A Science Fiction Tasting Menu for the As Yet Uninitiated

by Maria on October 17, 2016

Here, gentle reader, is a guest-post from, Andrew Brown, Guardian writer and friend of CT.

At a conference on Serious Matters of Internet Governance last month, some of the participants kept bringing up science fictional references as a guide to the future; others never did. A straw poll revealed that about half of us had never read any science fiction, while the other half read huge amounts. The non sf-readers asked for some pointers.

So Maria and I, with some suggestions from Henry, have tried to draw up a List of Science Fiction for People Who Don’t Read SF. There might be some overlap there—I think Riddley Walker is definitely a book that gets read for its considerable literary merit by many people who would never dream of filing it as a post-apocalyptic fantasy, even though that’s what it also is. Margaret Atwood may be another author whose books are read in that way.

Note: this is a starter package for adult readers who feel curious as to what is the attraction of sf, and it is intended to introduce them to some of the distinct pleasures of the genre as well as to good books. Almost everyone (hi, Henry) will have different and possibly better ideas for this list. Fire away in comments. But the criterion for success is not whether you know the field better than we do—you do—but whether anyone who has been wondering what is the distinct pleasure of sf as a genre becomes able, through some of these books, to discover it.

Hors d’oeuvre—short stories available for free or cheap download

If you don’t like any of these, you won’t appreciate anything that follows

E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops – Dystopia perfectly imagined, in 1909.

William Tenn, The Liberation of Earth – All you need know about war

James Blish, Surface Tension – What imagination can do

Frederik Pohl, The tunnel under the world – Life inside Facebook

Shorter novels which expect some familiarity with the genre, or at least willingness not to worry about how vital technologies are supposed to work:

William Gibson, Count Zero
The best of his early “hacker” novels: small time hustler comes to the attention of a giant AI which wants a favour of him. Very fast moving thriller style, so the plot emerges only gradually from the action.

William Gibson, Idoru
Middle period: a meditation on fame and fandom. A real life rock star falls in love with a Japanese hologram. Characters not at all cardboard by this stage of his career

Jack Vance, To Live Forever
What would immortality be like in a meritocracy where you had to earn eternal life?

Ken MacLeod, Newton’s Wake
A very good, if erratic writer: this one is not overbalanced by the exuberance of his ideas. Another great book of his is The Night Sessions, a murder mystery involving Calvinist robots. McLeod was brought up a creationist in a fundamentalist family on the Isle of Lewis, so he knows his Calvinism.

Frederik Pohl, Jem
If you’ve wondered what could possibly go wrong in Utopia

Two classics of prediction, from the Fifties

Pohl and Kornbluth, The Space Merchants
The world is run by advertising companies

Pohl and Kornbluth, Gladiator at Law
Sinister conglomerates run wildly popular game shows with real deaths

Books of such literary merit they’re not reviewed as SF

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker
Unforgettable post-apocalyptic journey, written in an invented language, a degenerate form of contemporary English, which takes about ten pages to learn (the trick is to ignore the spelling and sound it out). Very well worth the effort.

Margaret Atwood; Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood, MaddAddam
A trilogy which asks whether the human race deserves to survive: a bioengineering genius decides, on the evidence, that it does not so engineers a replacement species

Doorstop future histories: works that are quite literally (ok, figuratively) world-building

Kim Stanley Robinson; Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars
A trilogy about colonisation and terraforming: what would a practical, serious attempt at a better society on an alien planet look like? It would, for a start, have real characters, as KSR’s Mars does.

Brian Aldiss; Helliconia Trilogy (now published as a single volume)
Humans, and others, wrestle for control of a planet with a 5,000 year seasonal cycle, so vast ice ages transform it at regular intervals. Extraordinary scope coupled with vivid, close details.

Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men
2,000,000,000 years of human history, starting in 1930, so of course the first couple of hundred are all completely wrong. This doesn’t matter at all. In all, 18 different human species succeed each other, making very slow and partial progress towards wisdom. A book which exemplifies the primacy in great SF of imaginative truth over prediction.

Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun
A haunting and sometimes horrible four-book series. (MF: Revered and often recommended here on CT, though Maria never got past the de-gloving incident early in the first book.)

Space Battles!

Iain M Banks, Use of Weapons
So what happens when there is no scarcity?

Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
Classic tale of boy-warrior ‘Chosen One’ trope. Avoid the sequels.

Lois McMaster Bujold; Shards of Honour, Barrayar
Take a boy’s own planet—feudalism with spaceships—and add a sensible feminist outsider. Fast moving, funny, and with strands of disconcerting psychological realism. Very few adventure stories have a pregnancy as their central story line.

Post-apocalyptic

Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven
Post-apocalypse world wherein ‘survival is insufficient’. Not utopic. Not dystopic. Just the full richness of human life.

Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Liebowitz
Original sin survives after the nuclear holocaust: civilisation kept almost going by monks in the American desert

{ 182 comments }

1

uhhhhh 10.17.16 at 4:05 pm

No PKD, wtf!

2

Russell L. Carter 10.17.16 at 4:18 pm

Choose one of Vinge’s big two.

I guess it’s time I read Atwood. Looking at the shelves, I see The Management has run through half a dozen, but not Oryx & Crake.

3

Marc 10.17.16 at 4:19 pm

That’s certainly an interesting list, but it has an awful lot of quite obscure suggestions, and very few of the canonical / classical ones.

For world-building

Philip Jose Farmer “To Your Scattered Bodies Go”, the first in the Riverworld series
David Brin “Startide Rising”
and, of course,
Frank Herbert, “Dune”

Future Dystopia:

A. Reynolds, “Chasm City”
Philip Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and “Man in the High Castle”
Joe Haldeman, “The Forever War”

4

Rich Puchalsky 10.17.16 at 4:24 pm

I think that the distinct pleasure of a genre has to include aesthetic qualities, and if we’re assuming a general reader who has a somewhat developed aesthetic sense than recommendations should include qualities particular to the genre — otherwise why read it. (Another way of putting this might be to write that I don’t really think that SF i about ideas.)

So I’d keep _Last and First Men_, maybe _Count Zero_ (it’s a good introduction to a particular aesthetic), and _Use of Weapons_. Others:

_Solaris_, Stanislaw Lem
_Little, Big_, John Crowley
_Martian Time-Slip_, PKD
_Gormenghast_, Mervyn Peake
_The Scar_, China Mieville
_The Left Hand of Darkness_, Ursula K. Le Guin
_Land of the Headless_, Adam Roberts

5

Elf E Sternberg 10.17.16 at 4:27 pm

If we’re going to talk 60’s SF, I would agitate mightily for James White in there. While his books often took on the patina of a cozy medical mystery, there was no writer more humane, or more explicit in his pacifism. If you want to know what Gene Roddenberry would have done with a better imagination budget, James White is your man.

6

Kiwanda 10.17.16 at 4:38 pm

After I wrote the below, I realized that you’re probably focusing on “could happen in some plausible future”, so “parallel earth” and outright fantasy are of less interest.

Traditionally and correctly, Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness is often recommended in this context; The Dispossessed is also great.

In the category of “science fiction that for some reason is not reviewed that way”, McCarthy’s The Road or Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

I wouldn’t recommend Robinson’s Mars trilogy, unless I’m misremembering endless dry discussions of politics and “here’s how they’ll have sex in an enlightened culture”.

I liked Mieville’s Embassytown, Iron Council, and The City and the City enough that I’d hope one would be a good taste for the non-SF-reader.

7

dave heasman 10.17.16 at 5:21 pm

“Original sin survives after the nuclear holocaust: “

8

dave heasman 10.17.16 at 5:23 pm

As I was saying… “Pavane” – Keith Roberts.

9

bob mcmanus 10.17.16 at 5:32 pm

Humility demands recommendations of anthologies: Science Fiction Hall of Fame (4 vols) for an intro to the history; Dozois Years Best 2015 for bleeding edge diversity. After the virgin has read those, and tells me what they particularly liked (or hated it all!) I might be able to suggest authors.

Becoming a fan in the Age of New Waves, I have little interest in defining or describing SF & F other than a probably necessary pleasure for authors and readers is ostranenie, Verfremdungseffekt, defamiliarization, the uses and abuses of language. But then every writer seeks to use words to express novelty or imagination, and Faulkner’s world is only a little less alien than Barsoom.

10

Theophylact 10.17.16 at 5:33 pm

Rich Puchalsky: As much as I like Little, Big and the Gormenghast trilogy, neither is science fiction; and the Miéville is only by stretching the concept to its Hooke’s Law elastic limit.

What, no Theodore Sturgeon? More than Human makes my list.

11

dave heasman 10.17.16 at 5:33 pm

World-building on a low-grav planet – Silverberg’s Majipoor cycle -” Lord Valentine’s Castle” etc. High-grav Hal Clement’s “Mission of Gravity”.

I grew up in the 60s reading 50s SF. And am surprised there’s no Sturgeon (“If All Men are Equal Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” “More Than Human”) Heinlein – the juveniles particularly, I regularly reread “Citizen of the Galaxy”; the wrong Blish – “Cities in Flight”, “Black Easter”. Cordwainer Smith for interesting far futures, R A Lafferty for odd near ones.

12

SusanC 10.17.16 at 5:46 pm

Given that the context is introducing SF to people who have never read any before, and they’ve come to it via “science fictional references as a guide to the future”, it might be worth mentioning that much SF isn’t really about technology or the future (although some is), and giving a bit of an indication as to which category each book falls into.

There is definitely a class of SF where the technology is blatantly impossible, and both the writer and the assumed reader know this, but it doesn’t matter because the technology isn’t what the book is really about. Typically, the relationship between the characters is what the book is really about.

e.g. it’s not clear that “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” is really about robots, in any technically plausible way, but the reader might see some aspects of themself in Rachel or Deckhart.

13

Neville Morley 10.17.16 at 5:47 pm

Not sure whether they’re still in print, which may be an issue, but I’d make a strong case for some of Alfred Bester’s short stories as a way in: interested in psychology at least as much as hard science, often formally innovative while at the same time very tightly plotted, fair amount of meta-commentary on SF cliches, and often very funny. ‘Something Up There Likes Me’, ‘Hobson’s Choice’, ‘Oddy and Id’.

14

Neville Morley 10.17.16 at 5:55 pm

And further to Marc’s point about the lack of canonical classics in the list, I would see that as an asset rather than a problem, given the aim is to introduce people to the genre rather than to its monuments. I can’t think of anything *more* likely to put a lot of people off SF than giving them Dune, or most of the works of PKD…

15

Laura Tillem 10.17.16 at 6:01 pm

No one mentions John Brunner??

16

SusanC 10.17.16 at 6:18 pm

I’d suggest Phillip K. Dick A Scanner Darkly. I think I’d describe it as a satire both on the government’s attempts to control drug use, and on drug users’ experiences.

17

Matt 10.17.16 at 6:21 pm

…you’re probably focusing on “could happen in some plausible future”, so “parallel earth” and outright fantasy are of less interest.

The original suggested books include faster-than-light travel and other engineer fantasies. That’s not any more plausible than dragons, ghosts, or telepathy (which shows up in fantasy and older SF, before it was removed from SF’s Conventional List of Acceptable Impossibilities).

The Mars trilogy became a tough slog for me at some point in the second book, and I’ve read a lot of SFF. Robinson usually has great world building but the actual story doesn’t always live up to the quality of the world.

I kind of want to suggest Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar; it’s my favorite of his and although it’s not the future that we ended up with, it feels like a road not taken more than a road that never-could-have-been-taken (as much of future-speculative SF is). I don’t know how much a new reader of the genre is going to appreciate the world-building though.

I’d suggest the short story Flowers for Algernon as one of the best out there. Not the later novelization, though.

Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains is short and good too.

I’d second Little, Big and add A Wizard of Earthsea and The Magicians as fantasies that don’t fall into well-worn ruts. Though their freshness might not stand out to someone who hasn’t already read their share of fantasies set in pastiches of pseudo-medieval Europe.

18

SusanC 10.17.16 at 6:35 pm

We’re in danger of running into the problem that the SF-ness of some works is in doubt. (See, e.g. some of the posts by John Holbo on this). A Wizard of Earthsea is great, but arguably “not science fiction”. The Book of the New Sun is also great, but something of a boundary case in terms of genre.

I wouldn’t try to make a definitive determination of SF/not SF for these, just note to the uninitiated reader that exact boundaries of the genre are somewhat debatable.

19

Nick Barnes 10.17.16 at 6:46 pm

Robinson’s Mars trilogy would have been OK if much shorter, and if edited by someone capable of basic arithmetic.

20

Stephen 10.17.16 at 6:52 pm

If I could put in a word for the great Alasdair Gray: much appreciated in the UK, even outside Scotland, not sure about the US. I’m not sure that his masterpiece “Lanark” is strictly SF, but “A History Maker” certainly is.

21

Matt 10.17.16 at 6:59 pm

I named A Wizard of Earthsea as fantasy rather than “real” SF. But “real” SF frequently ignores actual science so this seems as good a thread as any to suggest good introductions for fantasy too. I personally enjoy it when an author works close to the harder end of the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness but I’ll forgive any degree of just-imagining-stuff if the author is good enough. That’s why I love the Culture series.

22

bob mcmanus 10.17.16 at 6:59 pm

I stand by my anthology recs, and always wonder about putting a friend in a position where they have to assess my tastes and judge something particular that I love.

13: I started out like a lot in my generation with Andre Norton and Doc Smith, but moved to PKD by puberty, and went from there to Disch Delaney Effinger Sheckley. Weirdness and challenge were definite selling points to an alienated budding intellectual. SFF is in part the place where stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else. LeGuin wrote and was rejected for a decade before getting placed in a SF magazine. But why was LeGuin committed to writing Orsinian Tales in the first place? (New Yorker interview is good)

After generations of people growing up on Star Trek and Twilight Zone, I think most people understand enough about what SF is about. I would ask why an adult hasn’t read SFF.

23

Raven Onthill 10.17.16 at 7:02 pm

I think David G. Hartwell’s 1984(!) Age of Wonders is still an excellent book on science fiction for the non-sf reader. (It will be reprinted by Tor in the beginning of 2017 and used copies are widely available.)

For anthologies I think Hartwell’s The Science Fiction Century (Tor, 1997) and Hartwell and Nielsen Hayden’s Twenty-First Century Science Fiction are good places to start. I don’t have as good a feeling on the Baen MilSF and fantasy sort of thing, but that belongs in, as do 1950s authors like Heinlein and Asimov. For most younger readers, I suspect those will seem historical artifacts, but they are important works to read in understanding the field.

24

Rich Puchalsky 10.17.16 at 7:03 pm

No discussion of SF can avoid immediately veering into “what is SF”. But the Gormenghast trilogy is SF: nothing supernaturally magical happens, and there are drones buzzing around in the third book.

I’ll get the other boundary case out of the way and say that if we’re really going for SF as the literature of ideas, then really the best SF I’ve read in the last couple of years was the first SF work, Kepler’s _Somnium_. His inability to write straightforward science (because of censors-putting-people-to-death issues) makes it sort of anticipate postmodernism: there are bits about his mother and short satirical poems and a lot of it is in an appendix and the “main story” is a few pages in the middle somewhere.

25

Raven Onthill 10.17.16 at 7:05 pm

Hunh. We don’t have enough women in our recommendations, do we? LeGuin, sure, but she’s so big you can’t leave her out. Joanna Russ belongs in there, and so does Vonda McIntyre. Leigh Brackett as a formative influence. C L Moore.

26

jake the antisoshul soshulist 10.17.16 at 7:06 pm

We all have our individual suggestions.
And S. F. is so diverse, it seems to me that most people would find some they would enjoy without guilt. Hard to overcome those preconceptions, though.
I hold great disdain for Ender’s Game. Though I did finish it. And I did slog my may through Dune. But I did not get a third of the way through Cyteen before putting it down.
The same with Children of Men. The 25 % or so that I did get through could have been shortened to about ten pages of exposition.
It is hard to go wrong with Pohl.
Heinlein should come with some sort of warning label. He probably should have retired after All You Zombies.

27

Raven Onthill 10.17.16 at 7:08 pm

“After generations of people growing up on Star Trek and Twilight Zone, I think most people understand enough about what SF is about. I would ask why an adult hasn’t read SFF.”

There are still a lot of people for whom it’s not accessible. The interests of sf aren’t necessarily those of a reader of “realistic” fiction, though as a nearly elderly bird, I am coming to suspect that much of the realism of realistic fiction is in fact psychological fantasy, and the reality is much, much stranger.

28

AcademicLurker 10.17.16 at 7:32 pm

23: CJ Cherryh?

29

SusanC 10.17.16 at 7:34 pm

I agree with Raven Onthill that a big problem with the list is the omission of women authors (apart from Margaret Atwood). Ursula LeGuin and Johanna Russ are clearly part of the SF canon. I said upthread that A Wizard of Earthsea is arguably “not SF”, but there are plenty of other LeGuin works that are more firmly within the genre. I was originally going to suggest Russ’s We who are about to, but hesitated to recommend it to newcomers because it possibly depends too much on the reader already knowing the genre conventions.

30

Bruce B 10.17.16 at 8:16 pm

I highly recommend Riddley Walker. I’m the only person I know who has read this book, so I’m glad to see someone considers it to have literary merit. I did not think it had ever received much recognition (I see now that it did receive the Campbell award).
I first became familiar with Russell Hoban through his Frances the badger children’s books, which were some of my favorite books to read to my children, so I’ll recommend those as well, although they have nothing to do with science fiction (although I suppose anthropomorphic badgers are science fiction in a sense).

31

Raven Onthill 10.17.16 at 8:33 pm

AcademicLurker: CJ Cherryh, yes, definitely, though her style can be a bit opaque.

BTW, my linky post suggesting Hartwell criticism and anthologies (linky being = 4) is stuck in moderation. Should have stuck with plain old text cites, yas.

Hartwell, David G. Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction. New York: Walker, 1984.
———. The Science Fiction Century. New York: Tor, 1997.
Hartwell, David G, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Twenty-First Century Science Fiction, 2013.

(I love Zotero.)

32

stevenjohnson 10.17.16 at 8:42 pm

The society in Gormenghast is a fantasy of old England and it’s sempiternal classess embodied as ritual. Also, the castle itself is about as fantastic as the library of Babel.
Further, most fantasy is dedicated to exhuming old superstitions, old horror movie monsters, old fairy tale characters, old times, old worlds. Most current writing is distinctly in the fantasy vein, especially steampunk. Gormenghast is about old things. I’m not sure that the final volume is as dedicated to that aesthetic but then, most people dislike Titus alone. Titus killed Steerpike for the castle to remain unchanged, what happens outside is…well, I don’t know why I would be interested, so never felt impelled to read on after the story is over.

Female SF writers? I nominate Valerie J. Freireich for an overlooked author with a manageable backlist. Also, Octavia Butler. Most women writing currently are fantasists, but Linda Nagata and Joan Slonczewski are good SF writers. M.J. Locke has promise.

33

stevenjohnson 10.17.16 at 8:48 pm

Curse excess apostrophes, they’re as cunning and durable as cockroaches.

There is actually some SF criticism that is profitable for understanding and tolerably written: Damon Knight, James Blish writing as William Atheling, Kingley Amis.

But most of all, as soon as I posted realized what the OP really wanted to accomplish could be done by reading Wells, Verne, Jack London, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Karel Capek.

34

AcademicLurker 10.17.16 at 8:49 pm

Raven Onthill@28: Cherryh’s work covers such a broad range it’s hard to know what to recommend, but for the SF beginner, I think Merchanter’s Luck is a good pick. A quick read (I finished it in one sitting on a plane flight), and it’s a good example of the kind of “hard” SF that was big in the second half of the 70s.

35

JakeB 10.17.16 at 9:01 pm

Connie Willis: Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Bellwether.

Doomsday Book has that punch-in-the-face quality I also remember from Banks’s Use of Weapons and Inversions.

36

Raven Onthill 10.17.16 at 9:13 pm

stevenjohnson there has been some worthwhile sf criticism written after 1960, truly.

(See, for instance, The New York Review of Science Fiction. And lots more, but I’m not familiar with the lots more.

37

stevenjohnson 10.17.16 at 9:39 pm

Raven Onthill @33 Will check them out next time I have borrowing privileges at a university library…but then, sadly, it occurs to me it would probably take a university library to find the authors I recommended.

38

Andrew Brown 10.17.16 at 9:41 pm

I think Bob McManus’s anthology selections are good, though I don’t know if they’re still in print. I happened to reread The Forever War, which had been on the first cut, while I was draughting this, and took it out as to dated. Bester, yes, too.

39

dave heasman 10.17.16 at 10:39 pm

Sam Delany’s Einstein Intersection, Nova, not Dhalgren.

40

Henry Farrell 10.17.16 at 10:45 pm

I have been meaning to email Andrew and Maria with the suggestion of Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm by Daryl Gregory as a good and online-available gateway for people who have started with comics – it’s a kind of update of The Liberation of Earth with a thinly disguised version of Dr. Doom and various superheroes glimpsed mostly in the distance.

Also Riddley Walker is just great – something we were all in complete agreement on. I think it has its posse, but some people you’d expect to have heard of it haven’t. For example, Anne Washburn whose Mr. Burns is a simply fantastic play that starts from some of the same ideas – post-Holocaust society where the Simpsons morphs through cultural drift into a mixture of Greek tragedy and folklore had never heard of it (if you get the chance to see a good production of the play, I can’t recommend it highly enough).

41

mclaren 10.17.16 at 11:05 pm

Women and people of color must of course get banished from any list of recommended science fiction books. Standard stuff.

So Joanna Russ’ Picnic On Paradise (novel) and The Adventures of Alyx should take pole position on the list. Then Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, as superb examples of non science fictiony sci fi…ideal for introducing people to sci fi who don’t like the atomic-age superscience fluff.

Samuel R. Delaney’s Babel 17 and Nova remain must-reads, thoroughly defining the genre without getting trapped in its cliches, along with Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination.

Add in Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light and Four For Tomorrow (collection of four novellas) along with Johny Varley’s Picnic On Nearside, The Barbie Murders and Blue Champagne (all short story collections), and you’re getting somewhere.

Stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne like Rappacini’s Daughter straddle the gap twixt fantasy and science fiction. Given the state of science at the time, they qualify as science of that era, so should go on the list.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic and Karel Čapek’s The War With the Newts and Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire represent the most grown-up approach to science fiction, jettisoning the usual laser beams and rocket ships that puts off mainstream readers.

Glad to see a lack of Heinlein. His cryptofascist fantasies (*cough* Starship Troopers, Beyond this Horizon *cough*) haven’t aged well, and the paranoid covert racism and classism of books like The Puppet Masters reads as an uncomfortably accurate terrain map of Heinlein’s subconscious fears that minorities might move in next door during the 50s and depress his spiffy Colorado Springs property values (“They are among us!” — yes, but who exactly are “they”?)…

42

DD.Owen 10.17.16 at 11:15 pm

‘Slow River’ by Nichola Griffith, for science fiction that describes the workings of power within a fictional world in ways that relate to our own. It’s also a wonderful love story.

Mary Gentle’s ‘Rats and Gargoyles’ has been described by the author as ‘Hermetic sf’; her brilliant novel ‘Ash: A Secret History’ is science fiction unless you’re familiar with quantum mechanics, in which case it’s damn good fantasy.

43

Nick 10.17.16 at 11:30 pm

I agree that the list should have some Eastern Bloc sci-fi — Lem, the Strugatskys are amazing, and many other authors are very good. Zelazny would good as well, and I totally agree with choosing Nova out of Delany’s bibliography. Baby Makes Three by Sturgeon should be there as well.

And though I know that LeGuin is an important part of the sci-fi canon, I’ve always been impressed at her total disinterest in including humour in her books. Maybe the Lathe of Heaven is an exception?

44

Raven Onthill 10.17.16 at 11:39 pm

Steven Johnson: The New York Review of Science Fiction has a web site (oh, the humanity) and some of their issues are available as free downloads there. NESFA Press lists the Blish and Knight books on their web site, so they may still be available, and Amis’s New Maps of Hell can be found used, but are these are largely of interest to scholars of the field, though Blish’s and Knight’s remarks remain of value to aspiring writers.

(No links, this post is avoiding moderation purgatory. Mama Google is your friend.)

45

Watson Ladd 10.17.16 at 11:40 pm

What happened to Flowers for Algernon? Or “‘Repent, Harliquin’, said the Ticktock Man'”?

Of the Big Three, none are represented: Asimov’s “Nightfall” deserves to be in here, and I think it is a candidate for best short story in any genre. Clark’s work often centers on similarly transcendental and social themes, but I am personally less of a fan.

How can we forget Ringworld and the sequel written because of an engineering oversight in the original novel?The Integral Trees might be an orbital mechanics textbook in disguise, but its imagination of a society shaped by a constantly changing environment is decent.

Lois McMaster Bujold is female.

46

J-D 10.17.16 at 11:48 pm

And though I know that LeGuin is an important part of the sci-fi canon, I’ve always been impressed at her total disinterest in including humour in her books.

Have you read ‘Darkness Box’ or ‘The Rule Of Names’ or ‘The First Contact With The Gorgonids’ or ‘The Ascent Of The North Face’ or ‘The Rock That Changed Things’ or ‘Feeling At Home With The Hennebet’ or ‘The Royals Of Hegn’ or ‘Confusions Of Uni’ or ‘Unchosen Love’ or ‘Mountain Ways’ or ‘Solitude’ or ‘Standing Ground’ or ‘The Poacher’?

47

Nick 10.17.16 at 11:48 pm

Ellison, I would argue, has aged very poorly compared some other contemporaneous writers; the only person I would say has aged worse is Norman Spinrad.

And if you think that “Nightfall” is a candidate for the best short story in any genre, well . . . I bet there are a lot of people in Tlön, Dhalgren, Solaris, Amber, the monkey house, and noon in the 22nd century who think differently . . . The funny thing about Heinlein and Asimov is that they did a lot of the stuff that made them famous before the 1950s, when science fiction acquired its modern aspect. Sure, they’re part of the canon — but a lot of their stuff is kind of limited, compared with what the genre developed later. Asimov is at least still readable — I’m not that confident when it comes to Heinlein.

48

Nick 10.17.16 at 11:51 pm

J-D — I haven’t. I’ve only read her novels, and (long ago) a collection called The Wind’s 12 Quarters. Is Le Guin’s short fiction that different?

49

floopmeister 10.17.16 at 11:51 pm

The State of the Art by Banks

It’s a polished, complete, sparkling gem of a philosophical short story – and a wonderful remedy to excessive utopianism. I’ve given this to numerous people who have never read his other SF works – or any other SF, period.

Their response is nearly always… “Wow”.

50

Gary Othic 10.18.16 at 12:01 am

No Le Guin? Sacrilege surely!

Book of the New Sun is amazing, albeit I don’t have a sodding clue what it’s going on about. Have the sequel book on the shelf, but not sure if I want to read it…

51

J-D 10.18.16 at 12:10 am

Nick, I’m afraid I don’t feel equipped to answer that question.

(‘Darkness Box’ and ‘The Rule Of Names’ are both in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters.)

However, on reflection, I think there’s a case to be argued for humorous elements in at least some of her novels — I’m thinking at the moment of some in The Dispossessed and The Left Hand Of Darkness and Planet Of Exile and Four Ways To Forgiveness and even The Word For World Is Forest.

52

stevenjohnson 10.18.16 at 12:15 am

Raven Onthill: Thanks for the heads up. Looking back, I see I omitted Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree, which is widely available I think.

As to the readability of Heinlein, Heinlein swiped from Twain, Jack London, H.L. Mencken, G.B. Shaw…of course he’s readable.

53

flabbergasted 10.18.16 at 12:16 am

If you want SF by women, start them off with James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon’s short story collection, “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever”. Followed by Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Dispossessed”.

The Strugatsky brothers’ “Roadside Picnic” and “Hard to be a God” for great Soviet SF.

I’m really liking Cixin Liu’s “Three-Body Problem” trilogy for a taste of modern Chinese SF. (The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End)

Ada Palmer’s “Too Like the Lightning” is the first in a series, but it’s an amazing bit of SF by a professional historian.

Recommending Olaf Stapledon’s “Last and First Men” is a poor introduction to SF for most people. You run the risk of turning them off entirely.

54

rfgs 10.18.16 at 12:27 am

I’d have put Russ’ “Female Man” in, and Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”. …and LeGuin? Not laugh-out-loud-snort-your-coffee-through-your-nose hilarious in a Terry Pratchett kinda way, but there’s humor in there, particularly in the later works. Some Ellison has aged better than others; “Ticktock Man” hasn’t aged all that well.

55

Kiwanda 10.18.16 at 1:12 am

A few more in the category of “somehow not always considered SF”:
Shelley Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus
Poe The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall
Beckett The Lost Ones

I don’t know that Heinlein is appropriate here, but I don’t think that his political perspective should be an overruling factor; it’s possible to disagree with a book’s politics and still appreciate it. (On the other hand, he wrote a good deal after he probably should’ve stopped.) It’s been quite awhile, but The Moon is a Harsh Mistress seemed pretty good at the time.

56

Theophylact 10.18.16 at 1:32 am

Arthur C. Clarke: Childhood’s End.

57

JimV 10.18.16 at 1:32 am

As Theodore Sturgeon said, 90% of SFF is crap – because 90% of everything is crap. Although it may be a different 90% for different people. Personally I can’t read an Agatha Christie book because the characters seem to me to be made of pure cardboard, but she has lots of devoted fans. Peter Dickinson’s characters are a little weird, but somehow I do believe in them – speaking of which, “The Blue Hawk” is a good juvenile SFF which I enjoyed as an adult. Anyway, if you like reading fiction and keep trying, you will find some SFF author that you like. Such as Gene Wolfe, Alfred Bester, Iain Banks, Jack Vance, C.J. Cherryh, Vernor Vinge, etc..

The best SFF novels I’ve read since Iain Banks died (way too soon) were Peter F. Hamilton’s “Pandora’s Star”/”Judas Unchained” and “The Great North Road”.

58

kingless 10.18.16 at 1:53 am

Delaney’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand was difficult at first but I stuck with it and the last half of it felt like inhabiting the culture. Babel-17 was good when I was a kid. And Coelestis by Paul Park is a great book about colonialism.

59

Snarki, child of Loki 10.18.16 at 2:05 am

Cordwainer Smith: Norstrilia

60

mclaren 10.18.16 at 2:08 am

Watson Ladd remarks “Of the Big Three, none are represented…” Presumably he means Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov. Heinlein’s socioeconomics/politics and tech have aged remarkably poorly — Puppet Masters feature flying cars which double as submarines, mind-controlling invaders from the Saturnian moon Titan, and a U.S. military which is competent. Any of these will make a modern reader, gag, choke, and spit coffee out her nose.
Clarke became famous because he co-authored the screenplay for one of the greatest movies of all time, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Clarke’s novels and short stories, however, utterly fail to grip the reader, populated as they are by a suspiciously cardboard group of bland whitebread protagonists. Asimov’s novels remain a mixed bag, like his short stories. Foundation trilogy is very good but the science has not aged well — there is no sign that the social sciences will ever enjoy the predictive statistical quantification Ludwig Boltzmann conferred on chemistry with statistical mechanics. Stories like The Bicentennial Man and The Last Question and The Ugly Little Boy are brilliant and deeply affecting and humane, but all too much of Asimov’s fiction boils down to rote puzzlebox murder mysteries and how-do-we-fix-this-problem? techno SF.

Others of us never adhered to the belief that Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke were a “Big Three,” preferring instead Alfred Bester, Samuel R. Delaney and Iain Banks as an alternative Big Three.

People who deeply dislike the standard spaceship/raygun/killer computer science fiction tropes might find The Difference Engine enticing. Alice Sheldon’s (AKA James Tiptree Jr.’s) complete short stories definitely should also be in there, as they subvert the standard science fiction tropes so effectively.

All Singularity novels should be avoided, IMHO, since they tend to degenerate into deux ex machina endings. If the godlike transhuman/computer is truly godlike, then no matter what the protagonist does, the transhuman/computer has foreseen and accounted for it, so the plots always dead-end in “it was all part of the plan” cliches (almost as bad as the “it was all a dream/a simulation” cliche). The Singularity has served the same effect for science fiction narrative as diarrhea in a punchbowl, and fortunately post-Vinge writers are moving away from it because of the paucity of narrative possibilities.

Some claim that Ellison is dated, but I don’t see it. How can a story like “Croatoan” or “The Beast That Shouted Love At the Heart of the World” or “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” or “One Life, Furnished In Early Poverty” get dated?
If you want an example of really dated sci fi, check out Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror For Observers or The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress or World of Ptavvs. We’re supposed to believe A) there are intelligent Martians; B) Earth would ship criminals to the moon instead of shooting ’em in the head and dumping ’em into a mass grave: C) we’re going to have fusion-powered spaceships able to travel to Neptune in a short timespan without the crew getting brainfried by galactic cosmic rays.

A.E. Van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle is also worth a shout-out. Along with some of the more overtly freudian short stories of Damon Knight, like “Stranger Station” and “Masks” and “The Country of the Kind.” Some of these have the impact of Kafka’s short fiction. Also Robert Silverberg’s remarkable post-1970s short stories deserve mention: they’re more like Borgesian parables than science fiction — “Passengers,” “To See the Invisible Man,” “Nightwings,” and “Born With the Dead.”

61

Thomas Beale 10.18.16 at 3:37 am

Surprised to see no mention of Brave New World or We (Zamyatin), in response to the quest of the OP. In fact, why not Cloud Atlas …?

62

JakeB 10.18.16 at 3:44 am

@JimV at 58: Well, yes, but Ursula LeGuin said (I paraphrase from memory, from somewhere in Languages of the Night, I believe): “That may be so, but 90% of Dostoyevsky isn’t crap . . . the standard for art isn’t the average, but the very best.”

Also, a big Amen! to the Strugatskys. Roadside Picnic, Hard to Be a God, and Far Rainbow are all literature, unless you want to say Conrad and Kawabata and Richard Powers aren’t really literature either.

63

SC 10.18.16 at 3:51 am

It might just be my experience (because I’ve been a tiny bit involved in publishing some of her work) but a surprising number of people I meet who “don’t read science fiction” follow that phrase with ” . . . but I like Octavia Butler.” For example, I met with a group of 12 literate college freshmen recently and _four_ of them said “I don’t read that stuff but I like Octavia Butler.” I can’t think of any other writer who who lands in that spot as frequently as Butler does.

64

faustusnotes 10.18.16 at 3:53 am

J-D I think that Nick is trying to say LeGuin should smile more. Like every woman in every street.

I’m intrigued as to why Banks gets recommended for Use of Weapons rather than the first of the post-scarcity stories, Consider Phlebas? In my opinion it’s also the tightest in the series; if you want “spaceships!” then surely Excession should be your gig, though it’s probably the hardest to get into. My preference would be for Against a Dark Background, which I feel is a more coherent and contained story.

I agree China Mieville’s The Scar isn’t sci fi. Maybe the story about the squid worshippers? But like most of his novels it falls apart near the end – the only story he hangs onto right to the end is Perdido Street Station.

65

Landru 10.18.16 at 3:57 am

I would absolutely recommend the novelette/long short story “With Folded Hands” by Jack Williamson. Even though the SF tropes are somewhat dated — it’s from 1947 — the theme is timeless and affecting. It’s finely polished and the perfect length for what it does, but resist the temptation to indulge the book-length “Humanoids” sequels.

66

Nick 10.18.16 at 4:33 am

Uh, no, I wasn’t saying LeGuin should smile more, and I don’t tell that to women in the street either. I think humour is an important element of fiction, and I’ve always found LeGuin’s to be in a serious register — especially works like The Word for World is Forest.

Whoever mentioned Far Rainbow above, Excelsior! The world needs more notice taken of amazing Soviet sci fi. In my opinion Cloud Atlas is mysticism and not sci fi, though it borrows sci fi genre tropes.

The one book that I cannot abide is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. A real critical reading of this should dispel forever the idea that Heinlein is a serious political thinker. His revolution begins with the incipient organization stage, where the Wise Man who Knows What’s Going On Appears — there is a profoundly embarrassing bit of stuff in the middle where the Revolutionary Chicks do their bit by strutting their stuff in front of the Soldiers of the State and other High Jinks for Boys; and then suddenly he jumps forward to the stage where Everything Is Under Control because the rebels have the Cheat Codes. The only advantage this has over late-stage Heinlein is that the Wise Man who Knows What’s Going On doesn’t bone the Hot Babe Who Is Also His Relative and Loves Him For His Mind (I think, it’s been many years).

67

J-D 10.18.16 at 4:58 am

It surprised me, when I thought about it, to realise that there are elements of humour in The Word For World Is Forest, but so it is. Here are two specific quotes I could find online:
‘The most winning characteristic of the rather harsh Cetian temperament was curiosity, inopportune, and inexhaustible curiosity; Cetians died eagerly, curious as to what came next.’
‘“You have not thought things through,” he said. By his standards it was a brutal insult.’
More generally, the whole portrayal of the grotesque lack of self-awareness of Captain Don Davidson is shot through with a vein of grim humour.

68

Michael 10.18.16 at 5:00 am

Much science fiction suffers from the “how to end the novel?” problem. That is why the genre often does much better in the short story and novella format. So most readers should be aware of that, and evaluate novels by the pleasure of the beginnings, and not the trudging of the final third.

May I propose as yet unmentioned authors:
Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, and also, Nekropolis
Geoff Ryman’s Air
Ted Chiang’s numerous short stories

69

Evan 10.18.16 at 5:38 am

Classic tale of boy-warrior ‘Chosen One’ trope. Avoid the sequels.

Avoid the sequels after Speaker for the Dead, but that one’s very, very good. Best book of the series in my opinion. I just wish he’d stopped there.

70

Hidari 10.18.16 at 5:56 am

Is no one mentioning J.G. Ballard because he is ‘too obvious’ or because he is ‘not really SF’ or for some other reason?

The Drowned World is worth reading if for no other reason than that of all of the 20th century dystopian scenarios the one detailed in that work is the most likely to come true.

For a more off-beat choice: Barry Malzberg: Beyond Apollo (and his ’70s work more generally) now shamefully neglected despite being highly popular at the time.

Star Maker by Stapledon is more, ahem, ‘cosmic’ than Last and First Men and less dated.

71

Christophager 10.18.16 at 5:59 am

I’ve always found Kurt Vonnegut – particularly “Cat’s Cradle” and “Galapagos” – to be a pretty good recommendation for people who haven’t read much SF.

72

J-D 10.18.16 at 6:02 am

A comparison of the original short story version of ‘Ender’s Game’ (available online) with the later novel version is instructive.

73

Hidari 10.18.16 at 6:16 am

The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad is the definitive satire of the dreadful politics of so much American SF.

74

Neville Morley 10.18.16 at 7:07 am

@Hidari #70: I’m a massive Ballard fan, but I’ve been commenting here on the assumption that we’re not constructing a list of the SF canon or of the works we think are greatest, but of books/stories that might draw in people who don’t have any prior knowledge of the genre, or who may indeed be actively prejudiced against it. My experience is that Ballard can be off-putting even to some hardcore SF readers; definitely not for everyone.

75

John M. Burt 10.18.16 at 8:26 am

With very little dithering, I compiled this menu of aperitifs, none longer than a novelette:

1) “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin
2) “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov
3) “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury
4) “A Pail of Air” by Fritz Leiber
5) “Kaleidoscope” by Ray Bradbury
6) “Usher II” by Ray Bradbury
7 “Flowers for Algernon” by Damiel Keyes
8) “Marooned Off Vesta” by Isaac Asimov

76

dave heasman 10.18.16 at 9:44 am

A bit harsh on Spinrad up there. I thought his parodies in “Keep the Giraffe Flying” were prety good – “Broot Force” by Iclick AsIMove etc. And his story the title of which I forget about the rock group The Four Horsemen and the way they stir up the end of the world seems to still have traction. Ah here it is –

Norman Spinrad’s ‘The Big Flash’ (1969) has a countdown sequence to describe the rise of the new Californian pop group, the Four Horsemen.

77

Placeholder 10.18.16 at 9:51 am

@73, 74 It all depends on how you take it for it what it says it is: If Hitler did the mitteleurop thing and immigrated to America and applied his artistic talents to American comic books. If anything I find it credibly grafts its intention to an entirely familiar form and becomes uncomfortable insofar as one ‘gets the point’. It stands up compared to ‘that Star Trek episode’ which does the now rarely heard ‘they made the trains run on time’ thing you haven’t heard since Wehrmacht fandom became inadmissible. Wikipedia claims it was banned in the BRD because it was taken for granted it was crypto-fascist propaganda – as high an accolade as the work could expect! In fact its suggestion the military uniforms will take off at cosplay conventions in a Ron Jones -style ‘Wave’ seems more prescient than I took it for – few of us I think had heard of cosplay back when we read it as many as 40 years ago! Looking back on it made me appreciate it in a way that remembering it as ‘that one where the guy is Hitler’ did it a disservice.

78

deliasmith 10.18.16 at 10:07 am

Such a lot of showing off. It takes 46 posts before a mention of Asimov and Clarke, who have hooked more people to SF than the rest of the authors combined.
A “List of Science Fiction for People Who Don’t Read SF” surely has to start with stuff that demonstrates the difference between SF and the stuff that people are used to. So, Arthur C. Clarke, who understands and can imagine the potential of his age’s technology – Rendezvous with Rama; anything short by Asimov – Nightfall; and scientists’ arousing power dreams, what those other men and women are fantasizing about – The Black Cloud.
As fine a collection of cardboard and white bread as you could wish for. And grand imagination.

79

dave heasman 10.18.16 at 10:31 am

“Asimov and Clarke, who have hooked more people to SF than the rest of the authors combined”

not sure about this; I did mention Heinlein’s juveniles, which I know hooked lots of my contemporaries.
For introducing, rather than hooking, people to SF I guess Alan Dean Foster’s novelizations should get a mention.

80

Lee A. Arnold 10.18.16 at 10:55 am

I nervously snuck back stage to meet Asimov after a night lecture he gave at the old Glassboro State College in 1970.

He autographed the last page of my favorite short story of his, “It’s Such A Beautiful Day”. That’s a good place to start reading. (I have since lost that copy of the book.)

I think the “Golden Age” (say, mid-1940’s to mid-1960’s) could be set apart as a certain age in modernism when speculative fiction was not all dystopian.

I devoured the anthology Dangerous Visions when it was published in ’67 and that immediately changed everything for me. It felt like the stories were various apotheoses of al of SF’s inherent possibilities: topically, formally, stylistically. So I loved that book — and almost immediately stopped reading SF.

Never read any SF again, except for Neuromancer (too romantic for me) and the great James Tiptree Jr. (pseudonym for Alice Bradley Sheldon) who was some kind of genius. She combined the deep sensibility of Grace Paley with an astonishing writing style. Polished jewels.

81

casmilus 10.18.16 at 11:01 am

David Lindsay – “A Voyage To Arcturus”, “The Haunted Woman”, “Sphinx”, “Devil’s Tor”.

Katharine Burdekin – “Proud Man”, “The End Of This Days Business”, “Swastika Night”.

Yevgeny Zamyatin – “We”

Daniel Keyes – “Flowers For Algernon”

Alfred Bester – “The Demolished Man”

Kurt Vonnegut – “Player Piano”, “The Sirens Of Titan”.

Anything by Philip K.Dick

Anything by Robert Sheckley

82

casmilus 10.18.16 at 11:03 am

Anything by John Sladek, Thomas Disch.

“Inverted World”, “A Dream Of Wessex” and “The Quiet Woman” by Christopher Priest.

83

casmilus 10.18.16 at 11:08 am

For “hard” SF, try “Dragon’s Egg” by Robert Forward.

For Eastern Bloc SF, try “Roadside Picnic” by the Strugatsky brothers (source of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”).

84

casmilus 10.18.16 at 11:10 am

Philosophers may be interested in that short book Quentin Meillasoux wrote that comments on a short story by Asimov.

85

casmilus 10.18.16 at 11:12 am

John Wyndham was better than Ballard. There, I said it.

86

chris y 10.18.16 at 11:32 am

Anything by Delany, and yes, Russ: Adventures of Alyx, as suggested above. Also, Tom Disch: Camp Concentration or 334.

What about Anne Leckie: Imperial Radch trilogy? Is Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities series SF? Honestly, I don’t care much whether it technically is or isn’t. Speculative Fiction is more than Science Fiction.

87

Layman 10.18.16 at 12:00 pm

Matt: “I kind of want to suggest Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar; it’s my favorite of his and although it’s not the future that we ended up with, it feels like a road not taken more than a road that never-could-have-been-taken (as much of future-speculative SF is). I don’t know how much a new reader of the genre is going to appreciate the world-building though.”

I second Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. My battered copy is still in my bookshelf, and somehow it’s found its way onto my e-book shelf. I’ve re-read it a number of times, most recently last year, when it suddenly felt far more prescient to me than it has for some time. I mean: Corporatism taken to the extreme of corporations colonizing countries, check; the U.S. in a permanent state of war, check; domestic terrorism leading to a permanent security / police state, check; interactive media allowing the masses to imagine themselves as reality TV stars, check.

Maybe that’s not our world, but if it isn’t, then as Bennie Noakes might say, Christ what an imagination I’ve got.

88

Layman 10.18.16 at 12:11 pm

Also, too, I’m surprised that the mentions of Gibson are so dated. For me, breathtaking as Neuromancer et al were back in the day, his recent work is far more interesting and feels more prophetic. The Pattern Recognition / Spook Country / Zero History trilogy perfectly captures what seems the likely trajectory and end-game for the financialization of the culture. And The Peripheral should resonate for a lot of people here, given its grounding in the idea that the wealthy largely don’t care about saving the world, because it is the wealthy who are immune to – might in fact thrive on – the consequences of failing to save it.

89

Faustusnotes 10.18.16 at 12:11 pm

I hate Wyndham, Asimov and Clarke. Wyndham writes stories about a patronizing middle aged academic man teaching a naive younger woman how the world is. Clarke is just a bad writer. Asimov’s foundation series is a betrayal of all the liberating potential of sci fi- a vast and sterile universe of nothing, being toured by boring idiots.

(Disclaimer: I read those “classics” a very long time ago)

90

Faustusnotes 10.18.16 at 12:13 pm

I’d like to add a mention for Stephen baxters flood. Poorly written but really cool- I based an excellent short rpg campaign in his world and it was very special. But probably special in the way zombie apocalypses are special – a very particular taste is required.

91

Paul Graham Raven 10.18.16 at 12:22 pm

“… the only person I would say has aged worse is Norman Spinrad.” See also Larry Niven; the Suck Fairy and the Overton Window are closely related phenomena.

92

Andrew Brown 10.18.16 at 1:27 pm

For what it’s worth. “Roadside Picnic” was in the original list and somehow fell off when editing. I think it’s wonderful. I would also second all the recommendations for short stories in 75 — I chose only ones I could easily find for free online, but obviously there are a great many which are tremendously worth reading.

The Peripheral I like and admire a great deal, but it took me at least half the book to figure out what was going on. I may like “Idoru” more than anyone else in the world, but so what? It contains the paragraph of Gibson I read out to persuade strangers what a marvellous writer he is:

“Anything that might be of interest to Slitscan. Which is to say, Laney, anything that might be of interest to Slitscan’s audience. Which is best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed. Personally I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth, Laney, no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presidential elections.”

The omission of Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov is entirely deliberate. I doubt they would convert anyone over the age of fourteen, even if some of the short stories are better or at least cleverer than that would suggest. And the purpose of this list is conversion.

Bester, Delaney, both perhaps a little strong for the first taste. But why then Riddley Walker?

93

Theophylact 10.18.16 at 1:36 pm

I wouldn’t nominate Orwell/Huxley/Zamiatin simply because they’re already part of the canon, and people don’t think of them as genre.

Layman’s missing a point about the Pattern Recognition/Spook Country/Zero History trilogy. They’re specifically not science fiction. Not only are they set in the present, they contain no technology that doesn’t exist right now. As Gibson has said, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” I’ve read a lot of murder mysteries and spy thrillers that have make-believe science in them, and these three don’t.

94

MFB 10.18.16 at 1:39 pm

Thing about science fiction, it has to reel you in. When I was small I loved Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein. Then I grew up and started to read the serious stuff, which I wouldn’t have paid much attention to if it hadn’t been for them. My parents (both old lefties from way back) turned me on to Aldiss, whose Billion Year Spree gave me my science fiction reading list in my teens and early twenties. Eventually I started making my own judgements.

I wonder, too, whether the sheer puerility of so much pop-culture science fiction is a problem; it’s hard for people to realise that there are people like McLeod and Robinson and Mieville and even Gibson and Sterling in the world, when all you’re normally exposed to is the science-fictional equivalent of thin porridge with skim-milk and artificial bananas.

95

Theophylact 10.18.16 at 1:55 pm

Dave Heasman: “Broot Force” by Iclick AsIMove is really funny, but it’s by the sadly neglected John Sladek.

96

jake the antisoshul soshulist 10.18.16 at 2:07 pm

The biggest problem I find with Spinrad is the change in tone from the beginning to the end. I sometimes wonder if he gets depressed as he reaches the end of the book.
Or that the change in tone is intentional.
I can certainly recommend The Iron Dream.
Only a brief mention of Thomas Disch, Camp Concentration should be canon.
Of course, Disch’s immortality is in The Brave Little Toaster.
The Day The Icicle Works Closed is another brilliant Fred Pohl story.

97

Ferret Bueller 10.18.16 at 2:32 pm

“A bit harsh on Spinrad up there. I thought his parodies in “Keep the Giraffe Flying” were prety good – “Broot Force” by Iclick AsIMove etc.”

Actually, that’s by John Sladek, and I know it from his collection The Steam-Driven Boy, not Keep the Giraffe Burning.

98

Dave Maier 10.18.16 at 3:07 pm

Thanks everybody, I’m taking notes. Just a few comments.

1. You’re all spelling “Ken MacLeod” wrong. Ken McLeod, Amazon tells me, writes about Buddhism and whatnot.
2. Thumbs up on Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles was my favorite book as a teen), Little, Big (although not SF), and Speaker for the Dead.
3. I really liked the first Radch book (Ancillary Justice), but the others were a letdown.
4. I reread the Foundation trilogy a few years ago and found it almost unreadably bad.
5. I understand the gripes about the Mars trilogy but I really liked it. Not for beginners though, certainly, or you won’t put up with its faults.

99

Rich Puchalsky 10.18.16 at 3:44 pm

“Thing about science fiction, it has to reel you in.”

I was assuming that the purpose of this list was to reel in people who read literature but not SF. They will read maybe a page of Asimov, Clarke, or Heinlein and go away, not because of political disgust (that may or may not come later) but because of shoddy writing.

People criticize e.g. PKD for shoddy writing, but it’s shoddy writing in the same sense as Ginsberg wrote “Howl”. It’s a recognized American aesthetic that the author did a lot to help create. The SF aesthetic of Golden Age SF is now a visual aesthetic, visible in Star Wars and every succeeding movie, and has nothing particularly connecting it with written work any longer. Pulp SF may be different, but now we’re getting into stuff that’s useless for this thread.

I did my best in my original recs to list people with very characteristic writing styles who are also recognized SF greats. (Or, OK, fantasy, but largely “SF” is now “anything shelved in the SF section of a bookstore”.)

100

mds 10.18.16 at 3:49 pm

Andrew Brown @ 91:

The Peripheral I like and admire a great deal, but it took me at least half the book to figure out what was going on.

Is that necessarily a mark against it for a non-SF reader, though? If you’re telling them they should read it to get into SF, they’re presumably going to expect something of a learning curve. I’d also suggest that the comparative success of television programs like Mr. Robot and, to a lesser extent, Lost, shows that people are willing to invest effort into “What the heck is going on?”

I think it’s less “literary” than Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy, or much of the SF being recommended here, but that’s also probably not a downcheck either. A stylistically easier read as a gateway to the hard stuff, as it were.

I’d also second Against a Dark Background as Banks demonstrating his skills without having to kick against his post-scarcity utopia run by superbeings.

101

dave heasman 10.18.16 at 3:53 pm

“it’s by the sadly neglected John Sladek.” Damn. Serves me right for trusting memory. Thanks.

102

mds 10.18.16 at 3:59 pm

I was assuming that the purpose of this list was to reel in people who read literature but not SF.

In which case, wouldn’t Embassytown or The City and the City** be better Miéville picks than The Scar? The former play more with ideas from the literary fiction wheelhouse, in my opinion. The Scar had a richness of setting, but I started feeling as if I were slogging through it to get to the ending. Your kilometrage may vary, of course.

**I suppose this might not be genuine SF either, but it seems too Borgesian for it to be excluded.

103

AcademicLurker 10.18.16 at 4:20 pm

I tend to favor Count Zero for the “if you only include one thing by Gibson” title. On the other hand, maybe it’s too far out for someone who hasn’t read any SF.

I agree with others about Clarke, Heinlein, and Azimov. They’re very important in the history of the genre, but they fall pretty squarely into the “best discovered as a teenager” category.

104

Rich Puchalsky 10.18.16 at 4:43 pm

The Scar: female protagonist, no refrigerator. Embassytown too, but that doesn’t succeed as well for boring reasons beyond this thread.

105

nnyhav 10.18.16 at 4:46 pm

visavis Trek, to put in perspective, The United Federation of “hold my beer, I got this” (via FTAV)

106

Theophylact 10.18.16 at 4:56 pm

Who first said “The Golden Age of SF is thirteen”?

107

Evagrius 10.18.16 at 5:58 pm

No Cordwainer Smith?

108

clew 10.18.16 at 6:44 pm

Slightly out of left field, Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder graphic novels. SFnal in the Vanceian post-disaster magical-technology way, modern enough to appeal to the imaginary person under 30, different stories with very different valences. Open sexuality, less violence.

I’d try the Cherryh’s Chanur books for someone who had at least seen some Star Trek or Star Wars and didn’t mind an adventure novel. I think the biology and anthropology come in very naturally to the adventure, or vice versa. (Also, I think the prose is relatively manageable, though I like almost all of Cherryh so am no judge.)

(Cordwainer Smith’s The Ballad of Lost C’Mell and Norstrilia fill in a Rule of Three, too.)

109

Tracy Lightcap 10.18.16 at 7:27 pm

I was glad to see recs for Cordwainer Smith @60 and @105, but I would have chosen “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” as the representative work by him. Smith, who was the political scientist and old China hand Paul Linebarger in “real life”, is preeminent among SF writers in creating a truly unfamiliar future; you can get completely disoriented by his work faster then any other SF writer. He should also be mentioned as the first modern author to lay out a future ruled by Plato’s philosopher-kings (the Lords of the Instrumentality).

I’m also a little put off by the anti-Heilein strain here. Ok, some of his work hasn’t aged well. However, he did write two true masterpieces: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land. For those alone he should be ranked among the best SF writers of his day.

110

stevenjohnson 10.18.16 at 7:32 pm

If we really want to get all serious, I suppose a reading of Cawelti on genre and Fredric Jameson Structural Fabulations is required. Also required I think, because on a technical level, historical fiction and science fiction are the same thing, Lukacs’ The Historical Novel.

In the end the task is hopeless. First, rejection of the fantastic is a visceral thing. Some people just get offended at being asked to invest in what they perceive as silly. Second, prescriptive notions about fiction only legitimately being about “character” instead of what people do (or might do) in a given situation that somehow relates to our lives;l about the “human condition” as if that doesn’t change; about a string of words beautifully made like a pearl necklace instead of words about the world…Well, choosing the wrong alternatives invariably enrages the literati.

One idle note: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is first of all a narrator with different sexual mores, still something of interest. As to the writing? Heinlein ripped off Jack London’s chapter The Chicago Commune, in The Iron Heel. Enough said there I think, for and against.

111

The Temporary Name 10.18.16 at 7:55 pm

Humility demands recommendations of anthologies: Science Fiction Hall of Fame (4 vols) for an intro to the history

I still have my old paperbacks of those on the shelves. Are they about 35 years old now? Indispensable to see what was built and what should be rebelled against.

112

Rich Puchalsky 10.18.16 at 9:16 pm

I have no idea whether the brave new proposed CT comments policy will get me for thread drift, but the critical ideas about SF in this thread seem to be largely ones that I’d recognize from the 1980s. What I think people should recognize is that if people really are supposed to get “science fictional references as a guide to the future”, they don’t have to read anything and probably shouldn’t: they should match movies and TV shows. SF went through a transition to visual arts — read Adam Roberts about this, I’d say — and the written works, while still being produced, are now a kind of cultural appendix. If people are going to be making SF references they are probably going to be to Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr. Who, The Matrix, various anime, Terminator, Aliens, Mad Max, Planet of the Apes, Wall-E, etc.

Look, for instance, at the publication dates of all of these recommended titles. Of the living authors, how many are SF and not New Weird or whatever (Steph Swanston would be who else I’d recommend in that case), and how many of the “SF” stories aren’t really pleasant reworkings of previous genres?

113

Rich Puchalsky 10.18.16 at 9:17 pm

Should be “*watch* movies and TV shows” above. Not match them together, or something.

114

otpup 10.18.16 at 10:05 pm

Disch has serious literary chops (he was the Nation’s theater critic at one point too). Banks could fill many of the role’s on the list (especially liked Consider Phlebas and Excision). Lem is a sci-fi continent unto himself.
PKD’s Valis is a truly mind-bending book, is it a novel posing as a psychotic memoir or the other way around? Some wonderful grief-soaked levity amidst the grief.

115

Raven Onthill 10.18.16 at 10:48 pm

Remarkably few works published past 2000CE. I think we’re a bunch of old fogies!

116

The Temporary Name 10.18.16 at 11:03 pm

Note this mail drop in Delaware (where shady organizations incorporate to do bad things): https://valisinternational.com/

117

ezra 10.18.16 at 11:09 pm

something good here that Samuel Delaney gets like 5 or 6 mentions

witches of Karres
cities in flight/blish

and for shear verve, the ace double
No blade of grass
The sheep look up

118

Kiwanda 10.18.16 at 11:14 pm

An appealing feature of science fiction, that it had much more in the past than today, was that it represented some plausible idea of what the future would be like. The technological changes during the twentieth century up until about the 60’s were spectacular, from horse-and-buggy to jet air travel and rockets to outer space; from gramophones to television; from mechanical devices to Electronic Brains. This gave some sense that a continued trajectory of development might occur, from rockets reaching outer space to rockets reaching the stars; from television to holographic displays; from Electronic Brains to autonomous robots.

Given this trajectory, it would make sense to see the colonization of the moon (which would somehow make economic sense), then Venus (didn’t know how hot it was), then Alpha Centauri (surely we’ll get around to breaking the speed-of-light barrier), then the galaxy. This seemed like a natural extrapolation from existing trends. Along the way, we’d meet aliens who would be similar to us in many ways, and different from us in fascinating ways, and with whom, regardless of those differences, there would be mutual interest in interaction.

Most of this extrapolation didn’t pan out, and with the possible exception of the autonomous robots, probably won’t: there’s hardly any reason to colonize the moon, much less go to Mars, much less go to even to the closest other star. There’s not a hint of aliens in sight, and maybe the time window of common interest is so brief that there never will be. And if we extrapolate the sole remaining trend that is clinging to life, of computer development, we get the Singularity, after which all bets are off, and all is unknown.

So the particularly exciting aspect of SF as it was, a peek into a possible future, is pretty much broken, and we are left with a kind of mythological detritus of our old dreams, in the form of video games, and movie tropes and franchises, and for a few people, books. The SF themes form a nice complement to superheros and vampires, but that’s about it.

119

PatinIowa 10.18.16 at 11:53 pm

I’ve got to stop, because I really have to grade papers before all the stuff I put on hold in the library arrives. (And, holy shit, Special Collections seems to have a trove of 50s/60s Aces.) Thanks everybody. Among other things, you just made choosing texts for my “Women Writing SF” class next semester lots harder.

Anyway, it’s easy to miss that The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian futurism, which I include in SF. I get into arguments with people who suggest that literary fiction is better for us than “genre” fiction, because apparently you get promoted out of genre fiction if you’re really good.

I haven’t read the thread as carefully as I’d like, but are there Asian and Africans writing in the genre who might be included? Perhaps as dessert?

120

Billikin 10.19.16 at 4:46 am

Good old William Tenn: “Suck air, suck air!”

And don’t forget the short short gem by Lion Miller, “The Available Data on the Worp Reaction”. Whee!

121

JakeB 10.19.16 at 4:53 am

Pat@113: Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin. Ninefox Gambit, by Korean-American Yoon Ha Lee, is a hell of a lot of fun.

122

JakeB 10.19.16 at 4:58 am

Pat, again–

How embarrassing, those authors are both men. All I saw was the “Asian”! You can use me as an exemplar of unconscious sexism if you want.

123

Ragweed 10.19.16 at 5:35 am

If you are looking at women in Sci-fi, don’t forget Kate Wilhelm. Some of her work in the 70’s is quite classic, and I would think accessible.

I would also second Nicola Griffith, both for Slow River, which is both great for its LGBT theme (well, Lesbian mainly) as well as for a very thoughtful look at bio-technology and the corporate issues around it. But also Ammonite, which is a very convincing and complex look at the “what if there were a world with no men.” Her world peopled only with women has a full range of human experience, from the savage to the sublime.

124

floopmeister 10.19.16 at 5:55 am

Her world peopled only with women has a full range of human experience, from the savage to the sublime.

Including, presumably (and most refreshingly) no chance of a Donald Trump ever becoming US President.

125

Joseph Brenner 10.19.16 at 6:16 am

mcclaren does an excellent job of listing some of the things I would pick, but goes off the rails with Heilein hatred. The true test of literature is not “does it espouse political ideals I agree with?”– e.g. “Starship Troopers” is a pretty brilliantly strange work, whose political philosophy is so unpresuasive it’s difficult to believe it was intended to be, though evidently it was.

And on the other side of the fence, I would give LeGuin a miss, myself… she’s not quite as shallow as Harlan Ellison, but close: I think she gets recommendations because she’s a very comfortable read for a lefty. If we’re talking 70s feminist SF, I’d go with Joanna Russ, who much like Heinlein, wrote some brilliantly strange, challenging work.

I’m having trouble focusing on the target here: the idea is we’re aiming at literati who have somehow unaccountably skipped any examples of the literature that’s dominated the world for decades? (This is feeling like an oddly quaint exercise…).

Anyway, here’s a list:

Heinlein, “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel”: a weird mix of gritty hard SF elements and deranged space opera, with only a little Heinlien Philosophy (and only one point that’s completely insane, if I remember right). This has one of Heinlein’s better female characters, albiet a pre-pubescent one.

Cordwainer Smith. “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul” (just to pick one) Prose poetry with a sense of wisdom.

Roger Zelazny, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”. A promethian manifesto.

Fritz Leiber, “Coming Attaction”: about a society which seems to be beating itself up in guilt after what we would now call a limited nuclear exchange. And odd 1950s vibe to the scene, but dated-SF has charms of it’s own.

Poul Anderson, “Ghetto”: about a sub-culture with a front-row view of the grand sweep of human history via time dilation (interstellar travel at relativistic speeds).

Larry Niven, “Safe at *Any* Speed”. Once all the technical fixes are in, what challenges remain?

James Blish, “Quincunx of Time”. Another story where nothing much happens because nothing really can happen, and this fact induces a strange existential fear that something might.

Some seconds and alternates:

Kenneth MacLeod, “Cassini Division”;
Samuel R. Delany, “Babel-17”;
Arthur C. Clarke, “Rendezvous with Rama”
Bruce Sterling, “Holy Fire”;

If I had to pick one single volume (and realistically, you’d need to– if the first one doesn’t win them over they’re not really going to keep going with the rest of the program), I’d go with that last one: Sterling, “Holy Fire”. Hard to see how it can miss.

126

Ragweed 10.19.16 at 6:33 am

Part of the challenge in putting together any list of works to introduce the non-SF reader to high-quality SF is that it really depends on what they have been reading, what kind of literature they normally find meaningful. I would, for example, be hesitant to suggest _The Female Man_ or _Always Coming Home_ to someone who was not already familiar with modernist a-narrative writing that rambles along through multiple storylines, not all of which are connected. If someone had a taste for dark humor, start with Vonnegut, Tiptree, and especially Eileen Gunn. The avenue into SF really depends on where they’re coming from.

127

Ragweed 10.19.16 at 6:39 am

“Including, presumably (and most refreshingly) no chance of a Donald Trump ever becoming US President.”

No, but there is a charismatic, and brutal, tribal dictator type. Griffith, much like Atwood’s Robber Bride, was really trying to explore a world where women had the full range of human expression, including some pretty brutal/evil ones. This is no “and they all worked it out and created and egalitarian society because, estrogen.”

128

Ragweed 10.19.16 at 6:52 am

@PatinIowa – not strictly African, but take a look at the Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000).

I am not as familiar with Asian/Asian American writers, but don’t forget indigenous/Native/First Nations. Walking the Clouds
An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction is a good starting place. Longer works –
Bareheart, by Vizenor, flight by Sherman Alexie (though it is young adult), and several works by Stephan Graham Jones. (there is more native writing in the fantasy/magic realist areas).

129

Manta 10.19.16 at 9:17 am

Echoing: no Lem, PKD, Bradbury?
What about the classical dystopias: Burgess (A clockwork orange), Huxley (Brave New World), Orwell (1984)?

130

Faustusnotes 10.19.16 at 10:50 am

A few years ago I played a world of darkness campaign set in a hellish near future being manipulated by a supernatural force of implacable evil. In that hellscape, McCain was president.

We were young then, and naive.

131

Ken Mann 10.19.16 at 11:29 am

Classic: Way Station by Clifford Simak
Contemporary: Zendegi by Greg Egan

SF seems to be having a bit of a renaissance at the moment. As a regular in specialist bookshops I find them filling up with volumes by authors I’ve never heard of. This is a good thing, but a lot harder than when I started and you just went to a library and looked for the Gollancz yellow cover.

132

Christophager 10.19.16 at 1:11 pm

Ragweed at #120 has an excellent point, in that the books recommended should be fit properly to the literary taste of the victim potential SF reader – though I love books like “Dune” and “Lord of Light” I wouldn’t really foist them on the unsuspecting friend, colleague or father-in-law. So, in this spirit of matching the palette of the reader to the acquired taste of SF, I offer the following no-doubt incomplete list:

For readers of thrillers and action novels: The Forever War or Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

For readers of satire and/or modern comic novels: Cat’s Cradle or anything by Vonnegut actually, and maybe Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

For readers who have or ever once had a political bent: anything by Ursula K. LeGuin

For readers of Mystery/Noir: The last policeman by Ben Winters, or (just possibly, though it’s totally dated The Caves of Steel by Asimov

For readers of historical romance and/or adventure fiction: Shards of Honour by Lois McMaster Bujold

For readers of James Joyce: Ridley Walker for whom the whole invented language thing will be a breeze

For readers of middle-ages-based historical fiction: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller

For readers of middle-ages-based historical adventure fiction: Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverburg

No doubt I’ve missed a genre or three. There are for example a lot of Dan Brown readers out there, but I’ve never known why they read what they read, so I’m ill-suited to comment.

133

Rich Puchalsky 10.19.16 at 1:26 pm

For anyone who likes the Hornblower or Aubrey/Maturin English novels, the Naomi Novik Temeraire books, etc. That *is* SF — there is nothing supernatural about the dragons in the Novik books: the whole thing is an alternate history in which intelligent reptiles called “dragons” lived along with humans in all of the places in the world and the varying accommodations that they came to, all of which somehow pretty much added up to familiar Victoriana except with dragons — and there is nothing unusual about the essentially derivative and unthought repetitions of previous genres which were present in all SF even the supposedly classic stuff from Asimov rewriting the fall of the Roman Empire to Heinlein rewriting every boy’s adventure story etc.

SF is not about predicting the future and never was. SF is basically a mechanism through which previous genres can be redone and made “new”. As such, what matters is how well it is done.

134

Nickp 10.19.16 at 1:47 pm

I want to recommend some of Karl Schroeder’s wonderful books, but I’m not sure how accessiblie his books would be to someone not familiar with the conventions of the genre:

Permanence My favorite. What happens when corporate licensing and copyright get out of control?
Lady of Mazes
Ventus His first novel
Sun of Suns

Here’s Jo Walton’s review of Lady of Mazes http://www.tor.com/2008/08/14/happiness-meaning-and-significance-karl-schroedera8217s-lady-of-mazes/

135

Rich Puchalsky 10.19.16 at 1:54 pm

I don’t want to get to work, so I’ll explain more about why I chose some of my recommendations earlier:

_Solaris_, Stanislaw Lem

Most readers will never experience what it’s like to think like an actual scientist, not even a little. Lem’s essential chilliness means that he can do this without quite turning the scientist into the usual romantic hero. The best part of the book is where the protagonist is reviewing the peer-reviewed literature on various experiments and theories about the planet: the book ends, of course, with nothing definitive having been learned.

_Martian Time-Slip_, PKD

Why not the better-known PKD books? Because this one is about disability and aging. The anxiety about how one’s children will do and the horror at what we perceive is in store for each of us make the book particularly contemporary for middle-class American readers.

_Gormenghast_, Mervyn Peake

Gormenghast isn’t some imitation of 20th century and prior British class: it’s about society in which rituals have fully replaced reason as guides, in other words: it’s about our own.

_The Scar_, China Mieville

China Mieville’s first book had a classic “woman in refrigerator” moment, his second doesn’t. Embassytown features aliens with nonhuman subjectivity who in the course of the book are “freed” to have pretty much exactly our kind of subjectivity. As such it’s kind of 1950s SF in spirit.

136

GeoX 10.19.16 at 2:44 pm

Are the Gormenghast novels meant to qualify as as science fiction solely because Titus Alone takes place in a vaguely-defined post-apocalyptic world? Even though Peake obviously has zero interest in “science” as such? This seems insanely broad to me. I mean, I don’t really care about these semantics, and the novels are great no matter what you want to call them, but still…

Anyway, I have to put in a word for Angela Carter, whose oeuvre is kind of slippery but amazing no matter what you want to call it. Her possibly-best book, The Passion of New Eve, is also one of her most science-fictional.

137

Rich Puchalsky 10.19.16 at 3:02 pm

“Are the Gormenghast novels meant to qualify as as science fiction solely because Titus Alone takes place in a vaguely-defined post-apocalyptic world? Even though Peake obviously has zero interest in “science” as such?”

Peake actually has more interest in science than the vast majority of post-apocalyptic world writers, I think, most of whom have as their science “OK, a vast plot device happened, and now it’s Mad Max.” Steerpike is Dr. Strangelove.

138

VeRe 10.19.16 at 3:31 pm

My first introduction to science fiction was with Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Naming of Names” (which was retitled to “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed”) in an anthology I read for class in grade school. I was hooked. Some of my favorite, even now, SF short stories are written by Bradbury – “The Last Night in the World,” “The Sound of Thunder,” and “The Exiles.”

Echoing other people before me, I’ve enjoyed reading Liu’s Three Body Problem, Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life,” and Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness.

If I can throw out a few names of titles, I enjoyed reading Yamamoto’s The Stories of Ibis (think Bradbury’s Illustrated Man with an emphasis robots, might not be super new-to-SF friendly though), Okorafor’s Binti, and Butler’s Parable of the Sower. While all of these might not be the best for new SF readers, and perhaps not the author’s best work, there’s something about them that keeps me reading them over and over. Must… not… go… to… bookshelf… and… reread…

RE: Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz: I read that for a SFF class last year and I was the one of the only people in my class who enjoyed the book. Most thought it was too confusing on the first readthrough. It’s a book that definitely has value after the first readthrough, so while yes, I think it’s a good book, perhaps it’s more of an acquired taste?

139

Raven Onthill 10.19.16 at 6:48 pm

It occurs to me to ask what the intended audience’s first experience with sf is. If it’s younger people, their first sf and fantasy works are probably Hunger Games and Harry Potter. What contemporary works would we recommend to them? Leckie’s Ancillary books, but what else? Robert Jackson’s City books? James Treadwell’s Advent series? N K Jemsin? Who else?

140

stevenjohnson 10.19.16 at 6:52 pm

Possibly it’s a result of having too many hundreds of SF and hundreds of mystery novels jumbled together in my memory. But the notion that “SF” freshens genres according to the skill of the writer sounds pretty much removed from reality. I mean, do Ben Bova’s The Star Conqueror and Frank Herbert’s Dune really serve to rehabilitate the old “special boy conquers the world” genre? I didn’t even know there was such a thing! How did Asimov re-write the fall of the Roman Empire without barbarians or the Roman Catholic Church, with the fall *offstageI?!?! What genre is Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker or what’s-his-name’s Anathem? Or even, to reach back into the past, Jack London’s Star Rover (aka The Jacket?)

It does seem to perfectly describe SFF, the commercial mash up that increasingly dominates the publishing lists. It’s implied contempt for predicting the future, given that very little SF actually tried to predict (as opposed to warning about or hoping for) the future, seems more like a commitment to the eternal proposition, things will never really change because people never really change.

141

Andrew Brown 10.19.16 at 7:07 pm

Yes: that’s a good question. I was thinking of older people, on the grounds that it is almost impossible to grow up now without exposure to sff, if not to books. But the audience I had in mind was perhaps 40+, people who read a lot but would say they don’t read sf in much the same way that I don’t read detective stories (though I like realistic crime)

142

Plarry 10.19.16 at 7:34 pm

The original list is somewhat odd, I think. Is the purpose to make a list of works that are simply read by people outside the genre and that people outside the genre find acceptable? Missing Le Guin would then seem to be a major omission, as others have pointed out. Is the purpose of the list to entice readers of a literary bent that the genre offers them a lot that they might be interested in? I am not sure this list does that – I would argue the Mars trilogy is not introductory at all. I think J. M. Burt’s list @76 (with both Le Guin and Bradbury) is a finer iteration.

But that’s the way lists should be – this post is great in that it starts a list-building, iterative process, and brings up authors that I haven’t read yet. So thanks.

In that vein, I will point out that no one has yet mentioned the late Octavia Butler, and surely she belongs here. I think “Bloodchild” in Bloodchild and Other Stories is the short story to start with. For those in the theme of this post who want to start with something longer, I would recommend the Parable series, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.

143

praisegod barebones 10.19.16 at 8:26 pm

2 thoughts:

I love a lot of the books people have been mentioning (especially Riddley Walker) but I think that if I wanted to get people reading science fiction, I might go for more recent stuff rather than classics. Partly because it’s easier to be excited about things that people are excited about NOW, but also because the stuff we read when we were forming our tastes tends to have dated in ways that aren’t always obvious, but can be off-putting.

With that in mind, here are some things I’d suggest: Ann Leckie – I think the thing to bear in mind is that each book in the Ancillary trilogy is ‘doing’ a different genre; Jo Walton ‘My Real Children’ and (for topicality) Farthing/Ha’penny/Half A Crown; Dave Henderson: Europe in Autumn and Europe at Midnight; Ian Tregillis The Mechanical; Nnedi Okorafor Lagoon (ohai PatinIowa); Lauren Beukes ‘Zoo City’; Mary Doria Russell ‘The Sparrow’

I’d also suggest Jo Walton’s ‘What Makes This Book So Great’ as a useful companion for ssomeone trying to explore the genre a little further. (Also, the essay in it on why Middlemarch should really have been science fiction does a really good job of bridging the perspectives of the literary and the science fiction reader.

More older stuff: Bob Shaw ‘Other Days, Other Eyes’ does a thing which I think is characteristic of science fiction and that nothing else does in quite the same way: a set of short stories examine one particular technical change from different directions. And maybe also ‘The Peace Machine’, for people who like thrillers. (Probably dated, but never mind.)

What hooked me, when I was a teenager, was an anthology of Nebula and Hugo award winning/nominated stories that included Clarke’s ‘A Meeting With Medusa’; Russ’s ‘When it Changed’; Ellison’s ‘On the Downhill Side’; Wolfe’s ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’; Poul Anderson’s ‘Goat Song’ and maybe some others (possibly some Le Guin?). I can still remember most of those stories in considerable detail – and despite my comments about things dating, I suspect that someone who got nothing out of any of those stories is going to be a very hard sell.

(I seem to remember that ‘When It Changed’ is online somewhere. Someone might get something out of reading it followed by ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ followed by ‘Ammonite’ to get a sense of how a series of writers develop and elaborate a theme.)

144

praisegod barebones 10.19.16 at 8:30 pm

Plarry @ 142: I’m not going to read back through the whole thread, but at least one person has mentioned Butler as someone who people read even if they don’t think of themselves as science fiction readers. But for someone who hasn’t come across it before ‘Kindred’ would be a book that might get people into science fiction who weren’t otherwise that way inclined.

145

Adam Roberts 10.19.16 at 8:53 pm

#143 I hate to be the pedant, especially when your suggestions are so good, but it would be a shame is somebody missed out on reading the (really, really excellent) Europe in Autumn and Europe at Midnight because they couldn’t find ‘Dave Henderson’. Name’s Hutchinson.

146

Joseph Brenner 10.19.16 at 11:17 pm

Ragweed@120 & Christophager@132:

It’s certainly true that “The Female Man” isn’t particularly easy reading– I think I was picturing effette literary snobs that have always turned up their noses at sci-fi, in which case you’d think they ought to be able to handle a little modernist a-narrative type stuff. Reviewing Andrew Brown’s original problem statement, I gather the target audience may be a bit different from that.

Also, I can see the point of recommending things like John Brunner, whose “Shockwave Rider” got to “wikileaks” in fiction several decades ahead of the actuality.

I don’t think “Lord of Light” is quite as difficult as “The Female Man”, but it is true that the initial situation there isn’t explained terribly well for someone not experienced in decoding Science Fiction. I’ve often had the thought that if I were teaching a class in SF, I might try pairing “Lord of Light” with Larry Niven’s “A Gift From Earth”– the Niven is entertaining enough, though not as heavy, and would do a good job of introducing the basic concepts (both books are based on the idea of interstellar colonists sent out on ice– “suspended animation”– with a crew that remains conscious throughout the trip, and chooses to seize political control of the new colony).

I meant to, but completely forgot to include Asimov’s “Caves of Steel”: it may very well be dated, but I doubt that’s such a difficulty. If anything it touches on some urban design issues that are getting more relevant. Myself I think it’s Asimov’s best book: the idea of an entire culture shot-through with a phobia, that’s pretty interesting in itself. This one could be paried with “The Naked Sun”: a vision of a diffuse civilization based on telepresence.

147

F. Foundling 10.20.16 at 1:07 am

stevenjohnson @ 140

>I mean, do Ben Bova’s The Star Conqueror and Frank Herbert’s Dune really serve to rehabilitate the old “special boy conquers the world” genre? I didn’t even know there was such a thing!

Well, surely at least ‘special boy conquers stuff’ and ‘special young man conquers pretty much everything worth talking about’ are as old as can be. If modern specimens are to avoid turning into mere wish-fulfilment literature, they had better make sense and be realistic and sober, not handwaving and mystical. I’m afraid I can’t say that about Dune.

@ OP

>Helliconia Trilogy

The fictional zoology presented on the very first pages struck me as extremely implausible, as well as nasty for nastiness’ sake, and the portrayal of the fictional cultures on the first hundred pages or so seemed too black-and-white as well.

My own vulgar tastes as a relatively non-committed, softcore sci-fi reader, FWIW: Azimov’s Robot series and to some extent the Foundation series (mostly the 1950s books), a lot of more or less humorous stuff by Sheckley, Lem’s Cyberiad, the early Strugatsky brothers (Noon in the 22nd century and Hard to be a God). Some of Niven’s early stuff is fun, too. I’ve got no idea what would work as a gateway drug for others, especially since I’m not much of an addict in the first place – although I would still venture to make the extremely bold guess that KSM’s Red Mars is *not* a good candidate for one, and that’s coming from someone who sort of liked Years of Rice and Salt.

148

J-D 10.20.16 at 1:30 am

What hooked me, when I was a teenager, was an anthology of Nebula and Hugo award winning/nominated stories that included Clarke’s ‘A Meeting With Medusa’; Russ’s ‘When it Changed’; Ellison’s ‘On the Downhill Side’; Wolfe’s ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’; Poul Anderson’s ‘Goat Song’ and maybe some others (possibly some Le Guin?).

Apparently Nebula Award Stories 8, edited by Isaac Asimov, and also including Pohl’s ‘Shaffery Among The Immortals’, Rotsler’s ‘Patron Of The Arts’, Silverberg’s ‘When We Went To See The End Of The World’, and an introductory essay by the editor titled ‘So Why Aren’t We Rich?’ (but nothing by Le Guin).

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JimV 10.20.16 at 3:34 am

“what’s-his-name’s Anathem” is of course Neal Stephenson, whose “Snow Crash” has already been mentioned, and who also deserves mention for “Cryptonomicon”.

I tend to think tastes are too individual to predict what might get someone to like SFF, unless you know the person well. I stand by my statement that if you like reading fiction at all, there are SFF authors out there for you, and that the key point is not to give up because a lot of it strikes you as crap (as Dostoyevsky does to me and Ernest Hemingway).

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Raven Onthill 10.20.16 at 6:09 am

Andrew Brown@142: then I think my original suggestions, back @24 are good ones. To get people reading sf in middle age, you’re going to have to teach them how. I’d add Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great would also be useful for historical context, and has the additional advantage of mostly being available for free over at tor.com, so people can sample it for free. It occurs to me that Walton’s Among Others is also a good introduction to the field, understanding what makes it so attractive.

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Andrew Brown 10.20.16 at 6:40 am

Raven Onthill @151: I haven’t read either of your suggestions in 24 but would gladly incorporate them on the grounds that anyone who likes those two Jo Waltons can’t be wrong on matters of importance. Although What Makes This Book So Great is on one sense free, it is also one of the more expensive books I have ever read, since it sent me off on all sorts of buying sprees, some of which were very rewarding. The reason I did not put Among Others on the original list is that I don’t know how it would play for people who don’t have the memories of the books the protagonist reads. For me, that book had a tremendous retrospective charge of “You’re not alone”. I don’t know how it would work on people who had been differently lonely adolescents, or possibly (ewww) popular and well-adjusted ones.

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Andrew Brown 10.20.16 at 6:46 am

And, to people upthread who claim that Ursula leGuin has no sense of humour, I offer the definitive refutation, from The Dispossessed

It seemed to them that lately the world was full of girls. Everywhere they looked, waking or asleep, they saw girls. They had all tried copulating with girls; some of them in despair had also tried not copulating with girls. It made no difference. The girls were there.

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mclaren 10.20.16 at 9:16 am

Faustusnotes asked: “I’m intrigued as to why Banks gets recommended for Use of Weapons rather than the first of the post-scarcity stories, Consider Phlebas?”

Banks’ two best books by general acclamation remain Use Of Weapons and Player Of Games. Of those two, Use Of Weapons packs the biggest punch in terms of moral gravity and sheer depth of character. Player of Games, while excellent, takes an easy-to-defend moral stance: an alien culture based on sexism and classism, enforced with mass torture and murder, is corrupt and deserves to collapse. The moral ambiguity of Use Of Weapons, with its profound questions about what makes a person good rather than evil, and whether many years of heroism can make up for an act of unspeakable evil, offers anything but easy answers.
I don’t mean to suggest that Iain Banks’ other novels aren’t excellent — Matter and Excission seem very impressive to me. But IMHO (and in the opinion of many others) Use Of Weapons and Player Of Games belong to a class by itself in Banks’ work.

Susan C remarked: “We’re in danger of running into the problem that the SF-ness of some works is in doubt.”
Given the parameters of the list, I think this is a feature rather than a bug. After all, the original list and the other commenters’ suggestions specify introductory science fiction for non SF readers. So it seems that what we’re really looking for here is stories and novels that don’t immediately repel readers used to conventional fiction.
Speaking for myself, I do find it hard get through excessively technophiliac science fiction. Hard SF like Stephen Baxter’s or Greg Egan’s or Hal Clement’s work gets tough to slog through after a while, even for the aficionado. Given a choice between Ray Bradbury getting the rotation of Mars’ moons wrong and Larry Niven accurately explaining Frank Tipler’s 1974 physics paper “Rotating Cylinders and the Possibility Of Global Causality Violation,” I’ll take Bradbury…and methinks most other readers will too.
And yes, those who assert Ursula Le Guin has no sense of humor really need to re-read her books. The first half of The Telling remains a wickedly hilarious satire of all the Silicon Valley millenialist hype, and it’s devastating. That scene where the future-obsessed technofreak dominant culture of Aka plays hymns to the future of technology in computerized elevators that keep breaking down left me howling with laughter.

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JohnT 10.20.16 at 2:30 pm

This is a great list – given how much I’ve loved the books on here I have read, the rest are going to have to go on my Amazon wishlist. Thanks for doing this in time for Christmas!

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stevenjohnson 10.20.16 at 3:01 pm

F. Foundling at @148 “Well, surely at least ‘special boy conquers stuff’ and ‘special young man conquers pretty much everything worth talking about’ are as old as can be. If modern specimens are to avoid turning into mere wish-fulfilment literature, they had better make sense and be realistic and sober, not handwaving and mystical. I’m afraid I can’t say that about Dune.”

There are other things that Herbert tries to tackle in Dune, which is why Dune Messiah, the one nobody but me likes. (Or liked, now I find I can’t leave off wondering where the oxygen comes from on a planet without plants and the puzzlement interferes with reading the story. “Willing suspension of disbelief” is an oxymoron.) Still, even supposing Rich Puchalsky is right that Dune the conquering hero fantasy (not sure that’s a genre though, sorry,) is all dressed up in scifi and therefore freshened, your objection is that silliness doesn’t successfully freshen anything. The whole SFF field is founded on the presumption this is not true. The fantastic elements in SF are deemed to be no different from magic. This is why a Baxter or an Egan or a Clement are so objectionable, they’re not writing that way.

The question of why, to use the example of “psychohistory,” an impossible fictional construct can still be relevant to the real world in a way that prophecies that come true never are is a difficult one to convince people who don’t really believe the world is intelligible in principle. Wells “cheating” to allow Griffin to see in The Invisible Man is not at all the same refreshing the Tarnkapp. It’s the very opposite.

Jim V is correct about Neal Stephenson, author of Anathem, though I still have no idea what genre that really is. Nothing fantastic in that novel helps freshen the boy meets girl story at all. Stephenson’s most recent novel, Seveneves, has very good orbital mechanics and life support engineering, and the parts of that novel that use that are very good. Simultaneously, the astoundingly stupid genetics and psychology, where apparently people will in the future inherit personality traits even more faithfully than dogs, are not. The critical approach that sees it all as SFF, as genre with tropes like icing on a cupcake, does not really have any way to draw a distinction.

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stevenjohnson 10.20.16 at 3:03 pm

Supposed to have been “convincingly answer for people who”

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Ragweed 10.20.16 at 3:16 pm

“The first half of The Telling remains a wickedly hilarious satire of all the Silicon Valley millenialist hype, and it’s devastating.”

One of my favorite lines in The Telling is about the beverage they drink – a mild stimulant that commonly goes by the name of Akakaffee, but since they have become a society single-mindedly devoted to building a techno-culture that will get them into inter-steller travel, everything has brand-names that inevitably incorporate “Star”. Thus the brand name of the over-sweetened, hot, stimulant beverage is StarBrew. (Any resemblance to 20th century Terran corporate chains is purely coincidental.)

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Ragweed 10.20.16 at 3:35 pm

@Joseph Brenner “It’s certainly true that “The Female Man” isn’t particularly easy reading– I think I was picturing effette literary snobs that have always turned up their noses at sci-fi, in which case you’d think they ought to be able to handle a little modernist a-narrative type stuff. Reviewing Andrew Brown’s original problem statement, I gather the target audience may be a bit different from that.”

To be clear, I was thinking of this on a slightly more fine-grained level than Christophager. I understand the genre that is “literary fiction”, but I think that even among readers of literary fiction, there are those that love someone like Joyce or Kobo Abe, and others who find them to be pretentious bores (or hate Joyce but love Abe, etc. etc.). Some literary fiction is more intellectual, some more character-driven, some more about use of language, and so the writers that would appeal as a gateway to SF would also be different.

Obviously if you were an aficionado of another genre style (eg. westerns or mystery novels) than the suggestions would be different.

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F. Foundling 10.20.16 at 3:54 pm

stephenjohnson @ 156

Fair enough, I don’t generally agree with RP’s ‘cynical’ take on sci-fi @ 4 an 134. It’s not all old wine in new bottles, although a lot of the bad stuff is. As an aside, I think I should apologise for basically sending Kim Stanley Robinson to Guantanamo at 148. Seems like an excessive punishment even for writing Red Mars. :)

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Ragweed 10.20.16 at 4:06 pm

“I seem to remember that ‘When It Changed’ is online somewhere. Someone might get something out of reading it followed by ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ followed by ‘Ammonite’ to get a sense of how a series of writers develop and elaborate a theme.”

Slightly OT, but that is a really interesting suggestion. (You might also add Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Can you Read?”, for another take.)

Another interesting pairing would be _The Two Of Them_ from Russ and _The Terrorist of Irustan_ by Louise Marley, which are both about women in a hyper-patriarchal, Saudi-Arabian style, colonies, and how they resist or escape. The nature of the relationships between characters is particularly striking.

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Tracy Lightcap 10.20.16 at 7:46 pm

I forgot to mention L. Sprague DeCamp before. Slan is a great book, one of the few that captures what life would really be like for a new species of human beings.

Also, I didn’t mention Heinlein’s Revolt in 2500. It’s one of the few books he completed in his projected cycle concerning the establishment of a theocratic dictatorship in the US and it is a bit unsettling to read today. There’s a Nehemiah Scudder out there somewhere.

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Procopius 10.21.16 at 12:24 pm

It’s annoying you have a section titled, “short stories available for free or cheap download,” but I can’t find any place to buy or download them. I have been looking for the William Tenn stories for years without success. Jack Vance, too, although I’ve found some of his works. I love his writing for the way he conveys the sense of people speaking a language other than what we’re used to.

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Procopius 10.21.16 at 12:54 pm

Jake @ 27 I know a lot of people dislike later Heinlein. I’ve read comments by people who knew him who blamed his second wife, but admit he was quite conservative even as a younger man. I think you have to take his books as speculations about what could be, rather than recommendations. I don’t think Farnham’s Freehold is actually a white supremacist novel, although I really don’t like it. I liked a lot of his 1940s stuff, just about all his Future History, but his anti-Asian racism turned me off. I really liked Glory Road, and Starship Trooper. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was too authoritarian (fascist?) for me, but once again I don’t think he was recommending any of that. I find it pretty hard to reconcile the attitudes in the Lazarus Long novels with the authoritarian stuff. He was certainly no worse than Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Sorry, I seem to have gotten diverted from recommending SF for people who have never read SF. I just think that you can’t exclude any of Heinlein. Asimov is absolutely essential, too. I’d skip Arthur C. Clarke, and Olaf Stapledon bored me so much I couldn’t finish Star Maker even in the days when I never quit a book until I had finished it.

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Robert Levine 10.21.16 at 5:18 pm

Le Guin, Le Guin, Le Guin.

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johnrobert 10.21.16 at 9:53 pm

Re: Heinlein

People who think Heinlein was a crypto-fascist don’t appreciate that he was a man of contradictions. He was enamoured of libertarian fantasies (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) and also of the value of military regimentation (Starship Troopers). His Darwinian ideas about the struggle for survival between races sometimes seem frighteningly close to Nazism and yet he despised the Nazis, in part, because of their racism and fought to include anti-racist messages into his juveniles (Tunnel in the Sky). Throughout his life Heinlein was an advocate of various forms of “free love” but the heroes and heroines of his novels are always demonstrating their moral worth by seeking that one, all-fulfilling, more-or-less monogamous life partner. So far as I know, he never resolved any of these contradictions and you can criticize him for that but you can’t just pick some one of his positions and declare that to be the real Heinlein, ignoring all of the rest.

For myself, Starship Troopers had a permanent impact on my political thinking, but not because he made the military-dominated society in the book looked attractive. His presentation of a society where citizenship was restricted to veterans was my first encounter with the idea that democracy doesn’t have to run exactly the way we do it here in America at present. As a 13 year old in 1965 it hit me like a thunderclap of revelation that universal, birthright citizenship isn’t inevitable or beyond criticism. Realizing that somewhere around 45% of our citizens are about to vote for Trump just sharpens that point.

Having said all that, Heinlein shouldn’t be on anyone’s list or recommendations for novice scifi readers. He really hasn’t held up well over the years and, in any case, really was a mediocre writer. When we Baby Boomers, the people who read Heinlein as teenagers in the Sixties, pass away he will be forgotten and for good reason.

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Anarcissie 10.21.16 at 10:13 pm

@165 — In particular, ‘Those Who Walk Away From Omelas’. Short and available online. Link: http://engl210-deykute.wikispaces.umb.edu/file/view/omelas.pdf.

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anymouse88 10.21.16 at 11:10 pm

I would not recommend Red Mars. Best world building ever but the story was un- engaging. Not a good pick for people new to the genre.

I mean Tiptree’s short stories are my favorites. She was a genius but I would never recommend them to a new comer.

Love the Lois McMaster Bujold pick. Niven’s early stuff is classic SF and good, fun, easy ,reads, with real ideas.

As someone else said any Dozios Year End collection is great place to start.

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PatinIowa 10.21.16 at 11:46 pm

JakeB @ 123: You answered the question I asked–I figure as I find a way into various traditions, I’ll find people for my teaching. The question was for my reading and I’ll follow up on your suggestions. Thanks.

I have enough examples of my own unconscious biases…

Thanks everybody! This is fun.

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kidneystones 10.22.16 at 1:01 am

@120 Thanks for some great suggestions. I assign some African fiction but hadn’t considered genre-specific titles. So, thanks for this, too.

The focus here, of course, is fiction written in English which quickly becomes problematic when we’re looking at cultures where English writing itself is a cultural issue of no small significance.

A quick search confirms that there are a number of writers based out of Africa writing sci-fi in English. I won’t be reading any as my reading list is packed to the brim.

One writer I might read is Masimba Musodza http://www.okayafrica.com/culture-2/masimba-musodzas-sci-fi-novel-shona-rekindles-interest-speculative-fiction-african-languages/

There’s an immense amount of Japanese sci-fi in popular culture. Anyone who hasn’t read Mungo Park absolutely should.

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faustusnotes 10.22.16 at 2:10 am

Perhaps we need one of these threads for fantasy too? In my opinion the political value of fantasy is much more contested (it’s a much more restricted and conservative field). Thsi would make the discussion of lists more interesting.

Mcclaren defends Use of Weapons because it’s Banks’s best but isn’t the idea here to present the most accessible? Also, for all that specific books dig into specific moral issues, the broad underlying moral question that has always stood out for me in Banks’s work is the dubious morality of the Culture’s contact section, and the obvious comparison with liberal interventionism. I think this is clearest in Consider Phlebas, where our hero is on the wrong side of everyone, and the obviously dubious society the Culture is whacking into next week has a kind of sympathetic hearing. Also, in terms of new sci-fi ideas, the big hit in all the Culture novels is the unrestrained post-scarcity, which is a joy to read and contemplate. The short chapter, I think it’s in Consider Phlebas, explaining the weird physics and staggering speed of spaceship travel; the opening scene where the Mind evacs by hyperspacing into a gravity well; the orbital; these are all in my view really powerful and lasting images that add to the underlying fabric of sci-fi. A chair made of bones is just a chair made of bones. I’ve incorporated these ideas into my post-scarcity Traveller campaign, and it has been a joy to run. I think that this aspect of Banks’s work is sometimes underappreciated because he’s not the first to try it, but he is far and away the best and deepest thinker on this in sci-fi that I have read.

One of my players who is a big sci-fi/fantasy reader finds Banks completely inaccessible. For non-sci fi people his Culture novels can be incomprehensible, since they’re so steeped in the basic principles of sf. For these readers I think Against a Dark Background presents a better intro to his unique vision and the richness of his tales.

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faustusnotes 10.22.16 at 2:15 am

Kidneystones, I was going to recommend the manga form of Nausicaa, but wasn’t sure if people were counting manga, or if they would consider that fine world to be sf or fantasy.

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Alan White 10.22.16 at 2:39 am

I don’t begrudge Dylan his lit prize exactly–though I’m unsure of its propriety–but one thing I’m sure of–Stanislaw Lem deserved one.

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kidneystones 10.22.16 at 4:33 am

@172 I’d certainly include manga and anime for two reasons: the plot lines are as complex as any image-free texts and the international appeal of the works.

I’m not sure how closely others are monitoring their students independent reading habits, but my own are reading practically no non-assigned books. As in none. I teach a research skills seminar that’s as user-friendly as I can manage. One of the students admitted she’d pretty much stopped completing books as her dependence on her smart phone increased.

So, for that reason and others, I suggest that any reading offline should be encouraged, modeled, and practiced. I now ask students to monitor and record (informally) their smart phone activities. So far it seems about half go online within seconds of waking, and before washing their faces or saying good morning to those ostensibly closest to them – parents, siblings. The last image they see before sleeping is a screen. Of this group only one could remember his dreams the night before and did not read a book during the summer break.

When I compare this to my own input at that age: Balzac, Mishima, Hesse, Tolstoy, etc in translation plus regular extended viewings of Kurosawa, Renoir, Hitchcock et al and lively discussions well into the night, it seems clear to me that an entire generation is going to grow up reading practically nothing but blogs, social media memes, and text messages and tweets.

Which is fine until students actually want to know something and can’t understand how their teachers acquired so much general cultural knowledge. Their reasoning powers are suffering, imho, as they’ve traded their reasoning and analytical skills for access to unlimited information. Hope this isn’t too far off topic.

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Val 10.22.16 at 5:38 am

I don’t understand why you left out Le Guin? Can you explain?

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Faustusnotes 10.22.16 at 7:36 am

Kidneystones, the only Japanese novel I have successfully read all the way through and relatively thoroughly understood was a keitai novel called Tokyo Real. This seems to be a phenomenon unique to Japan (and China?) and probably ensures that poorer-educated Japanese will continue reading novels. But I think my graduate students are mostly not reading novels, you could have a point there. Though I have noticed I read less novel-length stuff than I used to because a lot of my reading time is spent on websites. That’s potentially disastrous for genre writing, though the web is generating its own interesting genres. E.g. 9mothers9eyes9horse …

Today appears to be le guin’s birthday. I will be disappointed if she has to die before she gets the recognition she deserves. Not only as a feminist or pioneering female author, her influence on sf and fantasy has been huge.

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kidneystones 10.22.16 at 9:21 am

@ 176 Amazing. I’m not sure your reading habits indicate much, but I am surprised. I read a lot. By which I mean a lot by any standard. All but a sliver is research related. I reward myself twice a year with a feast of four-six novels which I devour after marking, etc. I get the sense that you’re (a bit) younger than I, so perhaps it’s generational. “Sailor Who From Grace with the Sea,” “Remains of the Day,” and “Master of Go” are short if you’re looking for a classic. “Speed Tribes” isn’t a novel, but it’s incisive, well-written, a very easy to read. Short essays on pre-Internet modern Japan. Lots of others are good.
“Some Prefer Nettles” is excellent on Taisho.

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RichardM 10.22.16 at 10:51 am

> the dubious morality of the Culture’s contact section, and the obvious comparison with liberal interventionism.

The interesting thing here is that Bank’s personal views were strongly anti-imperialist; for example he burned his passport as a protest over the Iraq war. So when he set up what he considered a finely balanced case representing a genuine moral dilemma, that was at a point where the average reader would consider he was strongly stacking the deck on the pro-intervention side. So Player of Games had:

– an intervention target, Azad, which is an epically horrible, expansionist galactic empire at a technology level where it has no excuse for being the way it is
– an intervening force, the Culture, that has no economic self-interest, is super-humanly smart, and has done this before
– an intervention which consisted of sending one person to accept an invitation to play a game

Nevertheless, the fundamental stakes of the novel are whether or not this is a good idea.

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Faustusnotes 10.22.16 at 11:42 am

Kidneystones, I think it’s related to the fact that I spend all day reading and writing, and also I’m kind of tired of the genres I have grown up with. Also I use an ebook reader now (very convenient in small apartment without bookshelf space) but haven’t found a way to browse ebook stores like physical bookstores. Actually I feel really bad about this (I was a regular huge reader till maybe three years ago) and this thread has inspired me to rekindle my reading habits (maybe that should be “re.Kindle”).

So once again, yay Crooked Timber.

I have read “the sailor who fell from grace with the sea.” Mishima is a fascinating character, and (in the translation I read) struck me as a kind of Japanese DH Lawrence. He’s a fascinating study in that weird overlap of homosexuality and fascism, and a classic model of the Japanese suicidal novelist. I really should read more of his work …

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Neville Morley 10.22.16 at 12:45 pm

Apologies for a bit of a tangent, but since we’re a fairly long way into the thread… It must be at least thirty years since I read Starship Troopers, and I’ve never had any inclination to read it again, but I was intrigued to johnrobert’s reference to only veterans getting citizenship status. Could anyone with a better memory/knowledge of Heinlein tell me whether there’s any indication that he’s drawing on classical ideas of the citizen-soldier?

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Anarcissie 10.22.16 at 4:03 pm

One good on-ramp to Science Fiction for those who are used to reading weighty straight fiction might be Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, which although published in 1969, takes the semi-autobiographical protagonist from the 1950s to a dystopian 1997 in which World War 3 has destroyed the world, etc. Lessing went on to writing several other SF novels of the interstellar sort at a time when SF was not yet literarily cool.

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SqueakyRat 10.23.16 at 1:38 am

No Ballard?

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Oliver Morton 10.24.16 at 1:19 pm

Slightly surprised not to see Timescape mentioned — bit so long ago that I read it that I can’t swear it belongs here. I might actually recommend Years of Rice and Salt above the Mars trilogy — though I suppose there might be doubt as to whether it is science fictional in a way that leads to more science fiction reading.

If Jem (which I have been thinking about re-reading — this will serve as a prod) makes the list not sure why Gateway doesn’t. And though I am pretty sure that James White doesn’t, it was nice to see sector general mentioned; partly because of the age I was when I first read it Conway’s heroism in Star Surgeon kind of defined was one of two things that defined what it is to be a hero for me. (The other is Collier standing up to Delicata in A Taste for Death, in case anyone’s interested)

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