We’re going to get meta this week and look at some of the books that I use to research and write this column.
As we’ve seen in the past couple of years, science fiction has a long history of authors, editors, readers and publishers. There are countless books and authors in the genre to delve into and it’s almost impossible to comprehensively read and survey the genre. Fortunately, there’s a number of works out there that review and examine the genre critically, from a literature and historical standpoint. Here’s a small list of books that I keep on hand for my own research for this column.
The newest entry is Jo Walton’s forthcoming collection of essays, What Makes This Book So Great, due out later this month. It’s a compilation of a column she wrote for Tor.com, from July 2008 to February 2011. In that time, she wrote about books she was reading, covering an impressive range of classic works and providing her thoughts. The essays are typically short: They’re a couple of pages each, but succinctly cover what makes each book worth reading. This is certainly going to be a book that I’ll go back to again and again.
My interest in the history of science fiction and fantasy started when I was in college, when I came across a copy of Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. This one doesn’t conform exactly to science fiction, but there are a number of parallels. It provides a great look at the early days of the publishing industry and how it came to produce comic books, and how it evolved over the 20th century. Jones provides a detailed and excellent read, one that I’d recommend above all else.
An enduring classic of the science-fiction history field comes from Brian Aldiss, with Billion Year Spree and an updated version, The Trillion Year Spree. Aldiss is one of the remaining Science Fiction Grandmasters, and his books are a detailed and critical look at the genre, one that’s helped provide some good oversight into the course in which the history of science fiction has taken.
One of the best works on science-fiction history to come out recently is Adam Roberts’ The History of Science Fiction, part of the Palgrave Histories of Literature. It’s a modern, well-researched history, one that takes the thesis that science fiction as a genre can be traced back to the earliest roots of literature, to ancient times. It’s a broad, comprehensive survey and a great place from which to start reading.
If you’re interested in looking deeper into the history of the genre, there’s a great book I found recently by Brooks Landon: Science Fiction after 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars, part of the Twayne’s Studies in Literary Themes and Genres. It’s a short book, but one that starts just before the 1900s and goes up through the “New Wave” of SF. It’s an interesting, critical look at this segment of history.
It’s also important to look at works written by the people who were actually involved in the writing and creation of science fiction. The first book that comes to mind is Frederik Pohl’s The Way the Future Was (and his follow up project, The Way the Future Blogs). Pohl was at the center of the science-fiction universe from the 1930s to his death late last year, and this book covers the modern genre’s formative years in great detail.
Anyone who researches science-fiction history will come across one name: Sam Moskowitz. One of the major fans in the golden age, he worked tirelessly as a self-appointed historian of the genre, writing a number of works. While his books are frequently unsourced and should be taken with a grain of salt, one that I’ve found helpful is his Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction. It provides some good biographical sketches of a number of notable authors in the middle of the 20th century.
Another excellent read is The Futurians: The Story of the Science Fiction "Family" of the 30's That Produced Today's Top SF Writers and Editors by Damon Knight. The Futurians were a group that produced some of the genre’s more notable authors, from Isaac Asimov to Judith Merrill and Frederik Pohl, and this history looks to their inner workings.
If reading up on the history of the science fiction magazine sounds interesting, you can do no better than Mike Ashley’s fantastic trilogy of reference books: The Time Machines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950; Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970; and Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980. There’s a new volume to come soon, which I’m particularly excited to get. Sadly, Time Machines is out of print, and while the publisher says that they plan to reprint it at some point, the only copies available go for a couple hundred dollars.
A new, ongoing series has recently launched from the University of Illinois Press, the Modern Masters of Science Fiction, which has released books on John Brunner and William Gibson, with volumes on Gregory Benford set to come out later this month, and one on Greg Egan set for April. The book on Brunner is an excellent look at the author, reviewing his life and work in an even, critical fashion.
If you’re interested in science-fiction history, there are certainly plenty of books to look into, but going straight to the primary source is important. The best place to go is to some of the original magazines, some of which can be found online, such as Galaxy Science Fiction (Archive.org) or Astounding Science Fiction (Gutenberg.org). There’s also a number of anthologies out there that can provide a good survey of the era: One of the best anthologies to look at is The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929-1963, which contains some of the absolute best short stories from the era. It has some shortcomings—only one story of the 26 is written by a woman, overlooking a number of worthy candidates—but the stories here are utterly fantastic and provide a good overview of the feel of mid-20th-century science fiction.
I mentioned Sam Moskowitz before, and there’s another book from him that’s worth looking into, if you like stories from the Pulp era: Under the Moons of Mars: A History and Anthology of the “Scientific Romance” in the Munsey Magazines, 1912-1920, which has an excellent collection of stories from the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Francis Stevens, A. Merritt and Murray Leinster.
Over the holiday break, I picked up a fantastic anthology titled Famous Fantastic Mysteries: 30 Great Tales of Fantasy and Horror from the Classic Pulp Magazines Famous Fantastic Mysteries & Fantastic Novels. This one includes stories from Francis Stevens, Henry Kuttner, William Hope Hodgson, Lord Dunsany, C. L. Moore, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, Arthur C. Clarke, Margaret St. Clair, Donald Wollheim, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury and Robert E. Howard.
Jurassic London (who’ll be publishing a book from me on SF History, in the interest of disclosure), recently published a reprint anthology on fiction involving mummies, with a number of period stories that I haven’t seen in other places, and it provides a good insight (and a good bit of history) into the mummy craze of the era.
And finally, if you want a broader look at the development of SF, there are two survey anthologies that I’d recommend: The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, edited by Arthur B. Evans, Istvan Csicsery-Ronany Jr. Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, Rob Latham and Carol McGuirk, and the Norton Anthology of Science Fiction, edited by Ursula K. LeGuin and Brian Attebery. The Wesleyan book is a comprehensive survey of the genre, ranging from 1844 with Nathanial Hawthorne and running through 2008 with Ted Chiang. The Norton Anthology covers short fiction from 1960 and runs through 1990. Both books represent a diverse and excellent range of authors and stories, and are well worth reading as introductory texts to the genre.