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Published on: September 18, 2010
Literary Saturday: Science Fiction is a Genre That Everyone Should Read

Something about blogging brings out my confessional side.  Already this week I’ve confessed my shameful love for Walmart; in one of my first posts I confessed my addiction to the $5 necktie.  Now I’m overwhelmed with the urge to share a dark, dirty literary secret: that I not only read science fiction, I love it, […]

Something about blogging brings out my confessional side.  Already this week I’ve confessed my shameful love for Walmart; in one of my first posts I confessed my addiction to the $5 necktie.  Now I’m overwhelmed with the urge to share a dark, dirty literary secret: that I not only read science fiction, I love it, I learn from it — and I think you should too.

I have read a lot of science fiction.  I started reading this stuff when Sputnik was still in the news; the first satellites were spooking through the sky when I was turning the pages of novels by Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein and A. E. Van Vogt.  I read everything in the genre that the Glenwood Elementary School and Chapel Hill public libraries contained — and I have stuck with it ever since.

A scene from Gulliver’s Travels, a classic work of science fiction.

This isn’t because the genre is producing great literature.  For the most part, it isn’t.  A lot of the best known science fiction looks either dated (Jules Verne, HG Wells) or dumb: the platitudinous and banal ‘philosophical’ discussions of the Star Trek crew on their pointless and endless galactic cruise. Or take (please!) the movie Avatar, a lot of science fiction is about flashy special effects grafted onto silly politics and creaky plots.  And while there is a lot of fine writing in the genre (names like Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany spring to mind), there is a lot of flapdoodle as well: bad western plots tricked out with Buck Rogers gear. Some of the genre’s most venerated names (Isaac Asimov comes to mind) were gifted hacks whose ability to spin entertaining tales overcame their leaden prose, superficial ideas and pasteboard characters.  It was only in the last generation that interesting women began to pop up in space; science fiction novelists as a class seemed to think of women the way sailors did back in the age of sail.  Alluring, incomprehensible and rare: fun in port, but bad luck on a voyage.  And some of the funniest pages you will ever read are found when scifi hack writers whose own thought processes are sludgy and slow try to reproduce the inner voices and thought processes of superhuman intelligences.  At its best (worst), such writing achieves the unintentional hilarity of “Battlefield Earth”, the ponderously leaden and reverential movie adaptation of a crashingly bad book by the Grand Poobah of Science Fiction Hackery, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Nor should you read science fiction to find out where technology is going.  Sometimes the genre gets lucky.  The (very mediocre) writer Arthur C. Clarke did predict the rise of the geosynchronous satellite; the much more gifted and interesting Vernor Vinge not only predicted the rise of the internet; he has continued to produce very thoughtful and sometimes even accurate predictions about how it might develop and what its consequences might be.  But science fiction misses as much as it gets; there were not, for example, many computers in space before they started popping up down here on earth.  Flying cars were frequently posited in old science fiction, but it is hard to find anybody who predicted the Ipod — or Moore’s Law.

Not that you don’t learn something about science from science fiction; over the years my reading in the genre has certainly helped me keep abreast of the direction of scientific research – and the accounts of the lives of scientists by writers like the accomplished and entertaining Connie Wills can give non-scientists a better sense of what doing science is like. (Outside the genre, the brilliant Andrea Barrett does this as well.)   ‘Hard’ science fiction writers like Larry Niven and Gregory Benford make a point of writing fiction in which the most arcane and speculative arenas of contemporary scientific theory are shown playing out — and in which everything from the physics of far off solar systems to the principles by which space ships travel is extrapolated from and consistent with contemporary scientific knowledge.  One of the ways in which a history and word person like me can at least maintain a reasonable lay knowledge of the great scientific achievements that are defining and shaping our times is to read hard science fiction — and follow up by checking out theories and principles that seem particularly challenging or unexpected.

But science fiction is not really about science.  A book like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels really captures what science fiction is about.  Writing in a scientific and enlightened era, Swift knew his readers wanted plausible explanations that helped them suspend disbelief and follow his plot.  Swift made the manner of Gulliver’s travels consistent with the scientific knowledge of the day; the countries he described are located in remote locations that were still unexplored in Swift’s time. As a result, Gulliver’s voyages to Lilliput, Brobdinag, the land of the Houyhnhnms and Laputa were consistent with what was scientifically known at the time — just as C.S. Lewis worked in his famous space trilogy to make Dr. Elwin Ransom’s voyages to Malacandra and Perelandra consistent with the science his readers would know.  (The houyhnhnms are related to the Malacandrian hrossa in many ways, just as Swift’s yahoos look a lot like Lewis’ Weston and Divine.)  The books describe voyages to Lilliput and Mars — but the subject is always home.

Science fiction is perhaps best understood by an alternative name for the genre: speculative fiction.  It is fiction that asks questions about the human condition and the meaning of life by taking us beyond everyday life.  We go to strange planets, far distant futures or even to our own past — in order to learn about who we really are.  Science fiction takes its readers to far off galaxies in order to help them understand life on earth more clearly — just as Dorothy traveled to Oz to learn what Kansas was really all about.  The results can be startling and profound; The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is a riveting and harrowing exploration of faith and intercultural contact as a Jesuit missionary lands on an alien planet.  Reflecting earlier Jesuit missions in China and the Americas, the novel casts startling new light on those encounters and leads readers to think more deeply and more richly about what faith and culture are really about. Less profound, but a great deal of fun, the 1632 series of novels and short stories by Eric Flint and various collaborators that postulates the arrival of a small West Virginia town from our time thrown back into the middle of Germany during the Thirty Years’ War.  The impact of Grantsville’s technology and ideas on historical figures ranging from Cardinal Richelieu to Gustavus Adolphus and his daughter Kristina allows readers a chance to see the world in a fresh and stimulating way.

Taken as a whole, the field of science fiction today is where most of the most interesting thought about human society can be found.  At a time when many academics have become almost willfully obscure, political science is increasingly dominated by arcane and uninspiring theories and in which a fog of political correctness makes some forms of (badly needed) debate and exploration off limits, science fiction has stepped forward to fill the gap.  In the work of writers like David Brin and Neal Stephenson there is more interesting reflection on America’s place in the world than you will find, I fear, in a whole year’s worth of reading in foreign policy magazines.  Robert Heinlein’s work brilliantly lays out the ideology of populist libertarianism and predicted the revolt against the welfare state that has defined American politics since the 1980s.  Read C. J. Cherryh’s foreigner novels for insight into international relations and her Cyteen novels to sharpen your wits about both international politics and the impact of technological change on human society.

The biggest single task facing the United States today is the unleashing of our social imagination.  We are locked into twentieth century institutions and twentieth century habits of mind.  Science fiction is the literary genre (OK, true, sometimes a subliterary genre) where the social imagination is being cultivated and developed.  Young people should read this genre to help open their minds to the extraordinary possibilities that lie before us; we geezers should read it for the same reason.  The job of our times is to build a radically new world; speculative fiction helps point the way.

Wear cheap ties, shop Walmart, and read lots of science fiction.  Follow this advice, friends, and you are sure to go far.

show comments
  • Stephen Barron

    Two words: Gene Wolfe

    • Walter Russell Mead

      And thanks to Glenn Reynolds for alerting me to two highly embarrassing typos in the original post. Fixed now.

  • Steve Gregory

    Two more words: William Gibson

  • Jeff Peterson

    With some mild defensiveness for the childhood enthusiasm I’ve sustained into adulthood (and can now indulge on blu-ray), I would note that, with one famous episode excepted (the half-black/half-white aliens), the REALLY ponderous discussions in Star Trek are the preserve of the spinoff series, not the original 60s show. Now off to Walmart to shop for a tie . . .

  • Alexander Weiner

    Neuromancer, and Snow Crash are the only Sci-Fi I have found tolerable. Of course, I am a Tom Wolfe fan so…

  • Ben JB

    Walter,
    Like the naive commander of the Bachelor’s Delight, you seem to be swinging into this issue with the best of intentions and only a shallow understanding of what’s going on. I could pass by your platitudes about science fiction (no interesting women in space before this last generation? You’ve never bothered to read Hawthorne’s short stories, have you? Or the American Utopian trend of the late 19th century?); and I could ignore your somewhat myopic assertions (Heinlein described the welfare revolt? I think I read something like that in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress but I must’ve missed that when he was extolling the barracks as the ideal society in Starship Troopers and writing joyfully about the kinky communality of Stranger in a Strange Land). (And I have to say, if I had ever said that political correctness makes it impossible to debate certain issues without offering any examples or evidence, my political science professor, James Chace, would’ve had some sharp things to say.)

    But what I can’t let you get away with is your backhanded praise of certain authors as transcending science fiction. That is, when you note that much of sf isn’t very good and that, for instance, Asimov’s writing had a lot of “leaden prose, superficial ideas and pasteboard characters,” it seems like you don’t really understand that you’re bringing a very narrow measure of quality from one particular genre (modernist fiction) and applying it to another. The classic comedic example of this is “The Macbeth Murders,” where a detective-fiction fan misreads “Macbeth” because he’s bringing a set of assumptions that don’t apply. To switch examples, you wouldn’t complain that Shakespeare stole all his plots, would you? I hope you wouldn’t–I hope you would realize that Shakespeare’s re-telling of old plots is in service to something else–that there’s something to get out of his works other than the plots. Or, to put it more bluntly, you wouldn’t complain that chess isn’t checkers, right? So, the idea that science fiction needs rounded characters (rather than pasteboard characters) is something that there’s long been a debate over–check out Le Guin’s “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown” (1976) vs. Joanna Russ’s “Towards an Aesthetics of Science Fiction” (1975). But the way you come in to the argument as if the answer is clear is strikingly Amasa Delano-esque.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/lukelea2/thesoftpath Lea Luke

    Nor should we slight the utopian imagination when it works though the medium of non-fiction, “science faction” instead of “science fiction” you might call it — a genre that explores the technological possibilities of now as opposed to some future.

    Here’s an example:

    http://sites.google.com/site/lukelea2/thesoftpath

  • Rob Crawford

    “I must’ve missed that when he [Heinlein] was extolling the barracks as the ideal society in Starship Troopers”

    He did no such thing.

  • Bob Singer

    Any time I see a list of writers of Science Fiction I see new names I haven’t read (and I read a lot), but I think you should actually add to the genre, the “science fiction” comic book. I know, you’re thinking Blam-Pow, but, for example, Jack Kirby’s New Gods left us with the “Mother Box” according to the Wiki, “generally thought to be sentient, miniaturized, portable supercomputers” which look a lot like todays PDA/Smart Phones/iPhones. These were first shown in the comics in 1971, well before the appearance of either the first PDA (Apple Newton in 1993) or the first cell phone (Martin Cooper’s in 1973).

  • Steven H.

    The only serious science fiction book I haven’t found to be boring or disappointing is Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. But that was actually a philosophical novel in disguise. Some of the pulpier stuff can be entertaining, because I don’t expect anything from it. Most SF I just think, “this could be on Earth, why is it on another planet?”

  • John Barker

    I got the first “foreigner” book at B&N last night. Could not put it down. Thanks for launching me on a new reading adventure.

  • WigWag

    I’m glad that WRM likes Robert Heinlein but I couldn’t grok this post.

    Arthur C. Clarke is not nearly as mediocre a writer as Mead claims although Asimov might be.

    How can you do a post about speculative fiction (aka science fiction) without mentioning 1984 or Brave New World?

    One of the greatest science fiction writers of all times wasn’t mentioned in this post; I wonder whether Mead has read Alfred Bester. He was truly one of the greats of this genre.

  • hM

    I’d add Alastair Reynolds to the list. He’s been my hands-down favorite sci-fi writer since I first picked up his book “Revelation Space” at the Ramstein BX years ago. It was the first time I’d read a space opera I thought was well done and interesting throughout.

    And I must confess that I love L. Ron Hubbard’s “Mission Earth” series. For all the faults it may have, I thought it was very funny and that’s always a plus in my book.

  • M. Report

    You list Delany without mentioning his
    complement Zelazny, and their ‘debate’
    over the balance between Anarchy and
    Law ?

  • DDG

    Gene Wolfe, indeed. By far the finest writer in SF.

    Interesting that you highlight those LeGuin, Butler and Delany, though. They’re three “literary” types very much against the stereotype of SF as a white guy’s preserve. They are (or were) respectively: a feminist white woman, a painfully antisocial black woman, and a gay black man. Most of their works explore themes of race or sex or class.

  • hanmeng

    Yet another two words: Stanisław Lem.

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  • Ben JB

    @WigWag,
    Yes, Bester, definitely. I’d also add Theodore Sturgeon and James Tiptree, Jr. as two authors that I think Mead would like in their focus on people. (What was that Sturgeon definition of SF: “[A] good science-fiction story is a story about human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content.”

    @Rob Crawford,
    Just to be clear, I really enjoy Starship Troopers and I’m not claiming anything here like the book is fascist or glorifies war–or any of the other negative claims that people make about the book. (We could discuss those allegations later.) But remind me, how does Starship Troopers end? IIRC, Johnny Rico (and his father) decide to stay in the military for life b/c it’s a better societal model. (Now, mind you, I’m not claiming that this is what Heinlein thinks; he wrote a lot of books, and the politics in them don’t always gibe. I mean, can you imagine Jubal Hawshaw, Valentine Smith, Johnny Rico, and Mannie all coming to an agreement on the best way to live?)

  • http://panic.killdevil.org Peter Buxton

    Wow, Dr Mead reads Samuel R Delany! Though “Tales of Neveryon” was heavy-handed, and “Babel-17″ was the false hypothesis of Sapir-Whorf on steroids, “Dhalgren” is simply the finest brick of literature from America in the 20th Century. W Gibson wrote an excellent intro to it. In “Dhalgren,” the machinery of plot falls aside for a worm’s eye view of life as we tend to live it. I know Delany probably had more ambitious, post-modern goals for his book, but he’ll simply have to be content with the label, “masterpiece.”

  • Chris Patrick

    One name above all: Rod Serling

  • Luke

    I’m horrified and offended that you would class Arthur C. Clarke as a “very mediocre writer”. His stories are some of the most interesting science fiction stories that there are. There is a sense of wonder in his tales (and many of the short stories of the also-derided Issac Asimov) that simply does not exist in those that you prefer. That is not to forbid you from having your preferences, but deriding authors as “hacks” simply because they don’t match your preferences is poppycock. Nightfall or The Sentinel may have had “pasteboard characters”, but the characters are incidental to these stories. Fleshing them out would distract, and actively detract, from the power of the stories.

    Personally, I don’t much care for Eric Flint. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to condescend to those who do.

    I’ll cede you L. Ron Hubbard, though.

  • Warren Bonesteel

    Well, you included Heinlein, anyway. If you haven’t read Heinlein, your education is far from complete. No. It isn’t Shakespeare, but it isn’t meant to be.

    L. Ron Hubbard’s SF was meant to be a tongue in cheek look at the topic. Most people seem to miss that. The Battlefield Earth movie was a travesty that didn’t begin to catch the humor in his work.

    One of the newer authors I recommend is Travis “Doc” Taylor. He has a more interesting C.V. than Bear or Brin and his work is a fun ride.

  • http://www.di2.nu/blog.htm FrancisT

    3 words – Lois McMaster Bujold.

  • TinaB

    Octavia Butler was not anti-social. She was a lovely person to talk to.

    @A,Weiner try When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger.

    Bester, Biggle, and for the best space opera ever, Niven & Pournelle’s Mote in God’s Eye.

  • http://www.lindaseebach.net Linsee

    Frederik Pohl writes about being a science fiction writer (which he has been for 70 years or so) at http://www.thewaythefutureblogs.com/ . He’s also just won a Hugo for best fan writing.

    Travel to the moon has been a staple of speculative writing since the late Renaissance, but nobody foresaw what may turn out to be the most important thing about it: when a man first stepped onto the surface of the moon, a billion people were watching him on television.

  • http://ai.mee.nu Pixy Misa

    Arthur C Clarke “very mediocre”?
    Isaac Asimov’s ideas were “superficial”?

    Get thee to a library. They have a copy of The City and the Stars with your name on it. And with any luck, The Caves of Steel as well.

    One other point: Vernor Vinge predicted the rise of the Internet… After the fact. By the time A Fire Upon the Deep was published, with its “net of a million lies”, Usenet (upon which it drew heavily) had been active more more than a decade, and the internet for more than *two* decades.

    Try A Logic Named Joe (Murray Leinster, 1946) or the classic MS Fnd in a Lbry (Hal Draper, 1961) instead.

  • Murgatroyd

    “One other point: Vernor Vinge predicted the rise of the Internet… After the fact. By the time A Fire Upon the Deep was published, with its “net of a million lies”, Usenet (upon which it drew heavily) had been active more more than a decade, and the internet for more than *two* decades.”

    But Vinge’s classic novella “True Names” was written in 1980 … back in an era when ARPAnet was new and the province of a few scientists and military types. (And also a year or two before _Neuromancer_ came out, if I recall correctly.)

  • WigWag

    I’m surpised that no one has mentioned Brian Aldiss; he’s remarkably prolific (he’s still writing at the age of 85) and he has produced excellent science fiction novels and short stories. His novel, “Barefoot in the Head” is strange but worth the effort; it’s Aldiss’s take on Finnegan’s Wake.

    As a genre, science fiction also puts me in mind of magic realism. The best practioners of magical realism are, of course, Borges and Garcia-Marquez but the young English author, Louis de Bernieres is also quite good. He’s most famous for Corelli’s Mandolin, but his best books are actually “Bird Without Wings,” his magical realism take on Turkey at the end of the Ottoman Empire (it’s an homage to Orhann Pamuk) and his trilogy on the nation of Colombia (his homage to Garcia-Marquez.)

    Now that WRM has done his “science fiction” post, I hope he will keep his promise and give us his “opera” post.

  • Murgatroyd

    And yes, “A Logic Named Joe” is a neglected classic and astonishingly prescient:

    http://www.baen.com/chapters/W200506/0743499107___2.htm

    But that story’s world isn’t anything like the Net of “True Names.”

  • Wayne Richards

    A huge ‘yes’ to Gene Wolfe, a great writer.
    I must offer James Blish, ‘A Case of Conscience’, and Walter M. Miller Jr., ‘A Canticle for Liebowitz’. And Lem for ‘The Cyberiad’, which can compare to ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.

    Cheers, and good reading!
    Wayne Richards

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  • John C.

    Back in the May 1961 issue of Analog SF Magazine, G. Harry Stine wrote an article “Science Fiction Is Too Conservative” which dealt with how technological development was predicted by various people. Most people assumed that technology would improve on a more or less slight straight line, engineers assumed a steeper curve, SF writers a MUCH steeper curve, and the actual advance was an exponential function. And Stine was an SF writer, as well as an aerospace engineer. So Moore’s Law, as applying to the overall development of technology, WAS predicted in an SF magazine, 49 years ago, before Moore did in 1965 in the more narrow field of electronics.

  • Rollory

    I got as far as “Jules Verne” and “dated” in the same sentence and knew that you have absolutely nothing worthwhile to say on this subject.

    Go read _Paris in the Twentieth Century_ and try again.

    (didn’t read past that point, an error that big means I can find other things to do)

  • http://tarfeathers.wordpress.com RRRoark

    Ben JB

    Heinlein was indeed a libertarian and laid out many voluntary lifestyle choices. The military lifestyle is a high calling and is intolerable for most, but it is a choice that for some is correct. He also celebrates the community lifestyle in “Stranger”, unfamiliar marriage styles in “Mistress” and “Friday”, and a treatise on gender roles in “Evil”, then wraps up his “whatever floats your boat” libertarianism in “Number”.
    One thing I think you need to remember is which books were written for “Boys Life” the boy scouts’ magazine and which he wrote for adults. In that vein, I have found “Tunnel in the Sky” a very acceptable replacement for “Lord of the Flies” in getting middle school types to actually read the book and discuss the ideas over buying Cliff Notes and hoping not to be called on in class.

  • newscaper

    for Pixy Misa

    You don’t know your Vinge.

    His important story “True Names” is much, much earlier, written in the 80s before the Web was invented, and before the underlying Internet was hardly anywhere outside of a few universities and labs.

    WRT others about Asimov — IIRC Asimov basically described himself as a hack writer. Though with a great imagination of course.

  • newscaper

    True Names, from Wikipedia…

    True Names is the science fiction novella which brought Vernor Vinge to prominence in 1981. It is one of the earliest stories to present a fully fleshed-out concept of cyberspace, which would later be central to stories in the cyberpunk genre. Because of this, it is often referenced as a seminal work of the genre. The story also contains elements of transhumanism, anarchism, and even hints about The Singularity. It was awarded the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 2007.

  • alexwajnberg

    Dear Mister Mead,
    Your blog is one of the best sites of literate and rational writing i know of. I assume you know of Stanislaw Lem but see no mention of him in your note on virtues of reading science fiction. In an unlikely case of the lacuna being real there are numerous but only adequate English translations and some great ones in German from his native Polish. You of all readers will definitely appreciate both Lem’s intellectual heft and literary ingenuity

  • alexwajnberg

    Dear Mister Mead,
    Your blog is one of the best sites of literate and rational writing i know of. I assume you know of Stanislaw Lem but see no mention of him in your note on virtues of reading science fiction. In an unlikely case of the lacuna being real there are numerous( but only adequate) English translations and some great ones in German from his native Polish. You of all readers will definitely appreciate Lem’s intellectual heft and literary ingenuity

  • Ben JB

    @RRRoark,
    That’s interesting that you’ve had luck with some of the Scribner’s juveniles in class–any luck with TIME FOR THE STARS? (I ask only b/c I just read it for the first time and thought it would’ve gotten me into science but not science fiction if I had read it when I was young.)

    As for Heinlein’s libertarianism, I wasn’t saying that he wasn’t a libertarian (although, as we all now know, he did flirt with alternative politics, as when he supported Upton Sinclair in the 30s); my main point with my original post is that to boil down Heinlein to “revolt against the welfare state” is a gross oversimplification of his work–if we just say “Heinlein is a libertarian,” we’re going to miss (at the very least) the distinction between Heinlein’s particular libertarianism and today’s libertarianism.

  • Dave in Georgia

    I’ve gotten to the point that any time the term “literary” is used with any type of novel, I run the other direction. Virtually every time some work is described as “literary”, I’ve found it to be pretentious at best, and unreadable intellectual masturbation at worst.

    Give me something with an inventive plot first. That’s the meat of any story, of any length. The rest of it is the gravy. It’s tasty and can make the meal something to remember, but without that first basic, it’s a waste of time.

    And no one mentioned the two SF novels written by John D. MacDonald, “The Ballroom of the Skies” and “Wine of the Dreamers.” Not only are they superior to most novels in general, they were written by the man I consider to be the best technical wordsmith of the 20th Century.

  • Cam Williams

    John Ringo’s first three books in the “Posleen Wars” series are simply the very best alien invasion/military SF books ever written.

    If you don’t read at least those three of his, you’re missing a terrific SF experience.

  • Will

    Jack Vance. ‘Nuff said.

  • hari seldon

    Just a suggestion. A few years back I decided to read all the novels that won the Hugo and the Nebula Awards starting from the beginning. If a book in a series won, then I read the series. Of course, I had already read a number of them over my lifetime, but re-reading them was worth it and there were quite a few I hadn’t discovered earlier. A fun approach.

  • http://www.borgeltinstruments.com Mike Borgelt

    C’mon people. Nobody has mentioned the late, great,
    Poul Anderson. Interesting characters aplenty, poetic writing, exploration of hard science ideas and the human condition. Also a great fantasy writer. “Three Hearts and Three Lions”, “The Merman’s Children”, “The Broken Sword”.

  • Carl

    For the best combination of entertainment and strangeness, no one can beat Cordwainer Smith.

  • rararabbit

    Not one mention of Ray Bradbury?

  • http://wildekarrde.mee.nu karrde

    What, no Tim Zahn?

    Mr. Zahn came into the fore in the early ’80’s, and his stories fulfill the primary purpose of a story–entertainment–while always containing a nugget of deeper thinking about the intersection of technology, social structure, and their interactions.

    Neal Stephenson is also very good. Cryptonomicon has the best explanation of the mathematics of encryption/decryption that I’ve ever seen in the popular press, and contains a study of social development in terms of the archetypes seen as Athena and Ares in the Greek Pantheon.

    He did take a while to figure out how to write a book with a good ending, though…I think he succeeded with Anathem.

  • Zimriel

    NERRRRRDS!

    As for no strong women characters in older sf, um, that guy you hate, Isaac Asimov – he wrote two of ‘em into the Foundation stories. Beta Darryl and especially her daughter Arkady. And OMG, you forgot Susan Calvin.

    The 1940s were a bit more than a generation ago; my parents were both born then and in no position to read sf.

  • Tennwriter

    I’ll agree with the host about Arthur C. Clark. Rama 1 was slow, and dull. Childhood while clever in bits, was a bit preachy (a trait that shows up in full form in the awful Songs From a Distant Earth).

    Vinge is seminal about the possibility of the Singularity. If you like it, or you don’t, you probably use an arguement Vinge has already visited.

    A lot of the Grand Old Masters were not as good as legend has it. We’re probably heading toward a reevaluation of just who is great in SF even as the Tea Party forces such an evaluation in politics.

  • Tennwriter

    I’m going to disagree about how ground-breaking SF is. A lot of its not that imaginative, and deals in the same old forms, for the same old pet causes. There’s vast frontiers of stories that never get even told, continents lay undiscovered in shadow as small countries bake under the light of a hundred suns.

    Forex, no one except Michael Williamson is allowed to right another story about how wonderful Libertarianism is for another decade. And frankly, thats one of the not totally beaten to death horses. But it is looking rather sickly ….

  • Yehudit

    Two words: Bruce Sterling

  • Kirk Parker

    “WRT others about Asimov — IIRC Asimov basically described himself as a hack writer. Though with a great imagination of course.”

    Well, yeah–that and either logorhea or one heck of a work ethic!

  • Jack

    You’ve left out two other authors:

    Neal Asher (the Polity) and Iain M. Banks (the Culture novels.) (BTW, ignore Banks’ “Transition”, though I suspect that Mead would approve of it.)

    Peter F. Hamilton is good also.

  • Engineer

    Dr. Mead, if you keep this up (praising Wal-Mart or suggesting the intellectual profit to be had in reading science fiction) your peers will break your chalk, rip the leather patches from the elbows of your sport coat, and march you out of the groves of academia to a slow march!

  • http://www.martinbermangorvine.com Martin Berman-Gorvine

    To add to Professor Mead’s excellent reflections on this subject, let me add that “alternate history” deals directly with many important questions of why history actually turned out the way it did, and how contingent so many historical events actually were. Some leading non-science fiction authors have tried their hand at this recently–see Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America.” Within science fiction, the leading alternate history author these days is Harry Turtledove, whose many alternate takes on the Civil War and World Wars I and II throw fresh light on these oft-told but still poorly understood historical periods.

  • Bleepless

    Mike Borgelt rightly mentioned the late (and prolific) Poul Anderson, but did not mention that he was a conservative. Try the Polesotechnic League/Terran Empire series.
    Also, for sheer grimness, try Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (a world wherein the Confederacy won) or, for grimness and weirdness, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (mostly San Francisco, about 15 years after the Axis won).

  • http://home.comcast.net/~stefan_jones/tan_jacket_lo.jpg Stefan Jones

    When you’re read for the really heavy stuff, like a two billion year future history that ends with a ninety-six gendered humanity getting snuffed as the expanding sun fries a terraformed Neptune, or an even bigger future history that ends with a multi-galactic gestalt mind trying to figure out the nature of God before the heat death of the universe, there’s two more worlds:

    Olaf Stapledon.

  • http://www.jerrypournelle.com Alexander Pournelle

    Uh, S-F is kind of the family business, and I’m kind of amazed at the rather shallow pool from which most people are pulling their prizes. Just a few observations (I got plenty):

    Pish-tosh on Mr. Mead’s shortchanging of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, ably defended by several commenters.

    Where the HECK is the love for the real father of Cyberpunk, John Brunner? For cryin’ out loud, he presaged not merely the Internet but the Internet Worm (Shockwave Rider) in ’75, he had incredibly trenchant commentary on the short-attention-span future (Mr. and Mrs. Everyone, plug-in jobs) and many other near-future dystopian tropes. Oh, and characters you can root for, unlike some rather more famous authors mining that vein since.

    One kind soul remembered Poul Anderson, rather a family favorite and much missed.

    I’m glad someone gave a shout-out to Mote… It’d be somewhat less believable coming from me, I suspect.

    And Mr. Heinlein would be utterly pleased that people were STILL calling him (1) militaristic (Starship Troopers) (2) free-love guru (Stranger) (3) Randist/Libertarian (a bunch of books) etc. He was extremely unhappy the moody bible-thumpers never discovered Job, which is about as thumb-in-eye a provocation at monotheists (particularly Christians) as was written that decade. If it sold books he was for it. I suspect he was disappointed that Mistress wasn’t protested for its obvious anti-Americanism or polyamory, though I never thought to ask him.

    As much as I like the works of Banks or Campbell, I doubt either of them will be argued over in a century. I’m certain Mr. Heinlein will be. And, unlike most Great Books Which Everyone Must Read, anything before Job is actually fun, thought-provoking and understandable. (The sole exception which, erm, floats to the surface would be “Old Man and the Sea”. That whiny-[derogatory epithet omitted — ed] in the Port Authority Bus Terminal should just shut the hell up and save 11th graders from terminal boredom.)

  • JasonF

    OT – Hey! A Pixy sighting! Thanks for all your hard work.

    signed – a grateful moron.

  • http://www.farrellmedia.com John Farrell

    I heartily agree with Dr. Mead about Stephenson, and confess I must reconsider Brin.Years ago I read Startide Rising and thought it dreadful. I hope he’s improved.

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  • huxley

    More thumbs up for Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny.

    Then there’s Olaf Stapledon (Starmaker, Last and First Men) whose imagination outshines almost the rest of the SF galaxy.

  • Paul Brinkley

    It took almost to the end of the current comments before someone mentioned Philip K. Dick. Wow. I’m surprised. Given WRM’s professed preferences in SF, I think Dick’s stories would be among his favorites.

    I remember Asimov best not for his fiction, but for his non-fiction. _Adding A Dimension_ is one of the very clearest explanations of many otherwise dry subjects in math and science – so engaging, in fact, that when I read this at age 10 or thereabouts, I actually thought such things were naturally interesting. I’d go so far as to claim most avid SF readers would view Asimov as The Great Teacher – no other writer seemed to take such prolific joy in explaining everything to the layman as he did.

    That said, Asimov is not considered one of SF’s grand masters for nothing. For short stories, read _The Last Question_ if you haven’t. It’s all over the Net; you can read it for free, takes 15 minutes, and is wonderful. Past that, it’s all about the Foundation novels. Even the ones that were folded into its universe (Robot novels), and Prelude and the sequels.

    Speculative fiction doesn’t have to be serious, either. Believe it or not, Terry Pratchett is relevant to society as much as any hard SF, even though it’s comedy.

    Finally, I’ll recommend Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock series to young readers, and right after that, Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat. I find Stasheff’s writing to be quite simple – not much is artfully hidden, and the story is easy to get into. Harrison’s a bit more subtle, but still very graspable.

  • Chris Chittleborough

    Let me add a few more writers worth looking for.

    Elizabeth Moon’s “Serrano Legacy” series is rousing space opera with some smart thinking about the impact of technology (in this case, rejuvenation) on society not far below the surface.

    John Scalzi and Charles Stross are both good.

    People who like space opera, military SF etc should check out the Baen Free Library (http://www.baen.com/library/) which has over 100 free ebooks as samples of authors work.

  • Dick Pickett

    Walter,

    Let me recommend one of my favorite works by science fiction author, Roger Zelazny, winner of 6 Hugo Awards, 3 Nebula Awards, 2 Locus Awards, 1 Prix Tour-Apollo Award, 2 Seiun Awards, and 2 Balrog Awards .

    “Creatures of Light and Darkness” is a 1969 science fiction novel by Roger Zelazny. Long out of print, it was reissued in April 2010.

    “Creatures of Light and Darkness” was originally conceived and written as nothing more than a writing exercise in perspective by Roger Zelazny. He wrote it in present tense, constructed an entire chapter in poetry, and made the concluding chapter into the script of a play. He never intended it to be published, but when Samuel R. Delany heard about it from Zelazny, Delany convinced a Doubleday editor to demand that Zelazny give him the manuscript.

    The dedication reads “To Chip Delany, Just Because.”

    It is also a roman à clef about the Social Security Administration at Woodlawn, Maryland, where Zelazny worked.

  • Don Newlin

    I read your post with increasing anticipation that I would see Gene Wolf’s name. I am not a literary expert by any means but Wolf has to be at least in the top five American writers today no matter what genre he writes in. His name being left out was the only thing wrong with the article otherwise. Thank you.

  • Lisa Hertel

    Your link for Van Vogt is incorrect. May I suggest http://www.nesfa.org/press/Books/VanVogt.html. Whilst there, note NESFA Press also publishes library-quality collections of other classic (and not-so-classic) genre authors.

  • http://www.sfharper.com Sheri Fresonke Harper

    Wow, you mentioned them all, I’m still learning many of the great oldies but I love some of the newer writers.

  • Bruce

    Philip K. Dick.

    Neil Gaiman.

    Dan Simmons. (If you haven’t read “Hyperion,” you’re really missing something.)

    Very disappointed to hear you denigrating Asimov (how many derivatives have his Three Laws of Robotics spawned?) and Clarke (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

  • bc

    Great piece, and also great advice. Science fiction represents humanity looking to its future, while so much of “literary” merit is humanity looking at its past.

    I’ll second a couple recommendations here: Ian M Banks, Neal Asher, and Peter Hamilton are must-read British sci-fi authors. Add to that list Richard Morgan and Alastair Reynolds — my reading list for the past couple years.

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  • http://grahamstorrs.cantalibre.com Graham Storrs

    You might also have mentioned the number of literary writers who have also written excellent science fiction (whether they like us to think of it that way or not.) I mean people like Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Gore Vidal, Michael Frayn, John Barth, and quite a few others.

    And, to add to the list of great and literate sci-fi writers not yet mantioned, I give you Kurt Vonnegut, Sherri S. Tepper, and this year’s (joint) Hugo winner, China Mieville.

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  • Chris M. Barkley

    …the genre is producing great literature. For the most part, it isn’t.”

    Your head and feelings are in the right place but, c’mon man, you’re really coming off as just one of those literary elitists and posers when you make a comment like THAT.

    This is a matter of opinion, of course but I KNOW great literature is being produced and will probably be confirmed by readers, historians and critics long after we’re dead and gone…

  • Jonathan S.

    Ben JB, “Starship Troopers” ended with Lt. Juan Rico about to lead Rico’s Roughnecks in the final invasion of Klendathu, intended to free any humans (or, one would suppose, Skinnies) still held captive by the Pseudo-Arachnids. His father was a platoon sergeant, but no mention was made of Dad being a lifer (except insofar as it was expected that the Second Battle of Klendathu would be prolonged and bloody, with many casualties on both sides).

    The “barracks life” was not presented as a “superior” option, save as superior to living life as a privileged inheritor of wealth while one’s very species is threatened from without. Johnny actually started the novel out, even after deciding to join Federal Service, in trying anything *except* being a common soldier – he really wanted to be a Navy pilot, but lacked the intellect for the job. (That went to classmate Carmen Ibanez, a most worthy young woman.)

    The novel struck me more as an examination of alternatives to our current “warm body” democracy, the idea being that perhaps someone given the right to vote – a powerful right, I’m sure you’ll agree – should perhaps face some greater criterion than merely surviving for more than eighteen years and possessing a body temperature in the neighborhood of 98.6 F. In articles, Heinlein proposed other methods (for instance, before you may vote, the booth generates a brand-new quadratic equation just for you – solve it and you vote, fail and you go home); the idea that anyone wanting a voice in government should first give at least two years of their life to providing some sort of public service was just the one that made for the most exciting story.

    (Incidentally, while Clarke did indeed have some remarkably original ideas, I do have to side with those who found his prose leaden, at best. And I say this having read everything of his I could get my hands on in earlier years – never did make it all the way through “Rama II”, but that may have been more the fault of his co-author…)

  • Jean Wyrick

    Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood should be on the “must read” SF list.

  • http://www.ava.waw.pl xaric

    Three more words: Brian Wilson Aldiss. Greetings from Poland to all Stanislaw Lem fans :)

  • http://www.frombearcreek.com/wordpress Animal

    Any conservative/libertarian sci-fi buff should read Anderson Gentry’s “The Crider Chronicles.”

  • http://www.megcox.com meg cox

    Wow. I am a HUGE Octavia Butler fan. I think I have read them all. Can’t stand that she’s gone. So thoughtful. BEST VAMPIRE NOVEL EVER.

  • Kristin

    Really? Philip K. Dick is not mentioned in this post? For shame.

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  • boqueronman

    Bringing up the rear but not content to remain silent. Let’s not short change the early female science fiction writers. I suppose because of personal and societal norms they felt it necessary to write under male pseudonyms. The first and probably for young males of my age (60+) most important is Andre Norton, who provided many thrilling SF adventures for teen age readers. The other is one an earlier faux expert/intellectual commenter mentioned, James Triptree Jr, apparently without knowing her gender. In fact, this “gentleman” was female. Sorry, I have forgotten her given name. For the John Brunner admirer. Unfortunately, the only work of his I remember is “Stand on Zanzibar” about the coming overpopulation of the earth. Sorry, ain’t happenin’. So he’s consigned to the dustbin.

  • Marjan Tomkewicz

    Lot of people up there write as if they disagree with the article.
    I see that they mostly agree in the essence – this genre of literature is not only entertaining, but valuable for a person and society both.
    We may disagree if a writer is mediocre or good (like we could disagree about a cuisine), but we seem to agree that to eat is essential to our kind of biology. Likewise, this genre is welcome both as plain entertainment and as deeper food for the soul – both are necessary.
    In these comments is a list of interesting authors and titles, and I am adding some of mine here:
    ‘Dear devil’ from Eric Frank Russel caused a significant pattern shift in me, and is still part of me (
    http://variety-sf.blogspot.com/2008/04/eric-frank-russell-dear-devil-novelette.html)
    ‘Slow sculpture’ from Theodore Sturgeon (search for that name on http://www.phoenixbonsai.com/InOtherWords.html) made me understand interhuman relations is something to grow and cultivate, not to make…
    And the female character there was fully and completely alive.

    The list of books and authors of the genre that influenced me deeply is almost endless…

    I have something to add to the story about pallid female characters in early SF. At least some (and I think much) of it was not so much because writers chosed so, it was the cultural environment of the time. The introduction to Heinlenin’s The Rolling Stones at http://www.webscription.net/chapters/1416591494/1416591494.htm describes that very well.

  • Dan Nelson

    You still haven’t corrected your spelling of connie willis’s name. It isn’t wills.

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  • http://jumpersbloghouse.blogspot.com/search/label/Essay?max-results=100 Jumper

    I shouldn’t allow my heart to feel like it’s being ripped out merely because of your elision of so many names. Ellison, Henderson, Lafferty, Silverberg, Tiptree, Varley,..so many more… but an essay is not a list. I too have invoked Swift as one of the first. Nice article.

    Recently have been looking into corporate brainstorming sessions. I think they need to wise up. You are onto something.

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  • http://Dailysciencefiction.com Jonathan Laden

    I enjoyed this post. I won’t hold it against you that you didn’t mention several of my personal favorites. I don’t think that was the point.

    I do think that, in defending the genre, you do damn it a little bit. The literary quality of science fiction is not so poor as advertised. I’m no judge, but I perceive strong and powerful writing all over the world of SF, especially today.

  • http://www.diggafromdover.com Joe Jalbert

    Might I recommend to one and all the most excellent Space Opera of David Weber, including the “Empire of Man” and “Honor Harrington” series.

  • hank buddy

    Excellent commentary regarding WRM’s blog. Speculative fiction (and history) is the only ‘genre’ that I find interesting. Eveyone can issue a list of favorites and must-reads. What’s important is that the best books cause individuals to engage in evaluation of themselves and our world.
    I have found that Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, Clarke, Dick, and Locus award winners and nominees provide a comprehensive cross-section of well above average choices for reading. Start with titles earning multiple nominations, and enjoy.

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  • Mark MacDonald

    Overall, I agree with your assesment of the genre. I strongly disagree with your characterization of the writing style of Heinlein/Asimov, etc. In my view, a number of the older science fiction classics actually still read remarkably well today. I also know that the list of noteable authors is significantly greater in scope than you have presented.

    Notably missing from the original post and the above comments:
    – Frank Herbert – Dune is one of the more interesting ecologically based books around. The entire series represented a landmark in system thinking about ecological processes.
    – Orson Scott Card – Ender’s Game saga was hugely popular and still reads well today
    – Douglas Adams – a bit surreal, but some of it still clearly works as social commentary.
    – E.E. “Doc” Smith – maybe space opera, but influential on Lucas and others.
    – Mary Shelley – for Frankenstein alone she probably deserves to be here. And her creation has resonated down the years and been echoed in the darnedest places.
    – L. Sprague de Camp – he did some harder science fiction, but “Lest Darkness Fall” – his response to Twain’s earlier Connecticut Yankee – would be enough to earn him a place in this discussion in my eyes. (also, he won the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award … – which is not actually a bad source for a whose who in modern “classic” SF)
    – Joe Haldeman – the Forever War is his most famous book I think.

    I went looking for “top” listings in the SF genre —
    http://classics.jameswallaceharris.com/Lists/ByRank.php

    would seem to me one of the best, although it is beginning to show its age a little bit in that I think it is missing some of the newer novels I suspect will become classics.

    Just my 2 cents.

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