Tag Archives: novels

Diversity in Science Fiction: Some Diverse Reads

Science fiction often touts itself as the genre of the future. But science fiction is a reflection of today as much as it is a dream about the future. Science fiction has been too white and too male, both in authors and in protagonists. This is a reflection of the biases in our society.

My own top 20 sci-fi novels list features 18 books by white men, and two books by Ursula Le Guin. The Guardian’s list of top 500 scifi novels featured the names of 18 women. Any scifi reader starting out will hear about Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. Too many people get defensive when someone points this out. (See: the Great SFWA Shitstorm.)

The answer is to read widely, and to continue to read widely. So in that spirit, I list below some diverse science fiction*, some of which I have read, and some of which I ought to. For further reading, here is a great article listing a lot of great authors from the LA Times.

  • Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler: we destroy ourselves with war and aliens come in and save the survivors, mostly people from South American cultures who avoided the bombs. Oh, and the aliens want weird weird sex. A fun and weird read.
  • Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi: A western man goes to future Bangkok. The native Thais and the genetically-engineered windup girl are the stars of the show, though.
  • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: One for me to read! A best seller in China, recently translated into English.
  • Downbelow Station and Cyteen by C. J. Cherryh: Distant future novels where women kick ass in militaristic and scientific settings, if you can get past the info-dumping at the front.
  • Who Fears Death by Nnedi Orakafor: Another for me to read! Far future, post-apocalyptic Africa.
  • The Miles Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold: I have looked for these for years in used bookstores. I guess they fall into that awkward old-enough-to-be-out-of-print-, not-so-old-as-to-be-reprinted phase. They won a buttload of Hugos. And they feature a disabled protagonist.

*Note: I think it’s currently easier to find diverse fantasy. Maybe this is because it’s straightforward to use alternate mythology to Western mythology. I personally vastly prefer sci-fi. I think diversity in far future sci-fi is a challenge, because our whole concept of diversity is rooted in today’s culture. Just giving everything Chinese-ish names isn’t very satisfying. In LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Genly is black, but this isn’t relevant to the story at all. But I would like to see more female protagonists!

 

Book Review: Cyteen (C. J. Cherryh 1988)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5

Cyteen was the winner of the 1989 Hugo Award. It is about neither cyborgs nor teenagers nor cyborg teenagers, despite the name; Cyteen in the name of a planet. Cyteen takes place in the same universe as Downbelow Station (which I reviewed here) in a different culture and time. Like Downbelow Station, this is a book that requires patience up front, but offers great rewards. Cyteen is 750 pages of intricate scheming and counter-scheming, supported by interesting and conflicted characters.

Cyteen is the capital planet of the Union, one of a few major political entities in a future where humans have drifted amongst numerous stars with faster-than-light travel. The economy of Union is largely supported by the production of a cloned working force called “azis”, who are psychologically trained to serve in various capacities. All azis are produced in a research lab/city called Roseune. The book opens with power struggles between the forces of Roseune, the military, and another faction. A murder follows this initial conflict, which weakens the status of Roseune and fundamentally alters the lives of the characters. The continuing power struggles are described through the individuals trying to survive them at Roseune.

My biggest complaint: the book takes too long to develop. The first 20 pages are textbook-style background. Even after that, my progress was slow. It took a while to figure out a lot of the politics, and I didn’t understand what azi were for at least a hundred pages. Additionally, it read slowly, constantly packed with intricacy and detail on each large page of text. I very much enjoyed this book, but it is not light reading. Read this one when you have a solid block of time to set aside.

I would recommend Downbelow Station over Cyteen, although I prefer the characters in Cyteen. Despite a shared universe, the styles of the two books differ substantially. Downbelow Station is a smart space opera, threaded with politics. Cyteen is a personal drama, saturated with politics. If you enjoy hard science fiction and you are patient, you will probably enjoy both of them.

Book Review: Lilith’s Brood (Octavia Butler 2000)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

 Rating: 4.5/5

Lilith’s Brood is a collection of three novels by Octavia Butler published from 1987 to 1989, gathered together in 2000. The set of three books, also called the Xenogenesis trilogy, is about 750 pages long. They were published as three novels, but I would highly recommend reading them back to back as I did. The world that Butler builds over the three novels is complex. I would have had trouble trying to read the second or third novels after a long gap.

Lilith’s Brood was my first book by Octavia Butler. The writing is incredibly readable; I easily covered 50 pages an hour.  Some science fiction novels dump world-building at the beginning;  it can be something the reader has to fight through. Butler does not do this; she develops the main character first and then the environment from the eyes of the main character. The world she eventually develops is intricate and explained in detail, but by the time she got to it, I was engaged.

The trilogy opens with Lilith, a woman who survived World War III on a now ravaged Earth. She is held alone by aliens called the Oankali. Without going into spoiling detail, the Oankali are extremely alien. All three books develop the Oankali, and they are as much of the world Butler builds as anything. The Oakali want something from Lilith, though she is unsure what. Lilith finds them physically frightening, and is uncertain about her future.

Butler approaches situations from the character’s emotional response, rather than from a technical aspect. The book explores themes of gender, sex, humanity, and community–some pretty hefty topics that sci-fi sometimes skirts, especially at the time of its writing. I rate the book as a 4.5/5 partially because of this novelty and distinctiveness. In many stories, I enjoy rooting for a protagonist or a certain course of events. In this story, I didn’t know what I wanted, which was odd, but not bad. My only real criticism of the story is that, while certain aspects of the world were highly developed, it was hard to imagine living in this world. While I enjoyed reading about this world, I think I would find it profoundly dull. Still, I highly recommend reading this, especially if you haven’t read Butler before.

Book Review: Marooned in Realtime (Vernor Vinge 1986)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5

Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge is the far future sequel to The Peace War, set on Earth 50 million years in the future. The Peace War introduced the concept of “bobbling”, a scientific discovery where a spherical bobble, impervious to the laws of physics, can be created. Anything inside the bobble doesn’t experience what happens outside of it; a year can pass outside the bobble, but no time passes inside it. The time length for which a bobble exists can be tuned. This was used to great effect in The Peace War as a mechanism for sequestering weapons. In Marooned in Realtime, the people who were bobbled through various circumstances come together and try to reestablish humanity after it was somehow lost.

If you like other Vinge stuff, you’ll probably like this, and it’s a lot shorter than some of his things. I recommend reading The Peace War first, although I think I like this book slightly better. There are some references back to the characters in the first book and a novella written between the two, which got a little annoying eventually. Also, I am not sure if the ubiquitous bobbles and their governing rules would be totally obvious reading this as a stand alone. It has been several years since I read The Peace War, and though I remembered the basics, I found myself wishing I could remember more clearly.

Overall it was  a solid Vinge book, with good hard scifi and far-flung and fun extrapolations. Vinge is a computer scientist, and he makes the most of this background. Don’t expect to read Vinge for the emotions. His forte is playful futurism and making everything go wrong at once. I read Marooned in Realtime easily in three days, and I’m not the fastest reader. It was easy to get into, and the first book I’ve read off my holiday reading list.

Book Review: The Invention of Everything Else (Samantha Hunt 2008)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 5/5

I absolutely adored “The Invention of Everything Else”. I’ve always meant to read more histories and biographies than I do, but sometimes they can be dry. This book, in many ways, is a fictional biography of Tesla, a famously eccentric inventor who first pioneered AC electricity and radio. To learn more about Tesla, check out this awesome Oatmeal cartoon, which has a lot more detail than I’ll include here. The book also has rich and lovely descriptions about historic New York City. And most of all, this book is a romance of eccentric people, whom I feel get far less respect than they deserve. The characters are pigeon-enthusiasts and hoarders and dreamers and inventors.

The book opens with Tesla as a very old man, broke and largely forgotten. He was a brilliant inventor, but not a businessman like Edison. He lives in a dreamlike state, remembering past glories and failures, and seeking his beloved white pigeon (see the Oatmeal cartoon). The other main character of the story is Louisa, a young vibrant woman who works at Tesla’s hotel. She likes to listen to radio dramas and to study people, so she is naturally fascinated by Tesla. Over the book, we learn a lot about Tesla and Louisa as they orbit one another.

The language of this book is wonderful. The descriptive passages evoked touchable images in my head although the descriptions were fairly brief. I could imagine being in bygone New York, and the distractions and wonders of the characters in that setting. The dirtiness of it, and the perpetual motion of it. Here is a quote from the first chapter that captures some of the loveliness of the language:

“Drawer #42. It sticks and creaks with the weather. This is the drawer where I once thought I’d keep all my best ideas. It contains only some cracked peanut shells. It is too dangerous to write my best ideas down. ‘Whoops. Wrong drawer. Whoops.’ I repeat the word. It’s one of my favorites. If it were possible I’d store ‘Whoops’ in the safe by my bed, along with ‘OK’ and ‘Sure thing’ and the documents that prove that I am officially an American citizen.”

If you are a lover of hard science fiction, this one might not be for you. The genre of this book is subtle, with the fantasy element of dreaming maybe most prominent. It seemed like every character in this book took a jump off of something, imagining they could fly. But if you love characters and setting and eccentricity, then you should like it. I loved it, and I really recommend it.

Book Review: Downbelow Station (C.J. Cherryh 1981)

Note: I avoid spoilers in this review. Any plot details I mention occur early in the book.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

I’ve had Downbelow Station on my shelf for a while. It’s 526 pages, so a little on the long side. I’d seen the book on a few “best of” lists, but no one I know has ever mentioned it. It was the 1982 Hugo award winner. So finally I bucked up and read it, and it was excellent.

Although I see “Downbelow Station” described as a hard science fiction book, the technological aspects of the book do not occupy the foreground. The interactions and desires of the characters do that; in some ways it’s a  high-class space opera. I found the style of the book most similar to Vernor Vinge in books like “A Fire Upon the Deep” with a little more militarism. I wonder how much the post Vietnam era affected the portrayal of militarism; the warring elements do not come off positively in this book. Cherryh does a good job developing culture; we can see the cultural differences between Union, Company, Pell, and the Downers. If you like sweeping science fiction, this is a highly worthy read.

Most of the action takes place on Pell Station, a space station orbiting a habitable planet with natives called “Downers” in the year 2352. Humans have expanded into space, one station after the next. At some point in history, humans developed faster than light “jump” technology, so they can spread further yet, into the “Beyond”. The humans in the Beyond have become disassociated with Earth; likewise Earth is somewhat detached from the stations. Pell finds itself between the forces of the Beyond and the renegade forces of Earth. The first 20 pages or so lay down this background; it’s a lot of exposition and it’s confusing and not totally engaging. The beginning is the weak point of this book. Once the ground work is laid, the story takes off.

We arrive at Pell when the Company ships of Earth force the station to take on a bunch of refugees from another station which has been destroyed in the conflict between the Company and the Union of the Beyond. These unregistered people are housed in quarantine, or Q, which is lawless and places a great deal of strain on the station’s resources. Over the course of the book, we watch people from Q, from Pell station, from Union, and from the Company as they vie for the strategically valuable Pell. The people of Pell station I found especially interesting, and their interactions with the Downers.

There are several other books in Cherryh’s Union-Company universe that I look forward to reading. Check out my Top 20 science fiction novels for more science fiction recommendation.