I’ve noticed something over the last few years, talking with readers in person and online: in YA, people tend to use ‘dystopia’ as a general label for all science fiction. Not everybody does this, of course, but a big enough chunk of the audience that it stood out to me. This makes a lot of sense, when you think about it, because the average YA reader had never really read any science fiction before UGLIES and THE HUNGER GAMES came out and took over a market previously dominated by fantasy. I wrote a guest post for The Sci-Fi Chick, presenting a very brief history of dystopia, and explaining how I think the Partials Sequence fits (and doesn’t fit) into it, but today I want to do more. If you’re a YA reader who loves dystopian books and, through them, has become a science fiction fan, awesome! Science fiction has one of the greatest books around, and you’re in for a treat. Here are some of my favorites, to help you step out into the wider world of science fiction.
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
We’ll start with a YA book to help ease you into it. I assume you’ve already heard of Ender’s Game, even if only for the movie; this is one of the best science fiction books of all time, and I would argue one of the best ANY books of all time. A super-genius six year old is forced into space combat training, horribly manipulated by everyone around him, and tries to figure out who he wants to be and how to define his own morality. It’s a book that celebrates intelligence, and approaches kids on their own level, and I’ve read it three times and loved it more with each one.
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Another one to help ease you in to the wider genre, this is a straight-up dystopian novel about a world where books are outlawed, and the government floods the people with a constant stream of television and other media to keep them stupid and complacent. Ray Bradbury is one of our greatest SF writers, and if you love books and/or dystopias–and if you’re reading this I assume you love both–you owe it to yourself to read Fahrenheit 451.
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
Now we’re getting into some non-YA, non-dystopia (by most definitions) novels. If you only know Starship Troopers from the movie, forget it; the book is completely different in almost every way imaginable, aside from the names of some of the characters. The starting point is similar to Ender’s Game (bug-like aliens have attacked Earth, and now we’re training soldiers to go out and fight them), but from there it diverges into a completely different story, chronicling not a command school but an infantry boot camp. It’s partly a war story, and partly a philosophical exploration of what war is for, and why we fight, and why even an enlightened society might never be able to stop no matter how much we want to.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
This is the first of a five-book trilogy (that’s not a typo), and that description alone should give you a sense of the completely silly, ridiculous, hilarious nature of the series. A man named Arthur Dent discovers that his best friend is an alien, who helps him escape the planet Earth right before it gets blown up to make way for a hyperspace bypass. It’s funny, sometimes side-splittingly funny, but it’s also brilliant and inventive and surprisingly poignant in places, exploring everything from loneliness to friendship to the meaning of life (and the universe, and everything).
Dune, by Frank Herbert
This is my favorite book ever. It’s kind of science fiction, and kind of space fantasy, and kind of a political espionage story, and kind of a masterclass in theoretical ecology. The desert planet Arrakis is the source of the most valuable substance in the galaxy: a drug called Spice, that lets users see the future. Harvesting it becomes a deadly game of politics, religion, and warfare, and I love EVERY SINGLE DROP of this book. One of the early scenes is a dinner party where nobody trusts each other, and the conversation they have is as thrilling as any fight scene you’ve ever read, and it only gets better from there.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
A group of Catholic monks, deep in a desert, dedicate their lives to finding and preserving the last surviving fragments of an ancient civilization: ours, hundreds of years after we destroyed ourselves in a nuclear war. This book is told in three different sections, spanning almost a thousand years, as the post-apocalyptic survivors slowly rebuild a world, discover our lost secrets, and try to avoid falling into the same tragic pattern that killed us the firts time around.
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
This book hit the bookstores like a cannonball, changing everything people thought science fiction was or could be, and has probably influenced more of the modern genre and society at large than anything else on this list. A hacker-for-hire is paid to break into a secured file and find the identity of a mysterious figure, in a journey that takes him around the world and into orbit and back again, uncovering one world-changing secret after another. This book was so far ahead of it’s time that it still feels prescient, even thirty years later, and the writing itself is poetic and beautiful.
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
The main character is named Hiro Protagonist, a samurai hacker who delivers pizza for the mob, and if that doesn’t make you desperate to read this book I don’t know what will. It’s a mind-blowing cyberpunk where governments have disappeared and private corporations rule the world, and an archeologist has discovered a language so ancient and powerful it can actually be used to infect a human brain like a computer virus. Trust me, you’ll love it.
The Mirage, by Matt Ruff
This the most recent book on my list, just a year or two old, about a parallel reality just like our own, but with one thing flipped: Iraq is the world superpower, and the USA is a squabbling collection of religious extremists. The prologue begins with Christian terrorists crashing airplanes into the World Trade Center in Baghdad, and just in case that wasn’t already fascinating enough, a few chapters later the Homeland Security agents investigating this find a copy of a newspaper from our world, explaining it as a Muslim attack on Manhattan. I’ve rarely ever read a book this audacious, starting with that basic premise and following the rabbit as deep as it goes.
Flatland, by Edwin Abbott
In contrast, this is the old est book on my list, written by a schoolmaster in 1884. It’s both a science fiction story and a mathematical thought experiment, telling the story of a two-dimensional person who slowly becomes aware of other dimensions, and what their existence means for him. This book made me think about the world beyond what I can perceive in a way I never had before, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s incredibly short, practically a novelette, and you can probably read it an afternoon.
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick is one of the greatest of all SF writers, and while some of his other novels are more famous (his most famous is almost certainly Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which the movie Blade Runner was based), this one is by far my favorite. A narcotics officer goes undercover to investigate a drug called Substance D, with effects that mimic schizophrenia, and over time realizes that the drug has broken his mind in half, and he is in fact investigating himself as both officer and dealer. It’s not only a great SF story, it’s an incredibly personal look at the author’s own experiences with drug addiction and mental illness, and presents those kinds of mind-altering effects from an insider’s perspective I’ve never seen anywhere else.
The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
Think of this as a single story split into two books: Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. Together they’re kind of like a far-future SF version of the Canterbury Tales, with a group of pilgrims visiting a mysterious planet and, each in turn, telling their own stories of why they’ve come and what they hope to learn. My favorite of the flashbacks comes in the second book, but all of them are wonderful, and together they add up to an epic story of humanity’s past and future and potential for greatness.
Contact, by Carl Sagan
Most people know this one from the movie, starring Jodie Foster as a SETI scientist who discovers a real message from aliens. The book does a lot of great things, including it’s incredibly plausible description of how our society might actually react to a message from outer space, but that’s only a part of it. The core of the story, the thing that makes me love it, is the way it presents the search for extra-terrestrial life as a parallel to religion and an expression of personal faith: we know that something’s out there, something bigger and greater than ourselves, that might help us to understand our world and our life better. This is the most spiritual look at science I have ever read, and I love it.
These are some of my favorites, and only a very small sampling of the amazing science fiction literature just waiting for you to discover it. What about you: what are favorites?