Science fiction has home court advantage when it comes to robots, artificial intelligence, interstellar voyages, and distant futures. Sometimes that makes it easy to forget that, at its core, the genre is like any other mode of fictional storytelling: often best exemplified through its characters, in all their flawed, thriving, complicated humanity (well, not always their humanity)..
This week saw the latest punches thrown in an ongoing brawl over the line between a mere work of science fiction and a work of “literary” quality when Man Booker Prize-winner Ian McEwan (Atonement) attempted to ensure no one would place his new novel Machines Like Me—in simplest terms, a story about about a man and woman who fall into a romantic and sexual relationship with a robot—on the “science fiction” side of that dividing line.
“There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of traveling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you,” McEwan told an interviewer with The Guardian. “If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.”
Cue noise from genre fans, who beg to differ. I confess it stirred some uprising in my own sci-fi loving heart; not only do human dilemmas exist within genre stories, it’s the crux on which the best of them are built—even if along with them come a few mechanical or otherworldly creatures too.
For my crusade—ahem, apologies—my thesis on this topic, please accept into evidence the following 8 books, great examples of the humanity at the foundation of great genre writing.
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
Across a broad and broad-ranging body of work, Ray Bradbury blurs the lines of genres time and again, writing across many and dipping into the literary with some of his most well recognized, most-read books. But through it all, he always embraced the association with genre fiction, and the love affair went both ways (he’s even got a science fiction award named in his honor). In The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury explores the impact as humanity lands on Mars and two species, the native Martians and the interlopers from Earth, collide in a series of interconnected vignettes. Along the way, readers bear witness to the aftermath as a world is overtaken and a culture is torn apart. Meanwhile, humanity continues its spread with violence and hubris, determination and hope, as a drive for exploration pushes them ever forward. If that’s not human, I don’t know what is.
Rosewater, by Tade Thompson
In this story, the classic trope of an alien invasion is leveraged and subverted with rich imagination in a novel draws inspiration from author Tade Thompson’s life in London and his Yoruba heritage. Aliens settle into a biodome in Nigeria, and as people flood to the site to experience its associated healing powers, the city of Rosewater grows around it. Amidst this backdrop, former thief Kaaro must find a mysterious Bicycle Girl, a quest that soon becomes a hunt for a murderer of “sensitives”—humans with unexplained powers—like himself. Kaaro brings heart to an elaborate setting in a novel with complex characterization that keeps readers guessing.
Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson
A vast spaceship has been propelled into space in search of a new home for humanity beyond the solar system, a search that will span generations. Though this premise in many ways presents as the epitome of science fiction’s cold, stark stereotypes—living in metal containers in the isolation of outer space—Robinson’s focus on a family, as the relationships and struggles of its core characters bring heart to a story about survival writ large—as does the complex characterization of the artificial intelligence that serves as the book’s narrator—the ship’s computer, which only grows more human as it tries over years to best learn how to tell the story of its passengers. The need for a home is a genuinely human dilemma—as is the drive to tell and preserve the stories of our lives, whether human or artificial.
Infomocracy, by Malka Older
In these dark political times, what’s more human than exploring the idealism and failure of a vast complex political system, via the everyday lives that hang in the balance? In a future world, nations have been replaced. Humanity is now divided into 100,000-person segments—centenals that run their own micro-democracies. It’s within this fragmented system that Older starts a countdown to a high-stakes election, but the story doesn’t rely on typical high-action spy chases to drive it forward. Instead, its heroes are number crunchers and behind-the-scenes analysts (and yes, okay, one field agent) who let big thinking do the driving as political parties manipulate the system to win over the world, one centenal at a time.
Dawn, by Octavia Butler
The alien Oankali make contact with Earth just in time to save the human race from destroying itself. They even throw in healing the ruined planet and curing cancer as a bonus. But when Lilith is awakened to find herself on the Oankali ship with the rest of what’s left of humanity, she must lead the way as people learn to adapt to their new reality in relation to the Oankali, and grapple with what the Earth has now become. This novel explores humanity’s fight for survival at the highest and most intimate levels.
Vicious, by V. E. Schwab
In an imaginative twist on superhero tropes, this novel follows two college friends in their pursuit for power whose determination leads to tragic consequences, changing them both forever. Once friendly competitors, the two become bitter enemies as their powers lead them on divergent paths that will leave the reader asking questions about what really makes a hero or a villain. At the center of both men lies a hunger for power and an insatiable ambition that neither can turn off, even as the consequences continue to mount higher. Meanwhile, they struggle with identity, college crushes, and complicated parental relationships. In short—these are the human dimensions of a premise that couldn’t be more science fictional fun on the surface. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a super hero?
The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
As tectonic shifts deep within the earth lead to irregular seasons and natural disasters with life-shattering force, this story follows the individual struggles of the people who must forge their own paths to survival amid a science fictional apocalypse. Don’t be too distracted by the bells and whistles—the seemingly magical orogenes and the Fulcrum, the exploitative organization that trains them, cruelly controlling the lives of these powerful people with the ability to move the earth itself. This is really a story about what happens when people are denied their humanity and stripped of their agency—and when they decide to fight back. The human spirit finds a way to survive, and even conquer, but not without a severe personal cost.
The Mount, by Carol Emshwiller
This Nebula nominated, Philip K. Dick Award-winning allegorical novel by the recently departed Carol Emshwiller is a wonderful example of the sort of deeply human SF that doesn’t scoff at being classified as such. It’s set in a much-changed future in which a species of aliens with large heads and weak bodies (but such powerful hands!) has overtaken much of humanity, turning us into their titular mounts—they perch on our shoulders and steer us around like horses. The preen and pamper us, but they don’t spare the rod (technologically advanced “poles” that scar, maim, and kill) when we misbehave. The story is told from the point-of-view of Charley, an 11-year-old boy raised to be a mount for a very important “Hoot” (the aliens speak in a birdlike singsong). He’s grown up in a life of normalized servitude, and is less than pleased when he is “rescued” by a group of “Wilds” led by his father. In exploring the boy’s conflicted coming-of-age, Emshwiller reveals poignant truths about the weight of expectations parents place on their children and the pain of forging your own path—all without giving short shrift to the novel’s wildly speculative premise.
What humanistic sci-fi would you recommend to any genre doubters out there?