The Best Science Fiction Books For Teens

Young readers are starting to consume sci fi literature with voracious speeds, but for those just getting into the genre, where do you start?

Everyone raves about Divergent, Hunger Games, and Shadow and Bone, but what other science fiction books for teens are out there?

Here’s a selection of the best sci fi books for young adults, old and new alike.

Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert Heinlein

Length: 258 pages

ISBN: 9780345324412

Published In: 1958

science fiction books for teens heinlein

Heinlein enthralls readers with the tale of Kip Russell and his dream of traveling to the moon. Russell gets up to all kinds of shenanigans, but it all starts when he participates in an advertising jingle-writing contest in order to win a fully-paid ticket to the moon. Instead, he wins a used spacesuit, which he fixes and names Oscar.

To help pay for college, Kip considers selling the suit but decides to go out with it for one last walk, and suddenly he starts receiving signals from an 11-year-old girl called Peewee and an alien friend called Mother Thing. 

Moments later, a spaceship lands almost on top of him, and it is his alien friends, but the three of them are quickly kidnapped by the alien Wormface. The story follows their escape and adventures in space.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Length: 240 pages

ISBN: 9780544336261

Published In: 1993

science fiction books for teens lowry

The Giver is one of those books that people either love or they hate. Some middle/high schools make this book required reading, which might be why it’s loathed by so many. But, it’s a classic in the YA sci fi genre, and a large influence to more recent dystopian sci fi.

The Giver tells the story of 12-year-old Jonas, living in a small community where everyone gets a life-assigned role.

When the day to receive his life assignment comes, Jonas gets an unusual and high-status role called the Receiver. This role requires certain training from the present Receiver of town, which costs him his relationship with his friends and family and a lifetime of abnormal missions and events.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Length: 416

ISBN: 9781250056948

Published: 1962

science fiction books for teens l'engle

Another sci-fi classic, Wrinkle follows 13-year-old Meg Murry, the child genius brother Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe traveling through the universe to find Meg’s father disappeared while studying and working on the scientific phenomenon called the “Tesseract”.

A Wrinkle in Time was recently adapted into a film starring Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Mindy Kaling, and Oprah Winfrey.

I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore


ISBN: 9780061969577

Published In: 2010

science fiction books for teens lore

I Am Number Four is the first book in a seven book series, and it follows the lives of multiple refugee aliens on Earth.

John Smith, who is the titular number Four, is thrust into a galactic battle to avenge his home planet, Lorien, and to protect Earth from the Mogadorians. But, the high school kid can’t do it by himself, so he enlists the help of his fellow students and his few remaining alien compatriots.

If you are looking to start on a saga, maybe you just found it!

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Length: 96 pages

ISBN: 9780756416935

Published In: 2015

science fiction books for teens okorafor

Binti has won multiple awards, and is revered as one of the staples of modern Afrofuturism.

The main character, Binti, is the first of the Himba people to attend Oomza University, a high-status learning institution in the galaxy. But to attend, Binti must abdicate her place with her family to travel the galaxy with strangers who don’t respect her customs and beliefs.

Binti, and it’s subsequent novels, are an in-depth coming of age tale, perfect for anyone just entering middle or high school.

Rabbit & Robot by Andrew Smith

Length: 448

ISBN: 9781405293983

Published In: 2018

science fiction books for teens smith

This book offers even more space-traveling fun! The main character, Cager Messer, who is transported to the Tennessee, his father’s lunar-cruise ship orbiting the moon, next to his friends Billy and Rowan.

While Earth destroys itself by going through several simultaneous wars, the robots onboard the cruise start becoming more and more insane and cannibalistic, making the boys wonder if they will be stranded alone in space for the rest of their lives.

This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada

Length: 464

ISBN: 9781481496346

Published In: 2017

science fiction books for teen suvada

Truly a book for our times, This Mortal Coil tells the story of Catarina, a girl trying to decrypt the clues for a vaccine against a devastating virus developed by her dad, the world’s most renowned geneticist.

This dystopian thriller is one of the best science fiction books for teens because it directly relates to the dangers of the world we’re all living in right now.

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Length: 608

ISBN: 9780553499117

Published In: 2015

science fiction books for teens kaufman

Teen romance gets sticky when the end of the world is near! Kady’s planet gets invaded by enemies during a war between two rival megacorporations, and both Kady and Ezra are forced to evacuate together.

While new threats come to the surface, Kady realizes that the only one able to help her is her ex-boyfriend, who she swore never to speak to again.

A sci-fi novel with a touch of teen drama? Sign me up. Plus, there’s plenty to soak in, with a whopping 600 pages!

Did you enjoy our selection of the best science fiction books for teens? Let us know in the comments if you have read any of them or which you’ll be reading next!

And if you want some more great science fiction stories, interviews, and book recommendations, consider subscribing to Galaxy’s Edge Magazine.

Honing in on Sci Fi Subgenres: Space Westerns

Space westerns are probably one of the most fun sci fi subgenres out there. They pair the aesthetics and ideals of traditional westerns with the flash and bang of science fiction.

While the genre isn’t a huge one, there are some notable TV shows and films as well as book and comic books in the genre. Maybe you know a few!

But, the misconception that without cowboy hats and gunslingers, a piece isn’t a space Western is largely flawed. Many conventions of the Western film or comic book have made their way into modern science fiction and influenced its storytelling. You may have seen a movie and not even realized it’s roots in Western cinematography.

The Origin of the Space Western

The space western is the love child of two different genres: sci fi and the western. Westerns are sometimes considered a speculative fiction, though traditional Westerns are down to earth, without aspects of science fiction, fantasy, or the paranormal.

Space westerns actually got their roots in early American comic books. C.L. Moore, one of the early female science fiction writers, created the character of Northwest Smith who popularized the planet-jumping, gunslinging, space cowboy.

In the early 1940s, superhero comic books became less popular, so to fill the void, publishers started pairing Western stories with science fiction ones, and the line between the genres was slowly erased.

However, the space western really came to the limelight with movies like Star Trek and Star Wars as well as with shows like Firefly and Cowboy Bebop.  

Types of Space Westerns

So as I’ve seen it there are a couple different ways we can break down kinds of space westerns as a sci fi subgenre.

First there are the science fiction films that employ classic Western-style story structure.

Star Trek is a good example, where the vast universe acts as the untamed West, the final frontier. It’s about adventure and chivalry, both of which are Western themes. Prospect is another good example of a space western film. It pairs the story elements of a Western with the setting and conflicts of a sci-fi world.

Second, there are Western films that integrate science fiction. Think of the film Westworld, and the later TV show as well. The characters aren’t in space, it’s not a space opera, but it pairs the aesthetics of the Western with modern science fiction.

And the final distinction I’ve made is a healthy mix of the two genres. Firefly and Serenity are my prime examples of this sci fi subgenre. The wardrobe, weaponry, slang, and storytelling tone of Firefly places it firmly in the Western genre. But, the space ships, interplanetary travel, and alien creatures root it in science fiction.

However, these two seemingly polar opposites come together as a seamless piece. When watching Firefly, I never felt like I was torn between one setting or another. There was nothing amiss, and that’s exactly how a good science fiction should operate.

space western firefly cast
The crew of Serenity, from Firefly,
image from The Verge

Characteristics of a Space Western

Thinking about this topic made me come up with a checklist of characteristics that make up a space western. There aren’t many, but they’re distinct.

  • A strong lead character, often physically adept and righteous. Much like a white-hat cowboy.
  • An animal sidekick. In many Westerns, this is the hero’s horse, but it can manifest as other things. R2-D2, for example, might be Luke’s horse equivalent. Or Ein, the Welsh corgi from the space Western anime, Cowboy Bebop.
  • Western literature has popularized the outlaw character, the rogue. Picture characters like Han Solo.
  • Wide, aesthetic shots. In space Western films and shows, wide landscape shots or panning scenes hark back to classic Western cinematography like in A Fistful of Dollars. A more modern example might be the director’s cut of Logan, which turns the film black and white.
space western sci fi subgenre
Scene from the noir cut of Logan,
image from Entertainment Weekly

Space Westerns That Are Still Riding Into The Sunset

The space western genre does for me something that traditional Westerns have failed to do, which is to bring the genre up to speed.

Watching old Western films is enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes the outdated habits or cliches make them uncomfortable to watch. Let’s just say some of them haven’t aged well.

But, space Westerns, at least some of the modern ones, hand out that gunslinging hero candy like it’s Halloween, without having to worry about getting sick from too much chocolate. I love Firefly, and yes there are some things I’d change about it, but I find it more palatable than a classic Western from the days of the Silver Screen.

And I love seeing the conventions of the space Western make their way into other sci fi subgenres, like space opera. The Expanse operates a lot like Firefly, but without the brown trench coats and Colt-esque revolvers.

All in all, space Westerns bring the best parts of both Western and science fiction together into a unique mesh of styles. I’m excited to see what the next few years brings for the genre.

If you liked this post and want to see more content about sci fi subgenres, leave a suggestion in the comments down below!

Classic Sci Fi TV Shows You’ve Never Heard Of

Anyone involved in the sci fi community knows the big classic sci fi TV shows. Shows like Babylon 5, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica.

Many of these shows solidified space opera’s place on the TV schedule, and popularized the sci fi genre with new, flashy filming technology and celebrity faces.

But, in the background, there were smaller sci fi classics on air, too. Even hardcore science fiction fans might have a hard time remembering this list of sci fi TV series.  

Project U.F.O.

While many people think of The X-Files as the definitive extra-terrestrials-among-us program, the trend actually started many years before Chris Carter’s iconic show.

Project U.F.O aired on NBC for 2 seasons from 1978 to 1979. The show was created by Jack Webb and Harold Jack Bloom.

This classic show followed two US. Air Force investigators as they worked there way through a number of UFO sightings and phenomena. Many of the episodes are based on actual case files from Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s undercover study of extraterrestrials from 1952-1969.

While The X-Files deviated into more supernatural and folklore-ish waters, Project U.F.O. stayed in it’s lane, focusing strictly on UFO phenomena.

Dick Spanner, P.I.

Dick Spanner, P.I. isn’t a show you might toss in with other classic sci fi TV shows like Stargate and Xena, but it’s certainly a classic in its own right.

The stop-motion animation series has 22 episodes and aired in the UK in 1986. The show became popular for its witty voice and pithy format. Each episode is around 6 minutes.

Now, what’s the premise? Well, Dick Spanner is a robot private investigator in a futuristic city. Yup, definitely science fiction.

It’s a fun little hour of stop-motion animation, with an interesting tone!

Jupiter Moon

Most little-known sci-fi shows are lucky if they run for half a season. But, Jupiter Moon stands out as an oddball, having run for over 10 episodes!

The British sci fi soap opera broadcasted in 1990 on the Sci Fi Channel, and ran for 6 years.

Jupiter Moon logo,
from Wikipedia

This sci fi TV show is set on a space colony orbiting Callisto, in the year 2050. Instead of an intergalactic military space drama like the Expanse, Jupiter Moon is a show about simpler problems, and human relationships. Certainly a slower pace than a lot of current or upcoming sci fi tv shows.

While not particularly deep or provoking, Jupiter Moon is a fun show to watch once and remember vaguely.

5 Days To Midnight

5ive Days to Midnight aired in 2004 as a 5-part miniseries. The show followed J.T. Neumeyer, a physics professor, as he slowly discovers he’s traveled through time. But the clock is ticking, because in five days, he’s going to die.

It’s an intriguing show, and the miniseries format fits the story well. The first two episodes show the first 4 days of the story, while the last episode is dedicated to day 5.

Neat premise, and it’s more palatable than this next show:

Honorable (Horrible?) Mention: Woops!

Woops! was once called one of the worst TV shows of all time. And I can see why.

Woops! aired for only 10 of their 13 episodes in 1992. It follows six survivors of nuclear war that gather on a farm in hopes of rebuilding society. This sitcom attempts to humorize the plights of a typical last-people-on-Earth story, like reproduction and future generations. However, the 1990s humor and sitcom format didn’t match well with the post-apocalyptic vibes.

The episodes are kind of hard to find, but I did manage to watch a few on Youtube. They’re base-level humor, with a lot of cliches and stereotypes floating around like a doom-cloud. If your Youtube recommendations dry up and you have 20 minutes to waste, check it out.

Until Next Time…

If you know of a show that’s not on this list, drop it in the comments! We might be back in a while with another blog about old TV shows!

Classic Military Science Fiction Books by Veterans

Calling all sci-fi enthusiasts to the bridge!

Military science fiction has been a staple of the genre since the inception of science fiction. Intergalactic wars, space robots, lasers—the whole nine yards. But, sometimes military sci-fi can get a bit fanciful, and feels less science, more fiction.

In this article, we’ll discuss four military science fiction books by veterans, and how their real-life experiences influenced their writing.

  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
  • Up the Walls of the World by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Bradley Sheldon)
  • The Healer’s War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
  • The Mercenary by Jerry Eugene Pournelle

The Forever War by Joe Halderman

joe halderman

The Forever War is a science fiction novel written by American writer Joe Haldeman, published in 1974. The book is about a group of human soldiers battling against an alien civilization known as the Taurans.

The book won the Nebula Award in 1975 and the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1976.

Joe Haldeman is well-known for several best-selling science fiction novels, such as The Hemingway Hoax (1990) and Forever Peace (1997), and of course, The Forever War.

He was born in Oklahoma on July 9th, 1943. He is currently married to Gay Haldeman.

Halderman was drafted into the US Army during the Vietnam War. Many of his experiences overseas influenced his writing, and after the war he went on to get an MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa.

Halderman has been the president of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) twice and is currently an adjunct professor teaching writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Up the Walls of the World by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Bradley Sheldon)

alice sheldon

Up the Walls of the World is a science fiction novel written by American writer and feminist Alice Sheldon, who goes by the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr., published in 1978.

The book explores telepathy and other psychic phenomena in the face of an alien invasion from the planet Tyree.  

Up the Walls of the World was nominated for the Hugo Award in 1979. However, the nomination was withdrawn by the author.

Alice Sheldon was born in Chicago in May, 1915, and passed away in May, 1987. She was married to William Davey in 1934, got divorced from him in 1941, and then married Huntington D. Sheldon, with whom she had three children.

In 1942, Alice joined the US Air Force as an intelligence officer, analysing aerial photographs of enemy territory. After WWII, she joined the CIA for a time before furthering her education at American Unioversity and George Washington University.

Over the course of her career, she won a Hugo Award, a Jupiter Award, and a Nebula Award thanks to her eclectic novels and short story collections.

The Healer’s War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

elizabeth ann scarborough

The Healer’s War is a science fiction novel written by American writer Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, published in 1988.

The book narrates the story of Lieutenant Kitty McCulley, an inexperienced young nurse trying to help horrendously damaged Vietnamese soldiers and civilians while battling on her own against overt racism amongst her colleagues.

Elizabeth Scarborough was born in Kansas in March, 1947. Her best-selling novel The Healer’s War earned her a Nebula Award in 1989.

Elizabeth worked as an RN in the US Army for five years and served in Vietnam during the eponymous war. Many of her experiences during the war are reflected in The Healer’s War.

Today, she is an active novelist, having published over 45 original novels and many more short stories.

She now publishes the bulk of her independent work through Gypsy Shadow Publishers.

The Mercenary by Jerry Eugene Pournelle

jerry eugene pournelle

The Mercenary is a science fiction novel written by American writer Jerry Pournelle, published in 1972.

The book is a part of a larger series, Falkenberg’s Legion. The series follows John Christain Falkenberg as he assembles force to protect Earth from extraterrestrial threats. The novel was nominated for the Hugo Award but did not get it.

Jerry Pournelle was born in Louisiana in 1933, and passed away in 2017. Pournelle never won a Hugo Award, stating that “money will get you through times of no Hugos, but Hugos won’t get you through times of no money”.

Pournelle served in the US Army during the Korean War, and later went on to get a Ph.D. in political science. Pournelle married Roberta Jane Isdell and had five children, who have also written science fiction in collaboration with their father.

He wrote numerous publications that later on were used by the US Military and Air Force Academies and the Native and Air War Colleges. He also served a term as SFWA president.

While these classic military science fiction books just scratch the surface of the genre, they are a pretty good starting place. What military sci-fi books do you like? Let us know in the comments below.

Supernatural Sherlock: Connie Willis’ Inside Job

Inside Job by Connie Willis was published in 2006 by Subterranean Press, and won the Hugo for Best Novella in the same year.

The novella focuses on a pair of professional debunkers who produce the magazine The Jaundiced Eye. The main character, Rob, is the editor of the magazine, and Kildy, his partner, is a disillusioned movie star with a penchant for skepticism.

They are working on a case surrounding psychic channeler Aurianna, only to discover that she has been channeling the spirit of H.L. Mencken, perhaps one of the biggest critics of psychics and creationists to have ever lived.

There’s a lot of back and forth about truth, skepticism, and what makes something ‘real’. Overall, the novella was a lot of fun to read, and it really shows how Connie Willis leverages her craft to great effect.

Connie Willis, Rule Breaker

The biggest strength of this novella is the creation of suspense. I am really quite intrigued how much I liked reading this book, considering almost the entire story occurred within the one-room office of The Jaundiced Eye.

In the beginning, Rob and Kildy go to Aurianna’s seminar, and at the very end, they go to another seminar, but for the 75 pages in between, they are firmly rooted in the microcosm of the office.

Now, this goes against what I was taught about writing scenes; parallelism is alright, and is sometimes necessary, like in the instance of the first and last seminar. But repeating scenes is not advised because it lulls the reader into a sense of familiarity, and could become boring or too stagnant.

Willis follows this pattern, where Rob is just ruminating in his office and then Kildy comes in with some new information, and then Aurianna storms in to accuse them of something. This scene happens at least three times.

But it doesn’t become boring, which is surprising. That’s because Willis employs a specific kind of writing style to make each scene different, and her creative dialogue whisks away any sense of repetition or boredom.

Connie Willis, Master of Dialogue

A lot of the book is constructed of dialogue, a back and forth between Rob and Kildy as they puzzle out the mystery or debate how they’ll go about questioning Aurianna.

To make the conversations more interesting, Willis utilizes Rob’s wellspring of psychic knowledge and history as a debunker to compliment the dialogue, and even, the narrative summary.

For example, on page 60, “‘Yes,’ I said, thinking of Randall Mars’s Lincoln and his ‘Four-score and seven….'” which draws on a previous comment from Rob, but just adds another layer of contextuality to the novella, creating an immersive effect.

The variation of the dialogue, interspersed with high context references, makes the story more interesting.

As the tale progresses, there are more references and information that relies on previous conversations.

This, I think, is a critical part of writing a mystery. As the story moves forward, the writer should be able to expect the reader to keep up with the contextuality of the narrative, thus allowing for a more complex ending than a beginning.

Coming Full Circle

Another subtle thing that I appreciated about Willis’ writing were the little hints she would drop early on that would come to completion in the end, making the reader recall their origin with nostalgia.

For example, within the first few pages, Rob mentions Charles Fred, another hack psychic he is trying to debunk. Then, at one point in the middle of the story, he mentions how he’d much rather be working on the Charles Fred case instead of spending time on a “third-rate channeler” like Aurianna.

Yet, as the story reaches completion, we see how Rob wrong in that little detail. So, there was a mini-completion of separate story arc in addition to the completion of the main story arc, which I appreciated.

In Conclusion

Inside Job was the first story I read by Connie Willis, but it definitely makes me want to keep reading her work. She takes the paranormal investigator genre, which is highly saturated, and creates something that stays within the confines of the genre, but is also wholly original.

I feel like she took a lot of inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, where Holmes and Watson spend a lot of their time sitting in their armchairs at Baker Street. Those stories were never boring, but they lacked the high-octane action and violence that has become a large part of the paranormal investigator genre.

Overall, I give Inside Job a 9/10. It’s short, to the point, and full of character. I can see why it won a Hugo!

The Importance of Music in Afrofuturist Literature

Continuing our series on science fiction genres, this week we’re talking about Afrofuturism.

What is afrofuturism? Afrofuturist literature spans across numerous genres, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, and alternate history, to name a few. It often pairs technology with cultural elements from the African diaspora. Popular authors within the movement include Colson Whitehead, Nnedi Okorafor, and Samuel R. Delany.

Afrofuturism is one of the few genres that full transcends boundaries of form, working its way into film, music, and other visual arts.

Speaking of music, one of the most prominent themes of Afrofuturist literature is the incorporation of music as a central, binding element. It appears in literature as a callback to a cultural past, and as a glimpse into the future.

Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany

One of Samuel R. Delany’s earlier works of science fiction, Empire Star presents the journey of a young agricultural worker, Jo, as he crosses the galaxy to deliver a message. Along the way, Jo begins to refine his “simplex” mind into what Delany calls a “multiplex being,” which is essentially being able to operate on an intellectual level where one answers the question before it is asked, essentially a heightened form of analytical and literary thought.

Delany experiments with point of view and chronology, ultimately revealing that the whole story was a progression of an ever-expanding timeline. He grapples with the remnants of slavery, both physically and intellectually, and brushes on the harsh powers of colonialism that keep people of color down using economics and education as leverage.

And yet, atop all of this heavy, thematic commentary, Delany still manages to show that music is a critical element in this world.

empire star by samuel r delany
The first edition cover of Empire Star, 1966,
image from Wikipedia

Early on, one of the characters that Jo encounters takes him to see the Lll, which are the slaves of the empire, builders of beautiful buildings. As a shuttle-bum, Jo’s job is to play music and soothe these creatures, who emanate powerful sadness that makes Jo cry.

Jo is told that playing the music will make the Lll happy, but he will not feel any better. And, to elaborate upon his point if he was not clear, Delany shows us later in the story, when another character tells Jo that “singing is the most important thing there is”.

For Delany, it is clear that music plays an important role in the preservation of culture and its ability to uplift spirits holds a special place in his writing. The Lll, the oppressed builders, are analogous to plantation slaves in the American south who sang spirituals and cultural songs to keep their hopes up and help cope with their situation. Even in a multiplex future, music is still used as a powerful cultural tool, and Delany incorporates it to indicate its transcendence through our past, our present, and our future.

The Afrofuturist Music of Jimi Hendrix & Kid Cudi

In 1967, Jimi Hendrix released “Purple Haze,” the song that took him to fame. He was inspired by years of reading science fiction and an UFO that he saw as a kid. The song was originally about the “history of the wars on Neptune” and was well over a thousand words long. For Hendrix, writing songs was his way of contributing to the science-fiction community and recognizing his Afrofuturism, and inspiring future artists.

Since the times of Jimi Hendrix, Mothership Connection, and Planet Rock, Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, Afrofuturism has persisted in music. In 2014, Kid Cudi released his Satellite Flight album, which is based heavily upon ideas of living on the moon and space travel while also retaining the social activism that Kid Cudi puts in all his music.

Cudi presents the idea that space is a place away from earthly restrictions, saying that he wants to take his “vibe” to a place where “there aren’t any roads” and where the haters “can’t follow.” In this way, space is an escape and a new horizon, a sentiment expressed across numerous Afrofuturist texts.

Rhythm Travel by Amiri Baraka

This story is a good one to conclude with, as it seems to pull together many of the threads that have been developing in this discussion of Afrofuturist literature and music. Written by Amiri Baraka in 1996, “Rhythm Travel” is a conversation between two characters, one of which is describing a method of time traveling based on music.

At one point in the story, the rhythm scientist, we shall call him, materializes in front of the other character, using certain rhythms to become “dis visible”.

Now, the idea of dis visibility is different than invisibility, and the scientist even makes a point of referencing Invisible Man and its author, Ralph Ellison. In this context, dis visibility is the ability to remove oneself from unwanted attention, to disappear and reappear at will, whereas invisibility, as Ellison might describe it, is to be unseen at all points, whether wanted or unwanted.

But what is it that allows the rhythm scientist to be dis visible? Music, of course.

This piece illustrates that intense power that music has for the black community, where it helps them avoid the oppression of the system and skirt the imbalance of power. Music here demonstrates a deep historical connection to survival, and has embodied that in the work of the rhythm scientist.

In Conclusion

From novels to rap, we’ve seen Afrofuturist literature at play with music in various ways. As an expression of desire to be understood and removed from an overly-critical environment, and as a deep-seeded cultural heritage used as a means of protection.

Music’s power as an element of change and vocal expression is a large part of the Afrofuturism movement, and there are hundreds of examples beyond these, so I encourage you to go out and find them, make the connection between literature and music, and find the many-faceted meanings of that connection.

Timequake, Vonnegut’s Classic, Literary, Autobiographical Sci-Fi Drama

Kurt Vonnegut is arguably one of the greatest American writers of our time. He’s been described as the Mark Twain of the 20th century, and his fiction pairs intense satire with thoughtful philosophic musings.

My first run-in with Kurt Vonnegut was his science-fiction short story Harrison Bergeron, published in 1961. Coincidentally, I read it as part of an assignment for an advanced English class in middle school, which for anyone who has read the story, knows the importance of the education system to the plot.

From that first reading of Vonnegut, my perception of him has been that he was a classic sci-fi writer. Not a harmful assumption, in my opinion.

But, in the eyes of the literary world, Vonnegut’s delving to science fiction was an act that would forever set him apart from the larger American literary scene.

I only learned all this – and that Vonnegut teeters on the edge of the classic sci-fi author cliff—very recently. My roommate gifted me Timequake during the exodus from our college dorms in the midst of the pandemic.

“You’ll like it,” he said, “It had a big influence on my personal philosophy.”

Timequake, Vonnegut, and Science Fiction

Before we delve into the nitty gritty of Timequake, I’d first like to take a moment to think about what makes science fiction, well, science fiction.

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you already have a good understanding of the genre, its conventions, tropes, etc. But have you ever thought about what the acceptable level of fiction is to merit calling something science fiction?

For example, The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey very much embodies science fiction. Space fleets, civilization on Mars, wormholes, undiscovered planets—the list goes on. Or Yokohoma Station SF by Yuba Isukari, where a sentient train station consumes Japan.

But what about books where a single element of our world is altered, and in some cases, you can’t distinguish if you’re reading a literary classic or science fiction?

In the case of Timequake, Vonnegut institutes a blip in reality, a “rerun” for the span of ten years where everyone has to relive the past ten years of their life over again, fully conscious.

Sometimes, Vonnegut will go chapters without mentioning the rerun, instead focusing on autobiographical elements or reciting anecdotes about things he found humorous or curious. It’s in these stretches that you realize perhaps the science fiction element isn’t that important.

As a writer, I was taught that if the speculative element of a story can be removed without changing the story, then there’s a problem.

However, in Timequake, the rerun isn’t a pinnacle of the story. Sure, a lot of the anecdotes and stories Vonnegut recounts might lose a bit of their luster without the rerun to act as the foil, but at the end of the day, there’s still meaning in those stories.

I guess the question I’m getting at here is this: What makes something ‘more’ or ‘less’ science fiction than anything else?

Is The Expanse more science fiction than Timequake? And why?

Kurt Vonnegut’s Sci-Fi and Kilgore Trout

While doing some research, I came across an interesting article about Vonnegut’s relationship with science fiction.

And I think it helps us answer the previous question of ‘more’ or ‘less’ sci-fi.

Vonnegut was often considered to be a science fiction writer, and quietly shunned by the literary world for breaking away from the mainstream realism that dominated bestseller lists.

In his essay about science fiction, Vonnegut talks about being classified in the science fiction drawer of the filing cabinet, saying “I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

In Timequake, Vonnegut voices some of these feelings through Kilgore Trout, his fictitious sci-fi author.

Trout is one of Vonnegut’s pinnacle characters, wrought with wit and tragedy. As a writer, Trout is largely unsuccessful by conventional terms. His stories are often ignored, thrown away, or unfinished.

However, in Timequake, the security guard, Dudley Prince, finds one of Trout’s stories in a trashcan, and think’s it’s a great work of art. So, when the rerun is over, and Trout inspires members of New York City with his “You’ve been sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do” spiel, Prince is one of the first to join his ranks.

Trout seems an awful lot like Vonnegut himself: shunned for science fiction, yet still inspiration enough for at least one person.

Ryan Britt, who has read far more Vonnegut than I have, said in a column for that “Vonnegut doesn’t want to do any world-building, or have you marvel at any technology, or really ask you to meditate on a cool science fiction idea for very long. He wants to cut right to the human drama, and if he needs flying saucers to do it, he will.”

And that sentiment put into words the feeling that had been tugging at me since I finished reading Timequake.

I think Vonnegut’s writing is just as much science fiction as The Expanse, or Ray Bradbury, or any other big classic sci-fi author. The intent of Vonnegut’s science fiction is different—he’s using it as a foil, as a means to an end, whereas a hardcore sci-fi writer lives and breathes by the science, the technology.

If reading Timequake taught me anything, it’s that the definition of genre is perhaps more harmful than it is helpful. At the end of the day, who cares whether Timequake was just as much science fiction as any other piece of literature. Does it really matter? Let me know in the comments what you think.

Sci-Fi Subgenres: Breaking Down the Punks

The practice of segmenting films, books, games, and stories into genres can get pretty tricky. Sometimes, a novel or film fits neatly into the conventions set down by a genre, other times the waters are a little muddier. But sci-fi subgenres have exploded in the past few years, and there a lot more categories with which to classify new (and old) work.

One of the large subsections of science fiction literature classification falls on the ‘punk’.  The idea of ‘punk’ literature focuses on the outcasts from society, the rebels, the vigilantes, those who go against the grain. The punks.

Genres like cyberpunk and steampunk sparked a flurry of smaller subsections that have distinct conventions, and often subvert the aesthetics of their parent genre.

In this blog post, we’ll break down some of the well-established ‘punk’ sci-fi subgenres and take a look at the rising stars.

Cyberpunk: Where It All Began

The term cyberpunk is now kind of a commonplace, kitchen-table word. It refers to science fiction literature (and by literature, I lump the written, visual, and interactive together) that takes place in a futuristic world filled with advanced tech, but riddled with socio-economic issues.

Characters in cyberpunk literature are often downtrodden, working-class loners rebelling against some kind of convention, whether that’s their corporate overlords or street gangs that control their neighborhood.

The term cyberpunk came from a short story of the same name by author Bruce Bethke in 1983, even though sci-fi writers had been exploring the themes of the genre years before there was a name to associate with them.

Authors like Roger Zelazny, Philip K. Dick, Gardner Dozois, and William Gibson pioneered the movement with their fiction and non-fiction alike.

Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson is one of the pinnacles of the cyperpunk genre, and helped bring more attention to the aesthetics of the genre as a whole. Films like Blade Runner, comics like Judge Dredd, and anthologies like Mirrorshades kept cyberpunk in the limelight.

Recently, the genre has gained some attention from the release of CD Projekt Red’s triple-A video game, Cyperpunk 2077. While the game and its release were largely a disaster, it succeeded in introducing newcomers to the genre of cyberpunk.

And with all the attention the cyperpunk genre has received, writers began to deviate from the aesthetics of cyberpunk, sparking new genres like solarpunk and biopunk.

Biopunk Aesthetics

Biopunk as a genre is closely related to cyberpunk. Both are set in dystopian futures with rampant technological advancement.

However, the distinction between the two genres comes down to body modification. In cyberpunk, people often alter their bodies with cyberware and technological implants. Eye implants, enhanced limbs, etc. etc.

But biopunk takes that convention a step further, altering bodies using biotechnology like genetic engineering.

Biopunk still keeps the dark, grungy aesthetics of cyperpunk, dystopian futures; it just focuses more on the implications of governments or corporations using bioengineering as a tool to control people.

Popular books in this genre include:

  • The Leviathan Trilogy by Scott Westerfield
  • The Xenogenesis Trilogy by Octavia Butler
  • Change Agent by Daniel Suarez

Solarpunk Aesthetics

Solarpunk is one of the relatively new sci-fi subgenres, really only established with a set of conventions and aesthetics in the late 2000s. Internet communities and literary icons alike were instrumental in bringing solarpunk into the public eye.

Where cyberpunk is rooted in dystopia and worlds wrought with misfortune, apocalyptic landscapes, and ever-encroaching environmental failure, solarpunk focuses on futures where we’ve overcome issues like climate change with sustainable practices and renewable energy. Hence the solar in solarpunk, in reference to solar energy.

Solarpunk literature often takes an upbeat tone, optimistic about the future and proud of overcoming the issues of the past. Works often have a heavy focus on nature as well as sustainable technology, which is what really sets the genre apart from cyberpunk, a genre that for the most part ignores nature.

Some notable solarpunk works include:

  • Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
  • Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation edited by Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland
  • Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach

Modern Steampunk and Victorian Steampunk

When I hear the word steampunk, I think of elaborate Victorian-era costumes with neat techy-bits, airships, and tall, whimsical buildings.

The steampunk genre is often described as the point of deviation in our historical timeline where steam power overtakes other forms of power, like electricity. Writers in the steampunk genre explore historical events and settings with the “what if steam powered technology was the end-all-be-all” question in mind. Alternate history narratives, cosplay, and visual art mediums are also very popular in the steampunk genres. 

The term steampunk was coined by K.W. Jeter in the 1980s, but the term applied to work published before then, as far back as Jules Verne and Mary Shelley. Steampunk literature generally takes on a more optimistic tone than cyberpunk and dieselpunk (a steampunk derivative).

Settings for steampunk stories are a bit more fluid than cyberpunk’s megapolis dystopias. Steampunk can be set in alternate histories of the Victorian era, in the American Wild West, or even in post-apocalyptic settings.

Popular early voices in the genre, while they might not have considered themselves voices for the genre, include:

  • Michael Moorcock
  • Harry Harrison
  • Paul Di Filippo

Dieselpunk Aesthetics

Just like solarpunk contrasts with cyberpunk, dieselpunk contrasts with steampunk.

Where steampunk draws heavy inspiration from Victorian-era technology and fashion, dieselpunk is rooted in the period between WWI and WWII. Dieselpunk, as the term implies, idolizes diesel-powered machines, and takes on a grungy, darker outlook on the future.

But, just like steampunk, dieselpunk is filled with alternative histories, many of which build off the question “what if the Nazis won WWII?”.

Many of dieselpunk’s seminal works were published before the term was coined in 2001, including:

  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • SS-GB by Len Deighton
  • Fatherland by Robert Harris

There Are a Lot More Punks to Speak of…

Exploring these sci-fi subgenres has merely scratched the surface of all the spin-off genres present in sci-fi literature.

Coalpunk and atompunk are derivatives of dieselpunk, lunarpunk is the polar opposite of solarpunk, etc. etc.

If there’s a certain genre you’re interested in learning more about, drop a comment and we’ll explore it in a future post!

A Post-Impressionist Look at Popular Sci-Fi Films

In our ever-advancing modern age, art takes on new life. Sometimes, the forms of that art were previously impossible. Like the combination of historic paintings and popular sci-fi films.

Combining historic art forms with modern methods isn’t unpopular. Quite the opposite.

The 2017 film Loving Vincent uses the visual aspects of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings to craft a wonderfully vibrant story.

But what about re-imagining live-action films in the styles of long-dead painters? Does the combination of modern film and 100-year-old paintings give the film a new meaning?

Let’s explore Post-Impressionism and modern sci-fi films in their weird, yet accurate marriage.

Understanding Realism, Impressionism, and Post-Impressionism

To truly understand the Post-Impressionism movement, we first have to take a glimpse at what came before it.

Impressionism started in France in the late 1800s, and broke away from the previous line of artists, the Realists. While the Realists, as one can ascertain, were focused on creating the most realistic, lifelike art physically possible, Impressionists emphasized painting as an art form, not just a mode for creating hyper-accurate renderings of real life.

Impressionism was all about the paint, the environment, the effect of light on the subject. Instead of trying to capture the subject exactly—which were often scenes of nature or landscapes—they took the liberty of experimenting with the scale, depth, and texture of their paintings.

Artists that dominated this era included:

  • Claude Monet
  • Camille Pissaro
  • August Renoir
  • Mary Cassatt

What is Post-Impressionism?

So, Post-Impressionist art turns the values of Impressionism on their heads. The Impressionists placed a lot of importance on how light is portrayed in scenic, often pastoral, paintings.

Well, that didn’t jive with the Post-Impressionists, and neither did the intense focus on color. The Post-Impressionist largely placed an “emphasis on more symbolic content, formal order and structure…believing color could be independent from form and composition as an emotional and aesthetic bearer of meaning.

Post-Impressionist art is marked by the idea that the meaning of the piece is more important than the piece itself. Art is created for a plethora of reasons, and evokes a plethora of feelings, which take precedence in Post-Impressionism.

Well-known artists from the era included:

  • Vincent Van Gogh
  • Paul Gauguin
  • Henry Rousseau

A Tasteful Pairing: Post-Impressionism and Popular Sci-Fi Films

When you think about popular science fiction films, like Blade Runner, for instance, does your mind jump to famous Post-Impressionist works of art?

Probably not. But for Bhautik Joshi, it was.

A few years ago, Joshi, who is an avid photographer and artist, reproduced scenes from the 1982 Blade Runner film in the style of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Plus, keeping with the theme of sci-fi classics, he reproduced parts of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the style of Pablo Picasso. While Picasso was often referred to as a Cubist, Cubism was a sub-section of Post-Impressionism.

Starry Night/Blade Runner

2001: A Space Odyssey/Picasso Cubism

Sci-Fi Films and Post-Impressionism Characteristics

What struck me about Joshi’s decision to pair classic sci-fi films with post-impressionist art was, well, that pairing.

On the surface, such a combination might seem innocuous. It even looks good! The delicate swirls and deep color of Starry Night matches almost seamlessly with Blade Runner’s already-compelling aesthetic.

However, if we think about post-impressionism’s meaning – the aestheticism of color, the symbolism of the content, a focus on structure and order—pairing it with popular sci-fi films was a genius move.

Blade Runner is a cyberpunk classic, often noted as one of the first cyberpunk films. The cyberpunk genre is known for portraying societies in various stages of social, economic, and technological collapse. It’s grungy, dark, and unforgivingly violent.

Post-Impressionism was a breakdown of Impressionist beliefs—a movement that placed more value on the meaning and symbolism of art than the piece of art itself.

Cyberpunk as a genre—specifically Blade Runner—can be seen as largely symbolic. The use of neon colors contrasted with dark, rainy alleyways portrays the artificiality of modern societies. Nature in cyberpunk worlds borders on nonexistent, replaced instead with the ‘formal order’ of vast cityscapes and power grids.

Blade Runner evokes both feelings of awe and despair. Awe at a world with flying cars, advanced technology, and an extreme melting pot of ideas, people, and lifestyles. But also despair at the inevitable breakdown of societal righteousness, the disregard for human, animal, or plant life, and the commonplace corruption of technological icons.

Joshi’s take on the popular 1982 film, while only a few seconds, puts into broad prospective the connection between artistic themes. Post-Impressionism and the cyberpunk genre fit together hauntingly well.

Opening a World of Possibilities

Joshi accomplished his snippets with deep neural networks, feeding them pieces of art to pair with popular sci-fi films. That was in 2016.

Now, artificial intelligence is so advanced it can create realistic human likenesses by combining characteristics from thousands of photographs of real people. These non-people are called deep fakes, and to any casual observer, they are near indistinguishable from actual photographs or videos of real people.

AI and neural networks are great tools for creating art. We can create entirely new actors, giving them a face and a voice and viewers might not even know the difference.

If we wanted to, we could make a film with every character played by Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson. Not a great idea, but it’s a possibility.

But at what stage does the use of AI for art cease to be an artistic endeavor? When does it become a crux for creation, a necessity rather than a convenience?

Years before Joshi released his Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey projects another artist was experimenting with classic art forms and modern film.

Anders Ramsell released Blade Runner – The Aquarelle Edition in 2013. He hand-painted over 12,000 watercolor paintings and combined them into a 35-minute rendition of the Blade Runner film. His labor of love took 2 years to create.

Ramsell’s project shows us that amazing art is possible without the help of artificial intelligence. He had full control over every painting and every scene because he made them with his own two hands.

Anyways, I’ve rambled on for long enough. Hope you found this interesting!

The Robot Definition & Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.

Nowadays, the term robot has come to mean a few different things, whether that’s Terminator, a Roomba, or the industrial robots used on manufacturing assembly lines.

Robot means, according to Merriam Webster, “a machine that resembles a living creature in being capable of moving independently and performing complex actions.” Or, on a rudimentary level, “a device that automatically performs complicated, often repetitive tasks.”

But, to really get to the source of the robot definition, we have to take a trip back to 1920, Czechoslovakia.

(Spoiler warning for R.U.R.)

Robot Precursors

Automatons and mechanical human facsimiles have been a part of literature for thousands of years. In Homer’s Iliad, Hephaestus is described as having two golden handmaidens who possessed “intelligence in their hearts.” The handmaidens’ purpose was to hold up Hephaestus’ old, frail body, and not much else.

And we’ve seen a slew of automatons in literature since the classic Greek days. Frank L. Baum’s Tin Man might even be considered an automaton!

But in 1920, the Czech playwright Karel Čapek published his seminal work, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) and effectively solidified the word ‘robot’ into the human lexicon.

R.U.R. In a Nutshell

The premise of Čapek’s play revolves around the idea of a disposable workforce. The main, human characters, work in a factory that produces lifelike robots that are used for all kinds of tasks. Much like our 21st century use of robots—for industry. But, as the play continues, the robots overthrow humanity and essentially become human, capable of thoughts and feelings.

Broken down so simply, R.U.R. reads like the science fiction version of Marx’s Communist Manifesto, with the robots standing in as the proletariat workforce. But, that’s a topic for another time.

Robot Definition as Laid Out by Čapek

The term originated from the Old Slavonic word rabota, meaning “servitude of forced labor,” and in Czech is roboti.

While robot has come to mean a whole slew of things in the modern English language, it’s still rooted in the old Slavonic roots: servitude. Many of our modern robots—the Roomba, for example—don’t have the semi-sentience of Čapek’s robots.

Despite the depictions in the performances of R.U.R.—which show the robots as coated in metal armor with stiff, calculated movements—there are various places in the play where they are said to be near-human, the products of advanced biotechnology.

In the first act, the factory’s general manager, Domain, describes it as the place “where people are made.” And later, one of the characters is revealed to be a robot with much surprise because she was indistinguishable from her human counterparts.

Čapek’s robots are much more advanced than vacuum-bots; in the age of science fiction, we might better describe them as androids. But, the playwright did far more than introduce a popular term into our language, he also pioneered the modern idea of acquired humanity.

rur 1939 production poster
Poster for a production of R.U.R. in 1939
Photo from Wikipedia

Years Ahead of His Time

So Čapek gives us the robot definition, but he also presents the notion that artificially-created humanoids might have feelings and the potential for human thought processes. By the end of the play, the robots have taken over the world, but are unable to reproduce or construct new robots.

The big reveal occurs when the robot based off of the human character Helena, and another robot named Primus, come to the conclusion that they “belong to one another,” having somehow discovered emotions and fallen in love. Earlier in the act, the robot Radius explains that the robots have attained humanity, or an accurate imitation of humanity, because they “have read books. We have studied science and the arts. The Robots have achieved human culture.”

As intriguing and advanced as this might have been in 1920, the notion that biologically or mechanically engineered entities can become capable of emotion and human thought is a reality in the modern age.

Great strides in computing have led to deep-learning artificial intelligences that cannot only create their own problem-solving algorithms, but can learn to mimic human emotion.

Mark Riedl, a professor from Georgia Tech with a specialization in AI systems, has been gradually teaching AI common sense and ethics using stories. Much like R.U.R., Reidl is utilizing culture instead of code to teach AI.  

Reidl says “When we talk about teaching robots ethics, we’re really asking how we help robots avoid conflict with society and culture at large…. The more an AI system or a robot can understand the values of the people that it’s interacting with, the less conflict there’ll be [and] the more understanding and useful it’ll be to humans.”

And yet, teaching AI and robots via culture poses the question: “Who’s to say that the wealth of sci-fi media that portrays AI as evil won’t bring about our downfall?”

It happens in R.U.R., the culture of “slaughter and domination” precipitates the robots to destroy mankind. Will the human obsession with robot overlords condition our technology to become just that?

Final Thoughts on Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.

We have Čapek to thank for the proliferation of the term ‘robot’, but more importantly, he raised questions about the ethics of robots, androids, and AI.

As we move forward in our pursuit of science, it’s critical that we take a moment to consider the morality of our experiments. That’s why science fiction is such a powerful tool.

R.U.R., Blade Runner, Terminator, etc. show us scenarios of what might happen in the future if we’re not careful today.

Even though the robot definition is steeped in the mindset of servitude, we should strive to create an environment of collaboration, not isolation. Putting the debate over born-humanity and acquired humanity aside, we can make conscious decisions to change the mindset around AI to one of respect and partnership. Who knows, your Roomba might remember the time you kicked it and is harboring a deep resentment, biding it’s time to strike.