Good Math, Bad Math

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.
  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.
  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.)
  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.
  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.
  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.
  7. Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke: Overrated. Eh.
  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.)
  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.
  10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury: definitely 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.
  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.
  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.
  14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras. Never read this one.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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!
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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?”.
  24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman. Haven’t read it.
  25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl: Eh. OK. Another one with too many sequels.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin: Another brilliant work by LeGuin. Love it, although not as much as Earthsea.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement. Never read it.
  35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon: Ok. Didn’t knock my socks off, but it’s a nice piece of writing.
  36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith. I’ve never managed to get a copy of any of Smith’s books.
  37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute. Haven’t read it.
  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.
  39. Ringworld, Larry Niven: Mediocre space opera.
  40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys. Haven’t read it.
  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.
  42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut. Brilliant. I am not worthy to comment.
  43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson: A really fun read, but someone really needs to teach him how to write an ending!
  44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner: Eh.
  45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester: Remember what I said about “The Demolished Man”? I like “The Stars My Destination” even more.
  46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein: What a piece of crap. Heinlein at his worst. A heavy-handed political tract.
  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!”.
  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.
  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.
  50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer. Haven’t read it.

Hmmm… I’ve read 42 out of 50. Are the 8 that I missed worth getting?

Comments

  1. #1 Kristjan Wager
    March 11, 2007

    To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer is a quite decent read. Not on par with Lord of Light or anything, but quite good.

  2. #2 Markk
    March 11, 2007

    I can’t believe that “The Last Castle” or something else by Jack Vance isn’t on the list. Anyway, I also can’t believe no one at Science Blogs has read any Cordwainer Smith. They are very conciously stylistic stories. kind of like reading historical fiction written in say Mongolian or Korean or something culturally far away, translated to English. (not the details, just the style) Broadcasting the bloodlust of altered minks to keep people away from a planet (or at least have them tear themselves apart if they get too close), making enough money to buy the Earth on the sly with a forgotten forbidden computer, and many more images … well just say I am a fan.

    The Forever War is excellent if you have had family members as veterans with issues from their time in. (At least from personal experience).

  3. #3 afarensis
    March 11, 2007

    Cordwainer Smith is definitely worth reading. Haldeman would be good if you didn’t like Starship Troopers since it is basically a response to Heinlein. Anything by Hal Clement would be good – he was a high school biology teacher and clearly knew what he was talking about – if you ask me he was one of the best of the hard science writers. Matheson would be good as well. The book was turned into two movies, one had Vincent Price and the other had Charleton Heston in the lead role (the Heston version was much darker).

  4. #4 afarensis
    March 11, 2007

    Just noticed Markk’s comment. I have read pretty much everything Cordwainer Smith wrote and love his work. I will say he is probably my favorite author. Personally, I am surprised Andre Norton didn’t make it on the list. Witchworld was a terrific series…

  5. #5 crf
    March 11, 2007

    If you like Science-Fiction, I believe you’ll appreciate reading the following two books. Maybe they will bump some on your borderline. What does influential mean? I liked The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. I don’t know how influencial or important it will be though of, but it’s great. Its ideas are not new either. I also think Lempriere’s Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk deserves to be on your list. As far as I’m concerned, this one is extremely original. Neither of those books are traditional Science-Fiction. But it’s not now fair to say modern Science-Fiction comes out of a mould.

  6. #6 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 11, 2007

    Markk:

    I agree with you about Vance. I think Vance is a terrific writer of both space opera and fantasy. Something like “The Demon Princes” or “Dying Earth” really belongs on the list.

  7. #7 Thomas
    March 11, 2007

    22. Did you know Card only rewrote the short story about Ender as a novel because he needed a protagonist with the right background for the sequel? As for the later books, the first one from Bean’s POV is sort of interesting, it’s only when the politics moves to Earth they get really horrible.

    24. I have to agree this is a good antidote to Starship Troopers.

    34. Mission of Gravity is very hard sf. Not much in the way of literature, but fun speculative science. It’s about creatures living on a supermassive planet that spins so fast at has about one gravity at the equator and 500g at the poles and the difficulties of traveling on such a world. Drop a stone and you don’t see it fall, there is just a big explosion at your feet.

    38. The whole point of Rendevouz with Rama is that neither you or those involved understand anything about the ship. It’s about aliens that truly are beyond our comprehension.As such it is a rather courageous book and in many ways brilliant. It’s the sequels where Clarke changes his mind and try to explain it and add more of a plot that are horrible.

    48. Adding Brooks has to be some kind of joke to see if the readers are still awake.

  8. #8 Bob Munck
    March 11, 2007

    The list has no Vernor Vinge, hence has no validity: True Names, Across Realtime, A Fire Upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky, Tatja Grimm’s World. A huge, amazing range of settings and civilizations and ideas that just pop out at you. The Singularity, bobbles, a galaxy-spanning version of Poul Anderson’s Brainwave, a trader-based meta-civilization, a multi-civilization, multi-race internet, a civilization with a sun that turns off for 200 years out of every 250, a multiple-body collective intelligence where the components communicate with each other by sound, … I have a half-dozen others in mind, but the list is getting too long.

  9. #9 Orac
    March 11, 2007

    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.

    Yes! Someone who hates this book as much as I did!

    I’ll never understand why this book is viewed so favorably.

  10. #10 essman
    March 11, 2007

    Earth Abides, by George Stewart. Under-read post-apocalypse novel from 1949. Might have inspired The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

  11. #11 Paul Clapham
    March 11, 2007

    I must have read ten thousand books in my lifetime, including a lot of science fiction. The ones I couldn’t finish I could count on one hand — Silmarillion was one of them.

  12. #12 mjl
    March 11, 2007

    Absolutely agree with your take on Neal Stephenson. He creates one a hell of a plot and then doesn’t seem to know how to wrap it up. Not only Snow Crash but also Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle ended weakly (and that’s being generous). I mean, come on – a low-life like Jack Shaftoe out hunting with Louis IV?

    Still, I’ll continue to read his stuff for the first 98%.

  13. #13 genotypical
    March 11, 2007

    “Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice.: Ick. Ick ick. Ick ick ick ick ick.”
    LOL! So glad to know that someone else finds these books as bad (and as borrrrrring) as I do!
    You should definitely read On the Beach sometime–as simple, but effective, as a punch in the gut. May not be as significant for younger readers, but it really touched a chord with those of us from the “duck and cover” generation.

  14. #14 afarensis
    March 11, 2007

    I will second the comment about Earth Abides and about Dhalgren. It just occured to me that Clifford Simak didn’t make the list either.

  15. #15 themann1086
    March 11, 2007

    On the Beach is a very good novel. I think I might even still have it on my bookshelf somewhere (I stole it from my aunt about 5 years ago, when I was 15). Worth picking up.

  16. #16 MiguelB
    March 11, 2007

    A few quick comments:

    My favorite Heinlein novel is “The moon is a harsh mistress”; I also remember fondly “Tunnel in the sky” and “The puppet masters”. All I’ve read from him is more about morals and politics than science fiction; I don’t think “Starship troopers” deserves special mention in this sense.

    About Niven and Ringworld, I’ll say that I’ve enjoyed more the Niven+Pournelle novels than those by Niven alone.

    I’ll also mention C. S. Lewis “Perelandra” and the rest of the trilogy as worth reading.

  17. #17 Walker
    March 11, 2007

    Another plug for Vance.

    Dying Earth was, at least indirectly, an amazingly influential book. It was a key inspiration in Gygax’s design of D&D, which in turn had major influences on modern gaming.

  18. #18 dave
    March 11, 2007

    I’ll join in in recommending The Forever War. I read it back in high school when I’d go through ten books in a slow week, and it’s one of the ones that made enough of an impression that I still recognize the title. (Though I’d probably have trouble remembering much of the book itself beyond an extremely short summary of the plot.)

    I didn’t make it through Fahrenheit 451 the first time I picked it up (also in high school), and when I did read it this past year I didn’t think too much of it. It’s a brilliant idea and a good story, but I’m unimpressed in general with Bradbury as a writer, and it didn’t do anything to change my mind on that.

    For *good* SF from Heinlein, look for the short story “All You Zombies”. I was very impressed with it, and there wasn’t enough politics or morals that I noticed them. (If that one doesn’t turn your brain inside out, you need to read it again and pay more attention.)

    Le Guin and Vonnegut are two authors who I haven’t read much by but have been impressed with everything that I have read. Anybody have recommendations for their stuff that will do better than “Pick something with their name off the shelf”?

  19. #19 Peter
    March 11, 2007

    Flowers for Algernon not on the list?
    I agree about Pratchett – Colour of magic is the weakest of the Discworld novels. Pratchett just keeps getting BETTER.

    Nothing by John Varley? I think he’s one of the most consistently excellent writers in SF. And all computer scientists should read Press Enter – scary stuff.
    Then read (in the same collection) The Persistence of Vision, to get a sense of Varley’s range.

    My favorite Asimov is probably The God’s Themselves, but Caves of Steel might be number 2.

    Totally agree about Dhalgren. Unreadable. But Delaney wrote some great stuff – esp. Babel 17.

  20. #20 pinknoiz
    March 12, 2007

    Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling have kept me quite amused. I agree with the comments about Corwainer Smith and Vernor Vinge.

  21. #21 Davis
    March 12, 2007

    For *good* SF from Heinlein, look for the short story “All You Zombies”.

    I absolutely love that story; I seem to recall that it was in the same collection as “And He Built a Crooked House,” which was also a fun one.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who disliked Stranger in a Strange Land; I actually enjoyed it for the first part, but Heinlein’s philosophizing eventually ruined the whole story for me. I found Job: A Comedy of Justice to be pretty entertaining, though.

  22. #22 Flaky
    March 12, 2007

    Besides Vernor Vinge, I believe Iain Banks should also be on that list.

  23. #23 JW Tan
    March 12, 2007

    Does China Mieville qualify as SF, and as “significant”?

    Perdido Street Station and The Scar are quite brilliant books.

  24. #24 zP
    March 12, 2007

    I think Stephen Baxter should be on there as well Manifold, Evolution, Destiny’s children are impressive both in plot and style. I also cast my votes for Banks and Vinge.

  25. #25 llewelly
    March 12, 2007

    The Riverworld series (of which To Your Scattered Bodies Go is only the first) is worth reading twice, but it should be approached like Star Trek – expect a lot of weird and occasionally hilarious or offensive misunderstandings of science, engineering, history, and even fiction writers. The first 4 volumes are a single story and can’t individually stand on their own, so you should plan on reading all 4. Gods of Riverworld is good too, but Farmer manages to make most of the same mistakes the authors of STNG Holodeck episodes made, but not quite so idiotically. (But unlike STNG holodock, the Riverworld computer is used to things that are physically real (the characters only use VR to learn about the computers, or to plan their efforts to make the computer build cool toys for them), and most of the characters initially have no reason to understand computers. ) I thought it was greatest SF ever when I was 10 and my only experience with computers was coding up small games in basic and z80 machine code (I didn’t have an assembler!) on a trash-80 III. I went without computers for most of 12 years, and then jumped into a CS major at a university, and found Gods of Riverworld merely good upon re-reading it.

  26. #26 llewelly
    March 12, 2007

    For *good* SF from Heinlein, look for the short story “All You Zombies”.

    I absolutely love that story; I seem to recall that it was in the same collection as “And He Built a Crooked House,” which was also a fun one.

    I think I have 3 Heinlein collections which are titled (from memory) 6 X H , The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag , and And He Built a Crooked House . The 3 of them have about 6 stories in common (so the first has nothing the other two don’t), including All You Zombies and And He Built a Crooked House . (Good thing I got all 3 free from those infamous library give aways) I throughly enjoyed all the stories, even 3 times, and even The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag , despite the fact that I find many of Heinlein’s philosophical and political positions offensive. But if I could only put 50 books on a list, none of those 3 would make it.

  27. #27 llewelly
    March 12, 2007

    Flowers For Algernon would send King, Koontz, and Cthulhu mewling and howling into a Dyson sphere full of teddy bears and comforters.

  28. #28 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 12, 2007

    JW Tan:

    I’ve read Mieville, and I find him absolutely atrocious. I find him to be a perfect example of the self-consciously literary style that I hate so much. Mieville’s writing just screams “Look at me, I’m such a great stylistic writer”, while actually being awkward and stilted.

    When it comes to style, I always like to compare Mieville to Brust. Brust is a writer who’s got amazing style, and who’s incredibly good at writing in vastly different styles for different books: compare the style of, say, “Jhereg” to one of his Dumas pastiches, to “The Gypsy”, to “Freedom and Necessity” which he co-wrote with Emma Bull. Brust is a writer who shows how to write with style; Mieville is just a wannabe.

  29. #29 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 12, 2007

    For everyone saying that Vinge belonged on the list, I can’t agree with you more. Vinge is such an amazing writer, and I don’t think anyone would deny how influential he’s been. “A Fire Upon the Deep” and “A Deepness in the Sky” are two of my favorite books. And I’m lucky enough to have a signed copy of “Deepness”; he visited my employer a few years ago, and a friend got to go to lunch with him. Poor guy got stuck carrying some obscene number of books to lunch with Vinge,
    because everyone was giving him books to get signed. Vinge apparently took it quite well :-).

  30. #30 G Barnett
    March 12, 2007

    Gonna second (or third, or whatever) the good things that have been said about Hal Clement & “Mission of Gravity.” I think I read that one at least 3 or 4 times growing up, along with its sequel, plus the novel “Needle.”

    What I wanna know, is why there’s no H. Beam Piper on that list? “Little Fuzzy,” anyone? Sure, the tech is horribly dated, but it’s still one of the books I love to go back and read from time to time.

  31. #31 Blake Stacey
    March 12, 2007

    Asimov’s Foundation series is a little like the Star Trek movies: there are “even-numbered” stories which are very good, and “odd-numbered” ones which read like they were directed by William Shatner. It’s also unfortunate that the novels he wrote at the end of his career — from Foundation’s Edge to Forward the Foundation — have much better writing but much less “fanboy appeal”.

    Think about it: what scenario could more intensely please a socially maladapted youngster (like me in ninth grade)? The Galactic Empire is falling apart, and it’s up to the nerds to save everything! Oppressed by bullies in gym class? Well, it’s all OK, because “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” And then, once the Foundation has defeated enough enemies that it seems unstoppable, something even better comes along — a man who can make anyone love him just by thinking in their direction! Ah, but the Mule upsets the Seldon Plan and must be eliminated, no matter how endearing his pathos may be. How do you defeat the Geek Lord of the Galaxy? Why, by introducing the SF convention in the sky, the Second Foundation.

    In contrast, look at the overarching plot of the later Foundation books. Both the First and Second Foundations — bastions of intellectual individualism — turn out to be flawed, broken, incapable of facing their future. The salvation of humanity turns out to be a galactic supermind, a collective organism whose growth is shepherded by paternalistic robots. It’s like all your teenage SF indulgences turned out to be part of your parents’ plan. Worse than that, it’s like rooting for the Borg!

  32. #32 Blake Stacey
    March 12, 2007

    Vonnegut recommendations: The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, Deadeye Dick (not SF), Bluebeard (not SF either), and the short-story collections Welcome to the Monkey House and Bagombo Snuff Box. There’s some good non-fiction in Palm Sunday, and if you discover you’re a confirmed Vonnegut fan, Galapagos is pretty enjoyable.

    I got a stack of Vonnegut books for Christmas a few years ago, and read through them at about two books per day. Somehow, I lost my copy of Mother Night, and I’d like to find it again.

  33. #33 gg
    March 12, 2007

    A few comments:

    “I Am Legend, Richard Matheson”: A very nice story, written by the author who wrote more classic SF and horror than one can imagine (if there’s an episode of the Twilight Zone that you really like, odds are it’s by Matheson, like Nightmare at 20,000 feet). I Am Legend seems like a typical post-apocalyptic survivor story, but has a very nice twist to it at the end. It inspired the laughably dreadful Charleton Heston movie Omega Man, and I now see that a new movie version will be out in 2007, starring Will Smith!

    “Flowers For Algernon would send King, Koontz, and Cthulhu mewling and howling into a Dyson sphere full of teddy bears and comforters.”: That being said, where is Lovecraft on the list? I would put at least one of his works here, most likely At the Mountains of Madness, which it is fair to call a wonderful mixture of SF, fantasy, AND horror.

    “Harlan Ellison is a bit of a jackass.”: In the MST3K episode “Mitchell”, a scene in a police station with a lookalike in cuffs prompts one of the robots to shout, “Hey, they arrested Harlan Ellison!”, to which Joel replies, “Good!”

    If we’re allowed to include short story writers on the list, I would include Cyril Kornbluth, one of the most cynical writers of the 1950s. Stories like “The Silly Season” and “The Only Thing We Learn” are stories even more relevant today than when they were written, and his “The Little Black Bag” is a masterpiece, astounding for Cyril’s demonstrated dislike for human nature.

    “Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein: What a piece of crap.”: Anyone out there familiar with John Steakley’s “Armor”? It follows very similar themes to Starship Troopers, but with a less glorified view of war. A friend of mine commented that Starship Troopers is inspired by WWII, while Armor is inspired by Vietnam.

  34. #34 Anonymous
    March 12, 2007

    Dave – I love all of LeGuin’s SF and a lot of her YA. Sadly, many are out of print. Recently, 3 were republished in an omnibus called Worlds of Exile and Illusion (Rocannon’s World, City of Illusion, and Planet of Exile.) I’m trying to think of my favorite, and it’s downright impossible. Four Ways to Forgiveness is a series of short stories in the Hainish cycle.

    But, IMO, if you pick up any book by her off the shelf, it’ll be good.

  35. #35 Flex
    March 12, 2007

    As for your missing 8, I greatly enjoyed _Rouge_Moon_, but it’s not a traditional SF novel.

    Yeah, there are some real odd-balls on the list, and I don’t by the excuse that _The_Sword_of_Shannara_ belongs because it re-introduced epic fantasy after Tolkien’s masterpiece created a lull for a bit. This is a list of significant SF&F, not necessarily the best, which is why _Dhalgren_ shows up.

    I’m surprised that you loved _Do_Androids_Dream_of_Electric_Sheep_, but only give _Stand_on_Zanibar_ an ‘Eh’. I loved both of them, and they are a couple of the most many-layered novels on the list. Of course, these days _Shockwave_Rider_ may be seen as more significant/influencial. (Of course, why isn’t _A_Clockwork_Orange_ on this list?)

    I stopped reading Heinlein after _Stranger_in_a_Strange_Land_, complete whaledreck, grok?

    The many comments about Vonnegut reminds me that I once skipped high school to go see him lecture at a Oakland University. He gave an excellent talk on the differences in narrative structure across different cultures.

  36. #36 Geoff
    March 12, 2007

    dave: I personally like Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” the best, but “The Telling” was good as well. For Vonnegut, I liked “Cat’s Cradle”, but I haven’t read much else of his.

    I saw Pratchett at a book signing not too long ago, and he’s as funny in person as he is in writing. Either he’s carefully prepared and scripted his talks (probably, but he was still witty through the Q&A), or he writes with more-or-less his genuine personality.

    Also, I second the C.S. Lewis’ “Perelandra”.

  37. #37 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 12, 2007

    There are hundreds, even thousands of books that belong on The List. But, to mention something that I also wrote on Uncertain Principles, but which resonates witrh your multidimensionality and data structures interests:

    It seems wrong to me to baldly list “most significant” without taking dates into account. That’s why I list, for each decade and each century categories and sublists:

    Executive Summary of the Decade
    Major Books of the Decade
    Major Films of this Decade
    Other Key Dates and Stories of this Decade
    Major Writers Born this Decade
    Major Writers Died this Decade
    Hotlinks to other Timeline pages of SF Chronology
    Where to Go for More: 51 Useful Reference Books

    An example being for 1940-1950
    http://www.magicdragon.com/UltimateSF/timeline1950.html

    If one is considering “influence” then it is useful to look and influence from Science Fiction to “mundane” literature and vice versa, and between Science Fiction and inventions and scientific discoveries of the same time, and between science fiction and geopolitical context. For that matter, between novels, films, television, and magazines.

    Science Fiction is just too multidimensional to be squeezed into a linear list, in my humble opinion as someone who used to go to more than one science fiction convention per month on average, and who publishes science fiction criticism in academic venues.

  38. #38 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 12, 2007

    gg:

    To be fair, it’s supposed to be a list of influential stuff from the last fifty years – Lovecraft is pretty clearly temporally outside. If it was the 50 most influential of all, then leaving Lovecraft out would be criminal: love him or hate him, no one can deny the sheer magnitude of the impact that he made on Horror, SF, and Fantasy.

  39. #39 Killinchy
    March 12, 2007

    I am surprised that Olaf Stapledon’s, “Last and First Men” isn’t on the list. This book deals with the history of the human race from the 1930s up to the time when a now red giant sun is about to put an end to the solar system. Wonderfully imaginative and beautifully written.

  40. #40 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 12, 2007

    I strongly agree with Mark C. Chu-Carroll about Lovecraft.

    H. P. Lovecraft was an essential American figure in the history of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, as he bridged the gulfs between these genres with literary flair, and greatly influenced many who followed afterwards. He leaped across the gulfs with the realization that horror need not be supernatural, because the Heat Death of the Universe was scary enough, as was the notion that a scientific, mechanistic universe was utterly indifferent to humanity, even before extraterrestrials are thrown into the mix.

    Without Lovecraft, there would have been no Robert E. Howard, no Ray Bradbury, no Robert Bloch, no Stephen King…

    As I commented at
    http://www.magicdragon.com/UltimateSF/sfpo-13pt0.html

    The light from the weird star of H. P. Lovecraft has been eclipsed by some of his own satellites (Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long), but is as pure in its way as any illuminations from Homer, Ovid, Horace, Dryden, Pope, Poe, Sir Walter Scott, and the other stars that shone in the genre galaxy before Howard Phillips Lovecraft, or any that shone thereafter.

    He wrote an Astronomy column for a Rhode Island newspaper. Today, he’d be a Science Blogger, I suspect, especially with his leadership role (President!) of the Amateur Press Association (APA) which gave rise to fanzines.

  41. #41 Patrick
    March 12, 2007

    “On the Beach” is definately worth your time. Good novel.

  42. #42 Joe
    March 12, 2007

    I Am Legend is well-crafted as a combination of zombie and vampire lore. The focus on one character for most of the novel gives an unusually believable feel to the story. Also, if you come across the edition in which several of his short stories follow the novel, get it. Many like those more than the book. One thing is certain: Stephen King owes most of his pre-Dark Tower career to Matheson.

  43. #43 andy
    March 12, 2007

    I remember liking Stand on Zanzibar when I read it. Seemed pretty cool, but it’s pretty difficult to get into.

  44. #44 m_faust
    March 12, 2007

    For a book that should be on this list and I haven’t seen mentioned, I have to suggest Shockwave Rider by John Brunner. The great-grandaddy of all cyberpunk books and although some of the techonolgy seems really dated now (tape drives, etc.), it still seem to me to be one of the most prescient sci-fi books I have read.

    Also, hard to believe that an uber-geek wouldn’t have read the Riverworld books. Better get on that.

  45. #45 Scott Simmons
    March 12, 2007

    Based on the patterns of your preferences displayed here, I’m very confident that you’d really like Haldeman’s The Forever War.

  46. #46 gg
    March 12, 2007

    MarkCC wrote: “To be fair, it’s supposed to be a list of influential stuff from the last fifty years – Lovecraft is pretty clearly temporally outside.”

    Whoops, I missed the ‘fifty year’ criterion, though I should have clued in because of the absence of H.G. Wells!

    Just to continue on about Lovecraft (who I love lots!), his letters to his ‘circle’ are a joy to read – intelligent, thoughtful, and fun. He attended popular lectures on topics such as Einstein’s relativity, which is why his discussions of places with ‘weird angles’ sound so right to physicists!

    One can also visit some of the sites he discusses in Providence. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in an ancient cemetery behind an old church in which Lovecraft would sit and ponder. He went there, in turn, because of Poe’s proclivity to sit there…

  47. #47 Eamon Knight
    March 12, 2007

    I just have to mention that I read the first Foundation book on the bus which was transporting a bunch of amateur astronomers from Toronto to the Gaspe, to see the 1972 solar eclipse. As it was a long bus ride, I probably got through the whole thing by the time we got back.

    Re: the C.S.Lewis space trilogy. I first read them in my pre-Christian period, and was able to accept the religious themes as mythology-adopted-as-plot-devices, and just enjoy the story. It’s been a long time since I last read it, but I suspect that today (post-Christian, and with more awareness of the intellectual and social issues raised), a lot of it would stick in my craw as obvious propagandizing for Virtuous Tradition against Evil Humanist Science (particularly the last book).

  48. #48 PZ Myers
    March 12, 2007

    I Am Legend was also made into a not-bad (at least not as bad as the Heston version) movie titled “The Last Man On Earth”, and starring Vincent Price. I do think it deserves to be on the list as a pretty good early example of an apocalyptic SF novel.

    I’ve got to say that our taste in books is almost identical. Two exceptions, only: I very much liked Stand on Zanzibar, and I’m a Gibson fan. I don’t see him as being self-consciously cool at all — he has a very laid back attitude to the technology everyone focuses on, and in his later books, he’s been drifting farther and farther away from the cyber-anything domain.

  49. #49 Flex
    March 12, 2007

    Jonathan Vos Post wrote, “…pure in its way as any illuminations from Homer, Ovid, Horace, Dryden, Pope, Poe, Sir Walter Scott, and the other stars that shone in the genre galaxy before Howard Phillips Lovecraft,…”

    I know that you didn’t exclude them from your list, but I’d like to explicitly mention Ambrose Bierce, Lord Dunsany, and William Morris. Mind you, Dunsany and Morris can be excruciatingly dull, but they greatly helped form the basis of Lovecraft’s work.

    But now we’re into the greatest F&SF of the last 200 years. :)

  50. #50 gg
    March 12, 2007

    PZ wrote: “I Am Legend was also made into a not-bad (at least not as bad as the Heston version) movie titled “The Last Man On Earth”, and starring Vincent Price.”

    Darn! I vaguely recalled that there was one more film made based on I Am Legend, but I couldn’t remember what it was. Avoiding spoilers of the original story, does the Price version hew closer to the original than the Heston version?

    This illustrates in part what I said earlier about Matheson – when you look around seriously at a lot of the horror and SF made into television episodes and screenplays, his name starts to pop up all over the place. He has a recurring theme in his works of what I call ‘suburban horror’- the transformation of mundane technological devices and societal norms into instruments of terror, be they telephones (Sorry, Right Number), airplanes (Nightmare at 20,000 Feet), tractor trailers (Duel), small apartments (Prey, also made into part 3 of Trilogy of Terror), or neighbors (I Am Legend).

    All right, my Matheson love-fest is over!

  51. #51 Chris
    March 12, 2007

    No love for Greg Egan?

  52. #52 MiguelB
    March 12, 2007

    Re: the C.S.Lewis space trilogy. I first read them in my pre-Christian period, and was able to accept the religious themes as mythology-adopted-as-plot-devices, and just enjoy the story.

    Oops, I forgot CS Lewis is regarded as a Christian writer. Maybe it’s because I’m not anglosaxon, but I was never able to figure out just exactly what that was about… I just enjoyed the story, its originality and style.

  53. #53 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 12, 2007

    Miguel:

    That’s interesting. I didn’t make it more than half-way through the first book of Lewis’s trilogy, because it was so obvious to me that it was all just an elaborate excuse for second-rate christian apologetics. Probably that’s just an effect of being Jewish; being constantly surrounded by Christianity, while being deliberately and consciously separate from it, definitely tends to give me a strong awareness of how frequently people try to force it on me.

    I actually have an intense hatred for Lewis, because of the apologetics issue: Lewis wrote both the Narnia and the Perelandra stuff with the express goal of “preparing” people for accepting Christianity. In Perelandra, that’s fine: it’s a book written for adults, who can take care of themselves. But Narnia, by masquerading as Fantasy to draw in young readers, so that he can then use them as a target for proselytization disgusts me.

  54. #54 Edward
    March 12, 2007

    I disagree that “Bladerunner” is the most faithful film adaptation of a PKD novel, though I do think it is the best. Last year’s “A Scanner Darkly” is probably the first PKD adaptation to preserve the entire plot from beginning to end. “Bladerunner”, by contrast, besides having no mood organs and no Mercerism, has a very different ending than “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

  55. #55 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 12, 2007

    Flex is right. I wrote the preface to a published collection of the snail-mail correspondence between Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Dunsany. Dunsany was also an Irish National Chess Champion, pistol marksman champion, and successwful playwright simultaneously in London and on Broadway.

    I very much enjoyed Michael Dirda fine critical review and metareview from the
    February 18, 2007 Washington Post. See htlink below.

    I had written about the Poetry of Clark Ashton Smith the online version being at
    http://www.magicdragon.com/UltimateSF/sfpo-10pt0.html

    I’ve also written about the Poetry of Lord Dunsany, and that of Robert E. Howard. Thank Flex and Dirda for calling more people’s attention to Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith, both astonishing poets and fiction authors, whose influence is, as you say, considerable. I’m a coauthor, twice, with Ray Bradbury, and he does still revere Clark Ashton Smith.

    Michael Dirda
    A journey to the fantastic realms of Clark Ashton Smith.

    By Michael Dirda
    Sunday, February 18, 2007; Page BW10
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/15/AR2007021501543.html

    Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was one of the three great contributors to the magazine Weird Tales (along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan) — and some would argue that he was the best of them all. Certainly, the evidence of two new paperback reissues, a collection of substantial critical essays, the first volume of a scholarly edition of his collected fantasies, a recent volume of letters, and much else hint at the ongoing literary vitality of this fascinating and controversial writer….

    See also:

    ROBERT E. HOWARD’S POETRY

    [references from Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard,
    Creator of Conan, L. Sprague de Camp et.al, New York: Bluejay,
    1983;used here with the written permission of L. Sprague de Camp]
    http://www.magicdragon.com/UltimateSF/sfpo-8pt0.html

    LORD DUNSANY’S POETRY

    [References from Pathways to Elfland: The Writings of Lord Dunsany,
    Darrell Schweitzer, Philadelphia: Owlswick Press, 1989]
    http://www.magicdragon.com/UltimateSF/sfpo-9pt0.html

  56. #56 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 12, 2007

    Edward:

    I didn’t say that “Bladerunner” was the most faithful adaptation – just that it was *the best* adaptation. I love the identity-twisting ending of DADoES; even the directors cut of BladeRunner doesn’t manage to pull that off right.

  57. #57 Mu
    March 12, 2007

    Dune, Frank Herbert: I bought the book at 5 pm on a Saturday -at 7 pm I canceled the movie for the evening, finished it by 6 am when the sun came up. No other 600 page book managed to do that, not even Harry Potter.
    I disagree on the The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson, I liked the premise of setting up the hero as a failure and make him redeem himself. Unlike Frodo, who’s pretty much just pushed through most of the story, and never has any real options.
    And my Heinlein preferences are diametrically opposed to yours, I could never understand the fascination with “Stranger in a strange land” and found Starship Trooper well written, even if I disagree with the political implications.

  58. #58 tgibbs
    March 12, 2007

    A new film version of “I am Legend” (at least the third) with Will Smith is said to be currently in the works.

  59. #59 Jon
    March 12, 2007

    I loved Starship Troopers and everything else he wrote until the metafiction of his dotage (e.g. To Sail Beyond the Sunset). Harsh Mistress is my favorite. But Troopers is special as it’s great sci-fi that brilliantly demonstrates the meaning of civic responsibility, politics, and patriotism. People often mischaracterize Heinlein as a right winger, but anyone who’s read Troopers knows how disgusted RAH would be with the profiteering, incompetent, draft dodgers who’ve dragged us into the current mess in Iraq.

  60. #60 Woofencuccoo
    March 12, 2007

    I am astonished to see, that, (regrettably, as usual) there is no mention of Stanislaw Lem’s ‘The Cyberiad’, my nomination for an all-time all-literature classic. Kudos to Michael Kandel whose translation from the original Polish is nothing short of absolutely brilliant.

  61. #61 David Reiner
    March 12, 2007

    I highly recommend Rudy Rucker. He’s one of those writers who throw out little tidbits that others would turn into whole novels. Try White Light to start with, but everything of his is worth reading. (Oh, yeah, he’s a fellow mathematician.) Maybe not _influential_, though.

    For influential, I must reiterate others’ opinion:
    Vernor Vinge is amazing. nuf said.

    Stanislaw Lem was truly, truly amazing. uneven, but fantastically imaginative.

    D.L.Reiner

  62. #62 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 12, 2007

    David:

    Something about Rucker’s writing just grates on me. I’m not sure exactly what it is. I mean, in the “Software” series, it was deliberately annoying; which makes it the least annoying of his stuff to me – by deliberately being annoying, it didn’t bug me so much. That’s not to say that I particularly like the software series; it’s good, but not great. But at least, it’s tolerable, whereas the rest of his stuff just drives me right up the wall.

  63. #63 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 12, 2007

    Woofencuccoo:

    The only Lem I’ve read was an incredibly awkward translation of “Solaris”. It very nearly wrecked it. It’s good to have the name of someone who’s done a good job of translating him. Thanks!

  64. #64 MiguelB
    March 12, 2007

    Mark,

    I’m glad I didn’t know about Lewis expressed purpose when reading his novels; I suspect I wouldn’t have liked them as much. Even though I knew they were supposed to be “Christian” works, I didn’t know “preparation for Christianity” was the objective.

    That’s interesting. I didn’t make it more than half-way through the first book of Lewis’s trilogy, because it was so obvious to me that it was all just an elaborate excuse for second-rate christian apologetics.

    Interesting indeed. I find more parallels between Christian myth and LOTR’s, than Narnia’s or Perelandra’s. (Tolkien is my all-time favorite writer, by far).

    I suspect, however, it’s not a question of parallels or similitudes between myths, but some message or moral in Lewis’ books that somehow escapes me. A discussion some years ago with an American gave me this impression, at least.

  65. #65 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 12, 2007

    Miguel:

    The difference between Tolkien and Lewis is that Tolkien’s Christianity influence his writing – you can tell that it was written by a deeply religious Christian. But he’s not trying to force it on you; it’s just a natural part of his writing. He isn’t trying to convert you to Christianity, or to convince you of any kind of theological point. Christianity is just a part of his worldview and his thinking, and that comes across in his writing. Tolkien repeatedly spoke about how LoTR should not be viewed as allegory, but just as a good story.

    Lewis, on the other hand, wasn’t just letting his religion naturally influence his writing: he was deliberately creating his books with the express purpose of promoting Christianity. It’s all allegory.

    I don’t mind a Christian writer who’s Christianity comes across in his writing – even when it’s a lot more heavy-handed than Tolkien. But I *despise* people like
    Lewis who use their fiction writing as a tool for religious indoctrination.

  66. #66 Peter
    March 12, 2007

    Heinlein and wings –

    Heinlein isn’t right wing or left wing, he’s libertarian. I think it’s a sick philosophy, but it doesn’t fit on the left-right.

  67. #67 Joshua
    March 13, 2007

    “I found Job: A Comedy of Justice to be pretty entertaining, though.”

    Yes! At last, someone else who has read this little gem. It actually comes a bit out of nowhere, because it’s surrounded by all of his crap later works, temporally, but it shares little in common with them. Job was actually a pretty strong influence on my atheism, because that’s when I began to realise that the God of the Bible is really, truly kind of a jerk, such that even if he existed I wouldn’t particularly want to believe in him. It’s also just quite well-written in general, though I haven’t read it for a while.

    I also agree with Jon on Starship Troopers not being all that bad, really. If you accept the conceit of a true existential threat posed by an enemy who doesn’t even really have leaders for you to negotiate with, the rest follows. However, despite its overall worshipful tone towards military service, I felt like it didn’t pull many punches with the reality of war. Brutal things happen, even in training, and there aren’t any real moments of glory, no Marines (in Guam) marching down a hill in front of the sunset (with cows in the shot).

    But in general… Yeah, most of what I’ve read by Heinlein after and including Stranger in a Strange Land has been pretty awful. I tried Time Enough For Love and just couldn’t do it. Not at all.

  68. #68 KevinC
    March 13, 2007

    The Forever War, Joe Haldeman.

    Very timely again (maybe more so then it was written) and a good read, you ought to find a copy.

    Also a very good counter point to Heinlein’s ‘Starship Trooper’, the worst of Heinlein imo. My favorite Heinlein isn’t on the list, ‘Friday’.

  69. #69 Ike
    March 13, 2007

    Iain M. Banks is worth reading as well – Use of Weapons, The Algebraist and Look to Windward, for example. Tolkien and LeGuin are among the best on this list. Heinlin is awful. Orson Scott Card I found unreadable. Zelazny is the first SF I read and still love his style. Gibson’s short stories (Burning Chrome) are his best work. Frank Herbert’s Dune has fallen apart from rereading, as have Tolkien’s books. Iain Banks falls somewhere along those lines; Use of Weapons is very timely – I couldn’t put it down (and a thousand times better than Starship Troopers, on a similar topic) – and Look to Windward is also appropriate for these times. At times dark and horrifying, at times insightful and uplifting.

    Favorite line: “Someday, we will all be free.”

  70. #70 K R Hasan
    March 13, 2007

    I never turn down the chance to read SF so was surprised to find I’d read only 35. I’ve been a fan for at least 50 years, ever since my father read the opening para of Edgar Rice Burroughs “A Princess of Mars” to me. At college, the Science Fiction Writers of America had deposited a lot of books in the library and I probably read them all. However, since 1980 I’ve been back in Pakistan and a lot of the newer books aren’t available, especially since my best sources, libraries of the British Council and the American Center shut down. I could go on forever on the topic of SF, but I’ll just say I read Neal Stephenson’s “Diamond Age” a year ago. I’d never heard of him before and the it took the first 50 pages to get into it but by the time I finished I would definitely rank it among the best.

  71. #71 Flex
    March 13, 2007

    The Forever War keeps cropping up.

    While it’s been over 25 years since I’ve read it, I still think it’s s good work. If nothing else, it handles relativistic time shifting properly, and it may be the first novel to do so. C.J. Cherryh was the next author I found who dealt with relativistic time dialation in a correct (or semi-correct) fashion. There seems to be very few authors who do this, probably because of the problems it makes in the timing of the plot.

    I don’t know if the The Forever War should be considered a response to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, IMHO they have very different messages. Starship Troopers seems to be preaching that citizenship in a society is not a brithright, but needs to be earned (in this case by defending society). The Forever War is much more about the difficulty an individual returning soldier has in integrating into the culture that they came from. From the soldiers point of view the culture has changed tremendously, while those who lived through the changes never see them.

    Each book can be viewed in the light of the other. For example, you could take The Forever War‘s message and say that Heinlein is a fool because his background culture doesn’t change. However, I doubt that Heinlein was even interested in the same questions that Haldeman was, so that position seems a little unfair.

  72. #72 MiguelB
    March 13, 2007

    Mark,

    Thanks for clarifying things for me; it confirms it’s not a matter of finding parallels between myths.

    Lewis [...] was deliberately creating his books with the express purpose of promoting Christianity.

    And he did a miserable job of that, as far as I’m concerned :) Anyway, I guess I’m glad I was able to enjoy the story while missing all the indoctrination.

    I’m still wondering why I just don’t see what’s going on with his books (I hope it’s not a lack of astuteness). I’ll see if I can find someone in my country who has read him, and compare notes.

  73. #73 Toby Joyce
    March 13, 2007

    Many writers seem to betray their earlier (and often superior) visions. Orson Scott Card and “Ender’s Game” is a case in point. I though EG one of the best sci-fi novels I had ever read, but “Shadow of the Hegemon”, and the books featuring Bean as the “true” protagonist, disgust me. Why the urge to change a novel that had everything – adventure, struggle, a sympathetic but conflicted hero with (almost) super powers, intergalactic conflict …? U.K.Le Guin has published a fourth “Earthsea” book called “Tehanu”, which is really no addition to the great trilogy, but a whole lot better than OSC’s more recent efforts.

  74. #74 emk
    March 13, 2007

    An interesting bit of history: Cordwainer Smith was the pen-name of Paul Linebarger, an occasional diplomat, a scholar of southeast Asia, and the author of the standard textbook on psychological warfare.

    Like “The Dying Earth”, and Philip K. Dick, Linebarger is a bit of an acquired taste. The canonical version of his work is the hardback The Rediscovery of Man and the accompanying edition of Norstrilia. These are well-edited and include everything, AFAIK.

    Some good starting points include, “Scanners Live in Vain”, “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons”, and the strangely lyrical “Drunkboat”. Everything prior to “Scanners Live in Vain” is juvenilia, and may be safely skipped. And as with Lovecraft, Linebarger should be read in small pieces.

    The Linebarger book which I really want to read is his psychological warfare textbook. According to his daughter, Linebarger always argued that it was better to out-think your enemies than to shoot them.

    And as for C.S. Lewis’ “That Hideous Strength”: If you read it as religious novel, you’ll probably be thoroughly annoyed by it.

    But in modern terms, “That Hideous Strength” is really a Singularity novel. It’s all about a scientific research program aiming for nothing less than eternal life and god-like power.

    Of course, in Lewis’s novel, humanity discovers that there isn’t all that much difference between gods and demons. Lewis’s “Head”, in its own way, is just as horrible and hungry as Vinge’s Blight.

    With one or two exceptions, the scientists in “That Hideous Strength” come off pretty badly. There’s one staunch materialist, McPhee, who is nonetheless on the side of angels, and another biologist who flees the research program when he decides that there are darker goals afoot than mere knowledge. But the rest of the self-proclaimed “scientists” are an evil lot, happily throwing away scientific virtues in the pursuit of power.

    Ultimately, Lewis cures the outbreak of a demoniac Singularity in fashion that could have come straight out of Vinge or Stross: Divine intervention, nasty neural hacking, and catastrophic property damage.

    Still, it’s not the most accessible book if you just can’t stand Lewis. There’s quite a lot of heavy-handed theology in places.

  75. #75 Jon
    March 13, 2007

    Flex:
    Your interesting comparison between Forever War and Starship Troopers reminds me of a sort of cultural “punchline” in Troopers that I’d forgotten about: The reader finds out at the very end of the book that the protagonist, Johnny Rico, is Filipino. The reason I say this is a surprise ending is because RAH wrote the book at a time when Filipinos serving in the US military experienced terrible discrimination, and could never have advanced through the ranks as Johnny did.

    I liked Job and Fridays a lot too, and feel that those are the last good books he wrote. At the end, he begain recycling and jumbling all his former characters and plot ideas together, and stopped being original. It’s the same problem I had with King’s finale to the Gunslinger. Already been there and read that.

  76. #76 b.c.
    March 13, 2007

    No one has mentioned Robert Silverberg!

    His “Dying Inside” makes my list of the best three SF books ever. Along with Bester’s “The Stars My Destination” and Varley’s “Ophiuchi Hotline”.

    Runners-up include Dick’s “Ubik” and Niven’s “A World Out of Time”.

  77. #77 Mr. Gunn
    March 13, 2007

    I recently picked up a bunch of $0.99 paperbacks of Zelazny at Amazon. He and Dick are among my favorites, although I have a special place in my heart for Bester.

    Don’t discount Terry Brooks, though. I personally loved that story. Despite having some similar characters to LOTR, it’s not that derivative, and has a totally unique style and feel to it. In fact, the comments you made about LeGuin’s “Wizard of Earthsea” are how I feel about the Shannara story.

    I think y’all are just a little more fond of SF than pure fantasy.
    Good Omens should be on the list, at any rate.

  78. #78 Jon
    March 13, 2007

    Anyone familiar with Zelazny’s “Lamps of his Eyes?” To me, it’s one of his greatest stories, but there is a completely stupid joke on which it’s based: the main character is a Master Baiter. I think Zelazny started with the joke, and then wrote the story.

  79. #79 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 13, 2007

    “If it’s a page-turner you’re looking for, Egan’s Permutation City beats Connes’ Noncommutative Geometry hands down.”

    – John Baez, sci.math

    Synopsis

    Paul uncovered his eyes, and looked around the room. Away from a few dazzling patches of direct sunshine, everything glowed softly in the diffuse light: the matte white brick walls, the imitation (imitation) mahogany furniture; even the posters — Bosch, Dali, Ernst, and Giger — looked harmless, domesticated. Wherever he turned his gaze (if nowhere else), the simulation was utterly convincing; the spotlight of his attention made it so. Hypothetical light rays were being traced backwards from individual rod and cone cells on his simulated retinas, and projected out into the virtual environment to determine exactly what needed to be computed: a lot of detail near the centre of his vision, much less towards the periphery. Objects out of sight didn’t “vanish” entirely, if they influenced the ambient light, but Paul knew that the calculations would rarely be pursued beyond the crudest first-order approximations: Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights reduced to an average reflectance value, a single grey rectangle — because once his back was turned, any more detail would have been wasted. Everything in the room was as finely resolved, at any given moment, as it needed to be to fool him — no more, no less…

    http://gregegan.customer.netspace.net.au/PERMUTATION/Permutation.html

  80. #80 Flex
    March 14, 2007

    Jon wrote, ” I think Zelazny started with the joke, and then wrote the story.”

    It’s not the only time he’s done it. It’s been a long time, but IIRC, Zelazny had said that his sole inspiration for Lord of Light was to get the line … and then the fit hit the Shan. into print.

    I don’t know how true it is, I think it’s his best novel, but Zelazny was known for bad puns. A Night in the Lonesome October, which I re-read every holloween, has plenty of them.

    Sure, Amber was good, but I think Zelazny’s short fiction is often better than Amber. A Rose for Ecclesiastes, The Keys to December and The Great Slow Kings are three of the best short stories I’ve ever read. All three concern themes which are rarely dealt with in SF, and all three are available in the collection The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth.

  81. #81 Jon
    March 14, 2007

    Thanks, Flex, for getting me in the mood to buy ‘Lord of Light’ and ‘Lamps’ and read them again. It’s been so long (35 years?), it’ll be like reading them for the first time.

  82. #82 Rich
    March 14, 2007

    Forever war is actually a satirical response to ‘starship troopers’

  83. #83 Dan P
    March 14, 2007

    On Moorcock you say: “I’m a great writer writing this; look at how wonderful my writing style is!”

    Eh? Moorcock was self-consciously writing trashy pulp fiction. Of course it was jolly good fun trashy pulp fiction. But it was pulp fiction nonetheless.

  84. #84 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 14, 2007

    “Forever war is actually a satirical response to ‘starship troopers’”

    MUCH more complicated. Joe Haldeman, in real life, was the only member of his platoon to survive Vietnam.

    As he partially recovered, he first wrote a “mundane” novel, which nobody wanted to publish. It was too soon for the marketplace.

    So he cast his experience in SF terms, and Forever War was published to great critical acclaim. The sequel, Forver Peace, less popular.

    The he published the brilliant and almost ignored novel “1968″ which portrayed a soldier who was the only member of his platoon to survive Vietnam. The character (a Science Fiction fan) goes nuts, and chapters are variously mundane, Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction as he copes with the trauma in literary terms.

    On coming home, the USA is not what it was when he left.

    This novel was meticulously researched — 1968 is now a Historical era!

    I think it goes beyond Nebula-worthy and Hugo-worthy. I think that he deserved a Pulitzer or National Book Award.

    You do know that Joe teaches alternate semesters at MIT, right?

    I suggest reading everything by him. Seriously.

  85. #85 kangxi
    March 14, 2007

    Can’t say I agree with most of the list, but I heartily agree with those who advocate Jack Vance. I was lucky enough to stay at his house once, and found him a delightful man. (Robert Silverberg popped over to share some bottles of English beer I brought with me.)
    Curiously missing from this discussion are
    - Robert Sheckley (Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles capivated me in my younger days)
    - Eric Frank Russell (loved him as a boy but he’s probably dated now)
    - James Branch Cabell – Jurgen is wonderful
    - Ernest Bramah – the only writer I re-read as much as I do Vance. Hilarious and an unmistakeable stylist
    - Sylvia Townsend Warner – The Kingdoms of Elfin. She creates a world of magic which is has a strangely skewed atmosphere. Intelligent, dark and funny.
    - James Stephens – A Crock of Gold. Marvellous read.
    I also adore Pratchett, but the 1st 2 DW books are so far out of what devloped into the canon that they should be dicounted. As was said above, he just gets better and better.
    And Starship Troopers is porn as violence. It seems to me that Heinlein never saw actual combat. Read Brian Aldiss’s biographical trilogy A Hand Reared Boy for an authentic description of real fighting. It puts Heinlein to shame.

  86. #86 John Baez
    March 15, 2007

    John Crowley’s Little, Big is one of my favorite books — it’s profoundly mindbending in a subtle and sweet way. I’ve read everything by him, and I think this is his best. So, if you like his other stuff, you’ll probably enjoy this.

    I won’t give anything away about this book.

  87. #87 Rohan
    March 15, 2007

    I’ve only read about a handfull of the books on the list. Although parts of Heinlen’s books are heavy going, I like the ones i’ve read, with maybe Stranger > Starship Troopers > Moon.

    Dune, to be honest, I wasn’t too impressed. I’ve never had the urge to read LoTR, its a bit too fantasy for my liking.

    Agreed that Iain M Banks, is good. I picked up Look to Windward a while back and have read more since then. In my opinion The Algebraist is the poorest of them.

  88. #88 Jon
    March 15, 2007

    Defending Starship Troopers
    I want to argue with some of the comments about Starship Troopers, especially Mark’s “heavy handed political tract” and kangxi’s “porn as violence.” My points are: 1. RAH wasn’t a war monger, as I think they believe, and 2. they’ve missed what’s great about the book.

    In Troopers, RAH’s core proposition is that a few years of military or government service should be a requirement for the right to vote or hold office. I’m a liberal and a veteran, and I’m in favor of this idea as I think it’s far superior to declaring stupid wars and THEN conscripting people to fight them as in Vietnam. I doubt we’d be in Iraq now if there had been a draft in place while Bush was fanning the flames.

    Jim’s “porn as violence” bothers me a lot. He seems to be saying that Heinlein has written a pro-war book. In fact, the violence in Troopers is certainly not as glorified or extensive as that of Lord of the Rings and many of the other books on the list. It’s not pro or anti-war. As Flex made the point, it’s about the meaning of citizenship and civic responsibility.

    The criticism that RAH’s combat scenes are unrealistic misses the whole SF point of the book–the pure delight in reading about an imaginative future form of combat and combat technology. How could any SF fan read this book and not think those MI suits were the coolest war technology they’d ever heard of? (That’s why the book’s on everybody’s Best List!)

    And though I can’t speak to the realism of fighting bugs in powered, positive feedback armor, I can personally attest to the accuracy of his portrayal of both the commissioned and enlisted marine. I don’t know whether RAH was ever in combat, but from my own experience I can say that he’s dead-on when writing about military organization and culture.

  89. #89 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 15, 2007

    As to Heinlein, who quoted me by name in one of his books, and with whom I corresponded, there is much more than I can say in a blog. But let me give an excerpt (about his military experience) of what I excerpted at

    http://www.arsmathematica.net/archives/2007/03/12/math-and-science-fiction/#comments

    Gained appointment from Senator James Reed to enter United States Naval Academy (where his next older brother had gone) in 1925. Graduated United States Naval Academy and was commissioned in 1929. Served aboard the Lexington under Captain E. J. King (later commander in chief of U.S. Navy during World War II). Tranferred as gunnery officer to the destroyer Roper. Contracted tuberculosis, was cured, and then retired (involuntarily) from active duty.

    Had he not contracted TB, he might well have ended up — as did his brother — as Admiral, gotten the Navy to lead the way in manned spaceflight, and we’d have a city on the Moon by now. But that’s another thread in “The Number of the Beast” — that great scene where the protagonist meets many alternate history versions of himself in a bar and they discuss who was first on the Moon, and who’s been President of the United States (one version answers the latter: “Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy,…”

    In a modern edition, were RAH alive, that might be edited to: “Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton, …

  90. #90 acutetype
    March 19, 2007

    hehehe, very interesting list I just stumbled across on my weekly googling of “William Gibson.” He is my favorite exactly for his stylized writing.

    But yes — No Vinge? No Banks? No Cordwainer? Bester gets a little nod (one of Gibson’s major influences) and rest is pretty solid all in all. But a lot of promising talent coming to the forefront lately — been enjoying Reynolds and Stross. I thought Naked God compendium was quite a thrilling read (Hamilton).

    On the flip side, I can easily name the five scifi books I never finished!

  91. #91 Brian Ferris
    March 29, 2007

    I’ve heard good things about the Gormenghast Chronicles by Mervyn Peake. Titus Groans is especially well recommended. Can anybody second this before undertake such a “weighty” offering? Also, I’ll plug Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomocon too. Well worth it if you can get over the fact that it looks like it was edited by chimps.

  92. #92 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 29, 2007

    Brian:

    I *loved* Titus Groan… But it’s definitely a very odd book, and I can understand why a lot of people don’t like it. It almost doesn’t have a plot. In a lot of ways, it reads more like an episodic tour-guide of the incredibly strange people who inhabit Gormenghast castle. It’s a book of almost pure atmosphere; the main character is really the castle itself.

    The second book wasn’t quite a brilliant as the first. The third was a huge disappointment. (I’ve heard that Peake became seriously ill, and the third book was written after the illness had taken its toll.)

    I definitely recommend at least *trying* the first book.

  93. #93 W. Logan Fry
    April 10, 2007

    ” 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.”

    Me neither until recently – I’m strictly a Gibson fan. But after I got cast as an extra in the new movie adaptation, I learned that “Legend” was previously adapted for Vincent Price’s “Last Man on Earth’ (Italian spaghetti Sci-Fi) and “Omega Man” with Charleston Heston. Even George Romero admits it was inspiration for “Night of the Living Dead.”

    Pretty good pedigree.

    Get the Orb edition of “I Am Legend” in paperback. It includes some pretty good short stories. Oh, Matheson was one of the top writers for “Twilight Zone.” You can see it in the stories.

    Finally, below are some set shots and movies from the evacuation scene in NYC:

    I Am Legend and Spider-Man 3!

    – Logan
    The Digital Museum of Modern Art

  94. #94 W. Logan Fry
    April 10, 2007

    gg wrote:

    “Avoiding spoilers of the original story, does the Price version hew closer to the original than the Heston version?”

    I read it that way. The Price version has the wooden stakes, the the killing of the vampires, the burning pits for victims, the burial vault for the deceased wife, and even the garlic on the door. Excuse me if I missed some of that detail in “Omega Man” On the other hand, “Last Man” is a really low budget film. Even the vampires are bad.

    The new Akiva Goldsman/Francis Lawrence/Will Smith film takes liberty with the book but, as prior adaptations show, movies just have a different audience, and different presentation issues.

    It should be good. But it’s being made to be a blockbuster. True fans may not like that.

  95. #95 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 10, 2007

    This is as crazy as any Science Fiction novel by Rudy Rucker or Vernor Vinge — but in a good way! I’m not including the URLs at arXiv.com nor MIT, but do go look! This might, MarkCC, deserve a thread of its own…

    The Mathematical Universe
    Authors: Max Tegmark
    (Submitted on 5 Apr 2007)
    Abstract: I explore physics implications of the External Reality Hypothesis (ERH) that there exists an external physical reality completely independent of us humans. I argue that with a sufficiently broad definition of mathematics, it implies the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH) that our physical world is an abstract mathematical structure. I discuss various implications of the ERH and MUH, ranging from standard physics topics like symmetries, irreducible representations, units, free parameters and initial conditions to broader issues like consciousness, parallel universes and Godel incompleteness. I hypothesize that only computable and decidable (in Godel’s sense) structures exist, which alleviates the cosmological measure problem and help explain why our physical laws appear so simple. I also comment on the intimate relation between mathematical structures, computations, simulations and physical systems. Comments:
    28 pages, 5 figs; more details at this http URL
    Subjects:
    General Relativity and Quantum Cosmology (gr-qc)
    Cite as:
    arXiv:0704.0646v1 [gr-qc]

  96. #96 Joshua Zucker
    April 12, 2007

    How about Theodore Sturgeon? Hugely influential, but his novels are generally much weaker than his short stories in my opinion. Luckily for us, all his classic short stories (and his not-so-classic as well) are being reissued in a multi-volume complete works series. They’re all good, and following the chronology is interesting, but you might want to jump in at “A Saucer of Loneliness” or “Bright Segment”.

  97. #97 Brian Thompson
    April 18, 2007

    I’ve only read a handful (~10) of the titles on that list, but I agree a lot with what your comments regarding them (particularly Anne Rice…). I would have liked to see a Piers Anthony title appear on the list though. His were the books that got me started in SF/F; his early Xanth and his Incarnations of Immortality books are some of the most memorable books I’ve ever read, and both have strong thematic elements that resonate with me today. On the other hand, his entire catalog is overall fairly weak, but I think he has written some very worthwhile material – and I’m willing to knock Anne Rice off of the list to include him.

  98. #98 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 18, 2007

    Sturgeon: yes!

    Brian Thompson: the most important things to know about Piers Anthony are:

    (1) Who he is. Pseudonym of Piers Anthony Dillingham Jacob, (1934-).

    (2) How he is: diabetic, runs to keep in shape, so has essentially no time left to go to conventions;

    (3) Personally prefers his serious Science Fiction, but earns 10 times as much for each punny Fantasy, so mostly writes those.

    (4) The book that you and Mark might enjoy:

    Piers Anthony wrote the extraordinary Hard SF/Evolution/Astrology (!) novel:
    * Macroscope [Avon, 1969; Gregg, Dec 1985] ISBN 0-8398-2899-3, $14.95, 480pp, hardcover
    [Grafton, Feb 1986] ISBN 0-586-06584-9, £2.95, 480pp, paperback
    [Avon, Nov 1986] ISBN 0-380-00209-4, $4.50, 480pp, paperback 18th printing

  99. #99 juxen bolsh
    August 11, 2007

    As you said for slaughterhouse 5, You are not worthy to comment. Only that applies to the rest of the books too.

    Hairy Pothead fans aren’t allowed to speak about scifi books.

    foad

  100. #100 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 11, 2007

    It is too early to be sure that the Harry Potter novels are NOT science fiction.

    There have been other notable books that SEEMED to be Fantasy, but then turned out to be Science Fiction.

    The Dragonrider / Pern novels. The Book of the New Urth. Lord of Light.

    Is there hard evidence that the Magic in the Harry Potter novels is NOT merely a Sufficiently Advanced Technology?

    Is there any evidence that the “muggle” part of the Harry Potter novels is definitely OUR universe?

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