Sunday, March 11, 2007

Ooh, me too!

The Scienceblogs crew is discussing important matters for once (e.g., here, here, here, here), and I commented at Pharyngula, but I find I have more to say. It concerns someone's list (no Scienceblogger, but someone else, here; click the link for an amusing editorial comment on one writer) of

The Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years, 1953-2002

Note the dates, which I shall ignore in my comments below. Like everyone else, I shall embolden the titles of those I have read.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Only read this three or four times (not like some people). That may hold me, in fact.

The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov

I loved this as a teen. I grant his stylistic deficiencies though.

Dune, Frank Herbert

Some find this overrated, which I certainly do not. But there's no reason to read past the first one. (Although if you do, #5 (Heretics of Dune) is kind of fun.)

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

Not what I expected when I finally read it. I can see why hippies liked it.

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin

I assume they mean the series. This is well worth reading as a good example of the wizards & dragons (as opposed to sword & sorcery, which is a bit different) school of fantasy. And unlike some, I have no problem with putting fantasy in with SF. The first three books are the best, but I liked the fourth one too (Tehanu, written much later). I think there are one or two others. As I expected, she went ballistic when the miniseries had Ged as a blond-haired blue-eyed white guy.

Neuromancer, William Gibson

Again unlike some, I think cyberpunk at its best was a breath of fresh air. In any case this is certainly a "significant" book (I like the second one (Count Zero) best though).

Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke

I do think Clarke is a bit overrated, but this is a fine effort.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick

Interesting disagreements on this one too. Like most people, I prefer the film on the one hand, and other Dick on the other (Three Stigmata, A Scanner Darkly, Ubik)

The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley

Good idea – King Arthur from the Celtic angle – but toooo looong.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

When I think of Bradbury I always think of that Simpsons episode in which ├╝bergeek Martin Prince is running for class president, and makes a campaign pledge that he will establish a science fiction library featuring "the ABC's of the genre: Asimov, Bester, and Arthur C. Clarke!" To the question "What about Ray Bradbury?" his dismissive reply is "I'm aware of his work." I like Bradbury myself, but my favorite by far is The Martian Chronicles, which is a thing of beauty. This is okay though.

The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe

As I mentioned at Pharyngula, I hated this, and I can't believe I went on to read all four, especially after suffering through the godawful third one. (Bit of a rebound in the finale though, as I recall.) It really is insufferable (look at me, my main character's a torturer!). Forget this and try Robin Hobb's Assassin trilogy.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

I liked this, but it's been a while and I don't remember it that well.

The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov

Another teen fave, and all respect for our progenitors, but I think Foundation is all we really need.

Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
Cities in Flight, James Blish
The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison

Not sure I read all of these stories. I do approve of the edgy turn SF took around that time, but sometimes a little goes a long way.

Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany

I did read Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, which was okay, but I think I'll skip this one, which sounds like more of the same and then some.

Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card

I did like this, but I have no intention of reading any of his other books. I bet the original short story is much better; this seems padded, and it's that stuff that I hear predominates in the later books. It's true of Delany and it's true here: Nobody wants to hear your stupid politics, big guy.

The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson
The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
Gateway, Frederik Pohl

Interesting premise; lame payoff. Worth reading though.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling

I guess this one is the most "significant" in that it was a surprise smash hit, but I think each successive one is slightly better than the preceding one (haven't read Half-blood Prince yet).

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

Best as the original radio series; on the page the timing is off. But yes, essential. Like other series, though, it tails off in quality after three.

I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

This is perhaps a tad overrated, but I admire the ambition.

Little, Big, John Crowley

I'll get to this one, really I will. I have a copy and everything. Right there on the shelf. (*sigh*)

Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny

Only Zelazny I've read. Very nice.

The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick

Again, not my favorite, but respectable (his Hugo winner, I believe).

Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
On the Beach, Nevil Shute
Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke

Now this is overrated. Where's the punch line, after all that? And there are sequels too (glug).

Ringworld, Larry Niven

Not believable, but entertaining.

Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien

I own it, but I just can't see reading it.

Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut

I went through a Vonnegut phase once. This is a good one, as is the movie, but Cat's Cradle is my favorite. The Sirens of Titan is also great.

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

Another polarizing figure. My own view is a common one: good stuff, but learn how to write an ending! I like Diamond Age too (same caveat), but I have spurned the subsequent doorstops.

Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner

Another ambitious tome, which (although a bit dated by now) I liked a lot. Check out his eco-dystopia The Sheep Look Up.

The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock

Haven't read this one, but Behold the Man was a kick in the head. Remember all the fuss about The Last Temptation of Christ? If Pat Robertson read Behold the Man his head would explode.

The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks

Never read it, and after all the abuse I've seen piled on it, I never will.

Timescape, Gregory Benford

Okay. He's a physicist, and the premise is interesting, but I don't remember it that well.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

This is Riverworld vol. 1, I think. One was enough for me.

So that's 28 out of 50: respectably geeky, although not geektastic. I think we've seen that result around here before. Of the ones I haven't read I think I'll try Bester next – people seemed to like him a lot (even if one of them was Martin Prince).

Of course everyone had favorites that were missing. At Pharygula I mentioned off the top of my head:

Patricia McKillip. I don't understand why she isn't better known. Maybe it's the covers of her books, which no guy would dare carry around with him lest he be beaten up. But she totally rocks. Riddle-Master is the early epic every fantasy writer has in them (and I loved it), but I actually prefer The Book of Atrix Wolfe and the more recent Alphabet of Thorn. Lyrical and haunting.

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Jane Austen (or some Victorian, say Dickens) writes fairy stories. Slow start, but gets better and better. Definitely groundbreaking. Not at all like McKillip, but the same point applies: people look down on "fairy tales," but when they're good they're %$#&in' creepy. I want to read it again.

Vernor Vinge, A Fire Upon the Deep. Just read this one after multiple recommendations (e.g. the last time we did this). Galactic-scale SF, great concept, cool aliens.

David Brin, Startide Rising. Like the previous entry: uppity humans vs. ancient galactic powers. Great aliens (must learn dolphin trinary someday). This is book two of a trilogy, of which I liked the other two less (you can skip the first one, as the plots are not that closely related; whatever you need to know is filled in for you; similarly, the plot gets tied up nicely at the end, so you can skip #3 as well, though I did like parts of that one too).

More (upon reflection):

Stanislaw Lem. At one point I had read everything available in English. More literary than most; typical 20th-C. Eastern Europe sensibility, written in a wide range of styles. My favorites: The Chain of Chance, His Master's Voice, Fiasco, Solaris (and yes, I liked both movie versions), Imaginary Magnitude, A Perfect Vacuum (the last two are rather experimental ...).

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Mars Trilogy. Maybe I was a sucker for this, liking The Martian Chronicles like I do, but (with that book) this is the definitive story of Mars colonization. I also liked The Years of Rice and Salt (alternative history w/reincarnation).

Robert Charles Wilson, Spin. A recent favorite. Very nice hard SF with a galactic time-scale, although not an epic (yes, such a thing is possible). His heroes do tend to be dour, damaged souls, but I did also like Blind Lake and The Chronoliths. Ooh, I see he has a sequel (Axis) scheduled for July release. Maybe we'll find out [redacted].

Robert Morgan, Altered Carbon. Another recent fave, very entertaining if not deep. Tightly plotted cyber-noir, where the two genres really do mesh nicely. Violent though.

I was surprised to see no Robert Silverberg, who was a big name at one time. Not a genius, I suppose, but deserves mention. I liked Dying Inside.

China Mieville is a new name I hear a lot. I haven't read any of his big books, but I did like Looking for Jake, his collection of stories.

Kelly Link! Yes, this promising new writer gets an exclamation point. No novels yet, but two collections of bizarrely compelling stories.

Also, I'm sure I read something by Kate Wilhelm that was really great, but I can't remember the title. It was the one where ... (okay, never mind).

Not really appropriate for the list, but relevant while we're on the subject: I also enjoy the more out-there material by (*cough*) "literary" writers. Lem is often compared to these guys, but for some reason only he counts as a real SF writer. I refer to Borges, Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami (my first one was A Wild Sheep Chase, which is great), even (stretching the point a bit) Pynchon, Hesse, Kafka, and this guy no-one else seems to have heard of, Robert Pinget (try Someone). I also hear good things about the latest Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go).

Okay, I'm sure I've forgotten some wonderful things, but forgetting wonderful things is what life is all about.


Ben W said...

What, no Riddley Walker?

I know I read Riddle-Master as a wee bairn, bound up in one volume called "Riddle of Stars" or some such, but I can barely remember anything about it. There was a mine, and I think a horse?

Duck said...

See, I told you I left out something wonderful. I would like to say I was just testing, but yes, this one actually slipped my mind. I affirm it: Riddley Walker is totally great. Good catch!

Riddle-Master is the one-volume version; the first book is Riddle-Master of Hed. Here's your excuse to read it again. There is some time spent underground at one point, but I'm not sure it's a mine. No major equine characters though, as far as I remember.

Theres my tel
Keap you wel

N. N. said...

The Tolkien is in a class by itself. I've read Lord of the Rings a couple dozen times, and it is more interesting each time.

The first and third books in Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy is next in line for me. Tehanu was fair, but since I didn't enjoy the storyline of the second book, I didn't much care for more about its main character. Tales of Earthsea, a collection of short stories, is excellent. However, the final installment in Earthsea series, The Other Wind, is a terrible rewriting of a major theme in The Farthest Shore, viz., the nature of the afterlife.

Nevertheless, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore are nothing short of brilliant. I especially like Le Guin's explanation of magic in terms of naming.

N. N. said...

I forgot to add that I really like the Weis's and Hickman's Dragonlance series. The Chronicles (Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, and Dragons of Spring Dawning) are great, but the Legends (Time Of The Twins, War Of The Twins, and Test Of The Twins) are even better.

Duck said...

Thanks, N.N., for the update from Earthsea. I did like The Farthest Shore best, but I also liked #2 (I remember appreciating the idea that even Mr. Wizard-stud Ged was having a tough time keeping the Old Ones out of his head and needed some help.)

Never heard of Dragonlance. I'll keep it in mind. If you like Le Guin you should definitely check out McKillip (start with the ones mentioned).

Anonymous said...

Of all the sci-fi classix listed, which is the "truest"?

(it's amusing how most philosophical types--even hardcore "analyticals"-- accept fictional narratives as some clue to human psychology, or politics, or technostructure, when they are more or less syntactical ballets--and for some of us, Stravinsky does better ballet music than say Bob Heinlein).

That said, agree with your praise of Harlan's Deathbird stories, or Neal Stevenson's Snowcrash (Viva Raven), and WG's Count Zero ; Dick apres-"Electric Sheep", UBIK, (tho' Scanner Darkly rather murky, however phunn) ......... other fun early c-punk: Ballard's Vermillion Sands, AA Attanasio