In Which I Make Lists

Alright, kids. I’m super busy for the next couplefew weeks so we’re going to do something a little wacky here in blogland.

Lemme ‘splain.

A while back I got a comment from my friend Meg on a post. She and I used to be in a writer’s group together, but all of us are scifi and fantasy writers so we usually just ended up geeking out about what books we were reading. Much lively discussion ensued. Anyway the interesting bit of Meg’s comment was this: “I’m coming out of the closet as a speculative fiction (hateful phrase, but it’ll do) writer, and to that end I’m devising a ‘learning’ reading list for myself on the Big Stuff in scifi and fantasy.” Which got me thinking. Of course it did. Could I put together such a list? Damn right I could.

And I did. Basically, I just wanted to make a list of things I would recommend if someone asked me how to get into scifi and fantasy. What are the most important books? The ones you should read to really get a sense of the genres and figure out what you like and don’t like and what direction to go with your budding fandom? And since it’s really long and full of blah blah and I’ll be busy for the next few weeks, I’m going to chop it into four more bite-sized pieces. If I suddenly, through some tidal change in the cosmos, get unbusy I might change my mind and just dump the whole rest of the thing in your laps. There are ten books for scifi and ten for fantasy. I tried hard to keep it whittled down to just the books I felt were fundamental to the genres for one reason or another, and not just list off a bunch of books I really like.

A couple of things: I am by no means an authority on the subject of genre fiction. (Yet.) This list contains a healthy dose of bias because, while I am extremely well-read, I, like most humans, read mostly things I like. If this were a list of the most important books in post-colonial Western lit, it might be a little more expansive and inclusive. But it’s not. You’re in my wheelhouse now, bitches. Also, I may have mentioned some of these on the blog before and in those cases I’ll link back to the original post. And yes, I’m sure I forgot some that should be on here (although I’ll go ahead and give you the disclaimer that I’m not putting any kids’ books or comics/graphic novels – those are their own lists for another day). This is not the end of the world. Nor is it, by any stretch of the imagination, the end of my list-making compulsion. Feel free to leave comments about books I forgot or if you think some of these books don’t belong here. But don’t be a dick about it. I think if we can have a good comment thread everyone can walk away with their to-read list greatly enhanced and hopefully without my having to call anybody out for being a troll. Ok? Cool.

So, first up in the great blog experiment of 2012: The Scifi List (Part One – in no particular order):

A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick (1977)

Philip Kindred Dick was a wackjob. And I mean that in the most wonderfully loving way. He was a firm believer that we could bring about a sort of singularity, that we could experience harmony across all of mankind and all be one, through mind expansion. So old Phil did a lot of drugs. Fortunately we didn’t lose him to them (it was a stroke that got him in 1982), but he lost many others and that’s how we got A Scanner Darkly. It’s a really weird book about drugs, obsession, perception, deception, technology, conspiracy, and paranoia. And isn’t that just a bunch of words that should never be allowed to hang out together? And bonus, the movie they made from the novel is one of the few adaptations that I think actually does the book justice. It’s gorgeous.

Others to try by Philip K. Dick:
The Man in the High Castle
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series (a trilogy in five parts) – Douglas Adams (1979-1992)

I’ve ranted about these books before, so I’ll keep it short here. The reason it made the list is that it’s a great example of both A) humor in scifi (or humour, if you want to be all British about it) and B) what I call the “Star Trek factor.” Yeah, that’s cheesy. It’s ok. Point is, it’s not just one long story. Without being too English majory about it: the books read like collections of short adventures, all tending toward the final goal. This lends a sort of frenetic quality to both the characters and the story, and also makes it seem jam-packed with action and wackiness. You know how 8,000 things happen in each episode of The Simpsons? Like that. But in space.

Others to try by Douglas Adams:
The Dirk Gently novels
Last Chance to See

Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein (1961)

So far as I know (and really, let’s be serious – what do I know? I’m sure the internet will tell me when I’m wrong) Stranger in a Strange Land was the first book to tell an alien-coming-to-Earth story from the alien’s perspective. But it’s all twisted about because he’s actually a human who was raised by Martians. Both sides of that are important. It holds up a mirror to our purview, shows us that we can easily be seen as merely self-entitled monkeys. Apes, excuse me. I think we forget what we are. Particularly here in ‘Mericuh, we don’t know what we look like to outsiders. How beautiful and cruel can mankind be? And how difficult would it be to ever answer that question objectively? (For the record, my vote is “impossible.” It’s like asking a fish what “wet” means.)

Others to try by Robert Heinlein:
For Us, the Living
Starship Troopers

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (1953)

Bradbury is the unequivocal master of scifi and if you’re just getting into the genre his books are required reading. I just picked this one because as a book lover (junkie) it is both gorgeous and terrifying. And if we want to be 100% honest (and maybe a little ranty), I can totally see the anti-intellectualism in this country steering us toward this exact path. Fucking horrifying. Bradbury brings a kind of sanctity to the written word here by showing us the aftermath of its destruction. Maybe that’s me being too meta, but I can’t think of any better reason to kill myself than a world without books. So there’s that.

Others to try by Ray Bradbury:
The Martian Chronicles
The October Country

Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson (1992)

Despite having a hard time with some cyberpunk, I really enjoyed Snow Crash. And I felt like I should have at least one cyberpunk book on the list. Again, I think this is one of those books that can show us our flaws. If we become too dependent on technology, our technology can be used to destroy us. Or to help us destroy ourselves. Same thing, really, just one’s more embarrassing. Future archaeologists will be all “What do you mean they put microchips in their heads? That’s fucking ridiculous.” Also, Stephenson’s done some really awesome worldbuilding in this book. Love it.

Others to try by Neal Stephenson:
The Baroque Cycle

To be continued…



4 thoughts on “In Which I Make Lists

  1. I love lists!
    Heinlein is one of my favorite authors, period. I agree with you that Stranger In a Strange Land is probably one of the most important scifi books when it comes to shaping the genre, but I love The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. The two follow some of the same themes in some respects – personal freedoms, what society and the individual owe each other, and some pretty abstract approaches to personal identity (among other things). Maybe it’s because I read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress first. It was my introduction to Heinlein’s novels and when I realized that in addition to being a truly awesome scifi novel it’s also a manual for a revolution, it blew my tender brain out of the water

  2. I’m tickled. This is fantastic. I’m really happy you put “Stranger in a Strange Land” on here–it’s the first sci fi I read on my own and I loved it so very much I’ve been afraid to go back to it as an adult, lest it might not be as good. I think, since it made your list, that I’ll brave it again.

  3. Stranger in a Strange Land is my #1 followed by Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and anything Bradbury! Thanks for giving me ideas for future reading.

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