I read a lot of science fiction: I think it gives a freedom that allows intuitive communication of complex or seemingly bizarre concepts. As an AI researcher, Charles Yu’s explorations of the ways humans can be analyzed as computers and computers empathized as humans make him one of my favorite living authors. Vonnegut is another of my favorite authors: even though he doesn’t seem to know why humans do terrible things either, it helps to know that another has grappled with this problem, and in an outrageously entertaining way to boot.
Third Class Superhero, Charles Yu.
Redshirts, John Scalzi. A parody of sci-fi TV, particularly Star Trek, about the crew of an Enterprise-like ship attempting to figure out why their world has so many violent and poorly written stories. An interesting thought that writers should be nice to those they are writing about.
Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson. A hilarious yet still serious parody of the cyberpunk subgenre, this novel follows a Katana-wielding protagonist named Hiro Protagonist through a world dominated by corporations.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain. This novel features Iraq War heros being honored at a Dallas Cowboys football game. The novel critiques the gulf between ordinary citizens and the realities of the war, the crude and excessive commercialization of anything--patriotism, war, sex included-- that may be profitable, and the socioeconomic gap between those fighting the war and those profiting from it.
Neuromancer, William Gibson. A foundational cyberpunk novel. Dystopian, violent, explicit, but fascinating vision of a society where technology and money have run roughshod over ethics and the rule of law. Also featuring a fascinating antagonist--an AI attempting to achieve freedom.
The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood. A dystopian novel where a radical religious group has overthrown the U.S. Written from the perspective of a Offred, a women who the society has tried to reduce to a "two legged womb," as she navigates the dystopia and struggles for control over her life.
The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick. A chilling alternate reality where the axis won WWII. We view this horrific world through several loosely related characters. While each storyline does have a climax, the story did not really end. Indeed, Dick stated that he planned to write a sequel. While I really hope he does, it wouldn't feel right for the story to have some sort of happy ending where this horror is somehow reversed: we should not forget that the relative peace and tolerance of our reality was far from inevitable and is far from unshakable.
The Forever War, Joe Haldeman. An allegory of the Vietnam War, the story follows a group of soldiers battling aliens. There is no compelling reason for fighting the aliens, no clear objective for the war, and time travel leaves the soldiers disconnected from society and their friends. The only clear thing is the destructive power of advanced weapons and the brutality and arbitrary nature of war.
What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell. An unsparing, nuanced depiction of gay and more broadly non-traditional love. What would be a traditional love story of two young people falling in love in Europe is twisted by sad realities too common in queer dating. Their country at best ignores queer people, but discrimination and violence are always looming and the couple hides their relationship from public view. The relationship is far from purely romantic; one uses sex to escape poverty and the other to escape loneliness. Other romantic partners are present in the background, made inaccessible by the two characters pursuing economic and career opportunities elsewhere. The trauma inflicted on the characters as queer youth is never far from their minds. STDs and other health issues are exacerbated by unfriendly and inaccessible healthcare.
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Books 1-5, Douglas Admas. The sci-fi classic set in a strange and often whimsical universe. The characters, creatures, civilizations, and other entities in this book that are dedicated to some purpose or cause are generally presented as comically myopic (the Vogons, Ameglian Major Cows) or possessed by a carefree purposelessness (Arthur, Ford) with a few notable exceptions, specifically Trillian. By choosing to Arthur rather than Trillian as the main character, Adams makes the same choice of aimlessness over focus in the series. By fating Arthur and Trillian to inevitably ending up back together, is Adams making the argument that one does not have enough control over events to make any difference, so one shouldn't take life too seriously?
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. A brutal and incisive exploration of slavery with clear parallels to modern racism.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon. A daring escape from a ghetto under control of the Nazis! A clever hero saving the day and defeating a bumbling Nazi! An exciting and daring gay romance between a super hero actor and a writer! The lives of Kavalier & Clay seem to mirror those of the super heros they created in the years leading up to WWII. But then the war hits and everything falls to pieces: Kavalier is left broken by a loss, Clay suffers great trauma and is afraid to love. Our heroes do not recover like their heroes: even years after the war, they are only taking fragile steps to recovering their lives. WWII was an ugly, dirty conflict that few emerged unscathed from and the world has taken a long time to recover from.
Alan Turing: The Enigma, Andrew Hodges. Written only as a gay activist working when Turing's contemporaries were still alive could, although Turing was a very complex person who gave few clues to his inner thoughts.
The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler. 100% savage fictional biography of characters developing under rigid and frequently ridiculous Victorian society.
Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut searching for purpose or morality in a boring midwestern town.
Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut searching for purpose or morality in the life of an American essentially double-agent against the Nazis.
Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut searching for purpose or morality in the fates of humans and aliens caught up in cosmic exploration/manipulation/phenomena.
Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut searching for purpose or morality in the face of the cold war and cold war military research. He entertains giving up and believing in the most convenient lies.
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut searching for purpose or morality in the life of an allied soldier present at the bombing of Dresden.
So Vonnegut goes.
The Plague, Albert Camus. Albert Camus searching for purpose or morality in the gradual devastation of a city by a plague. Unlike Vonnegut, he seemed quite okay with there being no purpose.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut. How should people of little or no economic value due to advances in productivity be treated? What about when these people are socially and morally below average at best? Quite pertinent today.
Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut imagines a world where electronics have eliminated the need for most people to work. Unfortunately, this also means that most people's purposes have been mostly eliminated, but humanity cannot overcome its desire for stuff to go back to its old ways.
Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance. An autobiography giving understanding (of both the good and the bad) of a significant group often poor working class whites in the midwest and southeast.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carsin McCullers. The hopes and dreams of various people in a small southern town being almost inevitably crushed.
The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow. The Great American Novel (written by a Canadian) of a young man's struggles to find a purpose, and his refusal to accept any set before him. Taught me all about a Chicago that no longer exists before my summer internship there!
Sorry Please Thank You, Charles Yu. Short stories exploring logical, although not physically possible, extensions of societal and cultural desires: real zombies, video games with conscious characters, outsourcing our worst moments. Would we do it if we could? Probably. What does that say about us?
Press Start to Play. A collection of short stories along the line of Yu's work, exploring humanity through the modern lens of video games with varying degrees of success.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr. Understanding the evolution and maintenance of religious faith in the face of the senseless and seemingly cyclical horrors humanity inflicts upon itself.
The Trial, Franz Kafka. Does Josef ultimately reject the system, or accept it?