SF Sunday


A few things lately have got me thinking about two distinct strands of definitively “what-if?” speculative fiction which sometimes intertwine – the alternate history based narrative, and the utopian-dystopian narrative.

For example, Philip K Dick in the Man in the High Castle used a base of what-if the Germans and Japanese had won World War II to explore existing dystopic undercurrents of the common utopian rhetoric about The American Way and native superiority to other populations who had surrendered during the war.

Kim Stanley Robinson in The Years of Rice and Salt used a what-if of a mediaeval Europe almost entirely depopulated by the plague, leaving it to be colonised by Asia, and what that would mean for a future history of the world. What basic assumptions about communities and hierarchies would be different, and what would be the same, with neither the Graeco-Roman nor the Christian heritage any longer underpinning Europe, and the major clash of religions being between Buddhism and Islam? Too many utopic/dystopic narratives examined here to list in what’s meant to be merely a conversation-starter post.

Then of course there is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where the what-if is that a group of extreme conservative Christian Dominionists stage a bloodless coup in the 1980s in one part of North America, where through the manipulation of integrated electronic databases they strip women of any independent legal rights, assigning all their property to the men who claim responsibility for them. A classic deconstruction of the utopian narrative about traditional gender roles under patriarchy.

So what are other people’s favourite alternate history novels, dystopic novels, and crossovers between the two?

Image Source: looks like cover art, but it comes from somebody’s StumbleUpon account where it’s not credited that I could find. Chosen only because it was the first result served to me on an image search for “science fiction” (which was rather a relief, actually). If anyone knows the artist and novel it was illustrating please let me know.

Which leads to a second question – what are your all-time most-loved and most-loathed SF book covers?

Categories: ethics & philosophy, history, Sociology

Tags: , ,

20 replies

  1. Most loathed: any decent feminist sci-fi published by a mainstream publishing house.
    I wrote a small post about it a while ago: [link], and will try to do so again, as I have so many bad covers on my shelves and I now have a scanner.
    All time most loved? Gosh, I’ll have to go away and think about that.
    For general hilarity, don’t forget John Birmingham’s Weapons of Choice series, where a slightly-futuristic international naval fleet (containing Prince Harry) get zapped backwards into the thick of World War 1 and all hell breaks loose. He consulted a lot of uber-nerd blogging friends for historical details as he wrote the series and named many characters after them in gratitude (and fun).

  2. Sorry, that should be World War *2*.

  3. Ooh, I’m going to be a regular at this thread, because I LOVE speculative sci fi, especially written by women, and things just keep jumping into my brain.
    More good female-centred dystopian/utopian speculative fiction novels:
    Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
    Marge Piercy: Body of Glass
    Zoe Fairbairns: Benefits
    Jacqueline Harpmann: Mistress of Silence
    Sherri Tepper: Beauty
    I know there are more, but I’m not near my books ATM. Would love more suggestions from anybody else…

  4. Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country is also a very good examination of a a utopian female-centred society with bleak undertones.
    David Brin’s one about the society where clone-line families held the highest social status and naturally born families the lowest (due to differing inheritance traditions changing the intergenerational accumulation of wealth) I thought was hugely interesting but ultimately unsatisfying.

  5. Isn’t that always the way? Someone starts with a great idea and can’t sustain it. Zoe lent me a book about the UK being divided into four corresponding with the Greek notion of the body’s humours (sorry, can’t remember the name, but I have it written down at home — I’m in the studio right now) and the idea was fabulous but it just didn’t finish anywhere.
    For a green utopian vision you can’t go past Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach, but it’s nigh on impossible to get unless you order it secondhand on the net.
    I forgot Gateway to Women’s Country. Man, I can’t wait to get home 🙂

  6. I can see that I’m going to have to chase up the John Birmingham one you mentioned, &D. That sounds like a glorious romp.

  7. Oh, indeed yes. The first one takes ages to get into, the second is (for my money) the best, and the third one is fun but by the end of it you’re glad it’s all over.

  8. The John Burningham is fun, and I think I agree with AD’s rating of the books. I much preferred Sheri Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country to a Handmaid’s Tale – it felt to me as if Atwood got more credit and notice because she was a “proper” writer.
    So many science fiction covers have no relationship to the book that it’s hard to pick a worst, although my parents’ copy of Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars comes close. His heroine is a straightlaced, slightly nerdy 17 year old. She is depicted wearing practically nothing except some green metallic space-ish looking underwear.

    image via belated admin magic ~ tigtog
    Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin is another interesting female dystopian novel – set in a future community of linguists (linguists having all the power because they are needed to translate with aliens) where the women are very subjugated but hit back by inventing their own language which subtly changes the way people think. As a plot summary it sounds a bit silly, but I really enjoyed it.

  9. Reminds me that I need to reread Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. An ambiguous utopia indeed.
    As to bad cover art, I’m trying to find my copies of a few of Frank Herbert’s earlier books that I own. They must be in one of my other boxes (really need a house with more room for bookcases).
    Herbert must have hated his publishers, or at least I would hate them if they whacked a mostly naked woman on the cover of The Godmakers (basically a novel about politics with a mystic twist, and no naked women at all) and replacing an ugly alien with a piece of green & blue skinned pulchritude for the cover of Whipping Star.

  10. By far, I think the feminist sci fi author that gets most screwed by covers is Lois McMaster Bujold. Take, for example, this one: It’s bad in a different way from the other covers people have been posting, but to clarify: The two people dancing on the cover cannot possibly be the main characters, as the male lead was exposed to a teratogen in utero and is therefore half the height of a normal man. There are indeed occasional people dancing and the plot does revolve around a central love (er, courtship, anyway) story, but since the series it’s in is largely composed of good ol’ alien-fighting daring-diplomat space-walking adventures, the only thing I can think of is that the advertising folks read the plot summary and went, “Shit! We have to make romance sell! Guess it’s time to pull out the ugly foil and the ball gowns!”

  11. Ack, the previous “this one” was supposed to be linked here.

  12. Ah yes, I figured that had to be Gregor and Laisa because of the height issue for Miles and Mark, with perhaps Lord Dono as an outside possibility. Perhaps even Ivan dancing with Ekaterin, but only if Miles were an obvious seething observer.

  13. And lest we forget: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is a dystopian ‘what if’ that chills to the bone (and starts with the premise that the mother just couldn’t hack it); Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (which I loved); and on a less sci-fi but equally ‘what if’ dystopian level, Jose Saramago’s Blindness, which I highly recommend.

  14. David Brin’s one about the society where clone-line families held the highest social status and naturally born families the lowest

    Glory Season
    I love Ursula Le Guin’s work. The fourth in the Earthsea series spoke to me – Tehanu, where she took all her ‘magic’, and wrote about what it was like to be a woman in that world.
    I wrote a bit about The Dispossessed a few months ago, ‘though more from a political theory perspective.
    Deborahs last blog post..Friday Feminist – Anne Else

  15. Reminds me that I need to reread Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. An ambiguous utopia indeed.
    Yes, yes. One of my favorites. Also, Left Hand of Darkness for the total explosion of biological sex and gender roles.
    Connie Willis has done some amazing work, always with fierce women characters, often dropped into seriously patriarchal contexts: some very playful time-travel-don’t-mess-it-up stuff (To Say Nothing of the Dog, WW contexts), some scary and grim (Doomsday Book – bubonic plague era), but she comes to mind mainly in this thread because of a short story which is among the worst things I have ever read on the pure pain scale – “All My Darling Daughters,” in which the pure evil of sexual assault is left unequivocally lit by a ‘what if’ replacement of girls with animals.
    It absolutely sucks to read, so this isn’t exactly a recommendation, and certainly not one for escape/fun reading. But for anyone who’s braving feminist sci-fi, it’s brilliant, and not something I’ve seen done as (overused word ahead alert) unflinchingly by anyone else. She leaves nothing unturned in explicating the motives of rape. And, I pitched the book across the room and yelled at Connie Willis for doing that to me when I finished it. So, you know. FYI for collectors of aggressively feminist fiction with strong stomachs.
    Also, Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Maybe not exactly a what-if/utopian/dystopian, although it kind of is, but an intense and genius book dealing with unwanted time travel between the present and the slavery era. All of Octavia Butler’s short stories, too. Love her.

  16. By far, I think the feminist sci fi author that gets most screwed by covers is Lois McMaster Bujold.

    The “Judge A Book By Its Cover” blog is fab. The commenters have noticed the Bujold problem, too.

  17. I can’t think of speculative science fiction, especially utopian/dystopian without thinking of Katherine Maclean’s ‘Missing Man’ from 1975. Time after time I am struck by parallels to current events; from the seawalls holding back the ocean from NYC, to the secret, facinated thrill of the people viewing video of a 911-type attack. Excellent, excellent work. It has replaced “Lord of Light” as my favorite book.

  18. I reckon reckon that’s how I’d rate my books too. Targets is my fave for a whole bunch of technical reasons.

  19. Thanks for dropping by and resurrecting the thread, JB. It’s reminded me to do what I mentioned above, i.e. get my pen and add your book to the list in my notebook that I carry with me so that it’s handy when I’m in a bookshop.


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