MIND MELD: Non-Genre Books for Genre Readers
We talk to folks a lot about genre books and movies, but what do they have to say about books from outside the field?
- Despite what a lot of fans might assume, most of the writers I know don’t spend their time assiduously reading the competition, and some of them hardly read any genre material at all. As a result, their work may reflect a variety of influences and allusions that could slide past a reader without at least a foundation in general literature. So recommendation #1 is, at least try to sample the classics. That can considerably enrich the experience of reading genre works that specifically echo non-genre works, as when Haldeman does do Hemingway (as in The Hemingway Hoax) or Benford does Faulkner (Against Infinity, “To the Storming Gulf”), or Silverberg does Conrad (“The Secret Sharer,” Downward to the Earth), or Brunner does Dos Passos (Stand on Zanzibar). One of Haldeman’s most beautiful stories, “For White Hill,” is even organized around a Shakespeare sonnet.
- An awareness of allied genres, such as historical fiction, might reveal to genre readers that some of their favorite techniques, such as world-building, aren’t necessarily the province of SF/fantasy alone. My recommendation here would be the novels of someone like Cecelia Holland, who immerses the reader in historical periods so convincingly detailed and yet alienated that they might as well be fantasy worlds–we have to learn our way around in them from narrative clues, not from infodump exposition or prior knowledge. The Viking-based Corban Loosestrife series–The Soul Thief (2002), The Witches’ Kitchen (2004), The Serpent Dreamer (2005), and Varanger (2008)–would be a good place to start, since these do edge into fantasy a bit–though of course it’s not fantasy from the points of view of the characters we’re following. The popularity of writers like Patrick O’Brien among many SF readers suggests that something like this is going on already, in terms of out-of-genre reading. Another example might be hardboiled detective fiction; one could argue that, stylistically at least, Raymond Chandler has been nearly as important an SF influence in recent years as most SF writers: two current examples that come to mind are China Mieville’s The City & the City and Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection.
- Finally, there are some contemporary novels that demonstrate a sharp awareness of SF and its readership even though they don’t take the form of SF or fantasy themselves, or at least keep the fantastic elements way out on the margins. My candidate here would be Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), not only because its protagonist is an overweight Dominican SF nerd, but because of the way it opens up into a variety of narrative voices and styles, providing a good illustration of the kind of very unstuffy and very liberating gonzo energy that you can find in some of the best contemporary fiction. For the most part, Diaz gets his SF allusions right, as well. Similarly, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a mainstream literary novel that we could fairly describe as genre-sophisticated.
I’m not sure there’d be much you could recommend to someone who only read SF/Fantasy – they haven’t, after all, demonstrated much willingness to engage with anything beyond the cozy confines of genre, so there’s every chance they’re going to run screaming from anything just a tiny bit different or threatening. You’d also, ideally, have some background on the type of SF/Fantasy they like – you’re probably going to offer a different set of suggestions to a Gene Wolfe reader, as opposed to someone who only reads books with big alien space cats on the cover.
But if pushed, I might suggest they try one or two of the following, and see how they get on. Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981) by Alasdair Gray is a truly mesmerising novel, veering from savage realism to surrealist strangeness of the highest order. I read it nearly twenty years ago and there are still bits of it lodged in my subconsciousness. It’s about Glasgow, and Art, but it’s also funny and horrifying and utterly postmodern in its famous annotated list of plagiarisms. If you like Lanark, try Poor Things by the same author.
Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell is another haunting book, a reading experience that can only be compared with an Everest ascent, with the thematic summit of the book occurring midway through, by which point we’ve leapfrogged from the the early nineteenth century to the twenty third (or thereabouts). We then spool all the way to the past again, with echoes and resonances reverberating from the past to the future and back again. It’s a cheery, uplifting book about the rise and fall of western civilisation. It’s not precisely SF, but it deploys SF tropes adroitly – not that it would matter if it didn’t. If you like Cloud Atlas, try Black Swan Green, which is utterly different, but just as good, and very funny.
Kolimsky Heights (1994) by Lionel Davidson is a fantastic contemporary spy thriller, one of the most compulsively readable books I’ve ever encountered. It’s set in the Arctic circle and revolves around a slightly science fictional conceit which becomes clear late in the story. If you like this, there’s a whole world of literate spy thrillers out there – I particularly recommend the polished, gemlike novels of Robert Littell. Ken Macleod and I both discovered that we shared a mutual admiration for this novel, which is not nearly as well known as it should be.
I’m going to assume we’re talking about sf/fantasy as marketing labels here, because there’s a ton of stuff that falls into a sort of “arguable” category; and these are largely the books I’d want to foist on any reader who tended to pay it safe, to stick with works directly targeted at them, clearly identified as being in the SF/Fantasy genre. You could make a case that books like Edward Whittemore’s Jerusalem Poker or Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor are really fantasies anyway, but if you’re reading them you’re not likely to be reading narrowly. Anyway, those are two books I’d mention straight off for their rich air of history and mystery. Whittemore’s work is just plain fabulous, in more ways than one, and I think both of these books have an innate appeal that’s born of their strangeness.
On much the same principle, assuming that this non-sf/fantasy reader wasn’t entirely locked into the plot-driven paradigm of pulp, I’d recommend anything by Guy Davenport or William Burroughs, Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka or Roberto Calasso. If you’re happy to have your strangeness written into the text in whole other ways to that you’re familiar with, if you’re willing to go with a bit of high-flown literary intellectualism or crazy-ass experimentalism, there’s so much these writers have to offer. If you want something that should be more well-known than it is, I’d point you at Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love; it’s an incredible book with one of my favourite opening lines ever. And if you want something that’s already got a huge reputation, well, I do think Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are entirely worthy of their renown. OK, they may not be to everyone’s taste, but sod it; if you don’t like them, sue me; I can hardly not recommend two books I rate as unquestionable classics.
Just to throw in a little curve ball here though, since “books” doesn’t specify fiction, I’d also recommend the poetry of W.B. Yeats, William Blake, Wallace Stevens. All three are rich with the sort of mythopoeic imagery that should particularly appeal to sf/fantasy readers, and Stevens’s “The Man With the Blue Guitar” can be read, I think, as a sort of passionate defense of literary approaches derided by Realists. And finally, right out of left-field, there’s Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming and The Birthday Party. They’re plays, so this is kind of cheating but, hey, you can buy them and read them in book form so I can recommend you do. If you liked Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, you simply have to read Pinter.
I don’t have as much reading time as I once did, and I find myself spending more time reading science-related non-fiction than science fiction (or any kind of fiction for that matter). Last year I discovered a fiction author who so wowed me that I did something I haven’t done since high school; I went out and read all the rest of his work I could put my hands on. Jim Crace is an amazing British author whose ideas seem as lyrical as his language. Since 1986, he has published ten novels. His latest, and the one I discovered, was The Pesthouse (Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, NY, 2007). Although Crace is not a science fiction writer, The Pesthouse would probably fit under our genre’s tent. It’s a post-apocalyptic road trip story across a dystopic America. I like to think of this book as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road done right.
But the book I wanted to tell you about is an earlier one, Being Dead (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, NY, 1999). Two dweeby biologists, married for over 30 years, return to the isolated beach where they first met and made love in the sand dunes. A gated community under development will alter that part of the coast forever, and this is their nostalgic farewell to a spot that changed their lives in so many ways. Unfortunately, while they are recreating their first lovemaking in the dunes, he naked and she naked from the waist down, they are attacked by a deranged homeless man who bludgeons them to death with a rock.
Their bodies lie undiscovered on the deserted beach for six days, and this seems to be the real story. Not for the squeamish, this is a story of life and death with society’s hocus-pocus sentimentality of religious beliefs stripped away.
If you do read either of these two books and you like them, I suggest you read his others. This guy seems to completely reinvent himself with every book.
I like so many books and types of books that this is a hard question. I’ll stick to more or less “classics” and books that I think have an odd sensibility that might appeal to sf readers. I know that’s why I came to love some of these books–they appealed to my desire for the strange. So…
The novels of Nathaniel West, in particular Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust. The first is about a newspaper advice columnist who took the assignment as a joke, but who begins to go mad because of the heartbreaking letters he gets to which he has no legitimate reply. Locust is about a group of people of the fringes of Hollywood on the way to apocalypse. Both of them notable for very dark humor.
Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, in particular her collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. The supernatural does not occur in these stories, but it easily might. Though O’Connor is one of the cruelest of writers to her characters, she grants them their humanity. Also very funny, in a dark way.
Two novels from the 1930s: John Collier’s Defy the Foul Fiend, Philip Wylie’s Finnley Wren. Collier’s book is the story of a young man trying to find love and success in bohemian London in the 1920s. It’s a comic novel that goes past its happy ending to tell you what happens later. Finnley Wren is a weekend in Manhattan and Connecticut with the eponymous hero and his companion Philip Wylie. Drinking, sex, and conversation; contains two one-page sf stories and the best description of a forest fire ever written.
White Noise by Don DeLillo. The theme of these books seems to be dark comedy, which I guess is not surprising given who I am. Family life in America, an Airborne Toxic Event, who will die first?
“Benito Cereno” and The Confidence Man by Herman Melville. BC is a triumph of the unreliable third person viewpoint, in a story you must read twice to understand its full implications. The Confidence Man may be the toughest read I’ve mentioned here–at times following the rhetorical sleight of hand in its many conversations is like grinding rocks–but it’s one of the most deceptive and snarkily challenging games I’ve ever played.
The Inheritors by William Golding. This one has associational connections to sf; it’s about the conflict between Cro Magnon and Neanderthal man, told from the sympathetic point of view of a Neanderthal. Heartbreaking.
Tobias Wolff is may be my favorite contemporary short story writer. Try Back in the World or The Night in Question,which includes the amazing four-page story,”Bullet in the Brain.”
And finally here’s one that just plain makes me laugh: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome.
To that end, the reader allergic to anything but fantasy could take a look at Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. It’s generally known as the major triumph of “serious literary fiction” in the past 30 years, but there’s more than a little fantasy and magic in it too, even if it doesn’t feature any battle axes. It’s also – as well as being profound, questioning and everything else literary prize committees go for – damn funny.
On a similar note, the dedicated hard SF fan might just enjoy Thomas Pynchon. Like Rushdie, his books are always placed far away from the SF fantasy sections of bookshops, but they’re full of speculations on the nature of space time, strange machines, mind-warping science… They’re also quite brilliant. V might be a good place to start.
Meanwhile, if you aren’t as interested in the genre argument as a simple cracking good read, you could do worse than the Siege of Krishnapur; a brilliant satire on the British Raj, by an author who died far too young. As Farrell himself said, it’s “a novel of ideas”, but it’s one that he also noted can be read “as an adventure story”. The book is gripping, not to mention hilarious. Jokes fly as thick and fast as the musket balls aimed at the defenders of Krishnapur, but hit their target far more regularly. It’s also full of unsettling and edgy ideas that tell truths about colonialism that must register with everyone in the English speaking world.
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. It’s the story of a Native American returning from World War II with a severe case of shell-shock (what we’d call post-traumatic stress disorder today), who feels utterly lost in the world. Back home on his Laguna Pueblo reservation, he tries to draw on his culture’s tradition of ritual, ceremony, and storytelling to put the broken pieces of his life back together. His story is interwoven with both traditional and updated stories about mythic figures like Thought Woman, Corn Mother, and Father Sun. It hits that mythic sweet spot that I love as a fantasy reader, while showing how those old stories can have relevance and help us understand ourselves and our place in the world.
I’m going to start by cheating shamelessly. The first thing that came to mind when I was asked to write this piece was that I had commissioned Matthew Cheney to do an article on this very subject for Emerald City. And a fine job he did too. You can fine the whole article here: http://www.emcit.com/emcit124.php#Litfic.
Actually though, Matt’s question was slightly different. He was specifically asked to recommend literary fiction. We’ve been asked to recommend non-SF&F fiction. There’s a big difference. Why? Well literary fiction is just one of many genres. (And it is a genre – done badly it can fit the stereotype that Matt mentions of being, “all about dull middle-class people having affairs.”) But there are other genres too, and some of them might appeal to SF&F readers rather more than literary fiction.
The genre I’m going to focus on is historical fiction, partly because of some fairly obvious parallels with fantasy, and partly because it is the genre of choice for one of my all-time favorite authors: Dorothy Dunnett.
OK, so there are a few benighted souls who don’t like the Lymond Chronicles. There’s no accounting for taste. But if you like blockbuster fantasy you should give them a try, because they have just about everything that a big fantasy series has except the fantastical bits. The Tudor setting provides plenty of scope for battles and courtly intrigue, some of the characters are way larger than life, and Francis Lymond manages to insert himself into a number of major historical settings all over Europe. One book is set in the court of Ivan the Terrible. And if a multi-volume series seems too daunting, check out King Hereafter, Dunnett’s re-telling of the Macbeth story.
Many other works of historical fiction appeal to SF&F readers. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is an obvious example. If military fiction is more your style, try Bernard Cornwell, or indeed the Napoleonic War naval novels of Patrick O’Brien and C.S. Forester. Historical novels by Mary Renault, Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff were a delight of my childhood. For a more adult take, try Robert Graves: I Claudius and Claudius the God – the novels on which the Derek Jacobi TV series was based – and Count Belisarius, set in the Byzantine Empire. And of course don’t forget the original grand masters of historical fiction: Sir Walter Scott and Alexander Dumas.
I increasingly have a slight problem with recommending x for people who like y, because of the assumptions and choices the formulation requires. In the case of recommending non-sf books to habitual sf readers, the request seems to be for non-sf books that share some qualities of sf; that are, in some sense, familiar (or safe). Certainly such books exist: Peter Adolphsen’s short novel Machine (trans. 2008) contains no speculative content in the traditional sense, but in the omniscient narrative position assumed to tell the story of a “speck of matter” from its time in the heart of a prehistoric horse to its combustion in a drop of petrol, achieves a sense of inhuman scale that I imagine a lot of sf readers would recognise. It’s also fair to say that if you like, say, Geoff Ryman’s sf, then you’ll appreciate his The King’s Last Song, for all that it’s set in contemporary and historical Cambodia. But although I’m hard-pressed to think of any pleasures unique to either sf or non-sf, if the constellation of pleasures offered by sf wasn’t distinctive than there wouldn’t be readers with a preference for it in the first place; and vice versa, such that to direct sf readers to non-sf books that share as many of the pleasures of sf as possible is almost certainly to give a distorted picture. (Not that I can claim particular expertise, I should say; in any given year, you probably wouldn’t run out of digits counting the number of non-sf books that I read.) A writer I have no hesitation in recommending purely on her own terms, however, is Ali Smith, for the immediacy and exuberance and specificity of her work. Probably the best place to start is her novel The Accidental (2005), which takes the most mundane material imaginable — a British family on holiday in the summer of 2003 — and makes of it something urgent and fiercely contemporary, but any of her short story collections would also serve you well. (Though most have at least one story with some speculative content, and so may not count for the purposes of this question.) Another writer who should appeal to anyone who enjoys reading, never mind what, is Anne Fadiman. Unlike Smith, Fadiman’s style is one that seems entirely oblivious to contemporaneity, but her writing is nevertheless full of wit, charm, and insight. Her two collections of personal essays, Ex Libris (1998) and At Large and At Small (2007), cover topics ranging from the care and feeding of books to the manufacture and history of ice cream; to close with a return to parochiality, she has what I think of as a fan’s eclecticism of interest, and enthusiasm for communicating that interest.
I think that writers such as Chabon and McCarthy demonstrate that the distinction between mainstream and genre fiction is at least fluid and at most completely non-existent but I can certainly think of a number of authors whose work would be of interest to genre fans even though it is considered to be on the other side of the line.
Firstly, there are the authors who, much like Chabon and McCarthy produce fiction that is para-genre, and which uses genre ideas to service traditionally mainstream themes. Two particularly excellent authors in this vein are Michel Houellebecq and Jose Saramago. Houellebecq’s novel Elementary Particles (1998) explores the idea that while there are winners in the game of love, there are also losers and that humanity might well be better off decoupling itself from the urge to have sex and reproduce. Saramago’s two-part series Blindness (1995) and Seeing (2004) are set in a nameless country where, in the first book, the entire population suddenly goes blind and, in the second, an election is held only for the majority of ballots to come back blank. Both books deal with the people and their government’s futile attempts to come to terms with and adapt to radical changes in the way their worlds work. I am constantly surprised at how little the names of these authors pop up in discussions of good genre-friendly mainstream works and I can only assume that their lack of prominence in genre circles is due to the fact that neither Houellebecq nor Saramago write in English. Given how many non-English speaking genre fans read translated English genre books, I think it only fair that we return the favour, especially when the books are as brilliant as those of Houellebecq and Saramago.
Secondly, there are also works that are not in the least bit SFnal but whose power is so raw that genre audiences would adore them if they gave them a chance. the most obvious choice is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). The critic Paul Kincaid reckons that Heart of Darkness is the Ur-text for British SF and it is easy to see why. Aside from being beautifully written in that overly-adorned Victorian style, Conrad presents us with the gradual rolling back of a worldview. First, Marlow arrives in Africa and sees how Colonialism is built upon lies and oppression and then he travels up the river and meets Kurtz who, in his dying moments, looks beyond all comforting human beliefs and lies at the horrors of raw unadulterated existence. Another excellent book is Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1935). The book compares life to a marathon dance contest. Trapped and unable to escape from the music hall, the dancers are forced to compete in this absurd, degrading and exhausting competition. The book’s title refers to its ending where one of the characters loses her dreams, her hopes, her aspirations and, as in the case of a racehorse with a broken leg, it seems far more humane to just put her out of her misery.
Keen-eyed readers will notice a pattern to these choices; yes… I like gloomy books.
You know, this is a rather embarrassing question in some respects, simply because it’s a lot harder to answer than I thought it would be – the reason being that it has made me realise how little fiction I read outside the genres!
That said, there’s one writer who I can recommend without any hesitation, but even that’s a bit of a fudge. Iain Banks, when writing without the sf-nal ‘M’ in the middle, constructs brilliantly weird non-genre novels that manage to make the real world seem almost as strange as any creation of fantasy or science fiction. The Bridge is the fan’s favourite (and Banks’ own, I believe), but it’s not an easy book as an introduction; for that, I’d recommend his début novel The Wasp Factory, an everyday tale of an incredibly dysfunctional family that packs the ultimate sting in tale. It’s also a great book to recommend to teens with a strong taste for the bizarre but who claim that fiction can’t scratch that itch.
Now I come to think of it, a lot of the humour in The Wasp Factory (and Banks’ other novels) is very like that found in the more oddball modern television comedies; I wonder if Banks was an influence? The age demographics of the comedy writers might correlate quite closely… there’s probably an undergraduate dissertation in that idea, if someone fancies writing it.
But other than that, I don’t feel qualified to make general recommendations based on my limited experience, except in such cases as I know the tastes of the recommendee first-hand. In fact, I’m rather hoping to pick up some good tips from this Mind Meld!
Like the reverse question, the real, honest answer to this one is a big “it depends.” Every specific reader is finding different things to love and savor in the books she reads, and getting that reader to try a different genre often is a matter of pinpointing those things she loves and finding examples of them outside the places she’s used to finding them. So the trick of successfully matching an out-of-genre book with a dedicated SFF reader is a matter of, mostly, asking her what she particularly likes (and why), and then replicating that in a different genre. With that said, though, there are some aspects of the SF/Fantasy reading experience that I think are fairly obvious, and can easily be found outside the field.
For epic fantasy readers, the trick is finding something outside that genre that features a world drastically different from our own, with characters at all levels of an often rigidly hierarchical society, engaged in plots that spread across multiple hundreds of pages, and using language peppered with unfamiliar words. For that, a reader need only go as far as Charles Dickens and his fellow Victorians — I’d expect Wilkie Collins’s two major novels, Dickens works like Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, and particularly Thackeray’s witty and magnificent Vanity Fair would thrill many fantasy readers who love worldbuilding, memorable characters, and (now and then) a bit of melodrama. And no one who’s willing to read the fake-medieval clunkers of some of today’s fantasists should balk at reading excellent writers who happened to live a hundred or so years ago.
A lot of fantasy fans could probably get a lot of joy and thought out of Cervantes’ Don Quixote as well — though some of them might take the lesson too much to heart, and stop reading, which would be a great loss.
The sweep of events in epic fantasy, and the usual focus on influential, major characters is more difficult to find outside of that genre — I find that George Macdonald Frazer’s Flashman books have many of the same thrills, but Flashman is definitely an anti-hero, which may shock some of the more traditionalist fantasy readers. But those books are amazingly fun to read, and fans of the more bloody and decadent fantasy — from Martin to Abercrombie to Erikson — will probably find a lot to enjoy there.
Moving on slightly, urban fantasy readers could make an easy sidestep into contemporary mystery or thriller novels, unless the only thing they love about their usual reading is the mere presence of the supernatural — since most of those books are essentially private eye or amateur investigator stories. Those readers would also find that mystery is one of the few literary genres as series-obsessed as fantasy is, giving them the choice of the adventures of dozens of long-running heroes to dig their teeth into. I expect that they’d run more to the hard-boiled than the cozy side, but they have a wealth of choice either way. (And they’ll find a number of vampires over on those shelves as well — can’t get rid of the damn things; they’re the cockroaches of publishing.)
Speaking of the mystery world, fans of Sheri Tepper might well enjoy the mystery novels of Sara Paretsky. Her earlier books (up to about the near-perfect Blood Shot) are short, gripping mysteries, and the later books get longer, more strident, more polarizing, and more caught up with leftist and feminist causes…a pattern not unfamiliar to Tepper’s readers.
I’m sure many people will mention Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series, starting with Master & Commander. They’re a natural for SFF fans: a long sequence of gripping adventure novels with well-drawn, likeable main characters, set against a background of an interesting world during a time of great upheaval and war, lots of odd details (of sailing ships, mostly) to fascinate readers, and plenty of action. They are practically fantasy novels to begin with, and many people who otherwise read only fantasy have loved them.
I should also mention the wonderful works of P.G. Wodehouse, simply because he’s such a funny writer that I think everybody should read him and will love him. Start with Uncle Fred in the Springtime or Joy in the Morning or Summer Lightning. Anyone who reads to get away should try at least one Wodehouse, just to see if your ideas of humor mesh.
One general note — now that I’m this far in — is that I expect the best luck will be in jumping from genre to genre; from SFF to historical fiction or mysteries or romances (depending on what the individual reader likes), rather than to the kind of books that want to be unadorned “Fiction.” Those books have their virtues — and I love many of them — but the SFF-only reader probably doesn’t want those virtues, and the reader who looks for those virtues in SFF is most likely already reading outside the genre.
Finding books for purely SF readers will, I think, be more difficult. Readers who want primarily adventure stories in 2009 will have spread out into fantasy as well, so the SF-only reader these days is someone looking for either plausible scientific speculation (which he’s not going to find in any other fiction genre) or a particular romanticized vision of the near future (which he might find, depending on the vision, in position papers or libertarian screeds or somewhere else within the sound of the axe-grinder). For those folks, I prescribe a diet of non-fiction — either solid popularized science or books on current trends and future projections.
There’s also the growing category of “not science fiction” — books like Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which look exactly like SF except for the fact that their author claims that they aren’t. These are sometimes very good and sometimes very horrible, but they uniformly raise the blood pressure of SF-only readers, so I mention them only to warn those folks to steer clear of them. It’s much better to go to things that aren’t SFF when you’re reading outside SFF.
But, in the end, I’m hoping the question is silly. If there’s someone out there so benighted as to have only read SF and Fantasy books, I can only feel sorry for him. It’s a big, big world, filled with all sorts of wonders — and many of those wonders actually exist, or existed, unlike the wonders in SFF. I have nothing against escapism, but it gets awfully thin as an exclusive diet.
This is an interesting question, because it prompts the question: recommend for what reason? I know why my friends and I read sf/fantasy–for entertainment, maybe even for edification. And I suspect I know what my friends find so entertaining about sff–it is that often mentioned and never defined sense of wonder, that idea that this mundane world and its mundane concerns are not all there is to life, not all there will be in the future.
If the question then becomes what non-genre mainstream books contain more entertainment, more edification, or more wonder than science fiction, I am mute. Wonder is the stock-in-trade of tales of wonder. However, if the question instead becomes what non-genre mainstream books should be read to increase the pleasure and profit gained from reading science fiction, aha, that I can answer.
For it is a common experience to come across readers, especially readers of the generation after mine, who have read science fiction and fantasy so exclusively that they do not know what it is that they are reading. For them, the book is taken out of context, and is not part of that great conversation where the books of one generation speak to the books of another. The reading of the science-fiction-only reader becomes insular, and he does not recognize what he is reading. This kind of reader is the kind who thinks the trite ideas of Kurt Vonnegut are profound, merely because he has not come across them before in mainstream books, and (more to the point) has never come across the rebuttals. With fantasy the insularity is even worse: the fantasy reader who has not read the original ancient epic poems of which modern fantasy is merely a variation or imitation runs the risk of being unduly impressed with a watered-down and modernized version of a rich and ancient literary tradition.
Here is my list of what an insular sff reader should read in order to broaden his education in the literature related to his own, and which promise to increase his delight in reading sff:
- The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. These are the seminal works of which all successive Western literature merely forms a footnote. The fantastic elements, gods and monsters, curses and destinies and princes in disguise, the fall of mighty cities in the ruin of war, and all which form the backbone of modern fantasy, are present in their original forms here. These elements here serve a strong literary purpose usually absent from a tale of wonder.
- The Aeneid of Virgil. The Roman poet and magician Virgil had a sense of history absent from blind Homer: his hero served a fate that would shape the world. It would be difficult to read about Conan of Cimmeria, Gandalf the White, Jommy Cross, Michael Valentine Smith, Paul Atriedes , or Ender Wiggins without an appreciation of the archetypical tale of a hero’s journey, from the destruction of Troy, across cursed and monster-haunted seas, to the underworld and back again, through Punic love and Palatine wars.
- Various Greek tragedies: Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound; Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone; Euripides: Hippolytus, Bacchae. These are the mighty and majestic writings of which modern fantastic literature is at best a variation on a theme, or, at worst, merely a pale imitation. One could make the argument that all science fiction follows in the footsteps of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (indeed, this is the gist of the argument made by Brian Aldiss). Frankenstein, also known as Prometheus Unbound, is a riff or reversal of Prometheus Bound. With apologies to classical scholars, I will not recommend any Greek Comedies: their influence on successive generations have been minimal.
- The Biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Chronicles, Kings, Psalms, Job. A reader would be grossly uninformed not recognize the overwhelming impact the Biblical writings have had, not merely on the religion of Europe, but upon the literature. The basic difference between Greek and Biblical epics can be seen in the contrast between Oedipus and Jacob, or between King David and Prince Orestes. The ancient Greek cannot escape his fate; the ancient Jew can repent and choose again. No Greek hero would have spared King Saul when finding him asleep in a cave, as David did, for example.
- The Peloponnesian War of Thucydides. There is no point in reading or writing military SF if you do not have an idea of why battles are fought. No writer has ever been clearer on the causes of war. Merely reading Starship Troopers is not going to tell you what the military is all about.
- Paradise Lost of Milton. The Puritan poet pre-empts the entire field of English epic poetry in this work, and he suborns the motifs and tropes of Homer and Virgil, reversing the role of heroics to display the difference between Christian and Pagan themes. The modern world view which you, dear reader, have absorbed with your mother’s milk, has been influenced, like it or not, by these themes, so you might as well know whence they come.
- Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. The Modern SF tale is a variation of the traveler’s tales of old, a genre that Swift expropriates for his own didactic and satiric purposes. Merely reading Stranger in a Strange Land is not going to tell you what satire is all about.
- Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This is the original for Asimov’s Foundation, and is one of the books that founded the literature of history. At the same time, I might also recommend some of the historical novels of Alfred Duggan, such as Knight with Armor or Little Emporers. I have read far too many fantasy novels by writers whose knowledge of the Middle Ages comes from playing Dungeons and Dragons, and a little bit of realism comes in handy.
- Plato’s Timaeus and Critias. The origin of the Atlantis story. Also, the first attempt to use fiction as a vehicle for presenting a political theory.
- Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia. All Utopian and Dystopian SF springs from this fountain. It makes for interesting reading, since what is being described is a Puritan, and not a Communist, communism.
- Plutarch’s Lives, especially : “Caesar,” “Cato the Younger,” “Antony,” “Brutus.”
- Dante’s Divine Comedy. This is what Niven and Pournelle were copying in their Inferno.
- Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Obviously.
- Mallory’s Le Mort d’Arthur. Modern fantasy should know its roots.
- Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Again, modern fantasy should know its roots.
- Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is good practice learning how to read and to write a good book. Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the germ from which endless SFF stories of time travel, first contact, and high-tech meets low-tech derive.
- Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV, The Tempest, As You Like It, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar and various Sonnets. If you have not read the Bard, you are a Philistine.
For science fiction readers and writers interested in world-building, some basic knowledge of the real world and how it was built is essential, not to mention a little bit of logic and rigorous thinking. Along this line, I might recommend Hobbes’ Leviathan, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and the Federalist Papers of Hamilton, Jay, and Madison. To learn what to avoid, or to read an account of the world that has nothing to do with how the real world works, read Marx Das Kapital. You will get a chuckle over this millenarian zealot’s idea that capitalism leads to poverty and socialism leads to wealth, peace, justice and plenty. For a zealot from the other side of the political spectrum, I might suggest reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
There is a thread of socialist and libertarian political thought that runs through the science fiction field, from the writings of H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon on the socialist side, to (at least some of) the writings of L. Neil Smith, Victor Koman, Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Mike Flynn, Donald Kingsbury, Neal Stephenson and yours truly on the libertarian side: reading a fictional world view of these ideas without seeing them in the original context is like thinking you know bears because you saw one stuffed and posed on display in a museum, as opposed to seeing them in the world.
I cannot end the list without giving honorable mention to Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, and Napoleon of Notting Hill by the same author. These are not science fiction, but they pass close enough that our watchmen on the boundaries can see them plain without a spyglass. Napoleon of Notting Hill, by no coincidence, takes place in the year 1984. In both these books we see some of the conventions and assumptions common to science fiction turned on their head to comical, and even philosophical, effect. (For example, the opening line of Notting Hill contains what could be a warning for science fiction writers: The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at one of the games called,”Keep to-morrow dark,” and which is also named “Cheat the Prophet.” The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all.For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.)
The reason why it is important to have a grounding in these great books, whose fame will never pass away, before turning to the latest multivolume novel by Robert Jordan, whose fame is already fading, is that perspective matters. Modern readers reading modern books by modern authors have presented to them only modern ideas, which means, ideas that have not stood the test of time, which means, ideas told from one group that has assumed them without examination to another group that accepts them without examination. The modern reader who reads modern books by authors who only read modern books runs the risk of merely accepting the assumptions of the modern age without examining or questioning them. Since we live in an age particularly addicted to narrative propaganda fastidiously divorced from reality or reason, this danger is not harmless.
An unexamined idea is not worth having! (This is an idea of mine I have always accepted without question.)
Filed under: Mind Meld
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