October 31, 2010

The Quest for Readable Sci-fi

I recently had a hankering for some sci-fi. Hadn’t read any for a while, so I thought I’d try Snow Crash, which everyone seemed to like. I got about ten pages into it, threw it away, then went back to it a week later. Got about a quarter of the way through it, and realized I was having a very bad time. I hated the chatty, colloquial tone, the “humorous” references to the present. I couldn’t stand a protagonist named Hiro Protagonist, who was a high-tech pizza-delivery boy. So I went on Goodreads, and found a list of best sci-fi. Going through the list, I was surprised to see how many of the books I’d read, and how many I’d given two or three stars. Now, I’m generally a five-star kinda guy, so it got me thinking: why is so much sci-fi so bad, and what do I want out of it?

I remember picking up Dune when I was about ten, at the house of my parents’ friends, and being unable to put it down. It seemed so grown-up, so densely created. The names (Muad’Dib, Bene Gesserit, Leto Atreides) seemed so organic; so right. It was the sci-fi equivalent of The Lord of the Rings. I read Dune over and over in my teens, before discovering Tolstoy and Hemingway. Sometime in my early thirties I went back and tried to read it again. But this time I saw through the tricks – I saw how Herbert had used Islamic history and Arabic to create his plot and names. The writing was at times dreadful (“Did Hawat talk to you about Salusa Secundus?” “The Emperor’s prison planet? No . . .”), and the characters seemed thinner than I remembered. Nevertheless, I can still taste the initial transport that Dune provided, and that I found in certain other novels – notably Nova by Samuel Delany and The Chrysalids by John Wyndham.

Recently, writers such as Catherynne M. Valente, Jeff VanderMeer, and Kelly Link have been doing new and interesting stuff with “fantasy.” So I got to thinking about what a satisfying sci-fi novel would look like in my present post-Tolstoy/Nabokov/Borges state. The only sci-fi novels that I can currently read are William Gibson’s Neuromancer (and in particular the first fifty pages or so, with that densely worked prose and unelaborated, compacted novelty) and Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. Doris Lessing’s Shikasta was good, but the “Rachel Sherban’s Diary” sections, which can hardly be termed sci-fi, were by far the best parts. Dhalgren has the language and texture I crave, but is too exasperatingly diffuse. Nothing I’ve found gives me an emotion similar to my initial reading of Dune. I want vast scope, the notion of distant worlds and spaceships spinning among the stars, poetry, ideas . . . and I also want characters as solid as Levin and Maggie Tulliver. Is this asking too much? Are there novels out there I’m missing? Any suggestions?


  1. I recommend The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. I think it would be difficult, in surveying the history of literature, to find many authors that surpass Wolfe's terrifying skill, depth, and subtlety. Often intentionally difficult or confusing to read (Wolfe often writes from the perspective of unreliable narrators - in this case, one who tends to lie to the reader), his books may not impart all of their intricacies upon the first reading, and become more complex and rewarding with each reading thereafter. But his worlds are so fascinating and beautiful that the reader's effort consistently pays off. The Book of the New Sun is marvelous, and often considered his best work. I'm half-way through it!

  2. Thanks so much, Ryan! I just got The Book of the New Sun out of the library. It looks great!