Alternatives to the Automobile
This is a partial bibliography of "relevant" fiction, i.e. fiction
which touches on the issues that this web site addresses in the
real world: petroleum dependency, global warming, hyperconsumption,
corporate control, all that stuff. For those who like to see important
issues worked into the fabric of entertaining stories (or maybe you just
need a break from reading serious nonfiction), here are some
recommendations. I'm not bothering to list or review
Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Joanna
Russ, William Gibson or early Samuel Delaney because... well, they're kind of "doh,
of course" stuff (rock stars every one); Herbert only gets a special
mention because Dune is so flagrantly relevant to Peak Oil and
fossil fuel dependency. I'll try to touch on more recent, or more obscure,
excellence. Consider them recommended :-) I will say that U K LeGuin's
poetry is worth reading, as well as her SF.
- Bruce Stirling
- Stirling started out more or less as another "me too" cyberpunk
writer, an apprentice to William Gibson; but he has turned into an able
satirist in his own right and imho has surpassed Gibson in some respects.
Highly recommended: Heavy Weather (what will things be like
after a few decades of global warming?), Distraction (quite
simply one of the funniest books I've ever read, an incisive exploration
of big science, big politics, spin control, and what happens when
things fall apart), Zeitgeist (surreal and amusing riff on
globalisation and the "entertainment culture"). Of these three,
Distraction is my favourite.
- Neal Stephenson
- Famous for Snow Crash which established him as a "rock
star" of the mainstream SF publishing scene. He followed up
Snow Crash with The Diamond Age, also a hit, and
then the ambitious and geek-friendly Cryptonomicon. They
are all entertaining reads. His first novel The Big U is
worthwhile as well. But my all-time favourite Stephenson novel
is his second book: Zodiac, an "eco-thriller" which is
simultaneously funny, angry, scientifically grounded, full of
percipient social criticism, and heartfelt in its own manic,
- Judith Moffatt
- Moffatt made her mark on the SF scene with Pennterra,
a novel of space colonisation. But the books for which I remember
her most fondly are The Ragged World and Time Like an
Ever-Rolling Stream. The premise is not unfamiliar: advanced
aliens arrive and "rescue" humanity from ourselves. But the
execution is original, thoughtful, and compassionate. Moffatt
asks what it would mean if we had, overnight, to mend our ways and
live sustainably. Her answers are both disturbing and hopeful.
- James Tiptree Jr
- The cat has been out of the bag for a long time; just about everyone
knows that "James Tiptree" was for many years the pseudonym of "Raccoona"
(Alice) Sheldon, a writer of remarkable depth, passion, and subtlety.
Sheldon's short stories, one novel, and a couple of novellas are
some of the most powerful social criticism ever written in the form
of science fiction. While she is best known for the blazing feminist
satire of such stories as "The Women Men Don't See," "Houston Houston
Do You Read," and "Morality Meat," she was also deeply engaged with environmental
issues (which drive such tales as "Time-Sharing Angel") and with animal
rights ("The Psychologist Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats").
The nature of global consumerism is summed up tragically in
her novel Brightness Falls from the Air. Look for the anthologies
Star Songs of an Old Primate, Warm Worlds and Otherwise,
Out of the Everywhere (and anything else you can find).
- George R. R. Martin
- Half fiction writer and half poet, Martin won kudos for his
brooding, lyrical space-opera short stories such as "A Song for
Lya," and his ambitious high-tragic novel Dying of the Light.
Later his writing became colder, more cynically tailored to mass
marketing (and vastly more popular) in his "Thrones" series of
blockbuster fantasy novels. My favourite Martin, however, is the series
of long stories collected under the title Tuf Voyaging, which
introduces an unforgettably bizarre protagonist and uncomfortably
incisive treatment of ecological and economic themes. Environmental
stupidity, overpopulation, toxic bureaucracy -- Haviland Tuf encounters
(and deals sternly with) them all. Great wish-fulfilment fare.
- Lee Killough
- Killough never became a Big Name in American sci-fi. But her
police procedurals set in the future of Kansas are fascinating for
the detailed way in which she builds a world living at the end of
its industrial resources. Climate change, fuel shortages, and
changing social mores are only the background to her whodunnits
but the background is well worked out. Look for The Doppelganger
Gambit, Dragon's Teeth and Spider Play.
- John Varley
- Best known either for the Titan trilogy or for his
novel Millennium which was adapted (rather badly) into a
TV movie, depending on whom you ask. Millennium is far
better than the movie made from it; its unremitting dystopian gloom
about our poisoned future overshadows the cleverness of its
- Frank Herbert
- Herbert went far beyond rock-star status to become one of the
demi-gods of American sci-fi. Despite his success in stringing out
the Dune saga for novel after increasingly turgid novel,
I still like only the original, unmatched achievement. Dune
is all space opera on the surface, but just beneath that decorative
and entertaining veneer is a very serious discourse on the nature
of biotic infrastructure and our relationship to it. Herbert was
exploring what it means to live "sustainably" and in harmony with
one's environment long before "sustainable" attained buzz-word status.
Don't be put off by either of the variously flawed video adaptations;
the novel stands by itself as a parable of the intimate relationship
between people and planet.
- Clifford Faust (almost certainly a pseudonym)
- Faust's diptych novels, Ferman's Devils and Bodekker's Demons,
are howlingly funny, an insider's nightmare tour through the future of
the public relations business. After laughing mightily at Faust's
manic dystopian vision, I recommend slogging your way through Toxic
Sludge is Good For You to discover how much of it has already come
- Sheri S Tepper
- Tepper's prolific output -- pretty daunting for the new reader! --
ranges from the early 'True Game' novels (vastly inventive, oddly
moving) to later, more serious, very engaging novels on environmental
and feminist themes. Perhaps no SF writer other than Tiptree/Sheldon
has dealt so realistically and unsparingly with patriarchy in all its
manifestations. Tepper's worlds are remarkably, unforgettably strange,
fulfilling the often-hollow promise of SF to take the reader someplace
truly different. Family Tree might be a good place to start
if one has never tackled Tepper's shelf of titles before. I've read
and re-read all of them; Sideshow remains for me the most
- James H Schmitz
- Schmitz perhaps doesn't quite count as a "serious" SF author;
but his delightful space operas touched on feminist and environmental
themes early in the history of the genre. The classic novel is The
Witches of Karres, where already he's pursuing a critique of commerce
and a kind of environmental awareness (the management of the planet of
Karres and its culture would please any 70's back-to-the-lander). His
sardonic/comic short stories "Grandpa" and "Balanced Ecology" reveal
a passion for ecosystems and their defence against money-minded exploiters.
The Demon Breed (also published as The Tuvela) also
hinges on ecology, biology, and inter-species affection and partnership.
Schmitz was a pioneer in presenting female protagonists as courageous,
intelligent, ingenious, adventurous, competent, etc.; decades before
Joss Whedon was born, Schmitz was writing about brave, boisterous
young action-heroines who would be right at home in Buffy-space.
- C J Cherryh
- Cherryh's output is enormous and some of it is, quite frankly,
potboiler grade. However, she managed to produce some really memorable
stories and worlds; she had an unusually good feel for the alien
in SF, and her stories often hinge on a lone human protagonist stranded
in an alien culture, having to adapt and conform (quite a contrast to the
traditional Anglo/imperial narrative of the heroic humans Conquering
Space and saving the heathen, as in the original Star Trek and its
endless sequelae). Her "Chanur" adventures eventually deteriorated into
potboiling, but the first novel in particular is good, and offers some
gender-reversal satire as well as plot galore. She makes good
use of field biology to construct alien cultures as extrapolations of
familiar life forms (leonid, insectile, reptilian, etc). Of her
shelf of mixed works I chiefly remember Hunter of Worlds,
Wave Without a Shore, Serpent's Reach, Forty
Thousand in Gehenna. Cherryh often pivoted her plots on the
necessity for humans to learn how other species live, think, and
perceive; language, translation, and cultural difference are
recurring themes, as are prejudiced or ignorant underestimates of
alien races and cultures which bring disastrous consequences.
- Molly Gloss
- I know MG only for one novel -- but it's a treasure --
The Dazzle of Day. The premise: industrialism has wrecked
Earth's biosphere to the point of no return. A group of Quakers
undertakes the ambitious project of founding a colony on a new,
barely habitable planet. Nicely written, more focussed on the
ethics of consensus and nonviolence than on the nuts-n-bolts SF
(space travel is merely a backdrop for a tale of morality, human
nature at its best and worst, and personal/cultural survival).
Memorable, strange, well worth your time. I should really catch
up with her other, non-SF novels.
- Cecilia Holland
- I find Holland's work very hit-and-miss, but one of her novels
remains a favourite and should appeal to every anarchist. Floating
Worlds is on the surface another sprawling 1970's space opera;
but it has features of interest. First, the protagonist is an
anarchist, and there is open conflict between egalitarian anarchists
and corporate capitalists (and openly imperialist thugs as well).
That conflict, like many others, is solved nonviolently (for the
most part), and iirc the protagonist never surrenders her dignity,
her personhood, or her anarchist ideals. The novel has flaws you
could drive a small spacecraft through, but it remains an anarchist
and anticapitalist classic (right up there with The Dispossessed
- Karen Traviss
- Traviss is another potboiler-producer ("Star Wars" novels cranked
out on a schedule to pay the rent, one surmises); but with City
of Pearl (the first in a series that probably went on a bit too
long) she touches on environmental, feminist and anticapitalist themes.
Earth has become totally Enclosed by corporadoes; growing your own
vegetables is a criminal offence; and dissident humans are colonising
remote planets and coming into conflict with established species.
(Since the post-McCarthy thaw of the 70's, much US SF has tackled
the uneasy American conscience; no official Truth and Reconciliation
effort has ever attempted to bring the nation to terms with its brutally
violent and genocidal founding, but fiction writers have expressed the
moral anxiety of a generation who read and wrote critical, "unpatriotic"
histories rather than cheery nationalist jingotoons.)
- Terry Pratchett
- TP is such a best-seller (somehow without ever quite descending
into potboilery) that I hesitate to mention him; but he stands out
consistently for his sympathetic and respectful use of strong, cranky,
eccentric female (and moreover, female and old) characters.
He stands out also for a deep, passionate biophilia, a love of
the living world and of agrarian/peasant tradition. All his Discworld
novels are romans a clef in one sense or another; most
are loving satires of a popular theme or genre, others are
not-so-loving political or cultural satires (Going Postal
for example is a gorgeous send-up of the telecommunications cartels
and geek subculture).
All are funny, wry, and oddly forgiving of human nature and the
imperfectible human condition. There is a cheerful yet deeply
felt pagan thread in TP's work, and a deeply felt disrespect for
and mockery of
patriarchy, authoritarianism, aristocracy, militarism, imperialism, etc. that
brings a refreshing whiff of anarchism to the page. He writes
also with insight and a kind of spiritual humour about aging,
loss, and death.
His "Tiffany Aching" trilogy, though meant for
younger (teen) readers, can be read with pleasure by sympathetic adults.
As to the seemingly endless Discworld series, there are two approaches:
find the Discworld Reading Guide online and plough through them in
fictional chrono order, or just dive in anywhere :-) if diving in
anywhere, I would perhaps recommend Lords and Ladies as a
starting point. No SF/fantasy author, I think, has written more perspicaciously
Alas TP's health is declining, and I fear we will soon no longer
be looking forward eagerly to the next clever, sardonic Discworld