In North America, Science Fiction has gotten a pretty dreadful reputation. Not that that’s surprising, considering how much of it deals with scantily-clad princesses hatching evil plans to dominate planets whose names invariably start with the letter “x”. Still, although it’s hard to believe, there is some good Sci Fi out there. This keeps the genre’s staples – aliens, new abilities, time travel – but uses them as nothing more than a backdrop to explore something a lot closer to home. By placing its characters in situations where normal moral guidelines, like legal codes or religious commandments, cease to be applicable, these books, movies, and TV shows take a look at how we treat each other and those who are weaker, more frightening, or simply different. They examine what makes us tick, and test how our decisions and relationships fare under pressure. And, since they’re Sci Fi, the tend to be pretty cool and entertaining too.
The problem is, if you don’t want to get stuck watching the exploits of evil Queen Zelda on planet Xanthon, you need to know where to look. To help you out, here is a beginner’s guide to Sci Fi books and TV shows that will entertain you, make you think and, best of all, won’t embarrass you. Even a little.
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: A Trilogy in Five Parts (Douglas Adams). If you haven’t seen the movie, think British comedy meets Sci Fi. If you have, the movie’s got nothing on it. A sneak peek: “A computer chattered to itself in alarm as it noticed an airlock open and close itself for no apparent reason. This was because Reason was in fact out to lunch. A hole had just appeared in the Galaxy…As it closed up, lots of paper hats and party balloons fell out of it and drifted off through the Universe. A team of seven three-foot-high market analysts fell out of it and died, partly of asphyxiation, partly of surprise.” Enough said.
I, Robot (Isaac Asimov). Remember the movie? Now imagine it’s complete opposite. There you go. That’s the book. Asimov is to Sci Fi as Shakespeare is to, well, everything. His books are the foundation (no pun intended) of Science Fiction, and I, Robot is a good place to start. It’s a collection of short stories which trace the development of robotics and explore our propensity to fear that which we don’t take the time to understand.
Clifford Simak. Most of his books are really good, but Way Station or City are the ones to start with. Simak has the unique ability to describe the indescribable, making his books something special. Unfortunately, they are rare in Canada and difficult to get a hold of, but the library has some copies. Even more unfortunately, Del Rey published most of the books, which means that the covers are ridiculously ridiculous. So be warned, and don’t judge them by their covers!
Ender’s Game Series/Shadow Series (Orson Scott Card). A genius child is taken along with hundreds of others to be trained to be an officer and strategist in an ongoing war. In his training he must face unbelievable pressure and both his own and others’ cruelty. This is probably the most popular Sci Fi book right now, and for good reason. This is the kind of book you just can’t put down, and has some interesting commentary on morality, power, character, politics, and coexistence. Card’s knowledge of military strategy also means that, incredibly, the books have been used to teach strategy in some colleges in the States. The two series are parallel so you can read either series first, but I strongly recommend reading the first Ender’s Game book before reading the Shadow series.
The 4400. This is by far my favourite on this list. A big ball of light deposits 4400 people on a beach near Seattle, all of whom disappeared at some point in the last 60 years. When they start developing abilities, people start getting nervous, and safety and morality are constantly at odds. The show traces the relationship between the 4400, the rest of society, and the federal agency trying to keep the peace between the two; it takes a look at fear, bigotry, and privilege in the trigger-happy post-9/11 world, and is a really haunting mirror held up to our faces. Definitely a must-see.
Battlestar Galactica. Despite the cheesy name – a relic of the ridiculous 60’s original – this is one of the best-made shows on television, let alone in Sci Fi. Rather than disconnected episodes, the show features one story that unfolds over four seasons. The screenplays are phenomenal, the acting is some of the best I’ve seen on TV, and the characters are so dynamic and realistic that the show mimics life almost too well, sometimes making it a bit too dark. Tracing the lives of the few survivors looking for a new home after a surprise attack, BSG explores how we make decisions when the right course of action is simply not available. By blurring the line between human and non-human characters, it also explores what it is that makes us human in the first place.
Eureka. This isn’t as complex or well-written as the others, but a good dose of humour balances that out. After WWII, the U.S. brought all of the world’s greatest minds to a town built around an R&D company. When U.S. Marshall Jack Carter crashes his car on the town’s outskirts, he discovers just what this set-up has led to. He becomes the town’s sheriff, and spends the next 2 (so far) seasons making sure the scientists don’t kill themselves. The show is quirky and hilarious. One episode has Carter move in to an AI house, Sarah. When he comes home late one night, she gets angry and refuses to let him in. He then has to stand outside, gently stroke the door, and beg her forgiveness. This is the Douglas Adams (see above) brand of Sci Fi, and is amazingly entertaining.
The Lost Room. The victim of an assault brings his parole officer a key that opens any door and always leads to a hotel room. When someone the officer loves disappears into the room, he does whatever he can to get them back. In the process, he discovers a kind of black market where other Objects like the key – all possessing some kind of power, and all connected to the room – are traded, stolen, and killed for, as well as a whole host of theories and obsessions centering on the Lost Room. Since this is a miniseries (only 3 episodes), it might be a good place to start if you’re still unsure about this whole Sci Fi thing.
Taken. This is another miniseries, which was produced by Steven Spielberg, and stars Dakota Fanning (no, this is not the movie of the same name that came out this year). Remember that WWII pilot that claimed to have seen a flying saucer? That’s where it all starts. The series traces the intertwining lives of two families from that time through four generations – one the family of an Air Force colonel who is in charge of the investigations on UFO’s, and the other the family of the original pilot. It takes a look at how we treat each other, and how much cruelty human beings are truly capable of when they are driven by their obsessions and the need to prove themselves.