Going Past Genre: Brain Food For Academic Anorexics

All Techies ain’t necessarily Trekkies as well. There’s a softer, more thoughtful side to sci-fi and other genre fiction that escapes most readers. Beyond Star Wars and Star Trek, Middle Earth and The Matrix, Harry Potter and Robert Langdon, there’s an entire galaxy of cool, challenging literature out there. These are books to test your central processing unit with, get you to boot up your brain a bit and gain an IQ point or two.

Cover of "Shadow & Claw: The First Half o...

Cover via Amazon

Like a really good decadent chocolate cake, Gene Wolfe’s writing is so dark it can get you dizzy and so dense it can cause indigestion. Wolfe churns out strong stuff that should come with guidelines describing how well they go with your choice of chemical stimulant. The four-volume Book of the New Sun is his magnum opus, an unclassifiable and unsummarizeable work that has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses (but is much more fun to actually read). The saga is set in a future so far ahead that everything has been rendered unrecognizable by entropy. If you can get past the fantastical cover art, tricky vocabulary, and murky starting chapters you may discover a work of literary genius that is not entirely what it seems. Imagine the creepy allegories of C.S. Lewis layered with the convoluted semiotics of Umberto Eco, all presented in glam rock trappings. Coming to understand The Book of the New Sun is like playing a game, solving a meticulously constructed puzzle that rewards the vigilant with an unforgettable reading experience and an overwhelming knock-out of a story.

Iain Banks’ novels of The Culture show how space opera can be upbeat and funny yet still profound and intelligent. The series reads like Douglas Adams with depth or Ursula Le Guin with a sense of humor. Somehow, Banks makes Objectivism accessible and downright engaging, Ayn Rand would be very happy. The Culture is an intergalactic society sustained by principles of both anarchy and elegance. Where nobody has to do anything and everybody wants for nothing, but people still get into trouble anyway. Having honed his chops in conventional literary fiction, Banks spins sarcasm, comedy, violence, and philosophy together in a cavalier, laid-back style that’s sure to entertain and impress even those most resistant to the science fiction genre. The Player of Games is his most straightforward and accessible book, while the vertiginous Use of Weapons is widely considered as his best (although not recommended for the faint of heart).

Cover of "In the Garden of Iden: A Novel ...

Cover via Amazon

Sky Coyote

Sky Coyote (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Company series by Kage Baker deals with two favorite punching bags of angsty genre fiction – immortality and time travel. Baker transcends the usual whiny clichés of these themes by bombarding us with a troupe of distinct and colorful characters and a delectably meaty back-story to chew on. Think of the Highlander movies or Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles stripped of much of their existential moralizing and supernatural mumbo-jumbo, plus the across-the-ages romantic passion of Somewhere In Time crossed with some Alias-style covert action. Baker treats time and history like an interactive tollway with many secret off-ramps, gleefully ignoring the issue of paradoxes and liberally sprinkling anachronisms as background flavor. The first two books, In The Garden of Iden and Sky Coyote, are required reading to really get into the subtleties of the whole series, but like a loaf of Gardenia bread, they’re both good enough on their own (Sky Coyote in particular is a hilarious page-turner). The Company’s cyborgs are immortal beings suffering from a refreshing lack of ennui, indestructible and ageless freaks who actually like who they are and what they’re doing. We get to know their fetishes and foibles as we’re treated to a rollicking adventure stretching across the width and breadth of humanity, from prehistory to the end of the world as we know it.

The Diamond Age

The Diamond Age (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A montage showing author Neal Stephenson and f...

A montage showing author Neal Stephenson and four historical characters from his book series The Baroque Cycle: (counterclockwise from top left) Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Electress Sophia of Hanover and William of Orange (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neal Stephenson’s blockbuster novel Cryptonomicon is worth the price of purchase based on his strikingly accurate depiction of Manila alone. He nails the nuances of our very own city both in its prewar Pearl-of-the-Orient glory and current state of modern semi-decay. Take that Alex Garland! Part high-tech treasure-hunting caper, part mathematical treatise, and part sweeping war-torn epic, Cryptonomicon acts as a prequel and warm-up of sorts to Stephenson’s most ambitious creation, The Baroque Cycle. This series consists of three best-selling nine-hundred-page novels, all focused on obscure topics of cryptography, monetary theory, and philosophy. Stephenson even wrote them with a fountain pen to get himself into the mindset of the eras in which the books are set. While the Baroque Cycle makes for more interesting than enjoyable reading (his other books are more entertaining), Stephenson’s radical concepts never fail to pack a punch. The Matrix movies heavily borrowed their core mythos from his seminal cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. But his most subversive ideas may be found in The Diamond Age, where he envisions a world transformed by nano-technology, with citizenship defined by philosophical affiliation and not by nationality. The closest he’s come to a conventional potboiler is the political thriller Interface, in which Big Brother takes over the US elections. After this expedition into the Baroque, who knows what realm Stephenson will subvert next?

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manual, 2005

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  1. Marvellous commentary and some brilliant books included there in. I haven’t read Wolfe yet, but your description makes me think it is right up my alley.

    • Thanks for your comment! It’s my first ever ‘real’ comment on this blog 🙂 I’ve just perused your reviews and feel honored that such a great writer and reviewer like yourself took the time to check out my humble scribblings. As I said, Wolfe’s prose is extremely dense, but his world-building is crazy brilliant

      • Thanks for the complement! I appreciate it.

        Actually, I think Science Fiction could use a bit more of the dense prose style. I love a simple and well told tale with simple language, but often I want to be swept away by the flow of the words. For example, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is all about the telling of the story, the plotline is a bit thin. I remember when they turned it in a movie I wondered how they would possibly make it work. The answer was, of course, they didn’t.

        Anyway, I’m delighted to have found your blog and look forward to future posts!

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