So. You’re an only child. You’re desperate for a friend, someone who you can have fun with, get into trouble with, share your troubles with. Congrats! You live a future where you don’t have to struggle to make a friend–a factory can build one for you!
Do you remember?
My Robot Buddy by Alfred Slote (Avon Camelot, c1975)
Jack’s desire for a friend and a brother leads his parents to getting him a robot buddy, Danny. It’s not an inexpensive investment, but given that Jack is growing up far from lots of other kids, his parents finally relent and decide to get him one for his birthday. Danny can do everything Jack can do, except–strangely enough–bend his knees. Jack and Danny are best of friends, but with nefarious robot snatchers in town, no robot buddy is safe!
Now I want you think for a moment about science fiction for young readers. Stuff for second and third grade readers that’s simple enough for them to work through, but entertaining enough and still true science fiction. Can you come up with many titles? Chances are not. Most of them are probably humorous stories with aliens or extremely wacky inventions rather than future-set stories. I read this book when I was a kid. I re-read this book a dozen times. I looked for it as an adult. I was hooked in by the premise–it got me looking for more stories about artificial intelligence. It was one of the early stories that made me so excited about science fiction in the first place. I mean look at this amazing idea of creating something that looks like a person but is still a robot. We’ve come a long way since this book was written, and we’re closer than ever to the reality this book envisions as far as robots mimicking humans.
I’m not about to tell you it’s the most brilliant thing ever written. But to find something written for that age that isn’t complete mush or silliness and has managed to last for decades on the shelves of the children’s floor means it’s something special. I read it to my son when he was five years old and plan to read it to my daughter this year (she’s obsessed with robots.
If you remember this title, did you know that Jack and Danny had a series of adventures? It seems there were four in all.
In which the whole Jameson family lands on a planet after running out of fuel to find a band of rebel robots (if I’m remembering it properly). It’s up to Danny to rescue them! This one actually addresses the rights of robots, and whether robots should be working in the service of humans. A group of AI robots has decided it is done with life with humans. But since this is a young reader book, issues are not heavily discussed.
I’m not entirely sure whether this was meant as the third or fourth book (I’ve read conflicting reviews and haven’t the books to refer to to confirm). In this story, Jack and Danny wind up on a space station confronting an evil mad scientist.
The Trouble on Janus(1985)
I remember this one being a lot of fun. The boys are off to a planet where the young ruler (who looks remarkably like Danny) is being threatened by those who wish to take the throne. A game of mistaken identity and conspiracy leads to an exciting conclusion for all involved.
There’s another title that I’ve seen included in the series. And it does have a main character named Jack–but I see no mention of Danny, nor does the story seem to follow their narrative. I can’t be sure of course without rereading.
My Trip To Alpha I (1978)
This involves a boy named Jack who goes to visit his aunt, only to find that things are not quite right with his aunt and scheming villains may be involved. Inventive and fun–but I don’t know that it’s part of the same series. The premise in this one is that when humans “travel ” to another planet. They often do so via data upload–having their entire mind uploaded into a robotic copy on the other end for the duration of their stay.
Just a shout out for the author, Alfred Slote who did an awfully huge service of helping get this gal into science fiction. I loved all these books, as well as his book Clone Catcher (1982)Which gave me quite a bit to think about in my early years of reading about the implications of cloning.
People may knock these books as not being “literary” or complex enough for their tastes, but in my opinion, they are exactly right for the audience they’re intended to reach. That said, time marches on, and these books are becoming “past SF” the way so many older titles are. As technology catches up and/or surpasses that of the books we’ll need new books that reach the same audiences and spark the same sort of excitement these stories first did in me.
For those reading along, this is the 7th part of this pathway, the introductory paragraph is pretty much the same for each of these entries.
I will note that these are taking me longer than the casual lists I usually do. Each of these probably consumes about five hours of effort. I want to make certain I’m providing a decent list, after all.
So, there are always lists out there detailing these or those must-read Science fiction books. Often SF and Fantasy are thrown in together without differentiation. It’s inspired me to try a different kind of series of Tuesday Ten lists, one that takes readers on a trip from childhood to adult with Science Fiction stories recommended in each age bracket. A potential pathway so to speak. I’m going to limit each bracket to ten titles (which is a REAL challenge in some cases), and I’m going to try and put in a range of works, recent and past, that are still available for readers to find. After all, the point of this list is to give you ideas of titles share with your kids or read yourselves! There will be many more options in each age range, this is only the jumping off point after all! Let’s blast off!
This week’s Ten is focusing on the next group in my age bracket, the 15-18 year-olds. (You can check out the 0-3 years list here , the 3-5 year-olds here, the 5-7 year-olds here, the 7-9 year-olds here, 9-12 year-olds here. the 12-15 year-olds here and the 15-18 year-olds here.) And we’ve made it to what would be considered adult reading. Normally I don’t cover adult science fiction on this blog, but this pathway will be an exception, since I want to give a complete pathway. These new adults will be forging their own choices, picking their fandoms and favorites, getting input from a variety of sources.
At this point, my last list in this pathway will try to touch on just a small fraction of the huge wealth of science fiction out there. I’ve tried to reflect a range of tones, publication dates, and a diversity of authors within the list, but at only ten books there is only so much I can represent. Please make sure you take this as only a starting point for more wonderful reading, and certainly not as an exhaustive list of the best or most crucial reads. In many cases I took off a book or author I love because I wanted to round out the list and because I have confidence that my readers will encounter them if they are exploring more in the genre.
And since this is my final list in this series, please keep in mind that the age recommendations are only there to assist. They aren’t a barrier for young readers who are ready to make the jump, nor are they a barrier meant to keep those who are older from reading the books in an age bracket. (See Reading While Adult)
Science Fiction Pathway: 18 year-olds and up!
You’ll find this last list has twenty books rather than the usual ten. This is mainly because I found it impossible to encompass enough of adult SF in a collection of ten books. Even at twenty, my mind invariably jumps in and starts adding titles I should have. Great titles, iconic authors . . . I’ve only touched on a few. But I hope what I have here may touch on a few of those classics not yet mentioned while adding some new ideas to your reading lists!
Aye, and Gomorrah by Samuel R. Delany (Vintage, c1967)
This was the first author I knew had to be on this list. Samuel R. Delany is a key author of the New Wave of SF that sprang out of the earlier Golden Age. This particular selection are some of his best known short stories. Delany does tend to get complex and experimental with his work, so his writing won’t be for everyone. That said, this is intelligent and thought-provoking stuff to read over and chew on. It astonished me when composing this list to really see how few male writers of color I could find writing science fiction. That Delany remains one of the few makes it clear how much diversity is an ongoing battle in the genre.
Startide Rising by David Brin (Spectra, c1983)
The second Uplift novel, this story of Brin’s takes place in a universe heavily populated with alien cultures, one where humanity remains a relative newbie in beginning their space travel and exploration. In the Uplift series, all intelligent life has another civilization that “uplifted” it to intelligence in the first place, but there’s a mystery of who first uplifted humankind. In this story a human and dolphin crew crashland on a planet and must fight to survive. A mixture of incredible SF, adventure and even poetry made this book one I enjoyed tremendously. Brin does a lot with sweeping sagas and huge casts of characters. For those who like SF adventures with a mystical/spiritual bent, these may fit the bill. I’d also recommend Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos.
The Female Man by Joanna Russ (Beacon Press, c1975)
Science fiction isn’t just about exploring the future of tech and event, sometimes it’s about questioning our identities themselves. Thus I thought it important to place this book on the list. Exploring questions of gender and the roles that we play in society through four alternate selves from different dimensions. Like LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, (mentioned on my last list) this one forges questions of what we are and what we might be. Groundbreaking in its time, many of the issues and thoughts still are relevant to our current time and place.
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu (Tor books, c2008)
One of the huge problems in science fictional representation is that it’s been difficult to find great works of SF from other countries translated into English. I admit freely it’d be lovely to learn a language to read in it, but having the works accessible to more people means being able to have such things translated. Hats off here to Ken Liu for doing the job of translating one of the significant works of SF by Cixin Liu. In this story a dark conspiracy, light years in the making, threatens all of humanity.
Dune by Frank Herbert (Ace, c1965)
I think honestly that Dune must make an appearance here. So much of this sweeping political/religious/social space opera has influenced and informed our popular culture. A huge sprawling saga of Houses and histories, of the rise and fall of leaders. Of destined heroes and those who bring them into power. My one recommendation is not to get a mass market paperback of this to read but a trade or hardcover version. The Ace paperback I had held pages so thin and font so small it made reading difficult! Paul Atriedes is born into a sprawling interstellar empire of feudal design. His family has become heir to the planet of Arrakis, the only source of ‘spice’ melange, quite possibly the most valuable resource in the universe.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Anchor Books, c1985)
There’s one dystopian story I wanted to be sure made the list–this particularly sharply feminist tale of accomplished author Margaret Atwood. In a not-so-far off future women live in a society where they are starkly oppressed by the patriarchy. Women have no rights, they are not allowed to read or have their own jobs or money. Instead they are controlled by men, with the few who are still fertile required to become Handmaids to the Commanders, in service to them as breeders. A well written and disturbing view of the future, Margaret Atwood creates stories that have us question society and ourselves.
Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen Books, c1986)
For space adventure, dynamic characters, crazy situations and a good dose of humor, Bujold’s Vorkosigan series is a great example of an ongoing well-loved space opera featuring a series of characters who seem to wind up in no end of trouble, danger and occasional shenanigans. The most beloved character in the series doesn’t appear in this first book, but Miles Vorkosigan is a charming and manic-minded man who’s personality belies his height. Great fun to read.
Neuromancer by William Gibson (Ace, c1984)
Cyberpunk. William Gibson’s writings are some of the first to receive that description. Set in a future where technology has propelled people online and into cyberspace, Gibson explores that world through Case, a man whose bosses have made it so he can no longer go into cyberspace, having to spend all his time in his meat body instead. Case takes riskier and riskier assignments, but yearns to get back what he lost. When a group of criminals offer him a cure in exchange for a tricky job . . . well that is where the story takes off. You’ll recognize many of the social and cultural elements of this book as having come to pass in some form in our current world. Gibson wrote with impressively clear sight when it came to an exploration of where humanity was going regarding tech. A seminal work of the field that influenced a generation of readers.
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr. (Tachyon Publications, 2004)
James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of Alli Sheldon, one of the significant and award-winning SF authors of her time. She was a master of the short story form, exploring gender, the nature of the alien, where humanity stood in the vastness of the universe. Her stories are meant to provoke and be reflected upon. I think she’s an important voice to include on this list.
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (Harper Voyager, c1967)
So I asked my husband. What one book/author would you put on this list? And this is the one he mentioned. Earth has been dead a long time, but mankind has moved on to a new planet, one where humans can use their advanced technology to set themselves up as Gods, much like those of the Hindu pantheon. Only one man has set himself to change all of this. Using tech and religion, Zelazny creates a story around these religious legends readapted for another world and time. This is only one of his works, but it is among one of his most notable classics.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit, 2013)
From here I figured it was important to jump forward a bit and include a title that was recently published. This award-winning novel is a story about The Justice of Toren, an artificial intelligence hosted in a starship and thousands of ancillaries. Now this entity has been diminished to a single human body and sets about on a mission of revenge. Fascinating concept and execution–this is one I haven’t read yet but is on my radar!
Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot, c2012)
Political espionage and conspiracy are major player in this SF near-future thriller. An experimental new drug can link minds together–but the uses for this are ripe for exploitation . One young scientist is caught trying to improve the drug and finds himself thrust into a world of danger and deception. Drugs and medical advances in SF are something that often gets featured in thriller-style stories, since they lend themselves to a near-future environment so easily. The author is an Egyptian-American who has written nonfiction on biological enhancement and has since turned to writing this science fictional series.
Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon (Del Rey, c2003)
I wanted to include a good example of military science fiction on this list. I decided to feature this series by Elizabeth Moon. It’s Ky Vatta’s chance at redemption, her first mission on a simple run. It should be an easy, unadventurous run. But then we wouldn’t have this book, would we? Seizing a chance, Ky unwittingly brings herself and crew into the middle of a colonial war. For other military SF sagas you can check out the works of David Weber and John Ringo.
Cyteen (Volumes 1-3) by C. J. Cherryh (Apect, c1988)
Another author that comes to mind when I think of classic writers of SF in the last few decades. Cyteen is just one of many series by Cherryh, but it’s the one I first encountered. When the original Dr. Ariane Emory is assassinated, the scientists and political figures of her world decide they will not only create a clone body of her, they will attempt to recreate the personality and memories themselves, carefully raising the new clone and shaping her life to resemble her predecessor’s.
A Woman’s Liberation: A Choice of Futures by and About Women edited by Connie Willis and Sheila Williams (Aspect, 2001)
Science fiction is very much a genre where the short story form is an essential part. And it is a particularly brilliant way to experience a wide range of authors, voices and styles within a single collection. Whether it’s a themed anthology or a “best of” anthology, there’s a great deal to explore! I’ve selected a few that I tend to like, but they are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of excellent anthologies. This first one is a personal favorite–exploring SF from a women’s perspective, though I would say “Even the Queen” is my favorite story of the collection! A great place to start getting to know some of the prominent women writing in the field.
The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (Vintage, Expected Publication July 2016)
This one isn’t out yet. But it promises to be big. To be ultimate, according to the book cover. Just a quick peek at the authorial names included makes it clear this is is going to do a good job of introducing readers to a large swathe of SF history and present day writers. No tome can be exhaustive, but I have fairly high hopes from this one.
Octavia’s Brood edited by Walida Imarisha and Adrienne Marie Brown (AK Press, March 2015)
Octavia Butler was one of the first women of color to notably write science fiction, this anthology is in her memory, capturing the voices of writers concerned with issues of social change and justice. It is an anthology that strives to present a diverse collection rather than the most familiar writers. It’s the kind of anthology that can introduce readers to writers who may not have cropped up on their radar before.
Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep edited by Peter Öberg (Affront Publishing, 2015)
Likewise, these anthologies come in so many varieties. I encountered this one on Goodreads and reacted immediately with “oh, I want to read those stories!” New voices in Swedish science fiction. Look around and you’ll find other, highly specific anthologies on any number of regions, topics or types of SF. With a little exploration you might soon find a pile of anthologies landing on your TBR pile.
Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee (Spectra, 1999)
I’m including this title in part because it’s written by the remarkable Tanith Lee, but also because it’s one of the rare SF utopia stories. So often we encounter dystopian visions of the future. But what if the future is bright? What if we can someday live in a world where there’s no sickness, no work, nothing but idle pleasures and happiness? And what if a member of that utopia finds themselves dissatisfied with such a world? That’s the premise of Lee’s combined books here.
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Penguin, c1963)
I probably can’t call this a good SF list if I don’t mention Vonnegut. Sharp worded and satirical science fiction that tackles subjects like society, religion and humanity destroying itself. Considered to be one of Vonnegut’s best novels, it’s a look at humanity encountering Armageddon and surviving it. Like so many other writers on this list, this is just one of many works to check out!
So there you have it, my twenty finally done. And . . . please add your own titles you recommend in the comments. I can never set up a perfect list, so I’m all for having others put in their two cents of other great reads! After this it’s back to children’s stuff for me!
My earlier pathways can be found here:
You’re an older woman who loves the simple, quiet life on the farm, but when a group of men decide to use your farmlands as their launchpad for their rocket to Mars, you’ll wind up going along and taking no nonsense from anyone.
Do you remember:
Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars by Ellen MacGregor, illustrated by Paul Galdone (McGraw-Hill Companies, 1951)
A few years ago I delved into 1950s science fiction for kids and this particular series fell out of the internet jumble and into my lap. And let’s just say I’m a little gobsmacked. Honestly, if someone had told me that there was a series of science fiction books for kids where the main protagonist was an older single woman (back in the day, a spinster) who lived on a farm, I’d probably have thought someone was playing a bit of a joke. But that was before I discovered the undaunted and determined Miss Pickerell.
In this first adventure, Miss Pickerell discovers government men readying to send up a rocket from her homestead. She inadvertently gets added to the crew instead of the last scientist (who has difficulty with addresses). And while this farm woman may not know much about being an astronaut, she’s willing to learn and adapt. The science is dated, much like it is inThe Space ship Under the Apple Tree and The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. But, for all that, this book does tap into real science to help create and sustain the adventure. Food on board the rocket is served in tubes. The book mentions the fact that there’s no atmosphere in space . . . It’s not the most scientific minded tale out there, but it does a serviceable job of introducing a delightfully charming space adventure in only 128 pages.
Before her death, Ellen MacGregor wrote and published four complete Miss Pickerell stories. Each dealt with different scientific adventures, and the author took some effort to include real scientific fact as it was known at the time. Ellen MacGregor left extensive notes for further adventures of this delightful heroine, and author Dora Pantell took up the task of completing the series. There are sixteen books in all, the last one published in 1986. I’ve not found any real information on Ms. Pantell, and the only books credited to her are this series, but she appears to have done an admirable job keeping the series going.
The first four books includes illustrations by none other than fairy tale and folklore author/illustrator Paul Galdone. (I unfortunately can’t find any images of the art to share here). Later books featured the art of Charles Geer.
This is one of those series that lots of young readers in the 1950s and 1960s encountered and absorbed. The types of stories that inspired them and stuck with them. Clocking in at just over one hundred pages, these books were perfect for the intermediate readers just cutting their eyeteeth on chapter books. Kids could read along and enjoy the adventures of Miss Pickerell . . . and dream about the future. Like so many books from that period, the science elements have become dated and incorrect over time, as is the fate of much near-future science fiction, but they are important because of what they offered and represented at the time they were first published. And one other significant bit. There’s an undercurrent still in effect today that would imply that girls don’t like Science Fiction and therefore publishers don’t tend to put a lot of adventure SF out there with female protagonists.
With the challenge on to prove that girls are just as interested and capable of exploring science and engineering careers as boys, it’s important that new science fiction stories recognize that girls are reading these books too–and that they really haven’t ever stopped. Girls need to see female protagonists out there in fiction–and that goes for adventurous science fiction as well! I rather imagine that curmudgeonly Miss Pickerell would be leading the charge with her fearless spirit and conviction in her own abilities.
While out of print for some time, it looks like at least the first three books are now available as electronic Kindle editions so folks who want to discover Miss Pickerell for the first time, or those who want to share a fondly remembered series with the younger generations will have their chance.
Any fans of this series out there? Comments welcome!