A Tunnel in the Sky

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Science Fiction: Where to Start?

By Galen Strickland
Posted July 27, 2000, with later edits

Please Note: This was one of the first articles posted here, but I haven't had the time to verify if the links I've provided are for books still in print, although amazon is usually good at presenting all the different available versions, including used through various third-party sellers. Whether new or used, if you use one of our links we may earn a commission. Another good source is BookFinder.com. One of these days, maybe, I might find time to review all the links.

Chapter I: The Short Stories:
Science Fiction and Fantasy are arguably today's most prominent literary genres easily filling three times the book store and library space as they did a mere twenty years ago. Many factors have contributed to this phenomenon, not the least of which is the enormous popularity of television and film entertainments such as Star Trek and Star Wars. Equally important is the legacy of reading handed down by the "baby-boomers" who came of age in the SF boom of the '50s and early '60s. I know I can't be the only one who has been immensely pleased when a son or daughter embraced books and writers the parent has cherished for decades. More than any other genre, SF/Fantasy has been able to capture and inspire the imagination of readers of all ages.

Many who have come to the field because of a television show or film have been content to limit their exploration to novelizations and spin-offs of those original stories. Others have ventured farther afield in search of more and different adventures. A lucky few have been encouraged in their exploration by friends and/or relatives anxious to share their own discoveries. I think it is very important for readers to be familiar with the history of the genre in order to better appreciate current writers and trends. Anyone serious in pursuing a writing career in this genre most especially needs a wide and thorough knowledge of what has gone before. As I said in another essay, Science Fiction: A Primer, there are only nine or ten basic plot elements (OK, maybe a dozen) throughout all of SF. In order to develop these ideas into new and varied storylines one must familiarize themselves with how other writers have handled them.

That brings us to the fundamental questions. Where do I start? Who do I read? It must be stated from the outset that no one, not reader or writer or editor, can absorb all the new works that are published in the field each year, let alone what has come before. One must find a niche, a sub-genre, or a group of authors that please the reader consistently and then concentrate on them. Anything more is impossible to accomplish even if you do nothing else but read, and who would do that even if they could. As a start, and to avoid as much expense as possible, I recommend a visit to your local library, and in order to sample as many authors as possible we will begin with anthologies of short stories.

Many of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells' most popular stories are novellas and can be found in omnibus editions. One of the best collections of early 20th century SF is to be found in Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov. The Golden Age itself is well represented in several anthologies, the best of which are Adventures in Time and Space edited by J. Francis McComas and Raymond J. Healy, A Science Fiction Argosy edited by Damon Knight, and the two-volume A Treasury of Great Science Fiction edited by Anthony Boucher. Many editors have published yearly "Best Of" anthologies, including Judith Merril, Terry Carr, and Donald A. Wollheim. Currently the two most prominent collections are those offered by Gardner Dozois and David G. Hartwell. Dozois, currently editor of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, has also issued the excellent collection Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction. Original anthologies have been a significant source of many award-winning stories over the years; John Carnell's New Writings in SF, Damon Knight's Orbit series, Terry Carr's Universe, and Robert Silverberg's New Dimensions. Four recent anthologies have been published by the preminent book editor of the field, David G. Hartwell; The World Treasury of Science Fiction, The Science Fiction Century, The Ascent of Wonder : The Evolution of Hard SF, and the most recent, The Hard SF Renaissance.

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Two series of collections representing some of the best of the genre are those honoring the shorter works winning the Hugo and Nebula awards. Hugos are voted on by fans at the annual World Science Fiction Convention; the Nebula is awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). This organization was established in 1965 to promote a better understanding of the field and to help new writers gain support and recognition for their work. In 1968 the SFWA decided it was necessary to honor those works which preceded the organization and thus never had the opportunity to receive a Nebula. A poll was conducted of the membership and the results published in two volumes collectively titled The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Volume I, edited by Silverberg, was devoted to the best short stories published before 1965. Ben Bova edited Volume II which included longer works, classified as novellas or novelettes. Paperback editions of these works, because of their length, were divided into Volumes IA, IB, etc. More recently, Silverberg also edited The Fantasy Hall of Fame.

If your library is lacking in any or most of these titles, the next stop would be your favorite used book store, common in even smaller towns these days. For those who can afford it new book stores will have a good selection of current titles but probably lacking in the classic titles mentioned. Another source is online booksellers, amazon.com being the most prominent.

For those of you new to science fiction, I envy you the discoveries ahead. Happy reading!

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Chapter II: Classic Novels:
After perusing several short story anthologies most will have compiled a list of writers whose longer works they may wish to explore. The following is a purely subjective list, for the most part including titles already on my shelves. It is inevitable that anyone's list of classic science fiction novels will be lacking authors and/or titles which would have been included by someone else. My list is not meant to be definitive by any means, and in some cases is not even the title I consider to be the author's best. What I have attempted to do is include titles, most of which should be available in larger used bookstores, that are representative of the broad spectrum of style and quality the genre has to offer. As an expedient, I have selected one author in an alphabetical sequence which is lacking in completion in only two instances, plus a stretch for one letter since it is not the name under which the title was published. I welcome others' suggestions of both authors and titles they feel should rightfully be included in a list of "Classic SF Novels." For what it's worth (nothing really) here are my recommendations:

Isaac Asimov - The Gods Themselves
Ray Bradbury - The Martian Chronicles
Arthur C. Clarke - Childhood's End
Philip K. Dick - The Man in the High Castle
M.J.Engh - Arslan
Philip José Farmer - To Your Scattered Bodies Go
William Gibson - Neuromancer
Robert A. Heinlein - The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
Dean Ing - The Other Time
J.O.Jeppson (Janet Asimov) - Mind Transfer
Daniel Keyes - Flowers for Algernon (also known as "Charly", the name of the film based on this novel)
Ursula K. LeGuin - The Lathe of Heaven
Walter M. Miller, Jr. - A Canticle for Leibowitz
Larry Niven - A Gift From Earth
Chad Oliver - Shadows in the Sun
Frederik Pohl - Starburst
Daniel Quinn - Ishmael
Kim Stanley Robinson - The Wild Shore
Robert Silverberg -Dying Inside
Wilson Tucker - The Lincoln Hunters
Jack Vance - The Dragon Masters
John Wyndham - Re-Birth
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro -Time of the Fourth Horseman
Roger Zelazny - This Immortal (original title, "...And Call Me Conrad")

Remember that I am discussing Science Fiction. I will leave it to someone else more familiar with the sister genre of Fantasy to recommend authors and titles in that category. In other articles I will attempt to explore various authors' works in more detail, and I hope I will be able to aid both novices and long-time fans to come to a better understanding of the history and literary contributions of this genre.

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Chapter III: More Classic Novels:
As mentioned previously there are many other authors and/or titles that could have been included. Knowing there would be other suggestions I thought I might as well return to this myself and add another list. Even my knowledge of the genre is limited and this time there are even more letters not represented. The letters A and B alone are well represented with a banner-full of names, not so with others. To compensate I have included two authors' titles for most lines:

Brian W. Aldiss - Earthworks; Poul Anderson - Tau Zero
Gregory Benford - Timescape; Octavia Butler - Adulthood Rites
C.J.Cherryh - Downbelow Station; Hal Clement - Mission of Gravity
Samuel R. Delany - Nova; Thomas Disch - Camp Concentration
George Alec Effinger - What Entropy Means to Me; Suzette Haden Elgin - Yonder Comes the Other End of Time
Karen Joy Fowler - Sarah Canary; Robert L. Forward - Dragon's Egg
David Gerrold - When Harlie Was One; Parke Godwin - Waiting for the Galactic Bus
Frank Herbert - Dune; Joe Haldeman - The Forever War
Damon Knight - CV; C.M.Kornbluth - The Syndic
R.A.Lafferty - Past Master; Fritz Leiber - The Big Time
Jack McDevitt - Moonfall; Ward Moore - Bring the Jubilee
Kris Neville - Bettyan; Andre Norton - The Stars Are Ours
David R. Palmer - Emergence; Edgar Pangborn - A Mirror for Observers
Spider Robinson - Night of Power; Joanna Russ - The Female Man
Allen Steele - Orbital Decay; Theodore Sturgeon - Venus Plus X
William Tenn - Of Men and Monsters; James Tiptree, Jr. - Up the Walls of the World
John Varley - The Ophiuchi Hotline; A.E.van Vogt - Slan
Robert Charles Wilson - Mysterium; Gene Wolfe - The Book of the New Sun
Nicholas Yermakov - Last Communion

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With only a few exceptions I have not included any recent titles. Time will tell if the current crop of favorites have what it takes to be considered classics.


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