April 21, 2019
What are the fundamental books a newcomer to science fiction should read in order to achieve a basic conversance with the genre? To keep this practicable for this notional novice, what ten books would suffice?
I am unqualified to answer this question. My list would necessarily displease everyone. Only an unjustifiably self-confident jackanapes, a grinning idiot embodying the Dunning-Kruger Effect would even attempt such a thing.
Right, I’m your man then.
I’ll start with Jules Verne. I could go back earlier to Mary Shelley, or even back to Cyrano de Bergerac. But this isn’t list isn’t intended as a historical overview but as a practical guide to the field. I’m going to offer Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea for its mechanical inventiveness and its elevation of the scientific hero. Journey to the Center of the Earth is entertaining as an adventure story, but the science is, at this remove, rather laughable and functions as little more than a travelogue.
Second is H.G. Wells. I’d like to include both The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. But my goal is to include ten different authors. So, Time Machine it is, with the time travel trope taking precedence over alien invasion.
Moving on to Isaac Asimov. If you thought picking one Wells novel was hard, welcome to hell. A prolific author and influential author such as Asimov could possibly fill all ten slots himself. But I’m going with the first book of the Foundation trilogy. (Sorry, robotics fans.) Instead of a mechanical contrivance, time travel, or alien civilizations we have a unique concept as the centerpiece: Psychohistory. Asimov’s proposition that large scale events could be predicted through mathematical models is one I find truly disturbing. I think the idea fit well in the optimism of the times, the sort of thinking that powered the New Frontier and Camelot. The idea that science, guided by smart, well-meaning people, could lead us to a sort of utopia. Utter rot, of course, and dangerous. Frightening to those of us who aren’t too sanguine about these supposedly well-meaning people.
Robert A. Heinlein makes for another difficult choice. But I think Stranger in a Strange Land must take the spot. As much as I’d rather re-read Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the story of Valentine Michael Smith takes priority. The fish out of water examination of humanity from a supposedly objective outside observer is a subgenre in its own right and this is the prime exemplar. It even introduced the word “grok” into the vocabulary. How many science fiction books can make that claim?
Arthur C. Clarke is another writer who could lay claim to multiple spots on this list. Should it be 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Fountains of Paradise? Both good options, but I’m going with Rendezvous with Rama, the archetypal exploration of an alien artifact with no hand-holding from the author, no ultimate revelations spelling out exactly what it is. It’s alien, fundamentally unknowable. Why should humans be expected to understand something non-human?
Philip K. Dick has to make this list, right? Try to count up the number of films based on his works. The difficulty is that he was primarily a short story writer. So let’s go with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel adapted as Blade Runner. Dick brings the paranoia. His works trade in deeply layered revelations and nothing is necessarily what it seems. Every unexpected twist in a sci-fi novel owes something to PKD.
Next up is Larry Niven’s Ringworld. Ringworld is the big idea explored, the cool scientific ‘what if’ taken off the shelf and examined from every angle. In this case it is truly a big idea, an annular word rotating about a central hub of a sun, with enough habitable space larger than millions of our little planet. Drop a bunch of different species and cultures there and enjoy. It’s adventure and travelogue (in some ways reminiscent of Jack Vance’s Big Planet) but the big idea is always central to the story. Ringworld also provides an introduction to the consistent future history concept. That is, an author’s books will be linked by a shared history stretching hundreds or thousand of years and spanning the galaxy. This gets you into Jerry Pournelle, A. Bertram Chandler, H. Beam Piper and others, one branch of this leading eventually to the role playing game Traveller.
Ursula K. Le Guin was the doyenne of sociological science fiction. The truth is I could probably pick any number of her novels to illustrate this subgenre. But we’ll go with The Dispossessed as it has the bonus of being the novel to introduce the ansible, a communications device that gets around lightspeed limitations. Other writers picked up the term and used it for narrative convenience. Dispossessed explores novel social systems, a theme that holds great currency in science fiction. The truth is, and I hesitate to say it, I’ve never been a great fan of Le Guin’s writing though I’ve been reading her stuff since the age of, oh, twelve. But this isn’t a survey of my favorites and Le Guin’s importance is undeniable.
Frank Herbert’s Dune is also an exploration of odd social structures. It also dives headfirst into ecological science, biosystems, theology, genetics, and philosophy. Dune is a major work, one to be taken both seriously and enjoyed.
Finally we come to William Gibson. Neuromancer may not have been the first cyberpunk novel but it is the most influential. Every book since that takes place at least in part within ‘cyberspace’ owes a debt to Neuromancer. The banal reality of the internet seems to have let some of the steam out of cyberpunk, but it remains an important branch of science fiction.
And there you have the list. That wasn’t easy. So many names could have made the cut. Jerry Pournelle, A.E. Van Vogt, Greg Bear, John Varley, Ben Bova. The list goes on. But that’s the problem; a short curriculum can’t go on or it wouldn’t be short.
What about more contemporary writers, you may ask. Well, I’m not the best source. My tastes run to older fiction. But if you are asking, I’d recommend picking anything and everything written by Neal Stephenson. The man’s good and seems interested in everything, including most of the subgenres mentioned above.
So, how did I do? Do you agree with any of the above? Disagree? What would be on your list?