17 February 2004


If you want to get a lot of varied, contradictory, contentious, and amusing opinions, ask a fairly literate audience for a list of Books Every Educated Person Should Read . (Actually, it's books published after 1970, building on a list by Will Durant, which I haven't been able to find online.) Interesting that there are quite a few SF books suggested, particularly if you consider Gravity's Rainbow to be SF (as Jonathan Lethem has proposed, though he's certainly not the only one.) The "list" itself -- that is, the comments in response to the call for suggestions -- is less interesting to me than the sort of conversation it has created, a conversation which veers away from the original objectives fairly frequently and ends up producing suggestions which might better be called "Books I Think Should Be Read More Often By More People and Valued in the Same Way I Value Them" which is what every such list usually becomes. It seems to me that were people to stick to the original subject -- that is, books every educated person should have read to be able to be called "educated" (whatever that is) -- then the list would be somewhat less esoteric, and would include more books which disagree with or contradict each other, because much of the value of reading (for the purpose of being "educated", that is) comes from the text's ability to incite thought. I've often found myself more incited to thought by the conversation in my mind between two books than I have been by very many books on their own.

While recognizing the absurdity of listing, the utter impossibility of completeness, the various frustrations likely to be created, let me propose a list for my own readership: what 2 to 5 books do you think every literate SF reader should read before they die? Here are my suggestions, which I'm sure I will disagree with in the next hour:
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison
The Start of the End of It All by Carol Emshwiller
Galaxies by Barry N. Malzberg
What a bizarre, ridiculous list! Of course, I thought of at least 50 other books, but I settled on these because I liked how they talked to, at, around, and about each other. (Though I almost cheated and listed Lessing's The Fifth Child with its sequel, Ben, In the World -- two books which create their own dialogue by, in the first book, making readers loathe the monstrous title character, and then making them sympathize with him in the second book. Also thought The Fifth Child would go well with Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human.) All I can say is, I'd be curious to know what a person thought after reading those five books one after the other (not necessarily in the order I set out). Malzberg's Galaxies (discussed here by Adam Troy-Castro) is a book that I find particularly amusing when read by other people, because it inevitably causes a reaction. It's also one of the only purely metafictional SF novels I know.

I was very much tempted to list anthologies, from Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection, which covers 1985 and is one of the single most remarkable anthologies I know, to various anthologies from Kathryn Cramer and David Hartwell, to Leviathan 3, Trampoline, etc. This desire to suggest anthologies reminded me that so much of what is valuable within the SF realm, so much that is worth talking about, is not of novel length. So here, then, is a list of a few stories I think it would be good for every SF reader to read and think about before they plunge off into the abyss of the beyond:
"Day Million" by Frederik Pohl
"Unlocking the Air" by Ursula K. LeGuin
"Or All the Seas with Oysters" by Avram Davidson
"The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
"Heavens Below: Fifteen Utopias" by John Sladek
Another completely inadequate list, but so it goes. With this one, I simply wanted to look at imagination and form.

I'm sure some of you out there can do better.