Do you have a recommended reading list for early era sci-fi stories? Like, what you think helped define the genre in its infancy? You seem to know so much, and I want to try and maybe become more knowledgeable of geeky literature roots.
Well, here’s a few recommendations to get you started on reading early pulp-era science fiction:
Slan by A.E. van Vogt (1940). This one is about a young boy who is a Slan, a member of a tendril-headed race of telepathic mutants who, in the future, are hunted and hated to extermination by normal humans. Our hero’s parents are murdered in front of him, and he is forced to go into hiding. It’s a great premise: you’re running in the night, and the wolves are after you. The book is really worth reading for the villain, Kier Gray, dictator of earth, a man described as “magnetic and tigerish.” A huge part of the book deals with him outsmarting all the people who want his job, and you grow to actually admire him. Like Julius Caesar or Napoleon, he’s a great man…but not a “nice” one.
The Black Flame (1948). Anything by Stanley G. Weinbaum is worth reading; his career as a scifi writer only lasted 18 months, before he died of cancer, but in that time, he totally transformed the genre: his “Martian Odyssey” changed scifi because it had truly alien and incomprehensible aliens. Black Flame is one is one of my favorites because it’s actually a scifi romance, in that the romantic story is the “A-plot” and not a subplot. Our hero is a beefy modern-day Chris Hemsworthian engineer who wakes up in a post-apocalyptic future ruled by immortals. The most memorable is Princess Margaret, the Black Flame. Her moods turn on a dime, and she can go from the most achingly alluring woman ever, the kind you’d sell your soul to have, to being cruel and pitiless in an instant. Despite that, you get the feeling she is actually vulnerable, isolated from mankind by her immortality. I don’t know your gender, but in general, all the women I’ve lent this one to love it, because it’s a love story and the Black Flame is so cool.
Galactic Patrol by E.E. Smith (1939). This is not the first space opera, but the first space opera that had everything in play as we know it. It features the Lensmen, space-police assembled from dozens of races. It’s great, pure adventure stuff, and is the first book to have platoons of marines in strength-boosting power armor. It has imagery like the hyperspacial tube that lets you cross 20,000 light years in seconds, if you survive. “The Hell Hole in Space.” Mind battles where the reflection and parried mind powers make hundreds of innocent bystanders fall down dead. Space battles with literally millions of starships. Assembled from thousands of races, the Lensmen are the predecessors to multi-species hero organizations like the Jedi Knights and the Green Lanterns. The alien lensmen are really alien; my favorite is a telepathic dragon, and another is a psychologist from a planet of cowards. None of it is schlocky, it’s all deadly serious. The Lensmen have a kill-count that would make Brock Sampson blush, and the villains are frighteningly ruthless, cold, and competent. My favorite is the blue-skinned, cold, supergenius leader of the pirates, Helmuth, who was such a frighteningly effective villain. You figure out he’s not the usual bad guy when he refuses to accept the hero’s apparent death at face value, and because a body wasn’t found, assumed the hero faked his own death and continues looking for him.
“Shambleau” and the Northwest Smith horror-space opera stories by C.L. Moore (1933). If you ever want to see where Han Solo came from, read the Northwest Smith stories, published by C.L. Moore, about an amoral, pragmatic and hardboiled space smuggler and criminal, in adventures that are moody, dark, and more like horror than like adventure stories. The best of these is Shambleau, where Northwest Smith discovers an alien creature that may be the inspiration for the legends of Medusa.
A Princess of Mars, Gods of Mars, Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The most influential science fiction writer of the early part of this century, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars/Barsoom stories are set on old, dying Mars of endless warfare, flying navies, swordfights, and beautiful princesses in need of rescue. They’re romantic stuff about heroes, gallant deeds, and daring and villains. The books have giant apes who live in crumbling lost Martian cities, and a beautiful girl who mentally controls lions.
The Hand of Zei by L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp is wonderful, but read this book right after the John Carter of Mars stuff. It’s kind of like Army of Darkness, in that it’s both a satire and also a great straight example of sci-fi planet romance stories at the same time. The hero is a neurotic oedipean ghost writer. The evil sinister mesmerist who commands the evil pirates is a velociraptor creature who is a germaphobe and spooked by loud noises. It’s absolute great fun and has a wonderful sense of humor.
Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell (1939). This horror-tinged scifi novel has an amazing premise: imagine if the earth had been conquered and ruled in secret by invisible energy beings in another plane of existence who feed off our sensations of fear, pain, and terror, using the human race as cattle. Our hero is a scientist who discovers the existence of these beings, and has to flee for his life when he realizes the true nature of the world.