SciFiLit: I don’t get it. Help me. I read Stranger in a Strange Land about 30 years ago and was almost enjoying it until the second half came along with — it seemed to this callow youth — a heavy-handed Saviour/Redeemer allegory. Stanislav Lem’s Return from the Stars was kinda fun in small doses. Brave New World and 1984 were good but obviously of their time. Vonnegut had his moments. The Stainless Steel Rat was just plain nuts. A few months back I tried once again to get into the genre with Red Mars. I struggled through 100 pages, but while it was interesting in a “gee whizz – a synthetic bubble to keep the atmosphere in!” kind of way, I found I just did not care about the people. The characterizations were ludicrously one-dimensional; I’ll take Fleming’s James Bond any day if I want one-dimensional characters. What SciFi books have the all-important trinity of rollicking story, fascinating technical detail, and characters I want to cry over?
In twenty-four hours, this question received seventy responses, but none that really answered the question. Why not?
Maybe there aren’t any science fiction books that meet TiredStarling’s requirements. There are science fiction books with great stories; there are science fiction books filled with fascinating details; there are science fiction books featuring great characters (generally “social scifi”); there are even many books that combine two of the three elements; but all three at once? A holy grail, indeed.
If you aren’t a SF fan, but love good literature in general, you generally won’t get very far asking the average SF fan to recommend books for you.
SF fans have different criteria for what makes a good book than general readers. As they should. They are SF fans. So their starting point is that the book must be SF. They love SF so much that, though many of them don’t like bad writing, they will forgive bad writing if they have to — if bad writing is the only sort of SF writing they can find. The bottom line is, good or bad, they want to read SF.
And many SF fans pretty much only read SF, so they can’t really compare it to anything else. They can only tell you what’s good from within that world.
I’ve had similar problems when asking people to recommend graphic novels. When I say that I want to read a good graphic novel, I mean good when compared to a story by John Cheever or a movie by Martin Scorsese. I don’t mean good as compared to Spiderman. I don’t mean that I expect a comic book to be like a movie or a novel. I mean that regardless of the genre, I expect the same level of workmanship and quality. And I’m continually disappointed.
I can’t seem to find the Jane Austen of SF. When I ask SF fans to recommend good novels, they generally take “good” to mean better than the crap with the bug-eyed monsters and the ray guns. But that’s not good enough. Where is the SF equivalent to Shakespeare?
I have a need for SF, because I like other worlds, but I need it to be GREAT. I need really really good writing (style), I need expert plots, I need realistic dialogue, I need characters that I fall in love with. There are exceptions, of course, but most of the people who are best at this sort of writing aren’t writing SF.
I, too, have friends who love science fiction and fantasy to such an extent that they rarely read anything else. I know this shouldn’t bother me, but it does. Having tasted of the Tree of Knowledge, I can see their nakedness, and I am ashamed. Still, it does no good to proselytize; that only turns them from the Truth.
Where are the literate science fiction authors? Where are the great works? To compare Isaac Asimov with Charles Dickens is laughable. Can anyone measure up? I think there are a few science fiction and fantasy authors (and novels) that will stand the test of time, including:
- Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings — the most literate work of the fantastic I know, and a classic in any genre.
- The major works of Ursula LeGuin: The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.
- Frank Herbert’s Dune.
- The original novel Planet of the Apes, an underrated work.
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a fantastic work of magical realism. Most people would consider it straight literature rather than fantasy, though.
- Believe it or not, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, published last year, may stand the test of time. It’s not without flaws, but it’s certainly literate.
Parts of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas are great — both books comprise shorter stories bound by a narrative whole. Some of these individual stories meet my requirements for good literature.
Whereas I find even the best science fiction novels struggle to hold its own with mainstream literature, short science fiction can be extremely powerful. Something about the short story form forces scifi authors to stay on task, forgo the extraneous stuff, build tight character-driven stories. (Obviously this isn’t always the case, but it’s easier to find great scifi short stories than great scifi novels.)
Anthologies of Nebula- and Hugo-award winning stories offer an excellent introduction to the genre, as do anthologies from well-respected editors. For some reason, I’m drawn to a series put out by Daw Books in the seventies called The 197_ Annual World’s Best SF. My favorite volume (1979) has stories like “Come to the Party” by Frank Herbert and F.M. Busby, “Creator” by David Lake, the marvelous “The Persistence of Vision” by John Varley, and the even-more-marvelous “We Who Stole the Dream” by James Tiptree, Jr. The latter is beautiful, one of the best scifi stories I’ve ever read.
It is my opinion that the best authors in any genre are those who have read widely themselves and who have a thorough education. These people produce the most engaging, most deeply resonant fiction. They’re able to incorporate their knowledge and experience into what they write, both directly (via allusions large and small, for example) and indirectly (via mimicked writing styles, for example). There just don’t seem to be many science fiction authors who are well-read.
Perhaps I’m wrong. I don’t know. I only wish there were more literate science fiction for me to enjoy.
On 11 July 2005 (09:16 AM),
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Donald McLean said:
On 13 July 2005 (02:06 PM),
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On 14 July 2005 (06:49 AM),
On 14 July 2005 (09:34 AM),
Mooncrest the Mad said:
On 14 July 2005 (09:44 AM),
Mooncrest the Mad said:
On 15 July 2005 (06:17 AM),
chris hall said: