Friday, May 09, 2014

What we're reading: "Real" science fiction

People who see that title--"real" science fiction--may wonder if I am casting aspersions on some sci fi that I consider "false." No, no, I like it all--but there's science fiction, and then there's SCIENCE FICTION [in shouty caps]. What I mean by that is, there are rollicking adventure stories set in space, or epic fantasies that take place on other worlds, and while some are truly great stories, there's not much more to the sci fi content than that setting or location plus a few gadget-y "toys." Then there are the books that are concerned with philosophy, with culture, with interspecies or alien communication, with moral dilemmas, personal and species accountability...the books that speculate about the future in a broad and meaningful way, taking as their foundation the events or trends of the present and postulating what could transpire.

Just because these books tackle sweeping themes, though, doesn't mean they have to be complex. For example, we just finished reading Neal Shusterman's young adult novel Unwind for 10-12 Book Club, which takes the "war" between the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice forces in America to one possible conclusion in a simple yet multi-layered and fascinating way.

Some of the books to which I refer are a lot more work to read; I just finished The Companions, by Sheri S. Tepper, an eco-feminist science fiction author whose writing I consistently admire, and although all her novels are not this complex, this particular one required dedication. It's intricate, philosophical, analytical, examining moral, racial, social, global, and galactic issues, all within the context of a STORY. I find it so impossible to encapsulate this book that I'm going to borrow the description from Goodreads, which is better than I could do:
Humankind has arrived on Moss to discover if any intelligent native life exists there, and to assess the planet, recently discovered by the Derac, a nomadic space-faring race, for development and profit. Multi-colored shapes of dancing light have been spotted; strange sounds are heard in the night; the researchers name them the Mossen and send for a linguist to ascertain if it is evidence of intelligent life. Jewel Delis has accompanied her half-brother Paul to this verdant paradise. Her task is to help Paul decipher the strange language of the Mossen--but she has a secret mission as well. A new law on Earth means the imminent massacre of all beasts great and small, so Jewel must discover if Moss holds the promise of sanctuary for the doomed animals, once humankind's beloved companions. Time is running out for Jewel's creatures, but it might be running out for Humanity too: the Planet Moss, itself a living entity, is not sure it cares for any of the species currently living on its surface.
Whew! If this sounds too complicated to start with, try one of Tepper's more straightforward (and humorous) books, like The Fresco, in which abused wife Benita Alvarez-Shipton is approached by a race of aliens who want her to be their representative to the powers of Earth; or The Family Tree, in which police officer Dora Henry discovers that Nature has decided to fight back against the depredations of humanity, starting with the weed growing through the crack in their front sidewalk versus her uptight husband; or (on a more serious note) The Gate to Women's Country, set in a dystopian world (no, not all dystopian novels are for teens!) that advances a provocative form for its post-war society.

The thing I love about Tepper's books, and those of such science fiction greats as Frank Herbert (the Dune books, The White Plague, The Dosadi Experiment) and Ursula K. Le Guin (The Dispossessed, the Hainish Cycle, the Earthsea books), is that they challenge while they entertain; they feel free to criticize while holding out hope; and they never let the story become subservient to the science.

All this is on my mind because this year's Teen Summer Reading Program theme is "SET FORTH! New Worlds Await You" and is all about the sci fi. I'm hoping that we can introduce our young adults to the writers of the Golden Age of science fiction, as well as a bunch of contemporary up-and-comers. I'm looking forward to our six-week immersion in the speculative!

[Teens can sign up for the program online, starting June 2. Our brochure of activities is here.]

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