It happened again. At a social function, I met people who said something like, 'I used to read science fiction, but stopped.' A little inquiry reveals them to be one of those lost souls who didn't know what to read after Phillip K Dick. We sci-fi writers live in the shadow of Dick. There is no point denying it. PKD wrote 44 books, 121 short stories and has had many films based on his work. He is a giant. Few works have entered the canon since his death in 1982.
I too stopped reading sci-fi post Dick, so I understand the dilemma. In my teens I read everything in reach and then I got bored. The genre became repetitive. I wasn't getting from the other authors what I got from PKD. For over a decade I was lost in the desert, subsisting on a diet of Bellow and Vonnegut. Yes I still tried to read sci-fi but it was like testing berries in the wilderness, to see if they were edible; and mostly they weren't. Nothing gave me the brain spark I had learnt to love.
Then one book brought me back. A thin volume I found on the low shelves of Kinokuniya, His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem. I had never before heard someone else sound so much like the my internal monologue. Lem was clear and erudite and his ideas had me reaching for dictionaries and Wikipedia.
His Master's Voice is about a signal from outer space and the think tank set up to study what is was, who sent it and what it could mean. Lem's central character reports on all the different departments and the disparate conclusions they draw from the same information. And like that I was back. My brain was on fire. Now I find it hard to read works that aren't sci-fi.
Even though I'd suggest that Lem is a bit dry for many readers, as I ploughed through his other books (which in Australia often means an order from Amazon) I learnt to recognise the deeper themes of sci-fi. It was like Luke discovering the force, suddenly the themes were everywhere, in works of fiction and in the real world.
Even in the most basic and childlike sci-fi I could get some pleasure from each new take on different ideas. The ideas that challenge us as human beings, that reveal the limits of our knowledge and understanding. Anthropomorphism, panspermia, the super organism, time-dilation and more.
I've read all the Lem I can get my hands on, some twice, which is something I never do with other writers. if there was a crowd-funding campaign to translate more of his works into English, I would contribute. But if you struggle with Asimov and Clarke, you might want to try something a little more visceral, like the Strugatsky brothers.
The Strugatskys wrote sci-fi in Communist Russia. It has a different tone entirely, but they are the closest I've come to finding PKD-like writing. Start with Roadside Picnic and go from there. The Strugatskys are great at placing normal people in bizarre worlds, and they are just trying to get on with their lives and take advantage of the situation.
So there’s two to start with. I suggest learning to read by themes rather than authors, and I'm building up my reading lists here.
I will also start a list on Amazon and Goodreads, and add in any books i come across for people who enjoy the brain spark of PKD then I will expand on each of my other favourite writers in future posts.
My top sci-fi authors: The Brothers Strugatsky Alfred Bester Peter F Hamilton Stanislaw Lem Theodore Sturgeon Joe Haldeman