Friday, 5 April 2013

Some Things for the Weekend: Science Fiction for Beginners

I am arrogant enough to consider myself 'well-read', and as the daughter of a librarian I have always been able to turn to my Mum for an endless stream of book recommendations whenever I get bored with my own collection. I am also a serious fan of Star Trek and am the proud owner of my very own toy X-Wing and Star Wars Rebel Alliance tattoo. Despite this, I have never really forayed into Science Fiction until very recently, something I now know to be a tragedy, since a lot of it is bloody good. Like a lot of people, I'm sure, I considered SciFi to be something of a boys club, a genre heavy on the science and light on the gripping and interesting fiction. Since there was so much else to read, I never thought I was particularly missing out on anything. How wrong I was.

The first book to illustrate the depth of my ignorance, was Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Instead of taking the long metaphorical way round of describing two completely different cultural world views, Le Guin simply (although simply is the wrong word here) makes them live on completely different planets. Anarres and Urras are sister-planets, at first seeming to be inversions of each other, one socialist and Utopian, the other capitalist and Dystopian. The more you read, the more you realise that there's much more interesting social experiments at work than my feeble attempt at a summing up can illustrate, but what's most important to me is that this is a SciFi title that uses a different universe in order to enable a unique cultural and social investigation of human behaviour. In other words, SciFi writers have freedoms that authors dealing with our own reality do not. They have their own set of rules, but they are rules that are of their own making, and Le Guin uses hers to subtly and acutely critique our own society through its extrapolation in another universe.

After falling in love with Le Guin, I turned to my Dad for more suggestions (he offered the hefty works of Peter. F. Hamilton for anyone feeling braver than me) and I was immediately given the fabulous Dune by Frank Herbert and the soon to become a feature film Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (please do not let the questionable cover deter you). Both are pretty much coming of age novels, set in very disparate universes but with spectacular interplanetary warfare at the crux of each. Despite this heavy science and action-fueled edge, both are the stories of young boys trying to become men, and the cultural and paternal pressures that accompany these struggles. They are very different books, despite my jamming them into one paragraph, and though both fairly long, I flew through each with the happy knowledge that both have sequels.

Finally, I want to break lots of bookseller rules and talk about a book I haven't yet finished. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein has busted the final myth I had about SciFi. Heinlein is very, very funny. Funny in an "I laughed out loud on public transport" kind of way since the novel is as unexpected as it is hilarious. As I said, I haven't finished this one yet, and I will probably be quite sad when I do, but my journey into SciFi is far from over. If you enjoy this genre this will sound like I am trying to teach you to suck eggs, as these are not hidden gems of SciFi in the least (most having won either or both the Hugo and Nebula awards) but well celebrated favourites. However, if you haven't tried SciFi, I am urging you to. These are where I have started, and all of them are fantastic reads.


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