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Reading List: 6 Stories for the Science-Fiction Newbie

Hilary Armstrong is a literature student at U.C. Santa Barbara and a Longreads intern. She also happens to love science fiction, so she put together a #longreads list for sci-fi newbies.


Have you heard? Science fiction is “in.” Cloud Atlas, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Oblivion—nerds at the movies, nerds everywhere. This is thrilling if you are familiar with the genre, but what if you never got into sci-fi in the first place? Where would you start?

Since its inception (ha), speculative fiction has worked as social commentary, satire, and a creative answer to the question “What if?” Here are my personal picks to get you started. Please add your own science-fiction story picks in the comments below.

1. Nightfall, Isaac Asimov (1941)

No sci-fi list is complete without Asimov, and not only due to his creation of the Laws of Robotics. If you like this story, I would suggest moving straight on to his “robopsychologist” Susan Calvin stories.

2. The Veldt, Ray Bradbury (1950)

Bradbury, of Martian Chronicles fame and beyond, writes here about the danger of integrating technology too far into human developmental psychology.

3. Bloodchild, Octavia Butler (1995)

A look at the symbiotic relationship between aliens and humans. If you’ve seen any horror movie featuring extraterrestrials, you’ve pretty much seen them all, but sci-fi stories like this one explore more “alien” ideas than the simple “monster from space” trope.

4. Robot, by Helena Bell (2012)

Robots! Here’s a short and wicked story from Bell, a contemporary sci-fi writer who touches on slavery, mortality, and the horror of a slow decline in life.

5. The Country of the Blind, H.G. Wells (1904)

Wells (War of the Worlds, Time Machine) is the oldest pick on my list, and this story imagines just what its title implies.

6. Understand, by Ted Chiang (1991)

Chiang addresses PTSD, advancements in medical science, and the horror of not trusting your own mind. This story is probably one of the best “straight” sci-fi examples on this list—the clear “What if?” develops steadily, and pushes the reader along to its surprising conclusion. Entire novels have been written in this style—Max Barry’s Machine Man is my personal favorite.

Bonus Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Suggestions

I also recommend this list for more great reading material, and if you want to start with something cyberpunky, look out for Neal Stephenson or William Gibson—they’re mostly novelists, and definitely worth your time.

What would you put on your sci-fi reading list? Tell us in the comments. 

(Illustration via umbc.edu)

Longreads Guest Pick: Nolan Feeney on 'The New New Girl'

Nolan is an editorial fellow at The Atlantic. 

Jada Yuan’s profile of Mindy Kaling for New York magazine is almost a year old, but it has been a major influence on the way I write. It moves effortlessly from funny to sad, and it captures Kaling so well that it’s hard not read her quotes in her voice. But I think the story’s structure is the best part. The piece mentions a sign in Kaling’s room that reads: STAKES MOTIVATION TURNS ESCALATION, which she says are the four pillars for a great comedy story. If you read closely, I think you’ll notice how Yuan’s article follows a similar organization that shows Kaling’s model works well for great journalism, too.

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Helix piercing I did during my last day out here in San Diego guesting at @enigmapiercing .
We picked out this 18k yellow gold Sabrina end from @anatometalinc . (at Enigma Professional Piercing)

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Longreads Guest Pick: Elise Foley on 'The Girl Who Turned to Bone'

Elise Foley is an immigration and politics reporter for The Huffington Post.

“My favorite longread this week was Carl Zimmer’s ’The Girl Who Turned to Bone’ in the Atlantic, which is about a very rare disease that causes people to form a second skeleton. It reminded me, in a great way, of ’The Hazards of Growing Up Painlessly’ in the New York Times last year—both of them are stories about dealing with a rare disease on your own, then finding a doctor and network of people like you that make you feel like you’re not alone. The entire piece is a fascinating look at the science behind the disease and the people who helped to discover it.”

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Longreads Guest Pick: Briana Bierschbach on 'Finding Molly: Drugs, Dancing, and Death'

Girl reporter for Politics in Minnesota. Mother of Dragons.

It was a great week for longreads in America (see: Reuters’ ‘The Child Exchange’ investigation and Rolling Stone’s interactive story on hackers who will probably save the world), but one piece was passed around on my social media feeds more than any other: 'Finding Molly: Drugs, Dancing and Death,’ by Shane Morris. This piece doesn’t exactly exemplify any traditional journalistic values, nor would mom approve of it (warning, this story contains swears), but it’s also the most educational thing I’ve read all week. Did you know that the 'rise of Molly can be traced back to German Shepherds?’ Did you know that cartel tactics are being used to traffic Molly? No, I bet you didn’t. It’s like 'Breaking Bad,’ but real. Added bonus: Morris’s writing style is amazingly accessible. It feels like you’re listening to the confessions of a friend, that is, if you have friends that do/sell a lot of drugs.

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Longreads Guest Pick: Christine Kim on 'What's Killing Poor White Women?'

Christine Kim is a civil rights advocate studying at Duke University School of Law.

My favorite longread of the week is ‘What’s Killing Poor White Women,’ by Monica Potts, in The American Prospect. Health care is on the national stage. From Obamacare to health care costs to new state-run health exchanges, it seems that each news day is packed with analysis of our governmental strategy on health care. The stories of the individuals and minority groups who are suffering and—in this story—passing away without clear explanation do not often make it to the front page. Monica Potts discusses the alarming drop in life expectancy of low-income white women with humility, candidness, and understanding. Her story makes the research and data accessible all while reminding the reader to remember the women being affected. My close friend recently lost his mother suddenly without any warning or explanation. While the article is not entirely consoling, it places our grief into a greater context and made me realize that more information may be revealed to us in the future through further study and research.

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A Longreads Guest Pick: Tim Cigelske on Clive Thompson's "Is Google Wrecking Our Memory?"

Tim is Director of Social Media at Marquette University and writes about beer and running for DRAFT Magazine.

“Whenever I hear people talking about how technology is ruining our attention spans and turning our collective brains to mush, I like to tell them about #longreads. This article is a perfect example. I saw a link on Twitter to an excerpt of Clive Thompson’s book Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better. I immediately saved it to Pocket to read later. In this chapter, Thompson provides background on how we’ve always used outside resources to boost our ‘transactive memory,’ or ability to recall specific facts. The most powerful aid, it turns out, is pooling our brain power with other people. Today, technology is simply multiplying that ability. Now go share with someone else.”

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Photo: Simon McConico

Longreads Guest Pick: Meaghan O'Connell on Ted Thompson and the Making of a Novel

Meaghan O'Connell is the editor-in-chief of meaghano.com:

“I regard novel-writing with a heady combination of awe and dread, so when debut novelist Ted Thompson wrote about his book’s eight (eight!) year journey to completion last week, I opened it in a tab and walked away from my desk immediately. ‘The Evolution of a First Novel’ is as fascinating as it is generous, and takes us along as his book about a retired Connecticut divorcee went from plausible deniability, to short story, to MFA application, to self-doubt, despair, long dog walks, and longer grant applications. The story ends as all real stories should, with an air of peaceful resignation and a book deal. The people mentioned (Thompson most of all, I suppose) seem to be from a bygone literary era, but aren't—or so we’ll keep hoping. I took from it what is either a reminder, a threat, or a revelation, depending: that people will forgive you when you get in your own way, and make way for you when you get out of it.”

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Longreads Guest Pick: Kristen Majewski on 'How Meditation Works'

Kristen Majewski is the social media editor of Prevention.com.

My pick for this week is ‘How Meditation Works,’ by Liz Kulze, in The Atlantic. Meditation is often dismissed as New Age and hokey, but Kulze does a wonderful job of making mindful meditation an accessible notion and perhaps even a necessary one. She is absolutely right that 'in a culture that continually emphasizes the cultivation of the self, [letting go of a fixed sense of identity] may be the most profound lesson that mindfulness meditation has to offer, and certainly the most bewildering.’ A great reminder for a 140-character world and a must-read for those of us who are constantly plugged in.

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Longreads Guest Pick: Valerie Vande Panne on Anna Clark and Detroit

Valerie Vande Panne is an independent journalist covering life and human interests. This week, she chose a series of articles to help give readers a better understanding of Detroit.

“As a journalist, I am often asked, ‘How do you cut through the noise?’ In other words, how do I sift through the thousands upon thousands of bits of information, 'facts,’ media outlets, and organizations vying and manipulating to get my attention? One tool I rely on is credible sources—actual human beings, experts of any given field. It starts with curiosity: I read their work; I question everything.

"In the case of Detroit, there is one writer I turn to for understanding again and again—a woman who is so prolific, your heart beats with her words as you read, and you miss Detroit as if the city is a long lost lover who has broken your heart—though, perhaps, you’ve never even felt the Motor City’s aching concrete beneath your feet. 

"Anna Clark’s words are gems of Detroit and offered to you with grace, so you too may intimately know this American city and her people.  

"There’s been a lot of loud noise about Detroit these last few weeks, much of it from people who have never spent a moment breathing her air, and do not hold Detroit in their heart—how can one say what a place is, or what she needs, or what her people must do, when there is such a fundamental and profound disconnect?

"If you care to read anything about Detroit, I humbly suggest you make it one of, if not all three of these wordsmithed pieces of truth. Take them in, let them seep into you, and if it pleases you, lift Detroit with your spirit.”

• “Ty Cobb as Detroit.” (Grantland, July 22, 2011)

“Mapping Motown.” (Architect Magazine, November 27, 2012)

“Can Urban Planning Rescue Detroit?” (NextCity, July 1, 2013, Subscription Required)

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Longreads Guest Pick: Win Bassett on 'The Poorest Rich Kids in the World'

Win Bassett is a writer, lawyer, and seminarian at Yale.

My treasured longread of the week is Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s “The Poorest Rich Kids in the World” in Rolling Stone. I lived down the road from Duke University for ten years, but one doesn’t need any familiarity with the Blue Devils to become enthralled with the tale of a family haunted by real demons. Erdely writes near the beginning of her story, “When they turn 21, the family claims, the twins will inherit a trust fund worth $1 billion.” But by the end of the heroin-filled, heart-wrenching saga that involves blood, guns, torture, and even lions, one learns all the money in the world can’t save the heirs of the Duke family.

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Longreads Guest Pick: Baxter Holmes on 'The Prophets of Oak Ridge'

Baxter covers the Celtics for The Boston Globe, which he joined in 2013 after spending three and a half years as a sports reporter at the Los Angeles Times. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2009. He’s a proud Oklahoman from a no-stoplight town where humans are outnumbered by cow and buffalo:

“A nun. A super-secure nuclear-weapons facility. A break-in. Click-bait, all of that. All ingredients succinct enough for an enticing tweet, which these days count. But Dan Zak, one of the best in this racket, has far more than a wild premise; he also wrote the hell out of his piece, ‘The Prophets of Oak Ridge,’ in the Washington Post. It’s my favorite longread of the week. Exquisite reporting, beautiful pacing (and writing), but no overwriting—a key. The online layout is 'Snow Fall’ sexy, and the illustrations set it apart. The story itself bounces chronologically off their suspenseful B&E, keeping you in real time while divulging just enough history—but not enough to bore you. Some stories are as fulfilling as a top-dollar steak, medium rare, with nice fixings on the side. This is one of them. (But no spoilers.) Well done, Zak. You took a gripping narrative and turned it topical by showing how much the U.S. doles out per year on nuclear weapons. You also made me care about these servants of God, especially Sister Megan. I now give a damn about their trial. In all, this is newspapers at their finest. Long live print—and print will live on with stories like this.”

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A Longreads Guest Pick: Sari Botton on 'Not Weird About Brooklyn'

Sari is a writer and editor living in Rosendale, N.Y. She writes the Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me column on The Rumpus. An anthology she edited for Seal Press, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, will be released Oct. 8.

“My favorite longread this week is ’Not Weird About Brooklyn’ by Helen Rubinstein in the Paris Review Daily. Having left the East Village for upstate eight years ago with very mixed feelings on the matter, I tend to be very curious about other people’s stories of quitting New York City. Love-hate relationships with the place are so common as to border on the cliche - ditto the city’s tenacious gravitational pull despite the hate part of that equation, despite diminishing returns over time lived there. Rubinstein acknowledges the cliche, even the one inherent in writing about it, ‘the trope of the single woman in New York,’ while giving new, nuanced, if meta, voice to it. Her criteria for a potential mate made me laugh (and I cheered this one: 'Not anti-memoir.’). I was reminded of an essay by John Tierny in the New York Times Magazine in the mid nineties about how fundamentally picky single New Yorkers can be. (In that one, a criteria for potential mates was, '…has resolved her control drama.’) Nine days before she leaves, as she packs up her apartment, Rubinstein seems at once melancholy and resigned to leaving, and as if she’s trying to convince herself she’s made the right choice. It’s a familiar conversation, one I have with myself all the time.”

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Longreads Guest Pick: BKLYNR's Favorite Brooklyn Stories

Thomas Rhiel and Raphael Pope-Sussman are the founding editors of BKLYNR, a new online publication that features in-depth journalism—including more than a few #longreads—about Brooklyn.

Thomas’s pick: “Brooklyn: The Sane Alternative,” by Pete Hamill in New York magazine

It’s 2013—three long years since New York magazine asked “What was the hipster?”—and yet there are still people for whom Brooklyn means Bedford Avenue. It’s depressing that so played out a trope could displace, in the popular imagination, everything else that the borough is: more populated than Manhattan and three times as massive; a patchwork of neighborhoods, some of which, incredibly, aren’t Williamsburg or Park Slope; and a place whose history stretches as far back as the country’s.

A restorative for the trend piece du jour is Pete Hamill’s “Brooklyn: The Sane Alternative,” a New York magazine cover story from 1969. It’s an oldie but goodie, a look at the borough’s bounce back from what Hamill sees as its postwar (and post-Dodgers) decline. As a snapshot of an evolving Brooklyn from decades ago, the story’s a fascinating read today. And Hamill’s wide-angle view of the borough’s complexities, as well as his celebration of its energy and diversity, still rings true.

Raphael’s pick: “Gentrified Fiction,” by Elizabeth Gumport in n+1

There’s a story many Brooklynites tell in which the moment of their arrival in a neighborhood coincides with the last breath of its “authentic” life. Those who came after, this story goes, never knew the “real” neighborhood. They missed the junkies who hung out on the stoops down the block, the bodega on the corner that sold 40s, the drop ceilings and vinyl siding and linoleum. It’s a seductive story, to hear and to tell. But it’s also a destructive story—really a myth—that valorizes an arbitrary authenticity at the expense of a more complex understanding of the place we call home. What is the “real” Brooklyn—what is the “real” anywhere?

If you’re interested in interrogating that question, I strongly recommend Elizabeth Gumport’s 2011 essay “Gentrified Fiction,” which explores the fixation on authenticity in contemporary literature about Brooklyn.

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Longreads Guest Pick: Margaret Ely on 'Dear Leader Dreams of Sushi'

Margaret Ely is a web producer and reporter for The Washington Post.

Maybe I was hungry and saw the word “sushi” in the headline, but I was hooked the moment I started reading Adam Johnson’s bizarre, outlandish story about a Japanese chef who served North Korea’s supreme, “dear leader” Kim Jong-il. While it’s known that the dear leader had lavish habits and ruled with a firm grip on his country and confidants, Johnson also does a fantastic job of keeping the focus on the chef, who uses the alias Kenji Fujimoto. Fujimoto himself is a complicated character, a man who was willing to leave his family in Japan for an extravagant but dangerous life as one of Jong-il’s cronies. There are parties, death threats, beautiful women, Mercedes-Benzes, and more. It’s a great read.

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A Longreads Guest Pick: Rebecca Hiscott on Mark Harris's Profile of Director Spike Jonze

Rebecca Hiscott is a graduate student at NYU and a features writer for Mashable.

I’m still marveling at ‘Him and Her’ by Mark Harris from the Oct. 14 issue of New York magazine. The piece is both a nuanced profile of director Spike Jonze — despite Joaquin Phoenix’s stony-faced cameo on the cover — and an eye into the making of Her, the quasi-sci-fi movie that aspires to be 'a cautionary meditation on romance and technology’ and 'a subtle exploration of the weirdness, delusiveness, and one-sidedness of love.’ The narrative follows Jonze through the process of writing, shooting and editing the film, and his subsequent efforts to correct a cinematic gamble that hasn’t paid off. Harris’s lush prose mimics Jonze’s aesthetic as a filmmaker, which the author describes as 'disarmingly sincere, and melancholy in surprising places"; the article also has an evocative opening scene that perfectly captures the spirit of the film and its enigmatic director.

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Longreads Guest Pick: Jessica Lussenhop on Gwyneth Doland's 'Wild Pigs'

Jessica Lussenhop is a staff writer for the St. Louis Riverfront Times. She is a proud alumnus of the Minneapolis City Pages.

More than you ever wanted to know about feral hogs and how to kill them. When federal agents are picking them off from helicopters, there’s obviously more at stake than just nuisance. Between the millions of dollars in damage and the idea of the creature as an ‘invasive species,’ I was tickled to death by the serious problem (and solution) posed by these animals, who are smart but ugly, therefore fair game for mass eradication. The issue is beautifully explained by Gwyneth Doland. This is, to me, a classic, successful alt-weekly story — take something that’s under the snout of normal people, zoom in, examine. 'Some species just don’t play nice with others.’

Also, after a week of layoffs from some of the country’s bigger newspaper chains it is worth saying — support your local alternative newsweekly!


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Longreads Guest Pick: Matthew Zeitlin on Mina Kimes's story about Sears

Matthew is a business reporter at BuzzFeed.

My longread of the week is ‘At Sears, Eddie Lampert’s Warring Divisions Model Adds to the Troubles,’ by Mina Kimes in Bloomberg Businessweek. This is not a profile of Eddie Lampert, the hedge fund manager who masterminded Kmart’s acquisition of Sears and is now running the struggling retailer. The piece, based on interviews with former Sears executives and employees, is instead an examination of what happened to Sears after Lampert took over and implemented a strategy based on his Ayn Rand inflected worldview. Lampert’s big idea is that the 30-plus different segments of Sears operate more or less independently and compete for resources and attention. Kimes is never able to actually speak with Lampert in person or see him operate, and so she paints a portrait not of the man — which is where so much business magazine journalism starts and ends — but of something far more important: the results.

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Longreads Guest Pick: Sarah Bruning on Women and Journalism

Sarah Bruning is the associate features editor at Time Out New York and has contributed to Cosmopolitan, InStyle and CNTraveler.com, among other publications.

In recent months, both before and after Sheryl Sandberg released ‘Lean In,’ the media has scrutinized the issue of gender equality in the workplace across myriad industries. This week and last, a cover story in Port magazine prompted the media to focus the conversation on itself—specifically, on print magazines. A flurry of articles pounced on the article and engaged writers in a debate on the value, quality and perception of work published women’s magazines. Two pieces I thought raised particularly interesting questions were Jessica Grose’s 'Can Women Do Serious Journalism?’ from The New Republic and 'Here’s Why Women’s Magazines Don’t Produce “Serious” Journalism’ by Amanda Hess from Slate’s Double X blog. The writers comment on (sometimes conflicting) influences from within the industry—both on the editorial side and one the business end—as well as how readers influence the subject matter magazines decide to tackle.

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Longreads Guest Pick: Emily Keeler on 'To Err, Divine, so Improvise' and 'Afterlife'

Today’s guest pick comes from Emily M. Keeler, a writer, critic, and the editor of Little Brother Magazine. She recommends two stories, “To Err, Divine, so Improvise” by Kaitlin Fontana in Hazlitt and “Afterlife” by Chris Wallace in The Paris Review:

“This past week was one of several missteps; headlines and cover lines and tweets let us down even though we already were so low. Breaking news is broken. Steven Saideman put it another way in The Globe and Mail: ‘It is natural that we are impatient and curious, but we must be conscious that false steps may do much damage to innocents along the way.’ Sometimes it’s better to wait for the longreads.

"Here are two things I read while I waited:

"1. On the topic of shortcomings, Kaitlin Fontana has a wonderful three-part essay on Hazlitt this past week, describing the evolution of failure, and it’s eventual adulation, in the public imagination. For the time pressed, I’d jump to the final section—or do it right and space parts one, two, and three out over a few days, give yourself over gradually to your own failures.

"2.  While it’s not fiction—the place I’m most likely to find solace, this essay on self mythology, the interaction between a name and a story, and Big Poppa nonetheless does the trick. After all, one particular Chris Wallace would go so far as to say that 'Biggie was a fiction—not so farfetched as to court incredulity, but idealized, a romanticization of the writer.’”

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