Saturday, March 17, 2007

My take on the most significant Science Fiction and Fantasy works of the last 50 years.

A number of the science blogs (particularly those over at Seed's ScienceBlogs.com) have been commenting on a list of the 50 most significant Science Fiction and Fantasy books of the last 50 years.

It is quite interesting to read these posts, as peoples views differ quite a lot. As a quick break from observing proposal writing I'm going to join in, commenting on Mark C. Chu-Carrol's post (which is shown in grey font), as he went to the trouble of actually commenting on the books (and he is apparently the Geek-Lord of ScienceBlogs).

PZ, Bora, Orac, John, and others have all put up posts about a list of the 50 most significant Science Fiction and Fantasy works of the last fifty years. As the reigning Geek-Lord of ScienceBlogs, I figured that I had to weigh in as well. Here's the list: the one's that I've read are bold-faced.

1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien.: A work of true brilliance. I have no idea how many times I've read it; all I can say is that I don't think I've gone for longer than two years without re-reading it since I first encountered it in sixth grade.

As a Tolkien junky myself I would agree that LoTR must still be counted as the greatest Fantasy work of this century, simply for the breadth and scope of Tolkien's development of Middle Earth's history, languages and so on. In terms of writing style and elegance, well, it if you like slow plot development and exhaustive description, then its great. Some aspects (swarthy, evil, easterlings and southrons, for example) have to be excused as regrettable facets of times in which it was written.

Now for the rest of them - which I hope are not meant to be in order of significance.

2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov. : Foundation definitely shows its age, and all of Asimov's flaws as a writer are on display. On the other hand, all of Asimov's strengths as a writer are also on display. Foundation is what really got me started reading SF, and I continue to believe that it's a masterpiece.

I've read the foundation trilogy once, and while I liked them at the time I got bored very quickly when I tried to read them again. I agree with much of MCCC's comment, its certainly an exemplar of the "old" SciFi defined by Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, definitely influential, but I would not say it meets the standards a modern reader expects.


3. Dune, Frank Herbert: In general, Herbert was a pretty crappy writer. I'll never understand quite how he managed to pull Dune off. Dune is one of the great masterworks of science fiction - it's another of those books that I've read more times than I can count, and I still love it, and still find new details. It's just a spectacular piece of fiction, beautifully written, with a depth of detail and history that I think was unprecedented in SF. Unfortunately, the sequels were mostly back to Herbert's old crappy writing style. The depth in the setting did manage to shine through at times, but not enough to justify seven volumes. (I must admit that the series reads much better if you just pretend that the second book doesn't exist; there are a ton of continuity problems in the second book, but he mostly gets his act straightened out after that.)

The Dune trilogy, and the follow-up second Dune trilogy, were once favorites of mine and I still have the books. I recently tried to re-read parts of them, and it seemed more tedious than I'd remembered it being. Still, Dune did managed to create a sense of epic scale and deep history, something that pulled it above the mass of pedestrian SciFi.

4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein: Gods, what an over-rated piece of dreck. I heard so much about this; when I finally managed to get a copy from my local library and read it, I was just astonished at how dreadful it was. It doesn't even make it to the level of mediocrity of much of Heinlein's later work. Heinlein's juveniles were often fantastic (I have incredibly fond memories of "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel"), but his later adult fiction was mediocre at best. And SiaSL is not his best. Ick.

I've only read three Heinlein books when I was first getting in SciFi; SinaSL, the Puppet Masters, and Job, and really gave up on him after that. With the exception of Job, I never read them again. 'Nuff said.

5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin. My second-favorite fantasy series after Tolkien. It's got a very different flavor to it, which is part of why I love it: Tolkien had such an influence on fantasy that almost all of the fantasies written for decades after LoTR tended to feel like ripoffs. Earthsea was different - subtle, original, lyrical; just a wonderful piece of fiction.

This was read to me by my mother before I could read, and the dark spirit Ged releases and its hunting of him truly terrified me. I can still remember the felling. While I never really enjoyed any of Le Guin's other work, she created something with a truly unique feel to it with a AWoE, and it certainly deserves to be in a list of the most influential SciFi and Fantasy.

6. Neuromancer, William Gibson.: Overrated. It had style - I'll give it that. But it's style was self-consciously cool; the whole thing had a sense of "I, William Gibson, the author of this book am so much cooler than anyone who'd read this stuff". It also had a terrible influence on science fiction - I was glad to see cyberpunk fade out and disappear.

I'm always surprised to encounter people who don't like Neuromancer. It has more than style, it is intensely elegant in just how smoothly concise and sculptured it is. Its an incredibly short book, yet brims with innovation, and yet tells more than than a hundred modern overblown 700 page SciFi novels. Its (almost, yes, I am aware of Bruce Sterling) the birth and highest achievement of cyberpunk in one package. I certainly don't feel its self-consciously cool, its the imitation by later lackluster authors that sadly tars all of cyberpunk. IMHO Neuromancer is one of the best Science Fiction novels ever, definitely in the top 5.

7. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke: Overrated. Eh.

I've only read the short story in a compilation of A.C. Clarke short stories (which I thought was the whole thing), which I liked. I loved his short stories when I was young, and still have some of the compilations, but they, like all "old" SCiFi, have not aged well.

8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick: This one was a shock when I read it. I'd seen the original Blade Runner (the cheesy version with the voiceover), and thought this was a novelization of it. (I was clueless, OK?) I loved the movie; I'm crazy for the directors cut of it; but this just left it in the dust. Got me well and truly hooked on PKD. I do have to say that "Blade Runner" came closer to DADoES than any other PKD movie has come to his stories. (The worse example being "Total Recall", which took a brilliant story with multiple layers of identity confusion, and stripped it down so that it had a shadow of one.)

Never read it. Didn't really feel the need to mess with my appreciation of Blade Runner (directors cut, of course) by reading the story it was extrapolated from.

9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley: Loved this the first time I read it. Then I recently read it again, and couldn't figure out why I liked it the first time.

Never read this one. The one Marion Zimmer Bradley I read as a kid wasn't horrible (I can't even remember the name or what it was about), but somehow it put me off from reading anything else. Sad really.

10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury: definitely a classic.

Definitely over-rated crap, you mean. Temperature where books burn, firemen, blah blah. Nice idea, when compressed into a paragraph, but god the book is horribly written. I feel people confuse the socio-political warning (admirable) from the actual execution of the idea (sucky writing) and all end up parroting this claim that its a classic.

11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe.: Another one I've read too many times. I love Wolfe's writing. New Sun isn't exactly a fast-paced gripping novel. It's very slow at times; often rather grotesque. But it's a terrific read overall.

Never read.

12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.: For me, this is the opposite of my experience with "Mists of Avalon". I first read Canticle in high school, and couldn't figure out why anyone thought it was good. Then I recently found my copy while doing some cleaning, and re-read it, and was just amazed - it's amazing.

Read once, one of those things you read to see what it is that people are talking about. Elegant, but its still a read-once-only thing for me.

13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov.: I love Caves of Steel; it's my favorite of Asimov's books. For some reason, Asimov's weaknesses as a writer just don't seem as glaring in this book, and it's got everything that I like about his writing.

I certainly found this the most enjoyable of Asimovs book, and re-read it multiple times. Of course, its really a detective novel...

14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras. Never read this one.

Never heard of it even.

15. Cities in Flight, James Blish: I was pretty sure I'd read this at some point; checking the description on Wikipedia, I definitely remember reading it, and wondering what all the fuss was about. Seemed like fairly mediocre space opera to me. Blish has never thrilled me as an author.

I've never read this either, although I'd certainly heard of it and Blish.

16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett: I love Pratchett and Discworld. I've got very nearly the entire series. But "Colour" is my least favorite.

Pratchett is great fun to read, but I've never had the urge to buy his books or read them a second time.

17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison: OK, but pretentious. I've never been a fan of fiction that's very conscious of how cutting edge it is; too much of DV has that self-conscious feel to it for my tastes.
18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison: Harlan Ellison is a bit of a jackass. But when he puts his mind to it, man can be write.

I've only read a few of short stories, so can't comment on these.

19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester: Another big wow - this is an amazing book. Somehow, I managed to completely miss Bester until the SF book club re-issued a few of his books about 5-6 years ago, and it just knocked me out. Pure brilliance. I just can't believe I went so long as an SF fan without knowing about this!

Um, who?

20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany.: God, what an awful book. Terrible, dreadful, awful, pointless. It took me at least a dozen tries before I managed to read this; I kept trying because so many people raved about how wonderful it was. I don't think I'll ever understand what people see in this. The style of the writing gives me a headache; the story is slow and almost entirely pointless, interspersed with terribly written and very unpleasant sex scenes which have nothing to do with anything else. God, what dreck.

I seem to have been lucky to avoid reading this.

21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey: OK stuff; not great, but fun for a light read. Damn shame they had to ruin it by writing 70 or 80 crappy sequels.

I concur with MCCC's comment 100%.

22. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card: Scott used to be such a good writer, with such a deep empathy for his characters. "Ender's Game" was a great novel, with a really compelling main character. I even loved the first sequel: "Speaker for the Dead" was a really great story as well, with some nice development of Ender as a character. I hate what he's done by going back and retconning the story by telling it from Bean's PoV; it's such an obnoxious conscious effort to re-write the politics of the story to fit his more recent ultra-conservative gay-hating war-mongering political views.

I started with OSC by reading "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son" series, and didn't bother completing the series or reading anything else he did, despite hearing people rave about Ender's Game. I though the SSoaSS thing just had unlikeable characters and annoyingly portrayed bad guys, and I couldn't be bothered to put up with it. I have no idea whether his rather distasteful current political views had come to the surface then, or whether it just wasn't my cup of tea.

23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson.: Mediocre. I've never really understood why people think it's so great. To me, it's always felt like an overly self-conscious take on "Yeah, but what if Frodo was a total asshole?".

At the time I liked the whole white gold wielder vs Lord Foul trilogy - it was a grittier, harsher, fantasy world than I'd seen presented before. It was unique in many ways. Even the discomfort of having a rapist as the "hero" was tolerable. Would I go back and read them again - probably not.

24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman. Haven't read it.

I read the original heavily edited version, not the later expanded "author's" version, when I was young, and thought it was brilliant. The harsh, inhuman, timescales, societal changes, blind industrialized warfare with no understanding of the enemy, it thought about in ways I'd never considered before and presented them all wonderfully. Definitely a significant piece of work.

25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl: Eh. OK. Another one with too many sequels.

Read it multiple times. Was this the first book to have aliens hiding in black holes?

26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling. : I love the Harry Potter novels. "The Philosopher's Stone" isn't my favorite in the series, but it is a great story. And it's well-worth going back to re-read after having read some of the later ones - there are hints hidden in it to things that happen in later novels.

Never read any of them, although not for any reason.

27. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. : 42. Need I say more? Ok - a little more. I've worn out three different copies of this. Any time I'm feeling depressed, I dig out one of the Hitchhiker's books to cheer me up.

I'd group Adams with Pratchett as masters of comedic fantasy. Definitely a classic, although some of the followups were less inspired.

28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson. Not only have I not read this one, I have to admit that I haven't even heard of it before.

One of those things you've heard of, and probably seen imitated, so many times that you can't be actually sure you've read the original.

29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice.: Ick. Ick ick. Ick ick ick ick ick. I hate Anne Rice; I hate her writing style, I hate her stories, I hate her characters, and I hate what she did to the vampire legends. Ick, ick, blech.

I wouldn't even deign to call this true SciFi or Fantasy. Its like confusing Goth music with Alternative. They're related, but they're not the same thing at all. Vampire books are a unique sub-genre of horror, sadly often blended with creepy eroticism. Having Tom Cruise be LeStadt (or whatever his name was supposed to be) just proved how sucky IwaV was, IMHO.

30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin: Another brilliant work by LeGuin. Love it, although not as much as Earthsea.

Never could get into the Le Guin stuff other than aWoE, but I'm sure this was influential on the field.

31. Little, Big, John Crowley: I started this, and got distracted, and then lost my copy. I don't remember much about it. Based on reading other Crowley, I suspect that I'd like it quite a lot.

Mmh - never quite liked the Crowley stuff I read. Or am I mixing him up with John Varley?

32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny: One of my all-time favorite novels. What an amazing piece of writing! It's one of those books that has a plot that sets its hooks in you, and keeps you engaged - and at the same time, is written in such a wonderful style that you sometimes have to just stop reading to ponder the beauty of a paragraph. Zelazny at his best - and that is one hell of a strong statement.

Never read.

33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick: A good novel, but very over-rated I think. PKD wrote so many things that were so much better than this; I think it's a shame that this is the novel he's best known for.

It was worth reading, interesting, but I'm not going to read it again.

34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement. Never read it.

Tried to read this, based on rave reviews on Amazon, and regretted it. Finally slipped the copy into a box of books going to good will.

35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon: Ok. Didn't knock my socks off, but it's a nice piece of writing.

Nope, never read this either.

36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith. I've never managed to get a copy of any of Smith's books.

Nope, never read this either.


37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute. Haven't read it.


I've seen a B&W movie with this name when I was a kid, and liked it. Fine example of nuclear apocalypse. Is this the same thing?

38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke. Typical of everything I dislike about so many of Clarke's books. The man has interesting ideas, but he has absolutely no clue of how to hang a plot around them. Rama has great potential - but he managed to utterly waste it. I mean, what really happens in Rama? Human's discover what appears to be an artificial comet. They go to explore it. They find all sorts of interesting, but unexplained things. And then they have to leave it before it slingshots its way out of the solar system.

I liked the unexplained nature of Rendezvous with Rama. The biological machinery, etc etc, very interesting ideas. The much later sequels were horribly sucky though, and totally destroyed my remaining illusions that Clarke was a good author.

39. Ringworld, Larry Niven: Mediocre space opera.

OK, I must admit to be a big fan of Niven's early work, particularly the short stories, but also some of the novels. Protector - frigging brilliant, incredibly inventive story. General Purpose hulls, exploding galaxies, organ harvesting, guy was way ahead of his time. Ringworld was without doubt a super influential book (try counting how many books use ring worlds of one type or another these days) and I liked it. Followups, well... less great. But definitely to me Niven was the most interesting SciFi author of the 1960's.

His collaborations with Jerry Pournelle ran the gamut of innovative and great [The Mote in Gods Eye (the Moties were some of the most unique aliens ever imagined) and Footfall (the best alien invasion novel ever)], through nasty exhibits of racism (Lucifer's Hammer), to harmless but sadly weak sequels (The Gripping Hand).

40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys. Haven't read it.

Who?

41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien: This should not be identified as a novel written by J.R.R. Tolkien. It's a novel assembled by his son from notes left by the father. J.R.R. Tolkien would never have published it in this form. It's got some brilliant parts; and it's got some utterly dreadful parts. It's very sad to look at the "Unfinished Tales" published later, and see parts of the Silmarillion as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote them, and compare them to the versions edited by Christopher Tolkien.

The Silmarillion is a an essential part of Tolkien's work, and it is of great importance, but not as a novel. Must say I'm confused my MCCC's comment, it sounds as if he actually prefers the two Unfinished Tales to the Silmarillion, but that would be crazy!

42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut. Brilliant. I am not worthy to comment.

I never read this, for the weak reason that so many other supposed classics (e.g. Farenhiet 451, Brave New World, etc etc) had turned out to be less than great when I read then. Having just read the wikipedia entry on this book, I see I haven't missed anything.

43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson: A really fun read, but someone really needs to teach him how to write an ending!

Mmmmh - Neal Stephenson is definitely one of the better modern SciFi authors, but frankly his earlier work is not as good as his later work, and his endings were even weaker in his early work.

I feel that Snow Crash is particularly over-hyped by many of its readers, it's vacuum-formed production-line cyberpunk, that would have been significant if it had been published in 1985 rather than 1992. Honor him for his far more interesting Cryptonomicon, or the Baroque Cycle, but not Snow Crash.


44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner: Eh.


Never heard of this either, but its wikipedia entry makes it sounds quite promissing. I'll have to find a copy...


45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester: Remember what I said about "The Demolished Man"? I like "The Stars My Destination" even more.


Nope. Not read.

46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein: What a piece of crap. Heinlein at his worst. A heavy-handed political tract.


Never read this either, but the movie was fun.

47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock: Profoundly mediocre. Like I said before, I have a dislike for self-consciously cutting-edge stuff. Moorcock's writing was almost always incredibly self-conscious. It's got that writing style that says "I'm a great writer writing this; look at how wonderful my writing style is!".


I actually liked reading Moorcock's works when I was young, and the perpetually-depressed Elric of Melnibone was an interesting character. I'm pretty sure I would not enjoy them as much if I read them now, though.

48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks. : What the hell is this doing here? An incredibly blatant ripoff, virtually scene for scene and character for character of LoTR. The worse piece of derivative garbage that I've had the misfortune to waste my hard-earned money on.

A commenter on MCCC's post points out that Brooks is influential because he marked a return to writing epic fantasy after a longish spell of no-one daring to venture where Tolkien had been. This is a good way of looking at it. Sure, Brook's multiple books were formulaic to the extreme, but at the time I really enjoyed reading them, which frankly is all that counts.

49. Timescape, Gregory Benford. I know I've read this; it's on my bookshelf. But I can't remember a thing about it. Which pretty much sums up my experience with everything I've read by Benford - totally forgettable.

I read quite a bit of Benford, and found them rather bleak and depressing, but I never read this one. Nevertheless he had some interesing ideas. I might not put him on my list of the top 50, but then very few of this set of 50 books would go on my list.

50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer. Haven't read it.

As a teenager I used to love the Riverworld books, and re-read them many times. Definitely a classic.

OK, thats that. Maybe later, after the proposal deadline, I'll post on the very notable, and IMHO inexcusable, omissions from this list.

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