As some of you know the commenter who came in breathing fire or at least breathing superiority has stayed to ask questions. This happens, and some of you became regulars here that way. Of course the percentage is the same as of the lepers that came back to give thanks for their cure, but you know, no one promised us easy or simple. When we put our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honors on the line, we were aware it wasn’t a game. Even if going one by one (like Juan Valdez) arguing and discussing is not nearly as much fun as running around the hills with a Kalashnikov, and even though sometimes it feels like we’re trying to catch every bird in every hidden tree. It is a mark of how badly our school system is serving us, and why our very first imperative is not only “Teach your children well” but “teach every child well.” Or forget child (though most of the people who stay and discuss ARE rather young) and just teach everyone who is open to it.
Not in a preachy way of course, the poor things have managed to be preached more at in their lives than I did growing up in a monolithic Catholic country during a series of socialist-ish revolutions (ranging from socialist to outright Maoist, though thank heavens those only had the reigns a very short time.)
But one of the things that struck me as funny was that she (or anyone) would set up to write not just reviews, but scathing reviews of contemporary SF while having read virtually nothing from more than say twenty years ago.
Look, I get it. I’m sure Verne was more exciting to my dad than it was to me. The language was closer, and the entry-point easier. But at any rate, when I was coming up I read EVERYTHING that said “science fiction” on the spine. For a genre that is supposed to work in imaginary, parallel and might-be worlds, overcoming the language shouldn’t be a big thing. If this is your meat, there might be a point at which you have to work — usually in the beginning — but then you adjust.
And even then, even now, I wouldn’t set up to do scathing reviews of much of anything. Even the ones that Kate Paulk did at MGC — reviewing some award winners — were limited to the craft in the introduction and she didn’t NAME the authors, because it wasn’t personal, it was professional.
The reason I wouldn’t set up to do it is that my taste is so strangely skewed, partly through having cut my teeth on science fiction that got translated to Portuguese. I swear what gets translated to Portuguese is mostly whatever the agents in Spain (you heard that right) are enthusiastic about. Looking at a shelf in Portugal now was almost surreal. I mean, NO Correia, no Ringo, no Weber, but people you never heard of and I have only because for a while ten years ago or so I followed SFWA politics.
BUT beyond that, and beyond the fact the history is all jumbled in my head, because the not-translated-to-Portuguese authors I discovered in the eighties are all filed under “recent sf” and some of them are … well, not recent.
Add to that that until the boys were toddlers — I wonder if that will come back now — I read an AVERAGE of six books a day, with a preferential bend to science fiction, and a secondary one for mystery (though I went through phases. Also, I read everything, including history and biology manuals) and that for a great part of my young-married time I was dependent on whatever the local library had (which is why we spent an entire summer when Robert was an infant reading only Piers Anthony and Jerry Pournelle. I’m not going to bitch, that’s when I discovered Jerry who became a staple-read in this house. Piers… not so much. I found after the third book it was sort of like being on a diet of spaghetti-ohs.)
When I was trying to assemble a recommends list, I also realized that I might have slighted ten or so authors who are favorites here, but whom I could never get into. The one that comes to mind is Jack Vance (met him. Very nice man) whose books simply wouldn’t allow me in. I thought about it yesterday and realized my introduction to him was during the year of climbing, when my first son had just become mobile, and when he discovered that climbing the twelve foot built in bookcase and dancing on the top brought interesting squeaks from mom, and also caused her to go get the ladder to retrieve him. This was also the year of chewing books — he cut his teeth on my hard cover Agatha Christie collection. LITERALLY — and the year we moved three times, which rivals the last one. In fact, every author I tried that year I “couldn’t get into”. Because, you know, we’re not Robots but beings of flesh and blood, and what else is going on in our lives affects our perceptions of books, as well as anything else.
Anyway, so I’m going to do a list of ten books, and add some authors, like Poul Anderson (whose name I still have trouble spelling because we assumed the Portuguese publisher had got hold of the wrong end of the stick and his name was really Paul Anderson. I missed my only chance to meet him when he had a signing in town 19? 20? years ago. But the kids both had some kind of stomach thing, I had piles of sheets to wash and was running the carpet cleaner 24/7 and I didn’t want to infect the poor man) and Jerry Pournelle, and our own occasional commenter Margaret Ball, whom you should just seek out and read everything they wrote, because I did. (There are others. There are always others. This is sort of like trying to catalogue trees leaf by leaf. Every time I look closer another name pops up.) I’m leaving a bunch of other names out, in my uncaffeinated condition, but I trust my commenters to provide them.
To reduce it to ten books, it has to go beyond, “These are books that have lingered” though that’s the first cut. I was, for instance, surprised to see that my brother and I HAD owned Slan, as I have NO memory of reading it. Ever.
Instead, I’m going to go with the books that made an impact on me, and how I thought, or perhaps “a brief history of my interaction with the genre in books.” There will be Heinlein. That goes without saying. (Though honestly, I’d have named #2 son Clifford Simak, if Dan had let me. But he wouldn’t, even if I promised to call him Kip. Husbands, amIright?)
I fell into Science Fiction at 11, when my brother was in Engineering and met a man who had a library with hundreds of science fiction books. (I signed a book for him — Noah’s boy. I really should send him DST — when I was in Portugal. Life’s odd.)
My brother started reading it and bringing it home, and I started reading it standing up by his bedside table, ready to throw the book down and run into my room, where I pretended to stare at the walls, at the slightest step on the stairs.
You see, he’d told me not to read them, thinking they were too mature for me. I’ve asked, and no, he didn’t do that to ensure I started reading science fiction. Weirdly. It’s amazing how even our family members don’t know us. At some point he realized I was reading it. And at some point, later, when I was around thirteen, we used to pool our resources (think the equivalent of $5 a month) and go halvsies on new releases. In addition to that, I scoured the spinning racks in every postcard shop and handywork stall and icecream shop I went to, particularly when visiting friends in out of the way places, as you often found really old books at OLD prices (more like 50c in those places.) Of fond memory are the year my parents took me to Algarve (at fourteen, I think) for the summer, and I found all of Heinlein in a fisherman’s village. And the year I found a bunch of thirties and forties sf while helping a friend’s family clean the apartment her grandfather was moving out of to move in with them. The old man was so thrilled I knew some of those names, and also to have a chance to talk SF that he gave me the two boxes sight unseen. His grandkids didn’t fall in our little, odd fraternity.
Anyway, so the first book I read Standing by Alvarim’s bedside table was Out of their minds by Clifford Simak. Simak must therefore be in the list, but Out of their Minds is a rather “average” book. Honestly, at eleven it hooked me more because it had Snuffy Smith as a character, and I watched Snuffy Smith cartoons. A book of his I came by some years later is far more interesting (and not one of his acclaimed ones like City which on re-reading I found had a lot of bad-tasting though typical of its time ideas.)
1- They Walked Like Men by Clifford Simak. It’s the story of a truly unusual alien invasion, and it hooked me with its voice from about paragraph two.
Years later, thinking about when I’d first found science fiction, I realized that I had read one science fiction book before Alvarim “met” the genre. It wasn’t, like Out of Their Minds so implausible that I paused and looked at the spine and asked “what is this science fiction” which made my brother explain. It was a book that was a little unusual but fit in very well with the environment I grew up in (dad loved Three Men in a Boat, yes. And the answer to “I want a radio” was “I have no objection, get one” which led to my building one) and for all I knew in America every teen got a spacesuit, and going to the moon could be given away in soap contests. So:
2- Have Spacesuit Will Travel – by Robert A. Heinlein. (As a note, I can’t for the life of me remember what in holy heck it was called in Portuguese. That title is in a tense that doesn’t EXIST in Portuguese and I can’t figure out any way to translate it that wouldn’t run to three sentences. It doesn’t mean much. Sometimes titles in Portuguese make your head hurt.)
I can’t remember what the second book I read after realizing SF was SF was, except that I remember singularly off putting elements of it: the US had walled itself in, communism (which was supposedly a good thing) ruled the rest of the world, and the version of America was the “decadent Rome” version that Russian agitprop pushed. I remember the character (female) got in a bus and had a lesbian encounter with a stranger by chapter two. Which didn’t seem to mean anything to the rest of the plot, and which she frankly didn’t seem to enjoy much. The dang thing might have been gray goo.
The third science fiction book I read has stayed with me all these years and, to me at least, is the be-all, end-all of apocalyptic science fiction. Perhaps I was attracted to it because of the history of the country I come from. Or perhaps I’m a little nuts. Mind you, this recommendation is significant because I don’t LIKE post-apocalyptic stories.
3- A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter Miller Jr.
Then when I was a teenager, during the sojourn in Algarve, I found a Heinlein I’d never seen anywhere else: Stranger in a Strange Land. Since this was my New Age Summer — 14 — it fit right in to where I was at that time. I will say now, as an adult, SiaSL is my least favorite of the Heinleins. And yet it’s not as “unfavorite” as all that. On re-reading it recently I found that it, like Starship Troopers, is not exactly what people think it is. Both are much deeper, and more deeply conflicted, books morally and politically than people who haven’t read them imagine.
In the same summer, I discovered The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, which has been a favorite ever since. As can be told by just about anyone who has read A Few Good Men, which is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but on Earth and without supercomputer. (So, TMIAHM now more extreme and with more thumb marks, though the later is not intention, it’s just that I, truly, am but an egg. So:
4- Stranger in a Strange Land
5- Starship Troopers
6- The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Sometime in the next school year, not sure if I was 14 or 15, I came across Le Guin’s Left hand of darkness (weirdly, I didn’t even hear of the Tombs of Atuan until I was married and in the US.) The book fascinated me for several reasons, the first being the “structure” which in retrospect is veddy veddy seventies and part of it being that there is a certain psychology to the biology, which didn’t ring true. (Hermaphroditic species on Earth are far more likely to be VERY violent. Also, the whole communal child-raising didn’t seem right. Also I wondered how a civilization ever arose without the need to protect those who couldn’t run while pregnant. Never mind. It bugged me, and by bugging me was responsible for my starting to write, which is why my first series was “hermaphrodites don’t work that way, particularly not human-derived ones” and yes you might see that series in the fullness of time, that being what I’m most short of right now: time.) At any rate part of the reason the book hooked me was not the irritation (though weirdly that was part of it) but the characters. Read The Left Hand of Darkness for the characters, and watch what she did, because Estraven broke my heart.
7- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
And this was when I fell head first into Phillip K. Dick. Sometime between 16 and 20, not sure when. Look, there are worse things you can do. You can acquire a drug habit or you can get a second hand one. (I did not type that aloud, and you can’t hold me to it.) Perhaps it was the age. Perhaps it was that I’m rather of a philosophical bend, anyway, but I read everything of his I could get hold of. Of that, the one I tried to get the boys to read (I can’t remember if either one did) was
8- Ubik – by Phillip K. Dick.
Here I’m going to elide over — because of the ten books — The World of Tiers by Phillip Jose Farmer which I mashed with Ubik while talking about it last night. I love the books and the concept, and it’s the FIRST time I read a series (though I’ll note that I might have been primed for it because of being an avid mythology reader. I’ll just mention in passing that Riverworld never did much for me. Partly, I think, because it reads “bleak” and as a chronic depressive I’ve learned to shy away from those. Note I don’t mean that I only read happy-fun books. In fact, most of what I write is in rather awful places/times. But it’s the tone of the writing itself. If it feels like it’s beating me down with “abandon all hope” I pull back, and often don’t do it consciously.)
I haven’t talked about reading women, because there didn’t seem to be any point to it. I mean, there were women SF writers up there, through all those years of getting acquainted with the genre, but most of them didn’t “stay”. I.e. they only rose to the same level as most of the men I read at that time, which was “okay.” And yeah, my reading through this time was biased to males, but that is mostly an artifact of who was translated at that time. And before the squawks start as though because I’ve got a vagina I MUST read people who have vaginas, let me add some of my favorite non-sf writers through that time WERE women, in fact in mystery about half my favorites — Agatha Christie and Ellis Peters, both prolific — were women, which skewed more female after I came to the US with a lot of writers of whom, off the top of my head, I’ll mention Patricia Wentworth and Dorothy Cannell and Carolyn Hart.)
However, I reserved the two last slots of this list to women who played pivotal roles in my relationship with science fiction. The first is Anne McCaffrey whom I started reading in Portuguese (I had to look the first book up because I SWEAR the title I remember in Portuguese is Dragon Drums) and finished in English. It was the second series I fell into and the most immersive. I damn well wanted to BE a dragon rider. There is something feminine about the writing, to the extent writing can be masculine or feminine, in that it’s the characters that grab you and pull you, though the world building and all that are worthy of note. (BTW some men also write full immersive characters. Some women write crazy-involved worlds and plots. Some people do both. And some people do now one now the other. Because gender characteristics aren’t the same as contents printed on a can and humans are still individuals, world without end. When I say something is more feminine I mean only “as far as this goes, you’re likely to find it in say 60% of women and 40% of men, or vice versa. It’s not an absolute measure.) My favorite of that series is
9- Moreta – by Anne McCaffrey.
For reasons I don’t fully understand, perhaps related to what was available in libraries and bookstores, perhaps simply having to do with having found a surfeit of bad books, I wandered away from science fiction somewhere shortly after the boys were born. It might simply have had to do with the fact that popcorn-mysteries (formulaic, simple, easy to get into and out of) are easier for a young, distracted mother. I couldn’t not-read, but I could read things that required less work.
Then I took my very first “vacation” when Robert was I THINK 6 or so. Dan had a conference down in San Antonio, and I could share his hotel room if I just paid my flight. Which we did, and I went off, with loads of books. I spent a week walking around, reading, eating in diners. It was fun.
During that week I found Connie Willis (I’d run out of books, hit a book store and looked in SF/F when there was nothing in mystery) with one of her least known works Lincoln’s Dreams. I then went on to read everything she wrote, and debated heartily with myself what I should recommend this morning. I’m going to go with:
10- Bellwether by Connie Willis.
There are a lot more people I discovered since, and a lot I simply can’t mention without this already large post growing to encyclopedic lengths. The ones I buy now sight unseen are:
1- Larry Correia — don’t let the explosions fool you, the plots which he builds incrementally add up to serious questions about the nature of men, the nature of monsters and the difference between the two. Yes, even outside MHI.
2- David Weber – I’m a traditionalist. I like Honor.😉
3- John Ringo – who damn it made me like another apocalyptic world: the world of Black Tide Rising.
4- Jim Butcher – watch his d*mn character arcs. I have character-arc envy.
5- F. Paul Wilson – Just go and read him. I heard him dismissed as “cartoonish” which means these people have never actually read him. Like Larry (not surprising as he was a major influence on Larry — and me — it’s all about men and monsters and the razor thin difference.)
6 – ADDENDUM – my brain has him filed under “friend” because I read him after meeting them, but I am sure if it had been the other way around I’d still buy everything he wrote. Possibly harder and faster. IF YOU HAVEN’T READ DAVE FREER, RUN, DON’T WALK TO BUY EVERYTHING HE EVER WROTE. Also, I’m jealous of you, you lucky bastage, reading Freer for the first time.
These are the people I would pay premium prices for — and do, for Wilson and Butcher — ebooks. (Thank heavens the other are Baen.)
There are even probably a couple I missed in that last list, but I still haven’t had coffee and I’ll be d*med if I’m going to think any harder than I have to.
Meanwhile because I know the gaps above are gargantuan, I turn it over to you. Because I REALLY don’t want wall of text comments, try to limit your answers to three books per comment (though not per commenter.) What is YOUR list of must-read science fiction/fantasy?