I’ve read some fascinating books in the last few weeks – you could call them classics of the science fiction genre – and I wanted to share them here. They are all set in various post-apocalyptic worlds – what happens when war and climate change tip the balance for the human race? How do we survive as a species and as individuals?
Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin, 1971
Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, this absorbing book is about a man in an impoverished, violent world who has the power to change reality through his dreams, and what happens when a psychiatrist tries to manipulate reality by hypnotising him. The title is taken from the words of a Chinese philosopher: To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven. Wise words, indeed, and a remarkable book.
Dhalgren by Samuel Delaney, 1975
There was so much hyperbole surrounding this book that, of course, I had to read it. And read it I did, persistently, doggedly, until the end. It was not easy. I don’t think it was ever meant to be easy. The plot, in brief: The protagonist suffers from partial amnesia. He does not know who he is. He enters Bellona, a city in the American Midwest where something dreadful has happened and only about a thousand people still live. Fires burn, but we do not know their source. Strange cosmological events take place (two moons? A big red disk of a sun? We are not on the Earth we know, people.)
There are parts of the book that ARE sheer poetry, that I went back to again and again to re-read to myself. But toward the middle of the book, I began to get restless. It’s just too long. And the last section titled “The Anathemata: a plague journal”? Incredibly hard to get through, as sanity levels go down and parallel narratives take over. I won’t give away the ending, except to say it is messily circular. There is certainly no sense of anything being resolved. Read it for the sheer experience!
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm, 1976
Massive environmental changes and disease have led to a collapse of civilization. The human population left alive is infertile. One small community survives by producing clones. But what happens when the clones decide they are a better, different species, and reject sexual reproduction in favor of more cloning? I won’t give it away, except to say this is one of the most through-provoking books on cloning that I’ve read. Not hard to see why the book won the 1977 Hugo award for best novel.
Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler, 1987
This is a collection of three volumes in a series: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. The story begins after nuclear war has almost wiped out humanity. Survivors are picked up by an advanced alien race, the Oankali and taken to their spaceship. The aliens have the ability to manipulate genetic material, and want to create Oankali-human hybrids. Throughout the three books, the author explores the themes of race, violence, sexuality, and gender. Excellent, and highly recommended!
Next up is City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett, the sequel to the fantastic City of Stairs, which I loved. Can’t wait!