Academic SFF

So, over at, this interesting discussion by Michael Underwood of proper levels of SFF for literature courses — from introductory texts at the 100-200 level up to graduate texts at the 600-700 level.

100-200 level—Introductory Texts

These include survey works, which presume zero previous knowledge of a genre. These works serve to introduce common tropes (fantasy = feudal kingdoms, farmboy heroes, brave knights, wise old wizards, etc), story structures (the prophesied hero must take the McGuffin to the Place), and tones (epic fantasy’s elevated tone and archaic dialogue, urban fantasy’s wry wit and snarkiness).

300-400 level—Core Genre Texts

Texts at this level delve deeply into one or more specific elements of the genre (a more sophisticated magic system, intricate sociological speculation based on a new technology, etc.), expecting the reader to have a solid grounding in order to get the most out of the text’s deep exploration of its topic. They’re the kind of everyday texts an experienced reader of the genre might get excited about, that investigate cool elements of a genre, bringing new ideas to them, without necessarily seeking to operate on a mind-blowing or genre-redefining level.

500-700-level—Graduate-level Texts

These books are capstone works that seek to challenge the fundamental assumptions of their genre. They’re master classes of technique and conceptual ambition, or calls to arms for a revolution in the genre. They tend to be very rare, and have a smaller readership when compared to the introductory texts.

I haven’t read all of Underwood’s suggestions for books at any of these levels, but that’s okay because I thought I would propose my own set. I’m sure everybody will have their own ideas!

I will just quote one more bit first, though, as Underwood also says: The SF/F 101 books of the 1940s and 1950s are not likely to be as accessible to 21st century readers. Especially readers from diverse backgrounds looking for themselves in the genre. We cannot keep pointing people at Heinlein, Asimov, Brooks, and Tolkien forever and expect those works to resonate as strongly with people born fifty years after the books were written.

And this is all very well, but let me just say emphatically that no, Tolkien is never going to be dated. Granted, Heinlein is dated now, and I would never personally have pointed readers at Brooks anyway — Brooks, really? — but we certainly can continue to point readers at Tolkien forever.

Anyway! My suggestions follow. I’m not into making people read books they hate, so if I were actually teaching literature classes, I would offer a choice of several books and let people read snippets and choose whichever they liked. But on the other hand, as you will see, I had a hard time coming up with graduate-level titles.

100-200 introductory high fantasy, a choice of the following:
Bujold’s Curse of Chalion
McKillip’s The Changeling Sea
Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter
Hambly’s Dragon’sbane
Barry Hughart’s The Bridge of Birds

100-200 introductory urban fantasy:
Brust’s Jhereg
Briggs’ Moon-Called
McKinley’s Sunshine

100-200 introductory SF:
Bujold’s The Warrior’s Apprentice
Moon’s Trading in Danger
Card’s Ender’s Game

I think all the above are highly accessible. I don’t think any of them would read as dated, though some of them are older than others. I would have felt differently about the category of “books assigned in class” if any of those had been assigned.

300-400 advanced fantasy
Kay’s Under Heaven
Jemisin’s The Killing Moon/The Shadowed Sun

300-400 advanced adventure SF
Leckie’s Ancillary Justice
Cherryh’s Cuckoo’s Egg
Cherryh’s Chanur quadrilogy

300-400 advanced concept-driven SF
Robinson’s 2412
Cherryh’s Cyteen
CS Friedman’s In Conquest Born
Butler’s Dawn
Corey Leviathan’s Wake
Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep

500-600 graduate-level fantasy
Mieville’s The City and the City

500-600 graduate-level SF
Mieville’s Embassytown

Titles within each category are all in random order.

Underwood suggested Gene Wolfe and Samuel Delany for the graduate level, but I can’t assess them fairly because Gene Wolfe’s New Sun didn’t appeal to me at all when I tried it (long ago), and I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything by Delany. I do agree that China Mieville writes at that level, but couldn’t think of anybody else I think belongs at the graduate level. Except maybe A Fire Upon the Deep really belongs at that level? Or Dawn? Or Ancillary Justice? Underwood plugged it into his “advanced” category, but maybe I would tend to move it up. Not sure.

Comments, suggestions? I can’t go look at my library shelves, so I’m probably missing lots of good candidates for every level.

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11 thoughts on “Academic SFF”

  1. I like your list a lot (and bonus, I’ve read many of them already!)

    I’ve been rereading Martha Wells’ Raksura books and Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence this week, in preparation for new books in both series, so they’re on my mind, and I’m a bit torn over placement. The Raksura books do contain some of the introductory fantasy tropes of a lost prince/outsider finding his true role in society, and they’re highly accessible. At the same time, they do such a lovely job playing with gender roles, among other things, that I automatically want to place them higher, which really isn’t the point of a reading list like this. It’s not grading books, just placing them in the order you’d give to a brand-new reader…

    But I definitely think Gladstone’s Craft Sequence goes at the higher level of advanced courses. There’s just way too much going on, and far too many things with which they’re in discourse.

    However, I studied English Language (linguistics) and Editing in school, not Literature, and my only grad-level class was a 500-level Old English course where we translated Beowulf, and then I went to law school. So I may not have a good grounding to be ranking things with, anyway. ;)

  2. Well, Mary Beth, since my degree is in bio rather than English, I hereby declare that all you need to qualify to put together a list is a long history as a SFF reader. Wow, translating Beowulf from Old English, that sounds like . . . I’m not sure it sounds like fun. Kind of scary, actually.

    I think the Raksura books are highly readable and accessible, but on the other hand, the main characters aren’t human. Does that automatically place them higher than introductory? Because I can see that a reader new to SFF might find that something of an adjustment.

    I haven’t read Gladstone’s Craft sequence, though.

  3. I agree that both Gene Wolfe and Samuel Delany would be appropriate choices for the graduate level. I think that Ursula Le Guin (THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS) and John Crowley (LITTLE, BIG) would also be suitable. And I’d like to see Peter Beagle in that company as well. His THE INNKEEPER’S SONG is a master class all by itself.

  4. Cheryl, definitely yes for The Innkeeper’s Song and Little, Big. I must admit I simply don’t remember Left Hand all that well. I think I was too young when I read it the first time.

  5. Translating Beowulf was really fun, since it was a very small class (four people, plus the professor) and we only tackled 10 or 20 lines a day–so each day’s class was just sitting around reading our translations and commenting on each others’, and then talking about how awesome Beowulf is. It was great. Wish I’d kept up my Old English afterward; I’ve forgotten most of it by now.

    You have a good point about the nonhumanness of the Raksura providing a hurdle to accessibility for a new reader — though I’d argue that their “groundling” shapes do look human, and Moon is introduced in his groundling shape, which helps. They’re more human in appearance than, say, the hani, although their society is more distant — with the hani we at least have lion analogues to look to for clues on how they function as a species, whereas the Raksura are more like… bees, maybe, only not at all? Hmm.

  6. Interesting topic. I think his definition of graduate-level works is debateable (privileging subversion in a way I never agreed with), but there clearly is a spectrum of introductory / advanced. The graduate-level works that are coming to mind tend towards series*, which isn’t such a great idea when you’re thinking in terms of a class list — I would even point out that The Pride of Chanur is nicely separable from the trilogy she wrote as a sequel. Little, Big is a great idea for fantasy; I’ve never read The Innkeeper’s Song but it sounds like I should. Greg Egan’s Diaspora isn’t overly long and is extremely advanced SF, although it’s coldly inhuman perspective is more than a little offputting — especially for readers who care about characters.

    Too-long grad entries: Gene Wolfe – personally, I prefer the Book of the Long Sun (3 books) to the Book of the New Sun (4). John C. Wright’s The Hermetic Millennia, v2 of an ongoing series, is the one most in dialogue with the history of SF. Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is extremely ambitious, as well as hugely long all by itself.

    You know, it belatedly occurs to me that if I were putting an actual course together, I think I’d want to focus heavily on shorter works than novels.

  7. Nancy Kress needs to be on that list, either “An Alien Light” (my favorite) or “Beggars in Spain” (everybody else’s). AAL is a perfect paired-down SF story about alien viewpoints.

    Also: Elanor Arnasson! She only wrote 3, but she’s a much deeper writer than LeGuin.

  8. I agree that shorter works make practical sense, but I don’t *like* short fiction that much — and besides that, I don’t really think you get the right feel for SFF if you limit yourself to shorter works. So I ignored that kind of practicality.

    One thing that has surprised me, though, while writing reviews of older works: lots of them are really short. Amazingly short. Was tighter plotting more valued in adult SFF back then? To me it looks like it was.

    I will say that one reason China Mieville looks like a Graduate Level writer to me is that he’s so literary. I think a Graduate Level work ought to have ambition, scope, a literary style, *and* be pushing boundaries. And not be tragic, but that part is just me.

    Mary Beth, Wells’ based the Raksura body language and style of personal interaction on cats (she said, and I think one can see that). The overall caste system is unique, though. Perhaps because she wound up setting up their background as two species that merged, very odd.

    I do think Moon and the others are very easy to identify with. I wonder if new-to-SFF readers would agree?

  9. CATS. That makes so much more sense! I think I was thinking mostly in terms of fertile queen vs. infertile warriors, which is why I thought of bees (and also why the analogy wasn’t really working, because Raksura society is so much more than that). But Raksuran body language and social cues make much more sense as feline!

  10. Mary Beth, I agree! You can just see them leaping backward and hissing when startled, and so on. The infertile warriors do make me wonder about genetics. I wonder if the raksura could possibly be haplodiploid? That would indeed push them, like bees, toward a caste system of queens and consorts and workers. Or maybe something about their ecological niche pushed them toward this dramatic kin-selection model…

    I’m pretty sure Martha Wells didn’t work that part out, though.

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