My Top 10 Science Fiction Novels for 2012-2013: Part Two

"It's a book you think is about interstellar space exploration and ends up being about the confession of one man's soul." -- Phaedra Taylor (after reading Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow)

"The great critic H. L. Mencken confessed ... without shame, saying that he could not appreciate the works of Willa Cather since he simply wasn't interested in people from Nebraska. That isn't criticism. That is snobbery. In the Soviet Union before glasnost the Writers' Union regularly said that some writers weren't really writers, no matter how much and how well they had written, since they were politically incorrect. In this country the same thing is done to writers like Robert A. Heinlein because they are socially incorrect, because their stories are about places members of the literary establishment do not care to visit and about characters, many of them not even human or humanoid, they simply do not care to befriend." -- Kurt Vonnegut, "Heinlein Gets the Last Word"

"The anti–science fiction prejudice among some readers and writers is so strong that in reviewing a work of science fiction by a mainstream author, a charitable critic will often turn to words such as “parable” or “fable” to warm the author’s bathwater a little, and it is an established fact that a preponderance of religious imagery or an avowed religious intent can go a long way toward mitigating the science-fictional taint, which also helps explain the appeal to mainstream writers such as Walker Percy of the post-apocalyptic story, whose themes of annihilation and re-creation are so easily indexed both to the last book of the New Testament and the first book of the Old. It’s hard to imagine the author of Love in the Ruins writing a space opera." -- Michael Chabon, "After the Apocalypse"

This is part two of my top science fiction novels for the past couple of years. Part one can be found here.

6. Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves and Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land.

These are the good-kind-of-weird novels. With Asimov's 1972 novel, we meet an inscrutable alien species. Meeting these "rational," "emotional," "parental" aliens, for me, was like reading a journal article on supersymmetric particles: impossible to understand for the un-initiated except by reading it over and over until a semblance of logic emerges. While The Gods Themselves represented Asimov's favorite novel, he did confess that it constituted the "biggest and most effective over-my-head writing [I] ever produced." Taking his inspiration from a comment by the German philosopher Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), "Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens" ("Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain"), Asimov writes the kind of story that, while thin in plot-richness, allows me to feel something I've long felt the desire to feel, namely the strangeness of the creatures of heaven (seraphic, beastly or otherwise) and of earth (myself, my neighbor or otherwise).

Heinlein once explained to a fan of Stranger in a Strange Land, "I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers. . . . It is an invitation to think -- not to believe." If you've never considered the power of a story well told, then Heinlein puts it to you straight: books do not persuade by refuting your ideas, they invite you rather to imagine a world which, against your better (rational) judgment, you find yourself wanting to inhabit. For that reason alone, to watch how a novel "works," in Heinlein's case, by launching an imaginative attack on what he called "the two fattest sacred cows" of Western society--monotheism and monogamy--the book deserves a place on my top ten. And while it may not be "the most famous science fiction novel of all time," Heinlein's story profoundly influenced 1960s America and, according to the Library of Congress, it remains perennial influential as one of 88 "Books That Shaped America." So there's that.

7. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five paired with Adam Roberts, Yellow, Blue, Tibia

These are the darkly quirky novels (or is it quirkily dark novels?). These are also the captured-by-aliens stories, though you are never really sure what really is real. As a reviewer of the SFSite describes the farcical Yellow, Blue, Tibia"A coven of Soviet science-fiction writers are summoned by Stalin to a dacha sometime in 1945 for an act of dark enchantment. The war against Germany is won and, as the atomic bomb is yet to be dropped, Stalin predicts a brief, victorious struggle against the decadent USA. The Soviet Union, however, needs an enemy to keep the engines of permanent global revolution stoked. Thus the Soviet writers are given a task by the dictator -- to create the narrative of an alien invasion that will serve as a global unifying myth. Except this myth, the terrified authors are given to understand, is going to be enacted in reality." Both Phaedra and I chuckled our way through Roberts' novel, while lying in bed at night, and kept interrupting each other to read out loud a particularly humorous part. If you can tolerate an eccentric homage to Russian science fiction, among other things, then you might love Yellow, Blue, Tibia as much as we did.

Slaughterhouse-Five should never have lost out to Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness for the 1970 Hugo Award, but it did. Thankfully for us, Vonnegut's novel was ranked #18 by The Modern Library's 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, while Le Guin's plot-anemic novel full of fantastically un-empathetic characters remains incomprehensibly beloved by science fiction readers, save one (me). Writing for the New Yorker in 1969, Susan Lardner remarks, "Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s tribute to the strain imposed on his conscience by the fact that he survived, and by his increasing awareness, since the war, of the scope and variety of death." If the comedian Steve Allen is right, that tragedy plus time equals comedy, then Vonnegut's novel is an attempt to make sense of an absurd experience by way of an absurdist narrative.

As a 23-year old German prisoner of war who witnessed the Allied bombing of Dresden in which 130,000 people died, and a landmark of no military significance was destroyed, Vonnegut weaves a luny story of aliens, a fatalistic optometrist, an ill-tempered car thief, a failed science fiction writer, an American Nazi, an obese wife, a model named Montana Wildhack, and an intrusive narrator who, all together, suggest to the reader the possibility of order in a lunatic world.

8. Dan Simmons, Hyperion paired with Neil Gaiman, American Gods.

These are what I'd call the "poetic" sci-fi novels of the lot. Simmons is the Romantic poet; Gaiman is the Greek poet. If you transplanted the ancient Homer into American soil and asked him to write a mythology founded on the indigenous and imported gods of this country--Norse gods, African gods, gods of plastic and of neon--then the 2001 American Gods is what you might have gotten. As Gaiman describes the book idea to publishers while holed up in a hotel room in Iceland in June 1998: "American Gods will be a big book, I hope. A sort of weird, sprawling picaresque epic, which starts out relatively small and gets larger....  I see it as a distorting mirror; a book of danger and secrets, of romance and magic. It's about the soul of America, really. What people brought to America; what found them when they came; and the things that lie sleeping beneath it all."

I wrote a bit about my initial discover of Gaiman here. But I'd have to say that American Gods is just the sort of carnivalesque novel that Americans need more of--for all sorts of reasons, I guess.

If you love John Keats, then you might like the 1989-published Hyperionwhich stands as a kind of encomium to the English Romantic poet. As The New York Times reviewer summarizes the last days of a vibrant yet self-destructive galactic civilization called the Hegemony: "If the Hegemony is doomed, it is because, in exchange for the knowledge needed to conquer the stars, the human species has sold its soul to a hive of machine-based intelligences known as the Technocore. If there is any hope for human redemption, it is to be found on the planet Hyperion." In the end, Hyperion is a pilgrimage story, told from the perspective of six pilgrims--a priest, a scholar, a soldier, a poet, a detective, a diplomat--and while it may not be Chaucer, it still satisfies at many levels. It also includes two Jesuit characters, which is funny, since I recently finished another novel that prominently features Jesuits on the same week that I was reading about Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac and Pope Francis, all Jesuits. Funny.

9. Ernest Cline, Ready Player One paired with Jo Walton, Among Others.

These are the nostalgia novels. With Cline, it is nostalgia for 1980s pop-culture. With Walton, it is nostalgia for science fiction literature itself. While the former has a geeky-techy vibe, which I thoroughly enjoyed as someone who spent his entire thirteenth year playing video games like Galaga and Raiders of the Lost Art in the basement of the student center of Trinity College, north of Chicago, the latter is infused with a melancholy for things that are lost, including a sense of the invisible world (fairies creatures, among them) and parents who have abdicated their roles as a proper mother and father. Both stories, at heart, I might argue, explore the importance of physical connection between human beings. As our society becomes increasingly dependent on technology that mediate human relationship at a material "distance" and suffers the consequences of continued familial and communal brokenness, people will become intensely hungry for the touch of another human being.

They will want that sort of tactile connection that represents an intimate (but not sexual) knowledge of a person, a kinaesthetic knowing, as it were. It is a hunger for embodied familiarity: a longing for a kind of nearness that exists only when people are in each other's actual physical presence. Both Ready Player One and Among Others succeed at evoking this longing by being, among other reasons, novels that do not take themselves too seriously. It is their light-hearted whimsy, accented in very different ways (ridiculous fun with the one, fanciful strangeness with the other), that enables the reader to feel that tug for physical love with the very people who surround them--family, friend, neighbor, whoever. As Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, remarks, physical contact is the first language we learn as humans and our richest means of emotional expression throughout life. Cline and Walton remind us of the right sorts of things for which we should feel nostalgic.

10. Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow paired with Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz.

These, finally, are the Catholic novels, and if I had to choose a single winner, I'd choose The Sparrow. Why Protestants have yet to produce high-level science fiction is another story, but thank God for Catholics (or, in the case of MDR, an adult convert to Judaism) who bother with the genre, if only as a way to make sense of both the natural and supernatural mysteries that exceed our capacity to fully understand. If you have read Susan Howatch's Glittering Images, then you will have a sense of the spirit that drives Russell's narrative. If you have ever approached the edges of a dark night of the soul, then you will find familiar territory here. And for a book that received as much widespread acclaim as it did, it was refreshing to watch the author remain faithful to Jesuit Christian faith, even as she allowed the characters retain their necessary eccentricities. The Sparrow is a heart-rending, un-nerving story that should capture the imagination of philosophers and missiologists, of pastors and homemakers, of religious skeptics and longtime Christians who know that the love of God comes with a certain inevitable dose of (soul-scouring) pain. 

If The Sparrow is an exercise in theodicy by way of an Ignatian lens, then Miller's 1960 novel is an exercise in eschatology infused with an Augustinian ethos. If it were not for certain quirky characters that lend A Canticle for Leibowitz an oddball-ish quality, a kind of heaviness might have overwhelmed a story that spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself after a nuclear holocaust; though perhaps one could also say that it is the right sort of heaviness that reminds the reader, as Walker Percy often did, how small humans are in this cosmos of ours. As one reviewer describes the story's inciting scene: "In the beginning of Canticle, set roughly five-and-a-half centuries from now, a wandering Jew throws pebbles at a confused and seemingly not-so-bright monk, Brother Francis. When the confused Catholic, led by the hand of the perturbed Jew, discovers an underground tavern, office, and bunker, he finds what he considers holy relics: a shopping list, some blueprints, and the body of a dead woman. This encounter, shaped from its beginning by the will and observation of the Jew, starts the cycle of civilization, corruption, decay, and death all over again." It is the folly and glory of humanity played out on repeat cycle.

And now coming to a theater you....

And, hey, look, that's your favorite neighbor. Oh, oops, no, that's an android coming to a neighborhood near you.

Lastly, it is possible that this constitutes cheating but I will go ahead and mention that I just finished reading these two military sci-fi novels, in the Starship Troopers vein, and rather enjoyed them.


Dianne said…
So glad to see The Sparrow topping your list - one of the most intriguing books I've read in a while. I'm a list fan, so I appreciated these posts. I tend to watch more sci-fi than I read but your list makes me want to check some more of these out.
Dianne: thanks for your comment. As much as I've loved watching all my sci-fi movies, I think the books have ended up being more satisfying. So give 'em a try and see what happens.

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