HERE ARE 16 NOVELS. Read them, and you will have had crash course in what makes good science fiction interesting. These are not necessarily the 16 best books; there is no consensus as to what the best books are (and only five of my nominations won Hugo or Nebula awards). The list does not even include all my own favorites. I have avoided such writers on sf's periphery as J. G. Ballard, Harlan Ellison and Michael Moorcock, for example, and could find no room for Brian Aldiss, Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, James Tiptree Jr., Jack Vance, A. E. van Vogt and many other admirable writers.
But it is an excellent selection of books to try, maybe over the summer if you are a beginner who thinks he might like sf but has so far encountered only rubbish. The list is chronological; it gives a brief history of post-war sf; it deliberately includes most of the genre's major themes; and it ranges right across the spectrum from sober possibility to outrageous near-fantasy.
You will probably find the earlier books easier going to begin with. Now that sf is no longer written in the first instance for readers of the pulp magazines, some of it has become sophisticated indeed. The books numbered 12, 14 and 16 below contain nuances as delicate and challenging as anything in contemporary fiction. Good sf writers continue to show a democratic confidence in the intelligence of their readers.
Books that will conform you with rather demanding scientific or philosophical ideas are marked with a star. Books that are challenging from a literary point of view, because of the sophistication of their language or their metaphorical structure, are marked with a *. (Some books should be in both categories perhaps; you can figure out which ones.) The rest are full of ideas too, but they should be plain sailing.
Each book gave me a lot of pleasure and entertainment when I first encountered it, and all have been much praised by other critics. Good reading!
1. The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells. 1895. (Many editions). The book that began modern science fiction, and introduced two of its great themes: time travel and the evolution of mankind. A short novel, as fresh and moving now as it was then, it applies Darwinism to social and biological evolution with some startling bizarre results, and the shadow of Marx falls over it too. It is almost 60 years earlier than any other novel named.
2. Starman Jones, by Robert A. Heinlein. 1953. (Ballantine/ Del Rey, $1.50). In some ways Heinlein's novels for teen-agers have lasted better than those intended solely for an adult audience. This is a gripping story of the growth to maturity of a young farmhand who wangles his way on to a starship, becomes an astrogator, and then, amazingly but logically, the captain. All science fiction's yearning for new frontiers is here, but the romance is tied to reality -- and to a controversial theory of technocratic elitism.
3. The City and the Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke. 1956. (New American Library, $1.75). Another of sf's great myths: the enclosed static utopia, and the kinetic hero's refusal to stop questioning. Beyond the walls of this apparently all-inclusive city of the far future is another kind of life. Vivid and romantic.
4. The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester. 1956. (Gregg, $10; Berkley, $2.25). A fast-moving kaleidoscopic space opera. A story of revenge. Lurid, witty and savage, it tells of the obsession of one man (the plot is borrowed from The Count of Monte Cristo ) so passionately driven that he defies all ordinary limits and becomes a kind of superman. One of the most inventive and colorful novels in sf's history.
5. The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. 1959. (Delacorte, $9.95; Dell, $2.25). Vonnegut wrote bona fide science fiction back in those days, but from the beginning he used its myths ironically. Mankind is unknowlingly manipulated by alien schemes in this black comedy which moves backwards and forwards through the solar system. What does it all mean? Does it mean anything? The events are hilarious, the style dead-pan, the philosophy somber. This absurdist attack on the fantasy of free will is a must for the determinists' fan club.
6. A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller. 1960. (Gregg, $13.50; Bantam, $2.50). Hugo Award. World War III finished 600 years before the book opens. A flickering light of half-remembered and often misunderstood knowledge is kept alive by the Roman Catholic Church, and civilization is slowly reconstructed in this quietly satircal but moving account of mankind making the same mistakes again. Miller is a Catholic but his attitude to church and science is sardonic and ambiguous. One of the most admired classics of sf.
7. Rogue Moon, by Algis Budrys. 1960. (Gregg, $11; Avon, $1.50). One of science fiction's fundamental ideas is that of conceptual breakthrough, the need to know and to reject (often painfully) the complacency of accepting things as they are. Here it is economically and violently imaged in the investigation of a cryptic, alien, labyrinthine structure on the moon, which kills its explorers. Human evolution is baroquely pictured in the metaphor of traversing the death-maze. A matter transmitter plays a crucial role, and the nature of human identity is questioned in the downbeat conclusion.
8. Martian Time-Slip, by Philip K. Dick. 1964. (Ballantine/Del Rey, $2.25). Dick is sf's preeminent juggler of appearance and reality. Does the external world exist only in our perception of it? He wrote six or seven outstanding novels on the theme, to which Martian Time-Slip is perhaps the best introduction: witty, and less cryptic than some of the others. It tells of Mars, colonial capitalism, solipsism, schizophrenia, precognition and entropy.
9. Dune, by Frank Herbert, 1965. Nebula Award. (Berkley, $2.75). Palace intrigues are blended with mysticism, and with speculations on historical and ecological process, in this classic melodrama, the first of a series, set on the desert planet of Arrakis. cThe Fremen, water-worshipping nomads who are symbiotic with monstrous sandworms, constitute one of the most vivid other-world societies in sf.
10. Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny. 1967. Hugo Award. (Gregg, $14; Avon, %2.25). This vastly entertaining novel, which comes from the extravaganza end of the sf spectrum, has a serious point. Members of a scientific elite have set themselves up as gods, modeled on the Hindu pantheon. But our her, Sam (Mahasamatman), who wishes to reform their cruel and exploitative autocracy over the humans who worship them, becomes the Budha, and replays the ancient mythos with great craft as a king of hippy Hincdu revolutionary.
11. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. 1969. Hugo and Nebula Awards. (Harper & Row, $11.95; Ace, $2.25). An ethnologist visits the winter planet of Gethen, whose people have evolved an altered genetic structure: they are androgynous, able to be female, male or neuter at different times, though not always through choice. the professional observer is imperceptibly forced to commit himself to this world, in a subtle and moving parable of sexual relationships and cultural conditioning. Austerely evocative.
12. 334, by Thomas M. Disch. 1972. (Gregg, $12.50; Avon, $2.25). It is in narrative sophistication that the greatest advances have been made in recent sf (even though plenty of writers continue to use Heinlein-type plots recounted in Heinlein-type language). 334 is a series of stories dealing with the occupants of a Manahttan apartment house (No. 334), in an interesting, plausible and unpleasant near-future world where urban life is even more constricted than now, but survival and aspiration remain possible. The links between the stories are so many and telling that the book is effectively a novel. The language is almost cruelly precise.
13. The Embedding, by Ian Watson. 1973. (Not in print in U.S.). Watson may not be the best writer in British science fiction, but he is probably the best thinker. This, his first novel, quietly revolutionized the scope of science fiction by bringing anthropology, linguistics and cybernetics together in a three-part story dealingwith ways in which our brains might evolve new and more subtle ways of manipulating the material of the external world. It is a real pleausre to find Chomsky and Levi-Strauss joining Einstein s the ideational gurus behind an sf novel.
14. Engine Summer, by John Crowley. 1979 (Doubleday, $7.95; Bantam, $1.95). Crowley uses the same theme as Miller in number 6 above: what would life be like long after the holocaust? The hero makes a pilgrimage through the Indian summer of mankind's latter days, trying to make sense of the detritus of the past, in a translucently autumnal fable which is poetic and serene where Miller is sardonic.
15. Timescape, by Gregory Benford. 1980. Nebula Award. (Simon and Schuster, $12.95; Pocket/Timescape, $2.95). A powerful story of scientists inthe despoiled future trying to alter their own history by sending warning tachyon messages backwards in time. The novel is written by a scientist, is modeled around the enigmas of modern physics, and gives an insight into the way real scientists work, and more importantly, think.
16. The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe. 1980 (Simon and Schuster, $11.95; Pocket/Timescape, $2.50). The first of a projected tetralogy, of which two volumes have so far beenpublished, this is a devious, surprising and often profound story of a quest, in a feudally structured far future. The hero is a torturer with morals. The writing and the science fictional invention are alike in being both startling and graceful. Wolfe is a true original, and is my candidate for the most consistently brilliant sf writer of the past decade.