What does it mean to be well-read in science fiction?

I’ve been in a rut for the last few months. I can find anything to read that really grabs me. So last night, I tried something that I’ve tried from time-to-time. I pulled my 1993 edition of John Clute and Peter Nicholls’ Encyclopedia of Science Fiction off the shelf and began skimming through it, somewhat at random, looking for suggestions. As I skimmed through the 1.3 million word volume, it began to dawn on me that I wasn’t nearly as well-read in science fiction as I like to think. It made me question the whole definition of what “well-read” in science fiction really means.

I’d arrived at this question before, from another angle. In the last year, I’ve attended my first three science fiction conventions (Ravencon, Balticon, and Capclave). These are great places to meet people and discuss science fiction. However, with the exception of Capclave, I found that many of the people with whom I discussed written science fiction did not seem nearly as well versed in the genre as I would have suspected. And these were people paying to attend a science fiction convention. It made me ask myself, what does it mean to be well-read in science fiction? Better yet, is it even possible, today, to ever be well-read in science fiction?

One of the reasons I think it would have been wondering growing up as a teenager in the 1930 and 40s is because back then, it was possible to be well-read in science fiction. In fact, it was reasonably possible, at least through the 1940s, to keep up with just about everything the genre produced. (Granted, it was also the Golden Age of science fiction and the the science fiction being produced were, more often than not, what we consider to be masterpieces today.) Forget about keeping up with science fiction today–it’s impossible. Keeping up with a subgenre today would be impossible. Assuming that this is true–that science fiction has grown far too big to keep up with all of it–what does it mean to be well-read in science fiction today?

I have some thoughts on this, potential ways for evaluating the question. But let me first say that having given this some thought, I have changed my mind about myself. Whereas I previously felt that I was pretty well-read in science fiction, I now feel that, in general, I’m not nearly as well-read as I thought I was.

First, what is meant by well-read? For the sake of this discussion, well-read is more than just having read a book. It is having a read a book with the thought of how it fits into the larger s.f. framework, how it contributes. It is being able to identify patterns and interconnections. It is gleaning from the reading, a better understanding of the evolution of the genre.

Second, what is meant by science fiction? For the sake of this discussion, I am excluding most fantasy. (Time travel is fantasy, but I include it as science fiction for the same reason I include stories involving faster-than-light travel: convention.) But I am excluding sword and sorcery, high fantasy, contemporary fantasy, horror and its ilk. To include these other genres adds to an already impossible task.

It is possible that one can be well-read in a subgenre of science fiction. One can be an expert on a particular author for instance, having read all of his or her books. But the question at hand is what does it mean for someone to be well-read in science fiction, generally?

One arbitrary place to start are the “best-of” lists. Science fiction is full of them. There are three or four that I can think of that are relatively consistent: the list of Hugo winners, Nebula winners, LocusBest All-Time Novels list (1987), and James Gunn’s basic science fiction library. These lists tend to contain the generally agreed upon best works in science fiction. I did a quick analysis of just novels on these lists and here is how I fair when I compare my well-read-thinking self to these lists:

List Read/Total (%) Before 1980 Since 1980
Nebula Award 18/41 (44%) 8 10
Hugo Award 26/56 (46%) 17 9
Locus All-Time 25/45 (56%) N/A N/A
James Gunn Basic Library 63/400 (16%) N/A N/A

The first three lists, once again, the the generally acknowledged “best of” lists of science fiction. I have come close to reading half the books that appear on these lists. What’s interesting, however is that of the 26 books that appear on each of those lists since 1980, I’ve read far less than half.

The James Gunn Basic S.F. Library list is a little different. I counted about 400 distinct titles on the list, which is arranged alphabetically by author. Of those 400 titles, I’ve read 63. Of all of the above lists, this one is the most “academic”. Stories that appear on this list appear not just because of popularity but because of their overall help in understanding the genre. Of the four lists, I’d say that this list is the most comprehensive in terms of being “well-read” in science fiction. And I’ve read a mere 16% of the books on this list.

And these are just novels. We haven’t even begin to speak of short science fiction, the volume of which overwhelms science fiction novels. I can’t even hope to keep up with short science fiction, though I subscribe to the Big Three print magazines (F&SF, ANALOG and ASIMOV’S), and read several other online magazines. The Big Three alone produce somewhere between 250-300 new stories each year. That is to say nothing of the original anthologies being produced or the massive catalog of stories that have appeared in science fiction magazines since the genres creation. I am ashamed to say that when I get a new issue of ANALOG or F&SF, I skim the table of contents for a list of pre-selected names (Haldeman, Silverberg, Sawyer, Ellison, Shunn, or Burstein, for example) and if I don’t see those names, I usually set the magazine aside unless something really jumps out at me or someone has recommended one of the stories. Although I am not nearly as well-read in short science fiction as I’d like to think I am, I am much better read in short science fiction from 50 and 60 years ago than from today.

What is the point of being well-read in anything, let alone science fiction? I suppose it’s the sense of cohesiveness one gets from knowing a genre well. There is a kind of pleasure to being able to discuss the connections within the genre, identify themes, see interrelationships. I recall, when reading Gregory Benford’s Timescape, seeing a young NYU student named David Selig show up in one scene in the book. I shot off an email message to Dr. Benford, asking him if, by chance, the appearance of David Selig was some kind of homage to Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside. Benford wrote back that absolutely it was. Recognizing those connections are the joys of being well-read. Being able to discuss those connections is another joy

And yet, as I have pointed out, even among the cream of the crop, I’ve had difficulty holding these discussions. When speaking about a work of science fiction, it is in my nature to try and relate that work to other things I have read, to draw inferences from those relationships that help paint an evolution of the genre. It also makes it easier to compare and contrast. Someone says how they loved Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and I point out how Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, similar in theme, is an excellent reaction to that book. What I have found, however, is one of two things:

1. Someone at a science fiction convention will mention a book story that I have never heard of, at which point, the discussion more or less ends. Or,

2. Someone mentions a book or story that I have read, and I say something like, yes, I’ve read that and it reminded me in some ways of Lester Del Rey’s “The Day Is Done”. At which point I get blank stares and the discussion more or less ends.

For a while I thought it was because the people attending these conventions were not as well-read in science fiction as I was, but I realize now it’s more likely the other way around.

Taken in sheer volume, my reading of the genre is pitiful. I’ve read, perhaps 300 science fiction novels at most over the course of my life. These days, it seems that there are 300 new science fiction novels each year. Granted, I have probably read slightly more in terms of short science fiction (maybe as many as 500 short stories), but even that pales in comparison to what is out there.

I go back to James Gunn’s library as a basis for perhaps the best definition of being well-read that we can achieve. Looking through the list there are a few criteria that can be gleaned that help in defining what it is to be well-read. Maybe it is not sheer volume after all (a good thing for me), but something more.

This, then, is my attempt at a definition of a well-read science fiction reader:

1. Widely-read. Well-read readers of science fiction don’t cling to just one author. Many people do. I did for a long time, and didn’t really broaden my horizons until college.

2. Sampling. When reading a particular author, a well-read reader of science fiction will have sampled. They will have read the obvious “best of” of that particular author, but they will also have read one or two other works to get an idea of the authors scope, style and range.

3. Thematic variation. Well-read readers of science fiction read works that cover a variety of themes. They dont get stuck on, say, just time-travel stories, or space operas. They give it all a try.

4. Short fiction. Well-read readers of science fiction don’t neglect the short fiction of the genre. They may not read copious volumes of it, but they sample it enough and with enough frequency to see the trends.

5. Second bites. Well-read readers of science fiction will, from time-to-time, go back to an author or theme that they don’t particularly like, to do a kind of sanity check. The allows to to confirm their dislike, or rethink it. It also helps them speak intelligently on why they don’t like a particular author or theme.

6. Love. A well-read reader of science fiction loves the genre and expresses that love in the eagerness with which they speak on the subject.

That’s about the best I can do. I’d be interested to know what others think. I feel as though, for the most part, I try to meet these criteria. Volume takes care of itself over time, but I think that by following these criteria when making your reading choices, you will eventually become a well-read science fiction reader.

I hope to be there someday.