21st November 2011 - Chris Doyle
Chris Doyle is a fan of great science fiction, from H G Wells to Ian McDonald, but the more he reads, the more he finds he's just scratching the surface. Fortunately, there is guidance available in the form of Gollancz's SF Masterworks series.
I have a confession to make; I haven't read anywhere near as many science fiction books as you imagine I have. All the signifiers to inform your assumption are there, I admit. Right now I'm probably wearing a t-shirt with a design which is intended as some lame visual pun on Doctor Who or Firefly, I excitedly bought one of the new Star Wars Moleskines on the day they arrived in the shop, despite having a surfeit of notebooks lying dormant at home already, and though I haven't done it yet, it won't take many more sentences for me to unconsciously slip in some internet parlance which is probably going to send you scurrying off to Urban Dictionary, FTW. Nevertheless, the content to support these outward signs is sorely lacking.
I've read bits and pieces, here and there. H G Wells has been pretty thoroughly dealt with, in fact I've gotten deep enough into The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds to cobble together an academic essay on Wells, the Victorian theory of entropy and the end of the universe (trust me, don't get me started on that again).
In terms of (slightly) more recent vintage, I've dipped into Karel Čapek, John Christopher and John Wyndham, all with great success (in fact I'd say Wyndham's cosy catastrophes rank among some of my very favourite books.) I've also found myself bewitched by some of the works produced by the great authors which modern sci-fi is fostering like Ian McDonald and China Miéville. All of these are great, and I would recommend them without hesitation, but their presence sketches the borders of an elision; I've completely skipped the foundational myths of Golden Age SF. The pulpy classics that established the genre and whose influence runs through everything that follows.
Postmodernity is second nature to us now. We've thoroughly absorbed Saussure and accept the disconnection of signifier and signified without a murmur. Surely then there's no shame in my shell of geekery, drifting free without referent? Well yes and no. The key is that it makes me uncomfortable, and it's a problem which crops up again and again in this brave new century of ours; an overabundance of choice. The canons of popular culture are outgrowing our abilities to meaningfully consume them.
To offer another example, one of the semi-redundant notebooks I mentioned earlier now exists purely as a repository to document my ever-expanding consciousness of things I have yet to read/watch/listen to. For every item I cross off, three more sprout in its place. The film list is shameful; I finally got around to watching Blade Runner for the first time only about a month ago. I still haven't seen The Godfather.
The question then becomes one of how to logically tackle the backlog. Life doesn't always provide helpful methods of structuring thought, and personally, living by the maxim know thyself, I readily admit, I'm easily distracted. Taking us neatly back to questions of entropy, any usual attempt to confidently stride down a broad straight cultural avenue quickly degenerates into a rabbit-warren tracing of blind alleys and false short-cuts. Handily though, in one instance, I've been provided with a very reliable map so I intend to break the habit of a lifetime and follow it.
The map is Gollancz's SF Masterworks list. I won't go into the history of it here - there are official places that you can see things like that - but if you don't know, it's a growing list (currently close to 100 titles) of works recognised as the cream of the sci-fi crop. There are some significant gaps (there's no Isaac Asimov for example), presumably due to the various vagaries of publishing, but despite that, pretty much everything you could think of is on there.
I intend to read them all, in order, and to document it right here. It's going to be an epic journey and I'm not (quite) foolhardy enough to give myself a time limit, though I imagine it won't be long before I find some way to compile a total number of pages for the entire list just so I can have something tangible to watch diminish as I eat into the vastness.
All in the pursuit of an imaginary tick on an imaginary checklist without beginning or end.
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