I probably read more scifi than anything else this year, and given how 2016 has gone, some dystopia research did not go amiss.
Altered Carbon | Richard K. Morgan
We meet again, cyberpunk. How’ve you been, besides lurid?There are a lot of fun places you can go with a story where people’s minds can be re-sleeved into different bodies, and to Morgan’s credit, he actually explored a decent amount of it with the story he crafted. (One of my biggest Hollywood sci-fi pet peeves is only narrowly exploring the technological/social premise your story.) It’s a noir and retains some of the eye-roll-worthy gender dynamics of the genre, but the plot and world building were on point. I look forward to the Netflix series, chiefly because James Purefoy will be in it.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency | Douglas Adams
What can I say about one of my top three favorite authors, Douglas Adams? He’s is a one hell of a satirist, as well as an adroit, imaginative sci-fi writer, and thus Dirk Gently is many of my favorite things in one place. It’s not quite the nonstop delight that Hitchhikers’ is, but literally nothing could be. The plot is a bit of a jumble, but it’s more about the writing and living in the scenes, moment to moment, anyway. Also, if you’re a Doctor Who fan, you’ll appreciate some of that influence here, since this basically takes place in that same universe.
Oryx and Crake | Margaret Atwood
The concept and plot of this book appeal to me, but this execution was frustrating to read. I was bewildered by how the book handled fetishizing children/child pornography and every other conceivable human depravity. Ultimately it told what should have been a compelling story in a boring way, which can occasionally be the case with Atwood. It’s an insane sci-fi apocalypse caused by three people, so the story is told through their very mundane love triangle. The highlight of it all was the incredibly pessimistic world building, where the most prescient sci-fi ideas often live.
The Left Hand of Darkness | Ursula K. Le Guin
This is one of the better sci-fi books I’ve ever read, and explored some ideas about gender that are still very relevant today. It was also fascinating to me to see a female author write tropes and dynamics that I’m so familiar with in fandom and fan-fiction, but in a hard sci-fi book from 1970. Despite all but one of the characters being an alien, I was more invested in the people in this book than any other on this list. Without giving away the end, I will say I found Le Guin’s comments on her decision to use ‘he’ as a gender neutral pronoun and make her futuristic human character still have hang-ups about homosexuality pretty illuminating.
Lathe of Heaven | Ursula K. Le Guin
This is the second story I’ve read exploring the idea of solving social ills by way of a single character with the power to make their dreams literally come true. I preferred this to Octavia Butler’s take, since it took longer with the premise and explored more thoroughly what an oppressive responsibility that would be. The relationship between the dreamer and his ‘therapist’ had strong parallels to the relationship between younger and older generations, especially the frustration the latter have with the former’s so-called unwillingness to be bold and take control of situations, consequences be damned. And then, of course, blaming bad consequences, like a wrecked environment or social structure, on the weakness of that younger generation.
Snow Crash | Neal Stephenson
The world building in Snow Crash is why this book is so well-loved and famous, and the praise is totally deserved. It is, after all, why avatars are called avatars and Google Earth is called Google Earth. But I had no idea it was going to be funny and satirical as well, which was a wonderful Hitchhiker-s-y bonus. (Because if this book were serious, it would be a serious book about a super elite hacker who walks around with katanas and is the best swordsman in the world…) The plot makes almost no sense at the end (oh, Stephenson) and some of the characterization, especially of the main female character, leaves a lot to be desired, but it is very much worth a read.
Pattern Recognition | William Gibson
Pattern Recognition is a rare treat: smart sci-fi writing that blends high concepts and a deep knowledge of cultural trends, but doesn’t sacrifice character. I was not especially emotionally invested, but subtlety can be so rare in sci-fi, that it was a delight to find myself reading so closely. The ending was slightly underwhelming, given how highly the book rated in every other area, but I will definitely be reading more Gibson in the future.