Science fiction has been called many things, but I doubt that “highly emotional” is a label regularly applied. Even now – surrounded as we are by gadgets and gizmos so high-tech as to be almost unfathomable, living with and dependent on technology unarguably resembles a not-so-bygone vision of the far future, in which what was scientifically unthinkable yesterday need not necessarily be that way today, whereby science fiction’s terminology and motifs have become a kind-of shorthand for explaining and understanding the world we live in – the genre still too-often falls prey to accusations of shallowness, style-over-substance and spectacle-over-intimacy. It might often get a big tick for the inventiveness of its ideas, and another for its literariness and another for its socio-cultural influence, but it is sometimes still too easy to describe it as “emotionally dishonest.”
However, what’s true for some isn’t necessarily true for all. As an inquisitive and thoughtful reader, who doesn’t mind occasionally having a cry or having my sense of wonder reignited, I’ve been fascinated by science fiction’s potential to genuinely engage our emotions and move us deeply. After all, it just makes sense – one of the genre’s concerns is reframing the world we live in by asking a “what if?” question, opening our eyes to what is by showing us what it might be. And “what if?” is an emotional human question as old as time, followed closely by “what might have been?” If the big ideas and fantastical situations integral to science fiction are guided towards their emotional impact rather than their technological or physical, the results can sometimes bring us to tears or heal our hearts. They can show us our feelings anew by scrubbing away their regular contexts and then holding them up to the light; they can makes us remember that love persists, no matter what; they can remind us that simple human charity and kindness can exist even in the darkest times.
What the Family Needed by Steven Amsterdam
What the Family Needed isn’t exactly science fiction per se (and so we’ll get it out of the way first), but it is undeniably based on ideas and concepts born of science fiction: superheroes. But it isn’t any old superhero story – Amsterdam makes a counterintuitive move and does away with the concepts of both a super-villain and the capital-H hero, concepts central to the sub-genre. Instead, the characters in What the Family Needed are simply normal people that just happen to possess superpowers. This conceit is almost unique and absolutely incredible, and will have you crying like the proverbial babe.
A family drama and story-cycle at heart, it follows, over the course of thirty-odd years, the lives of sisters Ruth and Natalie, their parents and their own children. Each chapter focuses on a different family member at a different point in time, detailing their struggles to cope with the stresses of their life and the interwoven nature of the extended family. During these struggles, each member inexplicably develops a typical superhero-style superpower – invisibility, flight, super-strength, psychic powers, time travel, etc. But unlike typical superheroes, no one in the family uses their powers to fight crime or protect the innocent. Instead, their powers act as metaphors for their internal and external lives. For example: Giordana, a typically awkward teenager torn between her warring parents, often wishes that she could disappear, and subsequently develops the power of invisibility; beleaguered mother Natalie, exhausted from the stresses of her life, develops super-strength; Ben, feeling trapped by domestic life and fatherhood, develops the power of flight; and so on.
While these power might seem to help each member better deal with their struggles – invisibility lets Giordana disappear, super-strength allows Natalie to carry her burden, flight gives Ben the ability to fly away – they ultimately prove inconsequential to the resolution of the family members’ struggles. The result of this is astounding, because it is so easily relatable – our own “powers,” be they intelligence or athleticism or practicality or beauty – matter not one whit when it comes to dealing with our own similar struggles. They can us at the most inopportune moments or prove more a hindrance than a help. Love is what really matters when it comes to families, alongside kindness, compassion, patience, affection, perseverance, understanding and acceptance. These are the things that all families need, the real superpowers that can help us on our own way. Who can’t relate to that?
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
If you were to draw from a line from Nietzsche’s philosophy of “eternal return” to Rust Cohle’s utterance in True Detective that “time is a flat circle – everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again,” you would find Slaughterhouse-Five smack-bang in the middle. Vonnegut’s most influential and acclaimed work, it sets out the themes and concerns that would dominate the entirety of his oeuvre: the futility of war, the relationship between love and hate, the uncaring unfairness of life, free will versus fate, that old maxim “no regrets,” and apathy/passivity in the face of events beyond our control.
Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time.” A veteran of World War 2, rescued prisoner-of-war and survivor of the firebombing of Dresden, who will go on to be adducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and put on display in their zoo, he periodically and involuntarily becomes detached from the present and drifts through the chronology of his life. He witnesses his past, present and future – from the horror of interment in Dresden shortly before the bombing (events that Vonnegut also experienced), to the banality and absurdity of his post-war life, to his eventual abduction – and comes to understand that instead of existing as multiple points on a line, these events, along with every other event that has been or will be, are actually points on a circle spinning endlessly. They are occurring simultaneously, their sense of historicity existing purely because of perspective. For Billy, with understanding comes acceptance, of his inability to change his past, of the fact that all he can really do is the best he can, of the cruelty of an uncaring universe, in the insignificance of his place in the universal machine.
To go on would do it injustice. It is a beautiful work – virtuosic, unique, inventive, heart wrenching, and equal parts frightening and funny – and it exists beyond comparison. Vonnegut was a singular writer, and Slaughterhouse-Five is a singular work.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A work of grim horror and dazzling beauty, McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic father-and-son story was both a commercial and critical success. An unashamed genre work embraced by a broad general audience to a degree almost unheard of in recent memory, it is quite possibly the one piece of science fiction that people who hate science fiction have read. Referred to simply as “the man” and “the boy,” the father and son of The Road traverse a dead America rendered as such by an unidentified apocalypse. Theirs is a desperate and violent world, their lives solely consisting of searching for food, water and shelter, and evading other survivors who have banded together and reverted to cannibalism. Dark indeed…
And yet within this darkness, McCarthy creates a light so bright as to blind us. This is no surprise – from the beginning, McCarthy makes plain that The Road is really about nothing more than the bond between father and son, and the lengths a father will go to in order to ensure his son’s safety. It is this bond and these lengths that gives it emotional heft, and that ultimately brings us to tears. The unthinkable things that the man does in order to protect the boy; his unswerving dedication to the boy’s wellbeing, even at the expense of his own; the burning love that he feels and the way that this love keeps them from descending into savagery; they will break even the hardest heart. And this is where the post-apocalyptic nature of The Road becomes so successful – thanks to this setting, the aforementioned concerns and dedication of a parent towards a child, which are simple and everyday emotions, are elevated to an extreme seldom seen in literature.
Happiness TM by Will Ferguson
Satirical, philosophical and wickedly funny in equal measure, Happiness TM employs the science fiction trope of a dystopia disguised as a utopia. This trope usually works in one of two ways: people only believe their utopia to be so because they don’t know any better; or their utopia depends on the subjugation of a minority. However, Ferguson subverts these methods in a delightfully unexpected way – in his utopia, people know how and why it works, and there is no subjugation of a minority. And herein lies its problem.
To explain: Edwin, a frustrated book editor looking to plug a hole in his publishing schedule, finds in his slush pile a self-help book entitled What I Learned on the Mountain. Left with no choice but to release it, he does so, expecting it to sink without trace. But this isn’t the case, as it becomes a raging success and, furthermore, it actually works – 99% of its readers find themselves utterly transformed by it, and find that their lives have suddenly become completely fulfilled. As a consequences, society as we know it crumbles: with true happiness attained, those affected by What I Learned on the Mountain become akin to zombies and have nothing left to strive for, their “happiness” resembling a kind-of Zen emptiness. Guilty pleasures that help get us through the night end up, or help ease the pain of life, end up falling by the wayside – the tobacco and alcohol industries become bankrupted, fast food empires follow suit, and before too long the market for every other consumerist pleasure collapses. Edwin, however, is one of the few unaffected, and so sets about righting the wrongs that he has unleashed.
If this theme sounds more than a little familiar, that’s because it is effectively an explication of the concept of yin and yang. Without balance, without an opposite state to define our current state, we are left with nothing but a meaningless concept made so because it exists in isolation. In other words, without sadness to act as a comparison, happiness is just a word rather a state of being. Heavy stuff, yes, but Ferguson’s sharp wit and eye for the absurd mean that Happiness TM becomes truly moving and easily digestible, and will make us look at our lives and belief systems anew.
The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
While sneered at by many fans of science fiction because of its emphasis on love and romantic relationships, The Time Traveller’s Wife is a profoundly moving work with an ingenious science fiction conceit: Henry DeTamble randomly and involuntarily travels back and forth in time, as he suffers from a (fictional) genetic disorder known as Chrono-Impairment. However, rather than focussing on the search for a cure for this disorder, or the historical/cultural/social implications of his travels through time, or any number of other typical science fiction plot devices driven by the theme of time travel, Niffenegger instead focuses on the implications Henry’s disorder has on his relationship with his wife, Clare Anne Abshire.
A plot device that is perhaps unique in the annals of science fiction, it allows Niffenegger to examine a well-worn theme typically found in romantic fiction, without referring to cliché or sentimentality: how love can persevere and even flourish in the face of challenges, adversity and calamity. And she does so beautifully and intelligently, even when Henry’s travels through time take him and Clare to some exceedingly dark places. In the end, if you’ll forgive me for quoting Huey Lewis and the News, it’s all about the power of love, something that we should all believe in.
The Humans by Matt Haig
The Humans, my favourite book of all time, reverses the typical alien encounter trope common to science fiction: despite being set right here on Earth, we are the “aliens” thanks to Haig’s plot contrivances.
To summarise: Andrew Martin, a maths professor, has devised an equation that will advance humanity’s technological progress dramatically, and the Vonnadorians, alien beings that act as intergalactic observers, decide that humanity isn’t ready for this acceleration. And so they send one of their own to remove this new knowledge by killing Martin, destroying the physical and digital evidence of his breakthrough, assuming his physical identity through the use of alien technology and thus assuming his role as a husband, father and teacher, and then determining who Martin shared this knowledge with it so they can also be killed.
This set up allows Haig to craft a narrative that begins with cynical humour before moving into something approaching wonder and awe. Initially, the Vonnadorian impostor is bewildered and disgusted by humanity: he cannot understand why we do some of the ridiculous and contradictory things we do, why our lives sometimes seem devoted to trivia, why we seem so obsessed with the negative sides of our being, and why we seem so devoted to such unlikely-seeming things as dogs, sport and junk food. However, as he slowly grows into his role as a human, he learns to love and to loathe, to feel joy and sorrow, to experience pleasure and pain, excitement and boredom. In other words, he learns what it is to be human.
To the reader, the effect of this is incredible – the things that he learns remind us how incredible and how dull being alive really is. We come to see that life is both good and bad, rational and irrational, serious and nonsensical – that it just is what it is. And in the end, we come to see that The Humans is a panacea for our own troubled times, reminding us that even at a point in history in which there often seems to be nothing but darkness and crisis all around, our very nature will always allow us to carry on with a smile.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
The Dog Stars tells the story of Hig and Bangley, survivors of a global pandemic that has wiped out almost everyone else on Earth. As people, they couldn’t be any more different – Hig still mourns the loss of humanity, and is frequently plagued by survivor’s guilt; Bangley is a misanthropic “hard case” relishing his role as a survivor, who often taunts Hig for his soft-heartedness. However, despite these differences they form a relationship that evolves from necessity born of their ability to help each other, to something much deeper: best friends who deeply care for one another, and rely on each other for emotional support rather than just survival. They become metaphorical brothers, whose differences in attitude and outlook have little bearing on the bond they share.
In other words, The Dog Stars is a book that both encapsulates the cliché of “a burden shared is a burden halved” and explores the notion of friendship found in the unlikeliest of places. It denies the common science fiction theme that in a post-apocalyptic world all that will remain is savagery and brutality – the post-apocalyptic world that Heller creates still contains hope, and those who dwell in it come to realise that there is more to their lives than an unfeeling heart made so by the constant fight to stay alive. There is no better example of this than in Bangley’s growing awareness that he needs Hig more for emotional support than physical, especially after Hig reciprocates these feelings – the end result it beautifully optimistic and absolutely staggering.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
A tender and kind work, Flowers for Algernon tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a simple-minded man with a dramatically low IQ who works as a cleaner/sweeper at his local bakery. Invited to take part in an experimental surgical procedure that will dramatically increase his intelligence, he duly accepts and finds himself slowly elevated to the level of “genius,” experiencing a hitherto unknown intellectual ability.
Structured as a series of diary entries in his own hand detailing his life before and after the experiment, Charlie comes to understand, thanks to his expanded awareness, that intelligence doesn’t necessarily equal happiness. Given a new home after the experiment, he adopts Algernon, an extraordinarily smart mouse who was the experiment’s first subject. A bond forms between them, Charlie’s rapidly growing intelligence and understanding meaning that he views Algernon as both a friend and a precedent. Charlie learns a new life – very much emotionally a child, he learns that not all is what it seems, that the jokes and nicknames that he once thought of as affectionate are in fact meant in mockery, that people lie and cheat and can be ridiculously contradictory, that what he once thought of as patient kindness was actually patronising cruelty. But he also finds hope, and love, and art, and friendship, and humanity at its best. He learns that life is both good and bad, and that neither can exist without the other. And then he learns that Algernon has started ailing and is beginning to revert to his natural, ordinary-mouse state…
Here are just a few of the emotions felt while accompanying Charlie on his journey: happiness, shame, perseverance, acceptance, hope, anger, heartbreak, regret, perseverance, sadness, joy, love, frustration, guilt and pride. Once read, it will never be forgotten, and you will be changed for the better.
Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut
The second Kurt Vonnegut book on this list (Vonnegut being an author who specialised in using science fiction to explore highly emotional and humanist territory), Timequake was his last book, and a return to a genre that he mostly abandoned for many years in favour of realist, meta and speculative fiction. Centred on the kind-of genius science fiction concept that evokes jealousy in other writers working in the genre, it uses this concept as a springboard to explore the age-old maxims “seize the day” and “no regrets.”
In the depths of space, a mysterious cosmic event occurs that sends shockwaves across the universe, and here on Earth these shockwaves cause every single person to travel 10 years into the past. So far, so science fiction. However, this particular science fiction set-up doesn’t allow for anyone to change the future-to-come or change their own lives based on what they know will happen. Instead, they experience this repeated decade exactly as it unfolded the first time, forced to carry out every decision and action in the same way they did before they time travelled, fully aware of the consequences of these decisions and actions and yet unable to affect any change whatsoever. And then the repeated decade comes to an end and “real” life resumes, and all hell breaks loose – suddenly imbued with free will after years of paralysis, most people just don’t know what to do with themselves and succumb to depression and ennui. One of the few people unaffected is Kilgore Trout – the book’s central character, a recurring character in Vonnegut’s work, and a satirical stand-in for the author himself – who upon regaining free will tries to help those affected by stating, “you were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do.”
As is probably obvious by now, Timequake is all about free will versus determinism, acceptance of the things we got right and the things we got wrong, seizing the day, not being defined by our history or our mistakes, and helping others when we can. While reading it, we just know that it was written by someone accepting their mortality, who knows that their end is drawing closer, who knows that sometimes what really matters isn’t what we did but what we do with the time we have left. It will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you rethink what you do with your own remaining days.
Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam
The second Steven Amsterdam book on this list – much like Kurt Vonnegut, Amsterdam is an author who specialises in using science fiction and speculative fiction to explore highly emotional and humanist territory – Things We Didn’t See Coming will return hope to your heart, and acts as an antidote to the bleak darkness that pervades so much post-apocalyptic fiction. A small-scale story-cycle covering almost the entirety of its unnamed narrator’s life, it gives us a glimpse of a world wracked by cascading natural disasters caused by climate change. I use the word “glimpse” because said narrator is usually too busy surviving this world to bother detailing it, and herein lies the book’s genius – while surviving this world, he also devotes his time and energy to helping others less fortunate than himself. However, unlike much post-apocalyptic fiction in which the protagonist helps others because he is more an archetypal hero than a grounded character, or because doing so is a means to an end, the narrator of Things We Didn’t See Coming helps others simply because he finds himself in positions to do so and offering help is just what must be done. He refuses to give up hope, refuses to let a wracked and ravaged world drag him down to the level of a beast, and refuses to let it strip him of his humanity.
Amsterdam’s moving debut reassures us that a spark of light can still exist even after all else is dark, echoing numerous instances throughout history in which ordinary people have held their heads high and lent a hand when their world seems base, cruel and savage. It is a testament to human endurance and human kindness, and is absolutely devastating.
(Originally published on duffythewriterblog, 3/2/2018)