This is a terrific infographic for any aspiring writer to study. It’s also a great tool for book reviewers and media critics, to help us pinpoint what is going wrong with what we’re reading. I admire the people who read all these screenplays and then put this detailed infographic together documenting the process.
There is beauty in our dreams of change, our constant what ifs. Days begin in the realm of solemn undertakings — to eat less, to exercise more, to work harder, or to go gentler. They end with wobbles into compromise, or collapses into indulgence, with the perennial solace of the prospect of another day. The good-intentions dinner, a salad with a couple of slivers of chicken, turns into a Burrito with cheese and avocado and salsa and chicken. That’s human.
At some point, I set out to read a representative sample of all the “great” writers of science fiction, so I could feel reasonably well-educated in the genre. If you haven’t read a lot of science fiction, I recommend this exercise. It provides a grounding so you can learn where the well-worn tropes originated and appreciate it when today’s writers are doing something new. However, it can be troublesome to read older science fiction, especially if you’re a woman.
Classic science fiction is notoriously bad at portraying women as characters, or even human beings. Particularly egregious offenders, considering how influential they were on the genre, are Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven. I don’t necessarily think that these writers held misogynist views. Instead, they demonstrate a huge blind spot where women are concerned.
Even when writing about futuristic or advanced societies, these writers often fail to depict women as anything other than subordinate. Women are generally relegated to the role of secretary (“girl assistants,” as Clarke puts it so charmingly in 2001: A Space Odyssey), housewife or concubine. Often, the female characters are absent altogether; I believe there is only one female character in Asimov’s seminal book, Foundation. Women rarely, if ever, occupy roles equal to men as scientists, politicians or leaders. When they are present, the authors tend to fall back on stereotypes to create their characters; female characters are generally helpless, passive, shrewish, sexually manipulative, overly emotional, in need of protection or rescue, or sexual objects devoid of personality.
This portrayal of women can make early science fiction seem very dated. If you are able to read classic sci-fi in context, then you’ll enjoy the entertaining stories and big ideas. But if you find the portrayal of women consistently grating, as I do, there will probably come a time when you’re ready to call it good and move on. Fortunately, today’s science fiction writers offer a much wider range of perspectives, and it’s easier to find books with believable characters who are women, gay, people of color, people from diverse backgrounds and people with disabilities. Here’s a good list on LibraryThing to get started; however, not many of these books can be considered classics, yet.
With that in mind, I’m offering a list of 20 classic science fiction works for the absolute newbie. Dedicated aficionados will have already read most of the suggestions here, I’m sure. For the purposes of this list, I’m defining a “classic” as published before 1980 and having lasting influence. (I’ve also left off purely post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels, as they could comprise their own list, so no Huxley or Orwell here.) Fourteen of these books were written by white male authors, but this reflects the reality of the genre as it developed.This list is in chronological order, and if you read them that way, you’ll get a good sense of how the genre evolved over time. Notably, the first science fiction novel was written by a woman.
I’ve suggested only one book by each author in order to provide a broad sampling of themes and tropes. If you like any of these selections, I encourage you to seek out more books by that author (many are the first book in a series). I’d also appreciate any suggestions in the comments of more diverse writers to add to the list.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
- The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)
- The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)
- Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)
- Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
- The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (1961)
- Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
- Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany (1966)
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
- Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970)
- The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)
- The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975)
- Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976)
- Gateway by Frederik Pohl (1977)
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
- Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)
Well, this was a controversial essay, to say the least. He divides aspiring writers into three groups:
I had a handful of students whose work changed my life. The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it. My hope for them was that they would become better readers. And then there were students whose work was so awful that it literally put me to sleep.
Tough truths, but after spending several months now reading and reviewing “indie books” (and having yet to run across the “real deal”), I tend to agree.
This month, I’m highly recommending the post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.
Station Eleven does something that I hadn’t thought was possible: it offers something new and exciting in the post-apocalyptic genre. I have read a lot of post-apocalyptic books, and I was getting burned out on them. It seemed like there was nothing new to say about the fall of humanity. But this novel comes forward and defies my expectations. It is a quiet, moving story, elegiac for what is lost, such as technology and modern conveniences, but still hopeful for humanity. It skips a lot of brutality that is the hallmark of post-apocalyptic fiction by jumping around in time from before the pandemic to twenty years after, eliding those first few difficult years and leaving them up to the reader’s imagination. It also omits the tedious details of survival after our global industrial web has failed us, although some details, such as the survivors setting up small communities in truck stops and airports rather than in the houses of the dead, struck me as absolutely believable. As the world has fallen back into a dark age, some of the survivors have created a traveling symphony and acting troupe, which only performs Shakespeare. They travel from settlement to settlement to bring art and music to the post-apocalyptic world, because “survival is insufficient.”
This novel is not about survival; it’s about people, particularly those invisible connections that link our lives like webs. By moving back and forth in time, following the strands of the web wherever they might go, Station Eleven gradually builds our knowing of and empathy for these people, both those who survived and those who didn’t, even the rare ones who go bad. All of the characters are linked to movie star Arthur Leander, whose death while playing King Lear opens the book, but there are even more connections, gradually revealed, that show how we all are fundamentally linked to one another. While so many post-apocalyptic books are about losing our humanity, Station Eleven is about reinforcing what makes us human, the fundamental connections that we share.
My favorite of all the characters was Miranda Carroll, Leander’s first wife, who was someone I felt I could know or even could have been, in an alternate life. Miranda is an artist who spends much of her time working on an ambitious project called Station Eleven, a comic book within a book that proves to be immune to the flu pandemic. This motif also reinforces the human connections between us, and how those connections are strengthened by the art we make. Even though this book is about much of humanity dying out, it didn’t depress me; it lifted me and inspired me.
Station Eleven is the book I’m rooting for in the 2015 Tournament of Books.
I recommend that all writers, whether you intend to self-publish or publish traditionally, read the excellent and short reviews of self-published books that Jefferson Smith (and occasional guest reviewers) posts at Immerse or Die. Smith maintains that the most important quality of fiction is whether it enables the reader to become immersed in the story, an assertion with which I wholeheartedly agree. This is the elusive quality of suspension of disbelief, that ability to forget you’re reading about made-up places and characters, and to instead actually believe that what you’re reading could have really happened to these real people. This is why we readers want to read.
In his reviews Smith explains exactly why his immersion was broken (or less often, not broken) by the book he is reviewing. His clear and precise explanations have helped me pinpoint exactly what I disliked about the self-published books I have been reviewing. They should be very instructive to writers as what not to do.
Nothing will kill your story faster than grammatical errors and superfluous typos. Believe it!