What Makes This Book So Great is a compendium of blog posts about Jo Walton’s rereads of books, not necessarily all science fiction and fantasy. These are blog posts originally published on Tor.com, so they are short, breezy, and quick to read. Walton is such a prodigious reader, averaging a book or more a day (I wonder that she finds time to write!). She shares many interesting insights into the whole act of reading, as well as the genres of science fiction and fantasy. Particularly enlightening for me was the idea that people who grow up reading science fiction and fantasy have internalized over time the special rules of the genre, while primarily mainstream writers may feel at sea when they try these genres; the flip side is authors who try writing genre who haven’t read a lot of it, and fail miserably. All of this content is available free online if you want to hunt it down, but it’s handy to have it in book form, and it’s of special interest to anyone who loves reading, whatever they may read. She’s certainly convinced me that rereading your favorites (and not-so-favorites) is worthwhile.
I’ve resurrected an old idea of mine, which is to read science fiction about women and blog about it. I call the blog Sci Femme, and I hope to use it as a forum for longer-form essays about themes and trends in science fiction written by women. I’ll be looking at both new and classic books. I’ll also post news and other resources there as I discover them. There’s not much there at present, just a few older pieces to seed the garden, so to speak, but I hope you’ll visit and follow. I plan to blog regularly there for at least the next year of reading, perhaps longer if this project takes hold. I’ll also post updates here when I make them.
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)
This is another entry in my ongoing series identifying common problems in self-published novels.
As a writer, you’ve got a terrific idea for an alien planet, a fantasy world or a dystopian future. You’ve worked out all the details, and you just know that no other writer has come up with something this creative or unique ever. (Hat tip: This is probably not the case, sorry.) You’re itching to write that novel (or more likely, series) and share your wonderful vision with hordes of grateful readers.
So what do you do to best communicate all the intricate, well-thought-out details of your incredible fictional world? You introduce a character who is new to the world so that character has to learn everything about it right from the start. Perhaps it’s a visitor from another planet or an explorer from another realm. Perhaps it’s a newly awakened coma patient or a time traveler from the past who discovers a radically changed future. Sure, this technique is a cliche, but good writers can get away with using cliches. Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, often uses the premise of a visitor from another planet to explore her worlds. But she is a terrific writer, and she knows how to world-build in a way that captivates the reader’s interest.
A common problem I see with more immature writers of science fiction and fantasy is the tendency to dump information all over the reader in the first few pages or chapters. It’s bad to do this in huge chunks of exposition, worse to do it in dialogue, with one character explaining to the new arrival exactly why everything is the way it is. Not only is this boring to read, but it’s hard for readers to get a real sense of the world when we’re told about it via giant chunks of information, rather than shown the world over time. Each new detail about the world should build on the previous so that we gradually feel that we really know this world. I guess that’s why it’s called world-building.
As a writer, it can be difficult to know when you’re info-dumping. After all, you’re a writer and you’re writing! Look how much you’re writing. Lots and lots of writing. That should be a tip-off right there. Are your characters making painfully long speeches in order to explain something? Are expositional paragraphs stretching down entire pages? If you’re unsure, let someone else evaluate it. Readers know info-dumping when we see it. Our eyes glaze over.
Another way to realize when you’re info-dumping is to outline the action taking place in the scene. If nothing important or exciting is actually happening right now, even though there are lots of words on the page, then it’s surely an info-dump. This is the key to why info-dumps are such a turnoff for readers–they bring the action to a full stop.
To avoid info-dumping, instead show us the world as your protagonist experiences it, in small increments, as needed to advance the story. Let the protagonist discover the world and figure it out as she goes along. If further explanation is needed, keep it simple and short. Trust the reader to work things out for herself. It’s more fun for us that way.
I can assure you, since most info-dumps occur within the first chapter or two of the book, many readers won’t tolerate them. They’ll put the book down and move on to something more interesting. If you want readers to actually finish reading your book, you must be ruthless about excising the info-dump.
I was pleased to contribute three of my book reviews to SF Mistressworks, a blog devoted to reviewing science fiction written by women and published during the 20th century.
- A Gift Upon the Shore by M.K. Wren
- The Eye of the Heron by Ursula K. Le Guin
- Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing by Kate Wilhelm
I appreciate what SF Mistressworks is doing to highlight science fiction written by women, a strong interest of mine. Please check out the rest of the reviews while you’re there.
I am a great fan of science fiction. I have been reading it all my life, and I read across the spectrum of the genre, from the very soft to the very hard. I enjoy it all, as long as it’s well written. But I realize that science fiction is not for everyone. Some people find it difficult to suspend their disbelief far enough to get into a story about aliens on other planets or traveling between alternate dimensions.
I developed this list as an introduction to science fiction for people who haven’t read a lot of it and don’t think they’ll like it (such as my husband). I don’t think anyone (except me, perhaps) will like every book on this list, since there is a lot of variety here, but you may find something you do enjoy as an entry into the genre.
I start each recommendation with an author who isn’t primarily known for writing science fiction but who has contributed to the genre. If you’ve enjoyed some of that author’s books, you may want to try their more science fictional offerings. Or perhaps you’ve read some of these already and didn’t realize that you were reading science fiction. I follow each of these authors with a recommendation of a similar author who does primarily write science fiction and who you may also like. I also provide a suggested title to start with.
Additional suggestions are welcome in the comments.
Mark Twain wrote a satirical time travel novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which I highly enjoyed when I read it as a child.
If you like this, you should try Douglas Adams, who also wrote very funny satire. Start with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Kurt Vonnegut is not typically considered a science fiction author, but Slaughterhouse-Five is a time travel novel with aliens, and Cat’s Cradle is about the end of the world. His novels are satirical, darkly funny and often mind-bending.
If you like Vonnegut, you might also enjoy Ray Bradbury. Start with the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451.
Stephen King is of course classified as a horror writer, the reigning king of the genre, but many of his novels can also be considered science fiction. The Long Walk and The Running Man, both collected in The Bachman Books, are the most straightforwardly SF, but The Dark Tower series has science fiction elements as well. His most recent novel, Under the Dome, is a good example of a blurring of the genres.
King fans might like the Larry Niven-Jerry Pournelle collaborations. These are much harder science fiction than King’s books will ever pretend to be, but they also feature large casts of characters and larger-than-life situations. Start with Lucifer’s Hammer.
Margaret Atwood is well known for her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and she has recently published two inter-related apocalyptic novels, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. However, she is still primarily known as a mainstream writer of feminist novels.
If you like Atwood, give Octavia Butler a try, who writes about feminist themes in dystopian settings. Start with The Parable of the Sower.
P.D. James is well known as the author of the Adam Dagliesh series of mysteries, but has contributed an excellent apocalyptic standalone novel, The Children of Men, to the genre.
You might also enjoy Ursula K. Le Guin, who writes about human culture and philosophy but in alien settings. Start with The Left Hand of Darkness, which is probably her best book.
Michael Chabon enjoys playing with genres and wrote an excellent example of the alternate history as well as a good mystery, The Yiddish Policemen’s Detective Union.
If you liked the alternate history elements of Chabon’s novel, give Kim Stanley Robinson a try. His books are dense, detailed and also explore questions of religion and culture. Start with The Years of Rice and Salt.
Kazuo Ishiguro surprised many of his readers with his moving novel Never Let Me Go, about human cloning in a dystopian alternate history.
I’m not going to pretend that Kate Wilhelm is as literary a writer as Ishiguro, but her novel Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is another compelling exploration of the consequences of human cloning.
Jonathan Lethem is not really considered a science fiction author but has written too many books in the genre to discount. Gun, with Occasional Music is probably his most accessible, but there’s also the post-apocalyptic Amnesia Moon and As She Climbed Across the Table, about alternate dimensions.
If you liked Gun, with Occasional Music, you might try Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, which explores similar themes but in a more straightforwardly science fiction milieu.
Charlie Huston is known for his crime novels, but his new book Sleepless sets the noir thriller in an apocalyptic, tech-obsessed Los Angeles.
William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk, writes noir fiction about technology set in the near-future. A good starting place is Virtual Light, the first book in the Bridge trilogy.
I had admired the perfect form of my cottagers- their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool . . . and when I was convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification.
Some might argue that Frankenstein, which depicts a scientist using technology to play god and reanimate a corpse, is the first science fiction novel. I have trouble coming up with an earlier example of science fiction than Frankenstein, published in 1818. So the first science fiction writer, Mary Shelley, is actually a woman, and her creation endures as a true classic of the genre.
Those who take the time to read the book may be surprised to find that Frankenstein’s monster is not a green bolt-head with a limited vocabulary. Although larger and stronger than most men, he is actually intelligent and an eloquent speaker. After trying to interact with people and being rejected because of his hideous appearance, the monster realizes that no human will accept him and he is doomed to isolation. He becomes obsessed with seeking vengeance from his creator by murdering members of his family. Frankenstein vows to destroy the monster, and the two engage in a chase that finishes in the Arctic.
Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just 18, and it was published anonymously when she was 21.The story of the novel’s composition is almost as legendary as the novel itself. When Percy and Mary Shelley were visiting the poet Lord Byron one rainy summer, they amused themselves by each writing a ghost story. There, Mary Shelley had a dream that gave her the idea for the story:
I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
(Another guest, Dr. Polidori, wrote a vampire story, so two classic horror figures were born from the same game.)
The classic theme, and warning, explored in Frankenstein is that man should not play god. The dawn of the Industrial Age brought with it fear of what man and machines could accomplish, and the unforeseen consequences they could have. There is also a theme of the monster as isolated, without an identity, adrift in a world where he can make no connections and life has no meaning for him. Again, this poses a warning of the dehumanization that technology can bring. These themes resonate throughout the science fiction genre even today.
Of course Shelley’s creation endures in films, plays and popular culture. Frankenstein also spawned several science fiction tropes, including the mad scientist and the monstrous reanimated corpse. Frankenstein represents our continuing fears of meddling with technologies we do not understand. Writer Isaac Asimov coined the term “Frankenstein complex” to describe the fear of robots. Even the term “frankenfood” has been used to refer to genetically manipulated food.
As familiar as Frankenstein is, it is worth it to return to the original novel, which remains an entertaining and relevant work.
More information: The full text online, with critical articles and other resources; An audiobook version; On Frankenstein, review by Percy Bysshe Shelley; Wikipedia article; Artists’ interpretations of Frankenstein’s monster; Frankensteinia: The Frankenstein Blog; Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Chronology and Resource Site