But those [writers] who stick around soon hit an entirely different wall. You can have killer story ideas, and think relentlessly about one day writing them down, but if you aren’t reading you’ll find yourself completely unable to actually follow through and do the hard work of writing. And when I say reading, I mean consuming books in the way Olympic weightlifters eat potatoes…in bulk and with lashings of butter!
- Damien Walter, "What's the Number One Reason You Aren't Writing?"
I have kept Damien Walter's blog on my Feedly, despite having been frustrated with him in the past. This is part of my effort to continue to confront myself with opposing viewpoints. If I choose to block out everything I disagree with, I risk ending up in an echo chamber. I almost passed up reading the post linked above, and I'm glad I didn't. I don't know how many time I've seen someone build a blog post around the slogan "writers write" and thought that such an aphorism misrepresents the writerly life–writers must be avid readers, too.
Although Walter is mostly on the mark, there's one element of his analysis that I think bears closer scrutiny. Contrary to the above quote, I've witnessed no evidence that a lack of reading slows writers down. I have known quite a few writers who churn out story after story, novel after novel, all while admitting that reading fiction is just not for them. The fact that these writers are producing schlock doesn't phase them because they don't know that they're producing it. They haven't read enough to develop a sense for what schlock looks like.
The whole point of reading is to expose yourself to other styles, other methods, other techniques, and even other ideologies. This is where Walter is spot on in his assessment. Reading bad writing is useful in as much as it teaches you how not to write, if you can make yourself perceptive enough to tell what's going wrong. Good writing often gives you a new lens through which to view your own writing. If good writing challenges your beliefs and ideologies and expands your worldview, all the better. The worlds of your imagination will be more nuanced as a result.
The obvious follow-up to Walter's article is the answer to the question left in its wake: What constitutes good writing? To extend the metaphor Walter established, he told us that not all potatoes are created equal, and we're supposed to gorge on the good ones, but... Which are the good ones?
To answer this question, one need to consult a list of preferred works. In other words, a canon. Creating such a list comes with a lot of complex baggage. A canon, by its very form, suggests that it contains the "good books" and leaves out the "bad books." Especially in the age of consumerism and mass media, we're supposed to deem such ideas snobbish, set them aside, and rely on Amazon and Google popularity algorithms to help us get more of the things our intuitions tell us are good. As for myself, I'll take the opinion of an expert over the determination of a popularity algorithm or my own predisposition of the moment. I want to keep my mind flexible and open to new ideas.
Still, even if you agree with me on that matter, the creation of any literary canon presents another problem. No matter who creates a canon, it is bound to be flawed, a simplification and reduction of the complex world of literature. One must approach a canon understanding that no matter how experienced and well-intentioned the creator, inclusion and exclusion from the list are not cemented and perpetual determinations of value. Canons can and should change. And one person's canon can be just as valid as another's, even if they contain completely different works.
Approach a canon the same way you approach a novel. Give it a fair shake and find out what it has to teach you.
So, with that out of the way, I'm going to take a shot at answering the question left in the wake of Walter's article. If you are interested in writing speculative fiction of any variety, here's some recommended reading, ordered by literary period in SF.
The Dawn of SF
Most of the researchers I've read agree that science fiction comes into being with Mary Shelley's publication of Frankenstein in 1818. She followed this up with The Last Man (less well known), the earliest rendition of the post-apocalyptic novel I'm aware of.
The Rest of the Nineteenth Century
Jules Verne and H.G. Wells stand out as the most notable authors before the turn of the twentieth century (and even then, about half of Wells's bibliography appears on the other side of the century line).
Books to read by Verne include Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Verne was prolific, and I plan to add more of his long bibliography to my reading list.
H.G. Wells is best known for The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Invisible Man also appear well regarded. I've seen When the Sleeper Wakes mentioned in criticism frequently, so that's on my list, too. Wells has a long bibliography, but I haven't seen works outside of these five mentioned very much.
Early Twentieth Century
My favorite novel from the early years of the twentieth century is We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. It presages Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, also written in this era. Both these works are examples of dystopian fiction.
One cannot pass through this period without mentioning two of the giants of the fantasy genre: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien) should be on your reading list, as should The Space Trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia (Lewis).
E.E. Doc Smith and Olaf Stapledon appear frequently mentioned in regards to this era, but I have yet to read anything they've written.
Mid-Twentieth Century–the So-Called "Golden Age"
A couple of things happen in American science fiction during this time. In the run-up to World War II and immediately following, the US pulp science fiction magazines go berserk, and this leads to the so-called Golden Age of science fiction. Writers to read here are A.E. van Vogt, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, and Arthur C. Clarke.
However, the "Golden Age" science fiction of the pulp magazines distinguished itself sharply from literary fiction. Whereas stories of adventure and discovery in the vein of Verne and Wells sat alongside stories about social mores the role and responsibilities of humanity in a technological future in the vein of Shelley, Zamyatin, and Huxley in the years prior, from the 1950's onward, the two were rent apart into opposing ideological groups, "genre" and "literary" respectively. The schism continues to this day.
The mid-twentieth century also gave us Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Also check out Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.
Another notable author is John Wyndham, whose novels The Chrysalids, The Midwich Cuckoos, and The Day of the Triffids are frequently mentioned as foundational literature in the horror genre.
There is also Mervyn Peake, who I only recently became aware of. His novels Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone are considered proto-"New Weird," a sub-genre that won't appear until the end of the twentieth century.
Mid-Late-Twentieth Century–the New Wave
By the nineteen-sixties, SF had become primed for a reaction to the Golden Age, which arrived in the form of the New Wave. Driving this reaction was the fact that Golden Age writers had a tendency to be white, male, and reactionary in their politics. And it was the sixties after all, so there were social norms to turn over left and right. There were some motions at mending the rift between genre and literary, but overall, it's my impression that the New Wave couldn't decide whether it was trying to bridge that divide or rend the two sides further apart.
Feminist science fiction gets going with the appearance of Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr., and Joanna Russ. Ursula K. Le Guin is, in my opinion, a must read. The Earthsea Cycle, The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Word for World is Forest are all phenomenal, and my personal favorite novel of all time is The Lathe of Heaven.
Queer science fiction begins properly with Samuel Delaney. Notable works include Trouble on Triton, Babel-17, The Nevèrÿon Series, and Dahlgren.
Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem both begin publishing during this period as well. Dick's got a huge bibliography, and from what I've read so far, I give only The Man in the High Castle my recommendation. I'm reading him in chronological order of publication, so I'm holding out hope that Ubik, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, and A Scanner Darkly will improve upon what I've read of him so far. Lem's Solaris is phenomenal.
Other notable authors include J.G. Ballard, Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, and Christopher Priest, whose Inverted World I can wholeheartedly recommend.
The End of the Twentieth Century and the Twenty-First Century Aughts–SF Diaspora
You'll find the terms "Golden Age" and "New Wave" in other works of literary criticism. "SF Diaspora" is my own invention, admittedly drawn from China Miéville's Embassytown.
Speaking of China Miéville, he appears during this period, popping onto the scene with King Rat in 1998, but he really gets the "New Weird" sub-genre going in 2000 with Perdido Street Station. I can recommend everything I've read by him. Finish off the Bas-Lag Trilogy with The Scar and Iron Council. Then make sure also to read Un Lun Dun, Embassytown, The City and the City, and Railsea.
Another New Weird writer, Jeff VanderMeer, also debuts during this time, but his Area X Trilogy, which appears later, is what will put him on the map. Of that trilogy, only Annihilation gets my recommendation.
Margaret Atwood expands the dystopian genre to consider the oppression of woman with her novel The Handmaid's Tale.
As computer technology increases exponentially, this gets a lot of people thinking about where it, in particular, is going. Authors writing to some aspect of futurism (AI, singularity, terraforming, etc.) include Alastair Reynolds, Ian M. Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Dan Simmons.
David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is an excellent fusion of a lot of different motifs of this era.
Doris Lessing and Octavia Butler also produce notable works.
2010 to Present–The Era of the Literature Product
The Kindle Direct Publishing Platform launched in 2007. By 2010 it had massively disrupted the business of the six major print publishers in the US, which became five in 2013. It's my opinion that the arrival of the KDP was as impactful to literature as Gutenberg's printing press, but whereas the quality of Gutenberg's change was largely positive, I believe KDP's legacy will be largely negative. For this mess I blame the society that birthed Amazon rather than Amazon itself. It is the cultural attitudes of our society that made the KDP an economic success.
The "Era of the Literature Product" is another creation of mine. In 2007, we, as a society, formalized (with the KDP) the nascent attitude that whatever literature you like is what is good for you, that no one is allowed to disagree with you on this, that this principle applies not just to books but a vast many other things, and that the laissez-faire marketplace is the most efficient and best way for you to get whatever kind of "literature" it is that you want.
Given that I'm clearly biased about this era, I'm going to hold off citing authors for now, but suffice it to say, I think there is still literature worth reading being produced, it's just a lot harder to find than ever before, which is ironic given our vast, worldwide, digital information network.
More on all this in a later post.
I populated much of the above chronology from the introductory timeline in Teaching Science Fiction by Andy Sawyer and Peter Wright. I am not as well read as I would like to be, but I am doing the best I can with admittedly limited temporal resources. The above reading list will be revised as I become more well read. Some authors may fall off, or I might expand their sections as I read more works by them; authors I discover will be added as well.
I'm compiling this list because I want it to be easier to find good books, and to see SF from a broader point of view. I have wanted this myself for some time, and have never found a single good resource. I have created a map of the genre the only way available to me: I have cobbled one together from many disparate resources. I hope someone else finds this chronology and reading list useful.
If you have recommendations for additions, please post them in the comments.
August 17 Update: I got some great feedback from James Simmons over on Google+.
This article accidentally excludes 1984 by George Orwell. Animal Farm, which I would argue is most definitely SF, should be included as well. Both were published during the Golden Age, but were part of the literary tradition rather than the genre movement.
James also recommended adding both Food for the Gods and The Country of the Blind by H.G. Wells. He also noted a Diaspora era omission: Neal Stephenson, who definitely belongs with other futurists. I have can recommend his novel Anathem, but unfortunately that is the only novel of his I have read.
August 23 Update: I found this link and I want to make sure I put it somewhere I will find it. That place is not in my browser bookmarks.