Though-provoking sci-fi?
January 29, 2008 9:43 PM   Subscribe

Looking for good "Sci-fi" stories, novels, TV shows or movies (primarily the first 2, though) that deal with issues of identity & difference.

Developing an upper-division course on science fiction to be offered through a women's studies department. I'm looking for interesting, entertaining, and smart science fiction of any era that deals with issues of gender, sexuality, race, class, religion, etc... basically any sort of issues about identity and difference, utopian, dystopian or neither.

Some ideas that I had include The Blazing World, Dune, Brave New World, Blade Runner, something by Octavia Butler (suggestions?), Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Aliens, Terminator (1 or 2), Invasion of the Body Snatchers...

Any and all suggestions are welcome (feel free to stretch the category of sci-fi a bit), and if you have some ideas about particular issues (or secondary texts) related to your suggestion, that would also be neato.
posted by papakwanz to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Kindred was really good, sadly, that's all I've read by Octavia Butler. I have a feeling that you'll be able to find lots of secondary material about this.

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester deals with class issues. It also happens to be flippin' awesome.
posted by kpmcguire at 9:50 PM on January 29, 2008

What about Elizabeth Bear's Carnival?
posted by sugarfish at 9:51 PM on January 29, 2008

Oh and LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness is pretty much a standard text dealing with gender.
posted by sugarfish at 9:52 PM on January 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

I do not know a lot about science fiction stuff but Until The End of The World was a really great 1991 film directed by Wim Wenders. I like the soundtrack and the dreaming machine in it looks kinda neurofeedbackish. I haven't seen that movie in years but I do remember it having a futuristic type of theme...I am sure someone smarter than me could better describe why it is a movie to suggest to you.
posted by mamaraks at 9:56 PM on January 29, 2008

I've always found Outside, by Brian Aldiss to be a really interesting look at identity and humanity. I can't find what collection it's part of from that wikipedia page though.
posted by ODiV at 9:59 PM on January 29, 2008

Ah, yes, LeGuin, I knew that I was forgetting someone important. Thanks sugarfish...
posted by papakwanz at 10:00 PM on January 29, 2008

Oh, and comic books are cool too. I was thinking, perhaps, of some Y: The Last Man trades.
posted by papakwanz at 10:04 PM on January 29, 2008

Cordwainer Smith's stories deal a lot with class, race and religion issues. All his stuff about the Instrumentality of Mankind and the Underpeople are full of it, done superbly. If you have to pick just one, go for the extraordinary The Dead Lady of Clown Town.
posted by Iosephus at 10:41 PM on January 29, 2008

Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus.

It's the science fiction study of identity and duality, a triptych of novellas set on the uncertain borders between the Self and the Other. Clones, twins, doppelgangers, shapeshifters, slaves, cyborgs, impostors, all come into play in a fantastically intricate story where no character can be trusted to be true to the reader or to themselves. (And as a literary studies bonus, Wolfe goes ahead and anticipates the concerns of Postcolonial theory six years before Edward Said published Orientalism.)

I don't recall much in the way of gender considerations in the book (though it's been some time), but otherwise it nails every category you outlined.
posted by Iridic at 10:56 PM on January 29, 2008

So Long Been Dreaming edited by Uppinder Mehan and Nalo Hopkinson is a collection of postcolonial SF short stories that deal with issues of race, class, and body identity. Nalo Hopkinson's own books often tackle the same themes: Midnight Robber is a good example which is about utopia, difference, race, and colonialism.

For gender issues, I recommend looking at the winners of the James Tiptree Jr. award: "an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender", named after Alice Sheldon who wrote SF as James Tiptree Jr.
posted by siskin at 11:44 PM on January 29, 2008

The Female Man by Joanna Russ
"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", "The Women Men Don't See", "The Milk of Paradise" by James Tiptree, Jr.
posted by euphotic at 12:10 AM on January 30, 2008

Check out Charles Stross' Glasshouse. Here's an interview where he talks a little about it.
posted by benign at 12:31 AM on January 30, 2008

These themes are pretty common in science fiction. Second the recommendation of Bester's The Stars My Destination (basically The Count of Monte Cristo in space, but with some novel twists and very entertaining and well-written -- one of my favorite novels ever).

Richard K. Morgan's relatively recent Altered Carbon fairly extensively studies class and body identity (people can change bodies at will -- or at least, the rich can!), and is smart, entertaining, and very dystopian, but it's also quite "hard boiled" and loaded with sex and violence, which may not be appreciated by your audience.
posted by neckro23 at 1:10 AM on January 30, 2008

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell.
posted by hades at 2:01 AM on January 30, 2008

The Ender's Game universe fits this, more specifically the Ender's Shadow saga. Very sociopolitical and an excellent read.
posted by Phire at 2:22 AM on January 30, 2008

Samuel R. Delany would be a natural fit for something like this, especially his novel Dhalgren.
posted by whir at 2:27 AM on January 30, 2008

Who?, by Algis Budrys is a Cold War era SF novel revolving around identity and how it is established. (link is WP, with spoilers).

Seconding The Sparrow, which is one of the few SF books that my SO has read and enjoyed.

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes. The attitudes of the protagonist and the rest of the world to each other change as their perceptions of each other change.

On preview, I was als going to mention the Ender series, specifically for the Hierarchy of Alienness
posted by Jakey at 2:32 AM on January 30, 2008

Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451.
posted by cocoagirl at 2:58 AM on January 30, 2008

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phil K. Dick extensively explores the nature of human identity. His other novels and short stories from around the same time are well worth a look.

By Aldous Huxley, Brave New World and Island's dystopian/utopian excesses explore sex and sex difference at length. It is worth looking at Yevgeny Zamyatin's, much earlier, We, for similar reasons.

Iain M. Banks' The State of the Art contains a novella, of the same name, which explores female embodiment from an alien perspective.

For superb mediatations on the emergence and evolution of religion A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock should not be missed. Both books wonderfully parody and enheighten their subject.
posted by 0bvious at 3:36 AM on January 30, 2008

Mr Stross's Glasshouse (as mentioned above) deals with these issues in a fairly compact manner. Personally, I love Iain M. Banks' stuff, which covers many of your concerns, but the books are getting longer and longer, whereas you could go all "Mefi's own" with Laird of Ye Manner Stross and get a few laughs besides.
posted by Wolof at 3:41 AM on January 30, 2008

Not that Iain Banks is not funny as a fart as well.
posted by Wolof at 3:44 AM on January 30, 2008

Greg Egan's work frequently involves questions of identity. Plenty of short stories that might fit your bill are in the Axiomatic collection (Axiomatic itself, Learning to be Me and Closer in particular). I think Diaspora might be of interest too, but it's a while since I read that. Luminous is probably also worth picking up.
posted by edd at 4:08 AM on January 30, 2008

Uglies (and the other three books in the series) by Scott Westerfeld.
posted by krisjohn at 4:30 AM on January 30, 2008

All Summer in a Day is a story by Ray Bradbury. It is in the book A Medicine for Melancholy and Other Stories.

It is about a shy, frail, introverted, internal girl who has just moved to Venus where it rains constantly. Her classmates are jealous that she'd lived on Earth and torment her relentlessly. I won't ruin the story for you but I read it in 7th grade and it kinda broke my heart. Maybe it's not as complex or heavy on the nuance as you'd like for the level you're teaching, but it is about discrimination and it is a great story. I recommend it constantly any time I can slip it into a conversation.
posted by sneakin at 5:19 AM on January 30, 2008

Hugely seconding The Sparrow - there's quite a lot in there on identity and self and what goes into their formation.

The Battlestar Galactica series deals quite a bit with what it is to be human, as well, but might not adapt well to a classroom setting because the story arcs take place over a pretty long series of episode.

Oh, to have a class in which we watched Galactica, though...sigh
posted by Rallon at 6:02 AM on January 30, 2008

Morgan's more recent Thirteen (Black Man in the UK) deals with issues of race and gender, and is IMHO a better book than Altered Carbon. Still got the sex and violence though.

Nthing all the recommendations for past Tiptree winners for gender issues - I especially liked Matt Ruff's Set This House in Order. Tiptree's The Women Men Don't See works as a pair with Karen Joy Fowler's short story What I Didn't See, I also receommned Tiptree's The Girl Who Was Plugged In.

Secondary texts, I enjoyed Daughters of Earth, a collection of stories by female authors with accompanying critical essays.
posted by penguinliz at 6:24 AM on January 30, 2008

Wow, a lot of good suggestions already.

I would also add Robert A. Heinlein as an author to consider. Novels like Stranger in a Strange Land, Farnham's Freehold, and Job: A Comedy of Justice would be my first suggestions among several possible good choices (Time Enough for Love, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, and others).
posted by mehum at 6:53 AM on January 30, 2008

I would enthusiastically recommend the TV series Farscape. It covers most of what you're looking for without all the drivel that plagues many US productions.
posted by subajestad at 7:27 AM on January 30, 2008

I recommend The Female Man or The Two of Them, by Joanna Russ; Triton and Dhalgren, by Samuel Delany; certainly you want to cover some James Tiptree Jr (aka Alice Sheldon) stories/novellas like "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" and "The Screwfly Solution"; the stories in Greg Egan's Axiomatic collection are mostly about identity; Christopher Priest's A Dream of Wessex; Thomas M. Disch's On Wings of Song; Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis series; Geoff Ryman's Was; China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen McHugh; seconding Gene Wolfe's Fifth Head of Cerebus and LeGuin's Left hand of Darkness, both of which were mentioned above.
posted by aught at 7:27 AM on January 30, 2008

Lots of good stuff here. I think that teaching Glasshouse by metafilter's own Charlie Stross back to back with Left Hand of Darkness would be pretty mind-bending and give ample opportunities to compare and contrast.

Another book that, mixed in with lots of other stuff, deals with sexuality issues is Joe Haldeman's Forever War (but this might not make the cut for you). And one of the earlier books to deal with identity issues in a more modern way would be John Brunner's Shockwave Rider.

And really, just about anything by Philip K Dick. I actually think a smattering of his short stories (Second Variety, Period Piece, etc) would give you more bang for your buck.
posted by adamrice at 7:54 AM on January 30, 2008

Oh and LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness is pretty much a standard text dealing with gender.

Gender and the sociology of sex is a recurring theme in her short fiction, especially those where she returns to Gethen (a world of gender-variable people, the setting for LHOD) or O (with its complex system of ritualistic mixed monogamy), or Seggri (strictly-enforced gender-related caste system).

In fact, she seems genuinely fascinated with the ways in which context - especially gender, sex, and standards for relationship - influence identity and social relations.

I'd recommend the collection The Birthday of the World for one of the best samplings of her short work.
posted by regicide is good for you at 8:28 AM on January 30, 2008

With regard to gender role issues, John Varley offers some unique perspectives.
posted by subajestad at 8:35 AM on January 30, 2008

Nthing most works by LeGuin. Her interest in sociology is not hard to understand - her father, Alfred Kroeber, was a very famous anthropologist. The first Ph.D in anthropology in the US (1901), if her Wikipedia article is accurate.

Also seconding the works of Cordwainer Smith. They are fantastically beautiful stories that frequently address notions of identity, racism, and what it means to be human.
posted by elendil71 at 8:41 AM on January 30, 2008

Definitely some Octavia Butler. I would go for Lilith's Brood. I don't want to give away too many plot points, but the book deals (as does most of Butler's work) with how identity is developed at the individual and societal level. And its a romping good read!

Its not classified as sci-fi, but you might also look at David Mitchell's Ghostwritten. The central focus of the book is on who is actually steering our wheels, and how our identities determine our actions.

Sounds fun, good luck with the class!
posted by dirtmonster at 9:01 AM on January 30, 2008

Philip K Dick often explored identity but I believe A Scanner Darkly -- the book, not the film -- is right up your alley, since the protagonist struggles to define exactly what his identify is through the haze of a dissociative drug.
posted by waraw at 10:21 AM on January 30, 2008

Walter Jon Williams' Aristoi is a great novel that deals with many issues of class, sexuality, identity, multiple personality, and planet building. Highly recommended.
posted by waraw at 10:25 AM on January 30, 2008

The Dreams Our Stuff is Made of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World by Thomas M. Disch has chapters on feminism, aliens and racism, religion, and politics in science fiction. It should give you some ideas.
posted by euphotic at 11:36 AM on January 30, 2008

I'd recommend just about anything by Kelly Link, and you might also want to check out the zine she edits, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, for short stories by other writers.
posted by dizziest at 2:08 PM on January 30, 2008

" deals with issues of gender, sexuality, race, class, religion, etc..."

No one has yet mentioned Star Trek. The first thing that came to mind was The Next Generation. Many episodes deal with one or more of these issues.
posted by gaiamark at 5:06 PM on January 30, 2008

Michael Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers may at this point be difficult to find, but it's about a society where the Earth has more-or-less self-Borgified, and the rest of humanity in the solar system, who have turned personality/identity modification into both an artform and a cultural industry.
posted by Guy Smiley at 11:36 PM on January 30, 2008

Hmm, my answer is months' late, but Marge Piercy definitely deserves to be on this list -- Woman on the Edge of Time has a lot of identity politics in it (how women and non-whites are treated, the patient/doctor divide), and He, She, & It is more about what it means to be human (vs. machine).
posted by salvia at 8:46 AM on August 20, 2008

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