Wednesday, 11 May 2011

What SF/F Books Should Be In Every Fan's Library

Yesterday SF Signal posted their newest podcast with the following question: What SF/F books should be in every fan's library?  They came up with a decent list of books (view the comments for a write-up of the books if you don't have time to listen to the podcast).

I was supposed to be on the panel but life dictated otherwise.  And the more I thought about the question the more I wondered if I was a good person to ask anyway.

My knee jerk reaction, which my fellow SF Signalers followed, was to pick classics.  For SF I'd recommend Asimov's Foundation series (which I read in high school), Dune, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Ender's Game (read in university).  I'd think readers remiss if they didn't try at least one novel by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and John Wyndham.

For fantasy I'd go with the books that sucked me into the genre: Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara, Raymond E. Feist's The Riftwar Saga (only the first 4 books - the rest weren't as good, though I haven't read his more recent stuff), Weis & Hickman's The Deathgate Cycle (7 books with tight storytelling and great characters), The Dragonriders of Pern Series by Anne McCaffrey, etc. etc.  With Tolkien right at the top.  Can't consider yourself well read in fantasy without reading Tolkien.

Then I started thinking.  A lot of younger readers aren't interested in these books.  You try to hand a 15 year old a book that came out 20 years ago and they don't want it.  They find the tropes too cliche (not realizing these books created the cliches).  In some cases the books are hard to recommend due to content (rape is a precursor to love in Dragon Quest) or antiquated thinking (the protagonist of Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle isn't as sexist as Charlton Heston's character in the first film, but he doesn't consider women equals either).  It's possible they'll turn back to the classics as they get older, but is it worth buying classics so they can sit on a shelf for several years?

Most people think they know the classics anyway.  Take Frankenstein and Dracula.  Ask pretty much anyone and they'll tell you what the books are about.  Well, ok, they'll tell you what the movies are about, which is the same, right? 

Not even close.  And yet, having read both, I can't blame people for not wanting to read the books over watching the movies.  For one thing, the movies (pretty much any version of either book) has more action.  The film versions of Dracula have more sex (implied or stated) than the book.  Remember, it was a horror novel not a romance.  Indeed, I imagine people would be surprised to learn how little erotic emphasis was placed on Stoker's vampires after seeing modern reinterpretations of them.  And Frankenstein?  It's a very boring book.  That's not to say that the story itself is boring, just the execution.  Both novels are portrayed via writing, Frankenstein being exclusively through letters to the narrator's sister, and Dracula via various letters and diary entries.  There's little immersion into character. 

And how can I suggest people read books I haven't read or didn't like?  Fahrenheit 451 - couldn't finish it.  I couldn't even get through Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea and I love fantasy (though I did read and enjoy The Lathe of Heaven).  Stranger in a Strange Land - hated it with a passion.  Canticle for Leibowitz - couldn't understand why everyone said it was so amazing.  I checked and I've never even read anything by Jules Verne - though I have seen several of the movies.

Which is how most people relate to the classics nowadays.  How many people read Planet of the Apes?  Would you be surprised to learn that the book doesn't take place on Earth?  The book for Invasion of the Body Snatchers has a happy ending, much different from that of the film.  While Day of the Triffids has a starker ending in the book, making me wonder where the 'sea water kills the plants' ending of the film came from.

Hmm...  I was actually planning on ending this post by saying that if we want youth to read science fiction and fantasy we need them to read fiction that's relevant to their lives.  Stories that deal with their hopes and fears, more than those of the past.  Stories that are grimmer, grittier, more realistic and more immersive.  In other words, more like watching television.  I suspect that's why most YA fiction now uses first person narrative.  The readers get to BE the main character, seeing everything through their eyes.

That was how I was planning on ending this post.  Yes, it's good to read classics - and they're classics for a reason, because they have staying power and continued relevance - but let's just get kids reading new fiction and they'll turn to the past on their own.

Instead I'm going to end like this.  Classics are classics for a reason.  These are the books that formed the genres as we know them.  Yes, the genres change and adapt to fit new generations of readers, but as with history, if we forget the classics, we miss out on a lot of knowledge. 

Ultimately, readers should pad their libraries with a mix of books.  Get some good classics - ones you enjoy.  Read them from the library and decide if owning them is worth it.  The authors are dead, they don't need (or get) the money.  In the meantime, support current authors.

Here are some fantasy suggestions:
The Blade Itself - Joe Abercrombie
The Paladin of Souls - Lois McMaster Bujold
Poison Study - Maria Snyder
The Dragon's Path - Daniel Abraham

For science fiction:
State of Decay - James Knapp
Plague Year - Jeff Carlson
The Clone Republic - Steven Kent
Battle at the Moons of Hell - Graham Sharp Paul

I find alternating current books with classics allows me to read more classics (because I get a break from the narrative style that I find somewhat boring in older classics).  There's definitely something liberating about knowing how the story REALLY goes. 

In the end, let's not burden youth with a huge list of books they MUST read in order to be well read in the genre.  The more they enjoy books, the more they'll dig into that past on their own.  There are too many books out there to spend time reading things that aren't of interest, and today's kids will pick their own classics to take into the future.  Books that touched them and changed the genres for the better. 

As for adults, if you haven't read the classics, you don't know what you're missing.

What SF/F books do you think everyone should read or own?


Paul Weimer said...

Hi Jessica!

One of the reasons why I narrowed my choice down to American Gods on the podcast was to avoid the "musty volume" syndrome and go for something relevant and important.

Jessica Strider said...

Narrowing things down is harder than I thought. I guess I'd just like to see more younger people reading SF/F so the genres don't die. Get them hooked and they'll eventually gravitate to the classics - or they won't. I've used wikipedia a time or two to see if I'm missing anything by not reading a classic that doesn't appeal to me. :P

Martin said...

I first read fantasy when the first teaser trailer for Lord of the Rings came out. I decided to read the trilogy, before that I only read SF and fiction.

I read the series back to back. Did I like it? I thought it was okay. I went back to SF and fiction for the next 8 years, when one day I had this strong urge to read fantasy again.

For the past three years, I've been reading only fantasy. I can't stop, I love that stuff. After going through a lot of different series, I started reading the more adult oriented fantasy, like Steven Erikson's Malazan series.

What I'm trying to say is, that fantasy is not a genre you put onto someone. Its something that the person has to come into on their own. I beleive that the reader chooses what they think a classic is. I have no idea where my copies of LotR are, but I can see the Malazan books on my shelf. As much as I love the genre, I still conceal the fact that I'm reading it when I'm on the train.

I stumbled on this site by accident, but am glad I did. I'm currently reading State of Decay thanks to Jessica's recommendation. Don't worry, once the vampire and werewolf craze goes away, true fantasy will be seen again. Sorry about the rant.

Jessica Strider said...

Thought out rants are always welcome. And you're right, people pick their own classics. So much about fiction depends on personal taste - and where you are in life. I've reread books I loved as a youth and couldn't stand them. And I've loved things that I know I wouldn't have enjoyed when I was younger. The books we love are ones that affect us and speak to us, where we are right now.

And the people who 'get' fantasy and SF are the ones who come to it on their own.