This holiday season, think about throwing some classic science fiction in with some of the gifts you give. There are plenty of good reads to be found in secondhand bookstores, so why not blow a few bucks and convert a friend or family member to the fold?
Good science fiction can give a reader an idea of what amazing things us puny fleshbags can achieve. With one foot rooted firmly in what science has already accomplished, it gives us a chance to feel connected to the narrative. Alternatively, something else science fiction can do is warn us by illustrating what might happen if we use our technology unwisely – cyberpunk is a fucking awesome subgenre, but I don’t know that I’d want to live there…
With that in mind, I present to you a primer that should aid you in getting the right book into the hands of the right person. I’ve chosen books of a certain vintage to ensure you should be able to find them at bargain prices. This is just a guide, though – you’re bound to uncover some gems if you go digging. Happy hunting!
Viper Pilot’s Discerning Guide to Second-Hand Science Fiction
Well… if you live in Australia, you must go out and grab anything by Greg Egan. If you’re in North America, I sincerely hope you can find his work. Buy a book of his for yourself, and then one for the gift. If you can only find one, fuck it and just keep it for yourself.
Mr. Egan is a scientist, mathematician, physicist and computer programmer. He applies his vast knowledge to his writing, resulting in some astoundingly good hard science fiction. Anyone who really appreciates really insane attention to detail will love Egan’s work. His works on posthumanism, artificial intelligence and simulated reality are particularly standout.
The Military Man
While conflict is present in most science fiction, military science fiction focuses much of the writing to detail about the organization of armed forces in the future, as well as their tactics, weaponry and traditions. Often drawing from military history, it combines action, science and tips of the hat to historical events that should please the military man.
Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is one of my favourite books of all time. Do not be scared off by the succession of bad films bearing the same name. Legend has it that the film was originally just ‘man vs bugs – IN SPACE’ but that single similarity was enough to send the studio scrambling to buy the rights to the book to avoid a lawsuit down the track. The book is, on the surface, about a war in space against bugs, but it is a story set against a backdrop that evokes a lot of thought about the nature of civic service (important to the military man) and politics.
Less deep and involving, but still a smashing good time of power armour versus bugs is John Seakey’s Armor. Armor’s protagonist is (un)fortunate enough to survive past the power armour pilot’s average lifespan of a few combat missions – so much so that enduring the endless combat against the same swarm of bugs begins to seem worse than if he was able to die.
Aw, heck, just get anything with power armour or a mecha on the cover.
If you know someone who fills their plate with Ben Elton, John Hodgman or Bill Bryson, then you’re probably going to want to introduce them to Douglas Adams and his monster truck-sized wit.
Since it’s been made into a film by Hollywood, you’re bound to get some instant recognition out of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t worry if your friend has already seen the film – there are significant differences between every incarnation of the franchise (book, radio play, television series, film) that make each worth digesting.
It’s said that the age of science fiction is 14 – meaning that adolescence is the magic age at which a young mind can truly grasp scifi and not only understand it, but be captivated by it. Your best bet here is to visit the golden age of science fiction – you’re guaranteed a find, and the books of the golden age present a very accessible entry for younger readers into scifi.
The holy trinity of the golden age are Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. There are plenty of other good science fiction writes from that era, but if you want to guarantee you’re providing a worthwhile literary experience to a young mind, stick with the big guns. Look for titles from the ’50s and ’60s (definitely avoid straying toward Heinlein’s work from the ’70s – his writing after his stroke in 1978 is known as the ‘Dirty Old Man Heinlein’ era).
The Light Reader
If a magazine article is the longest thing your mate (I use here the Australian form of mate, and not the ‘mate for life like a pair of crows’) has ever read, then maybe short is the way to go. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding collections of short stories – they’re something of a scifi tradition. Look for collections of Hugo or Nebula award winners, or collections curated by a noted author.
The Fantasy Reader
Just because bookstores lump science fiction and fantasy into the same corner of the shop it does not make them the same thing.
If you have a friend who’s read every book of The Wheel of Time, claims to be one of the twelve people who’ve read the entirety of The Simarillion, or knows every detail of Drizzt Do’Urden’s life there is an option for you.
Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series takes place on two parallel worlds, one of science and one of magic. The main character (and thus the plot) bounces between the two throughout the story, giving you a chance to sneak some scifi (even if it’s soft scifi) into someone’s diet. Since it’s a statistical fact that everyone has thrown away a Piers Anthony book at least once in their lifetime, there are bound to be tons of them to be found in second hand shops.
The Chaos Lord
He’s the guy who nods knowingly when you mention Art Bell, Yog-Sothoth or J.R. “Bob” Dobbs. He’s got a kickass psychedelic music collection and knows when the last day of the Mayan Calendar is. He seems normal enough, but you suspect he’s got a book full of dark scribblings hidden under his bed.
I’ve read some Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick in my time. I’ve read a lot of stuff, though, so I’ve kind of forgotten which of their books were the weird ones. Uh, look, just give the back cover an eyeball and see how trippy the plot sounds.
Also most definitely worthy of a spot in this category, but I don’t like your odds of finding it: White Light, by Rudy Rucker.
The Nonfiction Reader
There’s not much point putting anything fictional into the hands of that one family member that won’t read anything that isn’t a spreadsheet, electronics manual or newspaper.
You’re not out of luck here, though. In addition to his fictional work, Isaac Asimov wrote an absolute assload (and a metric assload, at that) of nonfiction. He wrote a regular column in Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy in which he would explain some facet of science in terms that those of us who aren’t fortunate enough to be quantum physicists could understand – and more importantly, in a manner that entertains rather than induce sleep. I’ve read a handful myself, including The Left Hand of the Electron, X Stands for Unknown and Science Numbers and I – and while some articles have since been superseded by more recent discoveries, they are all enjoyable reads for those of us keen to absorb facts.