A Scifi Book List with Real Diversity of Thought

Let’s be real for a moment.

Every individual, group, and category has a default, a preference, nay even a prejudice towards certain ideas, tropes and symbols. This is not in and of itself an evil thing. In fact, in art, it is even a necessity, boundaries and rules being what allows artists to create story and structure from chaos.

But it gets awfully boring if you stay too long in one set of rules, or worldview.

Science Fiction, the genre I love, has its own cultural tendencies. Most of its famous formative authors were well-known humanists and atheists. So it is no wonder that many of the awards set up in their name tend to support those books that parrot their ideals.

Now before you get the idea that I am here to bash Humanism or Atheism let me assure you that I’m not. Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov are two of my favorite authors and I hope their tradition of thought continues in modern science fiction as strongly as it ever has. And if you’re a white secular male scifi author out there you have every right to be proud of the tradition others like you have left. Anyone who espouses the virtues of diversity but forgets that has forgotten the whole meaning of diversity.

But sometimes, for my own sake, I need to read something from a different world view to keep myself from getting too lazy in my imagination.  I need to stretch my mind outside of it’s normal cultural bubble.

So to that end, I’ve compiled a list of books I have read that takes the sci-fi genre into worldviews it is not normally known for trespassing. I will try to keep adding to it as I read, and if you have any books you recommend I read next please leave a comment on my facebook page. I’ll also try and write some full-length reviews of these book in other posts but I hope that this post will be some help for others like me who desire the mental stretch.  These books are in no particular order and they are all good and wonderful.

Pink Noise by Leonid Korogodski

This is a cyberpunk story like none other I have read. It involves a posthuman neuroscientist in his journey to free himself from slavery and rescue the child Princess of Mars while a giant battle involving sentient ships goes on outside the castle. It is very heavy on the tech and has some great ideas. I have reread this multiple times and find new layers everytime.

One running theme comes from the hero’s childhood Zulu-Zionist faith. Zulu Zionism is a South African religion that mixes Zulu traditional beliefs and Evangelical Christianity for something truly unique. Specifically, the hero is haunted by the souls of his ancestors and often makes references to Zulu gods and goddesses that I completely missed until I looked up. It’s a heavy read but if you’re looking for something completely original it’s worth a look. It’s also made me interested in reading more Afropunk so I’m looking for recommendations regarding that (yes Binti is already on my TBR list).

  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell 

A first contact story in which two Jesuit priests, two atheists, and an Orthodox Jew get into a spaceship built by the Vatican. It’s a commentary on the mixed intentions, both good and bad of the European explorers to the Americas. It’s also an exploration of post-Holocaust Jewish theology about suffering and pain.

It’s rare too in that it shows some real functional and respectful inter-religious friendships. It’s critical of Catholic sexual ethics but if you’re a Catholic reader I think even you’ll be impressed with how respectfully it makes its case. The author herself has spent time as a Catholic, an Atheist and is currently a practicing Jew so it’s no wonder that she can portray each with a nuance and empathy many of the most well-meaning authors fail to grasp. The sequel is on my bookshelf and my TBR list.

  • The Star Brother’s Series by Colleen Drippe

This series of stand-alone books heavily evokes the Golden-Age scifi of my childhood. Each story involves The Star Brothers, an order of missionaries working within a universe where giant mega-corporations rule worlds, and bounty hunters are a powerful political force. There are also a number of planets on the fringes that have been cut off from contact with the rest of humanity and have devolved into the sort of cultures that laud various forms of human sacrifice. The Brothers are usually on missions where they can act as disinterested intermediaries and there is only one book where they are on overt-conversion missions. The stories are more about the political intrigue.

The Brothers are often accompanied by their Faring Guard, an order of Body Guards comprised of exiled penitent criminals from the planet Lost Rythar. Rythans are kind of like reformed Vikings. They cooperate with civilization but prefer a good bloody ax-fight to talking, which makes them interesting partners for the peaceable Star Brothers.

There is also an interesting cultural reversal in that most of the barbarian and backwater cultures involve the descendants of Europeans and most of the “civilized” cultures involve descendants of brown races. It’s similar to what Asimov did in his book Currents of Space. 

Also for all that the books follow an order of Christians most of the main characters are either secular or members of various barbarian cultures. And I mean barbarian quite sincerely when it’s a culture that glorifies ritual suicide and human sacrifice. But like Russel, Drippe knows how to portray all of her characters with a depth of empathy and respect that makes them all heroes of their own story. Icewolf or Treelight are good places to start the series. Gelen is the official first book but it was also Drippe’s first written so the writing is of a slightly less quality than the others.

  • Engraved on the Eye by Saladin Ahmed

A series of scifi fantasy short stories with an Islamic spin on things. Prepare for the heroics of an Islamic Demon Hunter, a Zombie Killer and a physician for Inter-Human Inter-Demon mixed marriages. This is another author I hope to read more of. His stories are fun and his prose is vibrant with descriptions that touch all the senses. There are a few times where he misunderstands some Christian symbolism but I found those moments interesting and not at all insulting. It’s hard to find books that capture how others view your default culture.

I don’t know of any other Islam-inspried scifi fantasy authors so if you know of some PLEASE tell me about it.

Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex

Ok so this is an anime and isn’t a book but I have yet to find a more beautiful exploration of Buddhist theology of body ethics, reincarnation and sci-fi technology. It’s an old classic by now but if you haven’t heard of it go watch it now. A lot of people miss the Buddhist theology angle but if you want to learn about it and how this story explores it is absolutely fascinating.

This interview with the Dahli Lama on what his theology says about the possibility of reincarnating into a sentient computer is a great place to start if you’re interested: https://sanjindumisic.com/dalai-lama-on-reincarnation-and-artificial-intelligence/

  • The Long List of Mormon Scifi

Seriously I don’t know of any Mormon-inspired fiction that isn’t sci-fi or fantasy. Though I confess I also haven’t researched enough about Mormon spirituality to properly appreciate the references. It reads a bit like the jumbled Islamic references in the Dune Series does to me. Perhaps the series that most clearly seems to ask Mormon-like questions about the universe might be Brandon Sanderson’s expanded universe. And his stuff is so long that I think it’s going to be a while before I understand what he is trying to say.

Regardless I think it is worth noting that scifi has a history of Mormon-inspired stories almost as powerful as it’s Atheist inspired stories. I’m not sure why this is exactly but I’ve heard Sanderson and Orson Scott Card joke about how their faith is already kind of sci-fi like. And even the most ardent of Scott Card haters still admit that the stories are great and positive contributions to the world. I know a lot of readers are weirded out by either Mormonism or some of its figures but let’s be real guys– this is THE GENRE for confronting the weird, so embrace it and let yourself enjoy it.

Actually, that’s kind of my personal take on diversity anyways. A lot of people talk about it like it is this beautiful ideal– and it is– but in everyday life, diversity usually just means people doing weird stuff you don’t understand, learning to be ok with that and embracing the joy of learning itself… kind of like reading a scifi-fantasy book.

 

Structure & Plot Tools for Story Telling

At a panel I gave on Plot and Structure I mentioned a number of resources I have found useful for quick plotting and general writer’s-block-busting.

For convenience here is the definitive list of links. I will try to update it as I find new ones.

  1. 7 Point Plot Structure by Dan Wells– Great for Hacking your brain, this structure is best plotted out NOT in chronological order. It’s great especially for pantsers because it lets you get down the basics without ruining a lot of details. I also find it works as a macro series plotter down to a micro scene plotter.
  2. Anatomy of a Story by John Truby–  Probably the most exaustive resource for delving into story structure and theory. I find it useful to read and refer back to but too detailed to go through all 22 steps. Still having it’s lessons in the back of my head helps.
  3. Take off Your Pants – Outline Your Books for Faster Better Writing by Libbie Hawker – This takes the high brow ideas of Anatomy and makes them concise and actionable. She also has some of the best advice on pacing I have seen yet. So if you want to write a book that reader’s can’t put down pick this one up.
  4. M.I.C.E. Quotient by Orson Scott Card – this is great for right at the beginning of a story creation. It helps you figure out your nature opening and beginning scenes and what sort of reader expectations you will have to fulfill. This delves into story type that goes beyond genre. You can read it in Card’s own words from his book or listen to Writing Excuses’s explanation of it.
  5. Writing Excuses Podcast– this short podcast has become part of my writing routine in helping me get into the right head space before I hit the keys.
  6. Brandon Sanderson’s Lecture Series – It’s a bit long but has some solid gems in there. If you want to make excellent plot twists, this is the master to learn from.
  7. Hague’s 6 Stages – great for coming up with my character arc and connecting internal actions and external ones. It’s also one of the few structures I have seen that break the 3 act structure and rethink it.

Sassy Dragons & Old Icons

Fanart inspired by the Dragon Eye P.I. series by Karina Fabian.

I have begun reading some stories set in the fantasy/ humor genre about a sassy dragon named Vern who gets pulled into our world from Fairie world and has to get a job as a Private Investigator because the government won’t let him hole up in a nice cave in a state park somewhere. (After all, he’s an invasive species.) It’s been a fun read and reminds me a lot of Terry Pratchett’s style of writing. I can very well see Vern and Nanny Ogg teaming up and going on adventures together.

A big pet peeve of Vern’s is how everyone thinks that being a dragon is synonymous with being an evil demon. There are hints that he did have a run-in with St. George but Vern continually swears he was innocent and St. George was being an annoying paladin about everything.  Given Vern’s ego, I’m sure there is more to the story. Regardless it’s been an amusing read and inspired me to make this fanart based on a medieval icon. Is that sacrilegious of me?

I don’t know. But if you like comedy fantasy like Terry Pratchett or just need some sassy dragons in your life I’d pop over here and give the DragonEye P.I. a look-see. (please disregard the bad covers a lot of the books have. The quality of the jokes is not reflected in the covers.)

Vines of Mars Deleted Scene: The Lost Prologue

What follows is a deleted scene from my upcoming book, The Vines of Mars.
John Crowley, author and creative writing teacher at Yale University, begged me not to delete this prologue, but I was still a very novice writer then, and as I edited and refined the story I realized that I would have to delete this section. Most of the information wasn’t relevant and my point of view character wasn’t Evana but her son, Tomas, who inherits his mother’s mistakes and is left to deal with the consequences. But out of gratitude to John Crowley, I leave this prologue here for your enjoyment.

“The second team found the astronauts’ skeletons wrapped in a coniferous cocoon of vines, their blood now feeding the flowers that bloomed around them in great cascading walls of greenery. The alien vines were what filled the air with oxygen, and warmed the atmosphere, that later her compatriots would bolster and augment as needed, directing the burgeoning environment into a second cocoon for humanity. But first, the vine sent out feelers like great intelligent Venus fly-traps, chasing the second astronauts back into their shell.
Life began on Mars the way life always begins; in a holy darkness, between communities of small hopeful stars. It formed, grew, and had it’s being long before the rest of humanity perked up from their stubbornly practical tempered wine glasses. We knew it would happen eventually; we had taken the precautions that we had the time and resources for. But like all life, it took everyone by surprise. Before the people in stiffly air-conditioned cotton collars admitted that it came for our blood, we only knew of it as a curiously large comet. It appeared out of the icy Oort cloud and winked saucy greetings at the naïve robots mining our asteroid fields. When a few lonely scientists spelled out the message on their calculators the world braced for death, and in the last minute throws of labor wrought out life. We deflected it. The moon-sized comet and its playful cloud of asteroids streaked across Bangkok’s night sky to crash instead into the face of Mars and spread its wet fingers across the expanse of two dead oceans. She watched the drama unfold in the fierce winter of break rooms, and through the screen of her media, feeling one in terror with the rest of her helpless race. She had not known they would come for her then, but first, they came for the world.
Humans in white and silver tubes, landing like locusts on the green summer dirt. Out of the flood of water that came with the comet, a thousand vines had split from the skin of the planet in the largest and most impossible desert bloom humankind had ever seen. She’d watched her family sit, stunned, around the hallowed glow of their screen, the light of a new heaven dazzling their imaginations. The reanimation of the planet’s magnetic field had been enough of an astrological anomaly– scientists were stalwart in the discipline of never using that tainted word: ‘miracle’. But it had been an invisible miracle for scientists, for the high minds that escaped the mundane and cracked open beer cans in NASA break rooms where she worked. When her toddlers rolled on the floor before the TV and laughed at the green light reflecting off each other’s faces, she knew she would leave them soon. But then the film stuttered, the voices muffled, and the signal dropped. Mars was silent and so was the first team, and she gained a little time while they searched. But even after they found blossoms burgeoning out of sockets and stomach, the second team never fully recovered the lost astronauts’ bodies.
Evaña watched from her TV screen as humanity struck back at life’s inconvenience. They brought their own plants and chose their own rivers, and burned away a wide circle of refuge. Vine-ash and rock made soil. Soil and seeded bacteria made arable land. Gas carried from the smoggiest cities of the world spread itself thin and humans walked the Mars with wonderment and copious amounts of sunscreen. And then they came to her, as she’d guessed they would eventually, and they asked her for a tree.
The officer they’d sent to convince her had peach fuzz on his upper lip. He’d talked about the future, about what an honor it was to be offered the job. To give the boy credit, he had been a wonderful poet, full of ideas and metaphors that hid behind his smile like cats. He’d called her “The Mother of Mars”, “the new ‘Demeter,'” and looked confused when she’d told him that she was already a mother. Didn’t she know how important this was? Didn’t she know this was the only salvation of man? It didn’t matter, what wars were won or lost. Life would cycle on, but in an endless, purposeless, and ultimately frail circumference if it never left that of Earth’s.
‘Frail’ was certainly an appropriate adjective. For seven days earth had lived in a state of frailty, chaos, and panic, when word of the impending comet had leaked out, but Evaña and her fellow scientists had lived in that state for three months, ever since the mining companies had reported seeing a comet the size of the Caribbean Sea hurtle past their mines toward earth, dragging along a cloud of asteroids in its gravity.
“Perhaps we had been too numbed by our success,” Evaña would think. Back in the early 21st century, it would’ve taken seven years. Now it would take no less than three years to garner enough international cooperation to throw an asteroid or a comet off course. But after their first reports they knew, for all the progress, they had much less than three years. Every day was spent waiting for the trajectory reports; every evening spent coming home, running through the door to clutch her oblivious children, to kiss her ignorant but worried husband. Eventually, the story got out. The first journalist refused to publish it once he had the truth, but the second wasn’t so clear-minded.
At first, there had been an upswing in looting and armed robberies but the robbers found the shop owners abnormally compliant. The damage to the world economy hadn’t been because of violence but because of extreme ambivalence. What was money worth when it would all burn the day after tomorrow? For seven days humanity left its work. Grocers left their doors open and unguarded, liquor sellers shared a bottle with their customers, and a group of artistically repressed stockholders made a series of papier-mâché sculptures out of their lose cash and records. After the comet had been thrown off course through a last-ditch engineering experiment, those same stockholders were-almost simultaneously- fired from their jobs, and then offered millions for their sculptures. The comet and asteroids landed instead on their red neighbor. But now it was obvious to every government official and corporate investor that humanity needed to get off this rock and on toward safer, newer ones. And wasn’t it obvious to her too? The young man’s eyes looked scandalized at her hint of disagreement, and she wanted to take all the bitter sarcasm inside her and throw it back into his stupid face.
“What was it like to come home every day and know that your children would never grow up?” she wanted to ask him. “That they would never fall in love or get married, or never learn how to fly in the hang-glider that her daughter had requested for her birthday? She’d wanted to ask the puffed-up-suit all of this, to crumple his nose and shave that stupid peach fuzz of his lip. She knew it was pointless though because after all, there was only one answer she could give.
She had known it then but still tried arguing with him. They wanted her to join the other scientists designing plants and animals that would thrive in a Martian environment and then transition over to attempting to re-engineer the vine to control its growing speed and patterns. But wasn’t there someone else who could fulfill the position? No of course not. In the field of Bioengineering only Evaña Villalobos and her teacher, crumbling Dr. Uchendu had been successful at actual creation. Most of the work in the reconstruction of the rainforest was done by other scientists who could recreate extinct plants fairly well but only she and Dr. Uchendu had been able to create entirely new life forms that fit the missing niches in the environment. “Of course she would have assistants,” he’d insisted. When the sage abuelo of modern science says that you’re the only one he would trust, the only one with the resolve and commitment to stare down the universe in the face, she can’t have expected to get off the hook so easily. At this Evaña tried cursing the white-haired Igbo, tried pretending she did not trust his judgment; would not follow him into that jungle.
Besides, it was only three years of training, said the peach fuzz above the mouth. But Evaña hadn’t cared about training. She was an academic, she’d been in school most of her life. It’d taken a few more minutes of strained conversation before he’d seen her twisting the ring on her finger. Then he told her that if her husband and children went into space training now they’d be able to join her after a separation of no less than three years. Evaña lost her nerve then. Tomȃs would be ten and Maria would be thirteen, a teenager. They would be seven and ten when she left. She would miss too much. But Evaña had already lived with the comet for three of the most painfully slow months of her life. After three months of study, she knew better than this young suit, who’d known of the comet a total of seven days. She knew her answer, the only answer she could give. She would not see her children in their childhood, but she would see them grow up. She would see them fall in love, and become whatever it was that they wanted to become. Her family, and a million families after them; all under the shade of the trees she’d genetically engineered, eating the crops she’d built in the basement of her iron-shod Martian home, eating and growing and marrying and birthing, and dying on two circumferences; twice the chance for life in relatively barren universe.”

New Artwork from the Vines of Mars Part II

In truth, this is the first drawing I made for this book, but as it more clearly indicates the nature of the first chapter I thought it prudent to release after.

The sky gave me some trouble because at first, my research indicated that my Martian sunset should be in hues of lime green and turquoise but after a conversation with another sci-fi writer, Allen Shoff, I was assured that once my Martian planet had a relatively-self-sustaining atmosphere the sky would take on a more familiar hue.

The dust storm on the left also gave me trouble and I don’t think I’ll ever be quite happy with it. Perhaps I should travel to a desert location and experience one in person before I could ever be completely satisfied with it.

The trees are deliberately inaccurate. My story opens in Autumn so the whole world is cast in golds and oranges. Symbolically such a choice made sense to me for the story but in visual art, it did not offer enough contrast.

The title is a joke on an oft-quoted adage from writing classes; “There are only two types of stories, A Person Goes on a Journey, and A Stranger Walks Into Town.” The Vines of Mars definitely falls into the latter category, though I hope it may be as original in the telling as it is typical of a beginning.

First Artwork from The Vines of Mars

This one comes from a short image at the start of my book. My main character, Tomas was born on Earth but spent his childhood on Mars. He has a childhood memory of finding this helmet and skull buried in the sand. As a young boy, the find was a precious romantic treasure but it hints at the planet’s long difficult past.

Below I’ve included an excerpt explaining a little of that past.

Martian Buried Treasure

“Above them, he could hear the wind howling through the tree limbs. “It’s autumn,” he reminded himself, so there was still a chance. It was the summer, not the autumn storms that were the worst. Autumn storms only lasted a few hours. Sometimes summer storms lasted for as long as a week. The amber curtain covered the whole planet in sand clouds and dust devils that rose into the sky like long twisted skyscrapers. Afterwards, everyone would come up out of their basements with brooms and shovels. The town would dig out their plants and homes again like nothing happened. Rarely, did anyone get stranded outside unawares anymore. If they did finding the body was likely to be gruesome. Once, when he was younger, he and his friend Amun had been digging a ditch for some fort or other, and come across a lost skull, picked clean by the wind. It wore a miner’s helmet, of the kind people used to wear back before the vines kick-started the atmosphere, back when this planet was just dust and silicon-diggers. The last storm victims had been Professor Whitehead, a teacher of his. A few weeks later an older kid in school, Langston Freeman, and his sister Maria disappeared on the same day. They’d never found Maria’s body but Langston’s mother was the unfortunate one to stumble across her son’s body first. Adele and the boys might complain about all the weighted clothing Tomás made them wear but he wasn’t about to back down. He wasn’t about to find them spread out over two square meters just because Martian gravity wouldn’t let them develop a proper bone-density. And, of course, there were more dangers on Mars than just the storms. Anything might happen to a person if they strayed outside the colony borders.”