Six Science Fiction Classics to Read in 2024

In 2023 Kilbeggan Library continued to explore strange new worlds with our Science Fiction Book Club.

At our last meeting of the year, one of our members said: ‘Everyone thinks Science Fiction is just battles in space and laser guns, all Star Wars and Star Trek.’ ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that,’ another member put in. ‘No, but it’s so much more than that. The ideas in the stories go to the heart of what it means to be human.’
If you’re looking for meditations on the nature of humanity, or just laser battles in space, we’ve got you covered. Here are the books we read in 2023:

Nova by Samuel R Delany, 1968

‘…and I swept my seven arms across the blinding day to catch the bits of hell that floated by.’

A crew of misfits embark on a mission to the heart of an exploding star to seize a resource of universe-shaking importance. If you’re looking for a classic space adventure, look no further. The characters visit a succession of interesting planets, the quest is underpinned by intriguing flashbacks, and the ending is epic and satisfying.

There is plenty of depth. From tarot cards to the alienation of labour, there are a lot of strange images and intriguing ideas packed into this short, sharp novel. We learn how this future works, and it is rich and compelling. The story sags in the middle, many cool ideas are not followed up, and there are some long lectures thinly-disguised as dialogue.

While it wasn’t a perfect novel, blasting off on this adventure was a good propulsive start to the year’s reading.

1Q84: Book One by Haruki Murakami, 2009

‘It’s 1984. We’re in Tokyo, Japan.’

‘I wish I could declare that with such certainty.’

Nova was closer to the ‘laser battles in space’ side of things, but 1Q84 was more ‘questioning the nature of humanity.’ Aomame, a young woman in Tokyo, stumbles into a different version of reality: there is a strange cult, and there are two moons in the sky. Her own reality was strange enough to begin with: she was (and remains) an assassin working for a women’s refuge. Meanwhile Tengo, a young man living in the same city (but, it appears, in a different reality!), is helping to ghost-write a novel, and he has some mysterious connection to Aomame.

1Q84 is a slow-moving book, and you really get into the characters’ lives – whenever two characters are in a restaurant, we are told their starter and their main. We really get stuck into the characters’ lives. Gender-based violence is a strong theme. The way the story deals with cults is not sensational, it’s well-researched and compassionate toward the victims. The flashbacks to childhood are very moving.

In places it’s downright silly – Aomame kills people by talking her way into their hotel rooms and then basically pointing and yelling ‘What’s that over there?’ before stabbing them with a needle in the head. In places it’s hilariously self-serving, in other places creepy. If Haruki Murakami had to pay a fine every time he goes off on a tangent about breasts, or every time he portrays middle-aged men as unbearably attractive, he would be in big financial trouble.

We certainly had a lot to talk about with 1Q84. It suggests that different people live in radically different realities, that cults can create their own parallel worlds, and that we cannot even be sure how many moons there are in the sky. By the end of book one, very few of these mysteries had been solved. In conclusion: plenty of depth and plenty of vulgarity, but no laser battles

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, 1949

‘Where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated.’

After 1Q84 we had an urge to read the novel whose title it refers to, George Orwell’s landmark dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Winston Smith works for a dictatorship. His job is to destroy any evidence that contradicts the ruling party’s current narrative. Murakami shows us a fractured reality, but Orwell shows us a government that wants to impose one single reality.

We discussed the possibility that Winston Smith’s view of the world is coloured by depression and pessimism. In his dismissive attitudes to women, ‘proles’ and young people, Winston is losing sight of some of the more potentially positive forces for change. The world around Winston is unbearably horrible. But maybe he is, like the characters in 1Q84, stuck in his own subjective reality.

We found Nineteen Eighty-Four to be full of interesting ideas and deeply compelling. But its grimness is unrelenting and unsubtle, meaning it is a tough read.

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, 1997

‘Come here, cat. You wouldn’t want to destroy the space-time continuum, would you? Meow. Meow.’

It’s 2057, and time travel has been invented. But people are not particularly excited about it. Universities use it for research, but to access funding, they need to find rich patrons. To keep up its time travel programme, Oxford University has to meet the whims of the eccentric and formidable Lady Schrapnell, who holds the purse strings. The researchers must spend all their precious time on a bizarre project to build an exact replica of Coventry Cathedral. This is a tall order because the cathedral in question was blown to pieces during World War Two.

Connie Willis’ writing buzzes with humour as well as ideas. The title is a reference to Jerome K Jerome’s 1889 book Three Men in a Boat, and the book is mostly set around that time. You might like your time travel stories grittier. But if it sounds like fun to accompany some eccentric characters on a whimsical Victorian boat trip, this book is for you.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, 2008

‘Ye didn’t know that at that moment, the first cry that could be heard in space from civilization on Earth was already spreading out from the sun to the universe at the speed of light. A star-powered radio wave, like a majestic tide, had already crossed the orbit of Jupiter. Right then, at the frequency of 12,000 MHz, the sun was the brightest star in the entire milky way.’

The Three-Body Problem was the biggest hit in our book club since The Lathe of Heaven last year.

The novel imagines planet Earth under attack from aliens. But the main alien force is still far away. For now, it’s a secret war, all psy-ops and hybrid warfare, as the aliens seek to break human resolve and stop scientific progress.

The greatness of the book is in how the author slowly reveals these awesome mysteries, often by means of surreal and awe-inspiring moments. The gradual shift away from normal reality is reminiscent of 1Q84, but here all mysteries are explained promptly, and in a satisfying way.

There is a large underground group of humans who wish to help the aliens to destroy Earth. Why would this be the case? This is another mystery which the story unfolds with some skill, mainly through flashbacks as physicist Ye Wenjie witnesses cruelty, political hysteria and environmental destruction during China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Ye ends up as one of the main villains, but she is really the beating heart of the story. However, the conspiracy is unraveled way too quickly and easily – our main character makes a half-hearted infiltration of the group, is invited to a high-level meeting right away, and brings along half of China’s police force.

We will be reading the sequel, The Dark Forest, for our first book of 2024. Copies are available to borrow here at Kilbeggan Library.

Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang, 2002

‘The tower might have been a thread suspended in the air, unattached to either earth or heaven.’

This collection of short stories is deeply intriguing. The stories are great workouts for the imagination and intellect. Our favorites were ‘Story of Your Life’ and ‘Tower of Babylon.’

In ‘Tower of Babylon,’ Chiang imagines if the biblical story of the Tower of Babel was real. He describes it from the point of view of a craftsman sent to help in the final stages of construction. It would have required the draining of rivers, thousands of brick kilns, the burning and re-growing of entire forests, and communities which live their entire lives on the tower.

In ‘Story of Your Life,’ which was adapted into the film Arrival, a linguist is tasked with talking to alien visitors and figuring out their language. It’s a story that messes with our sense of time, and the reason why soon dawns on us: by learning this language, our narrator is learning to think like the aliens, until eventually she is unmoored from our linear human sense of time.

Of these two, ‘Story of Your Life’ hit harder emotionally. Other great stories in the collection included ‘Understand,’ which culminates in a stunning psychic duel between two ultra-intelligent people, and ‘Liking What You See: a Documentary,’ which airs a fascinating debate over whether we would be happier if we could not see physical beauty.

If any of these books sound good to you, you can find them on our online catalogue. Or better yet, you’re welcome to join Kilbeggan Library’s Science Fiction Book Club, contact us by email or telephone 057 933 3148.