Episode 3: Books that stand the test of time

Some science fiction books are still fascinating after 200 years, while others make us wince after just a decade on the shelf. What makes an SF book stay relevant? Hint: it's not the book's ability to predict the future. Your hosts Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders talk about the themes and ideas that make books last, and offer lots of suggestions for your summer reading lists!

1. We need to get rid of the idea that science fiction has passed the test of time because it successfully predicted the future.

2. Actual reasons why stories endure: Do we still care about the characters? Does the portrayal of social/political change still resonate? 

3. Reasons stories no longer hold up: Dated cliches and ideas. Also historical change. For example, Greg Bear's excellent novel Eon feels oddly dated because of all the Cold War references.

4. What makes a story "timeless"? Ted Chiang's stories often feel like timeless fairytales mixed with science. That helps keep them relevant.

5. Sometimes people say stories are timeless because they are "universal." The problem is that we often see the perspective of young white men as universal.

6. Here's comes our booklist of titles that have stood the test of time!

Special mention of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which is in many ways the first science fiction novel, published 200 years ago. Ideas, themes, ethical questions, compelling characters. Also something we interpret differently over time. Great new book called Mary's Monster by Lita Judge delves into the story behind it.

7. Other books: 

a) Geek Love by Katherine Dunn also super timeless. Themes of fetishization and rejection and cult leaders. Relevance for social media. 

b) Dune by Frank Herbert, environmental apocalypse, colonial exploitation, other themes. 

c) The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, haunting story of colonization and displacement. 

d) Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson, near-future corporate dystopia meeting Caribbean spirituality, that still feels fresh today. 

e) Slow River by Nicola Griffith, queer sexuality but also solarpunk before we even had solarpunk. 

f) Queen City Jazz by Kathleen Ann Goonan, smart city built on pervasive biotech that goes wrong, still feels super relevant today and was written too soon. 

g) Civilwarland in Deep Decline by George Saunders, stories about people trapped in oppressive corporate reconstructions of the past. 

h) Child of the Owl by Laurence Yep. Really fascinating tale of being caught between two cultures and identities, and the role of fantasy in the protagonist's imagination. The idea of constantly feeling like a shapeshifter still feels super relevant.

8. Other reasons a book might not age well. Besides the aforementioned cliches and dated stuff, there's just:

a) Commenting too closely on the time when it was written. e.g. Logan's Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson is a dated anti-hippie screed. 

b) Also, "edgy" stories often don't age well (with some exceptions, like Samuel R Delany's Dhalgren). But Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons' graphic novel Watchmen pushed the envelope of gritty superhero stories in the 1980s and now feels of its era. Also, Anne Rice's vampire novels have gay characters with plausible vampiric deniability, which we no longer need. 

9. Books people on our twitter suggested:

a) Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, still funny.

b) The Culture novels by Iain M. Banks

c) Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, classic feminist novel

d) We Who Are About To by Joanna Russ, plus Picnic on Paradise -- both books are about unprepared groups who crash  land on planets.

10) Final thoughts: Another crucial element in longevity is characters who continue to feel vital and real. Characters who are unique and believable, and don't just represent an archetype. (e.g. Frankenstein's monster.) Also, Casey in Laurence Yep's Child of the Owl is still memorably quirky. And Oly in Katherine Dunn's Geek Love is moving and twisted and her mother-daughter relationship still emotionally vibrant today.

Talk to you in two weeks! Byeeeeeeee!

Annalee Newitz