For Nascent Science Fiction Readers, A Primer
While I will read everything once, there are things I will not read twice. For instance, the works of Ayn Rand (shrill satanist screeds masquerading as “feminist” philosophies) or the over-hyped Illuminatus Trilogy (which boils down to a 3,000 page practical joke on the reader) will never grace my bedside table again. However, the books remain loved because they are books, and have a place within my library.
From time to time, someone new to the genre of “science fiction” will ask me for recommendations. “What’s good?” is a common question, followed by “What should I read?”. A difficult question. Science fiction is rarely about “the future.” These stories are typically metaphors for social issues that we, as a species, are facing now – just wearing clothes that have yet to be invented.
The following is a list for nascent science fiction readers.
It is in no particular order. Works were chosen for several reasons. Some because they are exceptionally influential in style, spawning new sub-genres. Others because they are simply well-written. Others because they are fun. I have included some notes that I hope will be helpful.
The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester, 1952
Alfred Bester is one of the greatest tragedies in the history of sci-fi. He is an unsung master of the genre; few people know of his existence or his stories but everyone has been exposed to his ideas. In much the same way that Citizen Kane changed cinema, Bester’s works changed speculative fiction. The Demolished Man asks a simple question: In a world where people can read thoughts, where criminals are apprehended before their crimes are committed, how does one commit murder?
Another “lost” author, Walter Miller wrote two novels – Canticle in 1960, and a sequel that he died finishing (Saint Liebowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, 1995). Miller finished Canticle, won several awards for it, and promptly vanished from the writing scene for 35 years. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic story about how the Catholic church strives to retain human knowledge after a nuclear holocaust. I sometimes think that this story drives a large part of my dedication to the mission of Wikipedia.
Schismatrix, Bruce Sterling, 1985
In 1985, the sub-genre of cyberpunk was being invented. Schismatrix is, in my opinion, Sterling’s magnus opus: it is a story about a future war between two factions of posthumans: shapers (those who are genetically modified) and mechanists (those who are bionically augmented). There exists a “special edition” of the book entitled “Schismatrix Plus” which includes the core novel as well as several short stories that take place in the same universe.
Dune, Frank Herbert, 1965
Dune is a story that is many things to many people. Primarily, it is a discussion about politics and the philosophy of, and how economic scarcity affects social change.
Heinlein was one of the masters of science fiction. Sadly, as his health deteriorated, his writing became . . . erratic . . . in quality and metaphor. Harsh Mistress, however, is a wonderful space adventure. Its science is, quite simply, bad – but Heinlein never really cared about that as much as he cared about describing esoteric societies. In this case, he deliberately chose the harshest environment he could imagine a society thriving and wrote about it. It is a fun read.
The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson, 1995
Stephenson has been criticized by many (myself included) that his endings are flawed. However, the end is not the beginning or the middle. This story is about an experiment: can free access to knowledge change a person’s life? Is education a silver bullet, the way to effect true social change? To say nothing of the neat ways he uses the idea of nanotechnology.
Master Heinlein’s second entry in this list. Many people assume (incorrectly) that Heinlein was a rabid conservative, bent on social fascism. Nothing could be farther from the truth: he wrote about stories that would piss people off. Stranger in a Strange Land is the exact opposite of right-wing ideals; the hero of the story is a poly-amorous hippie, a “Tarzan” raised by Martians. I will say that Stranger does a lot towards cementing his reputation as being hyper sexist.
Heinlein’s final entry on this list is the story in which he explores the idea of alternate dimensions and universes. The title of the book takes its name from the number of known parallel dimensions: six to the power of six, to the power of six. It is a fantastical yarn, and one that isn’t particularly well-written – but its influence has been massive.
Neuromancer, William Gibson, 1984
Neuromancer is but one part of Gibson’s famed “Sprawl” trilogy. It is a dark work, often confusing, and written as if the reader is a contemporary. It, too, is excessively influential, and can be considered the progenitor of modern science-fiction.
A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick, 1977
This is a story about drug addiction. At its core it asks questions about what “identity” actually means. It’s a dark story, all the darker because of a heavy injection of autobiography.
Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut, 1963
A darkly humorous satire, Cat’s Cradle pokes fun at religion, the nuclear arms race, and our inevitable technological apocalypse. Vonnegut earned a master’s degree in anthropology for this work. Its an easy read and well worth your time.
Le Guin is probably the master feminist writer in science fiction. It is a story about sexual identity precisely because the inhabitants of one of the worlds do not possess gender (save for a short period once a month).
A difficult book to locate, Always Coming Home tells less of a story and more of a way of thinking. Like most of Le Guin’s works, it is heavily focused on Taoist philosophy. She refers to the work as “future archaeology,” and many people will say that it is not science fiction. I am willing to engage in fisticuffs with those people.
Clarke’s works are classically “hard” science-fiction. They are often thin on overall plot but extremely thick with atmosphere an potential. Clarke is at his best when he explains very little and leaves the reader to ponder the vastness of space. Rama is a perfect example of this. Clarke would later revisit the world of Rama with three additional sequels (written with the help of Gregory Benford). A word of warning: either read Rama and quit, or read them all.