I promise that this is the absolute last reading list I will post. Ha ha, no.
Seriously, I have put together a list of what I consider foundational reading, 60 books published between 1810-2010, that have inserted themselves permanently into our cultural consciousness. It’s not a perfect reading list. None of them are. But I think it’s doable, and a pretty good place to start a lifetime of reading.
I’ve posted a reading list of great haunted house stories on my project blog, Noir Femme. Check it out! And have a haunted Halloween…
I used to love long books. I liked getting sucked into a fictional world and really getting to know a large cast of characters. The absorbing sweep and breadth of an epic is hard to beat. Some of my favorite long books include: East of Eden by John Steinbeck; The Stand by Stephen King; Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry; Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh; American Gods by Neil Gaiman; Anathem by Neal Stephenson; The Passage by Justin Cronin; NOS4A2 by Joe Hill; and A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (although the sequels do grow to ridiculous proportions). All are guaranteed to take you far, far away from ordinary life for a good long while.
However, I have noticed a worrying trend in recent popular novels. It seems like many books are unnecessarily long. As Ian McEwan has said, “Very few novels earn their length.” Even when the book itself is pretty good, too much of it can be exhausting. I’m thinking particularly of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, but I’m sure there are other examples. Like movies, books have become super-sized. Do publishers think we need more pages to feel like we’re getting good value, even when all those extra pages don’t have that much more to say? Perhaps a long book, like a long movie, is better positioned to win a major award? Or does the job of editor just not exist anymore?
I’ve come to the point where if I pick up a book and see that it’s over 500 pages, I put it right back on the shelf. I don’t have the endurance to sit through a 3-hour movie or to read a massive tome anymore, it seems. I may be missing out on a few good long books, but with my extra reading time, I’m cultivating a new appreciation for the short novel. I admire an author who can deliver an impact in few words.
Some recommended short novels: Persuasion by Jane Austen; The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells; The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler; The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson; The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin; Grendel by John Gardner; A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro; Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Want more? Buzzfeed has a list (of course).
P.S. I currently have two genuine bricks sitting on my “to read” shelf, which I promise myself I’ll get to as soon as I feel like sinking into a long book again. They are classics, though: Middlemarch and The Count of Monte Cristo.
Of all the sub-genres crowded under the broad umbrella of “speculative fiction,” slipstream is probably the trickiest to nail down. Bruce Sterling, who coined the term, called slipstream “…a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” (Presumably, his comments extend to the early twenty-first century as well.)
Also referred to as interstitial fiction, slipstream blurs the conventional boundaries of genre (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) and literary fiction, and thus, by its very nature, is difficult to categorize. The end result is often surreal or weird, so slipstream can be called “the fiction of strangeness.”
Franz Kafka might be considered the grandfather of slipstream writing, and its forefathers were unquestionably the classic science fiction authors Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. Magical realism was another important influence, including the authors Gabriel Garcia Marques, Isabel Allende, Jose Saramago, Milan Kundera, and Salman Rushdie.
Recently, slipstream has become more “mainstream” as contemporary literary authors regularly experiment with blurring the genre lines. Notable examples include:
- Margaret Atwood (The Blind Assassin; Oryx and Crake)
- Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; The Yiddish Policemen’s Union)
- Kazuo Ishiguro (The Unconsoled; Never Let Me Go)
- Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City; As She Climbed Across the Table)
- David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas; The Bone Clocks)
- Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; 1Q84)
- George Saunders (Tenth of December; Civilwarland in Bad Decline)
Even though slipstream is tricky to define, I enjoy reading it whenever I happen upon it (and most often, I just know it when I see it). Examples that I have read this year and would recommend include A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki; The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber; and the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. For more reading suggestions, see this expanded list at LibraryThing (based on a list originally created at Readercon).
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)
I have just discovered a new genre: cli-fi, or climate change fiction. Set in the present or near future, these novels imagine a changed world once the effects of climate change are really beginning to be felt.
It’s not such a new genre to me, after all. I read David Brin’s Earth and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain quite some time ago, and science fiction writers have been speculating about climate change for a long time now. Cli-fi now seems to be gaining some literary legitimacy, though, with writers like Ian McEwan (Solar), Margaret Atwood (the Oryx and Crake trilogy) and David Mitchell (The Bone Clocks) tackling the subject.
If you are interested in this sub-genre, I highly recommend you start with Rivers by Michael Farris Smith. Set in the near future on the Mississippi coast, which is ravaged by perpetual storms and has been abandoned by the US government, this is a beautifully written and powerful novel.
For further reading, here’s my cli-fi list on LibraryThing.