Some SF recommendations

I wrote up some recommended science fiction reading for a friend, and figured I would post it here. I’ve also been mentioning a couple favorite writers in my grad app Statements of Purpose, in the hope they might catch someone’s eye. A lot of the pleasure of science fiction for me is philosophical speculation.

Probably my favorite SF writer is Gene Wolfe, but the recommendations below are specifically for non-Gene-Wolfe SF.

Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men (1930), The Star Maker (1937). Stapledon was a very unusual SF writer — he was an academic philosopher. His books are very unusual science fiction. They basically do away with any pretense of being stories. They are future histories and cosmological speculations. I think this would be deathly coming from most writers but it’s great material for Stapledon. He seems to be the originator of a ton of ideas that would later become mainstream in science fiction, like “Dyson spheres” and group minds. Very creative. His big project is to reconcile the austere scientific worldview, that we’re going to die and vanish and we are tiny and unimportant, with some kind of cosmic meaning. The experimental RPG Microscope, which I want to play some day, reminds me of his work. Link: http://www.lamemage.com/ (I also recommend Robert Charles Wilson as a modern-day interpreter of the Stapledonian worldview. Start with Spin (2006).)

Vernor Vinge, A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), Rainbows End (2006). Vinge is maybe the most important science fiction writer there is, and I could recommend tons of his other books. He invented the “technological singularity.” He is not nearly as good a writer as Gene Wolfe, but he’s one of the most productive and creative intellects in SF. The big thing that separates Vinge from other writers is that he actually understands computers and computation. Fire is a sort of space opera with an extremely wide scope where everything fits together logically. It also has a great counter-story about economic development and scientific and industrial revolutions. I think Vinge paints with a kind of restricted emotional palette, but the despair, loss, and cold cosmic ironies are extremely convincing, and so is the fun. Rainbows End is a very convincing and pretty chilling piece of near-future speculation, kind of like a mundane Ghost in the Shell.

Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (1956). I borrowed this book from Jesse a few years back. It is both a great book and a great anomaly — that it could have come out at the same time as Foundation is shocking. It prefigures some of the big themes of the much later “cyberpunk” movement, especially rebellion against corporate-commercial domination. It has a bracing anarchic message that is hard to accept but hard to dismiss.

Peter Watts, Blindsight (2006). This is great philosophy-of-mind science fiction. It’s an example of the first-contact genre. A handful of abnormal-psych case studies go on a mission to an alien artifact. The challenges they face are used as a lens to ask what consciousness is and what it is for from an evolutionary perspective. Very negative; finishing the story is a relief from its bleak worldview. But great.

Have you read any of these already? Got any recommendations of your own?

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