Goodreads Voice: Five Favorite Space Novels
By Orson Scott Card | Published Jan 03, 2011 03:31PM
And what would you be knocking over? Not a single book about outer space, I'll tell you that. Because even though I'm a science fiction writer, I didn't grow up dreaming about space travel. I have no desire to get into a space shuttle or any other lofty vehicle. Airplanes make me tense. Ladders make me panic. I don't like looking down at my driveway from the garage roof, and I definitely don't want to look down at a planet's surface from space.
In most science fiction, space is not really space. That is, the story isn't about space, and it uses the distance between planets and stars as a means of telling the kind of story that, in the old days, used the ocean for the same purpose.
Years ago, near the beginning of my writing career, I took a course in Middle English Romance and fell in love. This was the sci-fi of the Middle Ages—voyages to strange lands, great battles with Saracens and other aliens, abduction by fairies. I proposed to my editor, Beth Meacham, that I wanted to do a version of the Middle English story King Horn, only I'd change the ocean to outer space and the magical devices to cool machines. Then she changed publishers and so did I, and the idea faded. I used the idea with my Homecoming series instead (Memory of Earth, etc.).
The point is that we use outer space to allow us to set up rules that echo the conditions in different periods in our history. If you want a story where ships hug the coastline of the sea, and only a few rare adventurers are able to discover new lands, then you set up the rule that spaceships can go no faster than 2 percent of the speed of light.
If you want to echo the era when you could cross oceans, but it took years and was dangerous enough that only a few people ever took the return voyage, then you allow near-lightspeed space travel, where the effects of relativity make it so the voyagers only lose a few months of their life but everyone back home has lived through decades and many have died. Returning to the place is possible, but everyone you knew will be dead by the time you return.
What about the era when steamships plied the Atlantic and Pacific, but communication was instantaneous through the transoceanic cables that carried telegraph messages from continent to continent? Why, that's a universe like that of my novel Ender's Game, where you are limited by lightspeed, kept alive by relativity, and able to communicate by ansible.
If you want it to be like today, then you have faster-than-light (FTL) spaceships that take several hours for a voyage and cost enough money that you don't want to do it every week (unless you're rich or your employer is paying for it). The mechanism of your FTL travel doesn't matter. Warp drive, folded space, whatever you want. It's all magic anyway, you just call it a machine, give it a cool name, and off you go.
Finally, if you want to have the kind of story where the fairies capture someone and spirit him away to their magical realm, then you use instantaneous "beam" travel, where you stand in a particular place, get scanned and disassembled, and then get reassembled in the remote location. Presto! Instant travel.
Only in the subgenre of "hard science fiction" do you actually care much about space travel itself, the nuts and bolts of how you move around, the nature of stars and other objects, and the laws of physics. When the story is about science and technology, then you'd better love outer space, because you're going to spend a lot of time studying and thinking about it.
I don't write that kind of story. I rarely read that kind of story. For me, I'm content with the handwavium that Isaac Asimov used in the Foundation trilogy. He needed a huge world, where great empires could rise and fall without ever bumping into each other, like the Mayas and the Romans and the Chinese, all at once. So he made space travel very expensive but no more time-consuming than a car trip. There is no law of science that allowed this; he just did what the story required.
Isaac Asimov was the finest writer of the American Plain Style that I've ever read. His prose is so lucid that you always understand everything he wrote, as if he injected the ideas directly into your brain—and the needle didn't even hurt! The only chemistry class I ever took was his book on organic chemistry, and I get along fine working with ideas about DNA in my fiction.
Asimov's Foundation, the first volume in the series, was given to me by my brother and his fiancée on my sixteenth birthday. From the first moment he hooked my love of history and then slid me through the greatest space epic of all time. If you only ever read one work of fiction set in outer space, this is the one.
The original three volumes are a systematic retelling of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but it'll never feel like you're reading a tome. Instead you'll be caught up in the master plan of Hari Seldon, delighted when it works, and devastated when something pops up that Seldon had not anticipated.
The original three books are Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. (Yes, it confused me, too, that Second Foundation is the third book, but it absolutely makes sense in the story.) You can go on to read the later Foundation books, but in those Asimov was tying the Foundation series together with his great Robot novels, like Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, so you probably should read those before moving forward. Believe me, it won't hurt you a bit.
Mike Resnick's Santiago is a sort of Western in space—rather like the television show Firefly, only written earlier. Space travel is as convenient as, say, riding a horse from town to town in the Old West—lots of people do it, and you don't have to leave your whole life behind, though you can if you want.
This story of a legendary hero who has always just left town before you got there cost me a night's sleep when I first read it, and still delights me, page after page, when I read it again. I can't tell you anything more about it without giving too much away.
David Farland's Golden Queen trilogy—The Golden Queen, Beyond the Gate, and Lords of the Seventh Swarm—is now available in a single volume: Worlds of the Golden Queen. You can also download the three volumes as separate unabridged audiobooks from Audible.com.
This is the equivalent of Lord of the Rings in space. It begins small, as a seemingly insignificant character gets caught up in the affairs of dangerous, evil beings that threaten everything good about human life. Then with twists and turns that left me gasping, Farland launches us into space to do things that at the beginning of the book we couldn't have dreamed of.
Farland's gift is to make his characters deep and truthful, their relationships compelling, complicated, and real. Even though it's a rollicking good yarn, you experience it with all the power of real life. Farland is simply one of the best sci-fi and fantasy writers alive.
Larry Niven's Ringworld really is one of those books that cares about astronomy, the rules of physics, and how the machines all work. Niven's gift is that you never feel like you're reading a textbook—on the contrary, you're simply reading one of the great sci-fi adventures, the discovery of a world that is impossibly vast and the insane yet exactly right realization of what has been driving them forward through all their trials.
Niven went on to write many sequels to further develop and explore the concepts and history of the Ringworld, but I am not slighting the sequels when I say that Ringworld itself is something special, an unforgettable vision...with a perfect punch line.
Now is the time for me to make a disclaimer. Frank Herbert's Dune is arguably the finest science fiction novel ever written. And there is space travel in it. But few people really experience it as a space travel novel. The intense focus of the book is a single world's ecology and the people who have learned to adapt themselves to it and the great creatures that live just under its surface. It's also a saga of rival royal houses, of history being manipulated by the "witches" of the Bene Gesserit. If you haven't read Dune, then you have missed one of the best pieces of literature of the 20th century.
But I wouldn't put it on my list of Five Space Novels because space travel isn't at the heart of the actual story the way it is with the other books on my list.
And there are other books that definitely are space novels that keep bobbing up in my memory and demanding a place on this list:
Arthur C. Clarke's enigmatic Rendezvous with Rama, with aliens that visit us without even saying hello.
Ursula K. Le Guin's Rocannon's World and, really, all her Hainish novels, where she explores the nature of humanity as her characters hop from world to world. (And in these novels that she introduced the ansible for all the rest of us sci-fi writers to use.)
The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, with a compellingly dangerous alien world.
Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, in which the people on the Moon declare their independence from Earth...and make it stick.
Dragon's Egg, by Robert Forward, in which an alien species' entire existence is triggered by the arrival of a human spaceship.
The Retrieval Artist series by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, novels that set up and resolve impossible moral dilemmas in the midst of terrific mysteries—while hopping world to world. Titles: The Disappeared, Extremes, Consequences, Buried Deep, Paloma, Recovery Man, and Duplicate Effort. Every one of these books should be on anybody's list of the greatest space novels of all time.
But this isn't anybody's list, it's mine. And so I have to plunge back to the very root of my love for science fiction—an early novel by Andre Norton that I read when I was in eighth grade. This is the book that set me on my course as a science fiction writer.
Andre Norton's Galactic Derelict was published in the era when almost the only sci-fi novels published in book form (instead of as magazine serials) were "juveniles"—what we now call "young adult fiction." It's the story of a Native American archaeologist who is brought to a dig where they have uncovered the impossible: an intact spaceship built by an alien species that came to Earth thousands of years before.
When he and a few others are inside the ship, something gets triggered and it takes off. They journey from world to world, only gradually learning how to control the ship and make it go where they want. What they discover about the aliens—and the human race—is exactly the sort of thing that sets a young reader dreaming. And it has lost none of its power in the intervening years.
(Galactic Derelict was actually the sequel to The Time Traders, but I read Galactic Derelict first—and Time Traders is not a space novel.)
Now can we stop talking so I can get back to reading? If I fall asleep first, switch off the light, OK?
Tags: 2011-january and desk-of
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