Visions of Paradise

Friday, April 03, 2009

Four qualities of Great SF

My favorite type of science fiction has always tended towards the slightly-more serious end of the genre, writers such as Samuel R. Delany, Robert Silverberg, Ursula K Le Guin, Michael Bishop, Kim Stanley Robinson and the like. While I read “adventure” sf at times, and even pulp magazines such as Worlds of IF, they are more guilty pleasures than serious reading.

But recently I have been reading Harry Harrison’s entire Deathworld trilogy, and while obviously it is anything but serious, I have enjoyed it too much to stop after any of the individual novels, which had been my original intention. The important question is: will I follow this book with a more serious novel, or with another pulp adventure? And what will the answer to that question say about the current state of my reading taste?

In an attempt to study the answer to that question further, when I look back on the sf of the 1960s, my first decade reading it, here are the stories which bring to me the most fond memories:

• Jack Vance’s novellas “The Dragon Masters” and “The Last Castle”;
• Clifford D. Simak’s serial “Here Gather the Stars”–which became Way Station in book form;
• Roger Zelazny’s beautiful short fiction, especially “A Rose For Ecclesiastes,” “This Moment of the Storm” and “This Mortal Mountain”;
• Robert Silverberg’s “Nightwings” and its sequels “The Road To Jorslem” and “Perris way”;
• Damon Knight’s “The Visitor At the Zoo”–expanded into The Other Foot in book form;
• Michael Moorcock’s “Behold the Man”;
• Samuel R. Delany’s “Lines of Power,” “The Star Pit” and, especially, Nova;
• Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness;
• Cordwainer Smith’s “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” and Norstilia;
• Philip K. Dick’s “All We Marsmen”–Martian Time Slip in book form;
• Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld stories in Worlds of Tomorrow (“Day of the Great Shout,” “Riverworld,” “The Suicide Express”) and Worlds of IF (“The Felled Star” and “The Fabulous Riverboat”);
• Roger Zelazny’s groundbreaking novels This Immortal and Lord of Light;
• Jack Vance’s Demon Princes novels The Star King and The Palace of Love.

If I could categorize the twenty-six stories listed above, I would place 4 of them into the lighter story category (“The Dragon Masters,” “The Visitor At the Zoo,” and both Demon Princes novels), while all the others have at least some components of seriousness. Of course, only The Left Hand of Darkness would qualify in most critics’ view as literature, so what I consider “serious” science fiction might actually be “semi-serious” sf. And how much of a gap is there between the semi-serious (such as Farmer’s Riverworld stories) and the pure pulp (such as Keith Laumer’s Retief stories which I don’t like at all)?

More importantly, does the gap even matter? Just because I prefer characterization and thoughtfulness in my sf, is it innately any better than fiction which eschews both those qualifies for color and sense of wonder? And which pair of characteristic are actually more important in my own selection of “great” science fiction”?

So let’s think back again, but this time over the entire past 40 years, to try and select sf stories which in my opinion contain all four of the qualifies characterization, thoughtfulness, color and sense of wonder. Probably not too many.

• Brian W. Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy;
• Michael Bishop’s No Enemy But Time;
• Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed;
• Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy;

I could easily name dozens of other sf stories which, in my opinion, are classics, but at a rough glance all the others lack at least one of the qualities listed above. Does this mean that I have been spending most of the past 40 years reading inferior fiction? Probably not. Few sf stories likely aim for mastering all four qualities, having their emphasis on one or two of them. And a story which succeeds on one or two levels is likely to be nearly as entertaining as a story which satisfies on all 4 levels. In fact, I dare say that a story might be more enjoyable if its aim is lower rather than higher. Objective appreciation is not necessarily as enjoyable as subjective pleasure, and sometimes it is better to be swept along with a colorful novel than it is to sit back and nod one’s head in appreciation of a slower-paced tome.

Which begs the following question: I know for certain that I could not be satisfied with a steady diet of simplistic, one-quality sf. Could I be satisfied with a steady diet of great four-quality sf? That’s probably a question that will never be answered unless I am willing to cut back the quantity of my sf reading drastically (which I am not).


  • I have been thinking back to what sf I enjoyed in the past. Reading Mike Ashley's Gateways to Forever has been a welcome reminder of 70s writers. Back then, I was excited to discover a new short story by Zelazny or George R. R. Martin. I forgot that Robert Asprin was published in Analog(Cold Cash War). One of my favorite forgotten authors was Arsen Darnay. But I digress.

    I enjoy a mix of the classic space opera and the serious sf stories. When you like authors like Asimov, Clarke, Niven, Dickson, Ellison, Vance and Zelazny it says something about my tastes. Zelazny probably best sums it up. I look forward to rereading not only his serious work but also his pulp adventure stories(I have lost track of how many times I have re-read the early Amber books). I guess that is why I read multiple books at the same time. It is more satisfying to me to be reading a Leigh Brackett Stark book at the same time I am reading a Gregory Benford novel. I like the variety.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 8:34 PM  

  • Thanks for the comment, Jim. From reading your blog, I know our tastes have considerable overlap. There was a time Zelazny was one of my three favorite authors, rivaled only by Silverberg and--a bit later--Bishop. Like you, I still enjoy all his stuff, both "serious" and lighter. Also like you, I tend to alternate between serious and lighter books. Right now I am reading Harrison's Deathworld trilogy, which I plan to follow with Brown's Kethani.

    By Blogger adamosf, At 5:49 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home