The Essentials: Science Fiction and Fantasy that Gives you Concepts---Gives you Chills---
and Bends your Mind---
This is the stuff---the real stuff---some of it hard to find, but well worth the search.
SO you like science fiction and fantasy, but you came in through Star Wars and have no idea, at your first meeting with fans that have 'been there' a while, what on this earth or elsewhere they're all talking about.
You'd like to go to the conventions and understand the in-jokes and talk the talk---and you'd like to know what this wonderful field is.
You don't have to lurk in the film room for three days and wish you were out there participating...
I'll give you a list of the essential writers, the ones whose works it's really helpful to have read---at least enough to be in the know. Must-reads, for the concepts and/or characters: or just to understand what the field is, and what all these books have in common.
Starman’s Son and The Witchworld: Andre Norton
Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land: Robert Heinlein
Three Hearts and Three Lions: Poul Anderson
"Shambleau" and "Jirel of Joiry": C.L. Moore
The Chessmen of Mars: Edgar Rice Burroughs (though you may want to start at the beginning)
The Age of Wizardry: Jack Williamson
Conan: Robert E. Howard
Mission of Gravity: Hal Clement
Caves of Steel: Isaac Asimov
City: Clifford Simak
Ill-met in Lankhmar: Fritz Leiber: short story
The Lord of the Rings: JRR Tolkien
The Mote in God’s Eye: Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven
Lord of Light: Roger Zelazny
The Authors you should know:
These are listed in categories, but not in order of importance. If you want to understand the field, best start from the oldest. Science fiction is a dialogue, a tennis match, in which the Idea is volleyed from one side of the net to the other. Ridiculous to say that someone ‘stole’ an idea: no, no, a thousand times no. The point is the volley, and how it’s carried, and what statement is made by the answering ‘statement.’ In other words—if Burroughs initiates a time-gate and says it works randomly, and then Norton has time gates confounded with the Perilous Seat, the Siege Perilous of the Round Table, and locates it in a bar on a rainy night—do you see both the humor and the volley in the tennis match?
And if the idea is caught up (I did, in my own Gates) and amplified to say it’s a system, and it works this way and not that, and that it’s become dangerous—then the whole idea has become a Thread that wends its way through many stories and lets us casually examine the whole time-travel question with various developments.
If you’re of a scholarly bent, let me propose the question: trace the development of time-gates through all of sf, who likely read what, what changes they made, what innovations in the concept they made—and then let’s talk about transportation, communication, genetics, and societies, and see how the major Threads connect: see if you can connect the dots in the volleys flying back and forth.
But if you’re not, if you just want to read the field, let me suggest the following—as a further list of authors, a personal list made by someone who knew many of these people, and who’s been in the field long enough to have witnessed the tennis match in full swing.
The Golden Age: the formative age of sf, in which several principles are laid down.
1. Sense of wonder—approaching the universe with awe, but with the nerve, the overwhelming compulsion to investigate phenomena.
2. Solution—there will be an answer of some kind.
3. Writers and readers will meet on equal footing at science fictional gatherings called conventions, for the further exchange and discussion of ideas and science.
Leigh Brackett.......The Ginger Star, the John Stark novels; the highly romantic and image-filled Mars stories, which are numerous. She was also a screenwriter, with notable credits including early work on Star Wars.
C.L. Moore...........noted also for Mars stories, for the memorable short story "Shambleau", and for "Jirel of Joiry," precursor of women sword-swingers in sf/fantasy literature. Active until the late 70's.
Andre Norton........Starman’s Son; The Witchworld novels; Beastmaster (no resemblance to the movie); and many, many others. She is a prolific, long-active writer whose stories were among the first to offer the "young person exploring the universe" theme, and she became a major influence on many writers of both genders.
Donald Wollheim........became one of the key editors and publishers of the science fiction field, and wrote books deliberately for juvenile readers, which, with Isaac Asimov’s Lucky Starr books, became a new field: YA science fiction; he, with Lester DelRey, was responsible for bringing Tolkein to American publication.
Lester DelRey.......with his wife Judy-Lynn, longtime editor and writer, influential in bringing various writers to professional prominence. Published Tolkein, among others.
Isaac Asimov......the Robot novels, such as Caves of Steel, and the wide-ranging Foundation Trilogy—besides being a prolific juvenile writer, historian, science writer, and giving us the Three Laws of Robotics, and the first inkling of the Science Fiction universe—ie, a set of books in which the background itself is a major part of the story. With Asimov, sf leaves the solar system and considers a civilization spread throughout space.
Robert Heinlein.......early solar system exploration to interstellar. Military and social sf, also notable: Stranger in a Strange Land, which became an icon of the 80's, very much to his surprise. The innocence of the Stranger became a paradigm of the back-to-nature movement. Curiously he raised a stir among the antiwar movement because of Starship Troopers, among other items, occupying a curious position of being simultaneously a saint of the hippie culture and a demon of the pacifists—neither truly deserved. He was a profound influence on other writers.
Poul Anderson.......both fantasy and sf, himself of Nordic heritage, and using that for his fantasy, while becoming very well versed in sciences. He took on the Universe concept, wrote interconnected books, as well as others completely independent. His space heroes are not always adventurers: he was among the first to use trade as a motive of his books, if not the first to do so, broadening the concept of the interstellar civilization to include commerce, and his books follow a basic tenet of science fiction—they interpret the likely effects of high technology in a way understandable for the average person.
Lin Carter.......wrote prolifically, notably romances for teen-aged male readers: very many barbarians and adventures, in the days when a novel might bring 300 dollars flat.
L. Sprague de Camp.....wrote fact and fantasy, such as The Clocks of Iraz.
A.E. Van Vogt.......Slan. And The Voyage of the Space Beagle.
The Silver Age:
Gordon R. Dickson.......the Dorsai novels.
Robert Silverberg.......numerous and varied works, most notably Lord Valentine’s Castle, in recent years, a baroque universe, and still working, as with many of the silver age writers.
Larry Niven........Ringworld. And notable high concept books working with......
Jerry Pournelle.....Mote in God’s Eye, and others. I'm told it was actually Jerry Pournelle who coined the phrase TANSTAAFL...which many people (including myself, thank you to the reader who wrote me pointing this out) mistakenly attribute to Robert Heinlein. TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) means that the universe at large doesn't give you a freebie pass on what comes due, including the laws of physics, the behavior of human beings, or longterm economics.
Roger Zelazny......brought a sense of fantasy commingled with sf, particularly in his keenly written philosophical sf, like Lord of Light, though his Princes in Amber series generated the most fannish attention. A lyrical writer, capable of generating grand images, and of being very down-to-earth in the next paragraph, he was heard to say that if he ever discovered a rule for science fiction he would immediately attempt to violate it.
Harlan Ellision.....a short-story writer and screen writer, a keen wit, a very ascerbic humor, and an irreverent take on the universe. One of the most brilliant and reckless of humorists and social critics, notoriously quick and ruthless with a word, a master of the short story.
George R.R. Martin.......an sf and fantasy writer with his feet in the real world: a little baroque, but not a great deal, very strong on image.
Anne McCaffrey.........Dragonrider. Stands a bit in the sf camp, a bit in the fantasy.
Marion Zimmer Bradley.......The Bloody Sun and all the novels after are set in a world of telepaths. Heritage of Hastur is quite memorable. Center of a considerable writers’ group.
Now, if you’re invigorated by this list, I’d offer these more esoteric works for their historic value, and because they’re part of the game, too.
Before my time: The Early Books: the real baroque ones, the hard-to-gets that are nevertheless full of wonder for those who persevere:
Jules Verne—writing in the 1800's, the man had long-submergence submarines, rockets to the moon, long-term fliers, and some really good stories of all sorts.
Edgar Allen Poe—dark fantasy as well as horror.
Lord Dunsany—fantasy of a convolute and baroque sort.
E.R. Eddison—I can’t remember the man’s first name, but Eddison will get you there: lengthy fantasy again of the baroque kind. Good reading for a mountain cabin, if you like the archaic style.
A. Merritt—shorter baroque fantasy, scary but not horror.
H.G. Wells—the famous War of the Worlds and the Time Machine—a little dry, but Wells was an idea man.
Arthur Conan Doyle—The Lost World, scientists encounter dinosaurs—the very start of this sort of story: the hidden secret of a lost continent, the place where ancient species survive.
Edgar Rice Burroughs—the Mars books, with Tars Tarkas and John Carter. Never mind the geoscience and the genetics—the wealth of story inventions that flowed through this man’s fingers is worth the suspension of disbelief: head transplants, six-limbed swordsmen, and the egg-laying princess are priceless. You can take it with a grain of salt that John Carter is the best swordsman in two worlds.
Robert Howard: creator of Conan and Solomon Kane—a pulp writer whose work has generated numerous movies and imitators: lifted real elements of history into a created world of magic, monsters, and sword-wielding heroes, and inspired countless imitators.