Friday, July 24, 2009
Babel-17 and the Problems of Reading from Awards Shortlists
I read Babel-17 because a) I’ve been meaning to read a Delany novel; b) this one was at my local library; and c) it won a Nebula and was on the Hugo shortlist way back in, wow, 1966-7.
It was okay.
And its okayness was kind of disappointing, again for a number of reasons. One was, I have to confess, the beard. Samuel Delany’s beard is too awesome for me not to like his books a lot.
But the more important reason was that I feel like I don’t have a great handle on science fiction, and I was hoping Delany would be awesome enough to launch me into a much broader exploration of its back-issues, as it were. I was hoping that I’d gather enough enthusiasm from reading this that I’d be encouraged to read a lot more SF, that by dipping my toe in here, I’d catch a big undercurrent and get sucked under. I tried the same thing earlier this year with LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness and, while I liked it well enough that I’ll certainly read more LeGuin down the road, again just didn’t feel that undertow.
Despite being Nebula’d and Hugo’d, maybe this wasn’t even the right Delany. Again, this was the one in my library, and I’ve been finding it difficult to locate Delany in used bookstores, so this was the only one I could get hold of. But the problem is, I don’t really know any better, and I was kind of using the Nebula and Hugo awards as a guide.
Which is why Adam’s post on the 2009 Hugo award shortlist was a real revelation to me (and not because he uses a quote from my other blog to make part of his argument). I mean, I know that prizes rarely get things “right"—some are better than others, but tepidity is generally the name of the game. But Adam expressed this general truth in a way that had real bite and force with specific regard to the SF community (I know Scott already posted on Adam’s post, but it’s worth re-linking/re-excerpting):
Widely publicised shortlists of mediocre art are a bad thing. What do these lists say about SF to the multitude in the world—to the people who don’t know any better? It says that SF is old-fashioned, an aesthetically, stylistically and formally small-c conservative thing. It says that SF fans do not like works that are too challenging, or unnerving; that they prefer to stay inside their comfort zone.
This is bad because the very heart’s-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing. And if this true of literature, it is doubly or trebly true of science fiction. For what is the point of SF if not to articulate the new, the wondrous, the mindblowing and the strange?
I guess I’d consider myself one of those “people who don’t know any better,” and I feel like my experience with Babel-17 is a full-strength justification of Adam’s argument, even if the terms have to be adjusted a bit for the fact that Babel-17 is more than 40 years old and maybe was truly new, wondrous, mindblowing and strange in 1966. But you know, Babel-17 shared the 1966 Nebula Award with Flowers for Algernon, so I would guess that this problem of elevating mediocre and really rather juvenile books is not a new one.
I don’t really mind reading a mediocre novel every once in awhile. I think it’s important to read widely enough that you know why truly excellent novels do stand out, why mediocre novels are only mediocre. At the same time, I’d much rather be reading SF novels that do have the undertow effect and, while Adam suggests some books in his post that I’m eager to follow up on (especially China Miéville), I am hoping that I can solicit some advice from the readers of this blog as to which authors might possess that intended effect, and which books of theirs in particular. I’m not asking for a canon or a best of—in fact, that’s rather the opposite of what I’m interested in—but rather what Adam is talking about—which books aren’t just classics but have (or have retained) that waking and shaking power?
Are you reading historically—as in, you’d like to understand the SF genre, and sample it from the beginnings onwards—or contemporaniously, in which you want what seems most current? And are you using SF to mean SF-plus-fantasy, or really SF?
Anyways. Ask Ray Davis about Delany; he’s much more knowledgeable about him. For me, I’d go historically:
1. The Early Years
Have you read the well-known books by H.G. Wells? They are a good deal more sophisticated than people seem to think, I think. Adam argues that Verne is a lot better than people think, and perhaps that’s true if you can read French. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is influential, but as a literary read not striking—she was an 18 year old writer at the time, and it shows. Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is, of course, SF, and has its moments.
2. The somewhat later years.
Going to the 1920s-40s, you may or may not like Last or First Men, or Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon. He’s one of SF’s best mystics, I think, and you may be interested in a novel without characters as such. If you’re really into F&SF, I think that James Branch Cabell really shouldn’t be neglected: try The Silver Stallion. Likewise, a bit later on, if you don’t like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series, give up on fantasy altogether.
Skip the U.S. pulp era and the “Golden Age”. For a literary reader, it’s almost all trash, and picking out the few works with some promise takes too much work.
3. The 60s and 70s
PKD, of course. The Man in the High Castle, perhaps, though I actually think that Martian Time-Slip was better in some ways. Three Stigmata ... just look up a critical work on PKD and find what you think you’d like.
Stanislaw Lem. Try Solaris. If you don’t like it, never again read any hard SF.
Ursula K. LeGuin you already said you didn’t like.
The New Wave is hard to recommend for, because so much of it was experimental, and you know how literary experiments may or may not wear well. I have to say that I like Michael Moorcock’s set of first four Jerry Cornelius books, The Final Programme through The Condition of Muzak, because the four, read together, so thoroughly take apart our dreams. But if you don’t want to read that much, maybe not.
4. More or less contemporary
John Crowley, Little, Big.
China Mieville, Perdido Street Station.
M. John Harrison, In Viriconium. (fantasy, again)
Bruce Sterling, Schismatrix (some people will sneer)
Iain Banks, Use of Weapons (some people will again sneer)
Adam Roberts, Land of the Headless. I haven’t written about this yet, but I think it may be one of Adam’s best. And it’s how he met Scott and arrived here, so it has local interest.
I personally don’t like the works of Gene Wolfe, but he’s a good writer. Ask someone who is more into him about him.
Rich is recommending books that appeal to a modernist, “literary” sensibility. There are other flavors in SF. It’s hard to figure out which will appeal lacking all knowledge of the potential reader.
Myself, I’d recommend Vernor Vinge (late), Kim Stanley Robinson, Ken MacLeod (early), Lois Bujold, and just perhaps, Maureen McHugh’s _China Mountain Zhang_. But then, to calibrate, I should perhaps add that I like baggy triple-decker Victorian novels. Not at all modernist.
For Wolfe, I’d recommend The Fifth Head of Cerberus as a good place get a taste of his work.
Wow--thank you for all the recommendations!
I guess it’s a bit of both historical and contemporary--I mean partly my interest comes from the fact that (partly because of The Valve) I keep running into really smart people who are very enthusiastic about the genre and I’d like to be able to have good conversations with them.
I actually agree with you very much about Wells--I just read The War of the Worlds this year and was surprised and impressed by how well it stands up. And I liked LeGuin--I just wasn’t like grabbed by the throat.
Thanks, Zora--I’m definitely interested in Kim Stanley Robinson--I remember starting to read a chapter about him in Fred Jameson’s book on sci-fi, but realizing I didn’t know what he was talking about. It sounded good, though!
"China Mountain Zhang” is indeed quite good—and spectacularly wrong in its predictions. Alfred Bester is a personal favorite—I think “The Stars by Destination” beats “The Demolished Man.” Dan Simmons is hit or miss, but I like him, or did in college. Much of the “Hyperion” quartet is smart and enjoyable, a sort of literary pastiche of SF subgenres, and “Ilium” is occasionally brilliant, but “Olympos” is just terrible. Russell Hoban is also worth reading. He’s justly famous for “Riddley Walker,” but “The Medusa Frequency” is a short masterpiece, I think.
*Ak: “The Stars MY Destination.”
Random suggestions, though nothing totally off the wall: Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age; Charlie Stross, Accelerando (my favorite books of Stross’s are The Atrocity Archives and sequel, but not properly SF); Zoe Fairbairns, Benefits; Suzette Haden Elgin, Native Tongue; James Blish, A Case of Conscience; William Gibson/Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine.
The YAish stuff is appealing to me too, but perhaps not what you’re looking for (but if you have never read Isaac Asimov, you are missing out!).
I love the great 70s novels of Anne McCaffrey (Pern) and Marion Zimmer Bradley (Darkover), but they are perhaps not for everybody!
I like Iain Banks’s non-SF novels very much indeed, but am not that crazy about the SF ones - Jo Walton wrote a post recently at the Tor blog about why they are not as good, and she is a much more passionate devotee of hard SF than I am! Road to Perdido St. Station is worth reading, but I do not find Mieville a compelling stylist.
Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity (1954).
The novel is frequently invoked in discussions of the sense of wonder, the sensation of dawning comprehension and understanding of a larger context for a given experience, that many readers of science fiction point to as the reason why they pursue the genre. — Wikipedia
Looking back, I think I gave you my literary-SF infodump rather than specifically addressing your criterion, that the books should have an “undertow” effect. I really don’t know. I mean, I’ve read so much by this point that I really don’t have a good feel for what would pull a reader new to SF in.
Zora’s recommendations seem pretty good also. Kim Stanley Robinson is, I think, the best writer of hard SF writing now. It’s just that if you’re going to try hard SF, I think you’re better off with Solaris first; if you don’t like it, you’re not going to like anything in the subgenre. I like Lois Bujold’s SF quite a lot, but she takes a good deal from other genres, I don’t think it’s something that’s going to really get you into SF. Ken McLeod is a good writer, but in my opinion (sorry, to him, if he happens to read this) not quite as good as Iain Banks or Alasdair Gray, his fellow Scottish leftish SF writers, so I’d read them first. I’ve only read Vernor Vinge (early), and that was enough to keep me from reading Vernor Vinge (late), so maybe I’ve missed out.
The Valve has had posts on John Crowley (who commented here a little bit), Mervyn Peake, and, if I remember rightly, China Mieville and M. John Harrison. Holbo is probably your go-to Crowley or Peake guy.
I love Gray! I read Lanark while on a study abroad in Glasgow and it was probably the best reading experience of my life.
I’ll try Solaris--I’ve seen the Tarkovsky and it was both interesting enough to make me want to read the book and strange enough to give me no idea whether I’ll like it.
I was particularly struck by Solaris because I have a science background, and it’s one of the few SF books I’ve read that struck me as really having anything to do with actual science. Robinson is good that way, too. Too much other, older SF that calls itself hard SF is far too much in the heroic mode.
Reading from awards lists is, indeed, likely to lead to odd views of things—imagine if your knowledge of American fiction was limited to the Pulitzers, or knowledge of film to the Oscars…
There is probably nothing from before the 1970s that would do for you what you are seeking SF to do, mostly because SF as a genre is a young creature that for a long time was propelled by young people—Delany was in his 20s when he wrote the books and stories that won him SF awards (heck, Isaac Asimov, part of the “Golden Age” generation, was only in his 40s when Delany was writing those books!).
I don’t know your tastes well enough for recommendations of what might appeal to you to be much more than random (you might actually be better off starting with anthologies), but since you mentioned Jameson, I’d definitely point you toward Delany’s Neveryon books, which Jameson has spoken highly of. Those books are, I think, the height of what Delany has achieved so far.
It might be worth checking out some of the more substantial writings about SF as a type of literature and a way of reading—Delany’s nonfiction, Damien Broderick’s wonderful Reading by Starlight, Justine Larbalestier’s The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction (which is about much more than its title implies), the Palgrave History of Science Fiction by ... damn, the writer’s name’s escaping me… John Roberts? Nora Roberts? Something like that…
I find Vernor Vinge (early) deadly dull. Then, in _A Fire Upon the Deep_, he chanced upon the “converging plotlines” device of melodrama. Will the train bifurcate the heroine before the hero can arrive on his white horse? Cut back and forth from heroine to hero. Frantic pageturning ensues. Venerable, but it still works.
Succeeding books ring variations upon the device.
Lotsa Lem besides Solaris (and a little light on M. John).
But as to books: Ellison’s <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dangerous Visions">Dangerous Visions</a> & Again.
I suggest you try some of the short story collections:"Best of XX Year”, Carr, Merrill, Dozois, etc. I usually recommend the Silverberg-edited “Hall of Fame” anthologies of novellas to someone who wants to explore the Golden or Silver Ages a little.
The stories can give you more variety of styles and themes, and give you a broader view in the same amount of time. And SF, at least in the past, was by far the most short-form oriented of the genres.
I think I would recommend the Delany stories of the 60s before the novels. “The Star Pit” or “Time Considered...”
Take things as they come.
Delany didn’t have a beard when he wrote Babel-17. Although it was his seventh published novel, he was still 23 (and thus more “juvenile” than “mediocre"), making money off folk music, and frighteningly beautiful in a way he himself didn’t seem to find particularly attractive.
Which is to say that young Delany is not middle-aged Delany or older Delany, that no Delany is “science fiction,” and for that matter, no science fiction is “science fiction” any more than any poem by Tennyson is “poetry.” I don’t like any of LeGuin’s novels (only her late-career stories), and I rarely re-read Babel-17 (preferring from the early stuff the meta-fictional thrills of Empire Star), but I recall when I first read it in my own less-precocious youth the shocking and encouraging frisson of its female authority figure and its sexual triad. If you and I no longer feel that frisson, it’s partly because of Delany’s young novel, and not at all because of anything John Updike or John Barth ever wrote. But, returning from historicism to the eternal now of the reader, besides Matt Cheney’s recommendations, I’ll recommend Matt Cheney, and, what the heck, following Rich Pulansky’s suggestion for once, myself:
In comments on your own blog you mention curiosity about Russ; the novel which will likely outlive us all is (appropriately) We Who Are About to.... As much as it means to me, The Female Man, like Babel-17, is to some extent the happy victim of its own revolution. As Russ concluded:
Do not get glum when you are no longer understood, little book. Do not curse your fate. Do not reach up from readers’ laps and punch the readers’ noses.
Rejoice, little book!
For on that day, we will be free.
Oh dear. That would be Rich Puchalsky. (I guess it’s been a while since I was a regular here.)
Interesting sidelight on Babel-17: when Delaney wrote it, he was sharing a cheap flat near the San Francisco Zen Center. Once I had heard that (from someone at the Zen Center who knew Delaney) I recognized something from the book: the cult members who chanted nonsense syllables. Obviously Zen Center members chanting the Hanya Shingyo in Sino-Japanese.
"I’m not asking for a canon or a best of—in fact, that’s rather the opposite of what I’m interested in—but rather what Adam is talking about—which books aren’t just classics but have (or have retained) that waking and shaking power?”
Clearly this is going to vary widely, infinitely, depending upon who the reader is.
That said, a problem with work that self or primarily identifies as SF is the primary focus on the fantastic, which is often largely a media creation, a marketing tag or categorical brand, emphasizing fantastical cleverness above all, whatever else gets explored.
Would one call the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Odyssey, or the Inferno, or Utopia, or The Praise of Folly, or Gulliver’s Travels, or Wizard of the Crow SF? Then where are such great, even landmark works (of all literature) in these discussions? These are all fantastical fictions but they are so much more besides that it may sound odd to call them SF, or Science Fiction, or Fantasy, or Speculative Fiction, even though they are. It may seem odd (at first) to include them integrally into such discussions but they should be included, even centrally because they are examples of great landmark works of literature regardless or genre or type that happen to be fantastical. Even while inseparable from their fantastic elements, core elements in some cases, these are stories primarily known and emphasized for something greater than their fantastical cleverness and achievements just as Middlemarch and other such great Victorian novels, for example, are primarily known for something other than their mimetic fidelity or dramatic or comic acuity.
Many of these conversations assessing contemporary SF works are self-confining when they don’t jump out of the SF media/marketing box.
Such discussions often exclude crucial novels that may be in many ways either conventional or unconvential SF works but that aim for and achieve much more than the clever fantastic: works like those that I’ve mentioned and others such as Herland and The Yellow Wallpaper and Ecotopia and The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, The Dispossessed, and The Parable of the Sower, and others. And at Lib Lit, the journal I co-edit, stories like Joe Emersberger’s “The Publisher,” “Dave the Prophet,” “Segundo’s Revenge,” and “Wovokia,” among others (http://liblit.org/fiction/). Fantastical works like these long have been and currently are at the very least as challenging to current achievements in SF as those mediated and marketed as SF, as not much more than some clever fantastical trip, maybe marginally topical or otherwise thematic. Their fantastic elements and natures qualify them to be in the SF discussion, and for some of them their genuine landmark reality or normative power and import are a great challenge to what qualifies as vital and accomplished fiction throughout the years, both fantastical and otherwise.
I don’t know that this is news to many but seems worth serious emphasis. Fantastical cleverness is great but normative import and vitality is at least as much a factor in making or breaking a great novel or story, no matter the genre or type of work. Emphasis on the normative achievement and urgency of such works can also help break open the demeaned media/marketing box that SF is too often pushed into or left confined within.
I read a lot of sci-fi in high school, and never realized how eccentric a canon I assembled of the authors I liked until I realized that not everyone considered Roger Zelazny and Fritz Leiber to be the be all and end all. But I did! Of course, they wrote a lot of stuff that wasn’t all that fantastic. But Zelazny’s Lord of Light still strikes me as a lovely wonderful novel. And Fritz Leiber’s short stories still absolutely kill me.
Babel-17 was an eye-opener for me when it first came out. (Yes, I’m ancient.) Its curious mix of sloppy stylistics and innovative tropes persuaded me that, yes, I too would write science fiction. I didn’t, of course. I just went on to teach it.
Delaney’s android who has no word for ‘I’ reminds me today of the elf in Harry Potter, who bangs his head on the wall when trying to use the first person singular. Did Rowling read Delaney?
Delaney’s creation of an ‘alternative world’ through wordplay inspired me to create a blog that comparably switches between consentient reality and fantasy: yeomaniana.blogspot.com. Just when you think you’re discussing a sane issue, whoops! (Or so I hope :))
Hmmm, I just have to de-lurk to contribute my own 2 cents: stick with Le Guin, novels, short stories, doesn’t matter. She’s part of my personal SF triad (in contrast to that “classic” triad of Asimov, Bradbury & Clarke), together with Lem and Dick. All three approach the genre in vastly different ways, all three are, in my opinion, absolutely brilliant.
Octavia Butler has also written some genuinely great works - I particularly enjoyed “Parable of the Sower” (which Tony Christini mentioned without citing the author’s name) and its sequel, “Parable of the Talents.”
I agree with those above who recommended Kim Stanley Robinson and Alfred Bester, and would also add the short stories of the oft-neglected James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon).
And I guess I’ll be the lone dissenting voice about “Perdido Street Station” - despite the author’s wonderfully evocative scene-setting, I found it rather shallow and disappointing…
By the way, Andrew, I really am in sympathy with your enterprise. As I’ve retold many times, much the same impulse led me to research science fiction as well. But building a personal canon from unfamiliar territory takes patience—I have no idea how many just-OK books I went through before striking mid-1970s Russ and Delany (which remain in my personal canon but may never make yours)—and takes at least some effort to avoid premature stereotyping, whether that be by author name (the Delany of 1965 was not the Delany of 1975) or genre category. My own quest outside the mainstream was triggered by continuous disappointment in the New York Times Book Review bests-of-the-years: “widely publicised shortlists of mediocre art” which tell people who don’t know any better that contemporary “literature” is “an aesthetically, stylistically and formally small-c conservative thing.” Even my memories of Babel-17 stack up pretty well against this bit from last week’s London Review of Books:
The protagonist of the opening story, ‘The Brown Coast’, is typical in that he has inflicted violence on his own life: after losing his job through incompetence, his inheritance due to rear-ending an attorney, and his wife by having an affair, Bob is in exile, doing odd jobs at his uncle’s beach house. To cheer himself up he starts collecting exotic fish, but introduces a poisonous sea slug into his aquarium and the next morning discovers a tank full of corpses. He acknowledges a kinship: if he’d been born a sea creature, ‘he’d probably have been family to this sea cucumber, built in the image of sewage and cursed with a chemical belch that ruined every lovely thing that drifted near.’
“Come on, big boy / Ten cents an epiphany...”
Edo Bosnar, I’m willing to give Perdido Street Station something of a pass in that regard. Yes, it over-signals a bit. But it’s a lead-in to the rest of the trilogy, in which Mieville settles into his craft a bit more. More importantly, I think it’s the signal / crystalization work for the New Weird, and deserves more attention as being prominent in a living subgenre. Much as I think that Neuromancer deserved more attention, despite its writing problems, back when cyberpunk was a going concern.
Of course, many of the other writers mentioned are living, writing writers. But their writing is less identified with a movement. If someone’s going to assess SF, I think they should have a look at where it is right now, insofar as anyone has a claim that it is anywhere.
Gene Wolfe’s Peace is a weird little book, but well worth a read if you’re trying to “get” science fiction. The Book of the New Sun too, of course, but it’s just so long that it’s hard to recommend to someone just trying to get started.
I think many of the authors other commenters have mentioned are pretty so so, but I strongly second Lem. Philip K Dick is good too. Ballard is v. highly regarded, his SF too. I think Jack Vance would be a plausible Nobel candidate as someone suggested in that recent NYT magazine piece, but he’s highly unusual even by the standards of fantastic fiction; a bit 18th century, maybe not what you’re looking for.
You have to try some early J. G. Ballard. Later he’s not so much as SF. The short story collection The Terminal Beach is a favorite, although everything that’s in “The Best Stories of JG Ballard” is great.
Vance is in my opinion too much of a particular type of stylist. Everyone in his books talks the same way, has the same attitude, is essentially the same character. James Branch Cabell was that way with his protagonists too (mostly), but at least he allowed the other people they met to not always be so knowing, so ironic.
Ballard is good, but that’s where you get back to the difficulties of recommending people for books in the New Wave. Aldiss, Disch, Delany, other writers already mentioned ... I’m really not sure how to tell someone where to start.
Everyone in a Vance novel speaks vancian, but they don’t sound exactly the same.
Most of his characters belong to one of a number of character types, but they sometimes have more depth and individuality than you first may realize.
I find that the Delany novel most accessible to people who don’t read much SF is Trouble on Triton: I persuaded a professor where I went to grad school to teach it in his Postmodern Fiction course; and I once heard Delany recommend it to a young author who’d complained that SF was not sufficiently similar to James and Wharton for him to understand it.
I started reading SF at least partly based on awards lists, but U needta read enuf 2 get some idea of what works 4 U. I was disappointed by BABEL-17 too.
I’d recommend Delany’s EMPIRE STAR—an EPIC story condensed in2 110 pgs, U can read it in an afternoon, it’s EZ 2 read, vivid, Xciting & FUNNY! & very complex.... THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION’s great 2, tho equally complex, & it’s a real fast read.
I think best-of anthos or short-story collections R a good way 4 a Bginner 2 start, until the new reader knows what type of SF works best 4 him/her. I started w/ Ray Bradbury’s MARTIAN CHRONICLES, but some folks might not like the age of the stories (1940s/’50s), the nostalgia, the fact that there’s no real “technology,” that the stories R mostly mood pieces. I think they’re GREAT, but....
Awards lists CAN B tough 4 a Bginner—when I read Herbert’s DUNE I wasn’t prepared 4 how rough the 1st 50 pgs were, after that I was swept away. Knew Brunner’s STAND ON ZANZIBAR was gonna B a challenge just cos of its LENGTH—it’s worth the trip, but it’s LONG.... Dick did some great stuff (THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH, MAZE OF DEATH), but they can B rough 2 read, not Xactly “polished.”
I think George R.R. Martin’s DYING OF THE LIGHT would B another good book 4 Bginners—classic “space opera,” great mood, wonderful characters, vivid setting—it’s 1 of my all-time favorites. 4 something a little more “current,” how about Gibson’s NEUROMANCER? Or there’s always Clarke’s original 2001?
I’d try a short-story collection by some1 U’re intrested in (Zelazny, Delany, Tiptree, Ballard, Ellison, Silverberg, Gibson, K.S. Robinson, Martin, Niven all have great 1’s), or the best-of-the-year anthos (Dozois, Hartwell/Cramer, Carr, Wollheim, Merrill). Sooner or later U’ll find some writer or some type/approach that really turns U on. There’s a lotta great stuff out there, just dive in!—TAD.
Classic space opera, well—I’ve sometimes thought it would be fun to put together a short on SF as genocide porn. Start with, E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark series, say, and get to the last book, where the more civilized races are too civilized to push the button that will wipe out an entire species on thousands of worlds, so they bring in a member of a less civilized race to do this sad but necessary thing. Then, A Case of Conscience, say, by James Blish-- and google in awe at a non-sarcastic novel in which the Catholic church justifies genocide as necessary to God! Then for a slightly more modern, emo treatment, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, in which genocide is OK if you feel really bad about it afterwards in a sort of adolescent self-dramatizing way. Then finally The Iron Dream, Normad Spinrad’s best novel, an amazing alternate universe book as-written-by Hitler—who is in the world of the book an SF writer, and people really love dressing up in his leather costumes at conventions. Thrill as Ferric Jagger destroys the horde of genetically unclean, mutated Dominators!
Great quote from Spinrad when I wiki’d this book, btw: “And yet one review appeared in a fanzine that really gave me pause. “This is a rousing adventure story and I really enjoyed it,” the gist of it went. “Why did Spinrad have to spoil the fun with all this muck about Hitler?"”
Er, that “short” in the first sentence above should be a “short course”. Not that I ever put together courses.
Stanislaw Lem is the worst suggestion to make to anybody who wants to “dip his toe” in science fiction. Nothing else will be similar to him: if you like him, you’ll be disappointed by others, if you don’t, you may be scared away entirely.
In fact, all the recommendations here are wrong, centering as they are on what each commenter thinks of as worthy books, the best in the genre, established classics. What you need instead is to go to a good bookstore and just take the time to browse the science fiction section for anything that catches your eye. Classics will inevitably disappoint as your expectations will be inflated by their very status as classics. And of course awards aren’t given with eternal appeal in mind, but just for those books the voters or jury thought were the best that year…
Reading older books in an unfamiliar genre also put up one more hurdle to leap as you need to deal with the social mores and assumptions of that time, now looking hopelessly sexist or racist or just oldfashioned.
So I would just browse through a good bookstore myself, rather than depend on the recommendations of internet friends or strangers… But if you do, asking this question here does mean you get Literary Science Fiction 101: Dick, Ballard, Lem, oh dear. It’s one sort of science fiction, but these are writers as often in conflict with science fiction as part of it, science fiction as appropriated by the literary mainstream for qualities orthogonal to its value as sf.
What you might want to do to really get the appeal of sf is to try some writers without these qualities, like Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov to get the full flavour—but more likely, just take a browse through bookshop or library.
And maybe there just isn’t any hope for you if you think Babel-17 is mediocre or juvenile…
Normally I’d sort of agree, Martin, except for one thing: it’s a Valve poster asking. That means that dealing with literariness, old-fashioned mores, etc. isn’t a problem; it’s a point of similarity to other texts already read.
Tho covered above, Matt Cheney has a new list that’s more riptide than undertow.