A post by James Davis Nicholl at tor.com: Five SF Novels That Take the Long View of History
There are a fair number of SF novels that focus not on individual characters but on the society of which they are a part. Often the novels do so by focusing on the development of those cultures over time. Societies evolve; individuals come and go like mayflies. There’s a narrative, but not the sort of narrative we usually expect to enjoy.
You might think that it would be hard to make such books interesting. (I don’t think that anyone has ever described The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a cracking thrill ride: “Could not put it down!”) The following five novels show that it is possible to write interesting works that take the long view.
The five Nicholl picks out of the herd:
1) The Healer by F Paul Wilson. That’s a fun choice! It’s been a really long time since I read that. It fits because the protagonist is basically immortal — immortal unless he’s standing at ground zero when someone drops a large bomb on him or something like that. So he lives through a lot of societal change.
3) The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss.
4) Accelerendo by Stross.
5) Children of Time by Tchaikovsky.
I’ve never read any of these except the first. I’ve got Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang on my TBR shelves, where, at the current rate at which I’m reading those books, it may stay until the sun turns into a red giant.
I’m sure some of you have read others on this list. What did you think? I know Stross isn’t my favorite.
But I immediately thought of a lot of other books that take a long view. I’m certain I can think of another five off the top of my head:
6) Foundation. I never actually liked any of Asimov’s novels, but I’m pretty sure I recall this series taking a very, very broad view of history and the development of societies.
7) The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. Nicholl says, “Because I didn’t care for the Mars trilogy. That’s why I didn’t mention it.” Well, I DID like the Mars trilogy. More than that, I admired it. I’ve read it twice. It’s not something I’ll go back to very often. But imo it’s a legitimately great work and very much deserves to be included in any list remotely like this.
8) The Oankali series by Octavia E Butler. This is a multi-generational series that shows the re-development of human society after a serious crisis. Among other things. This is very much a story that steps back and takes the long view, though it does so through several more intimate stories that are linked. But then, that’s how most (all?) stories like this work. Otherwise, they would be history or sociology textbooks, not novels.
By the way, I notice that the Oankali trilogy is $3.99 right now for the set of Kindle ebooks. I so strongly prefer to read on my phone or Kindle these days, so that I can increase text size, that I’m willing to pick up ebooks even if I already have paper copies, as long as I know I will re-read the books eventually and as long as the price is low. I’m picking these up right now. Done.
9) Cyteen. In a way, that’s not looking at such a large sweep of time since the majority of the story takes place during a relatively brief period — less than the length of one person’s normal lifespan. But in another way, it absolutely is a story that takes a very long view. That’s what Ari is all about: seeing and shaping the future of her society. Also, tangentially linked: 40,000 in Gehenna is as broad-scale as anyone could wish.
10) Seveneves. The first part is a short-term story, but then the story leaps forward into the new society that’s formed from the paltry remnants of the old. I think that absolutely counts. The novel moves from near-future to pretty far-future in one sharp step, leaving out the intermediate period, but it’s certainly taking a long, long view of societal development.
Here’s one more:
11) The Steerswoman. I realize — I FULLY REALIZE — that this series isn’t finished. Nevertheless, you all ought to read it. It’s soooo good! It also has my vote as single series I would most like to see finished in the next — let’s be realistic — the next ten years, let’s say.
I also realize that the characters do not see the truly amazing, very broad view of the past and future that is clear to the reader. VERY broad scope, here. VERY long view. Also my favorite of the eleven books here, and that’s saying something, because I love both Cyteen and the Oankali series.
What here have you most loved?
What have I missed that belongs on this list?