DESPITE movies, television and assorted high-tech games, science fiction is still mainly a reader's universe. There are books for every taste, from the sophisticated to the schlocky, from artful masterpieces to political tracts and soft-core porn. To keep up with new writing, remember that Book World reviews science fiction on the fourth Sunday of each month. The following titles -- a baker's dozen presented in chronological order -- emphasize the best sf of the past.
THE TIME MACHINE -- by H.G. Wells (1895). In the far future mankind has split into two races: the gentle Eloi and the Eloi-eating Morlocks. Among other things a fable of class warfare, this short, beautifully written novel is charged with a twilit sadness, especially in the Time Traveller's glimpse of the earth's last days. All of Wells' early science fiction is worth reading.
LAST AND FIRST MEN -- by Olaf Stapledon (1930). Future history on a cosmic scale. This novel, with a time span of 2,000 million years, chronicles the future evolution of Man, especially his biological mutations, alterations and adaptations, as he travels across the Solar System out into the universe. Imagine Gibbon writing about the future instead of the past -- such is the grandeur of this book.
MORE THAN HUMAN -- by Theodore Sturgeon (1953). Many rank Sturgeon among the best American writers of short stories. (See his collections, Not Without Sorcery, The Stars Are the Styx.) This novel, his masterpiece, describes how an adult idiot, two neglected little black girls, a mongoloid baby and other outcasts of society come together to form a single Gestalt, or super-being. The opening section is told from the viewpoint of the idiot and rivals the Benji section of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.
THE STARS, MY DESTINATION -- by Alfred Bester (1956). Imagine the revenge plot of The Count of Monte Cristo. Add a cast of grotesques who would be at home in a Fellini film. Tell the story in quick march time, with lots of fireworks. Together, these make up Bester's swashbuckling adventure novel, a book more exciting than Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark combined. Here's the novel that will make a kid of all but the most jaded adult.
CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY -- by Robert A. Heinlein (1957). Truth to tell, Heinlein is at his best as a writer of tightly controlled short stories and young adult novels. Avoid the bloated best-sellers of recent years. The early stories "By His Bootstraps" and "All You Zombies" are probably the most dazzling time paradox tales ever told. But Heinlein's flair for entertaining, cliff-hanging adventure is best seen in Red Planet, Starman Jones, The Star Beast and this book -- all intended for teenagers. Not that any adult could not read them for pleasure. In Citizen of the Galaxy he takes up a classic sf theme -- the passage from childhood to adulthood -- as he recounts the life of Thorby, by turns a slave, beggar, soldier, businessman and galactic magnate. The book opens with a grabber sentence: "'Lot 97,' the auctioneer announced, 'a boy.'" This is just the book for a youngster beginning to be interested in sf.
A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ -- by Walter M. Miller (1959). Excepting only Stephen Vincent Benet's short story "By the Waters of Babylon," this is the finest of all portraits of society after a nuclear holocaust. Scientists, blamed by survivors, have been massacred during the age of "Simplification"; the world has reverted to savagery. Only in a few monasteries does civilization linger, especially in that of Brother Francis Gerard, who discovers fragments of writing -- a shopping list, a blueprint, a racing form -- ascribedo the Blessed Leibowitz. Slowly, mankind lifts itself from its new dark age -- until nuclear war once again looms. But this time the powerful Order of St. Leibowitz has made plans . . . .
THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF J.G. BALLARD -- (written in the '60s-'70s). Widely admired outside of science fiction (his recent novel Empire of the Sun nearly won the Booker Prize), Ballard employs all the techniques of modern fiction (he deeply admires William Burroughs) to depict a world slowly running down. Images of empty and cracked swimming pools, low-flying aircraft and car crashes mark his work, especially in the demanding, often horrific "condensed novels" of The Atrocity Exhibition. Ballard takes a lot of chances but usually hits the jackpot, as in such somber stories as "The Voices of Time," "The Drowned Giant," and "Billennium."
THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH -- by Philip K. Dick (1964). Since his death a few years ago, Dick has increasingly come to be regarded as the most important sf novelist of the past 30 years. For Dick, the high-tech future resembles a decaying and desperate Youngstown. Out of this bleakness, he nonetheless generates a wonderful black humor: In one novel, Mars is controlled by the president of the plumbers guild; in another, animals are so scarce that a man's greatest dream is to own a sheep. This novel is Dick's darkest, most paranoid vision: Colonists on a desolate Mars need the hallucinogenic drug Can-D in order to maintain their sanity. But suddenly a new drug appears, Chewo-Z, brought by Palmer Eldritch from beyond the galaxy and with frightening properties. Its hallucinatory effects may be permanent -- indeed it may truly alter reality, whatever that is.
THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS -- by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969). Upon the strength of this novel, her fantasy trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, and its sequels), and the political novel The Dispossessed, Le Guin was for many years the most highly regarded artist in sf. The inhabitants of the planet Winter undergo biological cycles, periodically assuming either male or female sexuality. On this framework Le Guin builds an intricate and austerely beautiful study of friendship, love and sexuality.
WARM WORLDS AND OTHERWISE -- by James Tiptree Jr. (1975). Generally regarded as the finest writer of short fiction to emerge in the '70s, Tiptree stunned the sf community when it was revealed that he was a she, Dr. Alice Sheldon of McLean, Virginia. This collection, his (her?) second, includes one of the finest "feminist" stories ever written: "The Women Men Don't See." It's a stunner -- especially the climax: A pair of American women, on vacation in Yucatan, encounter some stranded humanoid aliens, establish contact and eventually blast off with them in their repaired ship, having decided that life among aliens has to be an improvement over that with men on earth. Other stories here include "Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death" and "The Girl Who Was Plugged In." Quirky, chilling, funny, open-ended, brilliant fiction. Readers interested in women's sf -- and many of the best contemporary sf writers are women -- should also seek out the work of Joanna Russ, especially the polemical classic, The Female Man and the stories gathered in The Zanzibar Cat.
THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN -- by Gene Wolfe (1980-83). Published in four volumes -- The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch -- this long novel has been acclaimed the finest science fantasy of all time, and one of the richest, most problematic and beautiful novels in the whole genre. If Proust, while listening to late Beethoven string quartets, had written I, Claudius and set it in the future, the result might resemble this measured, autumnal masterpiece. Ostensibly, the books recount the adventures of an apprentice torturer -- as in much sf, the world has again grown medieval in appearance -- who sets out on picaresque adventures, discovers his parentage and gains an unexpected reward. This is a masterpiece that can stand comparison with the best novels of our time.
NEUROMANCER -- by William Gibson (1984). Last year this first novel won all the major science fiction awards everywhere. As a result, it also became the spearpoint of the "cyberpunks," the latest generation of sf writers, characterized by an '80s sensibility in tune with high technology, drugs and a punk lifestyle. Gibson's prose bristles with neologism, computer technology and non-stop energy, as hero Case hooks himself into a vast computer matrix to help his lover Molly, a street samurai with special fighting skills, defeat some very decadent people and a nearly sentient computer. Old-time adventure, but state-of-the-art fiction.
THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME -- edited by Robert Silverberg, et. al (1965-1985). For readers in a hurry, the four volumes of this anthology reprint much of the best shorter work in sf. The first volume, choosing the finest stories (pre-1964) in the eyes of the Science Fiction Writers of America, includes such famous work as Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall" (once regarded as the most popular sf tale of all time), Cordwainer Smith's "Scanners Live in Vain," and Daniel Keye's "Flowers for Algernon." Subsequent volumes focus on novellas, among them Algis Budrys' existential thriller "Rogue Moon" and characteristically accomplished work from Robert Silverberg, Jack Vance, James Blish and many others.