Reading for Other Worlds

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By Stefanie Hollmichel

It has been a great year for space travel: the Philae Comet Lander, NASA’s test of its new Orion spacecraft, the ongoing discoveries of the Mars rover, Curiosity. And given the popularity of the movie Interstellar, we humans are clearly in an exploring state of mind. The stars have always been a special fascination. What is out there? Who is out there? While science is working to boldly go, we can launch ourselves to other worlds from the comfort of a favorite reading chair.

An alien race on a planet located in the arm of a spiral galaxy, persisting through the millennia, through ice ages and heat, through volcanoes and earthquakes. No, not earth, these beings are rather bug-like in their appearance. John Brunner’s The Crucible of Time (1983) tells the story of what happens when the planet’s scientists realize their world is dying and the only way they will survive is to invent space travel and leave the planet. There is time, but is there enough time?

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) by Ursula K Le Guin is set in the same universe as The Left Hand of Darkness. Two hundred years ago the government on Urras allowed anarchist rebels to inhabit Anarres, a nearby moon, and pledged non-interference in its governance. Now, Shevak, a brilliant physicist from Anarres, arrives on Urras to advance and share his research. Very much a Cold War book, Le Guin’s novel digs into the political machinations of both authoritarian and capitalist societies and uses the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis to explore how language shapes thinking and culture. But take note of the book’s subtitle because neither society is as perfect as it claims to be.

Centuries ago a virus on the planet Jeep killed all the men in the colony and the planet has since lost touch with the rest of humanity. Now, The Company arrives on the planet looking to exploit it for profit. Anthropologist Marghe Taishan is brought in to test a vaccine against the virus. Do I need to say things do not go as planned? Ammonite (1992) by Nicola Griffith turns out to be a good story that also delves into exploring gender.

One subject scifi tends to address magnificently is what it means to be human and few books do it better than Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis series (also published as Litlith’s Brood), Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), Imago (1989). Earth has been made uninhabitable by a nuclear war and humans are nearly extinct. The few survivors are rescued by an alien race, the Oankali. The Oankali are sort of genetic scavengers, continually evolving by combining other races with their own. They have three genders and are repulsive to look at. Lilith is a black human female and they offer her and the other humans a chance to survive by interbreeding with them. The series is about the choices Lilith and the others make and the results of those decisions.

Aliens and planets are great, but sometimes you don’t even need to leave Earth; there are plenty of strange worlds right here.

Still a classic, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert A. Heinlein turns the story of the boy raised by wolves on its head by having him raised by Martians instead. An expedition to Mars goes wrong and twenty-five years later a second expedition finds there was one survivor, a boy who was born on the spacecraft and has been raised his whole life by Martians. Valentine Michael Smith is brought back to Earth. Not only is this book the origin of the word “grok,” Heinlein manages make a critique of culture and religion while still writing a good story.

China Miéville is one of the most interesting and talented genre writers working today. His novel The City and the City (2009) takes place in the European city-state of Besźel and Ul Qoma. These twin cities are superimposed on one another, sharing streets and sometimes buildings. You might live in Ul Qoma and your next door neighbor is a citizen of Besźel. No one is allowed to acknowledge the existence of anyone in the other city unless officially in that city. Sound complicated and weird? It is, but Miéville manages to weave an exciting police procedural into the fabric of these cities and just for kicks, tosses in the possibility of a third city.

It’s 2059 and economic and political power is held by a few multi-national corporations. If you’re lucky you work and live inside one of the corporation compounds. If you’re not, you are doomed to a life of poverty in an environment that has been nearly destroyed. Against this backdrop, He, She and It (1991) by Body of Glass  outside the US) gives us a suspenseful and thoughtful story. Golems, technological intrigue, a love story between a woman and a cyborg, questions about gender roles and human identity, good stuff!

So many strange places out there, but perhaps the strangest world of all is the human body itself. A very important scientist is on the verge of death after a failed assassination. The only way he can be saved is for a medical team to be shrunk down to microscopic size and injected into his body in hopes of repairing the damage to his brain. Fantastic Voyage (1966) by Isaac Asimov is a Jules Verne-inspired tale that has made it into popular culture. You may have seen the movie starring Raquel Welch. Need I say the book is better?

Science fiction can be about so many things, politics, gender, survival of a species, ethics, love, and sometimes just straight up space opera good versus evil fun blowing things up with lasers. We may never come face to face with aliens and it’s probably safe to say that most of us will never set foot on another planet, but our imaginations can take us across the universe, into the future, or lose us in the wilds of our own minds and bodies.

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Stefanie shares her home with two aliens we humans like to call cats. She blogs at So Many Books and dreams of the day she can say, “Beam me up Scotty!”