Watching television today sure is different than it was when I was growing up. It requires commitment. Back then, if you wanted to watch an episode of Battle of the Network Stars (don't judge me!) you had to sit yourself down in front of the television before it even started or you'd miss Howard Cosell in his gold blazer introducing Farrah Fawcett-Majors or Gabe Kaplan. Then along came technology, making it possible to watch TV on your own terms.
Back in the day, it used to be a luxury just to own a VCR, where you could not only watch pre-recorded movies, but you could also schedule them to record your favorite shows and fast forward through commercials. Then the digital revolution came along and ushered in the era of DVDs. Not long after that, Netflix was born, allowing its subscribers to consume as many DVDs as they could handle. Digital Video Recorders like Tivo soon followed. Once the studios figured out that there was money to be made from streaming media content, the choices got even better. You no longer had to rely on physical discs or TV scheduling, you could spend hour after hour binge-watching your favorite (or new favorite) show by streaming it over the Internet through Netflix, Hulu, Amazon or your cable company.
That's all well and good, but binge watching can sometimes be like drinking water from a firehose. Binge watching gets tiring and eventually you'll have to say goodbye to your recent obsession. But fear not! I have a slew of reading recommendations to grab when you step away from the screen.
Altered Carbon / Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams / The Man in the High Castle / The Expanse
Let's just get the easy ones out of the way, shall we? If you are binge watching any of these shows, you must already now that they originated as books. So, my simple recommendation here is: read the book! Novels adapted for screen necessarily change up the story to fit the medium. The book will still offer some surprises and often add way more depth to the show. So, if you like these shows, seek out:
- Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
- Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams by Philip K. Dick
- The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
- Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse #1) by James S. A. Corey
Black Mirror is an anthology show, meaning that every episode is a new story featuring new characters and actors. But the show itself still has a theme: examining the unforeseen consequences of new technology. Each episode delivers a cautionary tale about some aspect of our modern lives. And it is dark. These are not optimistic futures being depicted.
It's probably no surprise that a reading recommendation for Black Mirror viewers is itself an anthology. An anthology offers readers multiple stories about diverse topics, same as the show. But which of numerous many anthologies out there will satisfy Black Mirror viewers? Well, if variety is key and technology is the focus, look no further than Future Fiction: New Dimensions in International Science edited by Bill Campbell and Francesco Verso. Not only do you get a variety of stories, but the you get storytellers who are from a variety of cultures. The twelve stories it contains feature possible outcomes when dealing with automated houses, teleportation machines, artificial intelligence networks, robots, genetic engineering and more.
In the science fiction thriller Counterpart, J.K. Simmons stars as Howard Silk, a low-level bureaucrat in a Berlin-based government agency. Howard discovers that the agency he works for is harboring a secret: there's a doorway to an alternate Earth where there's not only another Howard Silk, but that doppelgänger needs the help of his in-the-dark counterpart to unravel a conspiracy.
Parallel worlds are not new in science fiction, but they sure are fun. Case in point: Amy S. Foster's Rift Uprising Trilogy, so far comprised of The Rift Uprising and The Rift Frequency. The books feature a young, cybernetically-altered soldier named Ryn Whittaker who is assigned to guard the rift between her world and many parallel Earths. Guards are needed because dangerous threats exist on the other side of the portal. Or so she is told. Just like in Counterpart, the agency she is working for is hiding secrets that mask the true nature of things. The fun in watching the hero find out the truth.
With The Orville, Seth MacFarlane didn't just create a parody of Star Trek: The Next Generation, he created a science fiction show that genuinely explores science fictional concepts. Through the travels of the not-so-functional exploratory ship, the crew interacts with aliens and different cultures in an optimistic future. Plus: jokes!
If it's a Star Trek parody you're after, check out Redshirts by John Scalzi. In this Trek-like future, newly assigned ensign Andrew Dahl realizes something is amiss when he notices that crewmembers wearing red shirts seem to have much-shorter-than-normal lifespans. Scalzi's tongue-in-cheek homage works not only as a standalone and eminently readable story, but also as meta-humor. Read it now before they adapt it for television.
Stranger Things was a surprise hit of 2016 and it keeps on delivering the goods with new all-at-once seasons on Netflix. In this homage to 1980's science fiction and horror, a young boy's disappearance around supernatural events prompts his friends to search for him. Along the way, they enlist the help of a young psychokinetic girl named Eleven to figure out what exactly is happening in the Upside Down, the weird world where people disappear.
What should Stranger Things fans read when they're waiting for the next season? Try wrapping yourself in the retro-goodness of Stephen King's It. While there is no Upside Down, there is a monster who appears as a killer clown that terrorizes and kills the children of a small town in Maine. King alternates between two narratives: a group of friends in 1957 who, since the town's adults seem to mysteriously forget the tragedies, take it upon themselves to fight the creature; and those same characters as adults, who return to their childhood home twenty-seven years later to finish the job once and for all. Note: the recent film adaptation only shows the children's story; the forthcoming sequel will show them as adults. I adored this story when I read it twenty-seven years ago (…uh-oh) and I recently started listening to the excellent audiobook narrated by Steven Weber. It holds up remarkably well.
In Netflix's Travelers, special operatives from a post-apocalyptic future attempt to prevent the collapse of society by sending their consciousnesses back in time. They are transferred into the bodies of present-day individuals who are moments away from death anyway, so as to minimize the impact on the timeline.
Targeting people who are already doomed to die seems like the perfect cover for operatives from the future. In fact, that's what the time travelers do in Millennium by John Varley. In that future, multiple nuclear wars have left Earth heavily polluted and rendered humanity's gene pool irreparably damaged. Their last-ditch solution is to retrieve humans from the past, bring them to the future, and send them to an uncontaminated planet to rebuild civilization. But how do you do that without changing the past? Easy. You snatch people who are already doomed to die on sinking ships and crashing airplanes.
Westworld, the HBO adaptation of the 1973 Michael Crichton film, is an Old West precursor of sorts to Jurassic Park. It's about an amusement where things go terribly, terribly wrong. Instead of dinosaurs in the jungle, here it's androids in the Wild West that begin to malfunction and kill the visitors.
If it's stories of weird goings-on in the Wild West you're craving, check out Lawless Lands: Tales from the Weird Frontier edited by Emily Lavin Leverett, Misty Massey and Margaret S. McGraw. The stories in this anthology offer much more variety than just androids. Between the covers you'll find twenty stories about desert demons and werejaguars, sentient tumbleweeds, time-traveling schoolmarms, space-faring herd drivers and more. Contributing authors include Seanan McGuire, David B. Coe, Laura Anne Gilman and Faith Hunter. Some of stories take place in already-established worlds by those authors, others offer entirely brand-new settings of weirdness (but in a good way).