SF & Issues

Journal: 087

Earlier in the week Karen/Booker Talk posted “What I’m Reading : Episode 45, May 2022“, and one of the books she was planning to read was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953). I commented: “Good to see you reading some hardcore SF – Fahrenheit 451. OK some SF is just boys toys, rocket ships and guns, but lots of it tackles serious issues that people actually care about.”

Karen’s reply was: “OK, so let me throw down a challenge for you Bill. Give me a few recommendations of SF that does exactly what you say – tackles serious issues that people care about.”

So, given that I’m just an ordinary (lifelong) SF reader, and not a specialist SF lit.blogger – though I have from time to time highlighted women’s SF here, because it tends to have more character development, and often a quirkyness, that ‘straight’ (guy) SF lacks, not to mention a lot less action-for-action’s sake – let’s see what I can do.

We all know Fahrenheit 451, it’s about burning books, something we all care about. So that’s one. Bradbury (1920-2012) was an amazing writer. Sue and Melanie have been chipping me about not reading SF short stories, but I have a number of Bradbury anthologies – I just went off and read a few stories from I Sing the Body Electric. He has a dreamy prose style that is totally unique. There was an android ‘grandmother’; a man alone on Mars 60 years after Armageddon on Earth, with only tapes of his own voice to keep him company; but I didn’t see anything which fit today’s thesis.

My old favourites, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K Dick, Robert Sheckley, John Sladek slid from straight/pulp SF into postmodernism. They were concerned with how a capitalist world might look in the future. I might recommend Sheckley’s Mindswap (1966) because a) it’s LOL funny and b) in one place the hero swaps into a world, into the body of the president, where change of government occurs by a citizen shooting the president. These writers deal with ‘issues’ all the time, so in Galapagos (1985) Vonnegut explores how evolution might work if a pandemic wiped out nearly all the world’s human population.

We could go on to JM Ballard, Doris Lessing and Ursula Le Guin who are all great writers as well as SF writers. Ballard who as a child was imprisoned by the Japanese in China during WWII, was fascinated by the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which set him free. His fiction for a long time dealt only with the world ending. Lessing, as I discussed recently, in Shikasta looks at systems of government and social organisation. Her Mara and Dann (1999) is an exploration of global warming and the resulting mass emigrations or whole countries. Le Guin is an advocate for anarchist governance – The Dispossessed (1974) – for the environment – The Word for World is Forest (1972) – for feminism and for anti-militarism.

A lot of writers, in Australia and elsewhere, are facing up to the imminent end of life on Earth-as-we-know it by writing fiction which is ‘dystopian’ but for which they refuse the label ‘SF’. Over the past few years there has been a rush of such fiction by young Australian women.

The first (to come to my attention) was Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) which posits a Melbourne of widespread poverty, with UN peacekeepers; but the book takes ‘a wrong turn’ into something very much like Magic Realism. I find, as I page through my reviews, that I have a decided preference for quirky in my SF.

Another such novel is Elizabeth Tan’s brilliant Rubik (2017) set in Perth. “This is a novel for our neo-liberal times where corporations run by faceless old white men both know and control everything about us. Tan fights back subtly, with satire, with ‘acceptably brown’ characters, with off-hand analyses of the way we submit to being manipulated.” (my review).

I have reviews for Melissa Ferguson’s The Shining Wall (2019) – an underclass forced to live outside city walls; Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace (2017) – innovative uses of a total body suit for recording experiences; Geogia Blain’s Special (2016) – a world controlled by corporations rather than national governments; and a time-travelly climate change one set near Wollongong (sorry, I can’t offer a prize for the first correct answer).

Two important ones though are Charlotte Woods’ The Natural Way of Things (2015) which describes the indefinite internment of a group of young women who have been the playthings/victims of men and had the temerity to complain; and Claire G Coleman’s Terra Nullius (2017). Coleman is an Indigenous Western Australian, a Wirlomin-Noongar woman, and she writes of Settlers arriving and enslaving the local people. As in her second novel, The Old Lie (2019), it only slowly becomes obvious how this is SF. Her third, Enclave, is out in four weeks. My order has been placed.

This last week I have been listening to Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018), the third in her Wayfarer series. It’s actually more of a lecture than a story, on how to create a society which runs without money – real socialism in action! The earlier two were much better as stories, with interesting characters and dealing with the problem of are AIs ‘alive’.

Karen, I don’t seem to have actually recommended any particular book but I hope you enjoyed the discussion as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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Recent audiobooks 

Dina Nayeri (F, Iran/USA), A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea (2013)
Emma Viskic (F, Aus/Vic), Those Who Perish (2022) – Crime
Dervla McTiernan (F, Ire), The Good Turn (2020) – Crime
Polly Crosby (F, Eng), The Women of Pearl Island (2021) – SF (actually a soppy inter-generational female friendship thing, but the premise is that the Brits tested an atom bomb in 1955, on an island in the Channel)
Elin Hilderbrand (F, USA), Nantucket Nights (2002) – Mystery
Laurie Halse Anderson (F, USA), The Impossible Knife of Memory (2013) – YA (starts out as grunge, but descends into soppy teenage romance. I skipped the girl’s father’s trendy Vietnam War flashbacks).
James Baldwin (M, USA), Just Above My Head (1979) – Literature!
Tanya Talaga (F, Can), Seven Fallen Feathers (2017) – Non Fiction
Becky Chambers (F, USA), Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018) – SF

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AWWC May 2022

DateContributorTitle
Wed 04Elizabeth Lhuede“Reputed authoress”: Isabel Grant
Fri 06Stories FTAIsabel Grant: The Archangel Michael (short story)
Wed 11Bill HollowayNathan Hobby, The Red Witch (review)
Fri 13Stories FTA“Old-Women’s Stories”: Mrs Langloh Parker
Wed 18BronwynMary Gaunt
Fri 20Stories FTAMary Gaunt, Quits (short story)
Wed 25Whispering GumsEthel Turner’s juvenilia
Fri 27Stories FTALouise Mack, Teens (novel extracts)

All the Friday posts are stories, or extracts from stories, written by the authors mentioned.

34 thoughts on “SF & Issues

  1. Really enjoyed reading this post and I’ll definitely be coming back to it next time I fancy some SF recommendations! I have a couple to add, as well – Infomocracy by Malka Older and Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson are both, in different ways, about countries subdiving themselves into smaller and smaller communities based on political or identity labels, and the effect this has on social cohesion, politics, security, law, language etc. I also really, really loved The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas, which is admittedly a bit less serious than the other two but looks at the impact that time travel might have on our laws, politics, and relationships with one another.

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    • Lou, I hope Lou (my son) down below there saw your recommendations, he is always on the look out for new SF, and unlike me he doesn’t read anything else. Unfortunately we live in different states, so if I give them to him there’s no guarantee I’ll get to read them. You’ll be pleased to know I am closer to listening to Woman on the Edge of Time, it must be a year since I bought it on Audible… And now I’ve bought Mascarenhas as well.

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  2. Well, I’ll be booking marking this post for the future when I may (who knows why this would happen) decide to seriously focus on some/ any/ at least one SF book. My first memorable SF reading moment was when a friend gave me her copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (I accept many would not class this as true SF, rather comedy but given the spaceship element, I’ll count it). Anyway, I was around 14yo, read it, and was a bit flummoxed – I truly didn’t understand why she was gushing over this book. And I still don’t!

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    • Kate, I love Hitch-hiker’s Guide (I went to my shelves to check the apostrophe and found a hyphen) – the books, the radio series and the tv series. I wonder if you must first be steeped in SF to see the humour. Anyway, I’m sure you’ve read and enjoyed some of the Australian women writers of don’t-call-it-SF, and maybe even some of the women who do (Claire G Coleman for instance).

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      • I think you’re right about knowing the genre to truly appreciate the humour in Hitch-hiker’s.
        I have read and enjoyed writers such as Coleman but I honestly don’t choose them – I’ve read those books when selected by my book group or as part of prize long/short list reading (which is precisely why I participate in these things, for some enforced variety!).

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      • I think Coleman is really clever. Now I’m on Twitter and I see her there daily, I’m wondering if I’m brave enough to ask her for an interview (assuming she’ still Perth-based).

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  3. Sorry, hit send before I was finished. To continue – I wonder how much that very early experience coloured my view of SF? How much does the ‘first’ book of any genre impact our future reading? There must be something to capture our imagination in order for us to keep reading, and unquestionably, my reading tastes HAVE NOT CHANGED from what I chose as a child (relationship and family stories).

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    • I can’t think of a genre I was put off reading as a child/teen. I read a lot of WWII books and also boys own adventures but that’s because that was what was in front of me. I got into SF in the last years of high school and first years of uni and found it really suited me. Then in my 40s for whatever reason, I began to read more classics.

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      • From a young age I could read what I wanted – my mum would drop me at the library and pick me up an hour later when she’d finished the shopping. I was always drawn to stories about kids/teens, and my other main interest was Holocaust stories (this phase lasted for a solid seven years). Once I was in high school I read a weird mixture of trashy novels (think Jackie Collins) and classics (such as Austen).

        I’ve actually just finished reading a memoir by Ruth Wilson that tracks her reading history. It made me think a lot about the major phases in my own reading history. Might be worth a blog post one day!

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      • I can remember reading a very trashy novel at 13 or 14, and Mum saying to me, I hope you’re going to burn that when you’re finished.
        Yes do! Then we’ll all pitch in with long comments.

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  4. Great list Bill with a couple I’ve read… Rawson, Coleman, Wood … and I have read Vonnegut too. I like your looking at it via themes. I’m not averse to sci-fi though do prefer the dystopian end than the completely invented universes.

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    • I’m not sure what I could recommend to breach your barriers, Sue. Lessing’s Mara and Dann maybe, The Word for World is Forest. Elizabeth Tan definitely (I think you have her short stories). Nnedi Okorafor. Becky Chambers – A Closed and Common Orbit would get you into space with an author who writes really sympathetic characters.

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  5. You certainly stepped up to that challenge Bill. I was thinking I might get two or three suggestions, never thinking I might get a whole bookcase full. What strikes me is the variety so surely I shall find something to help me overcome my aversion to SF!

    Thanks a million for putting so much thought into this

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    • Karen, I have a head full of generalized SF stuff without remembering much of the specifics of any particular book, but I’m glad I was able to put together something which readers enjoyed and which at least suggested some authors to try.

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  6. I read this out to my husband, the SF reader in the family, and then shouted Flowers for Algernon but he said that was a cliche as it’s the SF book non-SF readers will read.

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    • I forget now whether I sent you a Claire G Coleman novel. But I hope he gets to try one one day (and I find out what he thinks), or Elizabeth Tan. They are both young Western Australian women SF writers and quite original.

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  7. You sent me Another Day in the Colony, Rabbit-Proof Fence and Growing up Aboriginal – I’ve sent these names to him to see if he can get anything although he’s had to suspend his Audible account for a bit as had such a backlog …

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  8. What a great list Bill. If Karen wants to dip her toes in to start with, I can certainly recommend Bradbury and Asimov’s short stories as a good place to start.
    I’d love to reread Hitch-hiker’s Guide one year to see if they hold up after all this time.

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    • I’d recommend next time you’re on a road trip – must be more than two years now? – that you listen to the HHGttG radio series. I have and loved it.
      Good choices – Bradbury is a very atmospheric writer, and Asimov is thoughtful about interesting situations.

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  9. I almost recommended Conan the Barbarian and then remembered that’s more fantasy than science fiction. I need to revisit my sci-fi anthology from college and see what is in there. Right now, the books are all in a pile on one wall out of the way of the furniture that’s getting shuffled around.

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    • Milly had a little crush on an AFL footballer known as Conan (Gary Ayres of Hawthorn in the 1980s). I’m a weed by comparison, made me feel quite inadequate!
      The recommendation I’d really like is new US SF, something on the wild side.
      Moving is hell I know, but you’re there now, maybe for life, shout yourself some nice shelves.

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      • Oh, we have the nice shelves, just the books haven’t made it ONTO the shelf yet! Almost everything is in the house, and that’s the win. I’m giggling now thinking about one or two things getting put away each day, which is about what we’ve been doing. I’ll include an update on Sunday about what all was done and what we’re focusing on.

        As for new US SF, I don’t think I have anything other than Becky Chambers, whom you read. Have you heard of The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal? Also, fun fact: I just Googled new SF in the US and every list that comes up is SFF, heavy on the fantasy. Which I find interesting.

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      • In the bookshops SFF still seems to dominate but I’m gradually becoming more aware of new SF (and not just don’t-call-it-SF by mainstream writers). BIP last night tweeted an excellent Kim Stanley Robinson interview about the book Lou recommended. I’ve added the Kowal to my list of recommended books.

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  10. […] Ministry For The Future by Stanley Robinson: this rare incursion into science fiction is the result of a question I put to Bill at The Australian Legend. I gave him a challenge: “Give me a few recommendations of SF that tackles serious issues that people care about.” Here are his recommendations. […]

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