Remember a few months back when a remarkable infographic of the history of science fiction was let loose on the web? I think I spent hours looking at that infographic, growing increasingly uneasy. It was the same unease I feel after returning from Readercon, my favorite science fiction convention. The unease is a reflection of my awareness of just how little SF I’ve actually read. And it can sometimes lead to that oh-so-depressing thought that I’ll never be able to read it all. Keep in mind I am speaking specifically of science fiction–my experience with fantasy and horror is too limited for consideration.
The 1940s was probably the last time it was possible to read all of the science fiction being published. When looking at what I’ve managed to read as part of the broader overall landscape of the genre, it is quite small. But if I can’t read it all, maybe I can at least sample as much of it as I can. In part, this is what I’ve been doing with my Vacation in the Golden Age. But why sample from all across the landscape in the first place? I think of myself not only as a science fiction fan, but a science fiction writer, and an amateur scholar of the literature. As such, I want to have some familiarity with all of the landscape, even if my specialty and what I really enjoy reading is more limited.
Or put another way, I want to broaden my horizons.
I’ve been on this path for nearly three decades now. When I started reading science fiction, it was mostly one author (Piers Anthony). That eventually broadened until I was exposed to more and more authors and sub-genres and work spread across different time periods. I imagine that this is a fairly common path: some particular author draws you in, you read them voraciously and then begin to risk other authors. And yet, there are still vast areas of the science fiction landscape with which I have no experience and they represent appalling lapses.
There are countless ways to breakup the landscape into more manageable chunks, but I’ll use just three of them to expose these lapses of mine. It is my hope that with your help, I can begin sampling them in an intelligent and meaningful way.
I’ll begin by looking at the landscape over time. Many scholars of the genre agree that modern science fiction was born with Mary Shelly‘s Frankenstein–a book which I’ve never read. Modern commercial science fiction began with Jules Verne and I have indeed sample that early era of “science adventure” stories. I’ve read Verne and Wells. My experience with the “superscience” era is very limited. I’ve read some early E. E. Smith, but not Olaf Stapledon or Murry Leinster. As we move into the Golden Age, my experience grows exponentially. I’ve read vast amounts from this period, but certainly not everything. And while I enjoy the stories from the Golden Age, I by no means like all of them. Beyond the Golden Age is what has come to be known as the Classic Period and here, too, I’ve read quite a bit. Move into the New Wave and I’ve sample here and there, but there are large gaps in my reading, particularly the authors that made up the British New Wave. I’ve sampled stories from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but in very limited ways, and more from the 1970s than the other two decades combined. I’ve read very little science fiction from the 2000s. So far in the present decade, I’m doing far better, especially when it comes to short fiction.
You can also divide up the landscape by sub-genre. There are some sub-genres in which I am pretty well-read: space operas, hard science fiction and time travel being three big ones for me. However, there are vast areas in the sub-genre landscape that I’ve completely missed: Cyberpunk, Slipstream and “weird” fiction are three good examples of which I know almost nothing.
Finally, you can look at the landscape by the major players in the field. I’ve read almost everything that Isaac Asimov wrote, fiction or nonfiction. I’ve read a good deal of Barry N. Malzberg. I’ve read, perhaps one quarter of Heinlein and Clarke‘s output. But what about those author’s I’ve barely touched: Poul Anderson, Orson Scott Card, David Brin, Vernor Vinge, Thomas Disch, Mike Resnick, and Samuel Delany just to name a few scattered examples. And then there are the authors that I feel like I should have read at least something and yet I haven’t: Gene Wolfe, Brian Aldiss, John Varley, Octavia Butler, Lois McMaster Bujold, Joan Vinge, J. G. Ballard. I could go on and on.
Looking at those lists, I sometimes ask myself how can I be a real fan of science fiction if I haven’t yet read those authors? It’s not that I don’t like the writers. How could I judge? I’ve never read them? Why not? Simply by virtue of the fact that I haven’t gotten around to them yet, I suppose. But then, being a fan of the genre is not quite the same thing as being a scholar or a writer within the genre. As a fan, you read what you love. As a writer, you write what you love. As a scholar, even an amateur one, you do your best to move further and further outside your comfort zone. I’ve been doing this steadily for years, but you can see I still have a long way to go.
And so I turn to you for some direction, the fans and writers and scholars of our genre. Fully acknowledging the crime that these lapses appear to be, I now wish to make good, to do my penance and move on to those distant horizons. The problem is, in such a vast landscape, which direction do I head? Of those gaps that I’ve listed, which is the one in most urgent need of being filled?