Originally posted by dbates
Hard to believe that no one has mentioned the great Isaac Asimov yet.
He was bound to come up, though.
Between the end of the second world war and the worldwide cultural explosion of the Sixties, science fiction was dominated by the Big Three: Asimov,
Heinlein and Clarke. Asimov's masterpiece, the Foundation series, as well as the first two 'robot' books, The Caves of Steel
, were all written in the Fifties.
Of the Big Three, it was Arthur C. Clarke I discovered first (see above). It was probably his writing that first lit my scientific and metaphysical
fuse. It certainly provided the incendiary material: 2001
, with its speculations on the nature of consciousness and the future of life, was
quite an eye-opener, but the one that really blew my mind wide open was The City & the Stars
, in which life and consciousness are viewed
through a forbiddingly mechanistic lens whose aperture suddenly flies open, halfway through the book, to engulf a galaxy's worth of transcendence.
As a boy, I couldn't grasp more than a fraction of the ideas I was reading about in Clarke. I was far too busy living the characters and the plot,
anyway. But the ideas -- simultaneously disturbing and liberating -- stuck, and now in middle age I find that they have shaped my perceptions and even
my life in decisive ways.
When I came to read Asimov and Heinlein a year or two later, the experience was very different. Asimov's work had little of the metaphysical
dimension I found so absorbing in Clarke's. His universe, even in the galaxy-spanning Foundation novels, is always of strictly human dimensions,
comprehensively mapped and tapped. In Clarke's writing, you have the sense of an infinity of wonders hovering just beyond the fringes of perception;
you never got that feeling with Asimov. Still, one neither wants nor expects epiphanies every day. As a teenager, I enjoyed Asimov and found his work
intellectually stimulating. But as I grew older and more demanding, I found his literary flaws less and less easy to ignore, till at last I could read
him no longer.
With Heinlein, my experience was very different. To this day I've only read a few of his books and stories: Starship Troopers, Starman Jones,
World Enough & Time
, a few early pulp-magazine stories collected in later, historical anthologies of science fiction. Nor do I have plans to read
any more; I find his work repellent. The right-wing politics, the thinly disguised love of violence for its own sake, the whiff of incipient
megalomania -- these were things I had already begun to turn away from at the age of fifteen. Besides, the writing was indigestible, all lumps and
The truth is, few sf writers of the classic era have worn well. A.E. van Vogt and Fritz Leiber are all but forgotten. L. Ron Hubbard, sadly, is not --
we all know what became of him. Frank Herbert, a slightly later arrival, has turned into something of an embarrassment, the result of crude
legacy-milking on the part of his heirs. The others? James Blish is remembered mostly for one novel, A Case of Conscience
. Frederick Pohl and
Ray Bradbury have fared better, especially Bradbury, though I suspect that he is less often read than reverenced. I think this proves that, in the
end, literary values remain values even in genre fiction -- Bradbury and Pohl were, in a literary sense, by far the best writers of the bunch.
In the Sixties and Seventies, the field expanded enormously. In the process it became attractive to people who actually knew how to write. It's the
sf of that period that I know and like best, though I have many favourites from earlier and later eras too. I find it difficult to relate to a lot of
contemporary sf -- it's as if real life has caught up with science fiction, and wild extrapolatory ideas are harder to come by. As I mentioned
earlier, I like Iain M. Banks and William Gibson. I can read Dan Simmons, but his writing is awfully variable -- Ilium
was a creaky jerry-built pile of rubbish with bits falling off every time you looked. I'm currently reading Redemption Ark
Alastair Reynolds. I'm up to page 100 and it still looks promising, so I have high hopes.
But what I really
like is science fiction that concedes nothing to mainstream writing in terms of literary ambition (and quality). Sadly, very
few writers are capable of producing that calibre of work. Gene Wolfe leads the pack, so to speak, but it's an awfully small pack; I really can't
think of anyone else who qualifies fully apart from Iain Banks and Neal Stephenson. Even Stephenson's a bit iffy.
Any suggestions, fellow readers?
[edit on 27-10-2006 by Astyanax]