The season is winding down, but there’s still time to get some summer reading in. If science fiction is your genre of choice Check out book critic Jason Sheehan’s list of revolutionary sci-fi reads.
Let me tell you about the most revolutionary science fiction book I’ve ever read.
It was a few years ago. 2018. And I didn’t think much about it when I shoved it in my bag and headed out the door. It was a slight thing with a weird title by an author just debuting on the adult lists and, to me, it was just the thing I was reading on a weekday when I had nothing else more pressing that I had to do.
I remember opening the book, folding back the cover, reading the first lines —
The machine said the man should eat tangerines. It listed two other recommendations as well, so three in total. A modest number, Pearl assured the man as she read out the list that had appeared on the screen before her: one, he should eat tangerines on a regular basis; two, he should work at a desk that received morning light; three, he should amputate the uppermost section of his right index finger.
And after that? I was gone. Those lines, in their perfect blandness, weird specificity and WTF kick of the whole finger thing, dropped me like a sucker punch. How do you not keep reading? How do you not need to know who and, like, how and, for god’s sake, why after something like that.
I lost most of a day to Katie Williams’s Tell The Machine Goodnight. I read it straight through, and when I was done, I read the whole thing again — taking my time, dipping in and out, lingering in one of the most remarkably mundane, beautifully believable, heartbreakingly true pieces of science fiction I’d read in longer than I can recall. I wrote a review of it for NPR that, I think, was remarkably unsuccessful at detailing just how thoroughly this book had blown my mind.
The reason Tell The Machine hit me so hard — the reason it settled into my brain like a virus and never really left; the reason I count it as one of the most revolutionary genre reads of the past decade, at least — is because it answered a question I’ve been asking about science fiction for as long as I’ve been reading science fiction: Why can’t it be more normal?
You see a thousand literary novels about siblings coming back home for a funeral after many years away. You see a thousand about marriages failing and the carnage that ensues. You see generational stories about families in crisis, about growing up, about growing old. I have always wondered why science fiction can’t do the same. Why can’t it handle its humans with the same care and weight of detail that it does its warp drives and time machines?
Williams says, It can, dummy. Just watch.
Tell The Machine is, more than anything, about people. There are no robots, no rockets, no car chases or space wars. The stakes are small (a job, a marriage, an eating disorder), the action is quiet. It is devastating, joyous, hopeful and sad, all on a purely human level. It takes the essential question of all science fiction (what if …) and extends it no further than a single piece of technology: What if there were a machine that can tell you, with 100% accuracy, what will make you happy? Everything else is just people.
And that is a revolution. That is rebellious in the same way that Neuromancer was rebellious when it said The future can be now or when The Handmaid’s Tale said The future can be yesterday or when Dhalgren said The future can be a place, and also more f*****d up than you can possibly imagine.
Of all the genres out there, science fiction is the one that’s supposed to cause trouble. It’s built to ask uncomfortable questions and burn stuff down. It is as much the kid in the back of the classroom sketching rocket ships in the pages of his history book as it is the other kid out in the parking lot slashing the tires of all the teachers’ cars.
And over the past decade, both of those kids have been having their say. Williams changed the game for me with Tell The Machine, showing me that something I thought was maybe impossible was really just a matter of putting words on paper. And she’s certainly not alone. Want to know who else is out there causing trouble and changing science fiction for the better?
Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
You wanna talk about a serious revolution in science fiction. Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was a highly public (and highly successful) pantsing of the genre establishment when it was released in 1979 — a giant foam middle finger given to the wheezing ghosts of the Golden Age and all the space heroes that came after.
Cat Valente’s Space Opera? Same kind of energy. With the shelves packed with grimdark dytopias, Valente gave us Decibel Jones — the omnisexual, gender-fluid, washed-up former Brit-pop glam rocker chosen (along with bandmate Oort St. Ultraviolet) to compete in a kind of pan-galactic Eurovision Song Contest that will determine the fate of the Earth. The book was (and is) completely bonkers, full of long, ridiculous digressions on galactic history, flora and fauna (not unlike HGTTG, actually). “It’s all big ideas written in glitter,” I said about it in its moment. There are wormholes, murderhippos, big gargly space monsters, love, sex, tears. It is deeply weird and funny as hell and exists as a reminder that science fiction, heavy as it can sometimes get, can also be strange and funny and not at all serious and still get the job done.
The Wayfarers series, Becky Chambers
There’s nothing like living in an actual dystopia to make you lose your taste for the fictional ones, right?
For decades, science fiction has been obsessed with the myriad ways we humans were going to eff-up the planet. And while I do love a lot of these stories (like, a lot of them), any well that’s been gone back to with the frequency that science fiction writers have visited that one is bound to run dry eventually.
Enter Becky Chambers, super nerd. She looked at the gray, ashen, poisoned literary landscape laid out before her and said, Okay, how about the future, but happy?
How about the future, but competent?
How about the future, but … good?
In her Wayfarers series (initially self-published, later picked up by a major publisher, just to add an extra revolutionary kicker to the model), she presented a vision of a multi-species universe, working collectively for the common good. She gave us experts using their knowledge for the betterment of all. She gave us spaceships, robots, adventures but (like Katie Williams) a focus on characters and their personal struggles.
Chambers writes what could be called “Arguably Utopian Fiction” — a universe of characters striving toward good, though not always succeeding; where the best minds and the best intentions are bent toward common goals and sometimes fall incredibly short. They are largely light on plot, heavy on character, thoughtful, close and contemplative — all of which is such a radical departure from the common run of science fiction that came before that it stands as an almost singular expression of the form.
Tales From The Loop by Simon Stalenhag
Stalenhag is beloved for his art — largely for his endless visions of an alternate 1980’s Sweden full of robots, dinosaurs and unusual things happening around an imaginary particle accelerator/science lab/wormhole generator called The Loop.
Me? I love him for his words. The art is cool, no doubt. But the reason I keep three of his books on my desk at all times is because no other writer working (except maybe Michael Poore in Reincarnation Blues) is better at telling huge stories in small spaces than Stalenhag.
Tales From The Loop world builds visually, but it comes alive for me in the small vignettes written into the margins. For example:
It stood under the oak tree in the yard — an oily, sad little tin can thing, its head partially entangled in some sort of canvas cover. It had discovered me and stood perfectly still, its head fixed in my direction. As I approached, it rocked nervously to and fro where it stood. It flinched, rustling its wiring, each time the snow crunched underneath my boots. Soon I was close, so close I could reach the cover hanging from one of its lenses. I leaned forward, managed to get hold of the canvas, and yanked it off. The optics underneath it quickly focused. It was marked FOA on the side, which meant this was an escapee from Munso. Then our front door rattled, and with three quick bounds the robot was gone. The door opened and there, on the steps, stood my father.
And that’s it. 143 words. A complete story, beautiful and haunting. And Stalenhag does this over and over and over again, on nearly every page. His work is both grounded and fantastical, perfectly suited to our modern tastes of ideas served in appetizer-sized portions. What’s more, Loop (published in 2015, funded entirely through a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign) upended things both by proving the viability of crowd-funding in the increasingly siloed world of traditional publishing and presaged the boom we’re now seeing in genre flash and micro fiction.
“The Ones Who Stay And Fight” by N.K. Jemisin, from How Long ‘Til Black Future Month
N.K. Jemisin deserves to be on the list for a number of reasons, but her short story, “The Ones Who Stay And Fight,” speaks to a very specific kind of revolt that’s important to call out.
The story is a direct and confrontational refutation of the classic 1973 Ursula K. Le Guin story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” In Omelas, Le Guin was playing a philosophical game. She presented a perfect utopia where everyone was comfortable, happy and at peace all the time. The catch? All this goodness depended on the systematic imprisonment and misery of a single child. Most citizens of Omelas, when the truth is revealed to them, are horrified, but stay. A few of them walk away. Jemisin, in pointed conversation with the original, turns the entire system on its head, setting up a game with the same stakes, but then giving the central child of the story agency and engagement with the community born of suffering.
Neither story is comforting. Neither leaves you feeling good after reading. Both raise enormous internal questions. But within the framing of this list, it’s Jemisin’s very act of engaging directly with a genre classic and remaking it for the current age that is revolutionary. If literature is a conversation held across time, then Jemisin’s turn at the mic is revelatory. And for all of those out there who’d like to see the privileged white libertarianism knocked out of Heinlein or the stain of active racism scrubbed from the Cthulu mythos, Jemisin’s story was a harbinger of how it might be done.
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
There is a moment near the start of Watkins’s looping, bizarre, almost hallucinatory tale of too-near-future California that has hung with me ever since the first time I read it. Just a couple lines that laid down the basics of every end-of-the-world climate nightmare I would ever have. These are them:
For now, enough money could get you fresh produce and meat and dairy, even if what they called cheese was Day-Glo and came in a jar, and the fish was mostly poisoned and reeking, the beef gray, the apples blighted even in what used to be apple season, pears grimy even when you paid extra for Bartletts from Amish orchards. Hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust. Flaccid carrots, ashen spinach, cracked olives, bruised hundred-dollar mangos, all-pith oranges, shriveled lemons, boozy tangerines, raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts, an avocado whose crumbling taupe innards once made you weep.
Writing dystopian climate fiction hardly feels like a revolutionary act now. Not today, when it’s all essentially just the history of tomorrow. But when you can get at the aching sadness of it, the unbelievable boredom, the futility, the soft, dry, bloodless horror and weariness and strangeness all at once? That’s something special. That’s something real.
And that’s what Watkins did. Horribly, she didn’t make me want to save the world. She made me feel like it was already too late to do anything but wait for the end.
Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism And Beyond, edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall
A long, long time ago — back in another age when genre fiction needed a good shake and some slapping around — Harlan Ellison assembled an anthology called Dangerous Visions. Its table of contents is littered with a who’s-who of the time, big-name speculative scribblers and a handful of up-and-comers who all came together to write original stories designed to take sharp pokes and wild swings at a genre that’d become stale, predictable and dull. In itself, it was maybe not as entirely swaggering and rogueish as it wanted to claim, but for its time? Reasonably dangerous. And that danger compounded when it was found (and read, and re-read) by the young writers who’d make up the vanguard of the New Wave of the 70’s and 80’s. They learned from its example that there was value in taking chances. That sometimes just having your voice heard was enough.
Over the past decade, one of the most ground-breaking (and vastly overdue) revolutions in science fiction is the inclusion of new voices. Particularly those coming from BIPOC writers. And way back in 2013, editors Bill Campbell and Edward Hall put together the Mothership anthology which, today, serves the same purpose Dangerous Visions did way back in 1967.
It stands as both an accounting of most of the major voices in speculative fiction from around the world, an introduction to some of those who were less known eight years ago, AND as a wicked primer on Afrofuturism. It’s got Rabih Alameddine writing about sex and death, witches, 9/11 and boyhood in Beirut; Victor LaValle in modern Iceland with murderous trolls; Carmen Maria Machado getting weird like Animal Farm with downloadable food and hybrid animals while Daniel Jose Older plays cops-and-ghosts and Junot Diaz talks about an epidemic disease coming out of Haiti and the Dominican Republic that, today, seems eerily prescient. Tobias Buckell writes about ghosts. N.K. Jemisin tells a love story about fractured time, alternate realities and email. Ernest Hogan puts Yakuza on the moon.
If the biggest revolution of the past 10 years has been an attempt (not yet successful) at making the stories in front of you look more like the world they are reflecting, then Mothership could be like a table of contents for the future of science fiction. It isn’t complete. It isn’t even all sci-fi. But it’s a start.
And every revolution has to start somewhere.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Star Blazers. He’s the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. ‘Tales From the Radiation Age’ is his latest book.