I have always loved reading, but I will admit that I used to be a bit of a genre snob. With the exception of Harry Potter, my preferred books tended to stem from this reality. When a group of friends started talking about their favorite science fiction, college me said something dismissive about spaceships, dystopian overlords, and an obsession with the looming apocalypse. Somehow my college-age self did not see any irony in her declared love of Star Wars. My friends tried to defend particular titles, but I never let them get more than a few sentences into the descriptions. I would hear, “So this human raised on another planet comes back to Earth,” and I would just shut down. My friends could have written me off, but instead they came together and gave me a science fiction starter kit for my birthday. I am indebted to them. They planted a vital seed for my current desire to convince every STEM person I meet to spend real time with the humanities, and every humanities person I know to soften any knee-jerk reactions to STEM. Science fiction is one of my favorite places to do both.
Rather than simply reproducing the list from my friends, I have tried to address the three main areas I was so eager to dismiss: spaceships, utopian intentions gone awry, and the apocalypse. I will admit that I am one of those people who hates engaging in intentionally ridiculous hypothetical questions about only eating one food for the rest of my life or what I would do if all of my thoughts suddenly were broadcast out loud. But by creating vivid and full realities so different than my own, authors are able to engage my head and my heart in situations that – though I will likely never face them – provide important challenges to my own view of the world. This list is not meant to be comprehensive or a “best of.” It even veers slightly into the fringes of what may count as science fiction. It is merely meant to crack open the door for people who, for whatever reason, might hesitate to give these kinds of stories a chance. Where they go from there is up to them. (Note: Though this blog typically focuses on content for young audiences, some of the titles in this list contain mature or disturbing content.)
Stories that involve spaceships, but are about way more than just spaceships:
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell – This book was the first I read from my “starter kit,” and it hit me like a gut punch. Yes, there is a spaceship. But it also has some of the most engrossing depictions of culture shock and good intentions leading to severe consequences of any book I have read. It can be an emotionally demanding read.
Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang – This is actually a novella in the collection Stories of Your Life and Others. It inspired the recent film Arrival. Spaceships and aliens feature prominently in this one, but it is also a love song to language itself and the effect language has on the way we perceive the world around us. As a new parent, it was particularly striking.
All of Summer in a Day, by Ray Bradbury – A short story that I read as a child and revisited as an adult. I remember how real and unsurprising it all felt as a child, reminding me how big the actions and words of seemingly small people can be.
When trying to make things better doesn't go according to plan
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury – Concerns about what happens when people stop reading and start consuming media in flashier and easier-to-digest chunks are not new. The video-obsessed, drug-dependent, anti-intellectual landscape of this novel does not feel like it was published in 1953. Nor do the people trying to control access to information for the greater good.
Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes – The greater good in this book is not a society at large, but the life of one man. The story speaks to anyone who has ever had a sick friend or family member, and examines the balance between emotion and intelligence in how we treat the people we are trying to cure.
Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins – These books hardly suffer from lack of exposure, but all of the movies and Halloween costumes might have convinced some adult readers that these “young adult” books are not for them. There was hype for a reason.
Books that take place after the really, really bad thing already happened
The Girl With All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey – Starting this novel on audiobook left me sitting in the driveway in a running car before I noticed that the first few chapters had passed. The really bad thing here, basically zombies, has already wiped out most of the population. There are no right approaches to to facing this new reality, but no one can seem to agree on the least-wrong one.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy – This book isn’t cleanly science fiction, or horror, or anything else really. But it is a different enough reality that I felt it could fit. The reader never gets a clear sense of what the really bad thing was, but it has left the characters isolated and without any familiar resources. Removing technology can have just as a dramatic of an effect as creating transporters and laser guns. The world is complete, and the fear for the characters is palpable.
The Martian – In this case the “really, really bad thing” is not a global apocalypse, but an astronaut getting stuck alone on another planet. It’s bad, but it happened. Now what? This book could also appear in the spaceship category. It is also hilarious.