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Sci-Friday: Five Great Science Fiction Novels
Definitely and definitively science fiction
Every Friday, a few of the newsletters (Substackers?) I follow (hi,) seem to glom together for the delightfully named ‘Sci-Friday’. These are self-selected Friday lists of science fictional things. I figured, why not?
For those who have been with me since the Pornokitsch days (rip), you’ll remember the joyous madness of the ‘Friday Fives’. It feels good to bring back the ancient blogging art of the last-minute listicle. Like coming home.
I also thought I’d go against type and not write about cyberpunk.
So without further ado, five absolutely brilliant science fiction novels that aren’t cyberpunk:
Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims
This book follows a small community in rural Scotland. It is set against the backdrop of climate change apocalypse, and nods strongly to the inevitable. There’s an engrained bleakness, as humanity is, by all accounts, doomed. Ordinary, extraordinary people living ordinary, extraordinary lives. The greater, existential struggle for humanity is mirrored by the inner turmoil of Dylan, and the quiet, but dramatic, trials of the others in the caravan park. It is a quiet, beautiful book; one that celebrates resilience in all its forms.
Why isn’t it cyberpunk: There’s a speculative element underpinning events, but there’s no technology involved. The easiest ‘definitional’ feature of cyberpunk is that it is about technology: scientific progress that’s manufactured, applied and tangible. Climate change is, I suppose, two of those things, but it isn’t applied: it is atmospheric; a shift in the underpinning context.
The development of ‘cli-fi’ (climate fiction) over the decades has been fascinating, if a bit depressing. The Sunlight Pilgrims is one of the earliest of the most recent wave: fiction predicated on the inevitability of cataclysmic climate change. Prior to this, cli-fi was about cli-fi, exploring the nature of the thing itself. In the case of this book, the shift in our environment is permanent, irreparable, and unexamined: it is less a point of focus than a fact. Climate change is going to happen, so what next? The answer in this book is, sadly, 'nothing’. The positive, at least according to The Sunlight Pilgrims may be that we, as people, finally find ourselves - even if that’s just as we’re leaving the party.
E.J. Swift’s Paris Adrift
Speaking of cli-fi, read Swift’s The Coral Bones, which has just been re-released (hooray). Paris Adrift is one of my favourite novels. It also doesn’t conceal its apocalyptic stakes: the book begins with the end of everything. A group of heroic time travellers need to repair the future, and it all starts with … Hallie, an accidental bartender at a dive bar without a clear future of her own.
Another great work that overlays the Big Picture with the introspective; Swift beautifully shows how one ‘ordinary’ woman can contain universes. And save them.
Why isn’t it cyberpunk: Swift’s excellent writing makes this a story about humans, but it is also about the fate of the universe. One of the classic identifying heuristics of cyberpunk is ‘high-tech, low-life’, but I think ‘low-stakes’ is an even a better way of putting it. Cyberpunk is about change, but it is (only very, very) rarely about epic change. Hallie sorting herself out is one thing, Hallie saving the universe is delightful,… but science fictional. This is partially because cyberpunk is a response to the heroic, Golden Age science fiction that came before. And it is also because cyberpunk is simply more pragmatic about the limits of human agency. Can someone save a neighbourhood? A family? A stranger? Themself? Those are challenges enough without bringing the whole cosmos along for the ride.
Paul J McAuley’s Beyond the Burn Line
One of this year’s finalists for The Kitschies, I was lucky enough to read this unspoiled - and suggest that you do the same. Don’t even read the publisher’s description on Amazon because, ffs.
Set on a far-future Earth, Pilgrim is a clerk, set on proving the wild theories of their deceased patron. Pilgrim’s ferocious determination sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the unravelling of all his people know; unpicking their assumptions of history, identity, and their place in the universe. A surpisingly cozy deep-time epic.
Why isn’t it cyberpunk: Beyond the Burn Line is set in a far-flung future. Cyberpunk is rooted in the here and now. Even when cyberpunk stories take steps into speculation, those are based on evidenced assumptions of the present (or, in some cases, the presumed present of the 1980s).
Beyond the Burn Line is beyond speculation, it flings itself into the wildest possibilities of the future in order to have a perspective on history. It is powerful storytelling that can only happen with the tools of science fiction.
Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice
One of the most (rightfully) awarded books in contemporary science fiction, Ancillary Justice is a discussion of power and personhood. Although a thoroughly compelling story in its own right, Ancillary Justice is perhaps best known for its unusual narrator: a warship. Or, to be more accurate, the last fragment thereof.
Breq is the sole surviving ‘ancillary’ of the AI-fuelled-planet-busting-imperial-starship Justice of Toren. Part mystery, part a story of healing, Ancillary Justice uses Breq’s disassociated perspective to tell a classic science fiction story in a very new way.
Why isn’t it cyberpunk: This is not about humans. Science fiction is very good about telling stories by utilising The Other. Aliens, gods, monsters, fragments of warships… By using these Not Us beings as metaphors, science fiction brings the extremes to life and shows us some truths about the universe. Brilliant.
However, that extra layer of the un-real, of disassociation from reality, real humans and real human relationships is purely science fictional. There are absolutely Others in cyberpunk - most notably AI and androids - but they’re defined as being quasi-humans: something that is human-except-for. They’re used as mirrors or a literary ‘gap analysis’ project: how close to human can they be, and what that final, infinitely small, Zeno-esque step between them us and us tells us about ourselves. This is mirrored by cyberpunk’s other quasi-human: cyborgs. Someone human-except-with. How much can we improve or remove of ourselves and still be fundamentally human?
In the case of this book, Breq is an AI, and one in a human body at that, but the story is never ‘about’ humanity or human-ness. It is about, in fact, the reverse.
Drew Williams’ The Universe After
I love this series. It is, to put it simply, a banger. The closest thing in print to the feel and tone of watching Star Wars for the first time as a kid. Everything is big and full of wow, connected by loveable, sassy, empathetic characters that journey from one show-stopping moment to the next. It is one of the most cinematic novels I know, even down to the pacing of the quieter, more insightful moments. It is cheerily inclusive, annoyingly smart, and ceaselessly entertaining. Plot-wise: evil empires, cosmic stakes, space ninjas, androids, monsters, the works. Genuinely, a joy to read.
Why isn’t it cyberpunk: I mean, … all of the above. It isn’t about humans, it takes place in a future totally untethered from the now, the stakes are truly cosmic, and the ‘tech’ such as it is, is basically space-wizardry. It is my favourite space opera. But not cyberpunk.
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If you’re looking for far deeper dives into science fiction, check out Rachel Kowart’s work with the Psychgeist series. If you’re interested in reading (or contributing to) psychological deep dives into pop culture properties, there’s more information here. Upcoming volumes includ Bluey, The Witcher, Discworld, and Umbrella Academy.
Science denialists love to play the ‘I’m not putting anything I can’t pronounce into my body’ card, and I’m horrified to see it on a poster for an energy drink. There are other ways to say ‘all-natural ingredients’ without normalising the ‘scary chemicals = bad’ argument normally found in Facebook groups. This campaign is either very irresponsible or intentionally trying to tap into the wingnut audience. Either way, it is normalising a very real and dangerous [and very stupid] anti-science message in order to shift a few crates of a fizzy beverage.
Users repeatedly expressed surprise over the weekend that X had deteriorated as a real-time news source as much as it has. But Musk has been eliminating the safeguards that once made Twitter at least somewhat reliable as a source of news for months now.
He blew up the old verification system, replacing a hand-picked group of journalists whose identities were confirmed by the company with a hodgepodge of culture warriors paying $8 a month to float to the top of replies. He began paying the culture warriors based on the views they got. He blocked and threatened reporters. He sued activists. He began charging eye-watering rates to access the platform’s API, driving away academic researchers. He stripped headlines off the previews of articles. He promoted the accounts of conspiracy theories and right-wing extremists.
This is a system designed to cause chaos in the information environment, and it is working by design.
There are two schools of thought about Musk: he’s doing this intentionally or he’s an idiot. Basically ‘evil’ or ‘stupid’. I suppose there’s a third school, which is that he’s playing four-dimensional chess at god tier level and this is all According to Plan, but I’d hesitate to call that a ‘thought’.
Regardless of whether he is evil or stupid, Musk has broken - at shocking speed - what was a key part of the modern journalistic ecosystem. Twitter was invaluable in getting information from and to media professionals. As Andrew Griffin writes for the (very good) IndyTech newsletter:
Historically, [Twitter] has thrived in such moments – when what is needed is a mix of on-the-ground reports, verifiable media and some informed analysis by experts. But over the years – even before Musk took over – those have been lost. That reportage has been mixed in with misleading reports; analysis has been swapped for opinion.
The only silver lining of this whole ghastly situation, I suppose, is that Musk has made Twitter so obviously toxic that there can be no doubt about its lack of journalistic value. Journalists, pundits, broader media, policy-makers, decision-makers more broadly can all see exactly what Twitter has become. It is no longer whimsical or idiosyncratic, it is hateful, shameless and, pragmatically speaking, useless. If Musk had implemented his scheme with any degree of subtlety, there’d be more of a debate about the future value of Twitter. But, be he evil or stupid, Musk has never been subtle.
How do we row back from here? As Garbage Day:
The main tactic for putting pressure on these companies — reporters and researchers highlighting bad moderation and trust and safety failures and the occasional worthless congressional hearing playing whack-a-mole with offensive content — has amounted to little more than public policy LARPing. We are right back where we started in 2012, but in much more online world. And the companies that built that world have abandoned us to go play with AI.
Ten year is not a long time geologically, but it is enough to ensure that an entire generation of media-creators and decision-makers have now been raised to use, and rely upon, an ecoystem that is no longer trustworthy.
If you’re interested in what is cyberpunk (besides Twitter), I did have a go at a definition of this annoyingly squirrelly genre. And, of course, there’s a lot of it herded in one place in the new book.
A recommendation isn’t about you, it is about them. If you’re not asking questions, you’re not making a good one. Your recommendation will be subjective, and hey, share books you like. But ultimately, a recommendation is not about your favourite book, it is about finding the book that could be theirs.
It is fascinating how much we still don’t know about purring. But that’s ok, because the cats don’t know anything about it either.