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.
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. Bloodmoney – Philip 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 Stormgate – Poul Anderson
Neuromancer – William Gibson
More than Human – Theodore Sturgeon
Space Chantey – RA 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 Solution – Bob Shaw
The Stainless Steel Rat – Harry Harrison
Norstrilia, The Rediscovery of Man – Cordwainer Smith
Slaughterhouse 5, Cats Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
The Drowned World, Crash – JG Ballard
Hothouse, Dracula Unbound – Brian Aldiss
Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) – Kim Stanley Robinson
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Orynx and Crake, The Handmaids Tale – Margaret Atwood
Virtual Mode – Piers Anthony
1984 – George Orwell
Times Fool – Glyn 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
Lullaby – Chuck Palahniuk
Addendum (Items added on further consideration)
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom – Cory Doctorow
The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect – Roger Williams
That’s my brief list. Here’s another more substantial.