The 5 Most Unjustly Overshadowed Sci-Fi Classics
We don't often discuss literature around here, which is strange, because I know for a fact that we are all avid readers, with the exception of John Cheese (although to be fair, I don't think books have made it out to the desolate corn-swamps of Illinois yet. The only book he's ever seen was the one that husk-witch used to curse his father and turn him into a tractor. You'd hate reading, too, if you were him).
Perhaps there's good reason for the lack of book-themed content. Perhaps you, as casual Internet readers, don't care about books. Perhaps you, as casual Internet readers who don't care about books, should go fuck yourselves. Or perhaps we're simply underestimating our awesome audience. I'm going with the latter, and since science fiction is my bag, let's give it a shot and discuss some truly astounding sci-fi books by notable authors ... that have been tragically overshadowed by their other, more iconic works. Now, if you're a huge sci-fi nerd, you've probably read all of these before, but if you don't dip into the genre often, or you only read the truly canonical works, it's definitely worth checking out ...
Idoru, by William Gibson
What You Know Him For:
Neuromancer, Johnny Mnemonic, the abstract concept of the Internet
William Gibson wrote Neuromancer, the novel that basically started cyberpunk. If you think you haven't been influenced by the book, check again, because you're using the Internet to read this. In a very loose, abstract way, Neuromancer predicted the rise of the Internet. It was the first work to present the online world as a massively influential, interconnected, always-on entity. And all this at a time when the real Internet was a handful of nodes restricted exclusively to military nerds.
If your confused grandparents have ever asked you, "How do I navigate cyberspace? Is there some sort of ship or capsule?" you can thank Gibson. He first coined the term "cyberspace" in Neuromancer. But his more prophetic work is almost completely overlooked. Nobody pays Idoru much attention, probably because it's a much-smaller-scale book. The fate of the world doesn't hang in the balance; it's just the fate of the alternate media, and a young girl's naive belief system. In parts, it reads less like hard sci-fi and more like young adult, probably because its central protagonist is a teenage fangirl. Idoru focuses not on a grand action-adventure plot, but on the state of the new media, what it means to be a fan, what it means to be obsessed with things that aren't real, and what even is this "real" shit, anyway?
Neuromancer shot for a future 50 years away and hit the target; Idoru shot for 10 and hit the bull's-eye. It called laptop/tablet/mobile culture, Second Life, and the importance of online social networks, and even got as weirdly specific as the advent of purely synthetic Japanese pop stars. Idoru isn't a badass genre book. It won't get you any nods from the black-leather-trench-coat, Ray-Bans-indoors crowd, but really -- you don't want to hang out with those folks anyway. All they want to talk about is phreaking, and every meal is some weird flavor of Doritos they imported from Japan.
The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
What You Know Him For:
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner), We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (Total Recall), basically every other sci-fi movie of the last 20 years
Even if you've only vaguely heard of Philip K. Dick, I promise that you've seen his work. Hollywood barely paid attention to Dick when he was alive, but it turned out they were only waiting for his tragic death to drive prices down. Pretty much the second he shuffled off this mortal coil to visit the ol' cracked-out robot head in the sky, Hollywood execs seized Dick's estate with their entertainment storm troopers and decided to never make a movie not based on a Dick tale again. (Dang it, now I've got the theme for DuckTales stuck in my head.) Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, and When Harry Met Sally were all adapted from original Dick works. Well, that last one wasn't an official Dick adaptation, but Valis was kind of all over the place -- I bet an argument could be made.
Although his other books got all the filmic attention, The Man in the High Castle was his best. Despite the fact that the bulk of his writing years were spent (admittedly) cranking out stories as fast as he could just to pay the rent, Dick was an extremely capable writer. He wasn't just an amphetamine-powered factory for mind-fucking plot twists. And The Man in the High Castle, an alternate history book about what would have happened to the U.S. if the Axis had won World War II, proves it. The Man in the High Castle, like every Dick tale (a-wee-oo), was metaphysical in parts and a bit tangential in others, but you still really got a chance to see what the man could do when he took his time with a book. The Man in the High Castle was perhaps the only time Dick got to write a novel like everybody else wrote novels -- carefully, with time for plotting, outline, and several revisions. Other parts of his career, while still totally brilliant, were spent in a tiny shack, methed to the gills, banging out complete novels in a week so the head in the sky wouldn't suck him up into space.
I'm not kidding about the head in the sky stuff. Dick was legitimately crazy and constantly drugged. He was like a sci-fi Hunter S. Thompson, if Hunter S. Thompson wrote about depressed Lincoln robots (We Can Build You) and fatal body odor (The Simulacra).
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami
What You Know Him For:
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood, the insufferable "now reading" lists of hipsters who have no intention of reading any such thing
Half of you just rolled your eyes at me because every hipster in the world these days has a Murakami book tucked into his post-ironic waistcoat. The other half just rolled their eyes at me for calling him a sci-fi author. I know, I know, the term all the smart people are using these days is "post-modernist" or "magical realist," but those phrases are bullshit. They're parsley on a Hot Pocket: They exist only for pretentious folk to try to fancy up something they like but think is beneath them. Murakami is a sci-fi author with a literary bent. Very few of his books stick to the literal and often boring world of reality. There's always some twist: Mysterious disappearances, alternate universes, magical powers, mythology come to life, and out-of-body experiences can be found in almost every one of his novels.
Maybe Murakami occasionally forgets to specifically assign those events to science, and maybe the primary themes of his novels deal with simple emotions like loss and frustration, but that doesn't make a book about Johnny Walker jumping off the bottle and kidnapping cats the sole domain of esteemed dramatic literature. It's good sci-fi with literary elements. Just eat your fucking Ham Pocket and deal with it.
But while his more borderline works, like Norwegian Wood, might pass for serious literary business in the community college reading nook, there's no denying that Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is pure sci-fi. No Murakami book is as straightforward and approachable as, say, a Piers Anthony romp or a quick Jane Hungergames yarn, but Hard-Boiled Wonderland is your entry level to bizarre modern-day Japanese philosofiction. It's a fast-paced mashup of Raymond Chandler, Japanese folk mythology, Inception-style mind games, and unicorns. Yes, unicorns. There are memory accountants, sewer monsters, parallel cities inside the human brain, and, of course, weirdly fetishistic Japanese ladies and jazz.
It just wouldn't be a Murakami book without the last two.
The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
What You Know Him For:
Snow Crash, The Baroque Cycle, other giant books you could kill a bear with
(Forgive me if I'm dwelling a bit on cyberpunk, but this column is doing double duty as a thinly veiled promo for the paperback release of my own cyberpunk novel. Just count yourselves lucky that "Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity, now in paperback!" isn't #5-#3 on this list.)
Snow Crash was about a frenetic and callous future, full of corporate enclaves, cyber-samurai pizza delivery men, brain-hacking Sumerian phonemes, and -- this may be me mentally remixing a few scenes -- I think a giant Eskimo statutory raped a nuclear bomb at the end.
Snow Crash put Stephenson on the map, but even its avid defenders (read: me) have to admit it's pretty juvenile in places. Of course, there's nothing wrong with juvenile -- my own book features a psychotic ghetto king who lives in a stairwell and wears a glittering nanotech phallus for a crown, so I'm not throwing stones at the maturity house here -- but his later works seemed to make up for that immaturity a bit too hard. Now he almost exclusively writes dense techno-bibles for serious-minded military history fetishists. Which, again, are totally great, if that's your thing.
But somewhere between action-porn for teenage boys playing Shadowrun and reference manuals for retired West Point professors, Neal Stephenson wrote a coming-of-age techno-thriller for preteen girls, and it was amazing. The Diamond Age predicted cloud computing (although it did think the "cloud" was an underwater hippie orgy) and explored 3D printing and nanotech back when we all thought that was some kind of anime. And it did so while spinning an earnest and meaningful tale about the importance of stories to a little girl growing up so far below the poverty line that it disappeared into the horizon and became a poverty vanishing point. Somehow, The Diamond Age manages to teach you about the dangers of coddling children, the importance of storytelling, and the basics of coding (accomplished via magical castle, of course), and still caps it all off with the Boxer Rebellion if the Chinese had power mechs.
Kalki, by Gore Vidal
What You Know Him For:
Lincoln, Empire, witty repartee from your well-read gay friends
And now I'm pulling a Murakami again: Seriously, Gore Vidal on a list of sci-fi authors? He was an old-school intellectual covered in a fine but impenetrable coating of bastard. Vidal is most famous for his serious, depraved pseudo-non-fiction of American history, and getting Norman Mailer to punch him. If any combination of terms can lose the interest of a sci-fi nerd, it is the preceding.
But then he also wrote books like Live from Golgotha, which mixed reality TV and time travel with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and The Smithsonian Institution, which was what you'd get if the porno parody of Ben Stiller's Night at the Museum had a Harvard education. And then Vidal wrote Kalki. It's Stephen King's The Stand without all the offensive stereotypes and weird folksy religion. It's Mad Max meets Hemingway, or perhaps The Road meets The Great Gatsby. It's a high-minded, cultured, intelligent, and a bit effeminate chronicle of the end of the world. It is unflinching, grand in scope, and most importantly, truly post-apocalyptic. None of this weak sauce "a lot of people died but we're still holding on to society" stuff. Kalki is about like five people in a completely intact but totally dead world. All the cities stand just as they were, but there are no people left, save for the main characters. It hits the wish-fulfillment button in every post-apocalypse fan every bit as hard as it pulls the despair lever in every human being.
So there you go: Think you can do better? Shit, I'm pretty drunk right now. You're probably right. Give it a shot: Think of a famous sci-fi book everybody's at least heard of, and then give us the book by the same author that we should be reading instead. With any luck, we'll all have reading lists a thousand entries long.
Wait, I just realized I wrote a tie-in piece to sell my book and used all my time telling you about better books you should buy instead. And then I requested that you look at hundreds more in the comments! What is my fucking problem?!