Many people enjoy reading literature with elements of the fantastic, but are turned off by the stereotypical “sci fi” novel—sometimes regarded as pulpy, low-quality writing for young readers. There are plenty of celebrated authors, however, whose speculative fiction maintained an extraordinarily high level of artistry throughout their careers. For those still enchanted by the wonders of the printed page (or even words on screen) in the now-ubiquitous era of streaming, here are four old masters worth checking out:
• Harlan Ellison: Ellison, who died in 2018 at age 84, was renowned as much for his cantankerous personality as for his staggering versatility as a writer of short stories, essays, screenplays and numerous other genres. Classic short stories like “Jeffty Is Five,” “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and “The Deathbird” exhibited his talents at the top of his form, and his two Dangerous Visions anthologies are a preeminent spotlight of SF’s late-1960s New Wave at its best. His story collections, including Strange Wine and Shatterday, are not to be missed by anyone fascinated by SF at its most incisive.
• Stanislaw Lem: This medical-trained Polish writer may be best known to Western audiences for his 1961 novel Solaris, which was adapted for the big screen in 1972 and 2002, but his penchant for philosophy and humor are on display in story collections such as The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines, as well as in books like The Futurological Congress and Tales of Pirx the Pilot. His novel His Master’s Voice is a rumination on the implications of contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. Two of Lem’s more interesting feats are A Perfect Vacuum, a collection of reviews of nonexistent books, and Imaginary Magnitude, a collection of introductions to not-yet-written books.
• Jorge Luis Borges: This Argentine master’s legendary “ficciones” are short stories that straddle the boundary between reality and fantasy with a healthy dose of philosophical rumination. From “The Aleph” to “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges’ fascination with mirrors, doppelgängers and infinity are often on display. “The Library of Babel” posits a hypothetical library that contains every conceivable book, with uncanny results. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is a clever take on literary criticism while “Funes the Memorious” introduces a man with perfect memory.
• Italo Calvino: An Italian storyteller nonpareil, Calvino’s witty prose style is in full bloom in novels such as Invisible Cities, with descriptions by Marco Polo of 55 exotic fictitious cities, and If on a winter’s night a traveler, a postmodern narrative about a reader attempting to read a book titled If on a winter’s night a traveler. Calvino has also delighted readers with his Cosmicomics, humorous and fanciful vignettes that grapple with a wide range of aspects of space and time as dictated by science-fictional characters.
For anyone jaded by what they thought was a played-out genre, these four authors show that speculative fiction is as vibrant as anything else to be found in their local bookstore or library.
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