Back in the late 1970s and 1980s, I discovered a literary genre that I knew existed but generally paid little attention to: science fiction. As a child in the 1950s and 1960s, I had been terrified and scared witless by science fiction movies—The Day the Earth Stood Still, Them, The War of the Worlds, and even B-grade movies that aired on television late on Saturday nights, like Caltiki, the Immortal Monster.
But between those movies and the late 1970s, I had read only a small handful of science fiction works—Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and, in college, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. My reading tending more to literary fiction and nonfiction; my major indulgence in popular fiction was murder mysteries, which enjoyed a resurgence in the 1970s.
But science fiction didn’t really interest me.
In 1977, I was in a bookstore in Houston, Texas, and for some reason found myself among the science fiction shelves, next to the mystery shelves, arranged alphabetically by author’s last name. I noticed a book by scientist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. It was entitled Foundation, the first in a trilogy about the alleged science of “psychohistory.” Asimov invented this “science” in his Foundation books; it claimed that the history of large populations could be predicted.
He had constructed three novels in the early 1950s around the idea and its ultimate demolition. Hari Seldon, the fictional founder of psychohistory, had recorded holograms of himself. Whenever the world deemed it was confronting a Seldon Crisis, leaders would gather to play the next hologram in the series, which would explain the path forward through the crisis. This worked exactly as planned for centuries, until the rise of a rebel leader called the Mutant. When the leaders convened for the hologram, they saw Hari Seldon talking about something else entirely. He had not predicted the Mutant. Chaos ensued.
With Foundation, I was hooked. I finished the trilogy. I started looking at and reading other authors. And I read a lot of them: Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Larry Niven, Frederik Pohl, Robert Silverberg, Jerry Pournelle, and many, many others.
Looking back, I know what prepared me to accept and embrace science fiction: The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was not a science fiction writer; his works fall into the fantasy genre. But more than anything else, the stories of Middle Earth prepared me for the creation of the fantastic worlds envisioned by science fiction writers. Not only were the worlds amazing; I discovered these writers had written some phenomenal stories.
What follows is a suggested reading list. It is by no means exhaustive. The authors and works are considered the great science fiction writers of the 20th century. With one exception, and a major one, the writers are male, because it has been male writers who have dominated science fiction. I’ve selected the works that are my favorites, and these are a bare handful of what’s available. But I’ve read them all, and I can recommend them all, without qualification.
The novels of Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018). Le Guin crashed the men’s science fiction party, and she’s considered one of the best of the genre’s writers. She’s best known for The Earthsea Trilogy, but my personal favorite is The Lathe of Heaven. Whenever I hear the word “Antwerp,” I immediately think of this novel.
The novels of Jerry Pournelle (1933-2017). Pournelle has the distinction of being the first writer to create a work using a word processor on a personal computer. He was also quite prolific, including 13 novels he co-authored with Larry Niven. One of those 13, The Mote in God’s Eye, is my favorite.
All of these writers created works that surpassed the science fiction genre. These novels are testament to the idea that a genre novel can also be a great literary work. And I discovered that simply by pulling a single book from a bookstore shelf.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish