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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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55 reading questions

I took this meme from David Hebblethwaite’s Follow the Thread blog, and he says he found it Story in a Teacup. It’s fifty-five questions about your reading. I think some of my answers are pretty much the same as David’s…

1 Favourite childhood book? I started out in sf reading Dr Who novelisations, but I can remember virtually nothing about them now. I don’t recall any specific books that I loved prior to that. I just read voraciously.

2 What are you reading right now? Finished ‘A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and other Essays by DH Lawrence on the weekend; and then started The Wanderground by Sally Miller Gearhart, which I’m reading for SF Mistressworks.

3 What books do you have on request at the library? I don’t use the library.

4 Bad book habit? Buying more books than I can read, and starting books when I haven’t finished the current read.

5 What do you currently have checked out at the library? I don’t use the library.

6 Do you have an e-reader? Nope.

7 Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once? I prefer to read serially, but sometimes – often – I end up reading several books in parallel.

8 Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog? Yes. Since starting SF Mistressworks, and contributing to Daughters of Prometheus, I read far more fiction by women writers. I’ve also used this blog to challenge myself to read books I wouldn’t normally read – see this year’s world fiction reading challenge here.

9 Least favourite book you read this year (so far)? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson.

10 Favourite book you’ve read this year? Either The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones; Omega, Christopher Evans; or The Door, Magda Szabó.

11 How often do you read out of your comfort zone? Regularly.

12 What is your reading comfort zone? Science fiction and/or literary fiction. Also non-fiction about space exploration.

13 Can you read on the bus? Yes. I commute to work on a tram and read on it every day.

14 Favourite place to read? I usually read for 30 minutes to an hour in bed every night.

15 What is your policy on book lending? For my collectible books, never. Others, I’m happy to give away – and visitors have occasionally left with piles of paperbacks.

16 Do you ever dog-ear books? Never.

17 Do you ever write in the margins of your books? Never. But I will probably buy an ereader of some description soon because it’ll allow me to annotate what I’m reading.

18 Not even with text books? Nope.

19 What is your favourite language to read in? English.

20 What makes you love a book? Beautiful prose, it says something important, engaging characters, interesting structure… rigour, beauty, insight and depth.

21 What will inspire you to recommend a book? I’m happy to recommend books I both enjoy and admire; and often do.

22 Favourite genre? Science fiction.

23 Genre you rarely read (but wish you did)? I’ve read just about every genre there is, but… The genres I don’t read I generally have no intention of reading. Like urban fantasy.

24 Favourite biography? Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins.

25 Have you ever read a self-help book? No. I’ve no intention of ever doing so.

26 Favourite cookbook? I don’t have one. I prefer eating to cooking.

27 Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)? I don’t think of books as “inspirational”, or read ones that describe themselves as such.

28 Favorite reading snack? I don’t usually eat while I’m reading.

29 Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience. Probably The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. It was good, but not as good as I’d expected it to be.

30 How often do you agree with critics about a book? Depends on the critic, obviously. But quite often. Award shortlists, on the other hand…

31 How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews? Not giving a negative review to a bad book is dishonest. And dishonest reviews are next to useless.

32 If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose? I’ve tried reading in French, German and Arabic, and I’d like to improve my facility in those languages. But I also quite like the idea of being able to read Russian classic literature in Russian.

33 Most intimidating book you’ve ever read? In terms of sheer size, probably Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle. It proved to be excellent.

34 Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin? Possibly House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski. Ian McNiven’s biography of Lawrence Durrell is also intimidatingly big, especially in hardback.

35 Favourite poet? Bernard Spencer or John Jarmain.

36 How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time? I don’t use the library. When I lived in the UAE, I was a member of a subscription library and would generally take out four books every fortnight.

37 How often have you returned books to the library unread? In the UAE, I did it a couple of times. One such book was… The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. I later bought a copy and read it, and subsequently became a huge fan of his writing.

38 Favourite fictional character? I don’t know. There are characters I admire as writerly creations; there are characters who are little more than placeholders for the reader. I prefer the former.

39 Favourite fictional villain? See above.

40 Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation? Big fat ones that require sustained bouts of reading, such as I’ll enjoy on a plane flight or long train journey.

41 The longest I’ve gone without reading. A week, maybe slightly longer.

42 Name a book that you could/would not finish. Most recently, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

43 What distracts you easily when you’re reading? The television, the internet, the cat…

44 Favourite film adaptation of a novel? It used to be The Right Stuff, but after a recent rewatch I found myself disappointed by the film. Now it would be Fahrenheit 451 – though I love the film but hate the book. Irony in action…

45 Most disappointing film adaptation? The Sylvia Kristal adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover? It’s a bad film and it’s an adaptation. But the same could be said for a lot of sf adaptations… I don’t really know. I rate David Lynch’s Dune as a flawed masterpiece (and I’d have paid good money to see Alejandro Jodorowski’s film of the book had it been made). And Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is vastly superior to the book…

46 The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time? No idea. I’ve spent around £100 on a single order at Amazon a number of times. The most money I’ve spent on a single book is $500, for a first edition of Pied Piper of Lovers, Lawrence Durrell’s first novel. See here.

47 How often do you skim a book before reading it? Very rarely.

48 What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through? Blatant racism and/or sexism. Offensive sensibilities. Eye-stabbingly bad prose. An inability to plot. Despicable characters.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized? Yes, though the collection is getting a little bit out of hand…

50 Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them? Depends. Collectibles I keep. Likewise books that were hard to find. Others I get rid of as soon as I’ve read them. I’ve also purged my book shelves several times – for example, I saw no good reason to keep the Stainless Steel Rat novels I originally bought back in the early 1980s…

51 Are there any books you’ve been avoiding? Urban fantasy novels. Anything with zombies in it. Many of the books that have appeared on recent Hugo Award shortlists…

52 Name a book that made you angry. Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey. See my review here.

53 A book you didn’t expect to like but did? Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence. My father was a big fan of Lawrence’s writing, but I never bothered trying any of his books. And this despite Lawrence Durrell being a big admirer of Lawrence. But after watching Pascale Ferran’s excellent adaptation, Lady Chatterley, in 2009, I decided to have a go at the book. And loved it. After my father died, I promised myself I would read all of Lawrence’s fiction, and recently finished The White Peacock. Structurally it’s a bit odd, but there’s some lovely prose in it. And it is sort of “local” fiction for me as I was born in Nottinghamshire. I am now becoming a bit of a Lawrence fan.

54 A book that you expected to like but didn’t? Bodies by Jed Mercurio. I loved his Ascent, and thought American Adulterer very good indeed. But Bodies was just too gruesome for me.

55 Favourite guilt-free, pleasure reading? Georgette Heyer, probably.


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New Year, new books

It would have been nice if I could have made a New Year’s resolution to buy no books in 2012. But that was clearly impossible as there were a number of 2012 releases I wanted. I’ll just have to try and limit my purchases instead. Sadly, I’ve not been entirely successful in that regard – only one month into the year and look what’s been added to the bookshelves all ready…

Three new releases: Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds, In the Mouth of the Whale, Paul McAuley, and Dark Eden, Chris Beckett.

Three for the collections: Homage to QWERTYUIOP, Anthony Burgess, which is signed; The Steel Albatross, an underwater thriller by Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, which is also signed; and Selected Poems, Lawrence Durrell, from 1956, which is not signed.

Another of Jacques Tardi’s bande desinée: Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot is an adaptation of a French thriller novel and pretty good. Mission to Mars is for the Spacebooks collection, and also for research for a short story.

A bunch of paperbacks from my father’s Penguin collection… Twilight in Italy is travel-writing, ‘À Propose of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and Other Essays is, er, non-fiction, and The Woman Who Rode Away is a short-story collection. I think I have quite a lot of Lawrence on the TBR now. JP Donleavy, on the other hand, I have never read before and know very little about – so I’ll give A Singular Man, The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, and The Onion Eaters a go. He doesn’t appear to be in print in this country anymore.

And more paperbacks from my father’s Penguin collection: another McCullers, The Mortgaged Heart, a collection, though I wasn’t that much taken with her The Member of the Wedding; a pair of Camuses (Cami? Camopodes?) Exile and the Kingdom and The Fall; and a collection of essays by Orwell, Decline of the English Murder. To the left is Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground, a Women’s Press sf paperback kindly donated to the SF Mistressworks collection by Una McCormack, for which much thanks.

And three non-fiction works from my father’s collection: The Fatal Englishman by Sebastian Faulks is biography, of a sort; Leavis’s The Great Tradition and The Common Pursuit are both literary criticism.

Two books for this year’s reading challenge – world fiction (see here): The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung, from China, and which you can see from the bookmark that I’m currently reading; and The Door, Magda Szabó, from Hungary. High-Rise joins the other nice 4th Estate paperback editions Ballards on my bookshelves.

Some science fiction… A pair of SF Masterworks: RUR & War with the Newts, Karel Capek, and Sirius, Olaf Stapledon. Colin Greenland’s Spiritfeather, one of the volumes from the four-book Dreamtime YA series published in 2000. There was a bit of a fad for Brit sf authors contributing to YA series at that time – not just Dreamtime, but also The Web, which boasted books by Stephen Baxter, Ken MacLeod, Peter F Hamilton, Eric Brown and Pat Cadigan. And, finally, Mission Child, Maureen McHugh, a charity shop find I plan to review for SF Mistressworks.

And here is The Monster Book for Girls, an anthology of dark fantasy and horror from theExaggeratedpress, which looks very nice indeed, but also…

… contains my story ‘Dancing the Skies’, which is the ATA/Spitfire story, which required much research on the Air Transport Auxiliary and WWII fighters and bombers.

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