What is science fiction? What distinguishes it from other types of fiction? To differentiate science fiction from its close genre siblings, fantasy and horror, it's been said that if horror presents a malevolent universe where someone or something is "out to get us," and fantasy supposes a benevolent universe where order will win out in the end, then SF postulates a secular universe that doesn't care one way or the other. It's not an iron rule, and many works straddle an ambiguous border, but it's an interesting way to contextualize the domains of these genres. David Pringle's The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science Fiction sums it up: "fiction which tends to the fantastic but also puts considerable emphasis on the discussion and dramatization of ideas"; to which should be added: with no recourse to the supernatural.
The first major writer to consciously write a kind of science fiction -- although that appellation was still nearly a century away -- was Jules Verne. His first science fiction story was published in 1851, and his first SF novel, Cinq semaines en ballon (Five Weeks in a Balloon), in 1863. His best-known works include Voyage au centre de la terre (A Journey to the Centre of the Earth), 1864, and Vingt milles lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), 1870, both of which have been filmed numerous times. However, it is Mary Shelley's enormously popular -- and frequently misinterpreted -- Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) which is considered the first science fiction novel, with its tale of a scientist seeking to create life. But the one writer most responsible for creating the templates and narrative approaches upon which modern literary SF is based -- even now, more than 100 years after the publication of his groundbreaking novella The Time Machine (1895) -- is H.G. Wells. In the decade following that literary milestone, Wells created a body of work that pulled together previously disparate elements -- the utopian speculations of Thomas More, the serious social satire of Jonathan Swift, the cautionary fables of Mary Shelley, the fantastic voyages of Jules Verne -- into the cohesive and modern narrative entity that eventually became known as science fiction.
The expression "science fiction" grew out of the American pulp magazines of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. And, for a long time, SF was synonymous with the kind of stories that emerged from these publications. Jack Williamson, Robert Heinlein, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, C.L. Moore, A.E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Fredric Brown and company all wrote as fast as they could to fill up the hungry pages of these lurid magazines, and, for better and for ill, expanded sometimes brilliantly and often clumsily upon the foundations of H.G. Wells' visions.
Most SF "novels" from this period were only published in book form years later. At first, they were serialized in the pages of magazines such as Astounding and Amazing Stories, sharing the bill with the short fiction that, since the late 19th century, has always been the lifeblood of SF. From Wells' "The Country of the Blind," to the strange brew of the pulps, to the later literary innovations found in periodicals such as Galaxy, New Worlds and Interzone, it has always been in short fiction that new ideas and new voices have pushed the genre forward. For example, William Gibson hit it big with his first novel Neuromancer (1984), but its ideas and concepts had been previously -- and better -- explored in his stories "Johnny Mnemonic," "New Rose Hotel" and "Burning Chrome." Novelist and pop-lit historian Frank M. Robinson's Science Fiction of the 20th Century: An Illustrated History vividly portrays the development of the SF short story and its role in the fashioning of SF as a distinct and ever-evolving genre.
The early 60s saw the rise of the New Wave in science fiction, and new writers such as J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Samuel Delany, Norman Spinrad, Ursula Le Guin and Thomas Disch -- and established authors such as Robert Silverberg, Philip K. Dick and Philip José Farmer -- ushered in an era of radicalism and literary experimentation that was the best thing to happen to SF since H.G. Wells. Actually, this New Wave was more faithful to Wells' spirit of political engagement, social relevance and literary daring than the more escapist, politically conservative and formulaic type of SF that American pulps promulgated, despite pulp SF's claim to Wells' mantle. Since then, SF has splintered and grown so much that it is virtually impossible for any reader to keep up with -- much less appreciate -- everything that is published.
Recent years have seen incredibly rapid technological and social changes, to the point that SF concepts rapidly become quaint or obsolete. How many pre-1990s SF novels describe a future with no e-mail? Between the writing and the publishing of Norman Spinrad's Russian Spring (1991), the Soviet Union collapsed. Russian Spring's Soviet future was one that could never be, yet Bantam released it anyway -- and the publisher was right. Spinrad's tale transcended its now "unreal" details. The challenge for SF writers is to write fiction that, while speculating on ever-changing social conditions, will be able to achieve that very transcendence.
January's "Essential Science Fiction Library" isn't a survey of what SF fans have on their shelves, or a scholarly list of important works, but a compilation of fiction intended to capture curious readers' imaginations and inspire further investigation. In order to make such a list manageable, certain goals and limits were set. Only modern English-language SF works, from H.G. Wells to the present, were considered. Innovation, breadth of influence and originality of voice and vision were given more weight than popularity, though sometimes these were not mutually exclusive. The list is limited to fiction that can be enjoyed by contemporary audiences. Some works have great historical importance -- they may even have broken new ground in their day -- but their style or content have not withstood the test of time. Classic writers are balanced with a healthy dose of newer authors to show that SF is still alive and well, even if the genre shelves of the chain stores are packed with the open-ended fantasy sagas and media tie-in novels (Star Trek and its ilk) that often crowd out literary SF.
The list is divided into five sections -- authors, collections, mosaics, novels, series -- each with five selections. No author appears more than once, in order to give this "Essential Science Fiction Library" as broad a scope as possible within its specific confines.
"Authors" lists the five most important, influential and visionary writers of modern science fiction and mentions their most crucial books. "Collections" and "Novels" are self-explanatory. A mosaic, also known as "fix-up novel" or "mosaic novel" (although the term "novel" is inaccurate), is a book made up of interrelated short stories, either with or without the use of interstitial material to join them together. "Series" includes both open-ended sagas -- made up of stand-alone novels that all share a common setting -- or structured sets, such as trilogies.
This "Essential Library" presents a total of 25 writers and more than 60 books, but it's only the tip of the time-traveling, genetically mutated, space-faring iceberg. There are several anthology series that can serve as further guidebooks through the myriad worlds of science fiction. Terry Carr's Best Science Fiction of the Year ran annually from 1972 to 1987 and covered a particularly turbulent era for science fiction. These are all out of print, unfortunately, but still pop up on the second-hand circuit. Gardner Dozois' gigantic The Year's Best Science Fiction has been going strong for 16 volumes now and is generally considered the definitive chronicle of contemporary short SF. Also, there have, so far, been six anthologies culling stories from the British SF magazine Interzone, and these offer some of the most daring and cutting-edge stories anywhere. In the pages of all these volumes, curious readers will discover imaginative, talented authors beyond those showcased in this article. A good anthology is a gateway to the powerful visions and distinctive voices of the best that SF has to offer.
Novels: The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898)
Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985)
Novel: The Dreaming Jewels (1950)
J.G. Ballard (b. 1930)
Novels: The Drowned World (1962), Crash (1973), Hello America (1981)
Ursula K. Le Guin (b. 1929)
Novel: The Dispossessed (1974)
Robert Silverberg (b. 1935)
Novels: Thorns (1967), The Masks of Time (1968), A Time of Changes (1971), Dying Inside (1972), Kingdoms of the Wall (1992)
Riverworld and Other Stories (1979), by Philip José Farmer (b. 1918). Clever and boisterously irreverent postmodern stories and literary pastiches, including the hilarious "The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod" -- a Tarzan story written in the manner of William S. (instead of Edgar Rice) Burroughs.
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990), by James Tiptree, Jr (1915-1987). "James Tiptree, Jr" was Alice Sheldon's genderbending pseudonym, which she used to challenge notions of gender style and content in fiction (her true identity was kept secret for many years). Her story collections are all essential reading (her two novels were considerably less effective). This posthumous volume is a gigantic "best of" collection covering most of her career. It contains devastating tales of violent alienation and painful transcendence, in which the survival of the individual and the species is never taken for granted.
Other Americas (1988), by Norman Spinrad (b. 1940). Four unabashedly engaged and angry novellas decrying the fascist potential of US politics.
Sexual Chemistry (1991), by Brian Stableford (b. 1948). Aptly subtitled "Sardonic Tales of the Genetic Revolution," these stories explore -- with great wit, intelligence and erudition -- the social anxieties surrounding the emerging science of genetic manipulation.
334 (1974), by Thomas Disch (b. 1940). This compassionate and visceral cautionary chronicle of 21st-century life at 334 East 11th Street, New York City, paints a bleak portrait urban, race and class oppression.
Life During Wartime (1987), by Lucius Shepard (b. 1947). The dark heart of U.S. political colonialism is laid wide open in this horrific chronicle of near-future warfare in Guatemala. Shepard's prose scorches like it was carved by the flaming sword of an avenging angel.
Ribofunk (1996), by Paul Di Filippo (b. 1954). Ribofunk is a rich, heady collection of stories sharing the same hyper-dense cyberpunk setting filled with bizarre characters who are no longer human as it is now understood -- physically, biologically, socially or psychologically. It describes a bio-engineered, nanotech future that our consciousness is not yet equipped to process, but whose potential is latent in current consensus reality. In Ribofunk, genes are spliced and bodies are modified as easily and carelessly as a junked-out punk's grimy fingernails stumble across the neck of an out-of-tune electric guitar.
Kirinyaga (1998), by Mike Resnick (b. 1942). In the 22nd century, a group of Kenyans create a traditional Kikuyu society on a terraformed planetoid. An ambiguous and moving utopian fable that offers no easy answers but raises many difficult questions.
Lord of Light (1967), by Roger Zelazny (1937-1995). On a faraway world, in the far future, an elite group of Terran colonists have taken over technology, remaking themselves into doppelgangers of the Hindu pantheon and reinstating the caste system in order to better control the other colonists. One of the gods, Mahasamhatman, rebels and, as Siddhartha, inspires a spiritual, psychological and social rebellion. A reading experience of intense beauty.
The Sheep Look Up (1972), by John Brunner (1934-1995). Set in an unspecified near-future, this novel frighteningly and all-too-accurately describes the environmental, urban and political landscape of the 1980s, 90s and, very likely, the coming decade as well. We've known all along that we're destroying ourselves and our planet, and that we have the resources to stop this madness, as this novel deftly demonstrates. Why don't we do something about it? This dense, fast-paced book is a chilling, unignorable call to action.
Arslan (1976), by M.J. Engh (b. 1933). A Central Asian dictator, General Arslan, somehow manages to overthrow the world's superpowers and sets up his headquarters in small town, USA. Arslan is the claustrophobic, violent story of a driven, brutal and charismatic man's vision of ecological salvation. All the big action is off-stage. Everything is seen through the scared eyes of the small-town Americans who must suffer Arslan's intermittent proximity and the destruction of the lifestyle and material abundance they had previously enjoyed.
Black Milk (1989), by Robert Reed (b. 1956). One of Robert Reed's many great strengths is his skill at writing children, abundantly evident in this subtle near-future tale of five children living on the cusp of a new social paradigm, raised by parents whose own upbringing left them unprepared for the world being shaped by emerging technologies. Reed's fiction is the distilled essence of SF: a perfect balance of speculative science, psychological insight, social extrapolation, dynamic storytelling, emotional relevance, sense of wonder and poetic inspiration.
The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson (b. 1952) [Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), Blue Mars (1996)]. Possibly the greatest work of political SF, The Mars Trilogy, whose shifting colors represent not only the changing face of the increasingly terraformed Mars but also its evolving political landscape, chronicles the travails of the first 100 colonists: the dividing effects of their long separation from the mother planet, their political battles, their conflicting utopian ideals, their complex relationships, their reactions to re-establishing contact with overpopulated, over-polluted Earth, etc. It's a work of slow-burning passion that delves into the inner lives of people driven and obsessed enough to abandon everything they've ever known in order to explore and colonize an inhospitable world.
Planet of Adventure, by Jack Vance (b. 1916) [City of the Chasch (1968), Servants of the Wankh (1969), The Dirdir (1969), The Pnume (1970)]. This swashbuckling saga is best described as "Edgar Rice Burroughs for intellectuals." Action, thrills and hormones abound... but lushly swathed in linguistic and anthropological wonders.
The Gaean Trilogy, by John Varley (b. 1947) [Titan (1979), Wizard (1980), Demon (1984)]. A ship crash-lands inside Gaea, a planet-sized living creature orbiting Saturn. In the ensuing adventures, Captain Cirocco Jones must discover, define and ultimately deny the hero within herself. This is an exuberantly sexual and deceptively zany romp under which hides a moving portrait of a courageous woman.
The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe (b. 1931): The Book of the New Sun [The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1981), The Citadel of the Autarch (1982)], The Urth of the New Sun (1987). A Homeric epic drenched in Christian mysticism? The four Gospels and the Book of Revelations recast as baroque, science-fictional myth? A literary amalgam of Marcel Proust, Herman Melville and Jack Vance? Yes to all of these. The New Sun is a rich tapestry deeply embedded with multilayered quests, tales within tales, rapturous mysteries and linguistic riddles. It's the story of Severian, a fallen torturer on a decaying far-future Earth and his quest to find himself and the New Sun that will save the world. The technology is so far beyond our ken, and often beyond the understanding of the characters, that much of the saga takes on a dazzling sheen of fantasy that is lifted just enough to prompt the reader to carefully weigh every written word. The New Sun is a feast of gorgeous prose and awesome imagery that generously rewards attentive exploration. | January 2000
Claude Lalumière -- a freelance writer, editor and translator -- is the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His book reviews, essays and articles can be found on his Web site.