The Great Big SF Reading List

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Display of ‘vintage’ science fiction titles in Chapters window

Arthur C. Clark once called science fiction “The only genuinely mind expanding drug”, proof positive that he hadn’t tried any of the others. And yet, there’s something to this flippant quote. SF is the literary genre, next to the romantic novel, most often demeaned; despite this, it is perhaps the genre which has most influenced our recent history – inspiring technological and social change as varied as mass transit systems, space travel, and urban promiscuity.

Science Fiction is a kind of architecture of the mind, laying out possibilities sometimes loosely and grandly, sometimes explicitly and with the greatest conservatism – for technology to engineer. There’s another quote I like about the genre, this one by Frederik Pohl- “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” This cuts to the experimental nature of writing about the future, and the knack great authors have had of deriving subtly correct predictions about complex chaotic systems.

Today, the pace of change has outstripped the possibility, and perhaps even the desirability, of accurately predicting the future. The death of positivism, the dissolution of main stream culture in favour of a neutered commercialisation of the counter-culture, a near universal alienation from the corrupt pragmatism of politics; these things don’t lend themselves to the problem solving, manifest destiny of John W. Campbell’s lauded ‘Golden Age’. Science fiction has had to change – bifurcating into the utopianism of the post singularity genre, worlds in which all of our insurmountable problems disappear in the radical compression of technological advancement enabled by post human intelligences; and the experiential literary speculative fictions of Philip K. Dick’s paranoic simulcra, JG Ballards reconstructions of a reality erased by virtualities, and Bruce Sterling’s subjective political dystopias.

Science Fiction rests at an interesting cross roads. It’s deep unfashionability is contradicted and intertwined with the its cultural influence. This Summer every major ‘tent pole’ release is a Sci-Fi movie: although few of these films have much in common with the intellectually freewheeling, ‘sensawonda’ produced by written SF, the thought provoking kick that Clark eluded to. High fashion, dulled to irrelevance by hipster ‘makers’ and neoludite artists, seems poised to adopt Steam Punk whole sale. The art world, for decades addicted to the shocking and shallowly theoretical delights of conceptualism, has been shaken awake by Low Brow / Pop Surrealism – figurative painting and sculpture born of the weirdo SF aesthetic of underground comix and the Ballardeque machine love of the Hot Rod subculture.

Back in literary science fiction land, the magazines – paying authors tiny, near worthless fractions of their former story rates [in the introduction to Kurt Vonnegut’s short story collection ‘Bagombo Snuff Box’ – that’s the one where he laid out his infamous 8 Rules of writing – the author notes that after WW2, he earned more selling his first three stories than in a year working at GE] – have devolved into endless repetitions of succouring libertarian space opera (Asimovs), or abandoned SF wholesale in favour of fusions of low Fantasy and Horror (New Weird, Bizarro).

There are stirrings of hope for the commercial life of the genre. Podcasts have become paying markets and built new audiences for short form SF (Steve Eley’s Escape pod being the most prominent). Blogs which collate the flash fiction of young authors, provide the exposure and the experience once obtainable via the magazines. As for the direction of the genre, and the possibility of original work being done, only the future can tell.

For the longest of times, I’ve been promising my girlfriend a recommended reading list to bone up on Science Fictiony goodness. I grew up reading SF almost exclusively, and though my palate has now tempered, and I’m far from an expert in the genre, I remain smugly opinionated about matters Science Fictional.

What self respective geek can TIVo the Battle Star finale, without first having first explored the genres literary routes? What Watchmench can argue the finer details of squid replacement, without a thorough steeping in the pulps? I kid, a little. In any case, the wee lady was keen that I make her a list, and being far too bumptious an individual to construct such a bibliography without sharing it with the world, I present ‘The Great Big SF Reading List’, being an incomplete and arbitrary list of titles considered to be of exceptional worth or peculiar interest.

The list does not purport to provide a canon, but rather one perspective. The collated preferences of a life well wasted. Heinlein, Silverberg or Scott Card are notable by their absence. There’s little enough representation from the 90’s and beyond- no Ted Chiang, Vernor Vinge, Charlie Stross, Rudy Rucker nor Bruce Sterling; more recent authors, some of whose short story work I’ve greatly enjoyed.

It is an introductory list, deliberately incomplete, heterogeneous. A list that tries to distil a taste of the golden age, new wave, cyberpunk and post singularity genres. It leans toward softer ‘social science’ SF, but doesn’t negate the hardest of scientific speculation. This is a list of slivers. Slivers of that diverse, obtuse and gloriously indefinable thing called Science Fiction. A list that hopelessly fails, and is delicious just the same.

The Books

Intervention, Saga of the Exiles (The Many Coloured Land, The Golden Torc, The Non-Born King, The Adversary), Galactic Milieu Trilogy (Jack the Bodiless, Diamond Mask, Magnificat)Julian May

Dune (first of a series, but fine on it’s own) – Frank Herbert
Rama, Rendezvous with Rama (Rama 2) – Arthur C. Clark
Man in the High Castle, A Scanner Darkly, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, Dr. BloodmoneyPhilip K. Dick

Foundation Series (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation, Foundations Edge, Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation + Friends of Foundation) – Isaac Asimov

The Xeelee Sequence (Raft, Timelike infinity, Flux, Ring) – Stephen Baxter
Dangerous Visions (ed Harlan Ellison)
Earth Sea Trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore) – Ursula K. Le Guin
Forty Thousand in Gehenna, Downbelow Station – CJ Cherryh (tomes, wonderful tomes but tomes)
The Earth Book of StormgatePoul Anderson
NeuromancerWilliam Gibson
More than HumanTheodore Sturgeon
Space ChanteyRA Lafferty
The Dark is Rising Sequence (Over Sea, Under Stone; The Dark is Rising; Greenwitch; The Grey King; Silver on the Tree) – Susan Cooper
The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, Short Stories (any collection) – HG Wells
Short Stories (any collection) – Larry Niven
Orbitsville, One Million Tomorrows, The Ceres SolutionBob Shaw
The Stainless Steel RatHarry Harrison
Norstrilia, The Rediscovery of ManCordwainer Smith
Slaughterhouse 5, Cats CradleKurt Vonnegut
A Clockwork OrangeAnthony Burgess
Farenheit 451Ray Bradbury
The Drowned World, CrashJG Ballard
Hothouse, Dracula Unbound Brian Aldiss
Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) – Kim Stanley Robinson
Brave New WorldAldous Huxley
Orynx and Crake, The Handmaids TaleMargaret Atwood
Virtual Mode Piers Anthony
1984George Orwell
Times FoolGlyn Maxwell
Lanark Alasdair Grey
Babel-17 Samuel R. Delany
The Star Rover Jack London
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (a trilogy in five parts) – Douglas Adams
Graphic Novels – Y The Last Man, Preacher, Transmetropolitan
LullabyChuck Palahniuk

Addendum (Items added on further consideration)

Down and Out in the Magic KingdomCory Doctorow
The Metamorphosis of Prime IntellectRoger Williams

That’s my brief list. Here’s another more substantial.

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9 thoughts on “The Great Big SF Reading List

  1. Some really fine choices there!
    The Susan Cooper books especially are a great read though cruelly overlooked these days I think and that film they made was awful!
    Eoin

  2. Simon, Homeward Bounders looks good, I’ll keep an eye out for it. Eoin, loved Susan Cooper growing up. Heard the movie was terrible. Such a pity, could have made something amazing in the right hands.

  3. *cough* Earthsea not quite SF *cough*

    Which reminds me, Le Guin’s book on writing is supposed to be quite useful – ‘Steering the Craft’ – might be worth checking out at next book-buying binge?

    Actually, aren’t the Susan Cooper books fantasy also? Where oh where is the good kids/YA scifi? (Starfleet Academy series of books does not count.)

  4. @Claire – I’ve included some examples of Speculative Fiction, that don’t fit the narrow definition of science fiction per say.

    Quite a few of the books listed are actually YA, specifically..

    The Ceres Solution, The Stainless Steal Rat, Earth Sea / Dark is Rising books, Virtual Mode, and arguably Cat’s Cradle.

  5. Hey there! That’s a pretty good introductory list, and since lists are meant to be commented on….

    I’d have picked Delany’s EMPIRE STAR rather than BABEL-17 (more high-tech, easier to read, shorter, faster-paced, funnier, an epic story in 110 pages), and Bradbury’s brilliant(!) MARTIAN CHRONICLES rather than FAHRENHEIT, but still….

    Always have thought Clarke’s RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA was awfully dry, and; the characters in it are ‘blah’. LeGuin’s LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS would be more science-fictiony, but WIZARD OF EARTHSEA is easier to read. I’m sure you already know Gibson’s book is actually called NEUROMANCER — the guy who invented (or at least predicted) the Internet!

    Kim Stanley Robinson’s MARS TRILOGY is so down to Earth and; realistic, the lack of Drama has stopped me, but his short-story collection in the same setting, THE MARTIANS, has some great stuff in it. Dick’s THREE STIGMATA would be challenging for a newcomer to the field; I find Dick very hard to read but worth it. How bout Ballard’s VERMILLION SANDS rather than those other two challenging titles? It’s very mellow and; dreamy, even funny!

    Ellison’s DANGEROUS VISIONS has some great stuff in it — and; his own writing is a scream! DEATHBIRD STORIES is Specially good. If you’d consider adding Heinlein, I’d push for THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS — great stuff! Some of his other novels are really overrated, and; of course the original DUNE is brilliant, one of SF’s all-time best.
    How bout one of my favourites, George R.R. Martin? His DYING OF THE LIGHT is a great space-opera, beautiful writing, gorgeous moody settings, great characters, moving ending. Easy to read, too!

    No Bob Silverberg? I’m shocked. DYING INSIDE would be a good choice — uses one of the classic SF themes: telepathy, and a moving character portrait it is, too.

    No John Brunner? STAND ON ZANZIBAR would be a real challenge for a beginner, but overpopulation is one of the classic SF themes. Brunner’s THE SHEEP LOOK UP would be good for a beginner — ecology / pollution / disaster, told in a very high-tech, fast-paced way. Fred Pohl’s GATEWAY would be a very good “fairly” recent choice (only thirty two years old….)
    Don’t mean to nitpick. I don’t see any bad books in your list, among the one’s I’ve read. But like you say, it’s a huge field….

    Well, enough. Thanks for letting me spout off a little. I’ve wanted to review more SF at my own website/blog, so I couldn’t resist checking out your list. Please feel welcome to visit.

    Best,
    — TAD,
    Port Orchard, Washington, USA

  6. Tad, thanks for the comment, some great suggestions there. I took the liberty of translating it from textspeak into English; as to be honest, I find the truncated version MORE dffEcult 2 r3d. Perhaps you were worried about hitting a character limit?

    Re: Neuromancer, my bad, a typo – if an unfortunate one.

    Re: The moon is a harsh mistress, I’ve always avoided the book as the politics piss me off.

    Re: Le Guinn, yeah there are a few titles on there that are broadly speaking ‘realist fantasy’, but in the grand scheme of things I find these books to have a much closer relationship to the spirit of SF than say the current crop of ‘new weird’ titles. Plus I just enjoy those books!

    Re: Rama, totally agree. It’s as barren a book as 2001 is a film, but it’s a classic of the genre, and holds a place in my heart.

    Re: Mars Trilogy, I see where you’re coming from (and this is true doubly for the CJ Cherryh), however I quite enjoy the political / sociological nature of these books. They are predictive (in a utopian kind of vein), in the way that SF which ignores how people think, and societies change can never be.

    For the rest, mostly I just haven’t read the books you suggest! I’ve only managed to get through two Samuel Delaney titles, Nova and Babel 17, and Babel was infinitely superior.

    Took a look at your site.. Can I make two minor suggestions, which you are completely free to ignore?

    1) Fix the side bar, an unconfigured CMS looks bad, it could be a spam blog or similar.

    2) Don’t use text speak. It’s completely non-standard online, and most readers over 15 (and many under) won’t make the effort required to read it. If you’re using it deliberately, based on some complex psychlinguistic justification – make this clear in a piece of English language text thats front and centre on your site.

    3) Show full posts, or at least large chunks. It’s very difficult to judge what your brief excerpts are about.

  7. Hey gareth,

    There’s a great book I was introduced to a little while ago called Timescape by Gregory Benford. It’s in a more hard SF vein but I’d definitely recommend it and think it deserves a place on your list!

    When it comes to LeGuin I’m partial to The Dispossessed and where’s Joe Haldeman? Forever War’s a little hamfisted in parts but has some great passages.

    Cats Cradle was really great, but I always thought Neuromancer and Foundation (which I nearly didn’t finish) were completely underwhelming.

  8. Not a bad starting point, of course what fan couldn’t have strong opinions, so allow me to point out where you’ve gone wrong 😉

    Missing out Heinlein?! “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” and “Stranger in a Strange Land” I’d have in there anyway.

    The Robots books by Asimov (especially “Caves of Steel” & “Naked Sun”)

    More from Clarke, particularly some of the great short stories. I’m also a big fan of “Fall of Moondust” for some reason, even though it’s not his classic type. I loved Rama (well, up til he did a Dune series on it)

    I’d have “Ringworld” as the first Niven choice. “The Mote in God’s Eye” is pretty good too.

    Talking about great short stories collection, “Anthonology” from Piers Anthony, and AE van Goet has some brilliant stuff (“The Weapon Shop” etc)

    +1 on the txtspk comment.

    Cheers,
    Alastair.

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