Being Other in SF.
July 25, 2020 9:56 AM   Subscribe

Please recommend SF books that are significantly Other.

Many SF premises are X in Space, or X with steam instead of electricity, or on a jungle planet, etc., or 'aliens' who are just humans with cosmetic differences. I'm looking for more divergent viewpoints.

Examples: Children of Time and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky, where you get to inhabit intelligent social technological spiders and octopuses. Peter Watts' Blindsight which has a different kind of intelligence altogether. Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire which explores a far future society evolved from mesoamerican cultures and whose politics are based on poetics. Rebecca Ore's Red Clay sequence that takes the viewpoint of an earthling interacting with alien educational, social and political systems that don't map at all to human equivalents.

I'm looking for lesser known, non-obvious books; assume I've read the canon of western SF&F, including all the classics and the best-sellers of the last few decades.
posted by signal to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
The duology by Sue Burke, which starts with Semiosis and is about intelligent plants.
posted by jeather at 10:04 AM on July 25, 2020 [9 favorites]

The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman

The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter

Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey
posted by overglow at 10:20 AM on July 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor has a fascinating combination of issues among humans (differing factions on Earth who do not get along for reasons) as well as issues among other species when one of the people on Earth goes to higher education at another place in the galaxy and forms a partnership with an alien life form which is... quite alien. I've read nearly all of the books you've mentioned so I think this would be a good addition.
posted by jessamyn at 10:31 AM on July 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

I love themed anthologies. Alien Sex (straaange) and Machines That Kill (golden age mostly, some later) are two of my faves. Le Guin's Hainish novels and stories are a unique literary experience. I especially love 'Dancing to Ganam' from V2.

There's a "b-side" of Zelazny's short fiction called 'The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth' which is super eclectic. It includes one classic, 'A Rose for Ecclesiastes'.

None of these are at all recent. But all have stuck with me.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:51 AM on July 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood
posted by teremala at 10:51 AM on July 25, 2020 [9 favorites]

Walter Jon Williams's Aristoi - semi-hard SF, starring aristocrats in space with moderately dangerous grey-goo capable nanotech. Most everyone in the book is a multiple personality.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:58 AM on July 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

Alan Dean Foster’s Sentenced to Prism is a great one. It’s about a world of silicon-based life forms and is one of my favorites. It’s a ton of fun.
posted by Slinga at 11:43 AM on July 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

posted by latkes at 12:02 PM on July 25, 2020 [6 favorites]

You mentioned that you have read all bestsellers of the last few decades, yet your list doesn't mention Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem trilogy? (Technically the trilogy called the Remembrance of Earth's Past but The Three Body Problem is the name of the first book and by which the trilogy is usually referred to as.)

The books are mindblowing in scope and subject matter. It initially starts off with an alien civilisation that evolved in a planet with unpredictable seasons, before exploring the cosmos and other dimensions. Also written by a Chinese author hence very refreshing in that the cultural systems are not centred around a pseudo-future North America.
posted by moiraine at 12:20 PM on July 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

The two books by Greg Egan that I have read would probably meet your "Other" criteria: Permutation City and Schild's Ladder . Based on that sample, the rest of his work probably does too.
posted by metadave at 12:37 PM on July 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

I actually came here to recommend the exact two Greg Egan books recommended by metadave -- Permutation City and Schild's Ladder.

Permutation City explores the nature of consciousness and what would happen if you could produce a perfect simulation of consciousness decoupled from ordinary linear time -- it's weird and alien and compelling.

Schild's Ladder is about an astrophysical experiment gone awry that ends up creating a universe-swallowing vacuum -- but there's weird things going on at the edge of the vacuum that suggest something fundamentally breaking the laws of physics is going on there.

You may have already read Embassytown, but highly recommend that as well.
posted by mekily at 12:48 PM on July 25, 2020

If you liked Blindsight don't forget Echopraxia.
posted by Splunge at 1:31 PM on July 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

Richard McKenna's Hunter Come Home was a surprisingly early exploration of a truly alien intelligence.
posted by jamjam at 1:40 PM on July 25, 2020

My first thought was The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. It's a first contact story, so the MCs are human, but the point of the book is how wide the gap is between what we imagine others to be and what they truly are.

I also found Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit to be based in a world where physics and society both work very differently, and it felt very alien to me--even moreso than A Memory Called Empire did.
posted by gideonfrog at 1:47 PM on July 25, 2020 [9 favorites]

Lots of good suggestions here. I would add A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge as as another book with a really interesting alien perspective, and Diaspora is my favorite Greg Egan posthuman novel.
posted by jzed at 2:37 PM on July 25, 2020 [5 favorites]

Ted Chiang's short stories, if you haven't read them, are ideally suited for you. I'm not sure if CJ Cherryh fits your description, her Foreigner series is about humans interacting with a species that understands math intrinsically, but have no concept of fondness or love, but instead focus entirely on loyalty. I read the first book and decided the series wasn't for me, but you might get more out of it.
posted by Hactar at 4:56 PM on July 25, 2020

Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold -- intentionally othered people modified for space.
posted by sammyo at 5:18 PM on July 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

China Mieville's The City and the City and CJ Cherryh's Wave Without a Shore are both about humans who apply pretty strange filters to their perceptions to produce unusual consensus realities.
posted by monotreme at 6:21 PM on July 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

Ok it's definitely a classic but just in case: Solaris
posted by phunniemee at 8:01 PM on July 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

I read John Crowley's Engine Summer a long time ago, and only once. But it continues to creep up on me in strange and beautiful ways. It concerns an entirely conceivable human future, really puts you there.
posted by philip-random at 10:56 PM on July 25, 2020 [7 favorites]

I haven't read them but Hal Clement wrote stories from the point of view of methane-based life forms which resembled centipedes. The first of several books featuring them is Mission of Gravity from the early 1950s.
posted by Rash at 8:20 AM on July 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you like Watts, his short story from the perspective of John Carpenter’s The Thing is worth reading.
posted by kejadlen at 10:54 AM on July 26, 2020 [4 favorites]

Celestis by Paul Park and The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson.
Both books were alarmingly effective at making me feel/consider/inhabit alien-ness(?).
posted by ButteryMales at 12:44 PM on July 26, 2020

Julie Czerneda's Beholder's Eye has a friendly shapeshifting galactic blob as the protagonist. themes of kindness, acceptance of otherness, and identity.

Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman is a hard scifi re-contact story (well, and much more) where long lost human colonists have developed a civ based on reliance on a non-typical sense. Lots of great, scientifically correct neuroscience analysis of visual processing. Just re-read this last month, thoroughly entertaining with big thoughts and ideas.

A Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Armason is "anthropological scifi" recommended by Ursula LeGuin. Human scientist travels the (alien) world with a local (alien) woman. Heading off to re-read this one right now.
posted by Illusory contour at 1:50 PM on July 26, 2020

Another nod for Greg Egan, specifically for the Orthogonal trilogy: it's hard-scifi, predominantly non-human (though possibly hybrid -- I read it a while ago) species with a females-in-charge society, on a quest to save their planet and their species. It's X-in-space, but so many different perspectives on the tropes to make it a very fresh story. (I am also near certain that Stephenson "borrowed" heavily from it for Seveneves, and from that point on every Stephenson book has been a lazy rehash of something else and I've practically given up on him after Fall, or Dodge in Hell [I enjoyed it but there was little original in it]).

Also, seconding Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire series. Ninefox Gambit is the first, followed by Raven Stratagem. I found it looking for Dune-likes: "political" scifi, factoring in characters' internal calculations on the political impacts of their actions (or in-actions), some moral philosophy, etc. It's that in a very well-balanced descriptive prose that engages your imagination to actively construct the various environments in which the story plays out.
posted by 0.692 at 11:31 PM on July 26, 2020

Stanislaw Lem wrote a handful of first-contact novels in which the aliens are unfathomably Other—communicating with them proves difficult or impossible, with (often) tragic results. Solaris is the best known, but a few others fit this model well: Fiasco (my favorite), Eden, and The Invincible.
posted by miles per flower at 1:50 PM on July 27, 2020

I see this is soon to close, so will just quickly mention a couple of 'humans transformed into Other by technology' scenarios wherein non-transformed humans are present as contrast.

Biologist Joan Slonczewski's Door Into Ocean series

Linda Nagata's Nanotech Succession (especially The Bohr Maker and Deception Well) series and also her Limit of Vision
posted by to wound the autumnal city at 12:14 PM on August 25, 2020

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