Why I’m Done with Science Fiction

farewell

I usually spend part of the summer catching up on contemporary fiction, and often my summer reading ends up falling into some sort of theme. This summer I fell into a science-fiction hole, but I think I’m going to climb back out.

When World Magazine announced that Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things was its fiction book of the year, I decided to give it a try. Here’s some of what they had to say about it.

These days, in books from secular publishers, we expect to see pastors depicted as hypocrites and missionaries as agents of exploitation. That’s what we’d expect from Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (Hogarth), which has as its protagonist a pastor called to be a missionary to the strange creatures of a planet galaxies away from his wife. Does he (a) steal precious minerals, (b) molest the females, (c) create a bizarre cult with himself as God, or (d) all of the above?

The answer is (e) none of the above.

The premise intrigued me, but unfortunately the answer “(e) none of the above” proved too true. Not a whole lot happens in the book’s 500 pages.

I’m not the kind of guy that needs action, action, action in a novel. One of my favorite books is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which is a decidedly quiet book. In some ways, Faber’s book is like a science-fiction version of Gilead. Both books deal with pastors. Both books have a strong epistolary element. Both books communicate a great deal of emotion through small mundane encounters.

But there’s one big difference between Gilead and The Book of Strange New Things—the page count. Faber’s novel is twice as long as Robinson’s. There’s nothing wrong with a long book, but longer books need to compel the reader to move forward. Faber’s book has trouble standing up under the weight of its page count. The book would have been brilliant if he had told the story in half as many pages. Instead it gets a bit tedious. After reading the first 250 pages, I quickly skimmed the next 150 and then finished the book by reading most of the last 100 pages. As I dipped into those skimmed 150 pages, I realized that I wasn’t missing much.

At the end, I looked at the book with a sort of wistful regret, thinking to myself, “This could have been a great book.”

My disappointment with The Book of Strange New Things was heightened because the novel that I finished just before it had disappointed me too. That novel was Redshirts by John Scalzi, another piece of science fiction, though very different from The Book of Strange New Things.

I picked up Redshirts for some of the same reasons that I picked up The Book of Strange New Things—the novel had won a prize, in this case the Hugo Award, which is one of science fiction’s highest honors, and the book’s premise intrigued me.

Redshirts is a Star Trek spoof. In Star Trek some poor guy in a red shirt seemed to die on every away mission, and eventually the idea of the disposable “redshirt” became a meme among science-fiction fans. Scalzi has written a book in which the redshirts are the heroes, and they’re trying their best to stay alive when they get selected for away teams.

Like I said, the book has a great premise, and it started out being pretty engaging, but about halfway through it lost its way. The book takes a meta-turn, with stories in stories, and it tries to be philosophical at points. Characters start talking about the importance of free will and whatnot, but these speeches tend to be sort of sophomoric. Maybe Scalzi intended for these reflections to be shallow; after all the speakers are just redshirts. Whatever.

Redshirts tries to be a breezy adventure and a thought-provoking reflection at the same time. I didn’t find the book thought provoking, and even in this short book I found myself skipping paragraphs. Speaking of the book being short—the narrative ends two-thirds of the way through the book. The last third of the book is made up of three short stories told from the perspectives of certain minor characters. I found the first short story boring and self-indulgent. I skimmed the second, and against my better judgment I forced myself to read the third since someone claimed that it was the best of the three. It was the best of the three, but I don’t know that it was worth it.

I don’t read much science fiction. It had been over a year since the last time I read this genre, so maybe it was too much too soon for me to read two science-fiction novels back to back. But these were highly acclaimed books. I thought I was reading some of the best of contemporary science fiction. If this is the best there is, then I’m done with the genre for a while.

[Cross-posted]

6 responses

  1. It’s hard to find a good read these days 😉 I might suggest China Mieville, although I might call his work “Strange Fiction” rather than just Science Fiction. The depth of the worlds and stories he creates has always drawn me in. Except for “Kraken”, which I felt was disappointingly philosophical and shallow at the same time.

  2. I have not read the books you listed but there are quite a few good science fiction books I know of. The Ender’s Game series, 2001 Space Odyssey, Starship Troopers, Caves of Steel, and Foundation by Isaac Asimov were all very good and ones I would strongly recommend.

    • I’ve read Starship Troopers, and I enjoyed it very much. I’ve also read Ender’s Game, but I wasn’t impressed. You can read my thoughts on Ender’s Game here.
      Do you have any suggestions from the last couple of years? I was looking for something current.

      • I am afraid I tend to look more towards the older books, I have a few newer books that I have not gotten around to(I am kinda of working my way up through the decades). Although I enjoyed Ender’s Game I though its sequel “Speaker for the Dead” was easily the better book, although very different from the book that preceded it, it is also a comfortable point to end the series on. Main ones for that series to read would be “Speaker for the Dead”, “Xenocide”, Children of the Mind”, Ender’s Shadow”, and “Shadow of the Hegemony”. the Shadow series goes downhill pretty fast after “Shadow of the Hegemony”. “Xenocide” is very good up till the very end and then gets very weird, “Children of the Mind” is a good read afterwards assuming you regard it as being fantasy instead of science fiction.

        I notice that you are looking for ones being adapted into movies also, “Childhoods End” by Arthur C. Clarke is being adapted into a miniseries by Syfy, although it does not look to hopeful of being a good adaption from the first trailer; it is a very good book. “The First Martian” is a recent book that is getting a movie adaption; have not read the book but avoid the trailer it basically gives away the entire plot of the movie. “Neuromancer” 80s book that is supposed to be getting a movie adaption, did not care much for this book, neat world but story felt lacking, and “Leviathan Wakes” is being adapted into a Tv series by Syfy, it seems more like a for fun book that a philosophical one from what I understand but have not gotten around to it.

        Two books that I have been intrigued by but have not gotten around to “Ancillary Justice” and “Son of Heaven” (Chung Kuo). Both are more recent.

      • I think I might have gotten a little carried away with the response. Main takeway should be that “Speaker for the Dead” is a must read even if you thought “Ender’s Game” was only okay.

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