The tired cliche that there are certain “classics” of sf/f that one must have read in order to be a real fan has reared its ugly head. The current iteration is an assertion that writers of sf/f (aspiring or otherwise) who have not read the classics are not able to write good sf/f. And specifically the “classics” one is supposedly required to read and love in order to be a good writer of science fiction and fantasy are the usual suspects: Heinlein, Asimov, Clark, and so on.
Now, it is true that I read Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark. I have written on this blog about how some of their work helped me in my formative years. I have also written on this blog about problematic aspects of both their writing and some of their personal life choices. I’ve also written before about how some of their writing hasn’t aged very well. Heck, when I was in my teens in the 1970s reading some of their older work, I was finding myself rolling my eyes over things that seemed either embarrassingly wrong or more than a little sexist and/or racist.
Unfortunately a lot of books from the middle of the last century that were important to the development of the genre, and/or were beloved by many fans over a span many years, don’t hold up so well years later.
But that’s not my only problem with this notion. Because people have been bandying around those specific names as “must-reads” for decades. A lot of excellent science fiction was written back then by other people. And a whole lot of good science fiction has been written since the heyday of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark. A lot has changed in the genre. Sure, Asimov’s short story “The Last Question” was profound and mind-boggling when it was published in 1954 (63 years ago), but when I read it for the first time in 1973, even 13-year-old me saw the ending before it arrived. It was bit disappointing, to be honest. Because the story had been so influential that the once mind-boggling idea had been incorporated, expanded, deconstructed, and re-imagined several times in that 19-year span.
And it’s continued to be re-used in sci fi since. Heck, the entire story was boiled down to a two-sentence (and hilarious) joke in a 1992 episode of BBC’s Red Dwarf!
Which is not me saying that something which has been done before can never be repeated. Looking at old ideas in new ways is an essential part of sf/f. It’s just that the value of revisiting the same “classics” over and over is questionable, at best.
I would feel a little less like this was white guys insisting that everyone has to read their favorite old white guys if some of this “must read” lists included Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein published in 1816, as well as anything by Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin, or Andre Norton.
The usual argument is that Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark created the genre—and you can’t understand what it is now without reading them. Except, they didn’t create it. If you want to understand the origins you need to go back at least another hundred years to Shelley’s Frankenstein, for one, and stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne (“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” for instance) in the 1830s.
Sure, I think a writer needs to have read a lot and broadly to feed their craft. But when I say broadly, I mean really broadly. Read things outside your favorites, absolutely! Not everything you read needs to be a masterpiece, by anyone’s definition. You can learn from bad examples as well as good. Playfulness is an important part of the creative process, so reading light entertaining tales is just as important to feeding your artistic soul as reading deep, meaningful, serious stories.
Science fiction is supposed to be about not just looking at the horizon, but going past it. Not just using your mind, but expanding it.
And you know what doesn’t stretch anyone’s horizon or expand anyone’s mind? Everyone reading the exact same thing.
If the only input anyone has are the same list of books from the same authors, decade after decade, then every creator will just be regurgitating the same stuff that every other creator has.
There is value in studying what has been done before in your chosen field of writing, but it isn’t the only way to learn to create good stories in the genre. Just as one can learn to drive a modern car without first mastering the horse and buggy, you can learn to write without memorizing a specific set of books from a very narrow set of writers who were working 60+ years ago. If you want to study earlier generations of writers, remember that there is a vast volume of science fiction and fantasy works beyond anyone’s chosen list of classics or favorites. Find lists that don’t include the same few “must reads” and sample the less often recommended works, if you’re going to do that.
Similarly, there can be value for some readers in understanding the roots of some of the things being created today, but it isn’t necessary. You don’t have to go back in time to watch traveling vaudeville shows in order to understand and fully appreciate modern movies, right? You can understand and fully appreciate modern stories without reading the old stuff, first.
Look out at that horizon, and take aim for what’s beyond!
James Davis Nicoll writes book reviews and related articles that are published (among other places) at Tor.com. He recently posted “100 SF/F Books You Should Consider Reading in the New Year” where he gives brief (and fun) descriptions of each of the books. They include both fantasy and science fiction, and range over a rather long publishing time. He says in bold print in the introduction, and repeats in all caps at the end, that this list is not meant to imply that these are the only books one should consider reading this year.
Shortly after it went up, he found out other book bloggers were making a meme out of it, where they would list all 100 and mark them in some way to indicate which ones you have read. So on his personal blog he listed only the titles, authors, and year of publication with the suggestion: italics = you’re read it already, underscore = you would recommend a different book by this author, and strikethrough = you recommend no one read the book. And since I keep meaning to write more about books on this blog, I figure this is an easy way to start.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (2014)
The Stolen Lake by Joan Aiken (1981)
Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa (2001-2010)
Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō by Hitoshi Ashinano (1994-2006) [partial]
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
Stinz: Charger: The War Stories by Donna Barr (1987)
The Sword and the Satchel by Elizabeth Boyer (1980)
Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue by Rosel George Brown (1968)
The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull (1987)
Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler (1980)
Naamah’s Curse by Jacqueline Carey (2010)
The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter (1996)
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (2015)
Red Moon and Black Mountain by Joy Chant (1970)
The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas (1980)
Gate of Ivrel by C.J. Cherryh (1976)
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (2015)
Diadem from the Stars by Jo Clayton (1977)
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)
Genpei by Kara Dalkey (2000)
Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard (2010)
The Secret Country by Pamela Dean (1985)
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany (1975)
The Door into Fire by Diane Duane (1979)
On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis (2016)
Spirit Gate by Kate Elliott (2006)
Enchantress From the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl (1970)
Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle (1983)
The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss (1997)
A Mask for the General by Lisa Goldstein (1987)
Slow River by Nicola Griffith (1995)
Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly (1988)
Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand (1990)
Ingathering by Zenna Henderson (1995) — (this is actually a collection of a series of stories, about half of which I have read separately)
The Interior Life by Dorothy Heydt (writing as Katherine Blake, 1990)
God Stalk by P. C. Hodgell (1982)
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson (1998)
Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang (2014)
Blood Price by Tanya Huff (1991)
The Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes (1980)
God’s War by Kameron Hurley (2011)
Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta (2014)
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (2015)
Cart and Cwidder by Diane Wynne Jones (1975)
Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones (2014)
Hellspark by Janet Kagan (1988)
A Voice Out of Ramah by Lee Killough (1979)
St Ailbe’s Hall by Naomi Kritzer (2004)
Deryni Rising by Katherine Kurtz (1970)
Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner (1987)
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier (2005)
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (2013)
Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee (Also titled Drinking Sapphire Wine, 1979)
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (2016)
Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm (1986)
Adaptation by Malinda Lo (2012)
Watchtower by Elizabeth A. Lynn (1979)
Tea with the Black Dragon by R. A. MacAvoy (1983)
The Outback Stars by Sandra McDonald (2007)
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh (1992)
Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre (1978)
The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip (1976)
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees (1926)
Pennterra by Judith Moffett (1987)
The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monáe (2010)
Jirel of Joiry by C. L. Moore (1969)
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2016)
The City, Not Long After by Pat Murphy (1989)
Vast by Linda Nagata (1998)
Galactic Derelict by Andre Norton (1959)
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik (2006)
Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara (1993)
Outlaw School by Rebecca Ore (2000)
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor (2014)
Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (1983)
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976)
Godmother Night by Rachel Pollack (1996)
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti (1859)
My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland (2011)
The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975)
Stay Crazy by Erika L. Satifka (2016)
The Healer’s War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough (1988)
Five-Twelfths of Heaven by Melissa Scott (1985)
Everfair by Nisi Shawl (2016)
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski (1986)
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart (1970)
Up the Walls of the World by James Tiptree, Jr. (1978)
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (1996)
The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge (1980)
All Systems Red by Martha Wells (2017)
The Well-Favored Man by Elizabeth Willey (1993)
Banner of Souls by Liz Williams (2004)
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (2012)
Ariosto by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1980)
Ooku by Fumi Yoshinaga (2005-present)
Nicoll tends to review books that don’t get reviewed elsewhere, and he reads a prodigious amount, it shouldn’t shock anyone that this list includes a lot of authors who don’t fall into the cishet white male category. I was pleased at how many of the books on the list were ones I had already read and liked. There were a few that were already in my to-read pile, and a good number that I’ve seen before and been interested in, but just hadn’t gotten around to.
And a bunch of these have been added to my wishlist, now.
I should try to put together some recommendation lists of my own. Or maybe just find a few more lists others have posted to link to.