Further Reading: Sci-Fi Edition

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In our conversation about sci-fi and visionary fiction with Bitch Media's Sarah Mirk, we established some science-fiction truths. Not only does the genre help us envision alternate possibilities for the universe, but it also leads us to consider alternate realities for our lives here on Earth.

During the episode, we discussed some greats, including Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin and Margaret Atwood -- but there are many more out there. We asked listeners for their favorites, and we've heard from a bunch of passionate and super-smart sci-fi fans, who all agree: Great fiction is awesome! Here are their recommendations.

Lara: [b]We've Always Feared Technology

I am currently working on a PhD at the University of Connecticut, and my dissertation is on French 19th century science fiction and how it comments and critiques social problems of its time, so it is a theme that has been around since the early 1800s! France was a hot spot for the creation of the modern genre of science fiction in the 19th century -- along with England. I am focusing on the colonization of North Africa by France and the fear of what technology will do to society in the future. People were scared of us losing our humanity if we are surrounded by machines even back then.

There are some English translations of these works if you are interested in reading them. "The Death of Earth" by J.H. Rosny Aîné is from 1910 and is one of the best science fiction stories I have read. It is so modern you won't believe it is 100 years old! "The Race That Will Be Victorious" by Jules Sageret (1908) is a disturbing story of the evolution of a another species on earth. You can see trends in it that reflect Nazi Germany. Jules Verne wrote "Paris in the Twentieth Century" in 1863 which was refused publication because it was a dystopian depiction of the problems science could bring to modern society.

Pearl: 'Battlestar Galactica' Reflects Our Own World

In addition to bringing us many fantastic things such as touch screens and the concept of self-retracting pocket doors (which was invented by Star Trek and I use every day on my subway line!), science fiction has also been a way to view historical and current events in a more objective way.

One television program that was especially on point with social commentary was "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one, not the one from the 80s with the horrid robo dog). The new version of "Battlestar" did fantastic work reflecting the realities of religion, politics, feminism, multiculturalism, militarism, colonialism and even commenting on the Iraq War, all through the lens of post-apocalyptic survival and battles against a race of machines created by man who rebelled against humanity. If you have not watched it, I highly recommend it.

I'm not the only one who has noticed how fantastically BSG handled these issues, as several books have been written on it (including "Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy" and "Cylons in America." In fact, in graduate school I wrote a paper on the effectiveness of how the show used its narrative to comment on post-9/11 events in America to provide much needed context and objectivity to a politically polarizing issue. If you have not watched the show, I do highly recommend it.

Emma: Science Fiction Gives Us Alternate Frameworks

I grew up reading and consuming science fiction in all forms, from Orson Scott Card to Samuel R. Delany, and I genuinely believe that the visionary futures and alternative life worlds posed by science fiction helped shape my path to activism and social justice as an adult. The more I've worked as an advocate, the more I've realized how much my politics have been shaped by the science fiction that left an indelible mark on how I see the world. As Ray Bradbury said, "Science fiction is also a great way to pretend you are writing about the future when in reality you are attacking the recent present and past." I think that science fiction gives us an alternative framework in which to consider race, class, gender, sexuality, spirituality and even consciousness, and has the potential to radically reshape the paradigms that shape and guide our society. By cognitively estranging ourselves into an alien planet, we get some perspective on how we negotiate our own perceptions of alterity. I think that there's a reason George Orwell's "1984"and Alduous Huxley's "Brave New World" still resonate today and why dystopian films like District 9 and The Hunger Games grip our popular imagination during times of political upheaval and distrust.

I agree wholeheartedly with all of Sarah Mirk's recommendations, and would add M.T. Anderson's "Feed," Ray Bradbury's "The Illustrated Man" and "Perdido Street Station" by China Mieville. There are so many great science-fiction short stories as well, many written by authors around the world, and animated science-fiction movies, like "Paprika" and "Ghost in the Shell" that are worth checking out.

D.J.: 5 Great Recommendations for the SMNTY Summer Book Club

Kudos on your 'Can science fiction change the world?' episode. For your upcoming summer reading episode, here are my suggestions.

  1. Dune by Frank Herbert: Possibly the best book written in any genre.
  2. The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold: Bujold was my first choice when I took up K.T. Bradford's challenge to read no 'White, Straight, Cis Gendered Men' for awhile. Her debut novel about a boy with brittle bones using his mind and wits to fulfill his dream of becoming a great military leader is much more than that synopsis. Follow ups find her exploring the universe she built, with many different kinds of protagonists (gay men, women, etc.).
  3. Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples: This ongoing comic about two soldiers from opposing sides having a child is popular for all the right reasons.
  4. Dresden Codak by Aaron Diaz: Hard science, beautiful art, & social commentary.
  5. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson: A brick that will make your brain work for it.

Zoe: Don't Forget the Comics

I liked your science fiction episode a lot! I've heard about a lot of the fiction discussed in it but I've been meaning to read some of the books mention and will try to do so! The episode reminded me of this old EC Comic I heard about, I'll just quote the bit about it from the wikipedia article:

The story depicted a human astronaut, a representative of the Galactic Republic, visiting the planet Cybrinia inhabited by robots. He finds the robots divided into functionally identical orange and blue races, one of which has fewer rights and privileges than the other. The astronaut decides that due to the robots' bigotry, the Galactic Republic should not admit the planet. In the final panel, he removes his helmet, revealing himself to be a black man.

They tried to make the creators not have him be a black man, but that would completely undermine the entire point in the story. It was a-OK to have a guy judge the robots as unworthy for discriminating based on color, but so not cool for the comic to be explicit about the message it was trying to send about real-world politics. Eventually, the comic was published as is.

I'm a bit passionate about comics in general, and there seems to be a resurgence of comics of all genres, including sci-fi. I'm a huge fan of webcomics and indie comics. One of my favorites is "O Human Star," which explores the nature of people and their relationships in a robotic future. I'm also really excited about a couple of upcoming anthologies, such as "New World," which is being headed by Spike Trotman, who I believe was mentioned in your episode(s) about comics. She's talked about it on her twitter a lot and I can't wait to see what the contributors come up with. I'm also really excited for (and backed) "Beyond," an anthology of sci-fi and fantasy with a queer theme!