Friday, 11 September 2009

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Recently amongst the blogosphere I have noticed mention of Science Fiction and Fantasy (in relation to a Science Fiction challenge mainly but also in general comments) and I am given the impression -and not for the first time, I hasten to add- that Science Fiction and Fantasy are the bad words of Genre and must be uttered in hushed tones or prefixed with "I don't normally read Science Fiction/Fantasy/Delete where appropriate..." Sci-fi/Fantasy have a preconceived reputation of being geeky, perhaps, and that is undeservedly so; some great literature falls under their category.

There has also been of late the Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin controversy where Atwood claims that she doesn't write Science Fiction and Le Guin disagrees. I love Margaret Atwood's fiction but if you are writing wonderful fiction then don't be embarrassed about the genrification of it and call a spade a spade. Don't hide under the term "Speculative Fiction", which simply umbrellas Science Fiction, Fantasy, Dystopian Literature, Alternative History etc. but, at the end of the day, it's all scientific or fantastical so who needs another term for it, especially one made up to save the face of bookish snobs?

Earlier this year The Guardian published a list of the 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. I was particularly impressed and surprised by how many books I had read in the Science Fiction & Fantasy section and was also surprised at its diverse inclusion of books I consider my favourites and those I had been wanting to read for some time but hadn't considered to be Science Fiction or Fantasy. I urge you to look at this list and perhaps realise that you enjoy Science Fiction more than you know and have read or want to read more than you think. There are so many classic, popular, and incredibly famous writers and books -Pulitzer, Nobel, and Booker Prize winning titles amongst them- on this list that you may just reconsider not being fond of Science Fiction or Fantasy novels.

It may be idealist of me but I read books that I want to read, whatever their label.

In the list below, the ones scored out are the ones I have read, the ones in green those I own and plan to read soon, and those in amber are the ones I am most wanting to purchase at this given time.

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Non-Stop by Brian W Aldiss

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster

The Drowned World by JG Ballard

Crash by JG Ballard

Millennium People by JG Ballard

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks

Weaveworld by Clive Barker

Darkmans by Nicola Barker

The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter

Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear

Vathek by William Beckford

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite

Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown

Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Coming Race by EGEL Bulwer-Lytton

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The End of the World News by Anthony Burgess

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Naked Lunch by William Burroughs

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Erewhon by Samuel Butler

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

The Influence by Ramsey Campbell

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

The Man who was Thursday by GK Chesterton

Childhood's End by Arthur C Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Hello Summer, Goodbye by Michael G Coney

Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

Pig Tales by Marie Darrieussecq

The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R Delaney

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

Camp Concentration by Thomas M Disch

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Under the Skin by Michel Faber

The Magus by John Fowles

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Red Shift by Alan Garner

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Light by M John Harrison

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein

Dune by Frank L Herbert

The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

Atomised by Michel Houellebecq

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Children of Men by PD James

After London; or, Wild England by Richard Jefferies

Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones

The Trial by Franz Kafka

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

The Shining by Stephen King

The Victorian Chaise-longue by Marghanita Laski

Uncle Silas by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

The Earthsea Series by Ursula Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing

The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Ascent by Jed Mercurio

The Scar by China Mieville

Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Mother London by Michael Moorcock

News from Nowhere by William Morris

Beloved by Toni Morrison

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Vurt by Jeff Noon

The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and CM Kornbluth

A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys

The Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett (in process of reading)

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowling

Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Female Man by Joanna Russ

Air by Geoff Ryman

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Blindness by Jose Saramago

How the Dead Live by Will Self

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Dracula by Bram Stoker

The Insult by Rupert Thomson

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain

Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

Institute Benjamenta by Robert Walser

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Affinity by Sarah Waters

The Time Machine by HG Wells

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

The Sword in the Stone by TH White

The Old Men at the Zoo by Angus Wilson

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin


Nymeth said...

I love this post, Claire :D

"It may be idealist of me but I read books that I want to read, whatever their label." I do the same. As much as I adore Atwood's writing, her repeated attempts to set herself apart from a genre whose traditions she makes use of have always disappointed me. As Le Guin says, I can't really blame her for not wanting to end up in a literary ghetto, but yes, please call a spade a spade. I actually believe that prejudice against science fiction and fantasy is beginning to disappear, but the fact that some of the authors who write it still refuse to be associated with it doesn't help.

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks, Ana; I thought you would!

I'm actually quite annoyed by Atwood as she is fueling the prejudice against Sci-fi & Fantasy by distancing herself from it. It's the worst type of literary pretension and I would expect more from her.

Teresa said...

I agree with you that a good book is a good book, no matter where it's shelved in the bookstore. There are some fabulous scifi and fantasy novels out there--some of them favorites of mine--and I can't understand why it's perceived as a lesser category. This list is great for pointing out how many marvelous books fit one of those "speculative" categories (a term I use because I don't always want to try and figure out which subgenre a book falls into).

That said, I just finished commenting on Jackie's blog that I don't read much scifi, but in my mind I was thinking of scifi as separate from fantasy and some dystopia, which I do read a lot of. (I know you weren't referring to my comment because you couldn't have seen it, but now I see how that remark could be misinterpreted. Yikes!)

Paperback Reader said...

Teresa, I agree that "speculative" is a great term for bracketing a category that defies easy categorisation and I am not railing against use of the word but more the perceived notion that by using the term "speculative fiction" you are trying to elevate yourself above science fiction and related works.

People forget that great works of literature, like The Master & Margarita, fall under this category and many modern classics that I would give my right arm to have my work likened to.

I'm not referring to any particular comment or post, especially not Jackie's, and admit to in the past saying myself that I don't read much sci-fi; I find it curious how as readers -like writers- we sometimes try to distance or defend ourselves from liking a particular genre -like YA- as if we are ashamed, when we should enjoy what we enjoy. What's important is that we don't allow our preconceived notions of a genre rob us of some rich, complex, and entertaining reads.

farmlanebooks said...

It is true that I say I don't read much science fiction and the problem is that I have tried a lot in the past and not enjoyed it. I am always open to reading books from different genres and am going to keep trying.

As with all genres some books will be better than others and I am looking forward to discovering some good ones.

That is a good list, but I have already spotted some ones I didn't enjoy, so would be reluctant to pick from it blindly.

I don't like it when people judge others by the books they read. I really hope the prejudice goes away soon.

Tony said...

To take the other side though, I feel that many of the books on that list have been shoehorned into a science-fiction/fantasy pigeon-hole which they don't really fit into. I don't think that every book which contains events/actions that would not normally occur in real life should automatically be labelled under 'fantasy'.

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, past experiences -especially negative- always affect what we read, of course. I didn't fare well with Ursula Le Guin the or Mervyn Peake (examples within the realms of the discussion) the first time I read them but I think I'll at least give Le Guin another go as I've heard so many great things. The same applies to the genre -when it encompasses so many diverse books then we are bound to like and dislike so many.

I won't pick from the list blindly either but base my decision on other things I've read/heard about the book.

I hate being judged for what I read and seeing others do it. I also hate those book covers you can buy that hides the book you read - if you're ashamed by the book you're reading then why read it in the first place?!

Paperback Reader said...

Tony: agreed. Although I like the list as it includes a great variety of literature I will concede that some feature on this list because they couldn't neatly fit onto the other categories that The Guardian divided the books into. It is the problem with pigeon-holing texts when they often cross genres. You have raised a very good point and again, I read whichever books I like regardless of label, and the point of this post is more to warn against taking genre too much for granted when many books offer surprises and defy categorisation.

Steph said...

I think that even if sci-fi & fantasy have traditionally been considered the red-headed step-children of fiction, I'm not surprised to see a general increase in interest (and appreciation) in them of late. With the popularity of books like Harry Potter and even the Twilight series, I can only imagine that people read and enjoyed those books and so are seeking out similar reading experiences. I think one of the conceptions about the genre which certainly does not have to be the case is that the writing is not all that great... but the tradeoff then seems to be that behind every great sci-fi & fantasy novel there is a good story. I notice that in more literary fiction, the recent trend over the past 20 - 30 years has been to turn up one's nose at heavy plotting, to suggest that we should be focusing on writing. Of course, many people want to read a ripping good story, which is where sci-fi & fantasy will come in, I think.

Hopefully I will also get to read more sci-fi and fantasy in the future. I am one of those people who would say that I don't really read much of it, and I don't say that in a negative way, just because it's true. I recently wrote about this on my blog, but I tend to favor Fantasy more than Sci-Fi, I think, although sometimes I'm not 100% sure on the distinctions! Of course there are exceptions (as there are many books that you list that I have read and loved or that I would like to read), but obviously as readers we develop our own tastes. I wonder to what extent the somewhat larger than average avoidance of Sci-Fi/Fantasy has to do with the fact that most readers are women. I know it sounds horrible for me to say, but Sci-Fi is generally a male-dominated field, is it not? (I realize, of course, that you have your Le Guins, your L'Engles, even your Atwoods and your Rowlings, but still)...

Steph said...

P.S. I know that some people hate magical realism, but I really enjoy it a good deal. But I've done some sleuthing on the internet, and I read a hilarious comment by someone who said that magical realism was just "sci-fi written by Spanish-speaking authors". It made me chuckle!

But really, I think that whether we as readers respond well to things like magical realist writings, or sci-fi, or fanatasy, or speculative fiction, or whatever you want to call this stuff, is how open we are to experience new things and explore ideas that are not necessarily familiar and well-grounded in what is known. Not everyone reads for this reason, but I know it's one of the things I look for, so that might be why I'm more open to giving the genre a fair shake.

Anonymous said...

I think its a double edged sword this one (am not sitting on the fence) as I think Atwood as the author should be allowed to say she isnt a genre. I mean Kate Atkinson gets labelled a crime writer now (so does Susan Hill) and yet though they have written crime themed books its just good fiction.

I do however think that Atwood's constant reference to the fact she isnt sci-fi does come across as snobbish in a way. I mean I initially think 'oh I don'y like sci-fi' as it makes me think of Star Trek but then I think of classics like The War of The Worlds and The Day of the Triffids and think ooooh I wouldnt mind some of those.

I am not sure that thought process made any sense. I think I can just see both sides and really think the whole genre labelling causes issues. If people ask me what I like to read I just say "good books".

Anonymous said...

My brain andered faster than my fingers could type, I meant to add to the first paragraph that Atkinson and Hill now get labelled crime writers after their recent books even though they write all sorts of fiction. Both have rallied against the labels saying they are simply writers.

Paperback Reader said...

Steph, those are highly thought-out and insightful comments and thank you for taking the time to write them. I agree that there could be some basis in the fact that sci-fi is thought to be a male-dominated field, as science itself is still perceived in this way. I definitely agree with you about the writing prejudice; SF and Fantasy are thought of as lacking and not literature in their own right, especially fantasy.

Stephanie, I love magical realism! Although the comment made me chuckle, the writer should try reading some Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter, or Jonathan Safran Foer before he excludes non Spanish writers from the genre!

I agree about enjoying the exploration of ideas outwith the realms of reality. I think some of the best sci-fi/fantasy though is that which could potentially occur but that's not to say that I don't love the alternate and fantastic universes that are so far-removed that they are the perfect form of escapism.

Simon, your thought process made complete sense! I also enjoy reading simply good books.

I wouldn't describe Atwood as a sci-fi writer because she's not; she's a talented writer who has written some sci-fi novels along with literary fiction and historical fiction etc. She is a writer and I realise her concern in having some of her latest novels pigeon-holed however she is successful enough that it shouldn't matter and won't affect her sales either way. However, as an author I think she should be responsible and perpetuating a literary stereotype is not responsible nor is it fair on her peers who align themselves with that type of fiction (all of the time or on occasion or for one book only, whatever). Saying that, she remains one of my favourite writers!

claire said...

Great post, Claire! I have to say I'm not very much a fan of science fiction and dystopian novels, because, as with Jackie, I've tried them and not really enjoyed them very much.

That said, I absolutely LOVE fantasy! Some of my most fave books of all time include The Silmarillion, Hobbit and LOTR, the Narnia books, Alice in Wonderland, etc. I admit I don't read much of it apart from those, but it's only a matter of not having them available when I was growing up.

Also, my fave genre is magical realism, which shows, as my top fave authors consist of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, Jose Saramago. Lol.

claire said...

An aside: I went ahead and purchased the new Virago edition of The Blind Assassin and it arrived today! Love it! I'm waiting for the other titles to available at The BOok Dep. :D

farmlanebooks said...

I love dystopian novels!

Paperback Reader said...

Claire, I think it's just luck at the end of the day; there are books from this genre that I haven't liked and there are also classics that I disliked or literary fiction that didn't work for me.

I love, love, love magical realism! Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter...

My boyfriend loves fantasy more than I do but I adore Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's books.

I am sorely tempted by those new Atwood covers! The Blind Assassin didn't have the same impact on me as some of her other books but I think it requires a reread on my part; I didn't fully "get" it first time around.

Jackie, dystopian fiction is great- I love it! One of the things I enjoy most is that it is may be fantastic but it is still within the realms of possibility. I think that's why I expect to love Blindness when I read it.

Anonymous said...

Might want to check out Mish's Sci-Fi Challenge. :)

A Clockwork Orange is fantastic. It really is - it scared me, but at the same time, I loved Alex's character so much.

Brave New World is fantastic as well, albeit not on my top five dystopian novels list - which is strange, because it does draw upon so many relevant things, like recreational drug use being the norm!

I've got Man In The High Castle on my TBR, so looking forward to comparing notes... Oh, and speaking of Philip K. Dick, I think you should give Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep a shot!

Paperback Reader said...

anothercookie, I was very tempted by the challenge after seeing it on your blog but I really don't think my TBR pile could handle another one just now!

All of those I will read at some point, definitely. I've been meaning to read The Man in the High Castle for a ridiculously long time.

Have you read Flowers for Algernon? For some reason I always mix that up with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Another sci-fi book that I've had on my wishlist forever is The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman.

Anonymous said...

can't say I've read flowers, or even heard of it. will look it up.

haven't heard of The Child Garden either. another one to look up.

Paperback Reader said...

Happy to help!

Rebecca said...

Great post!

Orson Scott Card's 'How to write science fiction and fantasy' has an informative chapter on the difficulty of genre descriptions (particularly the perceived superiority of science fiction over fantasy, and the blurred line between the two).

I can understand a new writer not wanting to get pigeon-holed, but I think Margaret Attwood's safe!

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks, Becs. I must read that chapter some time. Atwood is definitely safe, which makes it pointless for her to be on her high horse. Ah well, when we're published one day then maybe we'll dictate where we should be shelved in bookshops... ;)

Mark David said...

I'm beginning to take a real liking of genre fiction, particularly Fantasy and Sci-Fi. "Literary fiction" will always be closest to my heart, I think, but many of these books labeled "speculative" fiction are simply amazing. I agree with you, there's no reason to "hide" under a politically-correct term for any particular genre since they're all literature anyway. If it's good, it's good. And that's what really matters :)

Paperback Reader said...

Mark, I concur completely; I'm all for great literature, whatever its label and there is some exceptionally good genre fiction out there that is just as literary as anything else.

Sarah said...

Fascinating discussion! I tend to favour 'literary fiction' at present, but I have read sc-fi and fantasy almost exclusively in the past, and often dabble in dystopia.

A similar discussion came up recently, regarding Iain Bank's Transition. It's sci-fi but he's dropped the 'M.' (Not in the States, only in the UK. Huh?)

I have it on good authority that it doesn't entirely come off, but kudos to him for trying to illustrate that literary fiction and sci-fi are not mutually exclusive.

Paperback Reader said...

Sarah, I too lean towards literary fiction and dabble in genre fiction (I love dystopia) but they aren't mutually exlusive, as Iain Banks is trying to illustrate... I find that intriguing, especially because he created the distinction himself when he opted for a pseudonym -even if it was only to add an initial- to distinguish between his different books. Curious.