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.