Sci-fi Saturday

I spent a lot of time in the library when I was a kid, and much of that was spent reading science fiction. Asimov, Heinlein, Niven, Pohl...the usual suspects.

During my salaried days, it was more sporadic, a little William Gibson, more Neal Stephenson (anything less than 500 pages). I wonder if he thinks "if I had a dollar for every time..." every time he sees the word "metaverse."

Maybe it's something about the pandemic, but I did some catching up on my sci-fi reading the last couple of years and expanded my horizons. Much of it isn't new, probably considered "classics" now like my high school music (I still remember the shock when the local "best of the 60s and 70s classic rock" stations transitioned to "best of the 60, 70s, and 80s classic rock" station.

For instance, I remembered Ursula K. Le Guin's short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas from childhood, but a rereading now packs an extra punch. Newer to me is her Hainish universe (I read The Left Hand of Darkness), in which gender is fluid, really fluid. And The Word for World is Forest is a strong ecological and anti-colonialist manifesto. Also, damned good fiction.

Octavia Butler, another pioneer, also plays with gender, and inter-species mating, in her Xenogenesis trilogy (I've read the first two books so far), slavery in Kindred, and Parable of the Talents is like a crossover episode with The Handmaid's Tale. It's heavy stuff – I started with The Patternmaster, her first novel but chronologically the last in her Patternist series, which is lighter (but not that light).

I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of non-stereotpyical Asian characters (a male love interest! from Hong Kong and a forceful Asian-American woman) in her books, too, even though (spoiler alert!) they didn't last long. Still, it's progress from the Heinlein universe.

If you want Asian representation, you gotta have an Asian writer. Introducing Ken Liu and his (self-coined) silkpunk Dandelion Dynasty trilogy, which reads like an Asian Game of Thrones (which was remarkably Asian-less). I enjoyed the first two books of the trilogy (haven't got to the final one yet), but in particular I find his short fiction moving particularly The Paper Menagerie collection (that story is included in the LeVar Burton Reads podcast).

Ken Liu also has translated part of Cixin Liu's Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, which I also thoroughly enjoyed until I read his New Yorker interview defending, amongh other things, the Xinjiang internment, despite having written a sci-fi saga that depicted aliens interning the entirety of human civilization. Maybe he's just trying to be subversive in his writing, but he's really throwing himself into the partly line, a little hemming and hawing on the subject would be nice.

And I have to say I'm a bit disappointed in Kim Stanley Robinson's China worship in his climate collapse novel The Ministry of the Future. Plenty of villains among the Russian oligarchs, and capitalism sucks, but those Chinese (in particular a high-ranking inscrutable Chinese woman) are cool. Almost as an afterthought at the end of the book (maybe really an afterthought), he depicts HongKongers casting off the yokes of mainland oppression by...protesting a lot. And no mention of Xinjiang.

Vernor Vinge's Fire Upon the Deep, the beginning of another trilogy (what's up with all these trilogies), also has an Asian-named  character whose memories (real?) date back to a Chinese-named space fleet, and, how's this for diverse, he himself was resurrected using several different bodies.

He's the lead male human protagonist, and his sort of love interest is the closest to a main protagonist (btw, a woman main character is another rarity in the Heinlein universe), but this wide-ranging story (I guess they call this a space opera, but where's the singing?) has cuter couples among the aliens (telepathic dogs, plants rolling on motorized carts...).

Besides romance, this story has everything: intrepid kids, puppies, space battles, castle sieges, and a totally cool sci-fi premise: the universe is partitioned into physically (as in physics) different zones ranging from the light-speed limited Slow zone in which we are all trapped, to the Beyond in which faster than light travel is available and intelligence (including artificial intelligence) is higher, up to the Transcend which hosts mysterious god-like beings.

Nevertheless, all those superintelligent beings trade misinformation like dummies on what is sardonically termed the Net of a Million Lies (twitter, for short), so this book, written around 1990 during the glimmerings of the Internet, checkmarks another hallmark of a sci-fi classic: prescience.

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