Lost on the Science Fiction Landscape – What Should I Read Next?

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?

9 thoughts on “Lost on the Science Fiction Landscape – What Should I Read Next?”

  1. Well, one place that might initially be worth checking out for ideas is sfgateway.net – they’ve got a lot of good, cheap, classic novels up there, ranging from half a century ago or more to just about the present day.

  2. It was this problem of getting lost in the SF landscape that prompted a couple of us to list all those SF works that won fan voted (Hugo and Locus) but not interest-group or panel voted (Nebula and Locus) award winning books and films.

    Also included were works that have been continually in print for over 50 years. All the entries were then cross-referenced. Any author with more than one entry got and entry on themselves and their principal other works.

    This methodology hopefully highlighted SF works genre afficionados truly liked.

    Following this strict methodology the result…
    _Essential SF: A Concise Guide_
    http://www.concatenation.org/essentialsf.html

  3. Hi Jamie.

    I do feel your pain. Some years ago, I wondered what I was missing. So I started reading Hugo and Nebula nominees and winners, especially authors I had never tried before, to broaden my horizons and get gateways into corners of SF and Fantasy I had never tread.

    To answer your question specifically, that depends on what corner of SF you want to tackle. Suggesting Ballard and Bujold in the same breadth is about as logical as suggesting Weber and Disch.

    If you are looking for seminal authors who have had an impact on the genre, that’s a slightly different question.

    Given your tastes and prior reading, Varley would be an obvious bridge off of Heinlein. Gregory Benford, too, might be a good choice for you in the same vein. I think a lot of Poul Anderson’s work will work for you.

  4. As far as I’m concerned (as a huge fan of hers), you should go straight to Octavia Butler. I’d recommend beginning with her Xenogenesis trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago), which has recently been reprinted as Lilith’s Brood. I think it might actually build on some of the interests you already have in interesting ways while taking you to a new and unexplored area of science fiction – but also, I just love this series. Since you mentioned not having explored weird fiction, I’d also highly recommend China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station as a way into that. It’s further from your previous reading, but so good and one of those books that has gotten a lot of attention in the last few years.

  5. Since your post actually lists a bunch of authors you feel you ought to have read, and since (speaking as someone who’s read most of them and knows the genre well) it’s a good list, I’d say you don’t need further help! Start with those names and hop to it!

  6. I think science fiction (and genre lit in general) has reached a point where you can’t be a universalist anymore. Math hit that point with the death of Henri Poincare in 1912, the last person who could claim expertise in all major branches of the field. I suspect that literature hit that point at least a half century earlier.

    Specialization is not only a necessity of contemporary scholarship, it’s a virtue.

  7. John Varley really stands out to me. Probably because he’s one of my Golden Age (12 years old) writers. The Gaea trilogy (especially Titan) is pretty amazing. But if you don’t know whether he’s a good fit for you I would try The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977), his first novel (short, less than 250 pages), and at least his best short SF like Picnic on Nearside (1974), Retrograde Summer (1975), The Black Hole Passes (1975), In the Bowl (1975), In the Hall of the Martian Kings (1976), The Phantom of Kansas (1976), Overdrawn at the Memory Bank (1976), Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance (1976), Bagatelle (1976), Air Raid (1977), Lollipop and the Tar Baby (1977), The Barbie Murders (1978), The Persistence of Vision (1978), The Pusher (1981), Press Enter [] (1984) and Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo (1986). I think the bulk of these are in The John Varley Reader

  8. Jamie,

    I have been reading SF from 1970 and by 1972 I felt the exact same pain you do now. So I did two things. One: decided to read everything nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and (the top five nominees) in the Locus awards. Two: I found lists by prominent SF authors or voters who chose the 100 or 50 best works of SF up to the time they voted (this included David Pringle, two different Locus votings, Various ones I found from Astounding/Analog, a list from John Clute and one from David Hartwell. After I worked myself through 95% of those (sometimes there would be too many books by an author I really disliked among the various lists) I included the John W. Campbell Memorial awards and (from England) the BSFA Awards and Arther C. Clarke awards. Mixing awards with lists helped me get a broader view – as popular does not always mean best. My problem now after reading all those authors is keeping up with my favorites! (And unfortunately I still find some gaps – I just bought a small book from England of “100 must read SF Novels” and there were still 17 or so I had not yet read! The point is to dive in and enjoy. There is so much to find that is good as history of the genre, as story and as good reading!

    If you would like, I can e-mail some of those lists that I have on my computer – especially the Hartwell and Clute ones. And, of course, the awards are all n the Locus database. If I can help I would love to do so.

  9. I’ve got a list of my pre-Campbell era reading here: http://spiralgalaxyreviews.blogspot.com/2010/09/declaring-victory.html

    I’d say reading Stapledon was among the most important (and amazing!) part of that list. “We” and “R. U. R.” were also surprising. I’d also definitely recommend “Gladiator” by Philip Wylie and “The Purple Cloud” by M. P. Shiel.

    A lot of things on that list lean more towards fantasy than sf, but the genre categories were a lot of fuzzier back then–which makes sense because they hadn’t really been invented yet. If you haven’t read Dracula yet, I’d highly recommend it!

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