If you’re going to work in a genre, you need to know the history of the genre — what’s already been done, what the average reader’s expectations are, what the assumed knowledge base of your readership is.
This is one of the few places in the writing game where English majors actually do have an edge — they’ll have been force-marched through a lot of this already, and for mainstream writing, either literary or popular, that’ll just about do it. If you aren’t an English major and don’t want to be one, you can do it yourself with the aid of a halfway good public library, or with the internet and a copy of an English Lit or American Lit survey syllabus. (Or you could just buy a used edition of the Norton Anthology of English (or American) Literature, read it cover to cover over the course of a year or so, and form your own opinions.)
If you’re working in one of the genres, such as science fiction, there aren’t going to be as many handy guideposts.
But don’t worry. I’m here to help you.
Ten Books to Help Get You up to Speed with Science Fiction
(Some of these books are every bit as absorbing today as they were when they were written; others are, as they say, “of historical interest.” Which ones are which — your call. Mileage may vary; contents may have settled during shipping; and not all souvenir plates increase in value.)
1. Mary Shelley — Frankenstein (1818). Don’t be fooled into thinking this one is horror. It deals with what would eventually become some of the big science-fictional themes — the creation of artificial life, the relationship between an artificial creation and its maker, and the permeable boundary between research and obsession. Also, it extrapolates its fictional science from then-contemporary interests, such as Arctic exploration and electrical experimentation.
2. H. G. Wells — The War of the Worlds (1898). A groundbreaking early entry in the invasion-from-outer-space subgenre. It spawned the classic 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast and two direct film adaptations, one by George Pal in 1953 and one by Stephen Spielberg in 2007, and is the ancestor of a host of other works.
3. E. E. “Doc” Smith — Gray Lensman. (Magazine serial publication, 1939; collected in book form, 1951) The great-grandaddy of all space opera. The book is very much “of its time” as far as social attitudes go, and its prose quality is at best serviceable. (At worst, it’s deep purple.) On the other hand, its slam-bang action and resolute lack of psychological complexity can provide one’s inner twelve-year-old with a great deal of fun, and a more critical reader can always play a rousing game of spot-the-familiar-trope.
4. Robert Heinlein — Starship Troopers (1959.) The novel, not the movie, which has almost nothing in common with the book except the title and a few characters with the same names. Just about every military sf novel since this one has either been influenced by it, or is in dialogue (sometimes, in vigorous argument) with it. The Forever War, Ender’s Game, Old Man’s War, not to mention all the Star Trek tv shows, movies, and tie-in novels — all of them are in the lineage. While you’re at it, read another two or three books by Heinlein — I’d pick The Puppet Masters and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress myself — because his work established so much of what you could think of as the consensus science-fictional future. Avoid his more vocal fans; and remind yourself from time to time that these books were written by a guy who was born in 1907.
5. Isaac Asimov — with Heinlein, one of the central figures of mid-century hard sf. His Foundation trilogy (1951-1953)and the stories collected as I, Robot (1950) are probably the most influential of his works. (The “three laws of robotics” form part of the intellectual furniture of modern computer science.) You should also read his short story, “Nightfall” (1941).
6. Samuel R. Delany — When science fiction’s New Wave hit the US in the 1960’s, the young Delany was one of its rock stars. Try Babel-17 (1966) or The Einstein Intersection (1967); if you like those, work your way up to Dhalgren (1975) and the later works. (I bounced hard off of Dhalgren, but many people love it.)
7. Ursula K. LeGuin — The Left Hand of Darkness (1969.) Because it marks the point where science fiction and Second Wave feminism collided and made readers’ heads explode. Her other big novel from that time period, The Dispossessed, has in my opinion worn somewhat better over the intervening decades, but The Left Hand of Darkness has probably been the more influential of the two. If you like LeGuin’s work, you might go on to read Joanna Russ and Sherri S. Tepper.
8. James Tiptree, Jr — Her Smoke Rose up Forever (1990.) A posthumous omnibus collection of short stories by an influential writer, famous for, among other things, actually being Alice Sheldon. (She wasn’t the first or the only woman in sf field to hide or at least partially obscure her gender — C. L. Moore, Andre Norton, and C. J Cherryh all spring to mind — but she remains noteworthy for the thoroughness of her cover and the later embarrassment of certain critics who had previously declared her writing “ineluctably masculine.”) The James Tiptree, Jr. , Literary Award is named in her honor. Notable short stories (included in the collection): “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” (1976), “The Screwfly Solution” (1977)
9. C. J. Cherryh — Pride of Chanur (1981) You can’t have sf without aliens, and C. J. Cherryh gives some of the best aliens in the business. Pride of Chanur is shorter than a lot of her work, and more accessible; the novel’s felinoid aliens (yes, the title is a pun) are different enough to be believably not-human, but not so far away from oxygen-breathing mammalian norms as to be completely inscrutable.
10. William Gibson — Neuromancer (1984) Science fiction meets the computer age, and the cyberpunk genre is born. If you like the flavor, read Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson and work your way outward from there; also watch Bladerunner on DVD.