The Ultimate Science Fiction Reading List

scientifiction-276x300With Black Friday quickly approaching, every good science fiction fan is making out a shopping list of books she/he would like to read. With cold temperatures approaching, nothing fills those frigid winter nights like a good book next to a warm fire. Creating a reading list can be a tricky thing. Just like ice cream, science fiction comes in so many wonderful flavors. While some may insist on chocolate, others may demand strawberry or even vanilla.

Wherever you find a science fiction fan, you will find an opinion on the must-read novels in the genre. Back when the term science fiction first emerged into the world, the choices for fans were limited. Fans had a shared reading experience. In those days, the shared experience frequently included EVERYTHING.

Now that the assimilation of society is in full swing, science fiction has grown so broad that it is physically impossible to read everything. Not only do we have the challenge to keep up with the new books published every year, we have all the wonderful novels written since the dawn of Scientifiction.

I could trot out a reading list of books I could implore you to read, but I decided to take another approach. What if we stepped back and looked at what authors and books influenced some of the greatest minds in science fiction? What if we asked our favorite authors and editors what they are reading?

The following is a collection of responses that chronicle the influences and reading lists of some industry giants. I hope you find something to add to your science fiction reading list. I know they’ve already been added to mine.

Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le GuinAward-Winning Author Kim Stanley Robinson

Influence is a funny word. Does it mean, the writers I’ve loved the most? That would be a long, long list. Does it mean, the writers I’ve tried consciously to be like? That would be a really short list, maybe non-existent.

Maybe it means, the writers I suspect have taught me the most even though I wasn’t trying to learn from them. In science fiction, that would include writers like Wells and Stapledon, Le Guin, Russ, Wolfe, Delany, Lem, the Strugatskis, Disch, Bisson, Park, Kessel, Fowler, Banks, Macleod, Ryman, and many more.   In literature more generally, Thoreau, Gary Snyder, WS Merwin, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Proust, Conrad, Cecelia Holland, Peter Dickinson, Daniel Defoe, Joyce Cary, Patrick O’Brian, Henry Green, Melville, Shakespeare, Isak Dinesen, Dos Passos, Garcia-Marquez—and on and on it could go.  But notice how this list makes no sense, in that it’s random and doesn’t explain anything.

SFWA Grand Master Robert Silverberg

Within the SFworld, Henry Kuttner, Jack Vance, Robert A. Heinlein, Robert Sheckley, Phillip K. Dick, Alfred Bester. The short stories of H.G. Wells were important, too. Among my mainstream sources were Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and—it’s a long story—the Greek tragedies.

SFWA Grand Master Frederik Pohl

Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. wells, Voltaire, Shakespeare and many others. Maybe all of them.

The Demolished Man by Alfred BesterScience Fiction Legend Ben Bova

Of course there’s Shakespeare. It’s very humbling to watch or read one of his plays and realize he not only said it better, he said it three hundred years before you! I also think that Christopher Marlowe was a wonderful writer.

More contemporary writers? Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, Harold Lamb, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling…it’s a long list.

Among science fiction writers: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Gordon R. Dickson, Fritz Leiber, Alfred Bester.

SFWA Grand Master James Gunn

It depends on what kind of influence: reading, concept, writing… In terms of reading and concept: Burroughs, Wells, Haggard, Conan Doyle, A. Merritt, all of them enthusiasms of the kind that made me want to read everything they’d written. As far as writing, Williamson, Simak, Heinlein, Asimov, van Vogt, Pohl, and many others—mostly authors noted for narrative strategies rather than style. Style is too individual to be transferred.

 

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffreyAward-Winning Author Lois McMaster Bujold

I started reading adult science fiction about age nine, with the magazines and paperbacks that my father, a professor of engineering, used to buy to read on the plane when he went on consulting trips. I cadged my first subscription to Analog Magazine at about age thirteen—starting in the early 1960s, during the reign of editor John W. Campbell, Jr. (Dune was first serialized there.) Another writer I remember fondly from that early period was Eric Frank Russell; later, Poul Anderson, Anne McCaffrey, Randall Garrett, Zenna Henderson, Roger Zelazny, and Cordwainer Smith.

Oddly enough, [I’m not reading] very much science fiction these days. Light mysteries and the wittier romantic comedies (but not romantic dramas/melodramas, which I find tedious.) Georgette Heyer, Jennifer Crusie, for historical and contemporary romance respectively, Dorothy Sayers for mystery. Terry Pratchett. Ben Aaronovitch is a more recent find.

Like most writers, I read tons of nonfiction somewhat at random (less random when doing specific research). Lots of pop sci, especially about evolution and biology. History ad lib. I’m starting to develop a record of my recent reading on Goodreads, as I feel somewhat obliged to give back to the online reviewing community that has so overloaded my to-be-read piles.

Best Selling Author Daniel Abraham

When I was learning to put a novel together, I spent a lot of time looking at Walter Tevis, and especially a book called The Queen’s Gambit.  It’s great because it’s really solid, workman’s storytelling.  It works, but it’s not so polished that you can’t see where the seams are if you squint at it.  But I read everything I could get my hands on when I was growing up, and I imagine there’s bits and pieces of all sorts of stuff in there.  Right now, I’m reading Carrie Vaughn and Robertson Davies, and I’ve got Graham Joyce, Dan Savage, Elizabeth Wein and Laini Taylor on my to-read pile.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate WilhelmAward-Winning Author Bradley Denton

When I was young and first thinking about writing, I read a lot of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Theodore Sturgeon, and Mark Twain.  Along toward my late teens and early twenties, I was heavily into Kate Wilhelm, Ursula K. LeGuin, Edward Bryant, Harlan Ellison, and everyone who was being published in F&SF,Galaxy, and Damon Knight’s Orbit.

Currently, I’ll read anything by Maureen McHugh, Karen Joy Fowler, John Kessel, and Kij Johnson.

I also want to mention the terrific author James E. Gunn, who wrote The ListenersThe Joy MakersThe Immortals, and many others.  He was my professor and writing instructor while I was a student at the University of Kansas—and he’s been an influence on dozens of other sf writers, critics, scholars, and teachers as well.

 

Best Selling Author Ty Franck

Obviously, Alfred Bester and Roger Zelazny.  But I also grew up reading a lot of Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Ellison. The greats.

Robert E HowardDungeons and Dragons Game Designer Mike Mearls

Fritz Leiber was definitely a huge influence. He was a gamer himself, attended some of the early GenCon game conventions, and had his world of Nehwon adapted as an official D&D setting. Robert E. Howard also played a role, as did Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.

Writers like Poul Anderson (trolls, paladins), Roger Zelazny (planar travel and worlds), and Michael Moorcock (law and chaos as opposed forces) all played big roles. Tolkien is an interesting one, as the basic trappings of elves, dwarves, orcs, and halflings form the foundation of the game, but the tone  of the game – exploration, combat, treasure hunting—is at odds with much of his work. It would be the rare D&D character who didn’t try to find a way to use the One Ring. The Hobbit is much more in the vein of D&D than The Lord of the Rings.

D&D has grown to the point that it exists as its own genre of fantasy. The obvious influences are people like R.A. Salvatore, Ed Greenwood, Erin Evans, and Paul Kemp who have written D&D stories and novels. It’s important that the characters and events you see in their work can function within the world of D&D.

When it comes to other authors, I try to put myself into the mindset of a DM who wants to steal liberally. Can I adapt things to the game easily? Do I have the freedom to tinker? Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon  was a great test for that, because he does such a great job of building a world that I want to run a game in. Folks on the team are also fans of Scott Lynch, Brandon Sanderson, Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, John Scalzi, Patrick Rothfuss, and Joe Abercrombie. There’s also this George R. R. Martin guy you may have heard of, I think he has a few fans here.

I think it’s a pretty good time to be a fan of genre fiction and creatively I think we’re seeing a groundswell of ideas.

 

Now that these science fiction icons have provided us a reading list based on what influenced them, we are left wondering where to begin. No list ever written will be agreed upon by everyone. Countless authors and books have gone unlisted here. As our favorite authors continue to pound on their keyboards delivering monumental science fiction every year, our reading lists have become truly infinite. If I only had a few dittos lying around, I might make a dent in my list. (See last week’s interview for reference.)

What authors and books were left off? What is on your reading list?

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R.K. Troughton works as an engineer, developing tomorrow’s high-tech gadgets that protect you from the forces of evil as well as assist your doctor in piecing you back together.  His passion for science fiction and fantasy has been fed through decades of consumption.  He is the author of numerous science fiction and fantasy screenplays and short stories, and his debut novel is forthcoming. His articles appear every Wednesday morning on Amazing Stories.

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