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A Quick and Dirty Introduction to Science Fiction
By Beverly Stuart
February 8, 2003

For a quick and dirty introduction to science fiction, I want to point out a few basic themes. The first one is the "playing God" theme, which I also call the "Golem theme." In an old Jewish folk story, a rabbi creates this man (the Golem) out of clay or mud to do the rabbi's bidding. But then the Golem gets out of control, or discovers that he has a mind of his own (I forget the exact details) and the plot thickens. Science fiction has lots of variations on this theme, where the scientist creates his/her own robot/cyber-person/genetically-engineered super person, then something goes wrong, etc.

The most famous version of the "playing God" theme is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and here a few more recent examples:

  • He, She, and It, by Marge Piercy. In this one, the story of the Golem is told in parallel with the modern story of the robot. The main character (a woman) befriends the robot, who comes to feel more and more human. Lots of futuristic society descriptions; politics, social justice, good and bad stuff - kind of like Piercy's non-SciFi novels, but of course with the SciFi slant.
  • Virtual Girl, by Amy Thomson. Thomson is a local SciFi writer, and I have actually seen her at local SciFi conventions. I used to have a signed copy of this. Anyway, the guy builds his own "cybergirl", not for romantic purposes, but just to have a companion. But then she grows up and wants to live her own life…
  • Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress. This is the first of a trilogy, and the only one I have read so far. Some people have been genetically engineered not to need sleep. These non-sleepers tend to be smarter, better looking, and practically immortal. Alas, they become feared and distrusted by "sleepers", even though most of them are really good people who only want to use their superior powers for good causes.
  • I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov. My husband, Jim, suggested this one; I have not read it.

There are probably many others with this theme, but that is all I came up with off the top of my head. Here is a random list:

  • The Earthsea series. This is more fantasy than SciFi, and used to be a trilogy, but there is now a fourth book in the series. This starts out with a young boy going to wizard school. You might like this, if you like Harry Potter.
  • Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, by Kate Wilhem. This one is a classic by now, and it has lots to do with cloning, written years before cloning was a reality. I recommended this to someone else who had never read any SciFi, and he loved it, so give it a shot.
  • C.J. Cherryh writes about different worlds, societies, and cultures. Hunter of Worlds is a good story, and there is a glossary in the back for all the different languages represented. Forty Thousand in Gehenna has both humans and clones; a ship of both is sent to populate a planet, and then abandoned; generations go by, and new societies are formed. There are also strange dinosaur-like animals. I can't remember what they are called but they play a significant role (like the worms in Dune.) Anyway, there is intrigue and suspense, and I would even go so far as to say a touch of horror. I think this may be a sequel to another book, but if it is, you can read this by itself; I did and had no problem.
  • So just when you were starting to think I only read SciFi by women, I will mention Dune, by Frank Herbert. This is one of Jim's all-time favorites; I have read it once but he reads it at least once a year. There are many sequels, prequels, and other quells, but this is the only one I have read (and Jim will tell you it is the best one). This is really more fantasy than SciFi but you shouldn't let that stop you. There is an environmental theme here; the setting is a desert planet, and of course water is extremely important. Then there are the worms…And of course there is political intrigue, backstabbing, and general use and abuse of power.

Anything ever written by Connie Willis. She writes a lot about time travel. Some titles:

  • To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is really funny; takes place in Victorian England and of course in the future.
  • Doomsday Book, which is mostly very serious (and I believe she won the heavyweight SciFi awards for this one). The main character is sent back in time to 14th century England, and the lab has carefully planned for her to avoid the years in which England suffered from the plague. But something goes wrong… Lots of subplots involving epidemics and public health. Really well researched, you'll see why she won awards for this. But be prepared, there are a lot of sad parts in this story.
  • Passages, her most recent, is about death and dying. There are some funny scenes in this, but it really is very intense. I think she might have won awards for this, too.
  • Impossible Things, a collection of short stories. You might want to check this out first, just to get a feel for her style. Some of these stories are funny, and some are not.

Ursula LeGuin, perhaps the most famous female SciFi writer still living. Here are some titles that I have read:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness. This is so good, I have to read it again soon. The really cool thing about this society is that there are no "men" and "women", but everyone gets to be both at certain times. You get to see it through a human's eyes; the main character is sent to Winter as an envoy, and gets caught up in things, etc. This is a very thought-provoking portrayal of a different world.
  • The Lathe of Heaven, a story in which the main character's dreams come true. It has been a long time since I read this. He goes to a psychiatrist to get help for this situation and the psychiatrist tries to use him for his own ends.

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