Jen’s Favorite Books of 2015: Sci-Fi

Sci-Fi is a bit of a tricky genre to define at this point. What kind of sci-fi are we talking about? Hard sci-fi with aliens and spaceships? Within that, is it military sci-fi like Starship Troopers? Space Opera like Star Wars? Space Colonization sci-fi like Speaker for the Dead? We have realistic sci-fi like The Martian. Sci-fi/horror mixes like the Area X trilogy. Sometimes you even get a Sci-fi/fantasy blend. And where do we house dystopian fiction? A zombie dystopian future is horror but what if it’s parasites originally developed by humans to combat disease and large portions of the book are dedicated to the science of said parasites? What if it’s a dystopian future that’s not necessarily meant to imbue the reader with terror but instead teach us about the dangers of climate change or other environmental science?

The point of all this being, I had a fairly difficult time trying to distinguish what I considered “sci-fi” vs other genres, and my top 3 demonstrates that. It’s not going to be all hard sci-fi and space, and arguments can be made that genres like horror are more prevalent than sci-fi, but in my opinion, these books all should be classified as “sci-fi.”

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Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Do you listen to podcasts? Do you like strange and weird things like Twin Peaks, The Twilight Zone and The X-Files? Are you interested in a small desert town where time doesn’t work properly and the leading mayoral candidates were a faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home and a literal 5-headed dragon? Do you enjoy listening to or reading short stories told from the viewpoint of this strange desert town’s local radio station host? If you answered yes to most of these questions, you most definitely should check out Welcome to Night Vale! The podcast, that is. I’m sure you could check out the book that is on this list as well, but the book doesn’t work very well as a stand alone.

Welcome to Night Vale has been one of my favorite things since it began releasing its episodes in 2012. It is the perfect mix of other-wordly and strange without ever fully falling into the realm of horror. When I heard there was going to be a novel written, I was excited yet apprehensive. How exactly would this radio show podcast translate into prose? Would it require you to be caught up on the podcast to read it? How well will it serve those unfamiliar with the show? And for the most part, the novel assuaged all of my fears. Instead of keeping with the radio show format, we instead follow two side characters in the show, Jackie Fierro and Diane Crayton as they have their own adventure within this strange little burg. The plot was separate from any current events happening in the show at time of release, focusing instead on one of the lesser mysteries: who is the man in the tan leather jacket holding the deer skin briefcase?

The main downside is that if you haven’t ever listened to at least some episodes of the show, you’re going to be very confused. Night Vale doesn’t necessarily follow any sort of standard story structure, given how strange everything is. If you are unfamiliar as to how things work in Night Vale, or what is considered “normal” within the show (examples include: a sentient glow cloud (all hail) running the school board, a dog park that you must NEVER speak of and certainly never take dogs to, another dimension where radio show host Cecil’s boyfriend is trapped, a secret police monitoring everything you do with black helicopters, and definitely NOT angels), then you’ll probably not understand what in the book should give you tension and what shouldn’t. That being said, as someone who loves the podcast, I adored this book. It expanded upon the Night Vale mythos very nicely, gave me insight into side characters I never would have learned about otherwise, and all the while kept the strangeness of the show completely in tact. If any of this sounds interesting to you and you haven’t listened to the show, try a couple episodes before tackling the book! If not, well, this should probably get a pass from you.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is one of those authors that I had been meaning to read for years and never got around to. Time and time again I had people whose opinion I trusted tell me that I need to read her books, that she’d be perfect for me: dystopian semi-sci-fi fiction generally with feminist undertones (or overtones if you’re The Handmaid’s Tale)? That right there is a perfect mixture for a Jen book. I’ve consistently put off reading The Handmaid’s Tale, convinced that the time is not yet right for me to read this. But, 2015 was the year I finally broke my Atwood dry spell and read Oryx and Crake.

Oryx and Crake begins with a strange hermit named Snowman being pestered by strange almost alien-like children. “Snowman, oh Snowman, tell us about the world Crake has made for us. Tell us, oh Snowman, what these strange items are? Where is our beloved Oryx, dear Snowman? Please tell us when we shall see her again?” As their questions continue, you begin to realize that the place we are on is not some alien planet, but instead Earth, and Snowman is one of the last, if not the last human as we know and recognize them. The story flits back and forth between Snowman and the man he once was, Jimmy, as he relays to the reader the events leading up to the desolate and unrecognizable landscape that Earth now is.

As mentioned, Margaret Atwood tends to write very message filled fiction, and that is clear throughout Oryx and Crake. The book’s plot continually raises questions within the reader, challenging their views on the increase in genetically modification of our food and our lives. What lengths can science go to to help humanity, and how dangerous do those lengths become? What are the ethics of animal testing if it means a positive for humanity? What defines us as human and others animal? Atwood asks us all these questions, all the while maintaining a respect for science. Science itself is not the culprit or evil factor in Snowman’s tale, it’s the morals and decisions of humanity in their use of certain sciences that cause the danger.

If you haven’t read Atwood before, I highly recommend starting with Oryx and Crake, especially if you tend to be a genre reader like me. I definitely am hoping to continue the trilogy this year and read Year of the Flood. And who knows? Perhaps 2016 is the year I finally deem myself ready to read The Handmaid’s Tale.

Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie

I wrote a full on review for this book so I shall endeavor not to repeat myself too much here. Needless to say, all those reviews Anne Leckie won for Ancillary Justice? Definitely well deserved. It’s the only classic sci-fi novel on this list, but it far exceeds any expectations I had for the genre.

Ancillary Justice revolves around a sentient spaceship AI named Breq who ends up trapped in the singular body of one of her helper cyborgs. The reader follows her on her journey of exploration and revenge as she attempts to learn what happened that caused her from controlling hundreds of ships attached to her central mothership and even more cyborg robots throughout the planet she was stationed, to being all but destroyed.

The prose of this one can be somewhat confusing if you’re not accustomed to hard sci-fi and the worldbuilding therein. Breq’s very unique point of view can be a little difficult to follow for some, as she was used to being in multiple places at once and controls literally hundreds of different entities. There’s also some gender politics throughout the novel, as Breq has problems distinguishing gender differences between anyone she meets. Everyone is “she” regardless of physical description or their own self-identity, which can trip up the reader if not careful.

But those reasons were primarily why I loved the book. I had never read a sci-fi novel with such an interesting point of view, and Breq’s journey was compelling and exciting to read. The alien lore and worldbuilding was a bit tricky for me, but I adored this book. If you are a sci-fi reader accustomed to the styles of hard sci-fi and wanting a fresh take on the genre, I cannot recommend Ancillary Justice enough.

 

That’s all for sci-fi! Next up…. horror.

Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie, a review

I, like many others, took notice of Ancillary Justice when it was nominated for literally all of the things last year. Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C Clarke… if it was a notable sci-fi literary award, Ancillary Justice was got the nomination. And then proceeded to win all of the awards. Ancillary Justice was the Taylor Swift of sci-fi books last year, it won pretty much everything.

But upon actually looking into the plot of Ancillary Justice, many of my bells started ringing. We have a book about a former spaceship AI who used to control hundreds of ships and cyborg like entities but due to political machinations and possible betrayals, that AI is now restricted to one cyborg body. And due to her being an AI, she has no concept of gender and refers to every person she meets as “she” regardless of visual descriptors or pronouns other characters use.

There has been lots of talk about how this book is confusing, and it’s easy to see why. We’re used to reading characters with a similar perspective to that of ourselves, beings that have one body, and understand the distinctions between gender. On top of that, the race of aliens our AI hero Breq originates from have very unhumanlike views on morality and what constitutes one’s sense of self vs. the community. Ancillary Justice is most definitely a book you’ll need your thinking cap on to fully understand.

However, what was the biggest hiccup in my reading experience was not Breq addressing everyone as ‘she’  despite having beards or saying that she did one thing while her other body did something else. Instead, what kept confusing me was the world building aspects to the book and trying to keep all the different alien races straight.

Within the first 50 pages we have: the concept of Ancillaries, a planet or city called The Nilt and it’s inhabitants called “Nilters,” Radchaai, a planet called Shis’urna, the concept of annexation by the Radchaai empire, a city called Ors, the concept of Esks which are the cyborg equivalent of Ancillaries, the fact that Breq when she was a ship was called Justice of Toren, either another alien race or a subsect of the Radchaai that are called Gareseddai, the Radchaai religion and how it believes fate decides us all, and a God called an Amaat.

You can see how, even for a frequent reader of sci-fi/fantasy novels with deep world building, this level of lore thrown out of the gate can be confusing to a reader. There’s no glossary, no cheat sheet to reference if while reading the book you, for example, get confused about what the Rrrrrr is (answer: another alien species… I think). My brain was able to reconfigure itself and understand Breq’s extremely non human perspective, but I still felt that I was being pulled along, barely comprehending the Radchaai culture and how Justice of Toren was even created.

But for all of my confusion, I still ended up loving this book. Breq’s journey of revenge was very engaging once the pieces started falling into place, all the while we see the events leading up to Justice of Toren’s dissolution into only Breq. Radchaai culture, for as confusing as it is, is quite fascinating once you start to wrap your brain around it. There’s political intrigue and subterfuge and all the while you’re half wondering if the person you’re seeing interact with Breq and the world is actually female or if they’re being misgendered. But it doesn’t matter. None of the characters genders matter. Is Lieutenant Awn really a woman? Is she a man? Her gender plays no role in how she’s viewed within Radchaai culture, does nothing to determine her worth or how capable a soldier she is. We learn through visual cues that Seivarden is male, but that distinction does not change our opinion of him and his actions, does not make him inherently better or worse than female officers Breq served with.

Ancillary Justice is well worth the praise and awards it received, in my opinion. If you’re not particularly familiar with the sci-fi genre, this might not be the book to start off with, as all the aliens and worlds and cultural customs was confusing for a sci-fi veteran such as myself. It won’t be a fast and easy read, but Ancillary Justice is worth the amount of brain power expended keeping track of everything and understanding Breq’s unique perspective.