If you’re looking for a good mix of classic and contemporary science fiction to help take advantage of our All Hallow’s Read discount, look no further. These five books are an excellent starting point down the wormhole of some excellent sci-fi.
Foundation (Foundation #1) – Isaac Asimov
For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future — to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire — both scientists and scholars — and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for a future generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation.
But soon the fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. Mankind’s last best hope is faced with an agonizing choice: submit to the barbarians and be overrun — or fight them and be destroyed.
American War – Omar El Akkad
Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, that unmanned drones fill the sky. And when her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she quickly begins to be shaped by her particular time and place until, finally, through the influence of a mysterious functionary, she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. Telling her story is her nephew, Benjamin Chestnut, born during war – part of the Miraculous Generation – now an old man confronting the dark secret of his past, his family’s role in the conflict and, in particular, that of his aunt, a woman who saved his life while destroying untold others.
The Machine – James Smythe
Beth lives alone on a desolate housing estate near the sea. She came here to rebuild her life following her husband’s return from the war. His memories haunted him but a machine promised salvation. It could record memories, preserving a life that existed before the nightmares.
Now the machines are gone. The government declared them too controversial, the side-effects too harmful. But within Beth’s flat is an ever-whirring black box. She knows that memories can be put back, that she can rebuild her husband piece by piece.
Monday Starts on Saturday – Arkadi Strugatski, Boris Strugatski
Sasha, a young computer programmer from Leningrad, is driving north to meet some friends for a nature vacation. He picks up a couple of hitchhikers, who persuade him to take a job at the National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy.The adventures Sasha has in the largely dysfunctional institute involve all sorts of magical beings–a wish-granting fish, a tree mermaid, a cat who can remember only the beginnings of stories, a dream-interpreting sofa, a motorcycle that can zoom into the imagined future, a lazy dog-sized mosquito–along with a variety of wizards (including Merlin), vampires, and officers.First published in Russia in 1965, Monday Starts on Saturday has become the most popular Strugatsky novel in their homeland. Like the works of Gogol and Kafka, it tackles the nature of institutions–here focusing on one devoted to discovering and perfecting human happiness. By turns wildly imaginative, hilarious, and disturbing, Monday Starts on Saturday is a comic masterpiece by two of the world’s greatest science-fiction writers.
Kindred – Octavia Butler
The first science fiction written by a black woman, Kindred has become a cornerstone of black American literature. This combination of slave memoir, fantasy, and historical fiction is a novel of rich literary complexity. Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life. During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she’s been given: to protect this young slaveholder until he can father her own great-grandmother.
A despotic flying bear ruling over the decrepit remains of a city. A shape-shifting creature of unknown origin that can have multiple eyes; flatten itself along walls and picks up ideas and language like a toddler growing up in a hyper fast time lapse. Added to the mix is a scavenger named Rachel who ventures out into the city to bring back scraps of food and biotech to her lover and survival partner Wick to create material that can help fortify and hide their home, the Balcony Cliffs, from all around them. Their enemies include the flying bear Mord, the forces of the mysterious Magician who controls parts of the city, and other scavengers. To say that the city is unforgiving and difficult to live in would be an understatement. Rachel and Wick live in a constant state of alert and with good reason; one wrong move and any one of their enemies could attack.
Mord is the creation of The Company, a sprawling business that created new species and creatures out of biotech and released them into the city to see how they would fare. Mord was The Company’s biggest project, and its biggest failure. As it lost control over the giant bear after granting it the power of flight, The Company fell into disarray and its employees scattered or eventually became Mord’s lunch. Wick was one such former employee but refuses to share what he did at The Company with Rachel, straining their relationship as she occasionally snoops in his room for answers.
Against this backdrop of uneasy alliances, constant threats, and secrets, enters the titular character: Borne. Rachel originally finds Borne “clinging to Mord’s fur like a half-closed sea anemone” emitting a smell of a wave, the brine in the air causing her to think that were no “mutilated, burned bodies dangling from broken streetlamps” around her. Intrigued by the find she brings it home and refuses to let Wick break it down into parts that he could use to build more biotech. Borne quickly becomes more than salvage to Rachel; establishing himself as a creature of untold intelligence and possibility. When he reveals he can talk Rachel takes it upon herself to teach him as much as she knows, kicking off a strange mother-creature relationship that becomes the book’s main focal point. As she becomes increasingly attached to Borne, her relationship with Wick, who looks upon the new member of their family with suspicion, grows strained as they continue to work together to make Balcony Cliffs safe from the outside world.
After having devoured VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy where Annihilation lured me into the mystery of Area X, I was expecting a similar sort of dense narrative to wade through. Where the Southern Reach explored the relationship between the natural world and humans, an alien form of nature establishing a pristine unlived area where a coastal town once used to be, Borne grounds itself in its gritty urban setting where nature has been altered and mutilated by humanity’s unthinking and unabashed tinkering with it. Despite the terrible conditions the characters find themselves in, Borne is ultimately a book about triumphing over one’s own demons, what it means to be a family, and hope.
Borne, amorphous and inquisitive, endears himself to the reader with his child-like behaviour and constant questioning. Borne is, for a lack of a better term, a new born, and his views on the city breathe fresh life into Rachel’s stale and bleak outlook. In a memorable moment she takes Borne to the balcony of their home and shows him the city with its crumbling buildings and polluted river below. Gazing at the river Borne declares it “beautiful” and Rachel begins looking at it from a new perspective. As Rachel’s bond with Borne deepens, her desire to protect him from the horrors of the world clash with reality as the impossibility of that desire is constantly reinforced by attacks from feral Mord proxies and genetically altered children.
Featured on many summer reading lists by publications such as The Washington Post and receiving rave reviews from The New York Times and The Guardian, Borne is a testament to VanderMeer’s inventiveness and above all his ability to write realistic scenes of human interaction (even if that interaction is with a sentient glob) making it an incredibly emotional and evocative narrative, establishing VanderMeer as an expert in world building and writing.
In Borne there will be a final battle, secrets about The Company will be revealed and more importantly, secrets about Rachel’s own life, making it ideal summer reading; a fantastic adventure story that is incredibly inventive and incredibly human in its outlook.
I had seen the prose version of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred on our shelves for quite a while now and it had slowly turned into one of the “I’ll get to it later” books (you can imagine just about how many books I have on that list). Well in the time it took me to not read the prose version, Damian Duffy and John Jennings came out with the graphic novel adaptation which I devoured over two afternoons.
The story follows Dana, an intelligent and brave black woman, and her husband Kevin (who is white). Dana and Kevin live in 1976 and are just moving into their new apartment when Dana is struck by a sudden and intense bout of dizziness. When the feeling subsides, she finds herself rescuing a little red-haired boy named Rufus from drowning. It is the early 1800s and Rufus is the white son of the slave owner Tom Weylin. Later Dana will be called every time Rufus finds himself in life threatening danger (which is quite often). What translates as several months or even years in the past ranges from a few minutes to a few weeks in 1976, adding to Dana’s increasingly paranoid state as she does not know when she will vanish. Dana finds out that Rufus Weylin is an ancestor of hers who had children with a slave named Alice, also one of Dana’s ancestors. As such, Dana is determined to make sure that no permanent harm comes to Rufus and that her existence in the past does not jeopardize her family tree. As Rufus grows older, Dana must contend with the fact that he is a slave owner’s son and that no matter how hard she tries; there are some things she just can’t change about history.
The duo behind this graphic novel is Damian Duffy, the adaptor, and John Jennings, the artist. Both Duffy and Jennings have long worked to promote the work of black artists and as Duffy explains in the blog posts on his website, Kindred is a project that has excited both of them for several years (he’s done an entire set of blog posts on the entire project and they make for a fascinating read at http://damianduffy.net/blog/).
Jennings’s art is rough and kinetic, each panel and figure reflecting the danger and uncertainty of the time while making the emotions of each character almost palpable in their depiction and simultaneously making sure they don’t lose their humanity. I imagine paragraphs in the prose version that may be spent developing Rufus’s character and his moral ambiguity are represented here in uncertain facial expressions and dialogues that convey Rufus and Dana’s hesitance around each other as they both are drawn to being friends while also being kept separate by the inescapable circumstances of pre-Civil War Maryland. Duffy and Jennings’s respect for their source material is evident as Kindred feels like a commendable standalone work, it does not require any prior knowledge of the novel making it justifiably a New York Times bestseller.
Butler’s original novel has had quite an impact on fans of science fiction, people of colour, and those who identify as both, as evidenced by Nnedi Okorafor’s introduction which helps us place the original text in terms of its importance. It gave black people a voice in a genre where they were unused to seeing themselves or their stories and allowed others to dream that they too could write like this while also highlighting a dark period in American history. That the story is sad and the ending inevitable goes without saying, it is impossible to imagine Dana escaping the past unscathed. However, this invitation to revisit the horrors of slavery and the terrible acts humans inflicted on each other is unfortunately as pertinent an issue today in Pakistan as it is in America and this graphic novel thus becomes one we must all pay attention to, regardless of where we find ourselves placed in the world.