For the next four weeks, we’re taking on a science fiction theme for our Hex recommendation pieces. This week the Hex team have pulled together some of their favourite SF novels to recommend to you dear reader. So if you were looking for a spot of summer reading, we’ve got you covered, though hopefully not covered in any kind of space alien gunk, because that would be icky.
Most people, when they think about the cyberpunk subgenre of SF turn to William Gibson and Neuromancer as one of the most definitive works in the subgenre. But for me, Pat Cadigan’s Synners published in 1991, after Neuromancer, has come to define cyberpunk for me. With its own take on technobabble mixed with street slang and a multi-character narrative, the novel is more encompassing than the lonewolf syndrome found in many cyberpunk novels.
Having read this after the internet and social media became really, really big I suspect that it gave me a far different perspective on the book in comparison to readers from the 1990s. But what astounded me most when I first read Synners is that a lot of what Cadigan writes about in it, the kinds of tech or the ways people use it, has now come to pass or is on the verge of happening. There’s a hint of Star Trek about it all, but far more grounded and down to Earth. The characters talk of “foodporn” and it sound an awful lot like what you can see on Tumblr and Instagram these days, for instance. (Cadigan wrote about Rule 34 before there was a Rule 34.) Or as one of my favourite quotes from the novel goes:
… change for the machines. Everything changed for the machines.
The people, the characters, of Cadigan’s novel are living in a world that’s falling apart, with technology helping the middle and upper classes to ignore their world crumbling around them most of the time. Tech is escape along with a myriad of mind altering drugs. And in amongst all this bleakness are characters you end up caring for and hope will have a chance to get through the mess that further develops over the course of the novel.
This is not a happy novel, but it’s compelling and really makes you think about our relationship with technology and the environment.
I don’t think it’s a big secret, but I’m not a big fiction reader with books. I prefer my mediums visually. I suppose it’s kind of why I have read a few things based on TV programmes. The main one I read a while back was Red Dwarf: Backwards.
Having seen Red Dwarf numerous times I found the book actually very interesting. There’s the obvious side of not being in an episodic structure (there are actually many of the stories from the episodes in this book), but it’s also the tone of writing. Whereas Red Dwarf the TV series was fairly happy-go-lucky, especially in its earlier seasons, the book takes a far more sinister and darker edge. Every problem seems like it’d kill the crew outright – and that each time it was a fluke they managed to get it sorted.
Having said that, there’s still plenty of humour inside the pages. But like I said, it’s a far darker version of the episodes you’ve seen and love.
Phyllis and Mike Watson witness strange fireballs fall from the sky, but nobody associates them with the ships that are disappearing at the sites of deep water. As more ships disappear and people finally start getting worried, strange half-egg looking things crawl up beaches and decimate the entire population of several islands. The Watsons are inevitably involved as investigatory journalists and they watch the world as they know it change as it is invaded by a mysterious and alien force.
The Kraken Wakes is a terrifying sci-fi novel about aliens invading earth and earth’s mostly ridiculous reactions to them. It’s told in such a matter-of-fact way that it all seems pretty realistic, down to the level of worry that actually, it could happen. A consequence of the invasion includes rising sea-levels, a creepy precursor to today’s fears of global warming, thought it is surprising considering that this book was written in the 1950s.
It’s a classic sci-fi book that is exciting to read with surprisingly ominous situations and aliens that are quite vague and very hard to imagine, making them all the more terrifying. It’s strangely profound and haunting, and a great place to start with Wyndham’s works.
In the year 2130 a mysterious object, dubbed “Rama”, is detected passing through our solar system. A thirty-mile-long cylinder, clearly artificial, Rama marks mankind’s first proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. When a crew is sent in to investigate, there are three traditional ways it could go: they learn something wonderful that could change the world, they learn something horrible that could *destroy* the world, or they go back in time and save the whales.
But the wonderful, beautiful thing about Clarke’s story is that they learn absolutely nothing. The team discovers many things about the structure and systems of Rama (which is hollow and houses a kind of artificial planet) but they never learn what it actually is, what it’s for, or who built it. Every answer leads to more questions – every “what” leads to “how” leads to “why” – but those questions and mysteries are always compelling and never feel vague or witholding. This is the kind of story JJ Abrams and Damon Lindeloff *wish* they could write.
Slowly we realise that the answers are beyond us – that we, the crew and the readers, are ants looking at the work of giants. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth,” and all that. Even when a series of sequels, written by Gentry Lee, attempted to answer a these mysteries (becoming increasingly stupid in the process) nothing could lessen the vast, unknowable power of that original novel.
Rendezvous with Rama is full of wonder and awe and fear, but mainly it speaks to the insatiable curiosity at the heart of all sci-fi.
“I understand, he thought, what that passage in the Bible means, Through a glass darkly […] When do I see a photograph, when a reflection?”
Arguably one of Philip K. Dick’s best-loved novels, A Scanner Darkly is a dystopian nightmare exploring the future drug culture of California. Fred, an anonymous undercover narcotics agent, poses as an addict living in a squat in order to uncover the top suppliers of the psychoactive drug Substance D. However, he soon loses touch with his true identity; Bob Arctor, his drug-abusing alter-ego, gradually gets hooked on Substance D and his opposing personas appear to split into two independent lives. The book switches between the voyeuristic life of the faceless Fred, as he spends his hours watching surveillance footage of Bob Arctor, and the paranoid existence of Bob himself, who lives in constant suspicion of the people around him.
I’ve enjoyed every Philip K. Dick novel that I’ve read, from the metaphysical VALIS to the straightforward (by Dick’s standard) noir of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but there are those stories of his that really stand out as essential reads. This is one of them: a semi-autobiographical story exploring ideas of identity, reflection and duality in the unforgiving world of drug-abuse.
Science fiction is not an easy genre to get right. Focus too much on the fiction and the stories can seem too whimsical. Focus too much on the science and the stories run the risk of alienating half of the audience. But in The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury got the balance just right. Told in a series of short stories, the novel recounts the history of mankind’s exploration and colonisation of Mars, and it is a triumph of the genre.
The stories that Bradbury tells are all fully realised masterpieces in their own right, full of horror and romance, murder and liberation, and each one massive in its scope and imagination. But dig a little beneath the initial wonder, and you’ll find that The Martian Chronicles is really a veiled and incredibly frank social commentary about the state of the world and the ugly side of human nature. Despite the potential heavy reading that could have created, Bradbury had a way of making words magic, and turns the book into something that not only makes you think, but is utterly compelling and truly breathtaking as well.
In my opinion Ray Bradbury was one of the finest writers of his generation and The Martian Chronicles is one of the greatest showcases of his talent. It is both horrifyingly stark and lusciously imaginative, yet it retains a kind of quiet optimism that makes the book just as relevant today as it was when it was first published.