Interested in science fiction, but not sure where to begin? Sceptical of spaceships, but never really given them a chance? We asked Nicholas Whyte, administrator of the World Science Fiction Society's renowned annual Hugo Awards, to recommend five of the best sci fi books that should appeal to readers new to the genre
You’re the administrator of the Hugo Awards, a set of literary prizes presented annually by the World Science Fiction Society. You’re also, needless to say, a big reader of sci fi books yourself. Do you find you’re often trying to get people interested in and excited about science fiction?
More often it’s the other way around. It will come up in conversation that it’s an interest of mine, and the reaction will be: ‘Oh, tell me more,’ or even: ‘I’ve read a couple of sci fi books, what should I read next?’ So I don’t have to evangelize too much. Popular culture has largely done that job for me. I do find that perhaps the popularity of films and television has meant that the literary side of science fiction is following along rather than driving it, as might’ve been the case 45 years ago.
Sure. The Hugo Awards have been going since 1953, so it is the longest running award for science fiction in the world. If you check Wikipedia, you’ll find a picture of the Guinness Book of Records presenting a certificate to me two years ago to commemorate that officially. The World Science Fiction Convention goes back a bit further. It’s been running since 1939, so that’s been precisely 80 years—with some gaps during the Second World War.
The Hugos started about 14 years after as a means of not just celebrating the best published science fiction, but also celebrating the activities of fans. There’s always been a strong component of celebrating fan writing, fan publications, fan art. It’s perfectly natural. When people feel like they’re a part of a community, you gather together and you commemorate the achievements of that community. And science fiction, perhaps more than any other literary genre, has always had that community feeling about it.
Great. So, today we’re going to discuss books that will appeal to the general reader, who is interested in getting into science fiction.
Yes. The history to this is that a couple of months ago a friend of mine, who claimed he had read no science fiction at all, asked me for recommendations of science fiction books to read. So I put out a general call on social media to all of my friends to make recommendations. Five books came clearly ahead of everything else in that—very informal, unscientific—online poll. And I would certainly agree that these are five very important books that would convince people who are already interested in reading, but who maybe have not read much, science fiction. I think that they will help them to explore the genre a bit more deeply.
Perfect. Quite recently we posted an interview about the Arthur C Clarke Award 2019 shortlist, a British science fiction literary award, and it’s been one of our most popular interviews. It showed that there are a lot of people out there—readers looking for the best sci fi books.
I was actually a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award myself four years ago. It’s a small world!
Shall we kick off? Let’s start with Dune by Frank Herbert. Perhaps you can give us a sense of the plot and why it’s a good sci fi book to start with.
Dune is very interesting because it marks the transition between pulp fiction planetary romance and engagement with real-world politics. It’s a story about a young nobleman whose family are assassinated, and he is driven into exile on a desert planet. He makes common cause with the warriors of the desert in order to try to come back and reclaim his inheritance.
But as well as that basic ‘hero’s journey’ element, a lot of the book is very much tied up with the setting, the very distinctive ecology of Dune the planet, which, like I said, is mainly desert, but features amazing creatures like giant sandworms. The relationship between the human beings who have settled on the planet and the native creatures is quite fundamental to how they’re going to try and solve the political problem that they’re faced with.
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It was written at the height of the Swinging Sixties, but it’s addressing problems of ecology and environment that have become all the more salient today. In that way, it was quite forward-looking—as you would hope from a science fiction book—and it became particularly popular, I think, because it managed to carry it off awfully well. The pacing is partly adventure story, but partly written as a history of previous times looking back. It’s told in a convincing, mythical way. You’re given the sense that these are really important issues.
It’s the first of a series of several books. I must say, I feel none of the others quite lived up to the impact of the first one, although I’ve had bitter arguments with diehard fans who tell me I’m completely wrong about this.
The planet Dune, and how complex a vision it is, makes it an immersive reading experience. Do you think this is part of the pleasure of reading science fiction? Stepping out of daily life and into a different, fully-realised world?
Absolutely. I work in European politics in my day job; I’m a lobbyist in Brussels. This is intense and it confronts me daily with really important, high-level situations. I like a bit of escapism at the end of the day, but I also like something that speaks to my interests—which are politics and, increasingly, the environmental question which is becoming so important in the world. So yes, for me, it’s an escapism temptation. But also I like the sense of some intellectual heft behind it. Some emotional tug that brings you into the new invented world. I think that’s true of all five of these books that we’re discussing.
Yes, I think a lot of people can relate to that. In fact, some of what you’ve said about Dune—about wider political issues and intellectual heft—strikes me as also being applicable to our next sci fi book, The Left Hand of Darkness, which must be one of my favourite books of all time. So let’s move on to this, the first of the Ursula Le Guin books you’d like to discuss.
As I said, the theme of Dune is the environment, and the theme of The Left Hand of Darkness is gender, which is something that I think all of us are deeply interested in on the most personal level.
The setting of The Left Hand of Darkness is a world where the inhabitants are humans, or very closely related to humans, with the exception that they don’t have a gender most of the time. They can turn either male or female for a couple of days a month and that’s the point when babies get made, if I can put it that way. Apart from that, there isn’t the gendered hierarchy of society that we’re used to.
The story is about an explorer who comes to visit the planet and becomes engaged and entwined with its politics. The other thing to say, which is one of the other striking parts of the portrayal, is that the planet is portrayed as very cold. There’s a particularly memorable passage of a desperate attempt to escape across an ice field.
Both climate and the new society are very compellingly described by Ursula Le Guin, who was one of the greatest science fiction writers of the 20th century. One comes back again and again to the gender question. This isn’t just a political adventure set among primitive inhabitants of a cold planet; this is a setting that makes us challenge and question some of the things that most of us consider pretty fundamental to our human identity, and maybe shows us that there are other ways of thinking about these things.
Yes. It made me re-examine almost every personal interaction I’d ever had. I think that novel made me think about gender in a deeper way than feminist tracts.
As I say, I work in Europe. There are languages that I have contact with, like Hungarian and Finnish, that don’t actually have grammatical gender. And it’s notable that Finland was the first country in Europe where women got the vote; I wonder if these two things are connected. That’s a world that’s closed to those of us who don’t speak Hungarian or Finnish, which is most of us. Ursula Le Guin manages to open up these questions for an English-speaking audience, or, indeed, for an audience that speaks any language with gendered pronouns.
Ursula Le Guin is also the author of the third book we’re going to discuss, The Dispossessed. Perhaps you could tell us about that.
The Dispossessed, again, is a political book, but it’s a little more dated in its way than the first two because it is to a certain extent reflective of the Cold War. The hero of The Dispossessed grows up on a planet which is one of two twin planets in a solar system far away from here, although a solar system where they do have contact with Earth. Einstein’s name is dropped in at a late stage in the novel. The planet where the hero grows up is essentially a communist-socialist utopia, and the twin planet that they see every day and every night hanging in the sky is a more capitalist society, much more similar to our western society.
The parallels are deliberately not direct; the home-world is not the Soviet Union, the capitalist world is not the United States. Le Guin puts enough effort into it to show that these are new creations, although they’re creations that reflect other things, places that we may be more familiar with. Her point is not to make a moral judgment as to which of these situations is best. They both have their flaws; they both have their strengths. She’s much more interested in the moral and ethical and psychological aspects of what it’s like to grow up in a world where you can see another different world visible every day, and what that means for your sense of personhood, what that means for your sense of what is possible.
The book ends on a strikingly optimistic note, after a tough journey getting there, about the importance of communication. It starts with a really impressive image of the only wall on the utopian planet: the wall around the spaceport, which is actually there to keep the rest of the world out rather than to keep the rockets in, as it were. The whole book looks at walls and their psychological equivalents and how they’d play out in this very imaginative and well-portrayed environment.
It’s very interesting to see Le Guin’s work appear twice on a list of five books that are to reflect a whole genre. I wonder if you might say a little more about her influence on science fiction more generally.
Where can one start, really? I think if you’re looking for a writer who picked up the pulp tradition of science fiction and merged it with 1960s New Wave writing, and then instilled that with a deep concern for political issues, such as questions of ownership and power, then she was the person who was able to pick those things up and make them more relevant, not just to science fiction readers but to a wider readership—which is what we’re talking about today. So that’s why her name figures quite so strongly than the more ‘insider’ writers . . .
Who are they?
I mean, the three names that I was expecting to see on the list that weren’t there were Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, who, between them, defined science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s. But I wouldn’t say that their work has shown a lot of staying power. They were writing for a particular audience at a particular time and it’s not proven to be as universally appealing outside the core science fiction community in a way that the books we’re discussing have been.
That’s really fascinating. Let’s move on to book number four on the list: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. This is much more recent.
I was so pleased that this qualified as a work for my top five. Ancillary Justice was published in 2013, and it won every single prize in 2014, including the Arthur C Clarke Award, the year before I was a judge. Also the British Science Fiction Award, a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award . . . It won absolutely everything.
It is also a political book, but a political book that takes the traditional space opera universe . . . I think I’m right in thinking that it’s the only book of the five that we’re discussing that’s got spaceships in. Well, spaceships make an appearance in The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed and in Dune, but they’re not really core elements of the plot, whereas spaceships really are a core element of the plot in Ancillary Justice.
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It’s about a future war and the dialogue between people and artificial intelligences. There’s also a very interesting gender aspect to it as well, in that her protagonist doesn’t distinguish people by gender. Her protagonist is actually an artificial intelligence, a computer personality. Therefore, because the protagonist doesn’t perceive gender, it uses ‘she’ and ‘her’ for all human beings: ‘She has a big red beard.’ That kind of thing. It’s even more subversive than the Ursula Le Guin approach to gender and makes us think: Why do we say that? What’s really going on in our minds? What is at first presented as a slight deficiency in the way that the computer intelligence sees the world, makes us realise it’s a deficiency in the way we’re seeing the world.
I’m a writer myself—albeit of nonfiction, not novels—and have always found it interesting, from a technical perspective, to look at how science fiction writers do this: take non-human consciousnesses and summon them on the page. It has a lot in common with experimental fiction. Do you agree that science fiction is all about experimentation? Thought experiments, yes, but narrative experiments too.
Yes. I think it facilitates that sort of experiment in a way that is more difficult for a mainstream writer to pull off, because science fiction writers are expected to do something new and imaginative. In a sense, the bar of credibility is a bit lower than if it were, say, Martin Amis.
On top of that, I would also say that science fiction fandom has really turned a corner and is demanding creative thinking from writers on fundamental issues like gender and sexuality and race in a way that, perhaps, mainstream readers are not demanding of their writers.
Maybe I’m overgeneralising, but I have this sense that there is a bit more of an activist edge to science fiction fandom these days. I think it was always there; Asimov and Heinlein were both politically active in their different ways. Clarke wasn’t particularly. Now, it’s increasingly coming with the territory.
Let’s move on to our final title: Roger Zelazny’s 1967 novel Lord of Light.
Lord of Light! It’s one of my guilty pleasures. I can’t claim that Lord of Light is as great a work of literature as the other four, but I enjoy it hugely. It’s set on a future planet which has been settled many centuries back by settlers from Earth. The group of people who were originally the officers and leaders of the human colony have reinvented themselves as Hindu gods. The story is essentially about one of them who decides that this isn’t good enough and attempts to reinvent himself as the Buddha, and therefore attempts to cause a religious revolution on this planet.
Of course, all the divinity stuff is being conducted through technical trickery, including reincarnation, which is a major plot element. They do, in fact, manage to achieve reincarnation through technical means. When people die they may come back as animals or, if they’re lucky, as other people. Of course that system, because it’s being run by human beings rather than divine fate, is very much open to corruption and misuse.
Our hero, in his attempt to disrupt human society, makes common cause with the non-human indigenous inhabitants of the planet, which again has got weird resonances with colonialism, which is a topic we haven’t really hit on so far. It’s not a deep critique of colonialism, but it’s a very interesting one which, again, dates from the mid-1960s, the point when Dune was being written, when the white world was looking at the non-white world in a very different way.
“As the Philip K Dick once put it: ‘The sci fi writer sees not just possibilities but wild possibilities.’”
I think the other thing to say about it is that it’s a good exemplar of the New Wave writing of 1960s science fiction, of which the most famous British example would probably be J G Ballard, who of course was so far outside the science fiction box that a lot of people are a bit surprised that he’s considered one of us by science fiction fans. But he is, and that meant a much deeper attachment to myth and to vivid descriptive writing and to tying back into older stories, not just writing new ones.
Lord of Light is flawed because it’s an American looking at Asian traditions and getting it not-entirely-correct, but at the same time the point is, as the great writer Philip K Dick once put it: “The SF writer sees not just possibilities but wild possibilities. It’s not just ‘what if?’—it’s ‘my God; what if?'”
Lord of Light still does that for me, and clearly did it for those who answered my survey. It’s a work full of energy, full of vivid images. There’s one very, very bad pun in it which I won’t repeat for you; you’ll have to read it and find it for yourself. But it’s an adventure story set in a very different sort of environment from the usual adventure story.
I love to hear interviewees recommend their favourite books so wholeheartedly. Thank you for that. Is there anything else you would like to say to someone who is considering launching into science fiction for the first time?
As with anything, I think that reaching around, finding what ticks your boxes and then reading more of it is the way to do it.
But I’ve got to say is that one of the great things about the science fiction community is that there are conventions held frequently. The World Science Fiction Convention is coming up shortly in Dublin. The annual big British science fiction convention will be in Birmingham in 2020, it’s called Easter Con. There are other smaller events up and down the country and around the world. So I would say that if find you’re enjoying this sort of stuff, it’s worth finding other people who enjoy it as well, because it’s a branch of literature in which the sense of community is awfully strong.
Ursula Le Guin and Roger Zelazny and Ann Leckie were all very much integrated into the wider science fiction community before they became well-known as writers, and Herbert certainly was afterwards as well.
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