Sci-Fi is one of the most underrated, and most important genres in modern fiction. When our grandfathers were young, Jules Verne wrote of circumnavigating the globe and flying to the moon. Utter fictions that were dismissed by “serious” readers; but still were potent enough to capture the imagination. Hundreds of years later, where are we? Those dreams planted in the minds of our forefathers took root and grew and shaped the world around us today. Sci-Fi can be escapist; but at its best, it shows us where we’re going, be it good or very, very bad.
3. – “Neuromancer” by William Gibson is a beautiful chestnut of a story. It may not be the most literary, or even the best written of Gibson’s novels; but it created a revolution in Science Fiction. “Neuromancer” heralded the rise of Cyberpunk. The story of Case and Molly isn’t nearly as important as the crunchy neon world in which they lived; a gritty reality where people did war in virtual spaces, heavily modified their bodies with tech, and basically thumbed their noses at the glittering rocket spires and shiny robots of “conventional” Sci-Fi. Read today, “Neuromancer” suffers from nostalgia for a near-future never realized. In which even the brilliant opening line “The sky above the port was the color of television tuned to a dead channel.” is a complete anachronism (if my son were to read this, he would assume the sky was black or blue…not the silver static that Gibson was evoking). The tech may not have turned out quite the way Gibson envisioned, but the echoes of “Neuromancer” can be found in every headline where hackers have hijacked yet another piece of the digital world upon which we base our lives.
2. – Dan Simmon’s “Hyperion” is a classic format: loosely related travelers gather to tell their tale on their way to achieve a common goal. But the magnitude of the world building done in “Hyperion” belies its classic roots and dwarfs nearly everything Simmons has written since. Set in a future so far-flung, it feels like the human race has doubled-back upon itself, seven pilgrims of wildly varying origins travel to encounter the Shrike – an omnipresent bogeyman that is seen by some as the destroyer of the universe and by others as its salvation. Unlike my other two choices, “Hyperion” is closer to the “Space Opera” sub-genre than anything else. However, Simmons is able to anchor his universe-spanning tale with characters that are utterly entrancing; as you learn more about them and their pasts, the anxiety slowly builds. It doesn’t matter that they are traversing a sea of grass on their way to the Time Tombs; you care about them and are forced to wrestle with the fact that the opponent they face will almost certainly destroy them. Utterly. Completely. The “Canterbury Tales” format was only used in “Hyperion,” and as a result, it’s the most gripping of the the four-book Cantos. Don’t let the length of the series intimidate you, even if all you read is “Hyperion,” you’ll have read something that accomplishes what very few Sci-Fi authors have achieved: Painted a universe that is impossibly large; and yet we still feel we know intimately.
1. – “Pump Six and Other Stories” by Paolo Bacigalupi is a brilliant collection where the author asks himself “What if…” and then runs with that central idea to its ultimate conclusion. Bacigalupi’s stories all have roots in our current societies and technologies; but he’s taken the modern inconsistencies (like heavily altered, natural grown food supplies) and amplified them until we are left with something that is barely recognizable as our own and yet, is familiar enough to be terrifying. The titular story, “Pump Six,” has kept me awake at night as I ruminate on the state of education and the seeming dearth of intelligent discourse in modern society. Actually, I’m reminded of a line from “Phineas and Ferb” where the father declares “Oh, you Americans; you’re all just like big, happy children!” Take that and extrapolate it into a future where nothing is built, nothing is fixed, nothing is created, and no responsibility is taken (because it’s someone else’s job…somewhere). As you start to understand the scale to which Bacigalupi has built his constructs, you cower from the conclusions being drawn. And that’s just one story. The others deal with radical food shortages, water wars, voluntary sterilization, and one somewhat hum-drum murder. Actually the murder story is something of a relief, if only because you can finally get your footing and say “Yes. This exact thing will not happen. I do not plan to kill my spouse.” Again and again, Bacigalupi takes our idyllic expectations of the future and runs them through a shredder. Sifting through the pieces is a process you shouldn’t deny yourself.