[Quick disclaimer: I have read the first novel of every single one of the series listed except the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. And that’s on my 2018 reading list, FYI.]
I was born in 1986, and brought up during the nineties. Back then, being a geek or a nerd (they’re two different things, you know) was uncool. You’d get a swirly if you admitted you liked Star Trek. You’d get a noogie or an Indian burn if you collected Pogs or Pokémon cards. You’d be ostracized throughout your entire high school career for playing Dungeons and Dragons. My high school career consisted of me hanging out with the brace-faced, overweight book nerds in the library before classes began, watching them play Magic: The Gathering and commiserating with them when Xena: Warrior Princess went off the air.
That’s not the case anymore. At some point in the early 21st century, geeks became cool. I don’t know why it happened. Maybe it was Big Bang Theory, which started airing in 2007. Maybe it was Iron Man, the very first film in what is now called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which came out in 2008. Or maybe it was before that: the Matrix trilogy and the old-new Star Wars franchise (Episodes I, II, and III) in the late 90s and early 2000s, and the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films beginning in 2001.
We now live in a fertile era for science fiction and fantasy. New sci-fi and fantasy book series and stand-alone novels are coming out all the time, to riotous applause. We’re getting a slew of sci-fi films (not just from Marvel), many of them crappy, some of them not-so-crappy: Looper, Ex Machina, Interstellar, Oblivion, After Earth, Under the Skin, Dredd, Elysium, Europa Report, Chappie, Super 8, Children of Men, District 9, Sunshine, Equilibrium, Primer, The War of the Worlds. TV series like Game of Thrones, Supernatural, Altered Carbon, American Gods, The Expanse, Westworld, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Black Mirror dominate the airwaves.
I’m glad to see sci-fi gems like The Handmaid’s Tale (originally a 1985 dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood), The Expanse (an ongoing novel series by James S.A. Corey, with the first book, Leviathan Wakes, being published in 2011), and Altered Carbon (a 2002 novel by British writer Richard K. Morgan) getting some love.
But if you want my opinion, there are quite a few other obscure sci-fi novel series that would make killer television shows.
Those series are:
The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson
If you’ve ever found yourself wishing, “Gee, I wish there was a book series out there that told a fictional story about how humans conquered Mars, from the very first landing to the end of the terraforming process,” then I’ve got good news for you. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy was written in the 1990s and tells the story of the settlement and terraforming of the red planet by human beings. The whole story, start to finish. The first book, Red Mars, covers the initial colonization and the start of the terraforming process in the mid-21st century. The second, Green Mars, starts 50 years after the end of Red Mars, at the dawn of the 22nd century. Terraforming has progressed to such a degree that plants can grow unassisted on the planet’s surface. The final book, Blue Mars, takes us right up to the cusp of the 23rd century, when the terraforming process has increased Mars’s temperature and atmospheric pressure such that liquid water can exist on the surface.
The Mars trilogy is hard, near-future science fiction, not my usual fare, but you won’t get bogged down in technical details. Indeed, Kim Stanley Robinson seems more interested in the political ramifications of Mars colonization rather than the technological ones. He spends a great deal of Red Mars (and, I gather, Green Mars and Blue Mars) talking about the sociopolitical situation on Mars and Earth as colonization and terraforming progress. Robinson is a bit too anti-capitalist for my taste, but I still enjoy the story, and I think it would make an excellent high-production TV show. There’s romance, drama, intrigue, and suspense galore, and the cast of characters (most of ’em over 50, at least in Red Mars, but what the hell) are colorful and realistic. There were rumors that the Mars trilogy would be made into a TV show back in 2014, but I haven’t heard anything since.
The Culture series by Iain M. Banks
Iain M. Banks is a Scottish author. The Culture series (Consider Phlebas, 1987, The Player of Games, 1988, and Use of Weapons, 1990, plus a number of unofficial expansion novels and short story collections) revolves around “the Culture.”
The Culture is what you might call a “hyperpower.” It’s a “utopian, post-scarcity” interstellar civilization, an alliance of humanoids, aliens, and advanced artificial intelligences (called “Minds”) who live in socialist communes scattered across the galaxy. The “post-scarcity” part means that the Culture’s resources and manufacturing capabilities are second to none; citizens of the Culture can have anything they want made for them almost instantly without ever having to work. As a result, there’s no money and no crime, and as such, no need for laws. Therefore the Culture considers itself to be the highest and most civilized order in the galaxy—and it’s on a mission to bring the rest of the galaxy up to its level.
Predictably, the rest of the galaxy wants nothing to do with socialism or utopian ideals, and tells the Culture to get bent. The first book, Consider Phlebas, tells of a war between the Culture and a race known as the Idirans, and is told from the perspective of an Idiran agent, a shapeshifting humanoid mercenary named Bora Horza Gobuchul.
Sit back for a moment and just imagine how awesome the pilot episode would be. Boggles the imagination, don’t it?
The Zones of Thought series by Vernor Vinge
Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought series takes place in the Milky Way Galaxy—with a twist. The galaxy is divided into the titular “Zones of Thought.” Nobody knows how long the zones have been around or who put them there, but there are four of them.
Down near the galactic core is “the Unthinking Depths.” No intelligent life or advanced technology can exist here. You take an advanced AI into the Unthinking Depths, it’ll die a permanent death. Take any sentient beings into the Unthinking Depths, and they’ll become brainless beasts. (Countless spaceships have strayed into the Unthinking Depths and been lost forever, since their crews forget how to operate machinery and computers.) In the Depths, any piece of tech, be it a pocket calculator or a datapad, will just stop working. The only life in the Unthinking Depths is the bestial kind, primitive, non-technological organisms and races.
Farther out is the Slowness. Super-intelligent life here becomes dull-witted (or could even die), and advanced AIs and FTL engines break down. But basic tech (like ramjets and simple navigation computers) works. Our own planet, Earth, lies within the Slowness.
Much farther out is the Beyond. Advanced AI and other technologies are possible here, and this is where almost all of the interstellar races of our galaxy live. This zone is divided up into the “Low Beyond” and “High Beyond.” Both have unique dangers. If you live in the Low Beyond, there’s always a chance you could stumble into the Slowness, and depending on how fast you were going when you entered (say, if you were using FTL drive), it could take you years to get out again. Most of the ships that operate in the Low Beyond have backup ramjet, or “ramscoop” engines in case there’s a “zone surge” (the Slowness expands unexpectedly and encroaches upon the Beyond).
The High Beyond is dangerous because of what lies outside of it: the Transcend, encompassing the galactic halo, where there are hardly any stars or planets at all. As you’ve probably guessed, unimaginably advanced races and intelligences (both artificial and organic) live in the Transcend. These are known as Powers. For the most part, Powers are content to float out in the Transcend and conduct arcane experiments and whatnot. But every few decades, a Power goes rogue and massacres or enslaves entire High Beyond civilizations.
That’s where the first book of the series (A Fire Upon the Deep, published in 1992) opens. A Power is born and immediately goes rogue, destroying a massive High Beyond space station. In desperation, another Power (a benevolent one) sends an avatar of itself, a space corporation’s administrative assistant (a humanoid woman), and a couple of wandering traders (tree-like aliens on self-propelled wheelchairs) off on a mission. This mission takes them to the very edge of the Slowness, to a medieval planet where gestalt packs of sentient wolves live, and where a crashed spaceship with two human children may hold the key to defeating the rogue Power. Vinge expanded on the series with a prequel (A Deepness in the Sky) in 1999, and a sequel (The Children of the Sky) in 2011.
Come on, what more do I need to say? That’s a great premise for a TV show. Just like in the book, the TV show could flip back and forth between the plight of the children on the medieval wolf-planet (where the two of them, a boy and a girl, have been separated and ended up members of two warring packs) and the adventures of the woman, the talking trees, and the avatar as they strive to reach the planet before the rogue Power destroys everything. That sounds like damn good television.
The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov
This series started out as a trilogy: Foundation, published in 1951; Foundation and Empire, published in 1952; and Second Foundation, published in 1953. But 30 years later Asimov expanded on it, adding two sequels (Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth) and two prequels (Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation).
In the Foundation series, the main character of the first book is a mathematician by the name of Hari Seldon. Seldon is a citizen of the Galactic Empire (no, not that Galactic Empire; these books were written 25 years before the original Star Wars films came out). The empire has existed for 12,000 years, and encompasses the entire Milky Way.
Seldon has created his own branch of mathematics, known as psychohistory. It’s basically an algorithm that allows him to predict the advancement of society. One of the very first discoveries he makes using this theorem is that the Galactic Empire is headed for a fall: within 500 years, the Empire will collapse, and a 30,000-year dark age will begin.
Seldon, being the selfless science hero that he is, figures out a way to ensure that the dark age will only last 1,000 years. To make things easier for humanity during that time, Seldon creates the Foundation: twin outposts of scientists, artisans, and historians at either end of the Milky Way, tasked with preserving humanity’s collective knowledge until the time comes to rebuild the empire.
I can just see the opening five minutes of the pilot now: Seldon, an elderly grey-haired man in a long robe (because in a Galactic Empire, you wear long robes), strolling down a long, impossible high arched corridor, spaceships and airspeeders flying by outside and zooming over a giant megacity with humongous skyscrapers lit up like Christmas trees. Seldon’s datapad is under his arm, and as he walks along this endless corridor the opening credits flash upon the screen, and we catch tantalizing glimpses of life in the Galactic Empire…life which, since we’ve read the books, we know is going to end soon. Seldon walks into a large room filled with grey-haired elders and presents his theory of psychohistory, then drops the bomb on all of them.
There’s a show I’d watch.
Okay, this post has gone on long enough. But here are some other honorable mentions:
- The Ringworld series by Larry Niven
- The Sprawl trilogy by William Gibson
- The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold
- The Spin trilogy by Robert Charles Wilson
That’s the end of tonight’s program. Now get off the Internet and get writing (and your series could wind up as a high-production TV show someday)!