So, over at tor.com, 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.
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
Barry Hughart’s The Bridge of Birds
100-200 introductory urban fantasy:
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
CS Friedman’s In Conquest Born
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
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.