Confession time: every time I see a list of ‘must-read scifi novels’ or ‘scifi to read before you die’, my heart sinks. Just for a moment. I guess I’m just a bad SF fan – the classics that typically dominate these lists very rarely float my boat. But is that my failing or theirs?
Yeah, okay, that was a dodgy rhetorical question. It’s mine or it’s neither: I don’t dispute that the classics were ground-breaking, timely and often well-crafted. I just don’t think some of them have aged well. Nonetheless, I periodically commit to reading a few more as part of my education in the underpinnings of the modern genre (I studied archaeology: of course I like underpinnings).
My last big effort was nearly 3 years ago. It started really well – Fahrenheit 451 was a book I’d read at school, but couldn’t remember. I was absorbed almost from the start, shocked by how prescient Bradbury’s vision was – from enormous wall-screens to wireless headphones. It still falls foul of my pet peeve (its portrayal of women), but in this case the novel itself is so strong I could set that aside and read in horrified fascination.
Fahrenheit 451 has much to say about our society – even more so in 2016 than when I last read it, given the world-building. We’re told censorship (and then burning) began ‘to increase public happiness’ in response to outcry from ‘minority groups’; while the text calls out dog lovers offended by cats – and vice versa – Bradbury himself is on record as saying he felt ‘censored’ by letters from those who felt he could provide stronger roles for women and people of colour (sound familiar?). No, Mr Bradbury – you were free to write as you chose, as we are free to judge you by what you chose to write. In this case, a damn good book.
Unfortunately, my next choice was Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. This is often cited by authors whose work I respect as one of their great influences, if not one of the greatest SF novels of all time. It certainly embraces recognisably cyberpunk themes – an antiheroic everyman takes on his mega-corporate employer to get revenge after a near-death experience – and includes teleportation, telepathy and a McGuffin.
I can see that it would have been ground-breaking as a piece of literature when it came out. I can see a way of reading it that centres on a man’s drive to push back against controlling forces determined to keep him in his place. But I have to squint pretty hard, because I’m too busy goggling at the horrific (re)actions of the antihero and the staggering levels of misogyny (of all the things we’re invited to judge Gully Foyle for, the rape isn’t one of them). In spite of this, it’s one of those books that has become better-regarded the older it gets. I’m sorry, I just don’t get it. It was vile. Sure, the ending is interesting – but it doesn’t redeem everything that goes before, and it feels weirdly tacked on to boot.
The Stars My Destination dented my enthusiasm for forcing my way through classic SF because I ‘ought’ to have read it to the extent that I read one more that year (the intriguing Slaughterhouse Five) and then gave it up for a bad job. I’ve cheerfully if slightly guiltily averted my eyes from other classics sat waiting on the shelf ever since.
The good news is that lists of must-read SF are (slowly) becoming broader. For the first-ever SciFiMonth, our gracious host Rinn put together a list of definitive SF reads that combines traditional and modern classics. Ian Sales has done a sterling job in challenging the male-dominated SF Masterworks with his co-authored blog on SF Mistressworks to promote often overlooked female authors (Gollancz are slowly adding women to the SF Masterworks, but they’ve got a long way to go)*.
So, having laid bare my fascination of underpinnings at the start, I think it’s time I had another go at exploring the classics of the genre. I’ll start with the ones on the shelf (starting with I, Robot) and branch out following Rinn’s excellent list and cherrypick from the Masterworks / Mistressworks. They won’t dominate my reading, but I hope to check back in in a year’s time and see how my conscience (and my blood pressure) is getting on…
Any particular classic SF novels you would recommend for my list?
* Before I get accused of tub thumping, it’s not the author’s gender I’m most concerned about. I acknowledge Frankenstein is a classic, and hooray for Mary Shelley, but I was bored to tears by the unleavened histrionic angst that propelled it from Switzerland to the Arctic. I believe men can write fabulous female characters. I only get tetchy when they choose not to.