MIND MELD: New SF/F Recommendations for the Golden Age Reader
So you get introduced to a new acquaintance as a sf/f reader/fan/writer, etc. The new person says “Oh yes, I love sf/f too! I love Clarke! (or Heinlein/Asimov/Le Guin, etc.)” Basically, this person hasn’t read any new sf since Rendezvous with Rama (1974) or any fantasy since Tolkien.
Read on to see the recommendations of our illustrious panel…
So many newer sf/f writers are producing excellent fiction that this is a very tough question. Just a few of those who could be recommended to someone whose reading stopped at works from before the mid-seventies: Connie Willis, Neil Gaiman, John Kessel, Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, James Patrick Kelly, George R. R. Martin, Nicola Griffith, Greg Bear, Vonda McIntyre, and so many, many more. (I am deliberately not mentioning any of my close personal friends, although quite a number of them are writing highly original and critically acclaimed fiction and could easily be added to this list.)
There is one work in particular, however, that I would put into this person’s hands and say, “Read this. You have to read this.” That story is Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life.” Why? It is my considered opinion that it is almost as perfect as a story can be, in any genre. At the same time, it couldn’t be anything other than science fiction.
There are a number of elements that contribute to the story’s near-perfection. I tend to enjoy narrative experimentation, but not when it is only for experimentation’s sake. In “Story of Your Life,” the unusual chronological structure and the use of the second person work in support of the unfolding story as well as the theme. What at first might seem a random juxtaposition of various events in the narrator’s life is actually a reflection of the new way of thinking she has been forced to master in order to interpret the language of the aliens. The wealth of ideas, the brilliant fusion of physics and linguistic theory, is stunning, but it does not occur at the expense of the characters. It is a story of ideas, but it is also an incredibly moving story, in which the simultaneity on which both the plot and the theme hinge becomes clear to the reader emotionally in the final scene.
From where I sit, there are few works of fiction more effective and well-constructed than “Story of Your Life.” In any genre.
Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Hiromi Goto, Larissa Lai, Martin Mordecai, Caroline Stevermer.
I would also point them to old dogs with great new tricks:
Terry Pratchett, Gene Wolfe, Diana Wynne Jones, Daniel Pinkwater.
I would then suggest some “gonzo futurism” writers–mostly white guys, okay, but their work has the same appeal as a Judd Apatow hero: belches, farts, scratches, sniffs, potty mouth, a lot of laughs, and a lot of heart:
David Prill, Bill Fitzhugh, Christopher Moore, Douglas Bell, Dave Barry, and the progenitor of all gonzo futurism, Carl Hiaasen. For the women, try Jody Scott and (ahem) Jennifer Stevenson.
True fact: the first things that came to mind were M. John Harrison’s Viriconium books, J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, and Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius books, all of which of course were actually written either well before or only a few years after your 1974 cut off, but are still just about the most modernest SFF out there, if modern means anything other than written in a year beginning with “2”. Actually most of the other SFF books I think of as being really bleeding-edge modern were written between about 1960 and 1980. (I don’t mean that as either praise or criticism. Being really bleeding-edge modern is a good trick but it’s not everything).
Hal Duncan’s Vellum maybe fits the bill, being recent and (in parts) self-consciously modern(ist)? Somehow Steph Swainston’s Year of Our War, et seq., feel very of-this-minute-though-casual-about-it in a way that a lot of other recently-published SFF books I like equally don’t, quite.
I’ll try not to get hung up on the “modern” thing. If the last thing the person read was Rendezvous with Rama and the goal is to get them to read something kind of recognizably a similar animal but not quite so, well, you know, I would recommend Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels.
If I were recommending reading to someone who hasn’t read anything in the past 35 years, I would start them out with stories that are less hard science and more story, similar to Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, LeGuin. Those were more innocent times when we had barely been to the moon. This also assumes the person wants to read novels and not short stories, which is a very different kettle of fish.
So I’m going to recommend that they read C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow series; Elizabeth Moon’s Heris Serrano series; Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series; Jack McDevitt’s Priscilla Hutchins series; Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet and Mike Shepherd’s Kris Longknife. All are series books that bring a reader into science fiction and have a strong sense of story. Many people would call them “light” reading, but if someone hasn’t read any sf in 35 years, he or she needs to start with an appetizer. If they enjoy these books, then it’s time to see where they would like to go next: aliens, politics, near future, far future, dystopic, etc. The possibilities are almost as vast as space itself for the main course reading. And for dessert? Well by then this fictional reader will be deciding for him or herself, I think, and my work would be done.
On the fantasy side, if the only thing they ever read was Tolkien, it’s hard to know where to start. If they liked Tolkien, then they should try Judith Tarr, a prolific writer in the past 35 years in high fantasy and historical fantasy, including under two other names. And having already tasted Cherryh, Bujold and Moon, all three writers also have fantasy novels that might be appealing. Do they like their mythical critters? Are they going to object to vampires and werewolves? If not, Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty series takes them smack into modern-day urban fantasy, as would Laura Anne Gilman. Just because someone read Tolkien 35 years ago (as I did) does not mean their current taste runs to high fantasy (mine doesn’t).
The goal is to allow this person to sample the wealth of works and the natural progression of ideas in genre in the intervening decades. That’s hard to do today. Bookstores only have the latest books and only for a few weeks. Libraries get rid of old stock. This person would need to be invited into a home like mine where three walls of my office are filled with genre works by a wide variety of authors covering almost a half-century of genre fiction. They need a spirit guide, someone who has been reading genre when they weren’t, someone who will listen to what they did and didn’t like, make new recommendations and then revise them again. In the end, this fictional reader would have a personalized list to take to online used book markets, such as abe.com (now Amazon). Old books are new again.
John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War for science fiction. China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station or George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice series for fantasy. Joe Hill’s short story collection for horror. Those are the basics. But then I try to proceed further afield.
When I was first asked to participate in this Mind Meld, I thought it would be fun, but once I started trying to assemble a comprehensive list of works to clue someone in on what had been happening in the “genre” (SF/F/H) since the early 70’s it soon became clear to me how impossible that would be. The biggest problem is that I just haven’t read widely enough in it to be a reliable guide. Add to this the fact that I’m pretty ignorant as to what’s been going on in specifically Science Fiction (my list is primarily Fantasy and Horror), and I could see I would have to somehow focus my answer. I decided to limit myself to the short story and decided to list what I thought were some (by no means comprehensive) of the best collections of stories I’d read. I can already think of a dozen other collections I didn’t get on this list that I enjoyed as much as the ones I was able to list, works by Paul DiFilippo, Graham Joyce, Holly Phillips, Kim Newman, etc., etc., etc. I limited myself to 25 books. Otherwise there would have been no end to it. I would say that if anyone really wanted to track the course of the short story through the time period mentioned, they would do well to review The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Gordon Van Gelder, SciFiction, edited by Ellen Datlow, The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling, Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction by Gardner Dozois. It’s not that there are not other equally great anthologies and magazines (both print and on-line) but these mentioned are pretty much a guarantee of quality. Before I get to the list, if I was going to add novels, there are three I can think of that I would most definitely include — The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, The House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. OK, here’s my short story collection reading recommendations as of this moment, Monday, June 8th, 2009, at 8:47 AM. You know, even by this afternoon this list would be different.
- Magic for Beginners — Kelly Link
- Burning Your Boats — Angela Carter
- Last Summer At Mars Hill — Elizabeth Hand
- The Nightmare Factory — Thomas Ligotti
- Hearts in Atlantis — Stephen King
- Trujillo — Lucius Shepard (PS edition)
- Her Smoke Rose Up Forever — James Tiptree Jr.
- The Imago Sequence — Laird Barron
- The Story of Your Life — Ted Chiang
- Tales of Old Earth — Michael Swanwick
- City of Saints and Madmen — Jeff VanderMeer
- The Enquiries of Dr. Eszterhazy — Avram Davidson
- Map of Dreams — M. Rickert
- Things That Never Happen — M. John Harrison
- The Island of Dr. Death — Gene Wolfe
- Breathmoss and other Exhalations — Ian R. MacLeod
- Beluthahatchie — Andy Duncan
- Magic Terror — Peter Straub
- Absolute Uncertainty — Lucy Sussex
- Mad Dog Summer — Joe Lansdale
- Black Juice — Margo Lanagan
- 20th Century Ghosts — Joe Hill
- Streetcar Dreams — Richard Bowes
- In the Forest of Forgetting — Theodora Goss
- Brighten to Incandescence — Michael Bishop
I’d probably need more information that than to make a good recommendation, but I bet context would provide most of that in any particular instance. I expect people in that situation would fall mostly into two buckets: young readers who had a SF class that they enjoyed, or who came across some of the classics on their own (possibly through the hallowed Library of Dad); and those who read SFF when they were young, but haven’t read it in their adult lives.
(Even then, that’s an awfully huge gap. I’d expect to see readers who haven’t read any SF newer than Ender’s Game, or who haven’t read fantasy since “The Belgariad,” but thirty-five years is a long, long span — anyone who hasn’t read SFF in that long is probably going to be perfectly happy never reading it again. Actually, if this happened to me, I’d immediately suspect this person of humoring me and not having any real interest in SFF at all — so I’d probably try to move the book conversation towards Simon Schama or Martin Amis or Henry Petroski or someone else on the “outside.”)
But, assuming this person is both actually interested in SFF and completely unread in any of it younger than a presidential candidate, what we have is a reader whose conception of SF is essentially historical, so there are two possible approaches to bring him up to date: either dragging him through the decades (which I’d only recommend if this is someone you know well and who is willing to embark on a serious reading project) or tossing a few exemplary modern works at him. I’d recommend the latter.
In a particular case, the best bet would be to find out exactly what this person really liked in the antediluvian SFF she did read, but, lacking those specifics, here are some things I might try:
For fantasy, I’m assuming the reference to Tolkien means this person wants more epics, because otherwise the genre has speciated so wildly since then it would be difficult to make any suggestions. (What kind of contemporary fantasy do you recommend to someone who’s never read anything but Tolkien? Damnfino.) So there the best bet would be to throw really good modern epics at him. George R.R. Martin comes immediately to mind — as a bonus, his books should be of interest to readers who have been immersed in other kinds of reading (mysteries, thrillers, historical fiction, straight history) for the past few decades.
(And, as I think about other candidates, I’m realizing that most of my favorite secondary-world fantasies — Steven Erikson, Stephen Brust, China Mieville, and so on — are all very much for readers who have been steeped in fantasy for a long time, and are ready to see new things done with it. This reader is very different, and probably wouldn’t get as much out of those books.)
Robert Jordan might be another good choice, though I have to admit I haven’t read him. He does have millions of fans, though, and I’ve been told the beginning of Wheel of Time is very obviously Tolkienian.
Moving on to SF, I think what would be best is someone who writes at least in a mildly old-fashioned vein — if I were answering the question a decade ago, I’d point to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, Walter Jon Williams’s Aristoi and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. These days, Alastair Reynolds’s novels would be a good choice, particularly the standalone Pushing Ice, as would books by writers like Jack McDevitt, John Scalzi, and Robert Charles Wilson. I also think Kage Baker’s Company series is great fun, and doesn’t rely on anyone else’s stories for its impact (unlike so much of modern SF).
Of course, unless this mythical reader only read writers who were all dead by 1974, it would be easy to suggest that she should pick up the later books by those authors she read back then — though this may not be as useful if she was a big Heinlein fan. And nearly everything generally cited as good books for new readers would work for someone coming off a hiatus like that, since she essentially would be a new reader of SFF.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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