**Science Fiction, Club Read and SF for non-SF readers
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Here's a chance for the Club Read members (and lurkers) who read/have read science fiction to strut their stuff.
You are assigned to give a thoughtful list of 10 science fiction books that you think your friend—the literary fiction reader who claims not to read SF—will read and maybe even enjoy.
Caution: What I've noticed here on LT and in my years of bookselling, is that when a similar question is posited to a reader of SF, they immediately start naming SF 'classics', or their own personal favorites, (i.e. "oh, you must read The Lensman series!")—essentially what one wants another to like—rather than what the other person might really like. (Of course, this is a danger with any kind of book recommendation if you are not recommending to your reading twin, from whom you have been separated at birth).
So, bearing my caution in mind, and giving some thought about what you or others who read literary fiction* might look for in a book, post your list below.
*for the purposes of this exercise, please consider the two as separate genres with crossover.
And, for purposes of this exercise, I'll limit this to SF proper, rather than including fantasy, horror and other writing that can get lumped in together.
My list (before I change it once again), in no particular order:
1. The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon. theme: what it means to be 'normal'
2. The Secret by Eva Hoffman. theme: self-identity
3. Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler. theme: perception
4. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. theme: the dangers of conservatism
5. City of Truth by James Morrow theme: truth!
6. The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. theme: survival (various social issues also)
7. The City and the City by China Mieville theme: seeing the "other"
8. The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss (theme: hmmmm, maybe community, but also freedom, and perhaps religion)
9. I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman. theme: freedom
10. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. theme: faith, good intentions, frontier.
I debated many other titles and authors I've read (what, no Le Guin or Tepper? No Asimov or Clarke? No Ender's Game? No Bruce Sterling? John Crowley? I've enjoyed them all, but ruled them out for this list...). Clearly, to recommend these, I had to have read and enjoyed them.
I'll be very interested in others' lists.
Hmm. I'm going to have to go and think about this one... Partly because it's actually kind of difficult, in some cases, to decide whether a particular book is inside or outside the SF genre, and partly because my previous go-to book for this question was Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside, but a friend of mine just read that and actively disliked it, which has shaken my confidence in my recommendation ability.
I haven't read everything on your list, Avaland, but the books I have read seem like reasonably good choices. It seems to me there should be some Le Guin, though, but I'm not sure what. Also Ray Bradbury, for sure.
This is a tough list to come up with. Science fiction for the literary reader, like bragan the books do not come easily to mind. mmm.... may take a couple of days
Great idea. Would anyone recommend Octavia E. Butler? If so, which books would you suggest?
5 - I've only read Kindred but would highly recommend it.
This is a hard one. There are the classic semi-scifi works - Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, Frankenstein, C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy, Ray Bradbury and George Orwell's works, etc.
The Giver is young adult but may appeal to a literary crowd - lots of food for thought at any rate.
House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski falls into the experimental novel category so I hesitate to recommend it though I liked it. It's hard to peg who would go for that kind of thing though.
The nuances of what you are looking for elude me, but I believe some of Doris Lessing might appeal to you:
Canopus in Argos: Archives, this is an omnibus of a series of novels.
Mara and Dann: An Adventure, mostly a futuristic trans African trek with, I believe, some science fiction to it.
Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog: A Novel, follow up.
The Cleft: a novel, the science would be anthropology; I liked it more than many reviewers.
I have not yet read the first and hold it to be a deficiency in my reading.
CURSE THE TOUCHSTONES and typographical errors.
>5 kidzdoc:: I've read her Xenogenesis trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago), but remember finding them only okay. Fledgling was interesting, but not quite the compelling new take on the vampire concept that I expected. I remember Wild Seed being quite good, though. I really need to read some more of her stuff; I don't think I've sampled her best.
>6 janemarieprice:: It's hard to peg anything about House of Leaves. I'm still not sure whether I loved it or hated it. I also don't know that I'd call it SF, although I guess it qualifies as speculative fiction in the broadest sense. Maybe. Heck, I don't know what I'd call it.
Also, I'd go along with most of the "classics" you suggest, but not the C.S. Lewis. Well, just possibly the first one, but not the second two, not unless I'm recommending books for someone with more of an interest in Christian theology than in SF.
I'm going way out on a limb here, but here is my list:
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Time and Again by Jack Finney
Many Dimensions by Charles Williams
Canopus in Argos by Doris Lessing
Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I believe all these fit your description of the challenge, Avaland. The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is an arcing tale of the first human settlement on Mars, with all the political and social interplay that one can imagine. It is much, much more than a work of science fiction. And that can be said about all of these. There are philosophical questions underlying each and they are thought-provoking, challenging, entertaining and at the same time well written, as all the great literary fiction is. The list is full of classics, but I can't help it. This is what I came up with.
This is a difficult question - it is easier deciding what not to recommend. The Big Three (Asimov, Clarke & Heinlein) are all terrible writers but if I have to pick one it would be Clarke. The 'go-to' writer is Ray Bradbury but he reminds me of the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind - reading him now you can see he is trying so hard to be 'literary' that his prose often ends up being awkward; a bigger flaw is that there is an emptiness at the heart of this work where intelligence, philosophy, etc, should be. Most of the current big American names (Bujold, Sawyer, Willis) are just mediocre - young adult writers and not particularly accomplished ones; the British ones produce very large hard tomes that are aimed squarely at a fanbase that knows what they want.
Recommending SF by mainstream writers, most of whom will claim they have not written a SF novel, defeats the point: mainstream readers will read these novels anywhere because they are not really SF, they are 'literary' novels. It would also be easy to recommend the same old faces - Le Guin, Dick, Wolfe, Gibson, Sterling, etc - so that seems a little pointless as well. So here goes -
Michael Bishop - No Enemy But Time
Michael Blumlein - The Brains of Rats (ss)
John Crowley - The Deep*
Thomas Disch - On Wings of Song
M. John Harrison - Light*
Anna Kavan - Ice**
Stanislaw Lem - The Cyberiad (ss)
Keith Roberts - Pavane (ss-novel)
Lucius Shepard - The Jaguar Hunter (ss)
Norman Spinrad - The Iron Dream
James Tiptree Jr - Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (ss)
John Wyndham - The Midwich Cuckoos
* both of these writers best work is not SF.
** this is my exception re mainstream writers because this novel deserves to be better known.
I have been lurking here and love sci-fi so have put together a list from my own reading of sci-fi so far. Reading other posts, it seems clear to me that I have a lot of reading to catch up on. In no particular order:
Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card (it is well written, can stand alone from the rest of the series, and I know many non sci-fi readers who love this book)
Spares - Michael Marshall Smith (a well written novel that is a good introduction into sci-fi)
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams (not actually a favourite of mine but a good induction into sci-fi)
Legacies - Alison Sinclair (an intelligent sci-fi that again, many non sci-fi readers I know have enjoyed)
Proteus Unbound - Charles Sheffield (my first ever sci-fi novel and a great story that got me hooked)
State of the Art - Ian M Banks (non-culture novel, very well written)
Player of Games - Iain M Banks (culture novel, one of the best he's written)
Those are seven books but I have to include 3 more which are series:
Hyperion and Endymion books (4 in total) - Dan Simmons (amazing stories loosely based on Keats poetry and Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales' set in a sci-fi world)
Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained - Peter F. Hamilton (set in his commonwealth world, this space opera sci-fi tale is amazing)
The Mars trilogy (3 books, although there is also a prequel) - Kim Stanley Robinson (well written series that include great characters and their back-stories that I think non sci-fi readers would enjoy.)
I tried to choose what would appeal to people normally scared of sci-fi and hence a few of my favourite books aren't listed here. Great question, and a real challenge to come up with a list.
Okay, I'll go back to lurking now.
Oh well after a bit of thought I have come up with:
Re: colonised planet 5, Shikasta, Doris Lessing
Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban
Last and first men, Olaf Stapledon
The scar, China Mieville
Absolution Gap, Alastair Reynolds
Ilium, Dan simmons
Shreik an afterword, Jeff Vandermeer
The Rediscovery of man, Cordwainer Smith
The squares of the city, John Brunner
Ender's game, Orson Scott Card
I am enjoying other people's lists. Oh so many books to consider reading.
#11 Ok KiwiNyx stop lurking and tell us about your favourite science fiction novels. I'm intrigued
A good challenge, avaland! A number of my choices have mentioned before, others not. All these choices are individual books, not series, though one is the first book in a series.
Here we go:
Expedition to Earth (short stories) by Arthur C. Clarke
Pavane (linked short stories) by Keith Roberts
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (short stories) by James Tiptree Jr.
Roadside Picnic by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
Walk To The End Of The World by Suzy McKee Charnas
The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
Arslan by M. J. Engh
The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard
and if they get through those nine, I'm going to ask them to go out on limb and read my favourite hard SF novel,
Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement
I've started with my favourite SF short story collections, to ease people in. Pavane, as alternate history, may not count; if that's excluded, I would replace it by Red Mars.
One of the things I like about SF is its willingness to take things to extremes. My three lesser-known choices all demonstrate this in one way or another. Roadside Picnic, on which Tarkovsky's film The Stalker is based, is a great corrective to human self-importance. Arslan is a brilliant and unflinching examination of a the United States under occupation. And Walk To The End Of The World is a similarly unflinching feminist dystopia.
>10 Jargoneer: I don't agree with your suggestion that "mainstream" writers should not be included on prospective lists of "SF for non-SF readers", but you have perhaps interpreted my challenge somewhat differently from my intentions.
I see no reason not to include authors who may not identify themselves by the label 'science fiction writers,' as the object is to get one's literary friend who "doesn't read SF" to read it. It's always interesting to pull a book from the shelves they are accustomed to browsing, and pointing out that it is SF.
However, your list is intriguing. I should have thought of the Tiptree...
It's been my experience that the so-called "literary reader" - created for the purpose of this challenge (but his/her real life counterpart I have encountered often in the bookstore) - is unlikely to pick up a book with a rocket ship on the cover, nor be able to bring him or herself to open the covers of a book that has back cover book blurb that mentions aliens (Yet, ironically, this same reader watches hours and hours of SF via movies starring all his/her favorite A-list actors), which is why I ruled out so many other favorites of mine (like The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed...etc).
>5 kidzdoc: I've read all of Octavia Butler and I would recommend either Kindred or, as mentioned in #2 above, Parable of the Sower to readers not accustomed to reading SF. I have enjoyed pretty much all of her work, although I have liked some of her books better than others.
>6 janemarieprice: Ray Bradbury would tell you that he doesn't write SF, that even his Martian Chronicles are a fantasy. I inclined to agree with his own assessment but certainly some of his work could be arguably SF (i.e. "All Summer in a Day")
>& I should have thought of Lessing...
>11 KiwiNyx: Player of Games is an interesting choice. It might work. I debated Ender's Game, which I was far less enamored of than most. I suspect you are slipping into 'favorite' books here:-)
>12 baswood: I think Shriek might have a chance, but do you really think you could get our imaginary literary reader to read an Alastair Reynolds tome?
>14 timjones: I thought of the Charnas, which is one of my favorites, but in the end other titles knocked it off the list.
avaland, Yeah on reflection the Alastair Reynolds was a poor choice, but it is the most literary of the trilogy - still can't justify it though.
>15 avaland: - my point was essentially that people who wouldn't read SF will read a novel by a mainstream writer which is SF but they justify it as not being, or better than, SF, i.e., Never Let Me Go is not a SF novel but an Ishiguro novel, or it's much better than a genre novel. (It's for the same reason I didn't include Ballard, who I think literary readers would read anyway). I suppose I wanted to put together a list that said SF can also be literary fiction (I know I'm probably pushing it in a couple places with people like Spinrad).
On the other hand here's five good, but not every well known, SF by mainstream writers -
Kingsley Amis - The Alteration (good to compare with Pavane)
John Calvin Batchelor - The Birth of the People's Republic of Antartica
Maggie Gee - The Ice People
Ted Mooney - Easy Travel to Other Planets
Angus Wilson - The Old Men at the Zoo
One of the reasons I think SF is not producing significant writers at present is that SF ideas have become mainstream - lots of literary incorporate SF, and fantasy, tropes into their fiction now and no-one bats an eyelid.
Films and literature rarely seem to meet: people are much more accepting of genre on screen than on the page, hence the reverence for genres film noir, the gangster movie, and women's film of the 1940s and 1950s. Their literary equivalents are just dismissed.
The idea of favourites is a good point - there are SF writers who I like (Malzberg, Reynolds, Brunner) but whom I wouldn't recommend to non-SF readers. I'm not even sure I'd recommend them to younger SF readers.
Re covers - there was a time that every SF novel seemed to have a giant spaceship on the cover regardless of the content. Nothing screamed 'this is a SF novel' like a giant spaceship unless it was an infeasibly built scantily-clad woman being menaced by an alien.
It is not the cover illustrations that put me off so many SF novels nowadays but the dreaded proclamation on the front of an 800 page tome - "Volume x of a trilogy/series".
>17 Jargoneer: Very true about SF & fantasy tropes being more mainstream now, though certain kinds of fantasy (i.e. magical realism, fairy tales, religion-derived fantasy...etc) have been around for much longer, predating the fantasy 'genre'.
>re: dreaded proclamations: I know exactly what you mean. I passed over an arc for the latest Connie Willis because of that very reason. However, I admit to reading the sequel to Paul McAuley's Gardens of the Sun after I said I wouldn't.
Since avaland is twisting my arm:
Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch - picking a different Disch from jargoneer. Also, this story of intellectuals imprisoned and used as experimental animals, because of their opposition to imperial US wars, has many resonances today.
Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin. People overlook this, one of her finest examples of worldbuilding. A collage of stories, poems, and anthropological reportage about a greener, perhaps saner society growing in the ruins of ours.
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.. I actually did think of this one before reading the earlier mentions of it. The ideal length of an SF story is, I think, about 40,000 words, or 1/3 the length of a typical novel, and we need collections in these lists. Tiptree’s view of human existence is as bleak as anything I’ve ever read, and the novella was her best length.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick. Dick’s prose quality is always a bit wanting, but I hope people could read past that to encounter an authentically - literally - visonary writer.
Nova by Samuel R. Delany. A Grail story, clearly the work of an immensely talented, then still-young writer. This one is in danger of having a spaceship on the cover.
White Queen by Gwyneth Jones. A tragicomedy driven by our tendency to see in others what we want to see. A parable of colonialism.
Neuromancer by William Gibson. How an SF novel can be absolutely in sync with its times. Many stories about hackers have been written since 1984, but this is still the best. Also interesting as a quick object lesson in how SF can date - think about that first sentence in light of how televisions work today.
An Exaltation of Larks by Robert Reed. If you’re writing a possibly autobiographical novel about being a college student at a small, midwestern US institution during the 1970s, why wouldn’t you embed it in a narrative about multiple, trillion-year cycles of the universe, time travel, supersonic sparrows, and omniscient turtles? The cosmic perspective is central to SF, no escaping it. Here, it’s mixed with the personal.
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts. Kim Stanley Robinson thought this novel should have been short listed for the Booker. Again, that interesting combination of the cosmic and the personal.
A Good Old-Fashioned Future by Bruce Sterling. A 1990s collection by one of our smartest writers.
I’m convinced that there is no standard “literary reader” - won’t a Norman Mailer reader have differenent preferences from a Joyce Carol Oates reader? So this task is impossible, really; lists like those we’re making should be personalized to the individual, and modified based on their responses to the earlier books.
This is a very interesting discussion for me, as I am exactly the type of reader Lois describes - I do not read sci-fi, much to the dismay of my dad. Fantasy, sure; dystopic fiction, absolutely; but sci-fi, no.
Of all the works listed here, I've read The Handmaid's Tale, The Giver, Frankenstein, and Never Let Me Go. I've never really thought of any of them as science fiction though - I would consider them dystopic, but then I guess that could be considered a sub-genre of sci-fi. And honestly, the only one that I really loved was The Giver. HT is one of my least favourite Atwoods, and I liked the Ishiguro when I read it, but find that my memories of it are vague - a sign that it wasn't that great of a read.
When I posted my list above, I said nothing about why these particular books. And at this point I'd like to fill that gap. For my taste, and I know others will differ, the great science fiction books contain one or more of the following: A big idea that directly or indirectly expresses possibilities within a scientific framework; an allegorical and/or philosophical underpinning; and a thumping great adventure. For a science fiction novel to appeal to a reader of literary fiction, of course it must have qualities that transcend the stereotype of science fiction or fantasy. I believe all the books on my list are transcendent in one way or another.
My favorite from the list is Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. This book had an almost indescribable impact on me. The idea of the first human colony on Mars in the very near future of 2026 utterly captured my imagination. By the time I finished the three Mars books, I felt as though I had been to Mars. I wanted to go there. I wanted to be one of those hundred pioneers. These books are based on real science, and every time I see an iPod, or an iPad or a notebook computer, I think of Red Mars. When I read a scientific article about space elevators, I think of Red Mars. This series is based on a very big idea and one with an immediacy and potential relevance that is not present in most science fiction. That is not to criticize but merely to recommend it to the literary reader. Red Mars has been criticized for character development. I would have to agree, that I did not come away absolutely loving one or more of the characters. But the most important character is the planet Mars itself, and Robinson literally made the place come to life. I read his descriptions with maps of the planet in hand so I could follow along. There isn't another novel in any genre that has rewired my brain the way Red Mars did. I'll leave it to others to say whether that was a good thing or not. ;-)
The Sparrow was an outstanding example of allegorical/philosophical science fiction. It too packed a wallop. Other novels in this vein on my list are Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, Stranger in a Strange Land, Many Dimensions and Frankenstein.
Time and Again is a wonderfully romantic book about time travel. And Canopus in Argos is hard to categorize. Of all the books on my list, in terms of the writing itself, it and Frankenstein are the most stylistic.
Some people have labeled Heinlein and Bradbury's writing as stodgy. I cannot comment because I haven't read all their works. But Stranger in a Strange Land fits my criteria to a T. And as for The Martian Chronicles, despite Bradbury's demoting it to mere fantasy, I must simply disagree. If you read the opening pages and aren't moved to go further, I don't know what to say. The book exists within a realm that assumes certain scientific possibilities. While the science isn't on every page, the book certainly lives in a fictionally scientific world.
I am just now getting around to reading Frankenstein in response to the challenge on another thread. I'll have more to say about this by and by. But having gotten well into the novel, I am astonished at how much it is not what I expected, having grown up on Boris Karloff and company. Frankenstein is usually lumped with gothic or horror fiction, and my guess is that is a marketing decision. It is certainly scientific fiction, and it meets all my criteria for a great read.
Many Dimensions is the most science fictional of Charles Williams' books that I have read, and I think I've read most of them. It, too, deals with time travel, and it has amusing qualities of its own. Everybody knows of Williams' association with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and his books are totally unlike those of his friends.
Finally, I was dying to squeeze in something by Theodore Sturgeon but decided that his books just don't fit this challenge. My very first science fiction book was E Pluribus Unicorn, many decades ago, and Sturgeon, who is a very imaginative writer, wrote some unusual tales. His work may seem dated now, but that is not an uncommon problem in this genre.
Another delurk - I am loving this discussion.. okay, some of my favourites include:
The Nights Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton (not chosen as although brilliant, I think also contains the potential to scare non sci-fi readers away)
Ilium - Dan Simmons (almost chosen but I thought the whole aliens mining the jovian moons while discussing the pros and cons of Shakespeare vs. Proust might be slightly off-putting, not to mention the Greek Gods come back to life theme, possibly too much for the newbie?)
I have others but I would class them more semi-sci-fi and therefore I didn't think they fit the criteria of the challenge: Snow Crash, Slaughterhouse Five being a couple of examples. Also His Dark Materials trilogy which I think is more steampunk than sci-fi (despite it being on many sci-fi lists) and one I debated over for a while, Iain Banks' The Bridge.
I think the one on my list where I knowingly chose a favourite would perhaps be Banks' State of the Art but I also think it is a book that can be easily enjoyed by literary readers.
I also think that everyone's interpretation of what is sci-fi is slightly different but that is just making for some very interesting lists to mull over.
The Nights Dawn Trilogy looks interesting. I will check them out. I agree with your thoughts on Ilium, but it made my list. I have got Ian Bank's The Bridge on my to read pile. He is one of those people who can write comfortably in more than one genre.
It's interesting to dwell on people's interpretation on what is a science fiction novel. I think I have a pretty clear idea and when I feel like reading science fiction I will go and pull a relevant book from the shelves. The biggest clue is the word science. I am reading Doomsday Book, Connie Willis at the moment which features time travel. Apart from the central premise of time travel there is however not much science in it and so I am wondering if this really merits a science fiction label. In #15 avaland mentioned the cover of the book as an indication of what the genre would be and I have the original paperback cover of Doomsday Book. Looking at the picture a prospective reader would not necessarily realise it was a science fiction novel. That is apart from the fact that on the very top of the cover is emblazoned "Hugo and Nebula Award- Winning Author" Perhaps it is another book to add to the list for our literary friends who don't read sci-fi
>21 Poquette:, Poquette: Red Mars is one of my favourite SF novels too, but it only made "first alternate" on my list because I know a number of SF readers who are put off by the amount of areology, politics, and so forth in the Mars books, so I thought these might be even more off-putting to literary fiction readers.
I did think about including KSR's stand-alone novel Antarctica, but I don't think it's quite as good as the Mars books.
I excluded The Sparrow because I find its close resemblance to the earlier A Case Of Conscience by James Blish somewhat disturbing.
>22 KiwiNyx:, KiwiNyx: I liked the first book in His Dark Materials a lot, but thought the subsequent books devolved into special pleading for the author's atheist views: a lot like CS Lewis's SF Perelandra trilogy, in fact, but from the opposite point of view. I think of His Dark Materials as fantasy, but maybe steampunk is a better description!
Flowers for Algernon
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
the Moon is a Harsh Mistress
The day of the Triffids
More Than Human
Men like Gods
Shards of Honor
>25 SimonW11:, SimonW11: Riddley Walker is an excellent pick! I would have included in that in my 10 if I'd remembered about it - probably in place of Pavane.
>21 Poquette:, 24 I admit to hesitating over The Sparrow. As much as I enjoyed it in '96 and did indeed have some success getting non-SF readers to read (and enjoy) it, looking back I think it a very 90s type of book and wondered what I would think of it now if I reread it. I think her incredible gift in characterization helped some overcome the 'spaceship-in-a-book" syndrome. OTOH, I had a member of the SF discussion group at the time—a lawyer—come back with a list of 50+ scientific implausibilities in the book (he did admit he liked it though - no small thing since he was a devoted and fervent Nivenite)
>21 Poquette: I don't remember much of the story of Time and Again (I mix it up with that movie that Christopher Reeves was in), but I remember being totally smitten with the idea that all time periods existed at the same time, and that time travel could be possible through mere hypnosis.
>19 dukedom_enough: that's only because I knew your list would be awesome, dear (and very different from mine).
>20 Cait86: I'm going to send you one. Then you can lend it to your dad:-) Dystopian, post apocalypse novels—I think most would agree—are the acceptable crossover, and the easiest to recommend.
>22 KiwiNyx: I don't think we could get a non-SF reader to read a Dan Simmons SF novel even with his literary allusions...but maybe a big fan of the Iliad could be persuaded (but don't tell them it's the 1st book of ...)
>23 baswood: Well, I'd rather not get into a discussion of the definition of SF here. As you know, this is endlessly discussed elsewhere.
re: The Doomsday Book and its various covers. I was at a convention where Connie Willis was the guest and while I was having some books signed (this was when To Say Nothing of the Dog was just out), she told the story of the publishers putting a 'romance' cover on the DB, when there was, of course, no romance in it. She could laugh about it by then:-)
Generally, SF writers don't get input on the covers for their books. Jack Vance writes novels mainly intended to parody stuffy and absurd social conventions. His novels often have some violent scenes, but these take up a minor part of the whole and aren't particularly gratuituous. Yet he has had covers like this, which I'm not showing here because it's gross: two men dueling with swords, one has slashed open the others' throat. Vance's fans knew to look past that sort of thing, but I wonder how many people never looked at the book because of that cover.
#27 - Thanks - I'm willing to give anything a go! And my dad will be thrilled :)
>24 timjones: Tim, I understand the drawbacks you cite about Red Mars, but I actually see them as assets and part of the reality that KSR creates. Hopefully there are some literary types who will be taken with that, too.
I have not read any of James Blish -- will investigate. Haven't heard that comparison before.
>27 avaland: Back at the time The Sparrow came out, I was a leader in an AOL chatroom called "The Book Report" where the discussion was all about what people were reading. Many who never read science fiction were drawn into the fervor. Mary Doria Russell, in a talk I attended, mentioned that a lot of her mail was coming from people who had never read SF and who were drawn in by the implications of the story. So implausibilities and "spaceship-in-a-book" syndrome aside, I thought it was pretty amazing.
The Christopher Reeves movie was Somewhere in Time, also based on an eponymous book, which incidentally wasn't as good as the movie. Time and Again was illustrated with evocative photographs of 1890s New York and involves a secret government project to investigate returning to the past through self-hypnosis. As I recall at the time it came out in the 1970s it was a cross-over novel. I've forgotten a lot about it myself, but it became a kind of cult classic.
Regarding definitions of science fiction, I would never try to open that can of worms. However, I am guilty of stating what I have found to be the most attractive features of the type of science fiction I like to read. By no means was I attempting to define the genre. That is a personal matter. Obviously, each reader has his or her own criteria, which is absolutely as it should be. That's what makes this all so intriguing.
>31 Poquette: I knew they were different stories, although not sure I knew the movie had been a book. Of course, I saw the difference in the stories back when, it's just now that time has marched on and my memory of the Finney is a bit dim, I can/could confuse the two. Yes, I remember the pictures in Time & Again! I'm sure I still have the book on a shelf here (probably under "F").
Agree about the subject of SF definition. Considering that we are working with a fictional generic reader of in the broad category of literary fiction (and one could argue over that genre label also), the lists have been intriguing, and, imo, a step-up from lists posted in other groups. As dukedom notes in #19 every reader is an individual and one would want to know what they have read and enjoyed before making a recommendation.
Many literary readers won't sit still for all that description of rocks, engrossing though I certainly found it.
BTW, for anyone eying the length of those books, the first two, Red Mars and Green Mars, provide a perfectly satisfactory arc. One could stop reading and have a complete story.
Every time I hear something about the Mar's series it makes me want to drop everything I'm reading and pick it up immediately. A fictional book with rock descriptions, why I'm I not reading this now?
This thread has exposed some major gaps in my reading, so thanks to all that contributed. I've had a hard time thinking of books that fit. I really don't think I grasp the meaning of literary well enough to make educated recommendations.
Intriguing lists here. I've probably read less than a dozen SF novels, and while many of those are favorites (e.g., The Sparrow, Kindred, To Say Nothing of the Dog), I don't think it's because of the 'science' in them. To say that I like SF now seems akin to saying I like country music because I've liked a few songs that have crossed over onto the Top 40/Pop charts. I'm still not drawn to the genre for the same reason that I'm not that interested in fantasy or dystopian/apocalyptic novels. But it's personal, not necessarily a comment about the quality of the books out there. I'll happily read the "cross-overs," though, and acknowledge that I enjoyed a book in any of those categories.
Just off the top of my head (I'll think on this a bit more) one of my favorites is Replay by Ken Grimwood, which is about a man who is forced to relive his life over and over again. My RL book club, composed entirely of sci-fiphobes loved it.
Marge Piercy had a couple of books I read years and years ago that I really liked at the time, but don't know how well they stand up: Woman on the Edge of Time and He, She and It.
>37 bonniebooks:, bonniebooks: Now I have a new slogan for us SF fans: "Science fiction - it's the Taylor Swift of literature!" ;-)
There's something - a book that has proven appeal to non-SF readers.
#34 (#36)...descriptions of rocks...this is very appealing to me. Maybe I will check these out.
I was ready to intentionally post a blank list, and then I saw Snow Crash above (post #22 by KiwiNyx)... oh yeah...off the beaten track for me, but a book I still think about all the time. So, a few other I've tagged science fiction and have especially fond memories of: 1984, The Blind Assassin, Slaughterhouse-Five, Timequake, Dune, The Road.
More thoughts on Snow Crash...I always think of science fiction as space travel type technology including things like robots and transports and technology to survive some terribly polluted earth. Snow Crash is mainly about information (and even has a virtual librarian) and was presumably inspired in someway by the www explosion in the 1990's. This seems like a different type of sci-fi theme to me...for one thing, this is not so fictional.
>36 stretch:: If you like descriptions of rocks but aren't up for a trilogy, you might want to start with Kim Stanley Robinson's Antarctica. I am usually very turned off by long descriptions of landscapes, but KSM does them so very well that I never wanted them to stop. Lots of interesting geology there, as I recall.
(And I still need to read the Mars books, myself.)
>37 bonniebooks:: Despite the name, I'm not sure I'd say that "science" is actually a defining aspect of science fiction as a whole, anyway.
By the way, I still don't really have a list. I came up with a few more possibilities, most of which others have mentioned, anyway -- I have to second or third Slaughterhouse-Five -- but I am just no good at making lists of anything whatsoever.
Moving over an interesting conversation from the 'articles' thread:
janepriceestrada posted on 3/19:
Can Fantasy Ever Tell the Truth?
Some interesting points in this article, some I agree with, some not. Mostly dealing with the notion of reading for 'escape'. Is reading to escape bad for us? Is reading for escape the same thing as reading for pleasure? I'd be interested to hear others' thoughts.
bragan posted on 3/19:
Bah. I got two paragraphs in, decided I couldn't stand the guy's condescending "get a life!" attitude, and bailed.
stretch posted on 3/20:
Is fantasy escapism? Definitely. But why is that a strike against the genre? Often times I think Literary critics use the word to blanket entire genres that don't fit their idea of "art". So in this context I think escapism is one of those made up words that people and critics use to label people into little boxes not to be taken seriously. I would argue that all fiction is a form of escapism.
Most literary fiction is looking at the trials and tribulations of people whose lives are very similar to our own reality. Living in the same world, the same time, and having similar concerns as us. When we read about those lives it’s pure escapism because those people aren’t us. We might wonder what we’d do in a similar situation, but that’s about it.
With genre fiction you get to explore the human condition within a mythical framework where anything goes. While many of these stories like this are the wildest kind of escapism, they also serve to hold a mirror up to humanity as a whole. While a story about a white suburban family’s social wranglings might make a white suburban reader consider their own life, a good science fiction story will make us consider humanity as a species. Good fantasy takes us on a journey not only of personal exploration but asks us to explore our culture and our identity. The here and now reality of literary fiction can be handicap when exploring these larger truths. It can be done, but then the reverse is true about genre fiction as well.
So no I don't agree with the idea that truths can be found only in literary fiction.
bragan posted on 3/20:
OK, now that I've gotten over my initial "hit the back button in annoyance" reaction, I guess I can actually join this conversation. (I'm still not going back to finish the article, though.)
Stretch, you've put it more strongly than I would have, I think, but I basically agree. One of the things that is wonderful about SF is its potential to show us ourselves from new angles, to explore social and technological possibilities, and to invent new metaphors for the human condition. (Or, indeed, to rediscover very old ones. One could make an argument that speculative fiction plays some of the role these days that myths and legends once did.) And many of the big social and political debates of today -- particularly on bioethics issues like genetic engineering and human cloning -- were seriously considered and explored by science fiction writers long before they became something we had to deal with in real life. Based on that fact alone, I think it's pretty clear that anyone who dismisses the entire genre as "escapism" doesn't know what the hell they're talking about. (Not that the writer of the article quite did that, I admit.) And the less said about those who like to say things like, "But, well, if it deals with real human feelings or important social issues, then it's not really science fiction," the better.
All that having been said, though, sure, a hell of a lot of it is just fun (or meant-to-be-fun) stories about spaceship battles and quests for magic amulets and whatnot, and if one wants to call that "escapism," that seems like as good a word as any to me. And there's nothing wrong with that. Which even the author of the article sort of acknowledges, but his "Of course, a steady diet of that sort of thing means you're a cowardly mush-brain who runs from thought and reality" attitude -- I'm, um, paraphrasing there -- strikes me as ignorant and insulting. For one thing, I don't see any basis for criticizing someone's preference for escapism until you know exactly what they're escaping from. Maybe their real life holds far too much reality, too much pain and too many hard truths about the human condition already. Maybe they spend their days fighting hunger in Africa and writing philosophical treatises and just want to crack a damned Star Trek novel at night to relax. You don't know. But you don't automatically get to feel superior just because you're reading Jonathan Franzen or something instead, damn it.
Ahem. OK, maybe I did put it strongly. :)
bragan added on 3/20:
P.S.: Stretch, the one thing I will disagree with you on, I think, is your attempt to turn the argument around and paint literary fiction in general as "escapism," because I don't think that's any more true than the reverse, at least not for any really useful definition of "escapism."
And now I will shut up, at least for the moment.
*I hope the participants above do not mind that I moved the conversation over here, but the article does seem to involve both SF & fantasy and literary fiction. I thought it might get a bit more attention over here where we are already 'primed' - avaland*
>19 dukedom_enough: - my Disch choice was a toss-up between On Wings on Song and Camp Concentration. When I sat down to think about Disch I realised he hadn't actually written much (any?) SF in three decades.
I completely agree with your idea re the ideal length of SF stories. There are a lot of SF writers who were (are) better at the shorter length (writers listed like Sheperd, Tiptree, C. Smith, etc). Too often SF novels have a great idea but the story is pushed beyond breaking point by the demand to produce longer novels. ( The 200-250 page novel was good enough for Le Guin, Ballard, Dick, et al but no-one seems willing to release works of that length any more).
I was thinking about this thread in general terms and realised that while we ask what SF is good for non-SF readers the question is rarely reversed - what literary fiction for a SF reader? (Strangely, I sometimes find that SF readers have a more closed mind to other fiction than general readers to SF).
Overview of article (paraphrased mostly, and presented as a picador:-)
--We all need a little escapism now and again, but too much is "unhealthy."
--To support this, author quotes M. John Harrison " 'Many fantasy and SF readers are living out a prolonged childhood in which they retain that terror and erect – in collusion with professional writers who themselves often began as teenage daydreamers – powerful defences against it.' "
--Literary fiction readers are wary of fantasy/genre fiction because of this 'escapism.'
--"Literary fiction is rooted in the idea of engaging with reality as it is, of facing all the pains and pleasures of life and examining them in detail."
--Author uses new books by Kevin Brockmeier, China Miéville and Catherynne Valente as examples of fantasy that can tell "highly subjective truths of contemporary reality."
--Last sentence: "Perhaps it is a consequence of living in an era of such radical change, but the fantastic seems once again to play a part in expressing the truth of our time."
To reiterate Jane's original questions: "Is reading to escape bad for us? Is reading for escape the same thing as reading for pleasure?"
I've noticed that many SF readers reject specifically those elements of literary fiction that are its strength - characterization, elegance, uncompromising views of the human condition.
I really must reread some Disch; it's been a long time.
I would like to make one point clear from my argument above, that Bragan brought up and I failed to respond to earlier (I completely forgot about this conversation).
I wasn't trying to equate literary fiction with escapism with the kind of all encompassing escapism that can be found in Science Fiction or Fantasy. I was trying to point out that when it is applied to a whole genre it becomes a meaningless term. I think there are elements of escapism can be found in all fiction, including literary fiction. So we should be careful not to paint genres with such a broad brush.
It's possible to overdo reading to escape, and there's no contradiction between reading for pleasure and reading serious fiction.
I'll throw in the timely commonplace that SF readers were reading stories about emergencies at nuclear power plants even before Hiroshima. What was that an escape from?
>46 Jargoneer:. To Jargoneer's last question. I can only speak for myself to this question, but I tend to read more plot driven stories, and not so much of the character driven stories and flowery prose, I prefer simple straightforward writing, that make up a lot of literary fiction. So I think there is some truth to Dukedom's statement in 48.
Yeah sorry about the cross post. I just got to work and had to put down something coherent before I forgot what I wanted to say.
I was a little disappointed that the article descended into a 'here's four fantasy writers you should read' variety and thereby missed a number of interesting questions.
When is a fantasy writer a fantasy writer? To me, someone like Steven Millhauser or Donald Barthelme is as much a fantasy writer as China Mieville but they are published as mainstream writers. Ever since Borges and Kafka, and especially since the Magic Realist boom of the 1960s, literary fiction has been full of fantastic tropes.
When he talks about 'escapist' fantasy is he really talking about sub-genres like 'heroic fantasy' or 'space opera': fundamentally fantastical adventure stories with clearly defined ideas of good and evil?
I'm not sure that fantasy or SF can show us any "truths" beyond literary fiction - philosophically humans remain the same - but they can pose the argument in a different, even radical, way that raises more questions. (My take on the best literature is that it usually raises more questions than it answers).
I am struck by the omission of two classic writers. The first would be H.G. Wells. The War of the Worlds is not just the alien conflict presented in Hollywood summer blockbusters. There's a fairly interesting examination of the question, How do we react when we discover that mankind need not be a dominant life form? What does that do to our sense of the universe around us?
Similarly, despite the negativity surrounding C.S. Lewis in science fiction circles, his opening novel Out of the Silent Planet which I read some forty years ago had some interesting aliens and he used the genre to explore some philosophical questions of interest to him. I was required to read Perelandra as a college freshman which was somewhat less satisfying than Planet because it frequently does descend into being a heavy handed parable but there is less of that in the first novel of his trilogy.
I would also suggest any of the work by Ursula K. LeGuin, including Four Ways to Forgiveness, Always Coming Home which was previously mentioned, and even The Telling which again uses contrasts between alien societies to make a point about our current world.
>45 avaland:: I don't mind moving the conversation over here at all. Even if it does display my rantings for what may be a wider audience. :)
And, having shut up for a while, I now have more long-winded responses:
>48 dukedom_enough:: On SF readers rejecting characterization and so on... I think it depends on the SF reader, of course, and not just that but on what kind of SF they usually read. Increasingly, I've been thinking of hard SF -- the kind that lovingly describes starship engines for pages and pages but tends to have the thinnest of cardboard characters -- as stories aimed largely at readers who sit somewhere on the autism spectrum. That's not remotely a criticism. Everybody should have stories that suit them. But, yes, there are some people who just aren't interested in characters or statements on the human condition at all, and prefer to read about machines and laws of physics. That hardly applies to all readers of all kinds of SF, though.
>49 stretch:: Well, I don't really disagree with that. All fiction is fiction, after all.
>50 dukedom_enough:: "...there's no contradiction between reading for pleasure and reading serious fiction." Yes, thank you! So many people seem to think there is, and it drives me crazy. Me, I read lots of different things to fill different needs, so judgmental assumptions about the kind of people who read this or that tend to really annoy me. Besides, there's plenty of pleasure to be found in "serious" fiction. "Serious" = "painful and dull" is one of the worst things they inadvertently teach you about literature in school.
>54 Jargoneer:: I'm always bemused and a little confused by reactions that I see often (including in some of these threads), such as "Well, I don't think of that as science fiction, it's dystopian fiction" or "That's not fantasy, that's magic realism." To my mind, SF and fantasy are really broad categories, but so many people seem to think only of fairly narrow subgenres when they point to them.
You are right on both counts; I was skimming a bit too quickly. (Whoops)
Just generally, in my view, any discussion of reading fiction -- literary or otherwise -- as "escapism" is a canard. How is reading the daily paper, going to movies, or being glued to the tube NOT escapism? Yet one seldom hears such criticism in those areas.
>46 Jargoneer: "(Strangely, I sometimes find that SF readers have a more closed mind to other fiction than general readers to SF)."
This may be true of people who read SF and nothing but SF, but probably not true of the general reader who reads a whole variety from high to low brow fiction and even nonfiction.
>47 avaland: --"Literary fiction is rooted in the idea of engaging with reality as it is, of facing all the pains and pleasures of life and examining them in detail."
If that is what literary fiction is, let me out of here! Here is an example of why it is probably just as dangerous to try to define literary fiction as it is to define science fiction.
And the quote from John Harrison ignores all the science fiction books and stories that are in effect novelized morality plays or that contain allegorical elements.
>48 dukedom_enough: "I've noticed that many SF readers reject specifically those elements of literary fiction that are its strength - characterization, elegance, uncompromising views of the human condition."
Of those elements I think only lack of "characterization" could be applied broadly to science fiction. No doubt a substantial portion of science fiction is inelegant, but certainly not all. And some can be read as a sustained "uncompromising view of the human condition."
I read the article and even though I only rarely read anything that could be characterized as SF/fantasy, it peeved me. For one thing it was sloppily written and, IMO, the whole fantasy readers are only reading to escape, while us literary fiction readers are improving ourselves was intended to make the readers of the article feel all superior. (The assumption is made that SF readers wouldn't read this.) Then he goes on to introduce some worthy titles, in case the the high and mighty would like to slum it a bit.
And isn't this whole argument obsolete by now? Atwood wrote dystopian fiction, Dostoevsky wrote a detective novel; the concept of genre is a constantly fluctuating thing. I'll admit that at the outer, pulp edges it's easy to make distinctions, but the best of genre fiction is also so-called literary fiction and authors can write in several different genres at once.
Well, that's garbled, but I hope you get my gist. What a pretentious git.
>54 Jargoneer: I was more than disappointed in the depth and breadth of the article (and I expect you to write a proper one and send it to the Guardian, ok?)
>50 dukedom_enough: Actually, you should be addressing Jane - her questions, not mine.
Just because I actually looked them up this morning:
1. To break loose from confinement; get free: escape from jail.
2. To issue from confinement or an enclosure; leak or seep out: Gas was escaping from the vent.
3. To avoid a serious or unwanted outcome: escaped from the accident with their lives.
1. The state or feeling of being pleased or gratified.
2. A source of enjoyment or delight: The graceful skaters were a pleasure to watch.
3. Amusement, diversion, or worldly enjoyment: "Pleasure . . . is a safer guide than either right or duty" (Samuel Butler).
4. Sensual gratification or indulgence.
5. One's preference or wish: What is your pleasure?
So, based on these definitions I would say that reading for escape and reading for pleasure are NOT the same things, but I would posit that one might find escape to be pleasurable OR both escape and pleasure could occur simultaneously! :-)
*Definitions from the free on-line dictionary.
Is pleasure always something we escape to?
45 - Thanks for posting this here. I had a long response eaten by the internet that I will now try to more briefly recreate.
First, I agree, the article is not very good. I think it's an intriging question - whether reading to escape is good - that is pretty much not dealt with at all except to quote someone who seems a jackass to me. My gut reaction is people read for all sorts of reasons and who cares really. I read for certain reasons, but who am I to judge others' reading or reasons (ok, I judge, but silently, to myself, to make my own crappy day feel better).
What I find interesting is the dynamic of escape/pleasure/intellectualism/whathaveyou. Is escape not intellectually stimulating - isn't something that makes you set aside the real world extremely stimulating?
>I have read far more "uncompromising views of the human condition" in science fiction than I have in literary fiction - 'far more' in both number and extent.
I read, and sometimes write, literary fiction - though danger lurks, for now someone may ask me to define literary fiction! - but, at least here in New Zealand, I get annoyed at the way the way in which 'literary fiction' tends to transmute into 'fiction about the relationship issues of upper-middle-class people who never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from'.
What I miss in English-language literary fiction, although often find in the literary fiction (non-genre fiction?) of other literary traditions, is the human condition seen in social and ecological and economic terms, not purely in terms of a few individuals and their immediate circle.
Perhaps I should add that, in New Zealand, the terms 'literary fiction' and 'realist fiction' tend to be used interchangeably.
nods literary fiction does tend to address the issues of those at the Top of Maslows hierarchy of even when writing about circumstances where things far lower on the scale are more pressing.
There is a sub-genre of fiction written by authors who firmly believe that you should write what you know. And so there are shelves of books about well-to-do white women contending with an "issue" from the comfort of their large, suburban homes. There's a space for that, but maybe there shouldn't be quite so much space.
Because it becomes boring after awhile, reading about slightly richer and better-looking versions of ourselves. If it's escapist to want the author to show me a world I'm unfamiliar with (whether that be a spaceship or poor, rural Mississippi or a marketplace in Marrakesh or Tsarist Russia) then, I guess, I favor escapist literature. I strongly disagree with the idea that for a book to inform and challenge, it must be a reflection of my own life.
>64 timjones: I certainly agree with you about what can be found in other literary traditions. It can be quite refreshing.
Your annoyance with a certain type of literary fiction might be akin to Angela Carter's reference to too many 'library books' in her essay about being a Booker judge.
>63 janemarieprice: Jane, your comment about judging silently made me laugh (silently, of course). I agree with what you say. We all decide what and how we read.
I read something recently about pleasure being associated with vulgarity (in Victorian times?)—I wish I could remember where I read it—and I do think that idea lingers... (oh, maybe it was in the popular culture essays I was reading...)
The novel has its roots, as I understand it, in the desire of a larger middle class in the 1700s and 1800s for art that was more relevant to themselves than, say, Homer in the Greek, which was the art preferred by the upper class. So the focus on the Top of the Maslows is a natural progression, no? Of course fiction should take on other subjects too, but doesn't its history tend to drive it in that direction?
>46 Jargoneer:: I've been thinking about this question of what literary fiction one might recommend to science fiction readers. As a long-time SF reader who has, in the last few years, started reading a fair amount literary fiction, you'd think I ought to be uniquely placed to answer that one. But I'm having a lot of trouble with it, I think for two reasons. One is that the more I think about it, the less I have any idea exactly what "literary fiction" is. I think I have to agree with those who contend that the concept of genre, while it might make book marketers' live easier, isn't really very useful otherwise. And number two, while I can say which books I have enjoyed, I'm enjoying those books as me, not as a generic SF reader. The reasons why I've liked them may or may not be relevant to anybody else. Mostly they don't seem to have much of anything to do with my taste for SF.
>67 RidgewayGirl:: On the topic of escapism and "write what you know"... I am now wondering whether all those books about white middle-class writers having torrid love affairs don't count as "escapist" from a white middle-class writer's point of view.
from #47 - We all need a little escapism now and again, but too much is "unhealthy."
All storytelling is a form of escape.
Somewhere hidden under the words in this thread is the idea that fiction should be instructional to life. It should teach us something useful and make us better people, fortify us. There is an element of this in fiction, but I think it's a small part. Fiction can make us think about things, but it does not provide answers, and it lies a lot and oversimplifies. I think we mislead ourselves in believing that the true reason we read fiction is to become better people. That is a fantasy, IMO. We read fiction because of some need, and escape is part of the way towards fulfilling that need. Learning is not essential, although it may be an excuse.
I also wonder if this split is an English/American dynamic. Other literary traditions seem to deal much more in the fantastic in 'literary fiction'.
Just got the time to read that article, oh boy. Loved one of the comments below the article which says: "The comments are better than the article."
I think where he descends into ignorance is his insistence that genre's can be generalised so effortlessly and that 'truth's' are so easily defined.
What I find interesting is that his intention of writing the article appears to be to encourage new readers to the science-fiction and fantasy genre's but in my opinion, he merely manages to patronise the writing style.
Oh, and I read all fiction as a means to escape, whatever the genre, and absolutely proud of the fact. How else am I supposed to escape the dreary workplace blues and housework avoidance guilt fairies?
The sign of a good book is when you can fully immerse yourself into another world for 5 minutes, 20 minutes, 1 hour, or however long you are lucky enough to spare.
Dukedom and I were discussing the article posted in #45 and noted that the Valente and Mieville novels were both fantasy and both urban. Eventually, we came around to the following question related to SF (rather than fantasy):
Post-apocalyptic literature aside, is science fiction as a literature inherently urban?
re: the "escapism" sub-thread:
It's from a pre-Google age, but somewhere Kingsley Amis notes something about how we can debate the virtues of "escapism" - but that "...there's much to be said for using one form of literature as an escape from other forms of literature."
And Asimov noted that SF was actually woefully deficient as an "escapist" literature - as SF readers get to worry about technological disasters decades before the general public is aware of them.
(Asimov's example was Astounding readers worrying about atomic armageddon well before Hiroshima; today we worry about grey goo decades before functioning nanotech....)
>Bob - snort, of course Kingsley Amis would come up with something so sublimely sharp . But it's just true enough -- after reading, say Middlemarch or The Aeneid what could be better than hunkering down with the latest Bujold or whatever floats your boat. It can be like a breath of fresh air. Oh no, I guess I mean, fresh vacuum.
This is a marvelous discussion all around!
I really just came on to say I've recently finished Oryx and Crake which, incidentally, in a way that fits right into an earlier part of this convo, has a great protagonist, Jimmy -- a fully rounded and engaging person in the middle of a miserable dystopic situation. I recommend it highly as a book that does appear to pretty well bridge the literary/sf divide. It is definitely the first Margaret Atwood that I've felt like raving about.
Also I recently read Helliconia Spring which is also a terrific book about a very complicated planet -- I'm just starting book 2 (of three). I have a feeling this is one of those SF greats that's a bit under-appreciated, but maybe I'm wrong about that. I hope so. Written in the 80's I don't find that it has aged or anything. Very strong women characters too.
no Sf is not inherantly Urban. I could make a case for it being inherently civilized.
Some quick responses to some interesting ideas.
>79 AsYouKnow_Bob: - I'm not sure if I agree with Asimov there - I think you can have escapist literature about armageddon; usually because after armageddon the 'chosen' get to rebuilt society in the correct way. (Especially in American SF, European SF tends to be more pessimistic). Think also about classic crime novels - they are called 'cosy' despite characters being murdered at regular intervals. The reason they are escapist is, to extent, the fact that everything works out in the end - in the crime novel equilibrium is re-established, in SF all obstacles are overcome.
>77 avaland: - There is a sense in which SF is urban - SF is tied into industrial and technological revolutions which are socially linked to increased urbanisation. The rural usually represents a lost better way of life (see after armageddon) - although this is not unique to SF. This leads to an interesting paradox in SF - it is a genre of fiction about science that often hankers after a lifestyle that is anti-science.
>72 dchaikin: - I'm not sure that literature is seen as being 'instructural to life' - one of the original criticisms of the novel was that it was pointless, being mere fiction, and stopped impressional young people (especially women) from reading 'improving' texts. The idea of reading as 'improving' is tied up with the growth of mass education - a person who reads will know more, i.e., they have been improved. The idea of serious literature being 'improving' probably only comes from the end of the Victorian era and as a response to the new mass culture although the key break may have as late as the early 20th century and the modernist movement. This 'improvement' does not involve producing 'better people' (the modernists were aesthetes, not moralists) but rather we will be reading superior prose, something that challenges the reader allowing them to see the world anew. Arguably the works that are educational now , i.e., strongly moral, are in genre fiction now where the virtuous are rewarded and the villainous vanquished.
Maybe "cosmopolitan" is a better word. It's hard for me to see SF taking the historical course it took had Asimov et. al. been country people. This is confused with the fact that the publishing industry is based in New York City and so as urban as you can get.
I would say Space Opera is about the pioneer not the city.
it is no more urban than Shane.
"This leads to an interesting paradox in SF - it is a genre of fiction about science that often hankers after a lifestyle that is anti-science." - I had never thought of it that way. Despite some famous authors assertions otherwise, SF does seem to be is about a fear of science & technology.
Regarding the 'instructural to life' - It seems accepted that literature with a 'strongly moral' agenda tends to be forced, and easily used for propaganda. But, serious literature claims to be looking for the "Truth", or at least a truth (which, if not equivalent, is at least parallel to your phrase "something that challenges the reader allowing them to see the world anew"). I think this is all the same thing. The supposed search for truth is also instructional, but in a more complex way.
>85 dchaikin: - I was thinking about the idea of reading being good for a little more. Isn't it interesting that while people will say "why are you reading that trash when you could be reading something worthwhile?" but no-one ever says "why are you reading that trash when you could be watching a good film?". There definitely is a hierarchy of culture that puts reading at the top - that just reading anything is seen as better than doing something else.
I don't think serious literature does claim to be about the truth, at best a truth and even that is debatable. I would argue that the difference between serious and escapist literature is how much they make you think.
"Seeing the world anew" was a reference to modernist ideas. It must have been a shock for Virginia Woolf et al getting up in the morning.
#86 - this is leading me to a thought explosion
part 1 - the storm in the brain
Why is reading considered better?
Part 2 - The written word is better
Anyway, I think the written word is considered higher because, assuming one reads the whole thing, it's simpler and stripped from time and from the other distracting senses into something that can be looked at in more-purely objective light. In this way the written word can be studied more intensely and therefore allows more flexibility to communicate more complex ideas, concepts, stories, etc. Also, the written word demands a voluntary action from the reader - he/she must actively read. Other forms of communication can happen just by opening the eyes and ears etc.
But, I haven't applied theses thoughts to the serious-not serious literature debate yet (and hence not to the topic at hand - SF)
Part 3 - "how much they make you think."
I interpret this as something like a staying power. Somewhere in Club Read someone posted about how a good performance can be very exhilarating, but it doesn't stick around long; whereas a good book can stick around far longer, for years.
This leads to a sticking/exhilarating divide, and it applies to literature. The book that moves you to tears isn't going to hang around as long as the book that you struggle through for weeks, constantly thinking about.
Or, to put it another way, the more you put into it, the more you get our of it.
Part 4 - I should have stopped here, or maybe before, but didn't
So, this implies that "serious" literature may be more serious simply because it is more difficult (and complex?) and we think about it so much more...and that is what makes it stick.
But some books stick around more than others of similar difficulty. Is this a reader's preference? (reader likes these ideas, so keeps in mind) Or, a writers talent? (writer knows how to reach us)
/end of pointless, potentially thread-killing post.
>77 avaland:, avaland: I don't think that SF is inherently urban; the SF of Clifford J Simak is enough in itself to suggest that it isn't.
>88 timjones: I think perhaps our thought behind that question was not completely formed, though I think jargoneer tapped into what we were thinking about at the time.
>82 Jargoneer: ...it is a genre of fiction about science that often hankers after a lifestyle that is anti-science. An interesting observation. Perhaps it's just looking for balance.
>84 SimonW11: now that comment, Simon, begs for another discussion:-)
>87 dchaikin: Dan, your brain is as busy as mine and I enjoyed that little trip: "Being Dan Chaikinovich" But, I do have a bone to pick with your statement: The book that moves you to tears isn't going to hang around as long as the book that you struggle through for weeks, constantly thinking about. Why do you consider the two mutually exclusive? Cannot one both wrestle cerebrally and cry over Doctor Zhivago? (for example). There's a hint of emotion=bad, intellectualism=good in that statement...
>89 avaland:: Yeah, I don't know about anybody else, but books that move me to tears tend to stick around in my brain very effectively for a long, long time. Don't underestimate emotions. Emotions are powerful things, and allow us to connect strongly with ideas, people, places, books, what-have-you, in ways that pure, calm abstract thought doesn't. Heck, that's pretty much their function. And I say this as someone who is a big fan of reason, intellectualism and thought. But, hey, that thrill you get from suddenly understanding a complicated idea? That's also an emotion.
(Which isn't to pick on dchaikin. I thought those storm-in-the-brain thoughts were interesting, too!)
#89/90 - I did not mean that the emotions and thought are mutually exclusive. But, I meant that some (aspects of?) books move you a lot now, but then the emotions pass it's complete. Other (aspects of?) books demand to be thought about, perhaps they leave you perplexed and you need to spend the extra effort to ponder over them...sometimes endlessly. These types of response tend to last longer.
"Emotions are powerful things, and allow us to connect strongly with ideas, people, places, books, what-have-you, in ways that pure, calm abstract thought doesn't."
I just finished reading Frankenstein for the Knights of the Roundtable Challenge, and my initial response to it was quite emotional, but in a negative way. But it seems to have struck a chord because the discussion continues about it over on my thread. And that discussion touches all those things you mentioned, bragan -- and thanks, BTW, for your contribution thereto!
>91 dchaikin:: I didn't really think you were saying they were mutually exclusive. But I'm still not at all convinced that the pondering always lasts longer than the emotional impact. Something that moves you emotionally really can keep right on moving you through the years, whenever you think back on it, just as something that provides food for thought can keep on doing that.
Maybe it's to some extent a personal thing? Because if you'd asked me "What books have stuck with you longest?" my answer would have been the exact opposite of yours. It really is the ones I had a strong emotional reaction to that come to mind first. Which isn't to say that books that were more intellectually stimulating than emotionally affecting wouldn't also be on the list.
>92 Poquette:: Hey, for whatever small contribution I made, you're welcome! And sometimes negative emotions can be just as provocative as positive ones, really. Possibly even more so, because they can make you want to rant and argue and analyze afterward.
89/90/93 - I should add that I certainly don't feel picked on and that I do appreciate your (bragan & avaland's) disagreements. Thinking more...
>94 dchaikin: yes, meant with no disrespect! I certainly didn't believe you personally meant they were mutually exclusive, but the sentiment generally is not new, so I ran with it:-)
This reminds me a little of a conversation I had with TadAD about books that, when we close the covers, we think are not 'good', but yet, the core of the story or the things expressed stay in our thoughts long after. This is the review that he wrote after we had the conversation. He expresses what we talked about better than I.
I should haul this back to SF since that is what readers will be looking for when they enter the thread...
What do readers expect from SF?
I look for the writer to try to imagine a world different, in some significant way, actually or by implication, from the world we live in, and to do that in a way that casts light on our world. But I like Bob's formulation a lot.
My hope and expectation is that a good science fiction story or novel will feed a deep-seated hunger to contemplate what is possible -- even if it is impossible, that it will provide a unique adventure of the mind where explorations -- whether physical or philosophical -- take place that could not otherwise be realized, and in the process will expand the limits of my imagination.
I started Frankenstein a month ago. At 60 pages in, I asked on Facebook whether I should keep going. Two people loved it, and a half dozen said they couldn't finish it, and two or so said they finished b/c of its place in the genre, but didn't like it.
I kept reading.
Put it down at page 116. ("Put it down" being relative, since its an e-book. I may "pick it up" just for that reason, but I doubt it.
Couldn't. stand. it.
There's plenty of other books I won't get to in my lifetime that had "big influence". No need for my continue with this one.
I know we really wanted to stop this thread at the very neat place of 100 posts BUT...
AsYouKnow_Bob posted a link on Dukedom's thread to Paul McAuley's blog post titled "How to Write a Generic SF Novel" and I couldn't resist reposting it here to see what you all had to say about it.
Of course it's meant to be funny, but do you think there's truth in it? (that's why it's funny, right?) Of contemporary novels or the older stuff? Do you feel you've read this novel? Do you yearn for something more than what he's describing, or is this pretty munch the stuff you love?
Do you feel you've read this novel?
I've certainly read it. Sometimes it seems like I've read little BUT that novel: the tropes McAuley cites are drawn from a large swath of the genre.
I don't think the gist of the article is limited to generic SF. With a bit of adaption it could relate to much popular fiction and certainly to all Steven Speilberg films.
I'm not sure I've ever encountered all of those elements in one book, thank goodness. Although it's possible that I have, and have just blocked it out because it was so, well, generic. A lot of them are pretty familiar, though. And not necessarily bad, depending on how well you do them.
#101: Of course it's meant to be funny, but do you think there's truth in it?
Well, of course. Once you've read a bunch of fiction (say, less than a 1000 novels? Or, less than 100? in a particular genre? Or: say 10? in some tightly-defined sub-genre?) Anyway, once you've read a bunch of fiction, you can hardly help but start noticing the bones of the structural underpinnings poking up through the skin of the Nth story.
#103 I don't think the gist of the article is limited to generic SF. With a bit of adaption it could relate to much popular fiction and certainly to all Steven Speilberg films.
Sure. There are any number of "How To Write Good" guides out there that expose the "secrets" of how it's done, by reducing the entire enterprise of fiction-writing to formula. ("The PROTAGONIST encounters an OBSTACLE....")
(And, of course, you eventually realize that there are only one (or 7, or 20, or 36) Basic Plots - and McAuley's formula fits right in a grand tradition.)
That's what makes genre fiction interesting though; seeing how an author can work within the restraints of the genre and still make the story new and interesting. Sometimes the limits can allow an author to play around in other ways and then there are always the authors who push those boundaries.
I'm familiar with crime fiction--it's intriguing to see that SF also has traditions and constraints, which seems counter-intuitive to me.
P. D. James addresses "formula" in her book on crime fiction. If I can find the book, I'll type an excerpt.
Several "serious" authors now write genre fiction. Do you think that they are drawn to the challenge (ok, now write something great obeying these fourteen rules) or to the ease of not having to think of everything, but being able to concentrate on language or character development, or simply because they love the genre?
Do you think that "literary fiction" has become a genre of its own?
#108 - "Do you think that "literary fiction" has become a genre of its own?" - Yes.
108 - the answer is no simply because of the nature of genre. Genre is defined by its iconography/signifiers, which isn't possible in literary fiction: there isn't much similarity between Anita Brookner and Thomas Pynchon. You could claim that literary fiction has a seriousness of purpose but then so do many genre novels. The only way you can establish literary fiction as genre is to isolate a particular type of literary fiction and highlight the common tropes. Some people claim they can do this and then describe fiction where middle-class people are full of angst. However that does not define, or even come close to defining, literary fiction.
>110 Jargoneer:: I don't have much of an opinion, personally, on whether literary fiction is a genre or not. But the thing is that, while it's generally easy to identify subgenres, whether it's "hard SF" or "literary middle-class angst novels," I think the same argument you use here very possibly does apply to SF. There may be lots and lots of tropes are are identifiably science fictional, but any given work may use some, all, or none of them. I'm not sure there's any set that apply to all science fiction without exception and can thus be used to define it.
Personally, I'm inclined to just use Damon Knight's definition that science fiction is what science fiction readers point to when they say "science fiction." The same thing is probably true of literary fiction.
Is it possible, perhaps, that genres are ultimately defined more by the reader -- "this fits with the kind of thing that I like to read" -- rather than by something intrinsic to the work?
While I realize Paul McAuley took the idea of formula to extreme, generally speaking, I think this is an interesting bit from P. D. James, from her book Talking About Detective Fiction:
...But for a book to be described as detective fiction there must be a central mystery, and one that by the end of the book is solved satisfactorily and logically, not by good luck or intuition, but by intelligent deduction from clues honestly if deceptively presented.
One of the criticisms of the detective story is that this imposed pattern is mere formula writing, that it binds the novelist in a straitjacket which is inimical to the artistic freedom which is essential to creativity, and that subtlety of characterization, a setting which comes alive for the reader and even credibility are sacrificed to the dominance of structure and plot. But what I find fascinating is the extraordinary variety of books and writers which this so-called formula has been able to accommodate, and how many authors have found the constraints and conventions of the detective story liberating rather than inhibiting of their creative imagination. To say that one cannot produce a good novel within the discipline of a formal structure is as foolish as to say that no sonnet can be great poetry since a sonnet is restricted to fourteen lines—an octave and a sestet—and a strict rhyming sequence.
>108 RidgewayGirl: Actually, I think the above quote addresses why any author might wish to dip into other 'genres'. Does not every inspiring poet attempt to write a sonnet at some time in their writing career?
>110 Jargoneer: I have to agree with jargoneer on the inability to define literary fiction as a genre; however, one could argue that the term is being used by publishers as a marketing tool, if only to distinguish certain books from everything else.
>111 bragan: Is it possible, perhaps, that genres are ultimately defined more by the reader This is probably true. There a relationship between marketing and the reader-consumer, each taking hints from the other.
What would happen if all of the fiction in a bookstore had blank covers, with only a synopsis on the back? Do you think you might stray more from what you consider your reading norm?
>112 avaland:: I agree with you absolutely about formula not necessarily being limited or equating to uncreative. The sonnet is an excellent analogy.
It's also interesting, I think, to have genre conventions that readers are already familiar with going in, because writers can do interesting things playing around with, subverting, re-examining, and even breaking those conventions. (I'm thinking of Stanislaw Lem, for example, who wrote a detective novel with no logic and no resolution. You don't get those interesting moments of having your expectations denied and gaining a new perspective on the basic conventions if you don't have the conventions in the first place.)
As for this:
What would happen if all of the fiction in a bookstore had blank covers, with only a synopsis on the back? Do you think you might stray more from what you consider your reading norm?
That describes me reading as a kid pretty well, actually, back when most of it came from the school and public libraries, where the kids' fiction was all mixed together without respect for genre. I'd check out just about anything, but was aware, in a an ill-defined but fairly strong way, that there were certain kinds of stories I liked better than others, stories with "interesting things" in them. (Magic! Spaceships! All things imaginative and new!) Eventually, I realized that a certain sticker (or one of a couple of stickers) on the spine was a good indication of an "interesting things" book. It was only much, much later that I even learned the words "science fiction," and it actually took me quite a while to get any real idea of what they mean. But once I did... Well, then when I got older and graduated to the adult part of the library, I gravitated toward the SF section and pretty much stayed there. It's only lately that I'm recovering my old habits of just reading anything that sounds good again, and not getting hung up on genre, but I kind of wish I'd kept that childhood attitude.
From the quote: "...clues honestly if deceptively presented." That oxymoron requires some set of genre tropes to be fulfilled, or to be creatively unfulfilled. What is sufficiently honest yet sufficiently deceptive?
It's commonplace in science fiction circles to say that one must learn to read SF, that SF can be too confusing if one has not so learned. Literary fiction in general may not have a particular set of genre conventions, but maybe parts of it do? Imagine struggling with a book with an unreliable narrator, when one hasn't heard of or encountered that previously. Got to be at least as troublesome as encountering "The Skydiver dropped out of hyperspace an even million miles above the neutron star." having not heard of hyperspace or neutron stars.
P.D. James, who was trying to write literary mystery novels, may have been onto something. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster stakes out a claim that "mystery" is an essential component for any book. Since his lectures, which form the basis of the book, cite examples from the literary fiction of the day (c. 1927), his comments seem to include all kinds of fiction whether literary, science fiction, mystery or otherwise. The best of all these, including genre fiction, would appear to have taken leaves out of Forster's book. Here is what he had to say about the mystery component (from his chapter/lecture titled, "The Plot"), which I found very interesting in light of the above discussion and for what he has to say about both reader and writer:
The intelligent novel-reader--that would be all of us, right?--unlike the inquisitive one who just runs his eye over a new fact, mentally picks it up. He sees it from two points of view: isolated, and related to the other facts that he has read on previous pages. Probably he does not understand it, but he does not expect to do so yet awhile. The facts in a highly organized novel (like The Egoist) are often of the nature of cross-correspondences and the ideal spectator cannot expect to view them properly until he is sitting up on a hill at the end. This element of surprise or mystery--the detective element as it is sometimes rather emptily called--is of great importance in a plot. It occurs through a suspension of the time sequence; a mystery is a pocket in time, and it occurs crudely as in "Why did the queen die?" and more subtly in half-explained gestures and words, the true meaning of which only dawns pages ahead. Mystery is essential to a plot, and cannot be appreciated without intelligence. To the curious it is just another "and then--" To appreciate a mystery, part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on.Interesting to contemplate the books we have read in light of the mystery component. I guess it is the page-turner quality (in addition to others, of course) that keeps us reading a good book, no matter what.
An interesting aspect of a mystery novel is that the detective and the reader are analogous - they are both trying to construct the plot (i.e. why did this happen? The story being defined as 'then this happened').
E.M. Forster wrote a SF story, The Machine Stops - it was a response to Wells optimistic approach to science and is typically anti-technology. ('Oh, look, the machine has stopped, now we can go and cavort in a natural unsullied world).
>114 dukedom_enough: Can't agree with that. The use of scientific language and or technobabble is not the same as use of an unreliable narrator, which could just as easily be used in the novel about the skydiver.
It's commonplace in science fiction circles to say that one must learn to read SF, that SF can be too confusing if one has not so learned
Well, I have to tell you then, that a friend who took me to a fundamentalist religious service in the 70s said a very similar thing to me when I told him I didn't understand what was being said (there were a lot of catch words and phrases that colored their rhetoric):-)
Of course; every field where people talk together has its specific terms and modes that one must learn to participate. In some of these fields, like astronomy, these terms (observation, extinction, Hubble constant, dark matter, main sequence, white dwarf, pulsar, ...) help us organize and think about the field's pursuits. In other fields, such as at least some religious denominations, these terms are used as tools of social control. Ultimately this is a feature of language generally; our world is sufficiently complex now that one is always learning some new set of terms.
>118 dukedom_enough: Yes, dear, I know;-) Remind me that I need to note on FaceBook that I speak science fiction.
I haven't actually read through this whole thread, although I plan to come back and do that later. What I would find interesting to start the conversation, though, would be to ask if the person had read some of those works by authors who claim to not be SF, but rather literary, when they so clearly ARE Science Fiction. Books like The Time-Traveller's Wife, about a mutation which makes it difficult for people to form relationships, and many of Atwood's books, most recently Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, which are all about genetic manipulation. I am sure I could think of others, but those are the ones that leap to mind. I find it surprising how many people there are that claim to hate sf, who then say that they love these books.
Definitely thinking this one through, and I will post more later.
>120 sussabmax: Post apocalyptic fiction (and some dystopian fiction) seems to be considered more readable across genres. It's probably no accident that these stories tend to present post-technology worlds that are bared down to their human core (do we hide behind our technology?). And the dystopian fiction that seems to fly in the literary fiction marketing category tends to be low on science details and jargon. This all may have something to do with it, but more likely a book is marketed in the category the author has been generally associated with. The other factor is publisher & imprint. Generally speaking, a book published by Tor, Ace or Orbit is not going to placed in the fiction section.
It might be interesting to look at titles that sold in the fiction category, and others that didn't...
Examples of Post Apocalyptic novels that sold in general fiction categories:
Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Pesthouse by James Crace
1984 by George Orwell
The Children of Men by P. D. James
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
Examples of Post Apocalyptic Novels that sold in science fiction sections:
Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller
Always Coming Home by Ursula Le Guin
Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Motherlines by Suzy McKee Charnas
Examples of Dystopian fiction sold in the general fiction sections (I do realize there is crossover between post-apoc & dys):
The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Examples of science fiction that is not dystopian nor post-apocalyptic, but sold (at least in the US) in the general fiction section (or both the general fiction and SF sections).
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
The Secret by Eva Hoffman
The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler
I did see in this thread that some people do not consider dystopias to be science fiction, a position which frankly did not even occur to me. Dystopias are one of my favorite forms of sf! I am also a bit blown away by the fact that Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood} are thought to not be sf by anyone at all, when they so clearly are totally sf, and not just on the edges, as it were. Another example that maybe fits into the last category is Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which I was surprised and delighted to find is totally sf. I didn't get it on the sf shelf, and I notice that the first review I see on here describes the book as unclassifiable. I suspect that unclassifiable means "I don't read science fiction, so that can't be what this is!", but I could be wrong.
I do find the idea of pared down technology interesting, although I also like seeing technology that is more integrated into nature. I have seen it, but I can't remember where.
This topic is not marked as primarily about any work, author or other topic.