So what is SF? Partially a hazy roadmap, partially a utopian dream, and very often a mirror of present conditions, the genre resists settled categorisation just as it resists elevation to the hallowed heights of literary fiction.
Where to start?
1) Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series. The three books, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars articulate a vision of a future well informed not only by possible technological progress but by history, sociology, and politics. Poetic and evocative, they are well worth a read by anyone wishing to give texture to their dreams of space.
2) Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution Series, particularly The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division. Optimistic on technological progress, realistic on real world geopolitics, realpolitik, and on “with how little care the world is run.” I think on re-reading I’d be a bit critical of the depiction of one female character, but in a future where people are constructed and rebuilt pinning down what’s ethical and what’s not will be a tricky job indeed. Highly reccommended.
3) Iain M. Banks Culture Novels. It’s a bit difficult to pick favourites here: many would plump for Excession, while Use of Weapons, The Player of Games and Consider Phlebas are darker, more accessible, and more human. (My personal favourite Banks is the poetic, guttingly sad Against A Dark Background, which isn’t even a Culture novel at all, so best to ignore that for now).
The Culture novels are best described as a cross between an anarcho-syndicalist post-scarcity utopia, and a liberal utopia and mirror of the Now. While the Culture is definitely utopian, it’s effectively ran by small, genial cabaals of artificially intelligent Minds that use people and species as unknowing pieces on a chessboard. This is a situation which would once sound like echoed theories of dubious conspiracists, but as the evidence begins to come in, reminds one of our far less intelligent and altruistic rulers more and more each year.
4) Ursula K. Le Guin: either The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, or, frankly, both. Deeply informed by feminism, anthropology, and the social and political base to technology, Le Guin’s books blazed a trail that affected every novel in the genre to come after them.
Being less directly concerned with specific technological advances, Le Guin’s books have a great deal more space to breathe and to play and to give rise to both striking personal and political insight. Neither novel would be the first SF I’d recommend, but they might easily either be the most critically influential.
5) Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty. While not looking into the future but the past, Spufford’s far from uncritical examination into the apogee of Soviet technology and economics sheds a vastly needed amount of light into where everything went wrong with the Soviet dream… as well as hinting at the potentiality for similarly critical examination of the capitalism which co-evolved with and eventually defeated it. Absolutely essential reading.
6) The Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic. Written in 1971 in the USSR and refused publication for a number of years, it was later turned into the Tarkovsky film Stalker – a film made twice as the first version was “accidentally destroyed” by the processing service.
Roadside Picnic is now available to read free online, and, as a novella, it is possible to do so relatively quickly. But just why was this short novel so subversive? In brief, it is a critical examination of the impartiality and social function of technology that, in its depiction of a hostile “zone”, echoed Soviet environmental pollution and foreshadowed Chernobyl. Vital reading.
7) Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I’m going out on a limb here, as I haven’t actually read Parable yet, but based on how superb Wild Seed and Lillith’s Brood are, it has to be reccommended.
Here we have something striking: the only clearly dystopian novel here is the only one by a person of colour. Why is this the case? And why have I recommended Parable rather than either of those I have read? And why, interestingly, why have I not recommended anything by Sam Delany, whom I hold in the highest possible regard?
I have to confess that I found reading Lillith’s Brood disturbing, and that this was due to the power disparity between the aliens and humanity, and that my finding this disturbing was due to my white privilege. (Perhaps how disturbing I found it is the highest recommendation of all). Wild Seed is excellent, but is not science fiction: Butler’s examination of power and community reaches far into the past before arriving at the present. And Delany: Delany has not written any science fiction novels for far too many decades.
So here we are: all of the white Western delvers into the future who I mentioned above – Banks, MacLeod, Robinson, Le Guin – are working on dreams of futures where global racism is no more, but it is strikingly difficult to find a convincing vision of this by anyone who is not white. Clearly we have much further to go on this than we realise, and Octavia Butler’s Parable represents much of her most recent thinking around the subject.
And here we are.
And for the wild card, and because I never miss an opportunity to recommend it: neither SF nor a novel, David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years sheds more light on the present through the lens of the past than any examination of possible futures could. Potentially epoch-defining, and a beautifully constructed and illuminating read. Go.