The “Best” Feminist Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

Isn’t it a little sad that when a celebrity like Joseph Gordon-Levitt calls himself a feminist, it’s considered news?

But in the wake of so many high-profile women—Madonna, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Juliette Binoche, Bjork, Melissa Leo…even Lady Gaga—all declining to identify as feminist, a public voice that still embraces the term, from either side of the gender divide, is a necessary corrective.

Let’s review: women still only hold 4.8% of the CEO roles of the Fortune 500, as of January 2014 only 9 women served as Head of State and 15 as Head of Government (there are 196 countries in the world, roughly), in 38 countries women account for less than 10% of parliamentarians, and in the United States—bastion of freedom and equality—median full-time earnings for women have been 77% of men’s across the spectrum of jobs for a decade. And it gets much worse. The largest survey ever conducted in Europe on violence against women showed that 33% of respondents reported being physically or sexually abused since age 15, and some people estimate that 500,000 women have been raped while serving in the U.S. military since the 1940s—largely by their comrades in arms.

Despite the feminist movement’s long and storied history of achievements—which include, let’s not forget, things like very basic property, reproductive and voting rights—stunningly ignorant young women like Shailene Woodley use their undeservedly large public pulpits to spew nonsense like “The word ‘feminist’ is a word that discriminates, and I’m not into that.”

You know how Webster’s defines feminism? “…the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” Equal. How the hell, in 2014, is that still considered controversial?

In the spirit of declaring myself a staunch feminist, here are a few examples of the best* feminist sci-fi and fantasy books. Please join in with any recommendations in the comments below.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
The most oft-cited book in any discussion of either feminism, or women in sci-fi in general, The Left Hand of Darkness is the indisputable first choice for the simple fact that it is one of the all-time great science fiction novels of any kind. In the classic mold of all great SF books, The Left Hand of Darkness revolves around an elegant what-if conceit, but really lives in the specificity and richness of its characters.

Le Guin imagined another world where humans have evolved over time to go through gender cycles, being neuter, male and female at different stages of their lives. This blunt metaphor for the ways in which gender dictates how we experience this world is shown through the contrasting absence of fixed roles and discrimination on another planet. But the core of the novel is essentially a love story between an Earth-raised man—who arrives on Winter with all the preconceived gender boundaries of the world of 1969 Le Guin published the novel in—and Estraven, a government minister whom the Earth Envoy initially mistrusts.

The Left Hand of Darkness is, all at once, a gripping ice-bound survival adventure, a thought experiment and a truly feminist exploration of possibilities: what does it mean to be human when we are all equal?

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has always annoyed me. Her reluctance to accept that she’s a science fiction writer has always seemed the worst kind of pretension to me. However, I’d be a fool to deny the power of The Handmaid’s Tale, which sits comfortably beside 1984 as one of the most chilling dystopian novels ever written.

Atwood’s genius with The Handmaid’s Tale lay in how little satirical stretching is required between the real lives of many women and the hypothetical stern and inhuman patriarchy of her imagined future. Women subsisting as breeding stock is also a clever inversion of the B-movie trope of Amazon-ruled styrofoam planets. All of which makes Atwood’s denial of the science fiction label even more irritating given her obvious understanding of it’s power chords and traditions.

But let’s not quibble, The Handmaid’s Tale is an excellent novel with sharp world-building and even sharper satire—a book that even resists dismissal as a feminist rant thanks to the genuinely moving journey of the protagonist Offred towards agency.

The Scar, China Miéville
Here’s where my choices get a little more eclectic and less obvious but bear with me. You could reasonably point to any of China Miéville’s books—particularly Embassytown, which was warmly reviewed by Le Guin herself—as being, if nothing else, feminist-friendly. Few other contemporary male writers of fantastic fiction imbue their female characters with as much individuality.

The Scar, in particular, is told from the point of view of the fascinating (and wonderfully named) Bellis Coldwine. Bellis starts the novel as a near-caricature of a repressed ice-queen and ends as a strongly sympathetic, fully-realized and recognizably flawed human. As in The City and the City‘s city, Miéville uses scars as a multi-purpose and fluid metaphor for various physical and psychic transformations. The novel is structured around a journey towards “the scar,” a physical location where the laws of reality break down into chaos—the transformative potential of scars taken to the extreme of sundering.

Bellis becomes a surrogate for all women through a series of bad choices and unhappy accidents, which, by the end of the novel, are even revealed to be the result of unseen manipulations by a man…maybe.

Also, The Scar is full of beautifully baroque monsters.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson
Steven Erikson’s 10-volumes of door-stopping high fantasy may seem like a perverse choice to appear on the same list as books like The Left Hand of Darkness, but I think it’s a great example of feminist fantasy simply because it assumes equality as a starting point.

Erikson made an incredibly smart choice when he began the vast and archaeologically deep worldbuilding at the heart of the Malazan series: since this is a fantasy world, traditional gender roles don’t have to apply. So, when new characters are introduced—which happens very often—as “Sargent” or “Captain” or “Commander” you can’t automatically assume they are male.

In the first novel of the series, Gardens of the Moon, the two most politically powerful characters we are introduced to are both women: Empress Laseen and her Adjunct Lorn. And Erikson goes on to include a wide variety of other female characters at all levels of power, from slaves to gods, whose gender has little to nothing to do with their standing, role or fate. Rape is unfortunately a possibility for some women, but no more-or-less so than the possibility of violent outcomes for any of the male characters—it’s a dark place, but equally dark.

This may seem like a simple choice, but how many high-fantasy books are still full of damn ladies in waiting? Even in George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular books, Brienne of Tarth and the Mother of Dragons are still really outliers, no? And Daenerys begins the books as an ineffectual court lady, sold into marriage by her brother and repeatedly sexually assaulted.

Jack the Giant Killer, Charles de Lint
Jack the Giant Killer is something of a nostalgic choice on my part as Charles de Lint lives and works in my hometown of Ottawa, Ontario where the novel is set. The wild hunt that opens the novel takes place in a park I can picture easily and is only 10 minutes from where I’m now writing. However, Charles de Lint is also possibly the best urban fantasy writer working today.

His re-imagining of the classic Jack of beanstalk fame as a kind of archetypal trickster role that can be inhabited by a woman was fresh and unexpected in long ago 1987. Today, when every second e-book bestseller on Amazon is an urban fantasy of some kind, it’s hard to imagine how fresh de Lint’s approach with Jack the Giant Killer was. I know I had never read anything before Jack that resuscitated fairy-tales, which had been thoroughly trampled on by Disney for so long, by combining them with contemporary urban settings and issues.

Jack the Giant Killer is a tightly-written, thrilling bit of fantasy adventure starring a woman—whose main aide-de-camp is also a woman. Charles de Lint has been reflexively and undemonstratively feminist throughout his career and should be much more widely celebrated.

——
*And by “best” I of course mean: “my personal and highly subjective favourites.”

Hardboiled: Motherless Brooklyn

Belonging, without question, within the lineage of the hardboiled, Jonathan Lethem‘s moving Motherless Brooklyn is an example of the way hardboiled tropes can be tweaked to make sense in a contemporary context. Not a revisionist book per se, Motherless Brooklyn stays true to its generic inspirations while also exploring new modes.

Published in 1999, reviews at The New York Times and Salon, described Motherless Brooklyn as “better than the average hip post modern novel” and working under “the guise of a detective novel” to achieve loftier goals, respectively. The problem I have with these analyses is that they dismiss how cleanly the novel stays within hardboiled genre conventions. Lethem clearly, to me at least,  set out to write a detective novel first, and the subtext and twists on genre followed after.

The story is entirely from the main character’s point-of-view, Lionel Essrog, an orphan who grew up with a close group of three other Brooklyn castoffs, Tony, Danny and Gilbert; later to be taken under the mentoring of a shady local businessman Frank Minna. As “Minna’s Men” the four eventually become a detective agency/limo service, with some sketchy additional responsibilities doled out by Frank with little context. Despite some occasional rough treatment at all of their hands, Lionel loves Frank like a father and the other Minna Men as brothers. A subtext in Motherless Brooklyn about the way we, sometimes desperately, create ersatz families out of friends is essentially text.

The primary plot driver of the novel is an investigation Lionel undertakes—of his own volition with no support and rife with obstacles—of the mysterious fate of Frank Minna himself. This investigation eventually destabilizes and recontextualizes Lionel’s understanding of almost all of the people and situations he has lived with most of his adult life.

What sets the novel apart from other hardboiled detective fiction is the unique interior mental landscape of Lionel Essrog. Lionel has struggled all his life with Tourette’s syndrome, in a social environment that is by turns dismissively cold or actively hostile to the different and unexpected. But while Lionel’s syndrome is the source of a wide range of injuries to his self-esteem and a daily challenge, it’s also shown to be part of what makes him a natural detective. Lethem turns Lionel’s Tourette’s into a kind of secret—admittedly hard to control and potentially damaging—super-power, like an X-Men-style mutation. Given Lethem’s well documented love of comics, this approach to explaining Tourette’s to the lay person is organic and strangely relate-able. I had never understood Tourette’s as a collection of discreet compulsive behaviours until I spent time in Lionel Essrog’s mental landscape.

Lethem tries to capture what it must be like to compulsively turn an idea, word or image over-and-over in your head until it has to explode out of you in a outburst—like venting steam to release pressure—the outward expression of rapid and compulsive thought processes. I have no idea how accurate Motherless Brooklyn is to the interior life of a Tourette’s sufferer, but to an outsider like me there seemed to be an emotional honesty and genuine empathy to the depiction. Lethem also makes a compelling argument that the compulsions at the heart of Lionel’s syndrome make him the only one in the book capable of following through on the truth behind the fate of Frank Minna.

In hindsight, it’s hard not to see Motherless Brooklyn as the precursor (inspiration?) to so many television shows about brilliant characters with diagnosable mental problems, which seem to help make them better at their jobs, such as Monk, House and even the recent Sherlock.

While engaging and heartfelt throughout, Motherless Brooklyn is not without some minor issues. In particular, a love interest for Lionel begins as an intriguing personality sketch but quickly thins out into inscrutability. This was probably a deliberate choice on Lethem’s part as it either helps show the challenges someone with Tourette’s must face in cultivating romantic relationships, or the challenges Lionel faces in specific because he basically inhabits, and is largely comfortable in, a world of thugs and gangsters. Either way though, the net effect is to turn an initially promising character into stock. This is a little disappointing in that the lack of positive female influences—particularity mother figures—in all the Minna Men’s lives (implicit even in the title of the book) is an interesting bit of subtext that could have been explored further. Lethem pokes at the idea with his depictions of Frank’s mother and wife, but the concept feels slightly under-served.

Flaws aside, Motherless Brooklyn is a refreshingly entertaining read: a tense, driving, hardboiled detective story with heartfelt and truly moving pathos and a unique point-of-view—it’s also full of lovingly rendered Brooklyn details that ground the proceedings.

Motherless Brooklyn helps to reinforce that hardboiled writing can have a place in contemporary fiction, and not just as a curio of the past. Motherless Brooklyn feels as fresh and interesting today as when it was written, and I suspect it will age very well.

Top Five Reads of 2013

“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.”
—Umberto Eco

I enjoy lists and list-making so much that there’s no better way for me to brush away the cobwebs and get into 2014 than to look back, briefly, at 2013 and praise my favourite reads of the past year. Confining this list to just a top-5 is a wise choice, I think. Despite enjoying a wide variety of reading experiences in 2013, it seems prudent to me to only highlight the best-of-the-best and not belabour the exercise.

So, here are my top-5 favourite reads of 2013, listed in reverse order of importance. I strayed from the genre path only once in this list, but couldn’t help myself. Feel free to throw any of your favourite books, stories or comics of last year into a comment at the end.

5. Omega the Unknown, Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple


I read a lot of great comics in 2013. Some of the best were: Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, an epic SF and fantasy backdrop for realistically human drama; The One Trick Rip-Off by Paul Pope, a hip urban love story wrapped in cyberpunk; and Prophet by Brandon Graham et al, which re-imagines a boneheaded superhero character from the 1980s as a Moebius/Druillet/Eurotrash-style, galaxy-spanning space opera.

In hindsight, the first comic I finished last January established a theme that unites all of the comics I really loved this past year. Omega the Unknown, by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple is an almost perfect synthesis of indie-comic sensibilities and superheros. There seems to be a current trend in comics for creators to revisit and build upon their influences in unique ways—reinterpreting science fiction and superhero tropes (or power chords per the genius of Rudy Rucker) though the filter of indie and underground comics aesthetics.

Omega strikes a delicate balance between honouring the intention of a superhero comic in terms of engaging action and colourful characters, while simultaneously deconstructing superheros for the 21st Century. But rather than retread the over-familiar territory of something like Watchmen, Omega‘s deconstructions make us contemplate the outsider status of the comic fan of the past, the relationship between comic reader and superhero character, and the the all-consuming commercial juggernaut that is the superhero today. Lethem and Dalrymple achieve this balance in intriguing ways: an protagonist whose alien bearing is interpreted as autism, a doppelganger/projection of the antagonist who is nominally the superhero but is mute and struggles to understand both his mission and the foreign milieu of New York City, and an antagonist, The Mink, who is a wildly popular “superhero” and media darling who is wracked with paranoia, narcissism and other disorders. Dalrymple is a particularly brilliant choice of artist, he realistically conveys emotions and movement through a slightly sketchy, cartoonish line that reminds the reader of the handmade quality of the work—reinforcing the factory feel of most current superhero product.

Omega even incorporates a brilliant comic-within-the-comic device, using the work of underground iconoclast Gary Panter to represent Omega’s attempts to communicate—essentially abetting Panter’s mission statement to infiltrate the mainstream using underground ideas.

Omega the Unknown is both comfortingly familiar as a superhero comic and yet challenges us to reexamine our assumptions about our relationship to superheros, something badly needed in an age of billion-dollar franchises. And it does all this using idiosyncratic and absorbing characters, situations and art.

4. The Drowned World, J. G. Ballard

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard re-contextualizes both the distorted mirror-image of Heart of Darkness‘s Marlow and Kurtz, and the ennui of Fitzgerald’s decaying upper-class zombies, by placing these literary archetypes into a future world of utter societal collapse and ongoing environmental change.

The story follows Dr. Robert Kerans, a biologist and part of a generation who grew up post-apocalypse, exploring a flooded and largely abandoned London that has become an archipelago of decaying buildings amid a resurgence of Triassic-era jungle flora/fauna and rising tropical temperatures. Kerans is mesmerized by the devolving landscape and finds himself mentally embracing entropy. He longs to change along with the environment.

In this, his first novel, Ballard’s pet themes and personnel obsessions find expression in a traditional SF framework. As a child, Ballard and his family were ripped from the lap of British ex-pat luxury in a large home in Shanghai and dumped into a prison camp by the Japanese during WWII. Ballard was therefore intimately familiar with the psychology of disaster and as a student of the surrealists, he would explore the same themes over and over: regression, coping mechanisms, identity, sexual fetishism, technological fetishism and the relationship of the media to the spread of psychopathology.

The Drowned World is the near-perfect expression of our unspoken or unconscious ambivalence towards the inexorable march of entropy.

3. Consider the Oyster, M.F.K. Fisher

If you told me years ago that a book of essays devoted entirely to the oyster would be one of my top-five favourite reads in 2013, I would have laughed out loud. I love food, and even reading about food and cooking, but I eat oysters maybe twice a year, maybe. Any one essay in Consider the Oyster made me want to eat oysters again immediately—like I didn’t properly appreciate the last experience I had eating them.

Mary Frances’ prose is so casually elegant it seems effortless. But her razor-sharp mix of erudition and earthy passion speaks to a devotion to craft. Pick up any volume of her work and start with any essay and you’ll enjoy the same impeccably constructed writing again and again. She wants the reader to think and feel in a measure equal to herself.

It’s almost impossible to know someone from their writing, but MFK Fisher’s work has an immediacy and intimacy that deliberately encourages identification with both her intellectual curiosity and sensual retrospection.

2. The Passage, Justin Cronin

This book surprised me more than any other I read in 2013. I have a tendency to resist hype in an admittedly knee-jerk fashion, so the acclaim surrounding Justin Cronin’s The Passage, made me avoid it when it came out. The book only landed on my ‘to-read’ pile because I got a copy for fifty-cents in a library sale. Home sick one day, I hauled it out and promised myself I’d only read the first couple of chapters and then ditch it if I wasn’t sufficiently engaged. The better part of the day was gone before I looked up again.

Not only is The Passage an engrossing and satisfying read as a pure thriller, but it reveals surprising depths and rich prose styling the further you get into its massive length. The Passage is like a high-art makeover of Stephen King’s The Stand—taking similar end-of-the-world themes of contagion, social collapse and the struggle to sustain community, and extending those themes into a grander discussion about what really makes us human and binds us to one another—also vampires.

The plot turns on pivot points that take large leaps into a post-apocalyptic future, where attempts to maintain recognizable social constructs fail again and again. Cronin drags us through these massive story changes by making us identify with a character that seems less human at each leap, but somehow more humane.

Neither purely nihilistic nor unconvincingly optimistic (a la King’s opus) The Passage is a refreshingly new approach to both the apocalyptic and vampire sub-genres—each so well worn by now that a book as interesting as The Passage is wonderfully unlikely.

1. The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard

Empire of the Sun is often thought of as the key to understanding Ballard’s work as it deals most directly with the childhood trauma he experienced interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Shanghai during WWII. But I now think that the real Rosetta-stone text for Ballard is The Atrocity Exhibition.

The Atrocity Exhibition is one of the most challenging books I’ve ever stuck out to the end. It took me three tries to read it, but on the last attempt I went through most of it in a single sitting. It finally unlocked for me when I began to see the short chapters or sections—particularity in the early parts of the book—as analogous to gallery wall labels for an art show entitled “The Atrocity Exhibition” taking place in an asylum and showing works by the inmates. The edition I read contains a number of notes, written by Ballard much later, that almost constitute a fascinating separate book—a gloss on the original rather than explanations per se. One of his recommendations is to flip through the book and read pieces at random, which makes the gallery-like structure more apparent. However what worked for me was to flip through and read random pieces, as suggested, and then go back to the beginning and read it all the way through like a more conventional novel.

Atrocity contains most of the themes, obsessions and fetishes that run through all of Ballard’s work: a protagonist whose identity and name shifts scene-to-scene, doctors with obscure and often perverse motives (echoing Burroughs), car crashes as expressions of transformation and carnality, planes and pilots, clinical descriptions of medical procedures and sex blending into each other, celebrity worship as the ultimate pathology of the twentieth century, the psychology of disaster and decay both urban and biological, and often on a blurred line between the two.

What sets Atrocity apart from Ballard’s other books is that is seems to contain all his pet themes and presents them more directly than anything else he wrote, as it largely ignores conventional plotting and story-telling. The semi-experimental nature of the book allows him to lay out his mental and emotional clutter on the table in front of us—encouraging the reader to participate in an autopsy of Ballard’s subconscious. Atrocity even features lists generated through word-association games Ballard plays with himself as discrete “stories” or labels.

The odd thing is that if you described this book to me before, I’d probably tell you flat out that it wouldn’t be for me. I tend to favour conventional stories and plots. My reading tastes are usually pretty prosaic. But Atrocity works for me because of Ballard’s unusual approach to his experimental writing. Rather than wallow in stream-of-consciousness, the way a writer like Kerouac did, Ballard’s deliberately distant and cold approach to examining his own psyche is weirdly refreshing.

You feel like you’re sitting in a lecture-hall with Ballard himself watching films of doctors dissecting Ballard’s own brain while he says things like “that’s fascinating” at your elbow, chuckling. Reading The Atrocity Exhibition was a unique and unsettling experience that I’m thrilled I finally undertook, but let me be clear: most people I know would hate it.

Honorable mentions:
The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
Bubba Ho-Tep, Joe R. Lansdale
Fatale, Ed Brubaker & Sean Philips

Hardboiled: Pronto

This year, a legend in the hardboiled genre passed away, Elmore Leonard. When I heard the news of his death, I was reminded of a copy of his novel Pronto that I had picked up a few months earlier, along with a small lot of other used paperbacks. Pronto had caught my eye because it features a character named Raylan Givens, who is the focus of one of my favourite television shows, Justified, which Leonard was involved with as a producer until his passing.

Pronto is both an excellent example of Leonard’s style and functions as a de facto prequel to Justified—the novel’s climax is a key scene early in the pilot episode.

Raylan emerges gradually as the hero of Pronto, but the character the reader begins and ends the story with is Harry Arno, a Miami bookie in his middle sixties who has been skimming from his mob bosses for years as part of a plan to flee into retirement in Ripallo Italy. Ripallo holds a special place in Arno’s heart due to a Word War II encounter he had there with poet Ezra Pound. But in the way of most of Leonard’s protagonists, reality rarely, if ever, matches the vision in their heads—of either the past or the future.

Years earlier, Arno had given U.S. Marshal Givens the slip in an Atlanta airport. The dogged Raylan sees Arno’s latest flight to Italy as a chance for him to redeem himself with the Marshal service, and hopefully secure a promotion. At the same time, Arno, vaguely dissatisfied with life in Ripallo, has called his ex-stripper wife Joyce to join him, using American ex-pat Robert Gee, a former foreign legionary, as intermediary and security. Joyce is pursued by Raylan, Tommy ‘The Zip’ Bucks—a cold-blooded hitman working for Arno’s mob boss Jimmy ‘The Cap’ Capotorto—Nicky Testa, The Cap’s assistant, and several other Italian confederates of Tommy Bucks. All of these vividly drawn characters converge on Arno’s decaying villa in the hills of Ripallo.

But the events of Ripallo will lead to an inevitable final showdown between Tommy Bucks and Raylan Givens back home in Miami. In Raylan, Leonard found an engaging balance of traditional western* and contemporary crime heroes—extravagantly flawed, but attempting to make the right decisions, to do good, within a limited frame of reference.

Arno, in contrast, is a perfect example of a Leonard protagonist who is incapable of understanding his own motivations—not stupid per se, but too myopic and narcissistic to fathom the impact his choices might have on those around him. He is entirely driven by trying to satisfy needs he is unable to effectively articulate or even enjoy when he meets them.

Better than any other writer, Elmore Leonard understood the intersection between criminality and stupidity. Not that all of his criminal characters are idiots, but even the smarter ones make bad decision after bad decision as a result of greed. Rather than a simple “crime doesn’t pay” morality though, Leonard’s novels are often overtly sympathetic to the way average people can be lead astray by greed. Even his heroes are drawn as complex individuals who make bad decisions due to flaws—like Raylan’s temper and stubbornness.

Pronto is classic Elmore Leonard, clean hard prose** with ultra-sharp dialogue, but the novel is also an interesting read if you’re a fan of JustifiedJustified captures the essence of Elmore Leonard’s writing in a way no other adaptation, some of them very good, has managed—a specifically Leonardian combination of black humour and gripping crime drama. Although published back in 1993, Pronto contains a number of scenes and characters that appear throughout Justified, albeit often in reconfigured fashion. Raylan’s back-story in the tv show is very close to what appears in Pronto, with some minor variations—for example he mentions two young sons in the novel, but starts the tv show childless. As a fan of the show, the variations become a bit distracting, but the novel definitely merits attention on its own terms.

It’s striking how clearly Leonard’s characters and dialogue translate to the screen. Twenty-six of his novels and short stories have already been adapted into movies and television,*** starting in the 50s. But this natural affinity film and television has for Leonard’s strong dialogue and plotting shouldn’t obscure the overall quality of his writing. His ability to convey rich characterization with a minimum of highly readable prose sets his work well apart from many of his hardboiled contemporaries. Elmore Leonard’s books aren’t just entertaining, they’re very good.

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*Leonard began his writing career with westerns, including the seminal 3:10 to Yuma.
**Leonard was influenced by Hemingway, but found him too humourless—nicely summarizing Leonard’s appeal as a prose stylist.
***Apparently even Pronto in 1997 with Peter Falk!—thank you for your generous bounty wikipedia.

Starship Troopers: a Misunderstood Masterpiece or Trash?

starship-troopers-shooting-bugs

Let me just state my position up-front: I have really come to bury Starship Troopers, not to praise it. I think Starship Troopers (the movie, I’ll rant about the book some other time) is gradually being reassessed in all the wrong ways. Starship Troopers is junk by any measure, and always has been.

In the past few years, a number of critics have come out with revisionist-themed pieces on Starship Troopers lauding its value as satire. Here’s a recent one by Calum Marsh of The Atlantic.

Mr. Marsh rightly castigates viewers who want to take the film at face value. But what his, and most of these attempts at reassessment fail to grasp is that many of us who saw the film when it first came out always understood it to be satire, and still think it’s a terrible film.

The problem with Starship Troopers is that it utterly fails to be good satire. Director Paul Verhoeven‘s filmography is overstuffed with luridly violent trash with satiric subtext. But where the satire mostly works in say his own Robocop, it doesn’t in Starship Troopers because Verhoeven’s obsessions and fetishes overwhelm the thin satiric content. Robocop featured a strong performance by Peter Weller that helped ground its violent satire on 80s consumerist society and policing in a basic humanism. In contrast, the acting in Starship Troopers is limited and wooden throughout, so all we’re left as an audience is either to revel in the violent spectacle or enjoy a “knowing” chuckle at the ham-fisted satire.

Mr. Marsh, like many contemporary critics, characterizes Starship Troopers as “…a ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism.” He also quotes fellow critic Phil Coldiron who “…described it as ‘one of the greatest of all anti-imperialist films,’ a parody of Hollywood form whose superficial “badness” is central to its critique.”

Funny? Starship Troopers features barn-broad satiric touches such as a military flogging shot like sweat-drenched S&M porn, screamingly obvious recruiting ads, vagina-mouthed aliens, and military scientists who dress like SS monsters. None of this is at all subtle or in any way a unique statement—it’s parody without the moral high-ground that true satire requires. Verhoeven has nothing to say in Starship Troopers except fascism is bad and Hollywood loves sex and violence. The trouble is, Hollywood loves sex and violence only slightly less than Verhoeven himself, so who is he critiquing exactly? And I’m not sure many people are lining up to defend the cartoonish fascism in the film as a viable political system.* But to say that the politics of Starship Troopers provides a fun-house-mirror-style understanding of our own politics is like saying The Honeymooners provided an enlightening window onto domestic relations—broad caricature is not good satire.

One of the greatest of all anti-imperialist films? Really? So, Starship Troopers is up there with classics like The Man Who Would Be King,** Lawrence of Arabia, The Mission and The Battle of Algiers? If we can’t all agree that sounds ridiculous then I’m not sure why I’m bothering. It doesn’t measure up to any of these films in terms of plot, script, art direction, cinematography, editing or performances. Starship Troopers exhibits a reasonable level of film craft, but only as an efficient delivery system for flat, brightly lit blood, bare-chests and sledgehammer-like campy humour.

I think Starship Troopers could be reasonably embraced by an audience as a semi-self-aware trash-art work—a slick, high-budget camp-fest that wants to make fun of jingoistic military clichés while simultaneously reveling in violent, sexy spectacle. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy Verhoeven’s ultra-pulpy The Fourth Man under those terms.

But, accepting that premise makes Starship Troopers a decently executed, hyper-garish b-movie with ardent fans, not an unrecognized cinematic classic.

——
*Heinlein might have been the exception here, but again, I’ll save that rant for another day.
**A true example of largely misunderstood satire.

Hardboiled: The Maltese Falcon

Since our launch last month, we have shortchanged part of our mandate by not talking about hardboiled lit with the same enthusiasm we’ve shown other genres. As a corrective, I’ve provided below a reworked version of a review I put up last year on Goodreads of The Maltese Falcon.

I’ve chosen Dashiell Hammett as the first hardboiled author to highlight on Albino Books because he is one of the first true writers in that subgenre and because of his influence over an important subgenre of science fiction: cyberpunk.

There’s a lot of loose talk about the noir influence in cyberpunk, and the most common reference tends to be Raymond Chandler. No disrespect to the marvelous Chandler or his admirers, but I think Hammett is a clearer influence on cyberpunk and in particular the ground zero that is the William Gibson novel Neuromancer.

Hammett’s best work is clean, diamond-hard and unsentimental—the core of what it means to be hardboiled writer.

If you spliced together the DNA of Red Harvest, The Stars My Destination and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress* the resulting hybrid would be Neuromancer.

——

Reading a book like The Maltese Falcon is a little challenging for me. I’ve seen the beloved third film version many times since I was a child—it was also the first movie I watched in the first film studies class I ever took—so my expectations going in were that I would find little in the way of fresh experience. There’s a distancing effect that happens to me where I compare what I’m reading to my recollections of a film adaptation. And those recollections aren’t always accurate, despite how many times I’ve seen the movie, so the distancing is multiplied while I simultaneously interrogate myself about my memories.

Look, I’m not going to argue with you that I’m not too introverted sometimes.

Roughly halfway through reading The Maltese Falcon though, I became fully engrossed and achieved the highly sought after Nirvana of total escapism. Mr. Hammett was that good.

From the first page, I was surprised by the differences from the 1941 film. In the book, Hammett describes his main character Sam Spade as looking like a tall “blonde Satan.” Like most people, when I hear the name Sam Spade, I think of Bogart, who was neither tall nor really devilish (at least in appearance), and certainly not blonde.

This was where I was still wrestling with my preconceptions. At about the point where Spade roughs up “the Levantine” Joe Cairo, I was fully immersed  in Hammett’s morally grey world of tough guys and femme fatales. I stopped seeing Peter Lorre and Bogart and started seeing the characters as Hammett described them.

Part of my ability to lose myself in the book is the slightly different tone it takes. Probably as a result of censorship at the time, Hammett’s novel seems harsher and darker than the movie. The book is not elaborately violent or sexy, but it definitely has more edge than the film. And Spade as a character displays an even more dubious morality than his film counterpart.

Do I need to recap the plot? It doesn’t differ that much from one of the most popular films of all time. Sam Spade, a detective, and assorted criminals including one legendary femme fatale scheme and swindle each other over a rare historical object from Malta.

Hammett gets into a surprising amount of detail about the history and provenance of his MacGuffin—I felt like I was watching a lost Indiana Jones movie. It’s a startling effective passage in the book and provides an interesting resonance to the proceedings that might otherwise be lacking if the characters were squabbling over more conventional spoils. It’s easier to imagine everyone becoming obsessed with the Maltese Falcon because Hammett provides it with more back-story than some of the main characters—which is not at all a criticism on my part.

But what’s really striking about the book, as opposed to the movie, is the ambiguity of Spade’s moral calculus. There’s some suggestion that Spade makes the decisions he makes in the course of the book because he believes in criminals being brought to justice, but it could just as easily be interpreted as Spade favouring that side of the game—just slightly. In fact, his calculated approach to life ends up alienating his loyal to a fault secretary Effie. She comes late to realize what the reader has a few scenes earlier: Spade is basically a bastard, who may or may not have some rudimentary motivations left related to issues of justice.

The Maltese Falcon, the book, expresses a deeply nihilistic worldview that the movie only hints at. The movie is unimpeachably a piece of classic film noir, but it only touched on the blackness of the novel—still a bracingly modern read, even over 80 years later.

——
*I readily acknowledge the importance of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to the development of SF, but think it’s mostly a terribly written book with some great concepts littered throughout.

Copper Cylinders: More Than Human

I’ve read a few sci-fi books over the years, but really only a few. I read widely generally, but sci-fi is to me what non-fiction and hard-boiled are to me—I know so little that I don’t even know where to start! Andrew invited me to do a regular feature here on Albino Books and we agreed that approaching the classics of sci-fi and fantasy from the perspective of an outsider, a newbie, an ill-educated blunderer, was the only way to go. The name of this feature, Copper Cylinders, comes from an almost entirely forgotten 19th-century Canadian novel by James DeMille called A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. DeMille’s novel is a very odd mixture of adventure, travel, dystopia, meta-fiction, and early sci-fi. It tells the story of a ship stranded at sea by a persistent and desperate lack of wind; the shipmates are close to losing their minds from sheer boredom when a sealed copper cylinder just floats along—a break in the boredom seized on with more energy than we with our 21st-century array of constant distractions can barely imagine. They retrieve the cylinder and break it open to find a handwritten story, claiming to be true, of an unknown civilization organized around principles entirely alien to their own. The manuscript is read aloud to help pass the interminable time on the calm, wine dark sea.

Sci-fi abounds with strange manuscripts waiting to be picked up and opened. I begin with Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 fix-up More Than Human.

I was a bit lost, at first, reading More Than Human. I hadn’t expected to find the prose so…Cormac McCarthy-ish when I began it. Sturgeon was clearly better able to write a complete sentence than McCarthy is, but I suppose I was expecting something less literary and more science-y (no, I can’t really tell you what I mean by the latter):

The idiot lived in a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear. His clothes were old and many-windowed. Here peeped a shinbone, sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers of a fist. He was tall and flat. His eyes were calm and his face was dead. (p.1)

The idiot, who comes to be known simply as Lone, is 25 years old when the tale begins. He is pre-verbal, disconnected to his human brethren, and “purely animal—a degrading thing to be among men.” Sturgeon’s prose is alternately dense, tight, and bordering on the purplish. So when I read that when “a guard or a warden would find himself face to face with the idiot and the idiot’s eyes, whose irises seemed on the trembling point of spinning like wheels….the gates would open and the idiot would go, and as always the benefactor would run to do something else, anything else, deeply troubled,” I really didn’t know what was going on. More Than Human begins with an overabundance of metaphor, simile, figurative language—was this supposed to be literal?

As it turns out, yes—although my discovery of what Lone could do (and how and why) occurred at precisely the pace he learns it. Lone is taken in by a sad childless couple in the country; over the years, they teach him to be something resembling human. He learns to talk; he becomes a good farm worker; he feels a certain connection to the Prodds who come to accept him despite his strange and essential difference from them. Until, that is, Mrs. Prodd finds herself with child and Lone is politely asked to move on. He does, building himself a little cave in the woods, foraging for food and supplies.

He won’t remain alone very long, however. In the city, a community is forming that will find him and become his community. First there’s Janie, who makes life uncomfortable for her maliciously disinterested mother and her collection of boyfriends with alternately frightening and playful displays of her telepathic and telekinetic powers. Unwelcome in her own home, at age five, Janie “began playing with some other little girls. It was quite a while before they were aware of it,” in part because they are only toddlers. The best game involved moving their little jumpers just out of reach after they took them off, something these girls (Bonnie and Beanie) do with alarming speed: “the twins could skin out of their rompers faster than the eye could follow.” Teleportation! It’s only a matter of time before the three little girls escape their uncomprehending and hostile parents and end up starving in the same forest Lone inhabits, and only a matter of time till they all come together.

Getting to know each other is a difficult and often hilarious process for these four—three young children and one grown-up idiot of limited vocabulary. And then Baby arrives—Baby, the mongoloid progeny of the Prodds, who probably kills Mrs Prodd in childbirth and drives Mr Prodd insane. Baby is rescued by Lone, but their relationship is symbiotic: they cohere through Baby, who can’t talk but can communicate telepathically with the girls and who is, Janie reckons, like an “adding machine” that always “gives you the right answer.” Through Janie, Baby explains himself:

“He says he is a figure-outer brain and I am a body and the twins are arms and legs and you are the head. He says the ‘I’ is all of us.”

“I belong. I belong. Part of you, part of you and you too.”

“The head, silly.”

Lone thought his heart was going to burst. He looked at them all, every one: arms to flex and reach, a body to care and repair, a brainless but faultless computer and—the head to direct it.

“And we’ll grow, Baby. We just got born!”

Lone nearly bursts with the hopeful possibilities of it all—me too! But the hope can’t last, for this being, whatever it is, soon receives a new head. This occurs in the middle portion, Baby Makes Three, which lays out Sturgeon’s grand idea—and it still reads like a grand idea, goddammit, 60 years after being written.

Gerry Thompson narrates this section. He tells how he eventually finds Lone and the others, is accepted, how Lone dies, how he ends up as its head. It’s an ugly, painful story, the most important parts of which are buried in Gerry’s sub-conscious. Fourteen years old, bitter and mangled after years of abuse and neglect; Gerry tracks down a psychiatrist to help him understand why he’s just murdered the woman who cares for them all after Lone dies.

What he learns is that he, Janie, Baby, Beanie, and Bonnie together form a new being, which Gerry names Homo Gestalt. Sturgeon imagines the next stage in human evolution as not physical, but instead mental—or, more precisely, psychic. Gestalt—something, loosely, either greater or other than the sum of its parts. Homo Gestalt is a fully functioning being distinct from the beings that comprise it. As the new head of this being, Gerry can control the actions of all the others—except Baby, with whom he can’t communicate directly, but he can force Janie to act as a bridge between them using his controlling whirly eye trick. (A plot hole that never gets sewn up—if, as Lone could, Gerry can look into anybody’s eyes and not only extract all the information there, but also control their behaviour, erase their memories, etc—why can’t he do this with Baby? Baby is physically deformed, never learns to talk, but is possessed of vast knowledge—why can’t Gerry just access this all directly by looking into his eyes?)

In Lone’s idiot but mostly gentle hands, Homo Gestalt is a wonderful but probably harmless thing; in Gerry’s, it quickly becomes terrifying because he is willing to do anything to preserve the Gestalt being’s life (it’s why he kills their guardian, Miss Kew—she makes life too comfortable for them as individuals). Things become more ominous when Gerry realizes that, as the controlling force behind his Homo Gestalt, he can do anything he wants, and what he wants is to have fun. Fun, that is, according to the standards of an angry, maladjusted 14-year-old: “Everybody’s had fun but me. The kind of fun everybody has is kicking someone around, someone small who can’t fight back. Or they do you favours until they own you, or kill you…I’m just going to have fun, that’s all.”

I loved this terrifying turn in the novel. I love that Sturgeon explored the schlocky possibilities of “bleshing” (blending and meshing in a symbiotic community of comfort and comfortable survival) just to knock them down to explore the darker possibilities of human physic evolution.

Gerry is sociopathic, but there is some good news: not all of the parts of Home Gestalt are essentially ruthless. Without Janie, Gerry can’t communicate with Baby, etc and so it becomes not dead, but partially disabled. Part 3, Morality, focuses on a grown-up Janie on the run from the ruthless Gerry and the enthralled Beanie and Bonnie. Enter Hip Barrows, a mechanical genius of great promise inexplicably gone mad and rescued from prison by Janie. They go through their own process of psychiatric healing—in hiding—until Hip decides to offer himself up as a sacrificial goat to try to teach Gerry about that thing he’s missing—morality. I get that; I would agree that no human or post-human being makes complete or safe sense without morality. But while I found Janie and Hip’s interactions—alternately practical, frustrated, tense, and sweet—entirely compelling, I found the resolution of More Than Human mostly frustrating. Here’s why:

Gerry accepts the sacrifice but doesn’t actually go through with it because, going in and reading Hip’s mind, he sees there’s more at stake than his own basic desires; he becomes more human. Because Gerry doesn’t sacrifice Hip, Hip becomes part of their Homo Gestalt entity. He is the missing piece that enables Gerry, as the organism’s head, to become mature and self-aware enough to earn acceptance by all the other Homo Gestalts, a community that was just waiting for him to stop the violence and bullshit so they could reveal themselves to him. Okay—but one afternoon? Actually, that’s not even what bothers me most—this is a novel of ideas, and so the timelines don’t matter incredibly much. What matters is that while the newly complete Gestalt being is made complete by morality (Hip), it can’t transcend some pretty appalling aspects of twentieth-century social structure. Janie and Beanie and Bonnie are and remain merely appendages of the being, there to be used as the head sees fit—good thing the head has morality (male) to make sure he doesn’t do too much damage! The structure of the being persistently relegates women and minorities to positions of subservience; not only that, they don’t object: Janie is happy to stop making decisions now that Hip is around to make Gerry behave himself. And the twins never learn to talk; only once does either of them take independent action, and that’s to prevent Gerry from killing Hip before he learns his lesson—and as soon as Hip gains control of the situation, she and her sister immediately begin taking orders from him.

I don’t know if the other Home Gestalts have heads that are female or black or both—I think they could be beyond race and gender, but this isn’t made explicit. All we know of them, besides that they’ve been waiting for Gerry to get his shit together before revealing themselves, is that “multiplicity is our first characteristic; unity our second. As your parts know they are parts of you, so must you know that we are parts of humanity.”

Okay. But the only characters in Gerry’s Homo Gestalt who have last names are male. And Beanie and Bonnie, who are black, not only never learn to talk (at best, they “gabble”). Making things even more uncomfortable, Bonnie and Beanie’s father speaks with all the eloquence of a minstrel show; when he discovers them naked (because young Janie has put their rompers out of reach), all I could think was ‘Oh hell, please don’t let him be black! Please!’:

‘Bonnie!’ he bellowed, ‘Beanie! Wha y’all?’ He lurched out into the open and peered around. ‘Come out yeah! Look at yew! I gwine snatch yew bald-headed! Wheah’s yo’ clo’es?’ He swooped down on them and caught them, each huge hand on a tiny biceps. He held them high, so that each had one toe barely touching the concrete and their little captured elbows pointed skyward. He turned around, once, twice, seeking, and at last his eye caught the glimmer of the rompers on the sill. ‘How you do dat?’ he demanded.’ You trine th’ow away yo’ ‘spensive clo’es? Oh, I gwine whop you.’

It soon becomes clear that he is, in fact, black. I was appalled not only because it’s just appalling, but it was more so because the disjoint between Sturgeon being able to imagine such a wildly compelling form of human evolution sits right on top of, and never questions, such contemporary prejudices. (It’s like how in Neuromancer, William Gibson invented the internet but couldn’t imagine a world without cassette tapes—but sad and disturbing rather than charming and a little funny.)

So, I mostly loved this book but it made me uncomfortable and embarrassed sometimes. I read a lot of nineteenth-century fiction, so it’s not like I don’t come across such prejudices about race and gender (the former much more explicit than the latter in More Than Human) fairly frequently. But I guess, as a relative newbie to sci-fi, I’d hoped the big ideas with regards to science would necessarily seep into ideas about the present…But, after all, maybe that’s too much to ask—Theodore Sturgeon was, presumably, only human.

All Hallow’s Read: A Tropical Horror

With Halloween approaching, it’s once again time for All Hallow’s Read. All Hallow’s Read was proposed by Neil Gaiman in 2010 as a gift-giving opportunity linked to the spooky season. The elegantly simple premise: give the gift of a scary book on Halloween.

I’m not sure how much All Hallow’s Read is catching on, but I love the concept and would like to encourage the practice. On the All Hallow’s Read website, Neil Gaiman provides a great list of recommended books, and in that same spirit, I’d like to humbly offer a recommendation of my own: The Dark Horse Book of Monsters.

Actually, I really have two suggestions, one of which is very cheap, bear with me.

The Dark Horse Book of Monsters is a great little collection of comics about various monsters—suitable for young adult readers and up—but it also features a marvelously illustrated short story by William Hope Hodgson entitled A Tropical Horror.

William Hope Hodgson is a fascinating character from the early days of weird fiction. In addition to being a highly influential writer of pulp stories, he was also a poet, sailor, bodybuilder, marksman, photographer and all-around bon vivant who perished at the WWI battle of Ypres at the age of forty.

He left behind one of the most influential early books in weird fiction The House on the Borderland, which I have recommended before for All Hallow’s Read. Borderland was written before clear genre divisions like science fiction, horror and fantasy existed and blends them all freely into a strange and unique reading experience.

A Tropical Horror was the second story Hodgson had published and appeared in 1905. While the prose is a little creaky, A Tropical Horror is immediately engrossing thanks to a combination of realistic settings and details—acquired in Hodgson’s difficult time as an apprentice seaman—and an enveloping sense of dread built carefully through the story. By limiting the number of characters, moving the worst mayhem “off-screen” and telling the story through a first-person narrator with little to no agency, Hodgson creates a heavy sense of dread. The monster of A Tropical Horror is like a force of nature—death and destruction seems inevitable and is nearly inescapable.

The Dark Horse Book of Monsters would make a lovely All Hallow’s Read gift, primarily for the Hodgson story, but also for the remaining comics, which are great fun. But if you’re looking for a more budget conscious option, how about exerting a little crafty effort?

As the copyrights on most of Hodgson’s work have lapsed, there are a number of free versions of A Tropical Horror online, such as this one. Here’s my second suggestion: print out a copy of the story and bind it yourself. You could create your own illustrations or paste in pictures from something else—Liam’s Pictures from Old Books is a great source of material. You could also retype or hand-transcribe it in order to add a more personal touch. This might be a great activity to do with older kids so they can give it as a gift to someone else.

I like to promote the purchasing of books whenever I can to support the industry, but I think the more important point of All Hallow’s Read is just to keep people reading in general, and to help the like minded discover some cool bits of seasonally appropriate spooky writing.

William Hope Hodgson wrote some truly original and frightening work that deserves to be remembered and has a lot more to offer contemporary readers than you might suspect.

OMNI Reboot-ed & The Starcrossed

Over this past summer, the legendary OMNI magazine has been revived as an online publication now called OMNI Reboot. I first became aware of the revival through this piece at Boing Boing.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, Editor Claire L. Evans is striving to honour the legacy of the mighty OMNI while simultaneously pushing it into the 21st Century.

One of the earliest articles posted on the new site was this good little interview with Ben Bova, a five-year editor at the dawn of the original OMNI, and a prominent writer and editor in the history of science fiction.

The Starcrossed

Mr. Bova was one of the most gracious and gentlemanly writers I had ever met at a convention. I was maybe 15 at the time and he was very patient and seemed entertained and bemused by the book I had chosen for him to sign: The Starcrossed.

The Starcrossed is a fictionalized account—set in the near future—of Mr. Bova’s experiences as a consultant on what is, without question, one of the worst television shows of all time, The Starlost.

Despite Harlan Ellison as the head writer, Ben Bova as a consultant and the godlike Douglas Trumbull as an Executive Producer, the production of The Starlost was crippled by bad studio decision making. (One quick example: the concept of the show involved a huge space-ark that would consist of a series of domes. Ellison and Bova had conceived each dome as so large that you could shoot a variety of material on back-lots or other locations, but the producers decided that their concept was “too big” and forced everything to be shot on sets, contributing to an overall cheap and shoddy look.)

At the con I attended, I asked Mr. Bova about The Starlost and he told a great anecdote about the star Keir Dullea (of 2001 fame.) Dullea, according to Mr. Bova, showed up to the set on the first day of shooting so high that he was incapable of delivering lines. To try and make use of the time, the crew decided to shoot a spacewalk scene. They hoisted Dullea up into the air in a spacesuit and flight rigging, which then failed so badly they quickly rendered Keir unconscious flinging him into parts of the set.

What’s particularly marvelous about The Starcrossed as a read is that Mr. Bova not only skewers the production of The Starlost, but he also uses the book as an opportunity to write an elaborate and loving parody of Harlan Ellison, under the guise of character Ron Gabriel. During the first meeting between Bova’s point of view character Oxnard and Gabriel in the chapter The Writer, Gabriel rants, fumes, call his lawyer to threaten someone with legal action at midnight, and parades around in nothing but a towel.

Is The Starcrossed an accurate portrayal of the behind-the-scenes story of The Starlost? It is clearly fictionalized, (and, as an aside, oddly predictive of the rise of 3D in Hollywood in a slightly different, imagined version of the tech) but based on what I’v read, and interviews I’ve seen with the man himself—not to mention Dreams with Sharp Teeth—the veil of fiction over The Starcrossed might be pretty thin.

Much like the thin line between science fiction and the real world of technological innovation that OMNI has long attempted to blur.

Science Fiction Book Meme

Who Goes There? John W. Campbell Jr

Who Goes There?, John W. Campbell, Jr., cover Malcolm Smith, Shasta, Chicago Illinois, 1951, 2nd Edition-2nd printing, movie tie-in with “The Thing from Another World

I couldn’t resist another little pre-launch appetizer. John DeNardo at SF Signal posted an excellent time-waster of a meme this past Sunday, which I am unable to pass up. My overlong answers to the original 17 questions follow below in italics.

1. My favorite alien invasion book or series is…?

I was going to pick The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, which is unquestionably great, but it really isn’t as interested in the alien threat described in the plot as it is the “what-if” psycho social ramifications of unending conflict over vast stretches of space-travel dilated time.

For that creepy, existential-crisis, fear-of-the-other that alien invasions stories largely represent, it’s still hard to top Who Goes There?, by John W Campbell Jr.

2. My favorite alternate history book or series is…?

The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson—steampunk before there was such a thing, now canonical.

3. My favorite cyberpunk book or series is…?

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Neuromancer: the perfect blend of fatalistic hardboiled noir and future shock.

4. My favorite Dystopian book or series is…?

There are a lot of great dystopian books, but 1984 is still the chilling pinnacle of this subgeneric hill. It even appeared on the bestseller lists again in the wake of recent privacy scandals. Orwell understood the inherent power of the perversion of language in service to control.

5. My favorite Golden-Age sf book or series is…?

I struggled with this one—More Than Human, Fahrenheit 451, The Foundation Trilogy—all remarkable books. But Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination sticks in my imagination more than any other book from its period. As William Gibson noted, Bruce Sterling called it “a seamless pop artifact”—it pulses with life and accomplishes more in fewer pages than most of a bookcase worth of sci fi “classics.”

6. My favorite hard sf book or series is…?

This question lets me sneak in Arthur C. Clarke’s magnificent Childhood’s End, which more properly should have been my response to the Golden-Age one above; in which case this space would go to Rendezvous with Rama. But no other work of so-called “hard” science fiction leaves me as simultaneously melancholy and hopeful as Childhood’s End.

7. My favorite military sf book or series is…?

Now I get to slip in The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, excellent.

8. My favorite near-future book or series is…?

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge has it all: reverse-aging medical procedures, augmented reality, smart military tech—and a bone-chilling vision of libraries being devoured that still gives me nightmares…

9. My favorite post-apocalyptic book or series is…?

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. SF fans debate whether or not The Road represents a kind of literary-world dilettantism in the ghettos of genre, but no one who is a father can successfully refute this book’s power.

10. My favorite robot/android book or series is…?

My instinct is to go straight to I Robot, by Asimov—a juggernaut of the SF genre and influential even unto the real world of robotics—but I’m going to have to go with something of an oddball choice: Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks (R.I.P.). Look to Windward examines the possible emotional consequences for artificial intelligences involved in an interstellar war. Banks’ great conceit is of a civilization shepherded by “Minds,” artificial intelligences with all the possible quirks that come from being sapient. The Minds extend themselves into android avatars and there are also independent probe-style robots here and there, so it counts. Worth the price of admission for the list of names the Mind-driven space ships christen themselves: You May Not Be The Coolest Person Here, Hand Me The Gun And Ask Me Again, Nuisance Value, Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall etc.

“O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”
—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

11. My favorite space opera book or series is…?

Again, back to the inimitable Iain M. Banks and his Culture. Start with Consider Phlebas, but the crown jewel in the series is Use of Weapons—avoid spoilers like a drunken uncle at the family picnic.

12. My favorite steampunk book or series is…?

My first thought was the awe-inspiring Perido Street Station by China Miéville, but although it’s rife with proto-steampunk tropes, it’s gnarly worldbuilding more easily fits into a kind of weird-fantasy crossover category than steampunk per se. So I’m going to step sideways into comics and pick The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore. Pure steampunk is, at it’s best, a reconfiguration of Victoriana, and no work does that more directly than League—Mina Harker, the Invisible Man, Mr Hyde, Dorian Grey, Captain Nemo, steam, gears, historical figures, the Nautilus, airships, Moriarty—it’s got it all and mashes it all together brilliantly.

13. My favorite superhero book or series is…?

This is perhaps my most obscure choice, but I’m going to say Slan by A E van Vogt. Slan’s prose is clunky and much of it has aged poorly, but there’s still something weirdly engaging about the book. Slan’s artificially evolved superhumans in hiding prefigures the X-Men to a startling degree. The murky morality of the two principle slans, the increasingly frenetic parallel narratives, and the still gripping action make it a surprisingly readable pulp curio.

I’ve interpreted this question to mean traditional prose novels, but if I had to go straight to the source, comics, then it’s The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, hands down—dark, gritty and all that revisionist stuff, sure, but ultimately still heroic. And about heroes you’ve known all your life, which notches it above the wonderful deconstruction that is Watchmen.

14. My favorite time travel book or series is…?

Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock. No one even tangentially exposed to a Judeo-Christian upbringing can deny the impact of Moorcock’s exploration of the psychology of faith. What would have been a clever think-piece in the hands of a lesser writer, is a gripping emotionally-charged fable in the hands of the master.

15. My favorite young adult sf book or series is…?

It’s tempting to stray into fantasy works here, particularly the incomparable Ursula K. LeGuin, but I’m going to stay in SF as the question implies and say Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi, which I actually enjoyed more than the adult-oriented Old Man’s War (still good, don’t get me wrong) in the same series. The perspective of a teenage girl on the events of a semi-traditional military science fiction story was really fresh and interesting.

16. My favorite zombie book or series is…?

I’m stretching it a bit here, but I’m going to say The Passage by Justin Cronin. Although technically about vampires, the images of hordes of uncommunicative monsters swarming out of the dark and wiping out most of humanity falls more easily into the zombie tradition. It’s also one of those books that creeps slowly into your consciousness and stays there until you have to finish it at two in the morning on a weeknight. A stealthy read that starts out feeling like a re-write of The Stand and gradually evolves into a weird hybrid of potboiler and properly literary experience—apocalyptic-ally elliptical.

17. The 3 books at the top of my sf/f/h to-be-read pile are…?

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard, Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan and another phonebook by Steven Erikson.

Feel free to reply in the comments below or to the original meme—or to debate the relative merits of my selections if you’re feeling argumentative.