Saturday, 17 February 2007

100 Must-Argue Science Fiction Novels

100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels by Stephen E Andrews and Nick Rennison is a new reading guide to the genre. It is not, the authors write, a list of the best of science fiction. Their intent was to provide "100 books to read in order to gain an overview of the rich and diverse writing to be found in SF".

By its very nature, the contents of such a book are going to be contentious. Why that book, and not that one? Christopher Priest says as much in his foreword, and even names some of the novels he would himself have included. Likewise, I could argue the inclusion or exclusion of many of the titles given in the guide. But what's the point?

However, what is interesting is that of 100 books named, more than half are from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (and near half of those are from the Sixties). There are two novels from the 21st Century. It is the least-represented decade since the 1930s - and while the decade is not yet over, it has surely seen more sf novels published than the first three decades of the 20th Century. But then that's science fiction's single biggest problem - for a genre that frequently uses the future as its setting, it spends an inordinate amount of time looking backwards. I have seen people recommend fifty-year-old novels to readers new to the genre. Fifty years old. Why? Would they recommend Dennis Wheatley to someone looking for an introduction to contemporary fiction?

It could be argued that the language of sf requires readers to work their way through its history in order to gain fluency. But that's complete rubbish. Current day narrative techniques and styles of story-telling - not to mention the attitudes and sensibilites embedded in the text - bear little resemblance to those of, say, the 1950s. Modern readers expect modern texts. So why foist old ones on them?

An example: last year, nostalgia drove me to re-read EE 'Doc' Smith's Masters of Space. Unusually, I remember exactly when and where I originally purchased and read the book: it was Easter 1978. My father had picked me up from school, and we spent a couple of days in London before flying out to the Middle East. I'm not sure in which book shop I bought Masters of Space - probably Foyles. But I remember the occasion, because it was the first time I saw Star Wars. So. Almost thirty years ago. The book itself was first published in 1961, although in style and content it harkens back to Smith's works of the 1930s. When I read it in 1978, I remember enjoying it. When I read it in 2006... oh dear. I don't know which was worse: the rampant wish-fulfilment, the cheesy 1930s dialogue, the neanderthal sexual stereotypes... Halfway though Masters of Space, the characters are given the opportunity of replacing their bodies with ageless, super-strong android bodies. The women are all for it - because it means their tits will never sag. While spung! may not have actually appeared in the pages of Masters of Space, it was very much there in spirit.

I would never willingly force someone new to sf to undergo the same experience. Not if I want them to continue to read science fiction. There is an unrealistic expectation among fans of science fiction that non-sf readers will appreciate classic works as much as they themselves do. Not as classics of the genre, but as straight genre works. No one reads Jane Austen without recognising that she lived 200 years ago. You, a science fiction fan since the age of eleven, may have fond memories of Asimov's Foundation - but does that really make it an appropriate example of science fiction to give to someone new to the genre?

I argued a couple of posts ago that science fiction stories should contain a science-fictional conceit. As fans of the genre, have we become so hung up on the "idea" that it has become the only criteria by which we can judge genre works? Is that why we think of a fifty-year-old novel on the same terms as we think of one from last year? Is that why the genre won't recognise that it has an historical dimension, and insists on categorising all its works as if it belonged to an eternal present?

They say the Golden Age of science fiction is thirteen. It's certainly true that sf fans grow older. Perhaps it's time they grew up too.


Jim Steel said...

Or '101 Must Read Books', since the reader will obviously have to buy the guide. I haven't read it, but are they counting series as a single book? Even the crap, unnecessary books in a series? What about short stories? Is each author limited to a single book? That alone would make the selection process rather arbitary. Not to mention that old chestnut of the very definition of the term. I'll certainly pick it up and browse it if I see it, but these sort of books always strike me as seriously flawed as reference works. It's like picking up a dictionary that doesn't cover letters that start with vowels. And do they ever really sell to the supposed audience? Someone who has never read any science fiction novels but fancies taking it up in a big way because they quite like what they've seen of the genre on TV and film?

Ian Sales said...

For the most part, authors are represented only by a single novel. Some - Asimov, Ballard, Bester, Dick, Heinlein and Le Guin - have two. HG Wells has three. As selections go, it's very traditional. The usual suspects are all there. The only really unexpected ones are Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon and The Reality Dysfunction by Peter Hamilton (why?).

Coach's Diaries said...

I think your dissapointment with Masters of Space stems from that fact that your expectations and tastes have matured since you were a nipper (it was a long time ago).

I don't think that the novel itself has dated (think about how many women have operations to augment their norks nowadays and you'll see that the sentiment expressed at the point in the book is as relevant today as it was then, perhaps more so because keeping your hooters pert isn't really sci-fi any more.

How many of today's famous for 15 minute generation would jump at the chance of becoming a super human android!! I know I would, but I think I'd pass on the hooters.

Ian Sales said...

Perhaps I expect my science fiction to be pitched a little higher than Katie Price's autobiography. I should probably have mentioned that in Masters of Space the scientists are all men, and the women are their beautiful-but-brainy assistants. The men agree to have android bodies because it will make them immortal, and so give them time to solve the mysteries of the universe. The women agree becaue they want ever-pert hooters...

SandChigger said...

I think I'd pass on the hooter option, too.

I'd never get anything else done. ;)

Stephen E Andrews said...

Thanks very much to everyone here for your comments on our book. I’d like to take the opportunity to respond below.

First of all, some numbers: 25 titles of our 100 were published in the last 27 years. 12 of these were published in the last 17 years. I think both proportions are generous when you consider out book spans 1818 to the present day in terms of its main entries. I’ll also mention that part of our aim was to cover all the major themes that recur in SF and we felt these were best represented by some of the seminal books that pioneered these ideas. The relevance of this approach is ties in with our feelings about Modernism, which I’ve outlined below. Finally, we would be failing our readership and in our aims if we had over-weighted the book toward titles published in the last fifteen years, as our book would only work as an introduction to contemporary SF. Remember that the book is (as you note is mentioned in our Introduction) an overview.

In my thirty years plus of reading SF and talking with other devotees, one thing I’ve noticed is that the more committed, active fans are always keen to emphasise what is happening currently in the genre – which is admirable as they are working hard to keep SF alive and kicking. In your emphasis here on the contemporary, I think this is another example of this. To wit, the fan feeling always seems to be ‘The Golden Age of SF is Now, not thirteen’. Not all well-read SF devotees would agree with this.

Nick and I put a greater emphasis on the 1950s-1970s as this is when we believe the greatest steps forward were taken by writers of genre SF: it is no coincidence that the rise of SF is closely related to Modernism in the arts. Since the early eighties, we have been living in an era cultural commentators more accurately describe as Contemporary (or Postmodern) rather than Modern. One of the tenets of modernism is that pioneering artists perform some of he most important work – thinking of and utilising an innovative new idea for the first time reveals the artists as a truly revolutionary, forward-looking thinker. This modernist spirit of innovation is especially relevant to the very nature of SF; the ‘sense of wonder’ at he new, conceptual breakthrough, paradigm shift, whatever you want to call the shock of fresh vistas opening up before our consciousness is the mark of important SF. Consequently, due to their innovative qualities, many books from the 1950s-1970s are in effect definitively more Modern than many titles first published in the last few years, as the pioneering leaps the authors made by introducing radical new concepts were bolder and bigger than those most SF writers have made of late. I defy anyone to come up with a convincing argument why an overview of the SF genre limited to a mere 100 titles should contain a disproportionate number of recent titles when modernist innovation is considered. Is current SF generally of much higher literary quality –and more innovative- than it used to be? I’ll remind you here that we mention at least another 500 titles, many of them recent, in the text of our small book.

I’ll agree that much old, ‘classic’ writing is embarrassing – I read Asimov and Heinlein in my early teens and could tell they were poor writers in a literary sense compared to people like Philip K. Dick, so I understand the pain an experienced SF reader might feel at recommending such titles. But as we were aiming in part at a historical overview rather than a snapshot of the genre now, ‘classic’ texts have to be considered as valid even today. An overview is impossible without some history, while pioneers deserve to be read. Readers often need to be pointed toward innovators so they can discover how radical such writers were for their time – many contemporary writers cannot claim to be anywhere near as groundbreaking as many classic authors who first tackled the ideas today’s writers build on. SF has always been as much about the present as the future. My view is that most really good SF is about the present. With this in mind, reading classic texts in order to put today’s SF into some kind of objective social context is supremely relevant. Also, we don’t suggest readers try Asimov before something more recent, which is why there is such a diverse range of writers recommended in our book – I’m willing to bet that lots of quite hardened fans haven’t read much by Leigh Kennedy, Barrington J. Bayley or Barry N. Malzberg (to name just three). We took pains to describe each book so the reader could judge for himself what to try and included information on the historical context of each title as well. I’d also like to mention that it’s more than a little unfair to make dismissive assumptions about the content of a book (as one respondent here has done) without even having seen it – we do cover short stories, for example, so we don’t ‘miss out the vowels’.

Not only that, there is no objective argument that today’s SF is better simply because there is more of it: quality rarely equals quantity. Referring to The Reality Dysfunction, one of the two 21st century books we selected, yes, the writing is arguably better than that to be endured in Foundation, but I personally wouldn’t call it a literary masterpiece (though I would make that claim for Ballard’s Super-Cannes, a book that some would argue isn’t SF, possibly proving that this writer at least is not totally ‘hung up on idea’). Hamilton’s book is too long, taking a good 400 pages to get the plot moving – and it is almost certainly so big as publishers like bestsellers to be chunky, no matter what their genre, as they believe the core market for bestsellers likes ‘value for money’ in terms of size. As a prose stylist, I’m not that enamoured of Hamilton, hence the comment in my book that it remains to be seen if he’ll remain acclaimed in the future (he is of course currently the most popular SF author in the UK today alongside Iain M. Banks).

As regards judging SF on the grounds of literary quality and the need to address contemporary sensibilities, I’d argue that K.W. Jeter’s Dr Adder and William S. Burroughs’ The Ticket That Exploded are not only more Modern than much of the SF published today, but that they address contemporary concerns more keenly than much genre SF. Much of the New Wave writing of the 1960s (hence our emphasis on that decade) was certainly more literary and innovative than the majority of genre SF being published today.

I also think that the idea that readers need to get used to the language of SF as ‘complete rubbish’ is off the mark: as I’ve been a bookseller for almost twenty-five years, I have consistently found that giving a reader new to the genre a contemporary book full of hi-concept material is quite likely to put them off SF for good. Instead, a gentle introduction to the genre via classics like Nineteen Eighty-Four is what works best (people usually need their preconceptions of what SF is challenged by encouraging them to think about material they thought they understood in a different way). Most readers over a certain age unfamiliar with genre SF are baffled by (for example) some of the ideas they encounter in a book like Altered Carbon (probably because they haven’t read something seminal like Neuromancer), though I will admit that younger readers who have grown up in the post-modern era can manage such books as early attempts to ‘get into’ SF. Samuel R. Delany is just one prominent literary figure whose viewpoint sides with my own on the difficulties some general readers have with the terminology of SF. As for ‘current day narrative techniques’, ‘Styles’ and ‘attitudes and sensibilities’ of today’s novels compared to older works, I don’t see a lot of genre SF writers (Hamilton for example) using approaches that different to those of the fifties, as experimental and Modernist techniques used heavily in the 1960s are only utilized by some contemporary writers.

Finally, as a wise man once said “There are two kinds of books, the books of the moment and the books of all time.”.. At thirteen I enjoyed ERB, but I knew he was limited. I enjoy him now, but regard him as a ‘classic’ in a historical sense: this is why I believe many mature SF readers have ‘grown up’ –our appreciation of individual works of SF is less subjective than it was and our need to continually focus recent books at the expense of older works. Whether Now really is the Golden Age of SF that can confidently be recommended to all kinds of readers is something equally as debatable as which novels are representative must reads in the history of the genre as a whole.