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Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 1

A couple of weeks ago, abebooks.com published a list of 50 Essential SF Novels, about which, of course, there is much to argue. This prompted a discussion on Twitter between Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch, James Smythe of The Explorer, and myself. We decided to each generate our own list of 50 essential sf novels, which we would post over two days – 25 books per day. Jared’s list is here and James’ list is here. The rules were simple: the definition of science fiction up to the individual, novels only (so no collections or anthologies), novellas allowed, graphic novels (or bandes dessinées) also allowed, only one book per author, and only books that you have yourself read.

It proved a harder exercise than I expected. I could have picked 50 of my favourite sf novels – but what made them “essential”? Instead, I chose novels across a mix of science fiction modes and subgenres. I also wanted a gender-balanced list, but unfortunately couldn’t manage it – only 16 of the 50 writers below are female. That one-book-per-author rule did no help at all. There are many women sf writers who probably belong on this list, but whose books I’ve not actually read – such as Octavia Butler, MJ Engh, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, CL Moore, Judith Merrill, Carol Emshwiller, Marge Piercy, Naomi Mitchison… I could only choose those I’d read.

But, the list. Here it is, the first twenty-five novels of fifty that every self-respecting sf fan should have on their bookshelves, given in order of original publication. The remaining twenty-five will appear tomorrow.

1 Frankenstein†, Mary Shelley (1818)
The original proto-sf novel and a bona fide classic of English literature. Of course it’s essential.

2 The Time Machine†, HG Wells (1895)
Another proto-sf novel. Time travel is a well-established subgenre, but which time travel novel is the most essential in a collection? I submit it is this one. Far too many time travel stories use the trope merely to improve matters for the protagonist. Well’s classic describes, and comments on, the time of its writing through the future history of humanity.

3 A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
Edgar Rice Burroughs has a lot to answer for – this planetary romance arguably fixed science fiction as a pulp genre, and it took a good forty or more years for sf to break free. A Princess of Mars is a silly book, with its Gary Sue hero and naked Martians, its magical science and its simplistic set-up… but it is also an essential stop on the road to modern science fiction.

4 Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1926)
One of the genre’s first novelisations – if not the actual first – as it was based on the 1924 screenplay of Lang’s film. It’s all a bit overwrought and florid, in direct contrast to the movie, but its message remains timeless.

5 Last And First Men†, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
It starts in the twentieth century and finishes two billion years later. It also throws away more idea for novels within its pages than any other book in the entire sf canon. Except perhaps Stapledon’s own Star Maker, which I’ve not read yet…

6 Nineteen Eighty-Four*, George Orwell (1948)
For some reason, totalitarian dystopias haven’t been especially common in genre sf – perhaps because this one did it so well; or perhaps because most sf writers and fans aren’t willing to engage with politics that don’t match their own… Where dystopias do appear in sf (they’re more common in literary fiction), they’re generally little more than background, a dim setting against which some noble-browed hero can shine.

7 The House That Stood Still, AE van Vogt (1950)
Like many early sf writers, van Vogt was hugely prolific. Also like them, most of his stories and books were not very good. In this one, van Vogt crashed together noir and pulp sf, and the result is something which stands above everything else he wrote (despite the occasional characteristic silliness). It’s essential because it’s emblematic of genre fiction of the period. If Philip Marlowe and Flash Gordon had a baby, it would look like this book.

8 The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett (1953)
Planetary romance as a subgenre is hard to take seriously. We’ve put robots on the surface of Mars, we know there are no ancient civilisations, no canals, etc. But Brackett was an order of magnitude better than most writers working in this subgenre, and it shows. This is probably her most characteristic planetary romance.

9 The Stars My Destination†, Alfred Bester (1956)
Thinking about it, I don’t know why this book is “essential”, but I do know that any sf book collection without it feels incomplete. It is in many ways the distillation of 1950s sf, a crazy pulp re-imagining of The Count of Monte Cristo, which revels in its pyrotechnic prose.

10 Solaris*, Stanisław Lem (1961)
The Anglophone world is not, of course, the only one with a sf tradition. Many countries have strong sf traditions. Such as Poland – and Solaris is perhaps the best-known Polish sf novel by the Polish sf writer best-known outside Poland. It’s also an excellent film (but that was made by a Russian).

11 Dune*†, Frank Herbert (1965)
On a prose level, Dune is not especially good. It’s also unevenly structured. But its world-building is second to none, and it is the first truly immersive sf novel. All that praise for its ecological theme is just hogwash to disguise the fact that most males when they were teenagers wanted to be Paul Atreides.

12 A Torrent of Faces, James Blish & Norman L Knight (1967)
Overpopulation is a common theme in sf, and the first three-quarters of the twentieth century were awash with Malthusian nightmares. This one shows its age somewhat, but its prose is very nicely detailed and its story is well-balanced.

13 Camp Concentration, Thomas M Disch (1968)
People do things – mostly nasty – to other people, and sometimes sf writes about it. This is not the best-known sf novel about an experiment to increase the intelligence of a human being, but it is the best one.

14 The Fifth Head of Cerberus†, Gene Wolfe (1972)
You’d think that a genre of fiction with the word “science” in its name would be clever. But it isn’t always. Sometimes, however, it can be very clever. Like The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is a sort of cunning puzzle in fictive form.

15 Rendezvous With Rama*†, Arthur C Clarke (1972)
Some people think sf is all about Big Dumb Objects, and Clarke’s Rama is probably the most iconic BDO of them all. A mysterious alien vessel, seemingly dormant, enters the Solar System and then leaves it. This is sf as fiction of the ineffable. Ignore the inferior sequels.

16 Crash, JG Ballard (1973)
Good sf is about the real world, no matter when and where it is set. Or what happens in the story. Crash is avant garde, it is brutal, it can and will offend. But it also says something important about people’s relationship to technology.

17 The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe†, DG Compton (1973)
A quarter of the world’s CCTV cameras can be found in the UK. It is the most-surveillanced nation on the planet. And yet it’s not some horrible Stalinist totalitarian state – as sf insists would be the case. (Our current lords and masters seem to prefer Dickens as a model.) The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe shows the ultimate in paparazzi – a reporter who has had one eye secretly replaced with a television camera. His subject just wants to be allowed to die in peace. But it’s not going to happen. A sf novel that says something important, now more than ever.

18 The Dispossessed†, Ursula K LeGuin (1974)
Too much sf ignores politics, content to describe some simplistic system which meets the needs of either story or writer. Given the breadth of the genre and the size of its toolbox, it’s a shame sf doesn’t try more often for meaningful political commentary in its fictions. Happily, some writers have made a career of doing so, and LeGuin is among the best at this. As this novel demonstrates.

19 Dhalgren†, Samuel R Delany (1974)
There aren’t many sf novels which could legitimately make it onto a list of twentieth-century literary classics, but Dhalgren is one of them.

20 The Female Man*†, Joanna Russ (1975)
This is not just a book about women-only worlds, it is also an excellent explanation of why such worlds need to exist. Sf is far too useful a tool to be merely tales of action/adventure in outer space. This book demonstrates why, and does it in a way that cannot fail to affect readers.

21 Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975)
There are not that many sf novels in which humans never appear – possibly because it’s a difficult trick to pull off well. But Coney manages it in this beautifully-written coming of age story set on an alien world.

22 A Scanner Darkly†, Philip K Dick (1977)
One word: drugs. This is Dick’s best novel – perhaps not his druggiest, or funniest, or most paranoid; but certainly the one where all three elements work together most effectively. Happily, it doesn’t read like he made it up as he went along, even if he did. Which is more than can be said for the bulk of his oeuvre.

23 The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley (1977)
Varley set three novels and a number of novellas and short stories in his Eight Worlds universe. In it, mysterious aliens have destroyed human civilisation on Earth, leaving only those on the other planets and moons of the Solar System to survive – as best they can. Happily, they have access to advanced technology beamed in blueprint form from Ophiuchi. A silly conspiracy plot provides the excuse for a travelogue through the Eight Worlds, before reaching an ending that actually throws away an entire novel’s worth of ideas. But this novel is an excellent example of sf’s penchant for optimism in the face of adversity.

24 Gateway†, Frederik Pohl (1977)
Another one of sf’s better-known Big Dumb Objects. The space station of the title is a mysterious depot for alien FTL starships, which humans use Russian roulette-fashion to fire themselves off into the rest of the galaxy, hoping to return with riches. It’s like the National Lottery, but with aliens off-stage somewhere (instead of hosting the prime-time game shows).

25 The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart (1979)
There has been a strong tradition in sf throughout its history of women-only utopias – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in 1915 through works by Francis Stevens, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sheri S Tepper, Nicola Griffith, and others. Sadly, it’s been marginalised by a readership who would sooner read about derring-do by manly men. The Wanderground is not entirely women-only – the men still live in the cities, and they’ve not changed their ways much – but the women-only settlements in the hills are something very much different. Perhaps there’s a bit too much magical powers about it all, but this novel possesses a great deal of charm.

The remaining twenty-five essential sf novels will be posted here tomorrow.

note: * means the book is also on abebooks.com’s list; † means the book is in the SF Masterworks series.


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Sf comics

It’s not just the Europeans and their bandes dessinées who produce science fiction in comic form. In my previous post (see here), I mentioned the UK’s anthology comics, such as 2000 AD or Starlord. There have been also many other sf comics and/or graphic novels published over the years. Here are the ones I own. Some are British, some are American, some are by British writers working for American publishers…

Ron Turner was a stalwart of the British comics scene, especially science fiction, with a career stretching from 1936 until his death in 1998. Rick Random, Space Detective, was created in 1953 for Super Detective Library, a collection of small comic books much like Commando and War Picture Library. Random appeared in 27 books between 1954 and 1957, but his adventures were later reprinted in a variety of venues, including 2000 AD summer specials. There was even an all-new story in 2000 AD in 1979. The book pictured collects ten of Random’s adventures, all but one drawn by Turner. No writing credits are given, but Harry Harrison is known to have written for the series.

Another important venue for sf comics in the UK was newspapers. The tabloids would often feature a number of strips,  some of which were ongoing serials. Jeff Hawke, who appeared in the Daily Express between February 1955 and April 1974, was created and drawn by Sydney Jordan. Titan Books published two of the stories back in the mid-1980s, but the above two are much more recent. They’re worth getting hold of.

Another excellent sf strip from a newspaper is the Daily Mirror’s Garth. This ran from 1943 until 1997, but it’s the Frank Bellamy version I remember best. He drew it from 1971 to 1976 (my grandfather subscribed to the Daily Mirror, and I’d read the strip whenever I visited him). In the mid 1980s, Titan reprinted two stories in individual volumes – The Cloud of Balthus and The Women of Galba (ignore the awful cover art). The Daily Mirror only published two Garth annuals, in 1975 and 1976 – both are shown. Given there are 165 Garth stories, it’s about time someone did a proper job of collecting and republishing them.

And then there’s 2000 AD, which has been publishing issues constantly since 1977. I used to subscribe to it back in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and I have fond memories of many of the strips it featured. Which is what prompted me to buy the above. Robohunter is an old Titan Books reprint I bought back in the 1980s. The other two are more recent and were published by Rebellion, 2000 AD’s publisher. Sadly, it’s never wise to revisit things you loved when you were younger. The Stainless Steel Rat may be an improvement on the books, but that’s not saying much, and the adaptation misses out a couple of important plot points. ABC Warriors has its moments, but it’s really just a derivative mash-up of half a dozen war movies, with crap dialogue to suit.

Luther Arkwright is the work of Bryan Talbot, and appeared in a limited series comic in the late 1980s. It was collected as a trade paperback in the late 1990s, and a sequel Heart Of Empire was published soon after. It’s a New worlds-ish steampunky alternate worlds sf sort of thing, and it’s quite brilliant. Every self-respecting sf fan should own a copy. In fact, they should own copies of everything Talbot has done.

Also brilliant is Scarlet Traces and its sequel, The Great Game, a story set in Victorian Britain after Wells’ Martians have succumbed to the common cold. The British Empire has reverse-engineered the Martian technology and as a result maintained its technological and global preeminence. Later, Edginton and d’Israeli adapted Wells novel as a sort of prequel to their series.

Warren Ellis is British, but much of his work has been done for various US comics publishers. Several of the mini-series he has written are science fiction – such as the above. Ministry of Space, an alternate history story in which the British have a post-war space programme is especially good. Not shown are Ignition City and Anna Mercury, which a friend is currently borrowing.

Sf novels occasionally get the graphic novel treatment, although not always successfully – or rather, the project is not always completed. The silver book above is the graphic novel of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, drawn by Howard Chaykin, from 1979. It’s signed by Bester, Chaykin and Byron Preiss. It’s also only half of the novel’s story. A concluding volume was never produced. Empire shares a title with a Samuel R Delany novella, but the story Delany wrote for this Chaykin-illustrated story is not that ‘Empire’. Dead Girls is the first volume in an adaptation of Richard Calder’s novel of the same name, published House of Murky Depths. It originally appeared as a strip in the magazine Murky Depths, which has since ceased publication. The graphic novel will, however, continue. The edition shown is signed and numbered.

Jed Mercurio’s Ascent is one of my favourite novels, but sadly this graphic adaptation fails to capture what I like about the book. T-Minus is a comic-book potted history of the Space Race and is quite good.

Night And The Enemy is an illustrated short story, written by Harlan Ellison and illustrated by Ken Steacy. The Sacred and the Profane is a graphic novel, written by Dean Motter and also illustrated by Steacy, which first appeared in Star*Reach from 1977 to 1978. In the 1980s, Motter and Steacy rewrote, redrew and coloured it, and it was published in Epic Illustrated – which is where I saw it for the first time. (I used to buy issues of Epic Illustrated and Heavy Metal during the 1980s when I was passing through Schiphol, travelling to and from the Middle East.) The collected edition above is signed and numbered. It’s also very good.

I’m not entirely sure why someone decided a mash-up featuring Tarzan and another of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ characters was a good idea, but they went and did it. First Tarzan met Carson of Venus, and then he met John Carter of Mars. Not an entirely successful pair of literary experiments.

Recent years, perhaps triggered by the Disney film, have seen a surge of new John Carter adaptations, as well as omnibus editions of older versions. The two Dejah Thoris graphic novels aren’t too bad, though it would be nice if they could put some  clothes on her. The other two are quite poor.


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Shelf stackers

I didn’t think I’d bought that many books since my last book haul post back in early June, but when I came to take photos of my recent purchases… Well, there you go. It appears I have bought rather a lot. No wonder my postie just cards me and runs away.


Some aeroplane books to start. I have two or three of Steve Ginter’s Naval Fighter Aircraft series now, but only for the aircraft I actually find interesting, like the Martin P4M-1/-1Q Mercator. The books are well put-together, with lots of photographs and information. Convair F-106 “Delta Dart” and All-Weather Fighters were bought chiefly for research for my moon base novella.


Some sf novels by women writers. Kaaron Warren’s Mistification is one of the few books I kept from the big box of Angry Robot releases I won in the alt.fiction raffle. Jane Palmer’s The Watcher goes with the other Women’s Press sf novels I own, as does Sue Thomas’s Correspondence. Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man is for the 2011 Reading Challenge, and Lyda Morehouse’s Resurrection Code I think was recommended to me by Amazon after I bought Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. I’ll be writing about it here soon.


Some first editions – well, okay, Medium For Murder by Guy Compton, AKA DG Compton, is actually a Mystery Book Guild edition. Selected Poems is signed; as is At First Sight, Nicholas Monsarrat’s second novel, from 1935. Both were lucky eBay finds. First editions of The Bridge are typically expensive, but I managed to find one for a reasonable price.


Three for the Watson collection (see here) from Andy Richards’ Cold Tonnage.


Some sf paperbacks. I read Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy years ago, but never owned copies. Now I have all three books, I’ll be giving it a reread sometime. I’ve also been picking up Ballard’s books, as I find them far more appealing now than I used to. Embedded is another book from the alt.fiction raffle prize. And finally, two from the relaunched SF Masterworks series – I’m fairly sure I read Simak’s City many, many, many years ago (I was a big Simak fan in my mid-teens); I know I’ve certainly not read Wells’s The Food of the Gods.


Heaven’s Shadow I swapped for my Interzone review copy of Daniel H Wilson’s Robopocalypse with Robert Grant of Sci-Fi London (ta, Robert). I want to read Heaven’s Shadow because it features near-future space exploration; I expect to hate it because it’s a mega-hyped techno-thriller type sf novel. DH Lawrence’s The Lost Girl and Iain Pears’ Stone’s Fall are both charity shop finds. City of Veils is the second of Zoë Ferraris’ crime novels set in Saudi Arabia. I’ve already read it and thought it much better than her first novel, The Night of the Mi’raj.


Some first editions. I have about a dozen of Pulphouse Author’s Choice Monthly mini-collections, and am trying to complete the set. But only the signed, numbered editions. I’ll have to read Newton’s City of Ruin before I tackle the third book in the series, The Book of Transformations. I read American Adulterer earlier this year and liked it enough to buy a cheap copy of the hardback.


I didn’t know Modernism Rediscovered was going to be so bloody big when I ordered it from Amazon. It was only about £13 (and I put part of a voucher toward it as well). It’s an abridged edition of the three-volume set, which costs… £200. Contains lots of lovely photos of California Modernist houses. Red Planets I’m looking forward to reading. I really should read more criticism, and this looks like an interesting set of essays.

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