Thursday, April 9, 2020

Strange Lands: Scifi Reading List

As you could probably tell from my previous post on the African literature book club I joined in Nairobi, I'm a very big fan of community reading and discussion. When we moved back to the DC area for me to learn Korean, I immediately looked for a local book club and found one for science fiction (scifi) with a fantastic name: Strange Lands. (I also later learned this book club is one of many subgroups within this literary Meetup page - definitely check it out if you're looking to get connected with the book scene in Arlington, Virginia!)

Just as I left mini-reviews for the African literature I read, I thought I'd do the same for these scifi books. I think a lot of these will be accessible to both longtime scifi fans and those new to the genre.

  • The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal: I enjoyed this book, but our book club was extremely divided on it. It was unconventional as far as science fiction goes, taking place in an alternate-history 1950s America. It was clear to me the author had done extensive historical and scientific research, which paid off. I also thought the diverse representation was well done, including Jewish people, persons with disabilities, and people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. The book did get a little too ambitious to the point of introducing too many characters who didn't have a chance to be developed more in-depth. (I also didn't like the periodic romance scenes, but that's just a personal preference.) Overall, I would recommend this book because it's an easy read, the main character is someone worth rooting for, and it has the single best depiction of anxiety I've ever seen in a book.
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey: I recommend this book without hesitation. It's a delightful space opera that infuses themes of noir, political intrigue, sociology, and horror quite well. The pacing of the story is some of the best I've read in a long time despite the book's heft. There are eight books in the collection after this one, but don't let that scare you for two reasons: first, the book doesn't end on a cliffhanger so precarious that I felt I had to continue immediately (though everyone insists the book series continues to be as good or even better and I should keep going). Second, there's now a TV show so you can always catch up that way. My biggest qualm was the writing of women (as objects of lust and plot device movers rather than their own agents), but I'm told that gets better in the second book. You could also make the argument that the women are that way because they are filtered through the perspective of the two main characters in the book, both of whom are Problematic Protagonists.
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell: The premise of this book is truly unique: a broadcast of alien life is detected, and while governments try to figure out what to do the Catholic Church sends a Jesuit mission into space. I have very complex feelings about this book. The pace can feel a bit slow at the outset and then a little rushed at the end. At the same time, the book's themes of religion and philosophy are so expertly explored through the lens of a plausible future world. I found myself shaken through the whole final section of the book, following the arc of the main character and the impact of his experiences on his ideals and his pursuit of truth.
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: I loved this book, but I don't think it would necessarily appeal to general science fiction fans. The science fiction elements felt very light throughout, even though they did undergird the main premise of the book. I would recommend this book to fans of literary fiction or memoir who are open to speculative fiction. I liked the way the recollected stories from youth tied together and didn't want to put the book down. The whole thing is written from the perspective of a narrator reminiscing, and it is equal parts mysterious, unsettling, and heart-wrenching.
  • A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab: I wouldn't consider this work science fiction but rather urban fantasy, so I'm not quite sure on how this was chosen for our book club. Regardless, I'm glad it was because I enjoyed the world and the characters so immensely that I hardly cared that the plot was a little cliche. Although it took me a while to get into this book, it turned out to be a true gem. I put my money where my mouth is and actually immediately bought and read the next books in the trilogy because I couldn't wait to let it go just yet. That is extremely rare for me, given that I have a list of hundreds of books already on my Kindle (and mental) wish list. If you like urban fantasy, London, and magic, you'll love this book. (And I liked the second and third books even better.)
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman: I'm going to preface my commentary by saying the author is the protege of Margaret Atwood, and I fully expect her to continue to be an important voice in feminist science fiction. That being said, this book was not my favorite. I really liked the premise: what if we woke up and women had a power that instantly made them the stronger and more dominant sex? At the same time, I didn't like the frame (where the main story was presented as a stylized account of human history), one of the main characters (Allie), and the extensive sexual and physical violence (also see my thoughts on Ursula Le Guin's work below).
  • Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor: I loved this book! I was so grateful for the African literature-focused book club we had in Nairobi, because through it I understood more of the references in this one. This book has so much going on: aliens, marine biology, mysterious deities, interesting characters, mystical powers, and more. The whole thing is set in Lagos, and even though I've never even been to Nigeria the descriptions just pulled me right into the setting. I highly recommend this one.
  • *BONUS* The Birthday of the World by Ursula Le Guin: So this one's a bonus because I didn't read it in my main book club, but rather I picked it up for a Politics & Prose after-hours class (which I highly recommend). This was my first time reading Le Guin, but I can't say it was fully my cup of tea. I feel a bit uncultured saying this given how common it is in literary science fiction, but stories like these about complicated alien cultures that are very difficult to understand or that reveal information very slowly are a struggle for me. It's a shame because my general preference is for the exact kind of soft science fiction that explores new ways of being, forming relationships, and building societies. I also realized how prudish I am compared to the average reader, because I cringed more than anyone else in my group at the frequent depictions of rape and vulgarity in this short story collection. To be fair, the other participants who had read other works of hers, particularly her famous book The Left Hand of Darkness, seemed to enjoy these short stories more. I'll have to give that one a try next time.
  • *BONUS* The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison: This was also not part of the book club, but M and I read it together and are working on the rest of the series now. So many people have recommended this book to me so many times over the years, and now that I read it I can see why. The story is exciting and engaging, the world is very unique, and I like how it kind of straddles the line between fantasy and science fiction. The characters are complex and well-written, too. I highly recommend this one for any readers who like adventures and are okay with ambiguity. M agrees!

I originally thought this post would be even longer, but I've stopped attending this book club so I can maintain social distancing and help control the spread of Covid-19. M and I are still reading speculative fiction books together while I continue to work on my own novel manuscript. In the meantime, I thought I'd share the above recommendations for anybody else looking for new reading material while stuck at home. Happy reading!

No comments:

Post a Comment