Paradigm-shifting Sci-fi for National Science Fiction Day

Universe in My Hand
Image courtesy of flickr user Lauro Roger McAllister

It’s National Science Fiction Day!  A day to pause and give thanks for the genre that offers us an infinity of futures to inhabit, if only for the space of a novel.  It’s also the time of year when I like to ponder why I find science fiction so captivating.  Like many fans, it’s partly because I love immersing myself in a sense of possibility: these are civilizations that could happen, interstellar events that may well unfold, alien life yet to be encountered, worlds upon worlds waiting to be discovered (or explored or exploited or misunderstood).  However, I think my great love for this genre largely lies in its ability to reframe how I perceive the world.   Reading the great sci-fi classics in high school introduced me to an astonishing array of philosophical concepts and conundrums that shook up my belief systems.  Modern sci-fi continues to do the same for me some twenty years later.  So, in honor of National Science Fiction Day, here are five titles that will change the way you see the world.

Let me begin with Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation Trilogy, a particularly apt pick given that National Science Fiction Day falls on his chosen birthday.  The series won the Hugo Award for best all-time series (deservedly so) and is inspired by Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  What sets the trilogy apart from so many other series is the scope of its ambition.  Asimov writes of the decline of the Galactic Empire and the forces at play to preserve its knowledge and help bring about the rise of another empire.  Sound dry?  It’s not!  You’ll be swept up by the fascinating ebb and flow of power and politics and by the series end, be asking yourself profound questions about history, the human condition, and the cyclical nature of civilizations.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s (2004 Margaret A. Edwards Award) entire canon could rightly be included in this post as she excels in mind-bending narratives.  However, it’s her Hugo and Nebula-award winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness that has most stayed with me over the years.  This book was my first foray into feminist sci-fi and completely transformed how I understood gender and love.   The novel is narrated by an envoy from the League of Worlds, Genly Ai, seeking to persuade the citizens of the planet Winter to join their League.  His experiences on the planet are affected by his difficulties understanding the gender roles and sexuality of a people who are hermaphroditic.  His relationship with the former Prime Minister, Estraven, in particular forms the basis of the story and provides one of the most beautiful ending scenes in science fiction.

Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim (a 2007 Hugo Award nominee) is a meditation on faith, science, and ultimately compassion.  A first contact story set in the 14th century at the height of the Black Death, it is an unusual combination of historical fiction, philosophy, science fiction, and theology.  The novel centers on Dietrich, a Christian priest, who attempts to care for and aid a group of aliens who have crash-landed in the woods near his village.  The novel is intriguing on multiple levels, in part because unlike most first contact stories, this happens in a past devoid of modern technology and science and the means to understand it.  The addition of Christian faith and the attempts to convert the aliens makes the book all the more interesting and will cause you to reconsider when and how humans and aliens might actually interact.

China Mieville’s books are unfailingly riveting, from his noir-inspired tale The City & The City to Railsea, his young adult retelling of Moby Dick.  His 2011 Locus Award-winning book Embassytown is as enthralling as his other books while also daring readers to reexamine their views of language.  The book relates the story of Avice Cho who has returned to Arieka, a planet home to humans, extra-terrestrials, and Hosts (the indigenous species of the planet).  The Hosts speak a language that only a handful of altered human Ambassdors can speak and the introduction of a new Ambassdor brings about devastating changes for all the inhabitants of Arieka.  Mieville’s exploration of linguistics and how language defines us is both engrossing and challenging.  Bonus points for the depiction of an alien race that actually reads as completely alien (a difficult feat)!

I’ll end with a book much beloved by many, Madeleine L’Engle’s (1998 Margaret A. Edwards Award) Wrinkle in Time.  The story of Meg Murray, her brother Charles, and their friend Calvin O’Keefe as they search for her missing father throughout the universe is a mind-boggling read for young people past and present.  It forever changed my understanding of space and time and introduced a female scientist (Meg’s mom, the first I had encountered).  And who can forget the concept of a two-dimensional world?  Or better yet a tesseract?  This ode to non-conformity, intelligence, and the power of love is both uplifting and thought-provoking…a must read if you’ve somehow missed it.

The immensity of science fiction’s conceivable futures is both exhilarating and bittersweet as a reader.  Exhilarating because the scope of the human imagination is dizzying and allows us readers to revel in worlds both breathtaking and believable.  Bittersweet, because the thought of sights unseen tugs at the soul, a forward-flung regret for futures we’ll never know.   It is this combination of vastness and intimacy, the allure of worlds just out of reach, and sci-fi’s ability to alter our minds and our hearts that makes it a genre worthy of a day of celebration.  That said, close your computers, grab some science fiction and start reading (and let me know what science fiction has shaped your personal universe)!

p.s. Looking for other paradigm-shifting novels?  Check out the works of Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Connie Willis to name but a few.

-Alegria Barclay, currently devouring Lexicon by Max Barry