James Wallace Harris maintains a website devoted to identifying the Classics of Science Fiction. He is fascinated by how books are remembered and forgotten, and often writes about science fiction at his blog, Auxiliary Memory.
There’s all kinds of science fiction stories, but the kind I love, are those tales that blow my mind by integrating new concepts into the latest storytelling techniques. But, I’m getting old, and I’ve read thousands of science fiction stories, so my sense-of-wonder is rather jaded. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up on being amazed by creative science fiction. In my youth, science fiction was a psychedelic of future possibilities. In my retired years, science fiction is the Viagra for my aging sense-of-wonder. There are infinite speculative universes that science fiction writers explore. I want to follow those writers who work the frontiers of the unknown, yet stay within the measure of science.
Right now I’m rereading Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner and Hyperion by Dan Simmons, each for the third time. These two novels might be among the most ambitious science fiction novels ever written. They are singular feats of fictional invention. There are hundreds of science fiction novels published each year, but damn few aim as high as Brunner and Simmons. The challenge is to find the new writers who have that kind of ambition and support them. I don’t mean to be critical, but most science fiction is derivative. The average SF novel and reader enjoys embracing a comfortably micro-genre, that tells a story that’s been told many times before. And there’s a good and justifiable reason for that-their authors fall in love with a cherish science fiction concept and want to colonize it with good-enough storytelling. I just don’t want to be a tourist in those fictional lands. I’m old, and don’t have the time to indulge in such Disneylands.
For most of my life I’ve been playing reading catch-up with the classics of science fiction. I’m usually a year, and often many years, behind discovering the best new SF stories. I have to wait for a critical mass of fans to find those stories before I hear about them. What I find really sweet in my sixties is to read a science fictional book before it’s validated by the wisdom of crowds. And in recent years I’ve been playing a little game. I thrill at reading new novels before I find them on “Best Science Fiction of the Year” lists. I feel almost as smug if I read them before they win awards the following year. And what would really boost my ego is if I could become a tipping point maven, like Malcolm Gladwell described in his first book, convincing others to read these stories before their waves crest.
To achieve this goal requires taking chances. I need to read more books, and books by writers I’ve never read. One factor of getting old is sticking with the tried and true. Too many of my baby boomer peers won’t listen to music that came out after 1975. And I know many SF fans born in the 1950s, who grew up in the 1960s like myself, who never read any science fiction newer than the 1970s.
During 2015 I found three exceptional science fiction novels soon after they came out, but I can’t pat myself on the back too much because they were all by favorite authors. Yet, I did find a great deal of satisfaction reading them before the end-of-the-year lists came out. They were Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson and The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.
The next stage requires looking over the Best SF of 2015 lists, and reading those books that hopefully will win a Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Clarke, Tiptree, Campbell, Dick awards in 2016. Right now the reviewer wind seems to be blowing me towards these books. I’ve read Wilson, McDonald, Swanwick and Liu, but not much of their work. The others are unknown writers to me.
- Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman
- Lightless by C. A. Higgins
- The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson
- The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
- Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
- The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow
My Reading Challenge for 2016 is to discover five amazing books by writers I don’t know, as they are published, and before the end-of-year lists.
The Problem: Way too many science fiction books are published. And that obstacle is raised higher by the fact that science fiction is lumped in with fantasy and horror. I’m after pure, state-of-the-art, science fiction. I thought Aurora claimed new territory and defined the current discussion of what science fiction is about right now.
The Solution: Read all the websites that consistently review cutting edge science fiction. Look for books that get good reviews across several sites. I’ve even thought about setting up a RSS reader devoted exclusively for the task. (I fantasize about being smart enough to write a machine learning program in Python to read the web for science fiction reviews, but I’m not.) The term “science fiction” labels far too many books I don’t consider science fiction. Science fiction is a very imprecise term. I only want to read a fraction of 1% of the reviews labelled science fiction. I was just at Audible looking at its new releases for science fiction, and I went through page after page after page listing 20 books a page and only found three books to put in my wish list.
These are the review sites where I often find books I want to read.
- Analog Science Fiction and Fact
- Asimov’s Science Fiction
- Kirkus Reviews
- Locus Online
- Strange Horizons
- The Guardian
- The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
After tracking down book review sites, I figure the next best radar detector is news sites like SF Signal, io9, Tor, Locus Online to scan for link buzz. Books that deserve attention get lots of attention. Regularly reading SF Signal’s “SF/F/H Link Posts” makes it easier to spot books approaching the tipping point. Another place to look for trending novels is at my local bookstore. Books stacked near the door, or on shelves labeled “Staff Picks” are reasons to take notice. I also read many blogs, and my internet friends are often great bellwethers of what their readers are reading.
When all is said and done, I’ll be lucky to find five books that meet my criteria before next December. I spend a lot of time studying old science fiction, and as time passes it’s obvious that only a handful of novels survive the test of time each year. What are my chances of actually finding them in the year they come out?