10 Novels Every Sci-Fi Fan Should Read

A little while ago, EpicStream published its list of 10 Novels Every Sci-Fi Fan Should Read. It’s in a listicle format, so I’ll reproduce it here:

#10: Dune by Frank Herbert
#9: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
#8: Contact by Carl Sagan
#7: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clark
#6: The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
#5: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
#4: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
#3: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
#2: 1984 by George Orwell
#1: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

This list has the benefit of being entirely composed of books I’ve read, but notice anything strange about it?

Yeah…

Aside from the obvious problem that 1984 barely qualifies as science fiction, this list doesn’t even include Ursula LeGuin or Octavia Butler – who are the usual go-to “diversity” entries for lists written by people who don’t read diversely.

So I thought I’d come up with an alternate list. So here are my 10 Novels Every Sci-Fi Fan Should Read, in no particular order:

  • A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski
  • A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
  • Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
  • Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh

With honourable mentions:

  • Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
  • Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

These days, there simply is no excuse to come up with such a ridiculously narrow list. Novels from people of all sorts of different backgrounds and perspectives are more accessible than ever, and a great many of them are good. We don’t need to be reading the same stuffy handful with the okay writing style and the few thought-provoking ideas, because we are living in a buyer’s market. We can demand excellence, we can demand creativity, and we can demand different.

And little makes me quite so angry as a list, written in this scifi golden age, that trots out the same old slogs all over again. Particularly when the newest blood it sees fit to include is Ready Player One, of all books!

Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Captain Phasma by Kelly Thompson, illustrated by Marco Checchetto

Read: 4 January, 2018

I don’t have a great track record with tie-in comics. I didn’t much like the Mass Effect one I read, and I really didn’t like the last Star Wars one. But this one was on sale for almost the exact amount I needed to get free shipping on an order, so I went for it…

And I actually liked it!

Like with most graphic novels, I was a little disappointed by how fast everything flew by. I wanted a little more time with the characters, more inner dialogue to help me get to know them better, but I think that’s just because novels are my home medium.

And yet, with the space Thompson had, she did a fantastic job of giving me a better sense of Phasma as a character. Phasma, who has been notoriously short-changed in the movies, deserves her own story, and this is a good start. Even better, there are scattered hints of more that have me excited to read the Phasma novel by Delilah Dawson and find out more.*

*Although the artistic choices in what appear to be a flashback have me a bit confused. The figures we see are all dark haired. And while we never see Phasma herself without her mask, the actor Gwendoline Christie is fair haired.

The story itself was a good one, and I loved that Phasma was amoral, rather than evil. She’s here to survive, and survive she will – no matter what. There was nuance there that we don’t often get to see in “dark protagonists” of any gender, but especially women.

Vorkosigan Saga #8: Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 2 January, 2018

The Cetagandans have lurked in the shadows of this series since the beginning, but – other than a brief glimpse in Warrior’s Apprentice – this is the first time we’ve gotten to meet any of them.

The stakes don’t feel quite as high in this book, for some reason, but the worldbuilding is incredible. It reminded me a bit of A Door Into Ocean and Dune, in the sense that women are in charge of bio-engineering. And, in all three books, it’s through the monopoly of bio-engineering that these women secure their power/freedom.

I liked the way the female and male spheres were separated, yet also intertwined and interdependent – mirrored by the relationship between the haut and the ghem classes.

Mostly, though, I liked that all of this was just a glimpse. Miles is permitted a peek at the inner lives of the haut, but no more than that. I can’t wait to see both how Miles’s actions in this book will affect the Cetagandans of the future, as well as how his experiences with them will affect his own responses to their future conflicts.

I love seeing how much Miles seems to be maturing as the series progresses. He seems more self-aware now, with a greater understanding of why he does the things he does (like keep problems secret from his superiors until he can solve them himself).

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Vorkosigan Saga #7: The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 21 December, 2017

Miles is at it again!

Freshly graduated from the academy, Miles’s first posting is in an isolated polar base where they send people they’d rather just forget about

This book reminded me somewhat of Shards of Honor, at least in its structure. Both books can be divided neatly into two – each portion having its own separate plot, its own resolutions, its own setting. But, at the same time, the events of the first come back to become integral to the events of the second. So in both books, we get two distinct novellas that complement each other. In this case, we get Miles at the polar base, and then Miles in space and far, far away from home.

Warrior’s Apprentice came with something of a wakeup call. It’s all fun and games as Miles gallivants around the universe having adventures, until responsibility starts hitting him in waves – first the danger to himself, then the danger to his friends and crew, and then the danger to the entire political system of Barrayar.

In The Vor Game, we get a somewhat wiser, more jaded Miles. He’s not much older, but he has a better understanding of his responsibilities, and of how badly his actions can harm others. Even better, we get to watch, from his perspective, as the Emperor Gregor goes through the same lesson.

It’s this negotiation of danger (especially as the spheres of danger come into conflict with each other) that makes this book so interesting.

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A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

Read: 4 December, 2017

I picked this book up after Lois McMaster Bujold mentioned it in Dreamweaver’s Dilemma. I can’t recall the context, but the mention was favourable, so I thought I’d give it a try.

The book’s synopsis feels a tad heavy handed – a planet of women must fend off encroachment from a patriarchal culture. And, yet, the feminist aspects almost seem to take a back seat to the pacifism. I found the characters were quite varied – the staunchest pacifists have their doubts, the Sharers have individuals who want to fight back, the aggressors doubt the ethics of their mission, etc. The book doesn’t have any simple answers, both between the two dominant sides and within each camp.

The first 2/3rds of the book is a little slow, as Slonczewski builds her picture of the characters and locations. Despite the pacing, the discovery of Shora (largely centred on the planet’s ecology) did keep me from getting bored.

Then it picked up. It so picked up. For the last third, I couldn’t put the book down. And then it ended, very suddenly. It was a bit disappointing, though I’m not really sure how a book tackling such huge impossibilities could have ended satisfyingly.

There are aspects of the book that reminded me quite a bit of Dune. There’s the quasi-feudal space culture, there’s the society of women with a keen interest in genetics, and there’s even an emperor-type figure who has ruled many planets for hundreds (thousands?) of years. But perhaps the biggest similarity is the way that the book tackles Big Questions without providing easy answers.

Despite being very much a product of ’80s feminism, A Door Into Ocean doesn’t feel too dated. And though some of it does feel clunky by today’s standards, there’s more than enough going on to make this a valuable addition to the science fiction canon.

Vorkosigan Saga #5: The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 20 October, 2017

I’ve seen Miles before (not counting his time as a fetus and small child in Barrayar) in “The Mountains of Mourning”. As a short story set in a very fleshed-out universe, “Mountains” didn’t give me too much to go on about Miles, except for his odd relationship to his people – as a mutant, as a half-foreigner, as a lord…

Apprentice didn’t give me too much more to go on in understanding his relationships with his family members (Aral gets about as much page time here as he did in “Mountains”), but I did get to see a lot more of Miles himself. Much of the book is spent off-world, which was an interesting contrast to “Mountains” as it gave me a glimpse into how Miles is Barrayaran, as opposed to how he is not.

A big focus of the story is on his relationship with Bothari. In fact, Bothari’s been fairly central to all three of the books I’ve read so far, with Escobar as the linchpin to many of the central events in all three. Miles’s relationship with Bothari is, of course, very different from Aral’s or Cordelia’s, and that added an interesting dynamic.

Mostly, though, this book is funny. Bujold is great at this deadpan absurdism – in this case as Miles accidentally builds an army. Throughout the first 2/3rds of the book, Miles just goes from situation to situation, snowballing his successes well beyond what he’s able to handle. It’s like the Chosen One trope, but self-aware.

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Vorkosigan Saga #4: Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 12 October, 2017

Shards of Honour gave us the Cordelia and Aral’s ‘meet cute’, and now Barrayar gives us Miles’s origin story. But, of course, there’s so much more.

I loved this book. Cordelia and Aral mesh together so much better than they did in Shards, even though they spend so little time together. I loved Cordelia’s commitment to her son, in a society where he is seen as disposable at best. I loved the description of childbirth, which is hands down the most relatable labour scene I’ve ever read (and that includes descriptions in childbirthing non-fiction books). And I loved the ending, which resonated with Shards in an almost comical way.

The only weakness that I could see was Droushnakovi and Koudelka’s relationship – and then not for any literary reason. I just found Koudelka, who started off sympathetic, to be utterly aggravating.

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Vorkosigan Saga #3: Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 4 October, 2017

This is my first full-length Vorkosigan novel (Falling Free not counting as there are no character cross-overs, as far as I can tell), and it’s exactly what I was expecting: Great.

There’s an odd flippancy to Bujold’s characters. They don’t have that lofty, quasi-archaic, a little too serious speech that genre fiction characters have. Nor do they have the immature, overly casual speech that the other major portion of genre fiction characters have. Instead, they hit the sweet spot – sounding like the middle aged veterans that they are, but also capable of being casual when appropriate.

Having accidentally peeked ahead with “Mountains of Mourning”, it was interesting to return to some of the events and characters that had been alluded to – namely, Aral’s regency. I also got a very difference sense of Aral and Cordelia, who I had pictured as more the Leto and Jessica types. But while he is very stoic and she is incredibly clever, their tone and bond is much different from Herbert’s characters.

I go back and forth on how I feel about the speedy romance. On the one hand, I think we get far too much of that kind of romantic love in our media (even if it’s the kind I most identify with). On the other hand, it works for these characters. It’s clear what they are attracted to in each other, rather than simply being slaves to the author’s machinations.

The last thing I want to touch on is something I’ve noticed in Bujold’s other works – the care she takes with the reality of Big Events. The war for Escobar doesn’t just end when the action ends. Instead, the final scene of the book is given to a corpse recovery and identification team, combing over the wreckage of a ship and trying to construct a narrative for each of the people they find. It’s short, but it’s a loving tribute to the realities of the sorts of big conflicts with which we are so often entertained. It’s a fitting end, and a good way to ground a story that could have lent itself to misinterpretation.

I’m absolutely in love with this author, and endlessly grateful to the people who brought her up so much that I was compelled to give her a try.

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Vorkosigan Saga #2: Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 28 August, 2017

I am so grateful to the people who finally convinced me to give Bujold a read. Her short stories were fun, but Mountains of Mourning shook me rather deeply. And here, we have a full novel with that same intense emotional impact.

Right from the beginning, I fell in love with the Quaddies. Well, with Claire and Silver, anyway. Claire is a bit of a goodie-goodie, but I really connected with her through her interactions with Andy. And Silver… well, Silver is just wonderful.

And then Bujold started putting these two wonderful women through hell. Page after page, I had to read through a cringe as some of the worst things I can imagine happen to them. I’m fairly desensitised to violence, I don’t feel it when characters are shot, or hit, or fall. I just see it too often in media, and it doesn’t really mean much. But the things Bujold put these two poor characters through really twisted my stomach.

Leo Graf was a bit bland as a protagonist, but he worked well enough as a reader-insert. He struck that good balance between being the outsider through which the reader can experience the story, and being an active agent within the story. Even so, I liked that Bujold didn’t fall too deep in the “white guy saviour of the child-like natives” trope, despite how very strong the temptation clearly was.

Van Atta was a great moustache-twirling baddie. He made me squirm. Worse, I’ve known people like him, and Bujold wrote him perfectly to set off all my warning bells. I can understand complaints that he was fairly one-dimensional, and it’s true that he really was just irredeemably awful, but it worked. And even without complexity, he still rang very true – making him all the more frightening.

My only complaint about the book was the love story. It felt tacked on, and it really wasn’t necessary. I feel like the story, as well as the two characters involved, would have been quite a bit stronger if they could have just been friends. I would like to see a man and a woman work together to achieve a goal, suffer together, trust each other, respect each other, and not have to be lovers by the end. It’s just overdone.

But that was a very small part of the book. The rest was fantastic. And reading all these reviews declaring this book one of the weaker books in the Vorkosigan Saga is making me so very excited to read on!

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Aliens by Mark Verheiden (art by Mark A. Nelson)

Read: 19 August, 2017

Rendered non-canonical by Aliens3, Aliens takes up the story of Newt and Hicks, several years after their return to earth (due to legal issues, Ripley is inexplicably absent).

Aliens, the movie, struck a chord for people because it wasn’t just about the action – it was about the characters. When shit hit the fan, viewers cared because we had come to know and like the people it was happening to (except for Paul Reiser’s Burke – he was terrible). And in the end, we loved the little family Ripley had made for herself.

That’s what Aliens3 got so very wrong. Ripley’s whole arc, the whole process of building a new community while surrounded by the cold, machine-like xenomorphs, all got tossed out of the airlock when they killed Newt and Hicks in the opening credits. The movie failed on many other levels, too, of course, but destroying the bonds formed in Aliens right off the bat would have doomed it regardless.

Aliens makes the same mistake. Newt and Hicks are alive, of course, but the opening finds Newt in a mental institution and Hicks back in the army, and they don’t talk. They’ve come back to earth and gone their separate ways and that was that. There’s some bit further in where Hicks decides to save Newt because he did it before so why not, but that’s really about it.

These are two traumatised people with experiences that are literally out of this world, and no one can possibly understand what they’ve been through except each other. Why wouldn’t they have stuck close to each other?

Apart from what they’ve done with existing characters, the story itself is fine. It hops around too much, and there’s this whole weird bit where the xenomorphs suddenly have psychic powers for some reason. The bit about the religious cult forming around the aliens was interesting, but the story keeps jumping around too much and I never really got a grasp on who the preacher was or where he got his information from (except for the psychic communication stuff, which just came off as silly).

As much as I loved getting to see Newt again (and her arc was a decent one once it actually got started), I think the comic would have been better served by narrowing its focus. It could have focused on the preacher, or focused on Newt, or focused on Hicks, and any one of those would have made for a much better story. But, instead, the strategy seemed to be to throw as much at the reader as possible and hope that something sticks.

Which is another lesson the comic didn’t learn from Alien and Aliens. Both of those are very simple stories – xenomorph appears, Ripley survives. There are vague bits and bobs about shadowy corporations, but all the other content comes from just spending time with the individual characters – getting to like them, getting a feel for their motivations. Whatever is happening off-location is not part of the story.

The artwork is fine. I found that some of the key characters lack definition, so I had some trouble telling them apart. This wasn’t helped by all the plot-jumping. It’s in a realist style that isn’t really my bag of cats, but it does the job. I did appreciate all the detail put into each panel, which gave it some of that crowded, dark, mechanical atmosphere that the movies do well.

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