If you paint it black is it still white?

Recently I read a couple of books: one a near(ish) future SF the other a popular (urban) Fantasy. I had a problem with the characterisation in both. Here’s the thing, on an intellectual level I knew the primary protagonists weren’t white and yet I couldn’t help see them that way. As I read the books I slowed down and took my time looking at how the authors were giving me clues about who the these guys were and I couldn’t find them. I started to think “Is it me?” but I think that’s only part of the problem.

When I read these stories I found myself deeply curious about how the authors were going to move away from the stereotypical white western model. I was interested in the cadence of the voices and I really wanted hear the idioms in their speech and see a different view of the fantastic through the experiences of these characters. What I felt I got where Okay-ish characters that constructed themselves in my mind as white dudes in black clothes. They spoke like stereotypical white guys and even appeared to think like them. The only difference was that they didn’t have white names.  Clearly the default skin tone was dark so we  assume they are too but that characterisation didn’t work for me.

When I speak my voice has the character of many things. The way in which my throat is constructed, how my tongue moves in my mouth, whether I am ill etc. so physiologically it feels easy. However we all know that how we sound to each other depends on a number of things: our accents, the culture(s) we spend time in, who we are speaking to and other elements. As the listener I need to take all of this in and I need to put it in context.

People are people. If it’s the one thing I’ve learned in my life it’s that no matter where I go I meet People. However some are different. Some are good and some are bad and it has nothing to do with the colour of their skin or the flag they live under.  But people also live in different cultures. If you’re going to frame a story in a different culture you’re going to have to ensure you have a passing ability to put the right people in the right place. If those references aren’t right then you are committing fraud. I think it’s important to be authentic because you owe your readers that much and those cultures your depicting? Well you owe them too.

Or maybe I’m over thinking it.
I am certain that even if you paint it black the risk is that it’s still going to be white.

27 Essential SF Books

SF Author Ian Sales has published his parts 1 and 2 of his top 50 essential Science Fiction books in partnership with Jared Shurin and James Smythe. I read their lists with a great deal of interest and thought I’d offer my own top 25 27* essential reads. All picked from my head because I consistently recommend them. I think that in some fashion they illustrate some facet of the genre I really enjoy or I think is important. They also illustrate that Science Fiction is more than its detractors would have you believe. I didn’t deliberately miss out any big names these are just those that I think you should read if you have an interest in this sort of writing.

So here’s my list in alphabetical order:

  1. 1984 by George Orwell
    I doubt any list could be written without this novel. Almost certainly gave me the world view I have today. Powerful, disturbing and bleak it’s no wonder this is one of the great 20th century novels.
  2. A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick
    Let’s get something out of the way. Dick wasn’t as great an author as some revisionists would have you believe. This novel though is a masterpiece. It distils all of Dick’s obsessions into one great story about drugs, responsibility and the nature of reality.
  3. At the Mountains of Madness and other tales. by HP Lovecraft
    Is this fantasy? First book on the list where I will ask that question. In later works Lovecraft became increasingly SF-ish and much less horror focused. He had a unique gift for conveying the un-knowable and I think this is his best collection.
  4. Babel-17 by Samuel R Delaney
    Everyone will tell you “Dhalgren” is Delaney’s masterpiece but this is my personal favourite. It’s the book China Mieville wishes he’d written with Embassytown.  Delaney explores the effect language has on our perceptions. If language is a construct of our mind is it possible that language could have some retroactive effect if it was constructed that way?
  5. Dune by Frank Herbert
    A great book. A good story and a “how to” manual on world building.
  6. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
    I wanted Bradbury on the list. I recommend his collected short stories as a separate project (so much to read) but I read this as a teen and it’s another book that informed my world view.
  7. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
    We learn the fate of a disabled man whose intelligence is broadened through intervention by scientists. Algernon is the mouse who they first try the procedure on. A great story and meditation on ethics. If you don’t cry there’s something wrong with you.
  8. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
    A highly influential book. One of the first proto Science Fiction stories. Do I really need to say much more than read this book?
  9. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  10. Proto-Science Fiction and political satire. Forget the Bowdlerised edition and read the original. Masterful storytelling and thought-provoking.  Amazing work – even now.
  11. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
    Has there been a better comic novel which lampoons modern culture, Science Fiction, Cricket and Everything Else? I doubt it. Many people wish they had written this and only Douglas Adams managed it.
  12. I am Legend by Richard Matheson
    Humanity has been infected with a disease which turns them into slathering vampires – except one man. And he’s decided to survive as long as he can.
  13. Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
    It’s such a shame that Stapledon is largely forgotten these days. Between this and Starmaker he wrote some of the most intellectually rigorous early Science Fiction.
  14. Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
    Part SF-part fantasy part deconstruction of Hindu myth (with a tiny swipe at Christianity for good measure). It’s a brilliant novel.
  15. Neuromancer by William Gibson
    Gibson’s first great novel. It’s surprisingly short (and oddly dated) but still packs a lot of punch.
  16. Picnic by the Roadside by the Strugatsky brothers
    I wanted at least one non-English book on this list and I decided on this. At some point Aliens have invaded the Earth. No one knows why and as suddenly as they arrived they left. Where they lived they left behind zones filled with mysterious objects and where the rules of physics seem to be slightly different. Stalkers make their money by retrieving this artefacts but at great personal risk … It’s a great book made into a great film and influenced a generation of Russian game programmers.
  17. Rendevouz with Rama by Arthur C Clarke
    If we encountered an enigmatic starship passing through our solar system how would we react? Read on and find out.
  18. Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
    The title is an allusion to the saying that everyone in the world could stand on the Isle of Wight. A great novel about the effects of over population which utilises a very strange collection of intersecting narratives and snippets of the culture it describes. It’s ambitious and long. Stick with it until the very end and you will be handsomely rewarded.
  19. The Aleph and other stories by Jorge Luis Borges**
    I’m cheating by having this book on the list. I think Borges only ever wrote one story that bore any resemblance to actual Science Fiction – and he is more noted for his fantasies – but I wanted him on this list. His obsessions with time and the infinite, his playful creativity,  his serious (very serious) skill with story telling should inform far more genre than it apparently does. His stories are also far less pretentious than you might think. I want people to read Borges!
  20. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
    John Wyndham’s famous novel about humanity surviving accidental blinding and the escape of the eponymous Triffids. I think it’s far bleaker than its cosy catastrophe appellation. A highly influential novel.
  21. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
    Quite possibly one of the best novels about war and its effect on the individual. Our protagonist Mandela must deal with the effects of time dilation as he joins in an interstellar war. Every time he comes home her realises he understand less and less of this world. I doubt there’s a better parable of loneliness and alienation arising from conflict.
  22. The Stars My Destination by  Alfred Bester
    An excellent book about the fall and redemption of a man. Ignore the hokey and dated teleportation gimmick and revel in the story of a very disturbed individual. It’s also beautifully written.
  23. The War of the Worlds by HG Wells
    It’s hard to pick which of Wells novels I think everyone should read. There’s more going on here than the alien invasion sub genre it helped spawn. Man’s powerlessness in the face of overwhelming force from indifferently malicious aliens is a parable we’d do well to heed.
  24. The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
    I swithered over which of Moore’s works I preferred: this, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or V for Vendetta. In all of their own ways they are amazing. In the end I opted for Watchmen. The meta narrative, the critique of the ubermensh ideal of superheroes and … the storytelling (oh the story telling). It’s an amazing piece of work. Pay attention at the back this is great.
  25. Use of Weapons by Iain (M) Banks
    The famous Iain Banks has written many books set in his Culture universe. His first SF novel Consider Phlebas is considered a classic but for my money this is a true a work of art. A tale of love and revenge it features interlocking narrative time streams that lead to a truly shocking denouement. Brilliant.
  26. Viriconium (SF masterworks) by M. John Harrison
    Is this Science Fiction? Possibly. It’s certainly an amazing omnibus of 3 short story collections.
  27. Vurt by Jeff Noon
    Manchester! Drugs! Sex! Alternative sub cultures! Amazing! Not  actually my favourite Noon (but still very very very good) book but you have to read this one first before tackling his other work. It’s great news that he’s back writing books in the genre again.


Originally I said 25 but now I realise I listed 27….  because I can’t count.

Where are the women? I am painfully aware of the lack of women on this list. For example why no Le Guin, why no Atwood? For the former I just didn’t put her in because I made sacrifices to bring my list down to a quick 25. Read The Dispossessed and you won’t be disappointed. For the latter … well I’ve just never got on with her. I don’t know why. Maybe I need to grow up a little more? Maybe it was the preachy Hollywood film of the Handmaid’s tale. It’s hard to say. I have to admit that I’ve not read much female written SF and it’ something I’ve scratched my head over. Looking at my bookshelves I’ve got quite a few good female authored Fantasy novels I would recommend so why not the SF? I suspect that as  I grew up I just wasn’t as aware of the female authors as I was the males.

Edit: Erk. Forgot Mary Shelley and Frankenstein which is a book everyone says you must read – added now. Few people mention The Last Man which is another I would certainly recommend. Also why no Verne? Good question. Mostly because I limited myself to 25.

I also think I could do the same for fantasy as SF but it would be difficult (much more difficult) to list decent fantasy of a quality sufficient I would deem them worthy of recommending. It’s a simple truth that there is much more mature, well written SF than Fantasy. Fantasy appeals to … well people looking for an escape to somewhere else where there are more certainties. If people think that SF is the refuge of the right wing libertarian then I shudder to think what those same people might think of the fantasy genre. Well there’s a discussion for another time…

* 25 27 due to time constraints. The list would be different where I to go for 50. I also decided that I didn’t have time to properly construct a list that covered the entire history of the genre (unlike the better informed writers that prompted me to create this list).

** I am self consciously aware how much I have cheated by having Borges on the list. It’s my “fan boy” choice. I am surprised that more SF&F readers haven’t read him as his writing has such heavy genre elements. Read the Aleph, the Immortal, The Other  or even the Zahir and tell me that these aren’t great pieces of fantasy/horror or esoteric SF (stretching myself here quite a bit). If anyone involved in the SF genre ever reads this list they will probably tsk. But I don’t actually care – you should read him, have your mind blown and horizons shot out into space.