In my many years of reading, I’ve encountered three “perfect” science fiction books, and I’d like to share them with you, because they are more than worth your time.
As a short preamble, this isn’t a listicle, and this isn’t a “Top 5 Sci-fi Books!” for two reasons: One, I hold a distinction between “favourite” and “best”, and not all of my favourite books are likely to also be yours. Second, I’m not going to share the runner-ups here, this list is about perfect books.
Second, before we get to the list itself, I want to say a couple of words about science-fiction. Science-fiction isn’t merely futuristic or in space, but it’s about stories that ask questions, that posit changes and explore them, or advocate for said changes. The setting can help, but isn’t necessary, for instance, Star Wars is famously an Arthurian fantasy series, that happens in space, rather than a science-fiction story.
Without further ado, here are the three books, listed by date of release:
1) A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge (1993):
This book is what I’d call “The Complete Package,” in that it has everything a book should have, and more than that, it has everything that a science-fiction book should have. The story is set in a society affected by distance-based gravity, in that the farther off you are from the center of a galaxy, the faster travel (including of information) can occur. So we have the “If something in our world changed, how would it affect society?” answered. We have humans interacting and acting as they are in said society, and alien entities of various sorts, and a specific underline that makes us question what it is that truly makes up a “person.”
And then we have kids who end up trapped amid an alien species, so we also have a story of first contact, a story told through both human and entirely alien point of views, and again, it touches on what all stories revolve around, the nature of personhood. A love story, a race against time, and more, all exist in this very well-told story, and all mesh to a singular whole, rather than clashing or making you wish one segment were to end only to reach the next.
Note: Though this book is listed as “Zones of Thought part 1,” it is entirely self-contained.
2) Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (2002):
While the first entry in this list is one story showcasing everything good sci-fi is, this book is a collection of short stories that shows everything good sci-fi can be. The stories range from 3 pages to over 40, and deal with a wide gamut of settings, issues, scopes, and even modes of storytelling.
Stories range from a memoir of a scientist who interacted with aliens that changed the way she perceives time (on which the 2016 film Arrival has been based), to the people living in biblical Babel trying to reach the sky through The Tower of Babel, to the small and personal tragedy of a mathematician who discovers Math is false. There are riveting suspense stories (one of which basically seems to contain the plot to the movie Limitless from 2011), to those that are told as if they were documentaries, on a world where you can disable your sense of beauty appreciation.
There’s just so much here, and even if some stories won’t work for you, the breadth and vision on display here make this book a must read for anyone interested in the powers of creative writing that we humans can bring to bear, and who would like a much wider taste of what science-fiction is about.
3) Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (2013):
By far the most recent book in the series, and the one I can describe the least, due to the asynchronous manner in which it is told and the mysteries that unravel as you read through it. The book jumps between two different times, a “before” and “after”, and what a momentous moment it was that caused the schism, and I can’t tell you about it.
This book does quite a few things, the first and simplest is that it tells you a good detective story, slowly layering on answers, more questions, and knowledge of the world we find ourselves in. Secondly, it quite openly asks about what makes a person a person, and the boundaries between AI and people, and also the question that our own lives revolve around: How much of ourselves can change, can we lose, while we still remain “ourselves”, and what does “remaining ourselves” even mean.
Then the story more subtly asks us what would happen if we were able to inhabit multiple bodies or live forever, what would happen if we reached an internal disagreement we could never reconcile. The story also takes place in an “Exotic” and space-faring human society, but if you know how many times such a community actually took place in our own history (such as through the Hellenistic Culture, or even through today’s globalization), you might rethink what you think of the story and the characters within, and also our own world.
Finally this story is also so well told, that I’d recommend it on that strength alone.
The book is the first part of a trilogy, but is self-sufficient. The sequels in the trilogy are not self-sufficient, and are “only” very good, rather than masterpieces.
Any perfect books you’d like to share? Or your favourite science-fiction books, and why?
(Due to a terrible migraine, the Season Preview has been delayed to about Saturday. Apologies.)