When I was younger, I read a lot of science fiction. I’ve never been much for fantasy of the sword-and-sorcery variety, but I would inevitably gravitate toward the science fiction sections of libraries and bookstores.
A funny thing, though — a lot of staples of the science fiction genre did nothing for me. I could never force my way through Larry Niven. Robert Heinlein bored me to tears. I couldn’t get interested in Orson Scott Card’s Ender series. Harlan Ellison’s stories, as entertainingly cranky as the man is in his essays or in person, didn’t move me at all. Asimov? Not interesting to me. Arthur C. Clarke? I may be the only person on earth who likes 2010 better than 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I’m definitely the only person on earth who thinks the movie version is preferable to either. Philip K. Dick? A little too chaotic for my tastes. Bruce Sterling? Please no.
There have been some exceptions. I’ve liked a lot of Neal Stephenson’s books, although more for his over-caffeinated-autodidact enthusiasm than for plot or ideas. (It’s telling that my favorite of his works is Cryptonomicon, which is not really science fiction at all, and that I’m reluctant to go near overtly s-f and seemingly impenetrable Anathem.) I was big on Norman Spinrad for a while, another of the Harlan Ellison generation of New Wave s-f Angry Young Men, although there are only three of his many books that I really like a lot. I have great affection for William Gibson, largely for Neuromancer, which had a profound influence on my writing style (heavy debt to Raymond Chandler and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and all). Nevertheless, I found Gibson’s subsequent books progressively less interesting until 2005’s Pattern Recognition, in which — surprise — he largely abandoned the trappings of science fiction.
So, what did I like? Mostly what “serious” science fiction fans dismiss as trash: Star Trek novels; movie tie-ins; the much-maligned novelizations of Robotech by Daley and James Luceno; Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series (and much later, John Varley’s The Golden Globe, an s-f picaresque in a similar vein), even the cheesier later ones with the middle-aged Rat and his teenage sons; old Edmond Hamilton stories like “Thundering Worlds,” where planets are transformed into spacecraft.
In short — space opera and pulp, full of lovable rogues and scrappy, two-fisted princesses. (Which is not, as hardcore s-f fans will no doubt point out, really science fiction at all, but old Douglas Fairbanks/Errol Flynn-style melodrama, dressed up in futuristic trappings.) Big, lunatic ideas, with humor and drama and adventure. Entertaining and engaging characters who aren’t constantly playing second fiddle to the author’s rhetorical agenda.
My taste for pulp has eroded quite a bit in recent years, although I still have a lot of affection for the stuff I used to like. I like to revisit it from time to time, in the same way one might visit an old childhood friend, but my emotional relationship with it is no longer intense.
For me to even wade through something completely new, it really has to jump up and grab me. As my friends and acquaintances have often remarked with some alarm, my head is already littered with the accumulated minutiae of various fictional universes (not to mention a mountain of frequently unwholesome trivia from our own). At this point, I don’t feel a lot of motivation to add to the mental detritus. And if the concept of the New Thing involves time travel, alternate timelines, speculative futures, aliens, space travel, cybernetics, cyberspace, post-apocalyptic worlds, or nanotechnology, just reading the jacket blurb tends to make me tired.
So, what DO I like now? More on this to come.