I’ll be leading a ‘reading circle’ in the Fall semester with the title “Classic Science Fiction.” This is part of my university’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), which is to foster a culture of reading. The format of these themed reading circles is for small groups to read a few books of mutual interest together. As I conceive it the idea is not to force yet more scholastic spinach down the kids’ throats but to show them cool stuff they can get at by reading, in an informal environment of exploration and discussion. Because it’s a required course and only one credit, tune-out is a danger.
As usual the reading list can’t be long enough to adequately represent the field. And what is that field? Threads run back through Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Thomas More and Genesis, but imaginative world-building is probably not enough. Sticking to a more conventional definition, Shelley, Verne and Wells might be obvious starts if they weren’t so stuffy to contemporary eyes. I was just looking at some E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith thinking that doing some pulp would be fun, but found it too crude without redeeming imaginative value, which might also be said with less justice of van Vogt’s old Null-A stuff. I seem to be drifting toward the obvious choices for a boy of my generation: Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Herbert. The first three times I read Childhood’s End I thought it was awesome. The last time I found it disappointing and gave my copy away. James W. Harris says the same about Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. What does that mean about assigning them now? Does classic mean good? Are these guys classic, or just familiar to a cult of pimply mavens?
What makes sci-fi classic? Is it a time period (say, 1880 to WWII, Early Classic; post-war to Vietnam, Late Classic), a set of genre questions, rankings, even a sensibility? On the late side of the period, if that means anything, I’d like to include Ursula LeGuin – probably Lathe of Heaven or Dispossessed – and don’t feel too odd about that, but how about Octavia Butler? I love her work and consider it a brilliant development of the classic tradition of meditation on what it means to be human (Wells, Stapledon, Pohl etc.) but she’s obviously not in the classical period. I’m also wondering if I can get away with slipping in some Vonnegut, at least “Harrison Bergeron” and maybe Slaughterhouse-Five. I feel ok about leaving Card out because Ender’s Game is already read in a lot of high schools, as of course are Brave New World and 1984 last I checked. How about Douglas Adams?
So, a bit of a quandary. Even if I decide ‘classic’ means anything I want it to, what are the four or five books it would be really cool to read with a dozen college students?
Friends, any thoughts?