science fiction, I think your list highlights the degree to which the appeal of the genre is its ability to explore and portray an array of psychological states human, alien, and other.
HA! I was thinking when I wrote this, dlp. There’s a number of books on your list that I’ve been thinking about since publishing the post, especially Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide, LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and, oddly enough, Bester’s The Demolished Man (as well as The Stars My Destination).
It’s also interesting that no one has mentioned Samuel R. Delany, yet. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is weird and excellent (though I’ve never been able to penetrate Dhalgren).