Sunday, November 8, 2015

My Science Fiction Heritage

I grew up reading science fiction. Though I read various styles within the genre and within related genres, I prided myself on reading what I snobbishly called “the serious stuff.” I preferred stories that were not about space battles. I generally gravitated toward authors that dispensed with action and instead concentrated more upon ideas and character. Some of my favorite writers were Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Phillip K. Dick and ‪Ursula K. Le Guin, to name a few.

I recently ran into an old friend whom I have known since childhood. We both started reading science fiction in our teens. He still mostly reads it. I can envision a slightly different life reading path where I mostly did the same.

Up until my early twenties I read mostly science fiction and history. The science fiction had a great impact upon me (As did the history, but that is a different blog post). These works opened up my mind to big ideas, and whetted my interest in dynamic plots and compelling characters.

These books presented many diverse viewpoints. With that, I was most influenced by authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clark, who seemed to espouse a secular, rationalistic, anti-militaristic, pro-science and pro-space exploration message. These authors, as well as those with differing viewpoints, have influenced my thinking to this day.

During my college years, I began to yearn for books of other types. However, it was the themes of life and death, questioning humanity’s place in the universe, critique of society, etc., that I first encountered in science fiction books that whetted my appetite for other types of works.

I think that one can read solely science fiction and still read mostly meaningful and worthwhile books that are full of ideas. Some of the great works of literature even fall within my definition of science fiction. These books, written by authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, George Orwell, H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin, among others, can easily fit within the great literary cannon. There are also a lot of really good science fiction that may not reach the level of great literature, but that are full of compelling ideas and that are more than worthy reads.

However, as I discovered, despite the value of science fiction, there is so much more out there. In order to fully appreciate the richness of human literary art and thought, it began to dawn upon me that I needed to expand my horizons. Thus, I chose to explore both classic and contemporary literature of other sorts.

My life decision to expand my reading interests years ago leaves me scant time for reading science fiction now. In recent years, I have occasionally reread some noteworthy science fiction books from my youth, and I have read a few classics that I missed earlier in life.

As I have been thinking about the genre lately, I will likely devote some additional reading time to science fiction, including, perhaps, some contemporary authors. I have not read anything by these newer writers. There are a lot of worthwhile science fiction books out there and ignoring the genre makes no sense to me.

Yet, reading time will continue to be scarce and my reading of these books will, in the long run, be less frequent than I like. With that, I am determined to devote a little more time going forward to the genre. Science Fiction played an important role in my intellectual and emotional development, and it will always be a genre very close to my heart.


Jonathan said...

My childhood reading went through several phases. When I was really young it was fantasy/scifi (Dr Who, Conan, Moorcock, Tolkein), then when I was older it was horror (Lovecraft, S King, James Herbert) and then scifi/beat writers (Philip k Dick, Burroughs, R A Wilson) - there was also all sorts of other stuff that I've left out such as comics. Personally, I see nothing wrong with any of these authors and if I don't read much by them these days, like yourself, it's largely to do with lack of time. There are many writers that I never got round to reading any of their books, such as Asimov, Ursula K Guin, and I think I really should find the time really. But I also started thinking recently about re-reading some of the Robert E. Howard books that I loved as a child as I'm curious as to what I'd make of them these days.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian, I've had the same urge to read science fiction for some time now and explore either the classics I've missed or contemporary authors that have made an impact. The classics are easy, but I have no idea where to start with contemporary authors other than maybe look to Hugo award winners. Do you know of any authors to start with? I've read a few books by Robert J. Sawyer who is a Canadian science fiction author who has done quite well, although I can't say his work is anywhere near the standard of the classic sci-fi titans.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Mr. Kclassics, look for a copy of Science fiction : the 101 best novels, 1985-2010 by Damien Broderick.

My early science fiction reading developed my taste for inventive nonsense, and taught me to be skeptical of ideas in art, so I, too, owe science fiction a great debt.

I wasn't just reading that classy stuff, though. Just whatever crossed my path. Star Trek novels or whatever. No lack of space battles.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jonathan - These Genre books, be they science fiction, horror, or other types can indeed be worthy reads. My own rereadings of early favorites have been mostly good.

I still love Lovecraft though I read him much later in life. I should give Robert E. Howard a try.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - I read a few of the Pulp like science fiction. I think I read at least two or three Star Trek novels myself. Science Fiction really helps to teach one skepticism.

Brian Joseph said...

HI CJ - I am fairly clueless as to which new Science Fiction authors to read. I was just thinking that I would go through a list of Hugo and Nebula award winners.

I also like Tom's recommendation.

Lory said...

Science fiction is not my favorite, but I would like to read more of the classics like Asimov and Heinlein. I love Ursula K. LeGuin but I think she's in a class of her own. It will be great to see what you discover when you start going into this genre again.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph, I have not read that much science fiction! But I know there is some wonderful classic sci-fi, and I may read more of it in the future. I associate Ursula Le Guin with Catwings, not sci-fi.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lori - Ursula K. LeGuin is really unique. Her books are so creative and thoughtful.

I have just read the Dispossessed and will be blogging about it soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I never knew much about The Catwings stories. I love cats. They look awesome! I may give them a try.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Never a big fan of this genre - I leave that to Mr T - but we do have books by all of these authors on our bookshelves and they say a change is as good as a rest so who knows I may well pick one of them up one of these days.

Scott W. said...

It's rather an essential genre, isn't it, in terms of stretching one's imagination and helping one to grapple with big questions? I too read a good deal of science fiction when I was younger and still read some now and again. A couple of years ago I rediscovered John Christopher's Tripods trilogy and marveled at both the credulity of my 11-year-old self and at the work's ability to hold my interest decades later.

Rachel said...

I loved SciFi when younger, and have recently thought of starting on a Philip K Dick binge. many other books to read. I agree, though, SciFi can be incredibly thoughtful. Carl at stainlesssteeldroppings generally has a SciFi event starting in Dec or Jan. If he does this year, I might binge on Dick or Octavia Butler. We'll see how much time I have.

JoAnn said...

I've never read much science fiction and, in fact, just barely tolerated what was assigned in school. Over the years I've made sporadic attempts to read more (Ray Bradbury most recently), but still haven't found anything that really suits me. Will be interested in your upcoming choices and thoughts. You may even inspire me to try again!

James said...

I appreciate your affection for science fiction and can identify with it as I traversed a similar trajectory in my reading life. I was not particularly discriminating in my early science fiction reading, devouring the good and not so good alike. Some of my early favorite authors included the greats from the golden years like Heinlein, Van Vogt (definitely my number one), Wells, Bradbury, Clarke, Sturgeon, and newer writers like Ellison. I continued to read a lot of science fiction while in college after which my reading (like yours) shifted emphasis, but never to the exclusion of SF. Only recently, in the last five years, have I increased my consumption of SF (spurred in part by a lecture and courses at the University of Chicago and a subsequent reading group).
The other change that I have made over the years is to emphasize reading more of the best in science fiction, thus I now find my favorites include writers like Ursula LeGuin, Philip K Dick, and Margaret Atwood along with some of those from the past.
Further, I find the best of SF is less of a genre and more just one more type of very good literature. Evidence of that is in both contemporary books like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and classic literature from Orwell, Huxley, and Burgess.

Gently Mad said...

Isn't it interesting how our interests develop. I hated anything science fiction until I became good friends with a science fiction buff in college. Then I became fascinated by it. My favorite was Isaac Asimov, especially his Robot trilogy.
Somewhere in my late twenties I seemed to reach a saturation point, however. It seemed science fiction became more fantasy than pure science. Lately though I've regained some of my interest (due to recently marrying a software engineer with an extensive sci fi library) and have started reading sci fi again. This time my favorite is Philip K. Dick.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - It is such a rich genre. There is so much variety that I think that you would find something that you would like.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott - It is interesting how many of us found science fiction to be gateway to an interest in the big issues.

I had heard of Tripods but never read it. I believe that it was also a television series.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - I love Philip K. Dick. he was such an imaginative and creative writer. I had only read one book from Octavia Butler a long time ago. I should give her another try.

I remember your old Borg theme on your old blog :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi JoAnn - There is a lot of variety in the genre I think that you would eventually find something that you like.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I really need to read Cloud Atlas. I also really need to read Van Vogt. So you have given me ideas for something old and something new.

Though I prided myself reading the serious stuff I also read a lot of not so good books. These days, with time constraints, I also try to only read the best.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I love Asimov's Robot Trilogy. He eventually tied it all into the Foundation Saga. I also love Philip K. Dick.

I also like the stuff that is more science then fantasy. There seem to be so many books out there, I suppose someone has been continually writer the harder science stuff.

Violet said...

I've only read a couple of sci fi books in my entire life, which is rather remiss of me. I know a lot of sci fi is philosophical and full of ideas, but I'm not really interested in space exploration and futuristic stuff. Also, I have this idea that sci fi is a bit sexist, although I don't know if that's true.

I wonder if you'll be surprised at the direction sci fi has taken since you last read it?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - Science Fiction is a bog genre. There is a lot of it not based upon Space Exploration. Of course a lot of it is.

A lot of the earlier stuff was sexist. Generally the serious writers were not. Ursula LeGuin as well as John Varley explored gender related issues in a serious way in many of their books.

I have heard that a lot of the newer stuff is very socially progressive.

Anonymous said...

thanks Brian, I so want to go back to these classics. My favorite by Asimov is I, Robot, of course the book, not the movie which I had to quit after a few mn

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Gieven the way the discussion is going, I should mention (and recommend) the progenitor of the book I mentioned above:

Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, An English-Language Selection, 1949-1984 by David Pringle.

He discusses far more than 100 books.

Here is the list of 100. I have read around 60 of them, so I can vouch for the overall quality of the choices, most of which are pretty standard.

The Golancz SF Materworks line is also a useful guide. You will see huge overlap between this list, Pringle's, and the relevant Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell nominees. Science fiction readers are especially interested in - susceptible to - lists.

HKatz said...

This is a lovely tribute to sci-fi. I agree with you that the genre has a lot of possibilities and can tackle important ethical and societal issues.

So far, most of the sci-fi I've read has been short stories (including by Clarke, Bradbury and Le Guin). I'm interested in reading reviews and recommendations for novels.

Brian Joseph said...

thanks for the links. I had to do a count of the Pringle list. Looks like I have read twenty. I thought that I was the only person left alive who had even heard of the Centauri Device :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Vicki - There is some overlap between YA and Science Fiction.

Guy Erma and the Son of Empire looks like it is very entertaining.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - I Robot is a great one. It is one of my early favorites.

I agree that the film was not very good.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila

There are so many great science fiction short stories.

There are so many to recommend. Tom posted some great lists above.

Some of my posts on science fiction books are here:

Childhood's End by Author C. Clarke

Do Androids Dream of electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Nineteen Eighty - Four by George Orwell

I will also be posting commentary on The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin in a few weeks.

So many books, so little time said...

It was never a genre I read much as a kid but I did love the movies. As an adult I don't think I have read much of it either and now there are so many categories, sci-fi, fantasy, dystopia etc which I have read one or two in those categories. I really want to read 1984 by George Orwell as so many people have and for some reason I never got round to it or had a copy.


Stefanie said...

I too read SF as a teen and fantasy too and they definitely shaped my reading choices too. After college there was a long stretch of time where I rarely read SFF but in the last few years I have begun reading it again and I wonder why I ever left. There is some really good stuff out there especially in the area of gender. Don't be surprised as you start reading SF again if you find yourself gobbling down more SF than you expected!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - There are indeed so many subgroups. As I alluded to I am familiar with the older stuff. We seemed less concerned with categories years ago.

Nineteen Eighty Four was is one of the most impotence books ever written. Personally I found it to be the most disturbing piece of fiction that I ever read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - It is so interesting how many of us have had a similar life reading history and in regards to science fiction.

I agree that Science fiction has explored gender issues in all sorts of interesting ways. I recently finished Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossesed. I will be posting a separate blog concerning that book's look on gender.

Priya said...

Such a wonderful post. It is fascinating to see how you branched out from science fiction and now find yourself returning to it. To be honest, science fiction is a genre that I have never fully dived into. I have read and loved Asimov, but would certainly like to explore the other greats of the genre. I hope to see more posts on science fiction here on your site to get recommendations from. :)

Maria Behar said...

Great post, Brian!

Science fiction was my main literary love in my teens and early twenties, although I actually first started with fantasy; I read a lot of fairy tales as a child and preteen. I also read some Mark Twain: "Tom Sawyer" and "The Prince and the Pauper". Around the age of 10 or 11, I started devouring horse books with a passion -- "Black Beauty", The Black Stallion series, the Flicka books.... Then, when I was 12, I became friends with a fellow classmate named Sylvia, who drew wonderful spaceships, and claimed to come from another planet. Lol. She introduced me to SF. Well, I stopped reading horse books, and became immersed in a whole new world!

My reading tastes did a complete 360 when I first fell in love. I stopped reading fantasy & SF, and began eating up romance novels. The funny thing is, I had always looked down my nose at the genre, considering it silly and totally beneath my intelligence. Lol. However, this genre did fulfill my emotional needs, and I read these books as compulsively as I had previously read science fiction. Now I wish I hadn't strayed so far from SF....

Although I read Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and Le Guin, with some Star Trek books thrown in for good measure, my favorite SF writer is Ray Bradbury. This is in spite of the fact that his works have a thread of horror running through them....but he is such a master!! I have never forgotten "The Martian Chronicles", "The Illustrated Man", and "Fahrenheit 451"! Bradbury's prose is wonderful, and his characters SO memorable!

Another favorite SF writer is Cordwainer Smith. His stories of The Instrumentality are amazing! And he invented these wonderful characters called "The Underpeople". If you haven't read his works, I highly recommend them!

Of course, I loved "The Left Hand of Darkness", and would like to re-read it, as unfortunately I don't recall much of the plot. I do remember it made a big impression on me when first read it, sometime in my twenties.

C.S. Lewis, although better known for fantasy, does have a wonderful SF trilogy -- "Out of the Silent Planet", "Perelandra", and "That Hideous Strength". I read the first two, and don't know why I didn't go on to the last book.... Now I want to re-read the first two, and then read the last one!

I will definitely be including SF in my literary fiction blog. In fact, you've really motivated me to want to get back to reading more of this fascinating genre!

Thanks for your thoughts!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Priya - If you love Isaac Asimov we have something in common.

I will be [posting additional blogs on Science Fiction books in the near future.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Your early reading was a lot more eclectic then mine. Though there is certainly lower quality efforts out there, one can say that writers like Charlotte Bronte and Anthony Trollope were romance writers too. Thus I like to say that there are great works in every genre,

The Left Hand of darkness was a great and meaningful book. I reread it a few years ago. I have just finished Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed and will be posting on it soon. I found it to be just as compelling as The Left Hand of Darkness.

Bradbury is indeed a special writer. I agree about his prose. In think that an argument can be made that it is the best in science fiction.

I read Out of the Silent Planet a long time ago, I should reread it as well as well as the other two myself. I know that Lewis wrote from a Christian perspective, but as you know, I am interested and try to respect ideas that do not match my own.

Thanks for the good word and thanks for the great comment!

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

I'm somewhat ambivalent about science fiction. I'm open to any story but once it starts getting technical I'm lost. That was my main issue with the genre. I grew up reading Jules Verne, long before I knew what science fiction meant.
If you're thinking about contemporary authors, I recommend "Love Minus Eighty" by Will McIntosh.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - I have found that while there is technical science fiction out there, much of it is not technical at all. The stuff that I tend to favor usually tends not to be.

Thanks for the recommendation, Love Minus Eighty looks to be very original and worth the read.

The Bookworm said...

Hi Brian. I hope you get back to reading your beloved science fiction.
I read George Orwell and H.G. Wells years ago in school, War of the Worlds and Animal Farm and enjoyed both. There's a sense of adventure in sci-fi, though I do prefer the films. I went through a phase in my twenties where I'd read the Star Trek books, I enjoyed the tv programs alot, and I'm still a trekkie. That never goes away lol.
Enjoy your week :O)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - I am very much still a Treckie too!

There is very much a sense of adventure to a lot of science fiction, both in terms of physical action as well as intellectually.

A lot of great scince fiction bucks that trend however, George Orwell being good example.

Anonymous said...

I've grown up and am still growing up on science fiction. :)

Your choices are excellent, all authors that I love. In addition, I would recommend the following as un-missable:

- James Blish, 'Cities in Flight' - part of the canon, and utterly brilliant
- Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light
- The Strugatsky Brothers - Soviet SF writers from the 60s, not very well known now, but the SF masterworks just brought out their "Hard To Be A God" in a new translation, and that's a brilliant book (I reviewed it recently for Strange Horizons). Their most famous one is "Roadside Picnic".
- Philip Jose Farmer, 'To Your Scattered Bodies Go'
- Margaret Atwood!
- One recent book that you might enjoy - because it is at the intersection of SF and History - is Jo Walton's 'The Just City'. It's about a group of people trying to set up Plato's Republic. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gautam - Thanks for the recommendations.

I have read a fair amount of Margaret Atwood books. I think that she is one of the great writers of our time.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go is an amazing book. Few books take us completely beyond the wall of death and that one does.

I have read both Blish and Zelazny but it has been a long time. I need to revisit them.

JaneGS said...

I have never really had an interest in reading science fiction, although I know it is a path to a reading life that many have taken. Although I love time travel books and some paranormal, but worlds with two suns have never done much for me. Actually, I was inspired to read Ursula K. LeGuin, but only because one of the characters in The Jane Austen Bookclub was a fan--I never did though :)

I agree that ignoring a genre that is near and dear to you is something you will ultimately regret. I think there is great writing in all the genres, and expanding our horizons sometimes involves returning to one's roots.

Read on and enjoy the adventure!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I love Ursula K. LeGuin and I need to read more of her books. I think you might like her. Her books are serious stories about people and society. I will be posting commentary on her novel The Disposed soon.

thecuecard said...

Nice post Brian. You sound as huge a sci-fi reader as my brother was growing up. I read a little of it (like Dune and 2001) but not a ton. I've gotten a bit back into the genre recently with all the popularity of the apocalyptic novels and I'm glad you gave me the name of Frank Herbert's novel The White Plague. I've added it to my long list of books I want to read. Who is your favorite sci-fi writer? hmm. Or what book??

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Susan.

That is such a tough question! I think that my favorite is either Isaac Asimov or Philip K Dick. But there are others that I could argue for.

As I mentioned to you, the White Plague really disturbed me. Other folks I know who read it dis not have the same experience so I think that it may have just pushed certain buttons for me. If you read it I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

I wrote a little bit about it here:

RFD@15037 said...

Wow! This is like a graduate seminar in S/F. Between your posting and the many comments and responses, I have accumulated a substantial "wish list" for "must read" authors and titles. But, alas, "so many books and so little time" is the killjoy for all readers, so now I have to figure out a top-ten from all the candidates in your posting and the comments. While I'm scratching down titles, making additions, marking off deletions, and beating my head against the wall with such a challenge, I redirect the challenge to you and others: tell me the "must read" top-ten S/F. Or does that sound too much like I'm being too lazy by deferring to you and others? Hmmmm. (Note: a couple of my favorites from past reading are 1984, Brave New World, Never Let Me Go, Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid's Tale, Alas Babylon, On the Beach, Lord of the Flies, and few dozen others that I cannot now recall -- and I know that many of those titles are NOT S/F, but that forces the question: how do you define S/F?)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi RT - I was actually afraid that someone would ask me me definition of science fiction. I do want to include fantasy but I do want to include stories that involve future or alternate society. Thus I think that Science Fiction is : A story whose major elements involve somewhat realistic speculation of scientific, technological or social developments that currently do not exist today.

That would include titles like Nineteen Eighty - Four and the Handmaid’s Tale since they include social developments but would exclude books like Lord of The Rings as it is not "realistic" speculation.

I out together a list of my must read science fiction books. I could not pair it down to less then twelve. However, I should note that I have read little science fiction published in the blast fifteen years. Even when it comes to the older stuff, there are a lot of books that I missed.

On your list I have not read Never Let Me Go, Oryx and Crake, or On the Beach.

Childhood’s End – Isaac Asimov

Contact – Carl Sagan

Dune (I think that I would include the first four books) – Frank Herbert

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – Philip K. Dick

Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg

Glass Bead Game – Hermann Hesse

The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury

The Foundation Series – Isaac Asimov

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin

Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell

Solaris - Stanisław Lem

The Time Machine – HG Wells

RFD@15037 said...

Thank you! I shall begin with Dick and LeGion. Onward! Again, thanks a million.

Unknown said...

Don't know a great deal about Science fiction but if you have never read Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles you owe it to yourself to do so. Its more fantasy then science fiction but its a reading experience you will not soon forget. High recommendation.

Tom Cunliffe said...

Brian - nice to see your book blog still running so successfully. I also read plenty of SF in earlier year - I used to like Greg Bear and David Brin. You remind me that SF may be worth revisiting

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tom - It is nice to see you back.

read some David Brin and I like his work.

It is so interesting how many of us read this genre when younger.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Kathy.

Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles was one of the first Science Fiction books that I read when younger. I have read it since. It is truly one of the great works of the genre and literature in general.

Caroline said...

As ususal - I'm late to your post.
I somehow forgot how much I owe Sci-Fi - in terms of reading and writing. This summer I rediscovered it and even started to write it again. I'm happy to tell you that Daily Science Fiction has accepted one of my stories for publication. Next year, I think.
I mostly read Bradbury, Frederic Brown and some of the Russians.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - No rush in commenting.

Congratulations on your story being accepted! You must keep us updated as to when it is published.

I have not read Brown. I have read a few of the Russians. I really like what I have read.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Brian was also a big Sci fi fan & have recently been reading the occasional work again a new good writer is Hannu Rajaniemi The Fractal Prince, or if something older how about Ryu Mitsuse's 10 billion days & a 100 billion nights, which has amongst its characters Jesus of Nazereth, Pato, Siddhartha & a demi god Azura, this is generally recognised as the greatest Japanese Sci fi novel of all time.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the recommendations Gary. I am looking for new writers to read and I will hopefully give them both a try.