The Good Ten Percent
by Brian Plante
Most days after lunch I would sit in the employees' lounge reading science fiction until I could no longer avoid going back to work. I didn't think anyone paid me any attention, but one day Dave Menlo, a younger guy from Purchasing who I always saw toting library books, came up to me in the lounge.
"Hey Brian, I see you're really into this sci-fi stuff."
"Science fiction, or SF if you must," I corrected.
"Yeah, whatever. Anyway, I kinda like science fiction movies and TV shows, and I thought I might want to pick up a few sci-fi books to read. I'm getting kinda tired of mysteries and I want to try something new. What's good?"
Jeez, what a question. What's good? I'd been reading tons of science fiction since I was twelve, which is more years than I care to count. Where do you start someone new to SF?
" Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card," I ventured. "It's a pretty good one and you should be able to find it at the library. Let me know what you think."
Dave wrote down the title and thanked me, moving off to another corner of the lounge to finish up a P. D. James book from a few years back. A fellow reader. There's not too many of us left, I fear, and fewer still of us SF aficionados. I thought fondly of that Card book and I hoped he liked it as much as I had. Maybe it would spark the SF flame for him and I'd have a fellow SF fan at work to trade ideas with.
On the following Thursday, I saw Dave reading Ender in the lounge after lunch. I tried to gauge his expression, hoping to see some signs that he was enjoying the read, but he had the same deadpan look he always showed when reading. Well, at least he was turning the pages fast enough.
The next day, at the end of lunch hour, Dave came over and confronted me with his book report.
"It was okay, I guess, but not very original. The gimmick that the simulator was the real thing was used in the movie The Last Starfighter and a couple of TV shows."
I couldn't remember if The Last Starfighter preceded Ender's Game or not, but it didn't really matter. Others had pointed out that it was a creaky plot twist when Card used it, but it was the writing that made Ender Wiggen memorable, not the plot.
"Oh well," I responded, "Card isn't everyone's cup of tea."
Dave and I didn't really know each other too well, but I wanted to steer him right. He looked to me to be an expert on SF, and I supposed I was after all these years. Anyway, we readers have to stick together.
"Tell you what, Dave, let me think about this over the weekend, and I'll give you a short list of what I consider the absolute best SF ever. Classics, Dave. I guarantee you'll like this stuff."
"Hey, that'd be real nice, Brian. See you Monday."
"Monday," I agreed.
* * *
I envied Dave for a couple of reasons. The first reason was that all the wonders of reading the great works of science fiction were still ahead of him. I remembered savoring The Moon's a Harsh Mistress , reading it three times in a row, and purposely slowing down while reading Childhood's End to try to make it last longer. Imagine the whole Foundation series, still unread, to be unfolded for the first time. If only I could trade places with him.
I still enjoyed SF greatly, but Sturgeon's Law was just as valid today as when it was first postulated: 90% of science fiction is crap -- but then, 90% of everything is crap. I still dutifully read through the new books by the surviving oldtimers, hoping each time out that they held onto a little of the stuff that made them Big Names in the first place. I plowed through a lot of stuff by newer writers and perused the magazines regularly, always searching for the occasional gem that marked the rise of a new Big Name. Sure, a lot of it was trash, but every once in a while there was magic.
That was the second reason I envied Dave. He had an SF mentor -- me -- to steer him past the 90% crap, directly to the classics that would really grab a newcomer. Let's be honest, 10% is too generous. Of the thousands of books I've read in all those years, there's a lot less than 10% that really stands out as milestones. I've waded through that other 90% to find the good ones, and some of that 90% was abysmal . With my help, Dave would avoid the junk and go right to the crème de la crème .
Okay, so where does one start, putting together the ultimate SF list? I didn't want to overwhelm Dave by making the list too long, but I thought a small sampling of representative works, all classics, should do the trick. Some of the old Masters, for sure: Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury. The great Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. Some of the newer crowd too: Niven, Benford, and Brin. It was much harder deciding who to leave out than who to include, but I promised a short list and I didn't want to scare Dave off with a list a mile long. For good measure, I capped it off with the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame , the best ever short story anthology, for my money.
Monday came and Dave thanked me profusely when I gave him the list.
"Every one of these books is a landmark," I said. "You should be able to find all of them in any good library, and if you don't like 'em, why, I'll eat 'em."
We had a laugh and talked a bit about books in general. I do read a bit outside the genre, so I was able to talk intelligently with him about most of the recent mainstream
best-sellers. Dave was a cool guy.
Over the weeks, I saw Dave reading them -- well-worn public library copies of the classics -- The Moon's a Harsh Mistress , Foundation , The Martian Chronicles . Dave was tearing through a different one every day. I still couldn't tell from his expression whether he was enjoying the books or not, but the fact that he was steadily working his way through the list was a pretty good indication that he was enjoying them.
Or so I thought.
* * *
"Political claptrap," Dave said. About Heinlein! Vintage Heinlein at that, not the later ponderous books. It was like getting slapped in the face. Maybe I should have given him The Menace From Earth or Have Space Suit Will Travel to start him off. Yeah, it was Heinlein's juveniles that had hooked me as a boy -- but no, they were just too . . . juvenile. You had to be the right age to appreciate those books, I figured.
"Asimov is all talk and no action." Another slap . Was I turning red, I wondered? "I mean, the characters are always telling each other what's happening, but nothing seems to happen directly. Know what I mean? Can this guy really write?" Ouch! "He writes like a poet." Dave's judgment of Bradbury had a promising start. "But he shouldn't be doing sci-fi at all. You know, Brian, there's hardly any science at all in this guy's fiction. Isn't this what they call fantasy?"
Childhood's End : "Too cosmic." Whatever that meant.
Niven and Benford and Brin: "Is this stuff only for physics majors, or what?"
Flowers for Algernon : "Saw it in the movies as Charly . And what gives? That so-called novel was a short story in the anthology you listed. How could it be both a novel and a short story?"
I didn't want to know what else he thought of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame , but he told me anyway: "Yeah, old Twilight Zones , right? Those stories were old before I was born!"
I don't know if Dave knew how much he hurt me. I had spent a good chunk of my life reading this stuff, and he trashed them with abandon. But it wasn't the stories. It was him, the jerk. I didn't recommend any more SF to Dave that day.
Later I thought, maybe you had to grow up reading this stuff. All the other people I know who are really hooked on SF have been reading it since adolescence. SF and I grew up together. Can someone in their twenties just jump right in and get the same pleasure? The conventions and clichés that are familiar to us fans may be unknown, or perhaps maybe too familiar to the TV generation. It's a different mindset.
Then again, maybe there's a corollary to Sturgeon's law: Yes, 90% of everything is crap, but you don't necessarily recognize the great, the incredibly important 10% for what it is unless you've spent some time slogging through that other 90%. I had spent plenty of time slogging. Dave had not.
I noticed Dave, a few weeks later, reading as usual in the lounge, but with a difference. This time I could see in his face that he was totally engrossed in his book and enjoying it. He was turning pages at a furious clip. I got up from my little nook to casually stroll by and see what it was he was reading. Even from halfway across the room, Perry Rhodan's chiseled features were instantly recognizable on the paperback's cover. I hoped Dave was just slogging.
Copyright © 1995 Brian Plante, first appeared in Fantastic Collectibles #126, January 1995. Count=8956
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