Do My Homework!

By James Davis Nicoll: Side project. I am going to recruit some young people I know to read and react to a selection of SF’s canon, the classics people my age are sure people their age should have read. It’s inspired by this Facebook comment by Adam-Troy Castro:

Nobody discovers a lifelong love of science fiction through Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein anymore, and directing newbies toward the work of those masters is a destructive thing, because the spark won’t happen. You might as well advise them to seek out Cordwainer Smith or Alan E. Nourse — fine tertiary avenues of investigation, even now, but not anything that’s going to set anybody’s heart afire, not from the standing start. Won’t happen.

So my question to your commentariat is: which dozen works should I pick.

They should be considered core works. I’ve arbitrarily selected 1980 as the cutoff date: it is mid way between us now and WWII.

212 thoughts on “Do My Homework!

  1. *pops hood*

    Ooh, yeah, there’s your problem right there. You hear how there’s pedantic yelling whenever you turn left? You got one of them gatekeepers nesting in the engine block. They can be a real problem. You get them stuffing old copies of Analog into the vents, it can start a fire, and they chew the wires up something fierce.

    *sucks teeth*

    Sure, I can fix it, but it ain’t gonna be cheap.

  2. @John Popham on November 3, 2015 at 12:18 pm said:

    You want to be a nerd, you’ve got to do the nerd heavy-lifting.


    Deep breath.

    Wow, could I possibly disagree with this any more?

    Heavy lifting is required if you want to style yourself an EXPERT — especially if you are prone to pedantic lectures — but being a nerd? Nobody particularly wants to be a nerd. We just end up that way, often because we care deeply about things that other people think it’s weird to care about. We got CALLED nerds, and eventually embraced that label partly out of self-defense and partly out of tribal identification.

    There’s much less stigma now, but still no particular social value, to claiming to be a nerd. Why would you think people have to “earn” it? For what purpose?

    Anyway, wasn’t this whole discussion about how to lure unsuspecting young people into our nerd cave? Are you trying to suggest that we don’t want to lure them at all, that instead we should make them jump over poisoned spikes and answer a riddle?


  3. @Mark –

    Yes, I did write that. It doesn’t contradict anything I’ve written here. In fact it speaks to my passion for the larger Science Fiction oeuvre, without qualification.

  4. Peace Is My Middle Name

    ‘Level of passion seems to me a poor measure whereby to exile people from fandom.’

    I haven’t ‘exiled’ anyone from fandom. Those are your words. I just don’t assume that all fans are nerds.

  5. @John Popham

    So, you don’t think you’re “judg[ing] who does and does not deserve a place at that eclectic table” right now?

  6. @John Popham

    Here in 264, that’s considered Very Bad Form, and a sign of a Tiresome Person.

  7. @Mark –

    Am I judging which works and authors deserve a place within the literature of science fiction and which don’t? No.

  8. @RedWombat – Dude. That’s the trunk.

    We call that a Volkswagen. The boot is in front.

  9. @P J Evans

    Sorry, P J – Not sure which of the comments was problematic, but I’ll bow out.

  10. John Popham: If I’m reading you correctly, you believe that one cannot be a nerd if one only or primarily consumes video SF and fantasy, but can be a nerd if one only or primarily consumes written SF and fantasy.
    And then you claim it’s all about “passion”, implying that consumers of video SFF don’t have enough of said passion to be nerds. Dude, have you READ fanfic?

  11. @John Popham

    No, you’re judging who deserves to be invited to the table, and contradicting yourself in the process. That’s quite enough for me.

  12. I don’t really care what people call themselves. I just like sharing enthusiasms back and forth – I introduce someone to Poul Anderson and get introduced to Planetes; I teach someone about Fritz Leiber and learn about Yokohama Kaidashi Kiko; I share some of my favorite Kraftwerk tracks and learn about Lindsey Stirling (tell me this video isn’t the visual rendering of a Howard Waldrop story Waldrop just happens not to have written yet) and Antti Martikainen; I burble about my appreciation for Dave Cockrum and learn about Kris Anka. And it goes like that.

  13. John Popham: You came in and started telling us who is and isn’t a nerd. Everyone here qualifies as a nerd, one or another way.

  14. No-one ever convinced me I should read/play/watch/listen to something by telling me I’m not a real [whatever] if I don’t.

    No hobby is so precious that it justifies attacking those who enjoy it in a different way.

  15. Meredith: That’s an excellent point. Even if the claim were entirely true, it’d be demonstrably inefficient as a way to press it.

  16. @Mark –

    If you reread the essay you quoted from, you’ll find that the quote responds to the desire by groups within the science fiction community to define for that community which works and authors are legitimate or worthy, and which are not.

  17. Ok, so what makes that person with their scarf and their Orphan Black and all Not A Geek, while I, who consumes almost no visual SF, Am A Geek? I presented you with me, who is in many way the converse of your described Not A Geek, and you seemed perfectly willing to allow me the label. What, exactly, is Not A Geek about someone who is excited enough of about Classic Who to have knitted a 12 foot scarf? All you’ve done is made pronouncements; you’ve not explained at all. Even when I asked you to.
    You look very much like you’re saying that Visual Media Don’t Count, and only if one is excited about the Holy Pantheon of Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, and Heinlein can one Truly Be A Geek.
    And that’s so wrong I can hardly begin to explain it. You have neither the right nor the authority to proclaim anyone Not A Geek. If you absolutely must have An Authority to pronounce on True Geekitude, allow me to present John Scalzi:

    I outrank you as Speaker for the Geeks.

    You are overruled.

    Your entire piece is thrown out as condescending, entitled, oblivious, sexist and obnoxious.

    And no, you can’t object (well, you can, but you’ll be summarily overruled). You made the decision based on your life experience as a geek that you could tell other people who is welcome as a geek and who is not. Based on my life experience as a geek, I have made the decision that I am qualified to tell you to suck eggs. You want to slap down people who you don’t feel qualify for geekdom? Then I get to slap you down for being wrong, on the basis of being higher up in the geek hierarchy. You don’t like it? Then you shouldn’t have played this game to begin with. You played your cards, and I now I’ve played mine. This round goes to me. I have the conch. And now I will speak.

    Who gets to be a geek?

    Anyone who wants to be, any way they want to be one.

    He’s talking specifically to Joe Peacock there, but he might as well be addressing you (with the possible exception of the “sexist” part). I’d recommend you go and read it; it’s a much longer post than what I excerpted here.

  18. Cally: The first time I read that I missed Scalzi’s “I have the conch” reference. I suddenly realized how lucky I am that JCW didn’t dub this place “Flies 770″….

  19. Cally: The first time I read that I missed Scalzi’s “I have the conch” reference. I suddenly realized how lucky I am that JCW didn’t dub this place “Flies 770?….

    Wait, you Missed A Reference? Clearly you are Not A Real Geek! (Or, you know, you are, and all this gatekeeping stuff is crap.)

    You’d think that if a person didn’t care that I can’t geek out about Buffy or Orphan Black, never having seen either nor feeling a tragic loss about the fact, but yet can still be seen as a Real Geek, that someone else who can absolutely geek out about Buffy and Orphan Black, but may not like or relate to Heinlein juveniles can ALSO be a Real Geek. Or shall we start saying that the only Realio Trulio Geeks are those who have read “L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune” in the original French and R.U.R. in the original Czech?

    Not hardly. Geekdom is a tribe with many moieties, not all of which overlap. And that’s perfectly ok. Indeed, it’s inevitable.

    Heck, I’ve got some friends who don’t read much if any fantasy or science fiction, and don’t watch an unusual amount of SFF TV or movies, and yet are they geeks? Absolutely. They’re model rocket geeks. You can tell by the enthusiasm, the love, and the wish to share their joy in rocketry.

  20. I may be quieting sliding beloved classics that are just a tad too much of their time off to one side. “Herbert West, Reanimator”, for example, won’t make the first cut.

  21. this isn’t our universe at all, so such women are excusable for that reason alone.

    This has been addressed above (by which I mean its utter fatuousness) so I’ll move on.

    John Popham: I am absolutely gate keeping, and it is absolutely worth the time….Being a nerd means accepting science fiction on its own terms and in its own context, just like you would ‘real’ literature. That doesn’t mean you have to like all of it, because nobody does. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t know it all, because nobody does. But you’ve got to want to explore it and grok the totality of science fiction. Because it all fits together, and if you don’t know how, you don’t know science fiction. And if you don’t, at the very least, want to know science fiction, you’re not a science fiction nerd.

    BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA. Okay, taking it out of the genre: as a teen in the mid 1980s, I had a (minor, not trying to claim broad knowledge) thing for Victorian(ish) literature. Among other things, I read the Forsyte Saga and loved it. But I would not, either at the time or now, look at any fiction enthusiast who hasn’t read the Forsyte Saga and claim that that somehow made them unworthy. I mean… even at age 14, I recognized that was silly.

    How old are you? Sheesh.

  22. John Popham:

    “You want to be a nerd, you’ve got to do the nerd heavy-lifting. Being a nerd is about having passion for the genre.”

    Well, I don’t want to be a nerd. I have no idea why that would be goal in my life. Nerd was for a long time a derogatory label people tried to put on me. To struggle to become a nerd is for me to struggle to see how many crown caps you can push under your foreskin.

    I just want to enjoy the books, movies and comics I enjoy without some idiots attacking me for it. And not being pressed into liking stuff I don’t like. Go stand in a corner and be a nerd as much as you want to be and leave us others alone when we like what we want to like. I’ll just ignore the labels others try to push on me.

  23. When I read Bruce Baugh in this thread, I am so struck by his patience and mercy I feel like Giles. So, regarding:

    Absolutely. I am absolutely gate keeping, and it is absolutely worth the time.

    You want to be a nerd, you’ve got to do the nerd heavy-lifting. Being a nerd is about having passion for the genre. Not just for a bite here and a nibble there, but for the whole banquet. It’s about loving science fiction even when it makes you a social outcast. By definition, if it’s nerd-chic, it ain’t nerd.

    Fuck your toxic dweeb machismo with a gravy ladle. Sideways. This isn’t Sprockets and you are not here to pump anyone up. You have no power, and since authority flows from respect, no authority either. The world of fandom will happily proceed in disregard of your edicts. Your destiny is not even to be thirteenth at the table*; your overweening self-righteousness can’t even ruin things.

    *This is an allusion, such as the finest writers working today use.

  24. I was, on re-reading, struck by something. John says “Being a nerd means accepting science fiction on its own terms and in its own context, just like you would ‘real’ literature.” But y’know, one of the defining characteristics of literature is that people don’t do that. Hesiod tossed out a whole lot of his materials’ framework and original meaning to fit things together the way he wanted them to. Mallory did the same with the stories that interested him. Shakespeare gave all kinds of fresh readings to things he looted, and so did his peers, and people have been reworking Shakespeare to various ends ever since, from Bowdler to Ian McKellan’s emphasis on the fascist streak in the Tudors. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, great writers (and would-be greats) poked at making new things out of the basic idea of the novel. Naturalism’s heyday in the early 20th century was another such effort. And it keeps going: Dos Passos, Solzhenitsyn, Garcia Marquez, Rushdie, countless others – the one thing that unifies them is their refusal to accept what’s handed to them on its own terms, and their working to turn that refusal into something new. (Swiping from Camus, the no that is also a yes.)

    Likewise with SF. Do we really need to paste in the “you’ll never see it in Galaxy” ad here, just as a starting point?

  25. I apologise for misreading the requirements in comment #3, and then being super slow to get back to the party. I’m’a skip all the gatekeeper stuff, and recommend some older books for younger folks. My partner is slightly older than the target range, and had a childhood sadly lacking in SFF while being a voracious reader, so I’ll second her recs:

    The moon is a harsh mistress, RAH. — Upthread, there’s been some concern that it leads to Ayn Rand. The trip in the direction of Randism is educational, I think: most will escape the better for it in the long run. It’s aged in the right way to be obviously ‘fantasy’ now, where the computers suck and the rockets don’t.. (2nd choice is Stranger in a Strange Land, the original edit.)

    The mote in god’s eye, Niven & Pournelle — By the far the best of the N&P collaborations, the moties are truly alien in a thought-provoking way. I was disppointed upthread when someone said ‘on the third hand’ two comments under a rec for this book 🙁

    Gateway, by Pohl. I actually looked up the pub date on this before my earlier comment to find it was too early. Horrible to think about (but fun to read) frontier living.

    In her view, Clarke hasn’t aged well, which makes me sad.

    Re: sexism in Ender’s game. That’s interesting to think about. I know at least a half-dozen of my close friends from High School that loved the book (in the 90s), including the one that gave it to me. All of us, irrespective of gender, identified with Ender, who in most ways isn’t strongly gendered. My now-girlfriend also loves it, FWIW. It’s truly one of the pillars of the genre as it stands, at least in the hard-science set (I’m a scientist and engineer, and so are most of my friends.)

  26. Devin on November 4, 2015 at 1:52 am said:
    It’s aged in the right way to be obviously ‘fantasy’ now, where the computers suck and the rockets don’t.

    I found this description apt and unaccountably amusing.

  27. Kyra recommended:

    Douglas Adams: The HItchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

    The humor and overall plot of HHGttG, should still hold up today, but ever stopped to think how utterly underwhelming The Guide itself would be to a new, modern reader? When I first read HHGttG around 25 years ago (screw you, the steady and inexorable passage of time) The Guide was futuristic advanced technology for nerds to lust after. But think of The Guide’s description—it has a 5 inch diagonal screen (or not—in one passage the screen is described as “about three inches by four”; in an earlier passage, the screen is described as “about four inches square”.) It has “around 100” buttons and looks so complicated that it has to have “Don’t Panic” printed across the cover. It contains a million pages from a periodically updated crowd-sourced encyclopedia of questionable accuracy. It has text-to-speech but IIRC no audio files, no photos, and no video.

    The Guide is essentially a very low-end tablet computer with Wi-Fi, proprietarily locked into a small subset of Wikipedia (which must contain at least an order of magnitude more than 1 million 5-inch screen “pages”) that has been stripped of all illustrations. It has the chicklet keyboard from the 1st generation Kindle, no touch-screen, no web surfing, no social media, no applications, no games, no GPS, no 4k digital camcorder the size of a lima bean. By today’s standards, The Guide is a sad, primitive piece of crap that would gather dust on the shelf of a Salvation Army thrift store, and wouldn’t strike a modern first-time reader as anything creative, novel, or in any way impressive. Because of this a modern reader will never have the same (yes, I’m going to say it) “sense of wonder” that we old-timers did decades ago.

  28. (Trying to figure out why my comments were going into moderation, I see I mistyped my e-mail address. Sorry for the extra work, MikeyG.)

  29. you should have in there a work each by Andre Norton and Ursula LeGuin. Which ones, I’m unable to suggest as it’s been too long since I last went through the Old Stuff.

  30. I have an ill-formed thought I want to hand off to someone who may be able to do something better with it than I can right now.

    The Moties (the aliens in The Mote In God’s Eye, for those playing along at home) have an odd vibe in these latter days, because of the authors’ personal views interacting with another forty years’ history, social and physical. There’s the classic progression of the denier’s thinking, broken down into 3-5 steps, like:

    1. Nothing is happening.
    2. Something is happening, but it has nothing to do with us.
    3. Something is happening, but it’s not a problem.
    4. There’s a problem, but we’re helpless to do anything about it.
    5. There’s a problem, but it’s too late to do anything about it.

    When I recently browsed through Mote, re-reading some favorite bits, the Moties didn’t seem alien to me at all: they seemed like climate change deniers I can find in my news and forum browsing any day of the week. And it keeps being the same folks, on front after front. The Moties have an interestingly alien biology, but their society is the reification of habits of thought Niven and Pournelle have both encouraged at various points.

    That’s as far as the thought goes now.

  31. Arg, OK. How about, um …

    Ray Bradbury: There Will Come Soft Rains
    Jerome Bixby: It’s a Good Life
    Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (original novella)
    Ursula K. LeGuin: The Lathe of Heaven
    Anne McCaffrey: Weyr Search / Dragonrider (original novellas)
    Walter M. Miller Jr.: A Canticle for Liebowitz (original novella)
    Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore): The Proud Robot
    Joanna Russ: When It Changed
    James H. Schmidt: The Witches of Karres (original novelette)
    James Tiptree Jr.: Love is the Plan the Plan is Death
    Lisa Tuttle and George R. R. Martin: The Storms of Windhaven (original novella)
    Roger Zelazny: A Rose for Ecclesiastes

  32. Well, if it’s got to be individual short items, then out of The Cyberiad, I’d especially recommend “The Second Sally, or The Offer of King Krool”, “The Fifth Sally (A), or Trurl’s Prescription”, and “The Seventh Sally, or How Trurl’s Own Perfection Led to No Good”.

  33. Darren: Interesting thoughts about the tech specs of the physical Hitchhiker’s Guide. It hadn’t occurred to me to think about that, because I’ve not read the books in (mumble) years, myself.

  34. For Bradbury, the ones burned into my brain are Frost and Fire, The Fog Horn, A Sound of Thunder and All Summer in a Day but the one I am leaning towards using is The Veldt because when I archive binged the old SF radio shows like X Minus One I kept encountering adaptations of it.

  35. If we can make recommendations via old-time radio adaptations, “The Category Inventor” by Arthur Sellings seems like it would still feel relevant in this day and age if you can find a copy.

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