Over on Futurismic, Paul Raven points to a post by Ian Sales saying, "Readers new to the genre are not served well by recommendations to read Isaac Asimov, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Robert Heinlein, or the like. Such fiction is no longer relevant, is often written with sensibilities offensive to modern readers, usually has painfully bad prose, and is mostly hard to find because it’s out of print. A better recommendation would be a current author - such as Richard Morgan, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M Banks, Ken MacLeod, Stephen Baxter, and so on."
To which I say, "Amen."
I was in Barnes & Noble some months back and bumped into a friend of mine with his daughter. He told me she had been assigned Fahrenheit 451 at school, to which I replied, "You poor girl. You are going to hate it. It's about an old man whining that his wife watches too many soap operas, and nothing happens it it until the cities arbitrarily blow up at the end on cue. Please don't think that's the sort of thing I do for a living. Come with me." Then I walked her over to a display of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies books and said, "Here, this is much more representative of contemporary SF. Try this."
I bumped into them a month later and asked how it went. I found out that, as predicted, she hated the Bradbury, but they were there so she could pick up the third book in the Uglies series. She is now an avid Westerfeld fan.
This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy Bradbury, or that it is not of historical importance, or that *working professionals* in the SF field and wanna-be-writers don't have a responsibility to know their history so they don't struggle to reinvent the wheel, but half-a-century old fiction is NOT the starting point for newbies who have never encountered the genre before. People coming in cold, particularly people coming in from positive encounters with media SF&F, ought to start with contemporary writers. When I set about to recommend books to new SF&F readers, I typically ask them what kind of films they like and then pair them on that basis. The Matrix? Try Charles Stross, Karl Schroeder, Ian McDonald, Cory Doctorow, etc... Buffy the Vampire Slayer? How about Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Justina Robson. Star Wars? How about Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan's The New Space Opera, or the works of Karen Traviss? Firefly/Serenity? - Mike Resnick's Santiago books, and his current Starship series. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind/Being John Malkovich? Something by Jonathan Lethem, maybe As She Crawled Across the Table.
I have met so many people, who when they learn what I do, tell me "Oh, I tried science fiction once. I didn't like it." When I asked them what they read, they invariably say they went into the SF&F section, started at the A's, and grabbed the first thing they recognized - Isaac Asimov. Tried it, and found it cold and dated.
Again, this is NOT to say that the enthusiast, the purest, the aficionado, the die-hard, the wanna be, the professional, the completist shouldn't read the A,B,C's of the Golden Age, or that those texts no longer have anything to say to us, only that if someone came to me having just seen The Bourne Ultimatum and wanted to know what contemporary spy novels he or she should read for more of the same, I wouldn't start him or her off with Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. (If they *end* up there, fine, but I wouldn't *start* them there).
I think matching them with the analogous movie works best (produces better results than asking people what sort of "mainstream" they read), though 9 times out of 10, you'd do just as well to just hand them John Scalzi's Old Man's War.