MIND MELD: Books We Love That Everyone Else Hates (and Vice Versa)

This week’s Mind Meld topic was suggested by John Klima. We asked this week’s panelists (including John):

Q: Which SF/F/H book do you love that everyone else hates? Which SF/F/H book do you hate that everyone else loves?

Here’s what they said…

Farah Mendlesohn
Farah Mendlesohn used to edit Foundation, the International Review of Science Fiction, is the President of the International Association of the Fantastic of the Arts, and is about to send McFarland a Manuscript about Children’s and Teen science fiction. She has read around 400 of these books so you don’t have to.

Gene Wolfe’s Wizard-Knight. As far as I am concerned this was like reading C.S.Lewis writing Conan the Barbarian. I was mostly repulsed by the ethics, and while I quite understand that this was meant to be a juvenile wet dream of muscular morality, that doesn’t mean I need to read it. The frightening thing was that when I presented this analysis to several well known critics, they agreed with me, and then went on to explain why it was a work of genius.

Jeff Carlson
Jeff Carlson is the international bestselling author of the Plague Year trilogy and an opinionated jackass… er, a wide-read and passionate fan of the genre! Readers can find free fiction, videos, contests, reading lists and more on his web site at www.jverse.com.

John, John, John. You and the hot potato questions. Ha! As a writer myself, I can hardly go around bashing other people’s books…it ain’t good karma…

Having said that, of course there are blockbuster successes that make me roll my eyes. This is a very subjective business. One man’s crab cakes are another’s stale Wheat Thins. No book is going to reach all of the people all of the time, and I get to experience this personally with my own work. A gratifying number of folks have responded positively to the Plague Year novels all over the world, but there are also those who bash the books online or go out of their way to send me hate mail, which sucks, so I can only play along this far because the poor guy is dead:

What the heck is up with the lasting popularity of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides?

As you’d probably guess, I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction and consider myself well-read in this subgenre. I regularly encounter people who praise or defend Earth Abides as one of the greatest PA novels ever written…

Why?

The storytelling is clunky at best, the hero survives the global pandemic only because of a chance encounter with a rattlesnake that bites him and apparently – implausibly – the snake’s venom acts as a vaccine against the killer virus. (But then why does anyone else survive? And… really? Our hero is the hero because he was stupid enough to step on a rattlesnake? Some resumé!)

I’ll grant you that the book has a few great scenes. The part where the smart kid figures out they can use the spare tires mounted on the back of jeeps to create a full set of four good tires is fun. At the end of the novel, when the hero’s savage descendants have worked out a capricious rationale for using penny arrowheads to hunt one prey and nickel arrowheads for another – that’s genius. It’s obscure and sad and very human.

Otherwise? Bleh. I’ve heard it argued that the characters in Earth Abides are “common man,” not action heroes. I say common man is smarter. Our hero can’t even teach kids to read! What a buffoon!!!

For my money, for a classic apocalyptic novel, give me Lucifer’s Hammer or On The Beach – smart people doing smart things to the best of their ability in impossible situations.

As for my favorite that no one else likes, how about The Gandalara Cycle?

First, I’d better backtrack and confess that I don’t get epic fantasy at all. Harry Potter leaves me cold, the Twilight phenom bewilders me, and so many of the other chart-topping series just seem like the same thing over and over and over again.

I accept the clear truth that it’s me who’s wrong. You can’t argue with eighty million rabid fans… and I don’t believe The Gandalara Cycle was unpopular. The copies on my shelves are tattered paperbacks. When I looked to replace one, I found reprints. Publishers don’t reprint books that don’t do well. Nevertheless, when I’ve pushed these books on friends, I’ve heard responses such as, “Oh, gawd, those books are so corny.” People tell me they were irritated by the forever-driven-apart romance between the hero and heroine. Or they say they saw big reveal at the end coming a mile away. One guy even launched into a biological criticism of the series’ unlikely environment.

Man, I just think it’s great storytelling with magnetic characters. Admittedly, the series suffers a bit because it was lopped into seven thin installments and the last six, trying to work as stand-alones, are salted with backstory to bring new readers up to speed. Nearly half of the last book is unnecessary rehashing. Arg.

When I’m emperor of the universe, a fine-eyed editor will go back through the series, remove the recaps, and we’ll re-issue The Gandalara Cycle as a single speedy volume. Bwah ha ha ha.

While I’m dreaming, I’d also like to recommend a “lost” book instead of a loved or hated one. Will someone please explain to me how it’s possible, especially given his success, that John Barnes’ The Man Who Pulled Down The Sky out of print? Two years ago at a book signing for a different writer, I actually pulled aside a Tor rep who was on scene and personally (but pleasantly!) accosted him on this matter.

Published in 1986 as Barnes’ debut novel, The Man Who Pulled Down The Sky is an edgy, dark, high concept and utterly captivating read much like his triumphant Kaleidoscope Century. It’s absolutely bug nuts. Awesome. Wizard.

If you like sci fi, find a copy. That’s my hot tip for the day.

Shaun Duke
Shaun Duke is a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, and fantasy. He is also the editor-in-chief of Survival By Storytelling Magazine and can be found on his blog, The World in the Satin Bag.

I’m about to shock the world (or at least anyone who has an iota of respect for me). The one book that I love, but everyone else hates is Eragon by Christopher Paolini. I don’t know why, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book (and its sequel, Eldest). I wouldn’t consider myself an obsessive fan, though, but I have been known to defend the book from the haters from time to time. To be fair, the haters make really horrible arguments about Eragon, so it’s easy to defend; besides, I think people who dedicate themselves solely to de-constructing a book they claim to hate is downright silly. Do something constructive!

As for the book I hate that everyone else loves, I’d have to pick The Lord of the Rings (which also might ruin any respect anyone out there has for me). I should clarify, though: I don’t hate LOTR because I think it’s a bad book, per se; I have to give Tolkien props for pioneering (not creating) the fantasy genre as we know it. The thing is, the books are incredibly boring. The guy could build realistic worlds and languages, but he was not a great writer by a long shot. His prose wanders, the story takes forever and a day to get to the point, there are too many wasted pages in The Fellowship of the Ring (the first third of the book is practically wasted space; don’t get me started on the Council of Elrond scene), etc. But everyone else seems to adore the thing as a book, rather than a cultural product. I think that’s a terrible oversight in our collective consciousness.

Please send your hate mail to Mr. DeNardo.

Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts teaches literature and creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. His most recent novel, Yellow Blue Tibia (Gollancz 2009) includes a robot Stalin. Some day soon, all SF novels will come with one of those fitted as standard.

I’m guessing that you mean ‘everyone’ to refer to ‘everyone in SF/F’, in which case the best answer to this question is a general one: I love all that high-culture experimental Modernist and postmodernist literature that so many truefans take pride in denigrating — genuinely love, I mean; not just ‘think it makes me look clever to namedrop’ or ‘grudgingly admire’. A lot of people in SFF don’t. For example, Orson Scott Card loves Lord of the Rings but he hates Ulysses and sneers at people who like James Joyce (‘you lucky Smart people; you really have it over the rest of us poor peasants who find it to be one long tedious joke … pay no attention to us as we close the door to your little brown study and get back to the party’) Well, I love Ulysses almost as much as I love LotR … and that’s saying something. More, I’d say that Ulysses and Lord of the Rings are essentially the same book: both large-scale fantasies about the epic and mythic underpinnings of seemingly banal and ordinary lives; both absolutely fascinated with language, both richly inventive (although each in slightly different ways); and both deeply engaged with importance of moral choice. The point, here, is not only that Ulysses is a Fantasy novel, but that it is a great fantasy novel. Similarly, Proust’s Recherche is a fascinating post-Wellsian time-travel story; and Jonathan Littell’s Kindly Ones a large-scale exercise in,or deconstruction of, Edgar Rice Burroughsian adventure.

The book I hate that everybody else loves … well ‘hate’ is a strong word. There are things I find genuinely hateful in some of the SF-F I read or watch: the large residues of sexism and racism, for instance, that our genre seems to be having difficulty purging. But isolating specific authors would be not so much invidious as misleading; since I think both those things are systemic, not individual, problems. Otherwise, and if we put ‘hate’, on one side, I’ll confess I am baffled by the enormous success of a number of SF superstars. Kevin J Anderson, for instance.

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon is a writer, editor and consummate trivia geek. He’s been cited as a source by the Wikipedia (which is to damn with faint praise) and appears weekly on TechTalk radio in Chicago. You can follow his pedantic ramblings at www.jaygarmon.net.

I’ll start with the controversial answer first. Add me to that heretic band of sci-fi/fantasy fans that actually can’t stand J.R.R. Tolkien not one little bit, particularly The Lord of the Rings. I guess I encountered the fantasy grandmaster a little late — I didn’t read him until my freshman year in college — and by then his tedious pacing and self-indulgent prose just drove me up a wall. (And this from a guy who loves unabridged Robert A. Heinlein novels.) I consider it a triumph of epic proportions that Peter Jackson was able to extract a workable trilogy of screenplays from that morass of desperately-needs-an-editor scenery pondering. And the movies were still overlong and in need of some tightening. I gratefully acknowledge that Tolkien originated the modern form of the fantasy genre in the same way that Chaucer inaugurated many conventions of modern English literature, and I can appreciate that accomplishment from an academic standpoint, but I’m actually more likely to read Canterbury Tales for fun than I am Fellowship of the Ring, if only because the sex scenes are better.

As to the book I love that everyone else seems to hate, I’ll go with Singularity Sky, the “forgotten” first novel by Charles Stross. I actually first discovered Stross in the pages of Asimov’s when I read “Lobsters,” the foundational short story for Accelerando. I was hooked then, and when his first novel came out, I grabbed it with both hands and adored every page. Everyone else I know, however, seems to view Stross’s longform freshman effort as opaque and too post-modern. Frankly, that’s what I love about it; he fires idea at you with blinding speed and dares you to keep up with the three-ring circus of high concepts being put on in every chapter. A sentient post-scarcity economy traveling to backwater worlds granting material wishes in exchange for folklore stories? A transcendent godlike artificial intelligence that governs time travel and space-operatically Balkanized all of humanity as a mode of self-defense? Spacefaring secret agents manipulated into clich√© action/love stories by higher powers? I don’t just enjoy this book, I adore Singularity Sky, for all its unconventionality and all its idiosyncrasies and — above everything — it’s refusal to wait for the reader to catch up. It gleefully challenges you, and that’s probably what makes people hate it. That’s also exactly why I love it.

Paul Graham Raven
Paul Graham Raven is a freelance writer, editor, publicist and web-presence manager to busy independent creatives, and PR guy for PS Publishing, the UK’s foremost boutique genre press. He’s also ed-in-chief of near-future sf webzine Futurismic, a learning fictioneer and poet, a reviewer of books, music and concerts, a cack-handed third guitarist for a fuzz-rock band, and in need of a proper haircut.

Love and hate – two words so powerful that people will tattoo them across their knuckles, no less. But universality? Therein lies a problem for me. I mean, someone’s gotta like a book in order for it to be published, right? So there can’t be any universally hated books, surely?

There’s certainly a few favourites of mine that seem to be dismissed as average by the canon of consensus, though… Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile, for instance, as I’ve mentioned here many times before. Or there are those that get described as an acquired taste (viz. the work of Rudy Rucker – seriously, how can anyone not love the guy?), those that – for whatever reason – hardly anyone seems able to remember reading (David Zindell’s Requiem For Homo Sapiens trilogy, perhaps), or those that made a brief splash before their authors deftly snubbed the only fan-base they were ever likely to be able to rely on (Jeff Noon, your taxi is waiting outside).

As for genre books I hate that everyone else loves… well, hate is a word I try to avoid using, because it’s corrosive in the way it reduces a complex thing (in this case, a story) into a simple thing (a focus for derision and loathing), and because every book is the right book for someone – which is what I get for four years working in public libraries, I guess.

But if you really want examples of books that I simply don’t understand the appeal of, you can take pretty much anything from the splatterpunk horror shelves (because I don’t need to be reminded that human beings can imagine and occasionally do horrible things to one another, and if I really want to horrify myself, I might as well spend a productive hour doing my accounts, thank-you-very-much).

And while you’re at it, you can take all of Asimov’s classic Foundation novels, which I’m sure were groundbreaking at the time (and whose importance to the genre’s evolution is very obvious and fully acknowledged), but which now read like the clunkily-transcribed opium dreams of a rocket scientist who was forced to work on a mundane factory floor thanks to a Cruel Caprice Of Fate arranged by Cunning Long-sighted Psychohistorians in Distant Aeons Past, and which still cast such a massive and persistent penumbra of influence over people who’ve not actually bought any other science fiction novels since 1970, that one could easily argue that all science fiction novels written and published since are, in effect, and attempt to redress the balance in the eyes of anyone who’ll give you a chance to try… or even just the time of day. (It’s not an argument I could win, of course, but that’s not the point; everyone likes to have a rant once in a while, right?)

As far as fantasy is concerned, I’ve never understood the passion my mother has (and that many more otherwise sane and rational people also seem to have) for Terry Brooks’ Shannara series (which only make sense to me if they’re read as a dead-pan post-modern immersive satire of the very concept of generic secondary-world fantasy) and the deeply unpleasant Thomas Covenant novels of Stephen Donaldson; both sagas present a less exciting traipse through tired tropes and character templates than the internet-published literature of conspiracy theorists or addled devotees of marginal religious sects, although they’re arguably a little less embarrassing to be seen in possession of.

But all this has to come with one essential caveat, which is that – when I’m bored enough, and devoid of anything better to hand – I’ll read the ingredients list on a shampoo bottle for entertainment. There are hundreds of books I know I want to read (many of which are mocking me from my shelves as I type), probably thousands that I’d quite like provided I encountered them in the right mood, and countless others that would at the very least teach me something interesting…even if all they taught me was how to write an extraordinarily sucky novel. The authors and books and styles and subgenres that I’ve previously failed to get are in no way automatically excluded from the theoretical set of “books I’ll read if time and circumstance permit”… they just end up with a strongly negative priority weighting. :)

Rob H. Bedford
Rob H. Bedford is a longtime genre fan who works and lives in New Jersey. He has held various marketing and publishing positions, building up the diverse background (he hopes) required for becoming a published writer all the while plugging away at various stories and novels. He also writes book reviews for SFFWorld and moderates the SFFWorld forums.

The second part is easier, so I’ll begin with that response. One that immediately comes to mind is Little, Big by John Crowley. I attempted to read the book a few years ago and was sorely let down. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but I just couldn’t find anything in the book with which to identify or attach myself, basically a whole lot of nothing happening. Two more recent examples are Thunderer by Felix Gilman and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, two books that seemed to garner quite a bit of praise but sadly, did not work for me. With JS&MN, I found the footnotes a more interesting than the story told in the novel itself.

As for a SF/F/H book I love that everyone else hates? That’s a tougher nut to crack, but a recent series of books I really enjoyed that seems to be somewhat divisive is Brent Weeks’s Night Angel Trilogy. I also see mostly negative opinions on some of the sequels to Orson Scott Card’s Ender series, but I thoroughly enjoyed both Xenocide and Children of the Mind. Do I love them? I wouldn’t go that far, but I devoured them and my memory of how much I enjoyed both books is pretty strong.

Paul Kincaid
Paul Kincaid is the author of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction which has been shortlisted for the Hugo Award, he writes regularly for a range of outlets from Science Fiction Studies to SF Site.

I don’t think anyone who reviews on a regular basis can avoid this situation. It may just be me, of course, but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve found myself out of step with everyone else. Usually it’s books I hate that everyone else loves (the other way round, when you love a book, it’s much easier to find someone at least who shares your opinion).

I remember once, when I was reading for a book club, receiving a novel which was missing its title and author. I said it was juvenile, poorly constructed, clumsily written, and totally unconvincing. It turned out to be Moving Mars by Greg Bear which won the Nebula and was shortlisted for all sorts of other awards. But I still think I was right.

Sometimes, of course, it’s just a blind spot. I have a blind spot over Mary Gentle’s work, and despite liking his non-fiction I still fail to see what everyone else likes about Adam Roberts’s novels.

The other way around, as I say, is less common. Usually I’m a lone voice because no-else has read the book (such as The Angel Maker by Stefan Brijs) rather than because everyone hates it. Though I do recall writing a very positive review of Un Lun Dun by China Mi@eacute;ville and then receiving puzzled emails from people asking how could I like the book.

Robert Sabella
Bob Sabella is a high school math teacher who spends his free time editing a monthly online sf fanzine Visions of Paradise and blogging about sf. He published the book Who Shaped Science Fiction? and co-edited Nanking 1937: Memory and Healing with Fei Fei Li.

The second question is actually the easier one. Like most sf readers, there are certain areas of the sprawling sf umbrella which do not particularly appeal to me, such as military sf, near-future dismal fiction, or techno-thrillers. So while I can easily name a half-dozen acclaimed novels which fell into my personal blind spot, I will limit myself to two which I was unable to finish: Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. Both are Hugo winners, both left me bored and unable to complete them.

The first question is considerably more difficult, since I do not know any novels that were universally hated. However, I can name one of my very favorite all-time sf novels which almost nobody else even knows of, in spite of the fact that its author is not only a Nebula grandmaster, but the very person the grandmasters are named after! Damon Knight wrote a novel in the 1960s entitled The Other Foot [a.k.a Mind Switch], which, among its other strengths, is one of the shrewdest examinations of bias that I have ever read. I have never understood why this book is unknown rather than a classic.

Jonathan McCalmont
Jonathan McCalmont is a critic whose work has been published at Strange Horizons, The SF Site and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He also edits Fruitless Recursion – an online zine devoted to discussing works of genre criticism – and has recently launched Ruthless Culture – a site devoted to film criticism whilst bearing an uncanny resemblance to a blog.

One of my most hated books is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985). I hate Ender’s Game because the book reads as though it was the result of a drunken bet in which Card boasted that he could create a character that people would find sympathetic despite being utterly loathsome.

Ender is effectively a violent psychopath. When anyone messes with him, he kills them or maims them without regret and without hesitation. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with writing books about psychopaths. I like books about psychopaths. The problem is that every time Ender does something horrible, the book hurries to cloak him in get-out clauses… Oh he didn’t have a choice! Oh it was an accident! Oh he didn’t realise what he was doing! Oh it was the system’s fault! Despite being a cold-blooded killer and a genocide Ender comes out of the book smelling of roses. Later editions of the book even have prefaces in which Card boasts about the letters he has received from smart kids telling him how inspiring they found the book!

Better critics than I have argued that Ender’s Game amounts to a work of fascist apologism and it is easy to see why. Ender’s Game argues that you can commit any number of atrocities as long as your motives are pure. This is a defence that tyrants and butchers have been quick to adopt throughout history and, I suspect, Card would be more than happy to wheel out if you quizzed him about his views on homosexuality. Hate the sin, love the sinner indeed. Ender’s Game is Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1972) but without the irony.

While I detest the politics of Ender’s Game, my spleen only truly pulsates for one particular novel : Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965).

Dune is the kind of novel I really should like. I like the fact that it comes in at less than five hundred pages. I also like the fact that it has a neatly self-contained story that is primarily about self-serving scumbags sneaking around and plotting against each other. I have tried to like Dune… I really have. After all, it is a work that has invited not only the adaptive attentions of David Lynch but also those of the great Alenjandro Jodorowsky. If two of my favourite directors can see greatness in Dune, then why can’t I?

The answer is the writing. To begin with there is the fact that most of the weirdness of Dune is a sham. Its setting is not only a blatant rip off of real world History, it then attempts to cloak its laziness in page after page of unpronounceable, exotic-sounding names. Evidently this was and is fairly common practice in certain genre circles but apostrophes and extra consonants simply do not make an Other. However, what they do make is a needlessly bloated setting. Indeed, despite being only a little over four hundred pages long, Dune has all the pace and vivacity of a thousand page work of epic fantasy. Its simple plot and simplistic characters (Mary-Sue McJesus and friends) are clogged in page after page of world building and monologuing. Ah the monologuing…

Dune‘s greatest literary crime is its botched attempt at conveying a world full of paranoia and intrigue. Every time anyone says anything or does anything, it immediately sparks off a wave of self-indulgent analysis : “Why did he say good morning to me? It isn’t a nice day… it manifestly is not a good morning so clearly he is trying to put me off guard and…” Oh give it a rest. Politics and intrigue rely at least as much on instinct and intuition as it does on raw analysis and so by stressing only the analysis Herbert bungles the paranoia, leaving us mired in a world filled not with dangerous political animals but self-absorbed neurotics.

Moving on from all this negativity (I’ll spare you my thoughts on The Silmarillion and Gaiman’s Sandman) I am going to speak out in favour of the unloved. The dispossessed. The hated.

Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb’s Azure Bonds (1988) is genuinely a decent novel. Yes, it is a media tie-in for a Dungeons and Dragons setting that has, over the years, been eclipsed by memories of its video game adaptation but it combines the sword and sorcery bones of the gaming hobby with a degree of weirdness that is rare not only in media tie-ins but also in fantasy as a whole. Smelly dinosaur holy warriors? Scumbag halflings pretending to be bards? Clones? Mysterious tattoos? This book has all of them and an explanation for why the red-headed female warrior is wearing such revealing and decidedly unprotective armour. I cut my genre teeth reading gaming tie-ins and Azure Bonds has always burned brightly in my memories.

Fred Kiesche
Fred Kiesche has been reading science fiction since the early 1960’s. He has a collection of over 8,000 books at home, at least half of which is science fiction and fantasy and the rest are made up of books on science, history and other non-fiction subjects. He is an avid amateur astronomer, devoted husband and father, and is seemingly perpetually underemployed since 9/11/01. He blathers on this and other subjects at The Lensman’s Children.

So the little bird from SF Signal comes to me and says, name a book you love that everybody else hates and vice versa.

I’ll start by confessing that I’m at a disadvantage as I have been out of “organized fandom” in any way, shape or form for many years. So I’m less familiar with the current trends, the current loves, what is hot, what is not, and what is no longer part of the “canon” (if we can agree to such a thing). To make things worse, I’m not even pretending on keeping up with the field in terms of reading magazines such as Locus or Analog anymore: I do buy them, but they stack up higher and higher, gathering dust and cobwebs. Someday. I can say I managed over 220 books last year (not all of them genre volumes), so I do read, just not in any organized fashion, not in any attempt to keep current, or any way that would surf the various waves.

And there’s no hate here. Puzzlement, perhaps. But no hate.

So what do I like that others may not like?

I considered the question long and hard. The books that I keep in my collection (several thousand volumes) are ones that I have yet to read (a depressingly large number), or have read and considered them important in one way or another (usually non-fiction volumes) or books that I have really enjoyed. If I don’t enjoy a book, I sometimes slog through to the end, but usually not. And if I don’t enjoy a book, I tend not to keep it. There are just too many books on the shelves to keep the volumes that don’t make the cut, so I dispose of the book, erase the entry from the database and flush the memory core.

So what might I like that others might not like, given that I don’t keep track of what others like and I only keep (physically or mentally) what I like? Hmmm…

Here’s a title: A Canticle for Leibowtiz; Walter M. Miller, Jr. (Bantam Books; 1997; ISBN 0-553-37926-7; cover by Peter Jones).

Take a look at the Wikipedia entry for some background. You might also want to read their entry for the sequel as well as for the author.

Why do I feel people dislike it? Heck, it is a well-regarded and awarded book (that I bet many have never read). Well, look at the subject matter. Religion. Haven’t you noticed a trend among certain (vocal) groups of pros and fans that rather openly despise religion? Especially traditional religions?

I have had more than one conversation about the book where the person knows little or nothing about being Roman Catholic or even being religious; or considers it old fashioned, or backward, or is full of incorrect information about the practices and beliefs. And to have that in a science fiction novel? Shocking, I tell you. At least to some.

But. It is, in part, what I am. My religious beliefs affect my ethics and morals. They guide me in what I do. They comfort me in my sorrow. They are what I am. And a book such as this speaks to me, in ways beyond the story at the surface of the fall and rise and fall again of civilization, of an apparent futile struggle.

Fiat Homo (~2600 AD): The book opens some 600 years after the Flame Deluge and the end of our civilization. Brother Francis is a monk in the order dedicated to the Blessed (not saint yet) Leibowitz. While performing his Lentan fast, he discovers a number of artifacts linked to Leibowitz. The story looks at the order, its role in preserving knowledge, and the quest to have Leibowitz recognized as a Saint.

Now, after six centuries of darkness, the monks still preserved this Memorabilia, studied it, copied and recopied it, and patiently waited. At the beginning, in the time of Leibowitz, it had been hoped–and even anticipated as probable–that the fourth or fifth generation would begin to want its heritage back. But the monks of the earliest days had not counted on the human ability to generate a new cultural inheritance in a couple of generations if an old one is utterly destroyed, to generate it by virtue of lawgivers and prophets, geniuses or maniacs; through a Moses, or through a Hitler, or an ignorant but tyrannical grandfather, a cultural inheritance may be acquired between dusk and dawn, and many have been so acquired. But the new “culture” was an inheritance of darkness, wherein “simpleton” meant the same thing as “citizen” meant the same thing as “slave.” The monks waited. It mattered not at all to them that the knowledge they saved was useless, that much of it was not really knowledge now, was as inscrutable to the monks in some instances as it would be to an illiterate wild-boy from the hills; this knowledge was empty of content, its subject matter long since gone. Still, such knowledge had a symbolic structure that was peculiar to itself, and at least the symbol-interplay cold be observed. To observe the way a knowledge-system is knit together is to learn at least a minimum knowledge-of-knowledge, until someday–someday, or some century–an Integrator would come, and things would be fitted together again. So time mattered not at all. The Memorabilia was there, and it was given to them by duty to preserve, and preserve it they would if the darkness in the world lasted ten more centuries, or even ten thousand years, for they, though born in the darkest of ages, were still the very bookleggers and memorizers of the Beatus Leibowitz; and when they wandered abroad from their abbey, each of them, the professed of the Order–whether stablehand or Lord Abbot–carried as part of his habit a book, usually a Breviary these days, tied up in a bindlestiff.

Fiat Lux (3174 AD): Civilization is starting to return to the world, but so has war. This section of the tale revolves around the quest of the scholar, Thon Taddeo (the “Integrator” mentioned in the passage above), to examine the manuscripts preserved by the Order of Saint Leibowitz.

“Yes, yes, but the freedom to speculate is essential–”

“No one has tried to deprive you of that. Nor is anyone offended. But to abuse the intellect for reasons of pride, vanity, or escape from responsibility, is the fruit of that same tree.”

“You question the honor of my motives?” asked the thon, darkening.

“At times I question my own. I accuse you of nothing. But ask yourself this: Why do you take delight in leaping to such a wild conjecture from so fragile a springboard? Why do you wish to discredit the past, even to dehumanizing the last civilization? So that you need not learn from their mistakes? Or, can it be that you can’t bear being only a ‘rediscoverer’ and must feel that you are a ‘creator’ as well?”

The thon hissed an oath. “These records should be placed in the hands of competent people,” he said angrily. “What irony this is!”

The light sputtered and went out. The failure was not mechanical. The novices at the drive-mill had stopped work.

Fiat Voluntas Tua (3781 AD): Man has found the way to the stars. Technological war has returned to earth. While the Order of Leibowitz struggles with the events leading up to the return of Lucifer (atomic war) and its aftermath; they also send a group of monks to the stars in order to make sure that knowledge is not lost and the Church survives.

“You are the continuity of the Order,” he told them. “With you goes the Memorabilia. With you also goes the apostolic succession, and, perhaps–the Chair of Peter.

“No, no,” he added in response to the murmur of surprise from the monks. “Not His Holiness. I had not told you this before, but if the worst comes on Earth, the College of Cardinals–or what’s left of it–will convene. The Centaurus Colony may then be declared a separate patriarchate, with full patriarchal jurisdiction going to the cardinal who will accompany you. If the scourge falls on us here, to him, then, will go the Patrimony of Peter. For though life on Earth may be destroyed–God forbid–as long as Man lives elsewhere, the office of Peter cannot be destroyed. There are many who think that if the curse falls of Earth, the papacy would pass to him by the principle of Epikeia if there were no survivors here. But that is not your direct concern, brothers, sons, although you will be subject to your patriarch under special vows as those which bind the Jesuits to the Pope.

“You will be years in space. The ship will be your monastery. After the patriarchal see is established at the Centaurus Colony, you will establish there a mother house of the Visitationist Friars of the Order of Saint Leibowitz of Tycho. But the ship will remain in your hands, and the Memorabilia. If civilization, or a vestige of it, can maintain itself on Centaurus, you will send missions to the other colony worlds, and perhaps eventually to the colonies of their colonies. Wherever Man goes, you and your successors will go. And with you, the records and remembrances of four thousand years and more. Some of you, or those to come after you, will be mendicants and wanderers, teaching the chronicles of Earth and the canticles of the Crucified to the peoples and the cultures that may grow out of the colony groups. For some may forget. Some may be lost for a time from the Faith. Teach them, and receive into the Order those among them who are called. Pass on to them the continuity. Be for Man the memory of Earth and Origin. Remember this Earth. Never forget her, but–never come back.” Zerchi’s voice went hoarse and low. “If you ever come back, you might meet the Archangel at the east end of Earth, guarding her passes with a sword of flame. I feel it. Space is your home hereafter. It’s a lonlier desert than ours. God bless you, and pray for us.”

It’s a sad story. It’s a wonderful story. It’s a hopeful story. Civilization falls, rises, and falls again. Knowledge is preserved and passed on. Man struggles and perseveres. The book is chock full of time (look at the dates!), full of mystery (…Who, for example, is Benjamin? the Wandering Jew? Lazarus? And does he survive in the end?)

“Live.”

Then she was gone. He could hear her voice trailing away in the new ruins. “la la la, la-la-la…”

The image of those cool green eyes lingered with him as long as life. He did not ask why God would choose to raise up a creature of primal innocence from the shoulder of Mrs. Grales, or why God gave to it the preternatural gifts of Eden–those gifts which Man had been trying to seize by brute force again from Heaven since first he lost them. He had seen primal innocence in those eyes, and a promise of resurrection. One glimpse had been a bounty, and he wept in gratitude. Afterwards he lay with his face in the wet dirt and waited.

Nothing else ever came–nothing that he saw, or felt, or heard.

John Klima
John Klima edits the Hugo Award winning speculative fiction zine Electric Velocipede. He is also the editor of the Bantam anthology, Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories, and the forthcoming Night Shade Books fairy tale reprint anthology Happily Ever After. He spends his days among the stacks as a librarian, but has previously worked at such places as Asimov’s Science Fiction and Tor Books.

Which SF/F/H book do you love that everyone else hates?

I had a lot of trouble finding a book that fit this category. It’s a lot easier for me to think of movies that I like that others hate. But still, I did find a book. It’s a popular book, i.e., a book that sold millions of copies and is loved by millions of people and also made its author very rich. I even think it has a pretty good fanbase within the genre, but I know of a lot of people (particularly professionals) in the field who strongly dislike this book. Of course, I’m talking about Harry Potter And The Sorceror’s Stone.

There are a lot of complaints about the book and its sequels. For example: magic has no cost; Harry is able to best odds that it makes no sense for him to be able to best (i.e., how does a poor/bad student, barely decent wizard [there is nothing in the books to suggest that Harry is a wizard of better-than-average skill, in fact there is much to the opposite], defeat things that older, more intelligent, more skilled wizards cannot defeat?); the need for Voldemort to constantly show how powerful he is (i.e., if Voldemort is that powerful, why not just level Hogwort’s? Why not let another wizard kill Harry [don’t save Harry for Voldemort, let whomever has the best shot take it]? Why overcomplicate things [i.e., making Harry win a tournament in order to capture him, why not cast the spell on something more personal and immediate to Harry]?); and on and on and on.

But, I love this book. It’s one of the few genre pieces that my wife liked and that gave us something to enjoy together, which is always a good thing. I liked how Rowling captured the pain of changing from child to adult and used the parallel of Harry’s destiny to enforce that. There are a lot of those aspects of the books that I really like and for me, that’s what makes this series work for me. And, given that the book was written for a younger audience, I can forgive a lot of the complaints that people make about the book.

Which SF/F/H book do you hate that everyone else loves?

I had a really strong aversion towards The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. That statement always makes people turn heads. I actually feel bad saying it, given how well respected the book is. Also, since many people consider this one of the best books of the genre (and for some, their introduction to science fiction and in a few cases, a life-changing book), people think I’m crazy for having this opinion.

A huge part of the problem is that so many people hyped this book to me as the greatest thing ever. I essentially went into this book feeling that my life would change having read it. The expectations were so high, that no book could have matched them.

It’s the only book I know where I can state my opinion, “I do not like The Stars My Destination” and have someone vehemently declare “You’re wrong.” In fact, so many people have such a strong and violent reaction to me not liking this book that I’m going to read it again, and I never read a book I disliked twice. I’ve been convinced that I missed something the first time through.

But before I can read it again, I have to let the furor in my head die down so that my expectations are set at a more realistic level.

Joe Sherry
Joe Sherry lives in Minnesota. His reviews and articles have appeared in Fantasy Magazine and the Sacramento Book Review. He blogs at Adventures in Reading.

I am at a complete loss as to what book I love that everyone else hates. I’m sure I can find fans for just about everything on my bookshelf.

But what do I hate that everyone else loves? Accelerando. Charles Stross. I just don’t get it. The first story in the fix-up is “Lobsters”, arguably Stross’s most famous story, and it is reasonably accessible. It’s all downhill from there to the point that I find the book unreadable. As much as I like his Laundry novels and can enjoy the Merchant Princes, I have serious problems with much of Stross’s science fiction. It all stems from Accelerando. Not only don’t I get it, I don’t care to get it. Same with Iron Sunrise. Unless it’s nominated for a Hugo or Nebula, I won’t even give his more overt SF a shot anymore. And even then, I generally can’t finish it.

Derek Molata
Derek Molata was born in Ontario Canada at the forefront of the disco revolution, which may explain his affinity for v-necks and velour. As adolescence decended, Derek gave up the velour for Vuarnet and firmly took hold of all the 1980s had to offer–including Blade Runner. He hasn’t let go since. When he’s not buried beneath laundry or spending time with his wife and 3 daughters, he jumps down the rabbit hole and writes.

I can’t say that I’ve ever “hated” a book, but I’ve been extremely disappointed–especially when they’ve come highly recommended, or they’ve graced best of year or bestseller lists.

So needless to say, when The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins kept being recommended to me–not to mention that it has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 74 consecutive weeks to date (through February 21st, 2010), I couldn’t say no to reading it.

And, much to my surprise, I was disappointed–though I didn’t hate it. Obviously it has a lot going for it, but what I wanted (without being too spoilery here), was more suspense on the fate of Katniss. Being 1st person with only a single POV (Katniss), there was never any real question on whether or not she’d survive The Hunger Games. Which to me was the real issue with this book. I wanted to wonder whether or not she’d live, wanted to have the opportunity to guess who’d be the one to take her out. But instead, I was never biting my nails or changing reading positions a hundred times wondering if she was going to make it another page.

To me, that was the book’s major fault. The premise behind the The Hunger Games is not new, and although the writing–if not a little stark for my tastes–is technically very sound, pacing well architected, and it has strong characters that resonate well, the overall execution could have been tweaked to provide that “nail biting” experience.

Other books in a similar vein like Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale and even William Golding’s The Lord Of The Flies generated suspense by either using multiple points-of-view or an omniscient narrator. I think The Hunger Games could have benefited from multiple POVs. Just think how things could have played out with a Peeta or Cato POV, or even Rue for that matter?

So although I didn’t “hate” The Hunger Games, I was disappointed–and am not totally sold yet on reading the sequel, Catching Fire. I guess time will tell–though with the size of my to-be-read pile, it’s looking very doubtful.

Dominic Green
Dominic Green was born (1967). Was educated (English public school and Cambridge). Wasted education on a career in information technology in the UK, Germany, Belgium and Holland. Now works for a large and vengeful international credit card company, in the secret subterranean rocket complex. Duties include saying “CLOSE CRATER DOORS” into the intercom in a sinister indefinable Central European accent.

I have never been able to finish Red Mars. I should like Kim Stanley Robinson, I really should. His heart is in the right place, and he isn’t racist, sexist or phobic of anyone, but oh my god, the sheer grittily accurate portrayal of what it would really be like to be cooped up in a four-foot-by-four-foot cell on a freezing planet for several hundred pages. I kept wishing for someone to be mentally teleported to counter-Earth and made to fight insect men in a jockstrap. Why the insect men would be wearing jockstraps, I have no idea.

I read Babel 17 all the way through and can’t remember anything that happens in it, apart from all the boy-on-girl-on-boy-on-thing action. My characters feel no need to flaunt their nipples to the world. And why is this? I’m British, god damn it. You want a good novel about language, read Snow Crash and weep.

Alfred Bester…virtually anything by Alfred Bester. Bester reminds me of a guy who gets drunk at parties and says things like ‘Hey, what if, like, bread was intelligent?”, the only difference being that, having had this eureka moment, Bester would then quietly leave the party and, in the wee small hours, work feverishly to construct a novel plot based on having an entire planet full of intelligent bread. And win a Hugo for it. The bastard.

And the stuff I like, that everyone else thinks is crap? My own, of course.

I shouldn’t like The Survival Game by Colin Kapp. It involves plucky Earthmen who miraculously defeat an entire galaxy of imperialist warlords, a hero called, so help me, Colonel Bogey, and a finale which might as well involve the eponymous Bogey standing over a pile of dead enemies with his shirt off and the novel’s token female writhing at his feet. But I do. I love it. I do. Kill me now, I do not deserve to live. Much the same is true of Janissaries by Jerry Pournelle – I enclose a .jpg of the Orbit edition cover, which is so awful it has gone past awfulness and become a thing of beauty.

38 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Books We Love That Everyone Else Hates (and Vice Versa)”

  1. Definitely agree with Joe Sherry.  I can’t even get through Stross’ books.  The other book/author I don’t enjoy at all is Ian M. Banks.  Remember Phelbas had zero characters I was cheering for and no suspense at all.  The on-rushing train scene was a yawner.

    I will be sure to stay away from anything Jonathan McCalmont recommends considering he dislikes two of my favorites.  Obviously, our tastes do not coincide.

  2. Actually my original was much longer and did include Robert A. Heinlein among the names of those “you love that everybody else hates”…but things got a tad wordy!

  3. As far as fantasy is concerned, I’ve never understood the passion my mother has (and that many more otherwise sane and rational people also seem to have) for… the deeply unpleasant Thomas Covenant novels…

    Oh Paul, I’m right there with you.  I’m not one who must have a noble hero and a happy ending every time, but I couldn’t dredge up even a lick of feeling for Covenant.  I have friends who’ve tried for years to convince me to read Lord Foul’s Bane again, and I just can’t.  I’m not getting any younger, and there are so many other books out there!

  4. “To be fair, the haters make really horrible arguments about Eragon, so it’s easy to defend; besides, I think people who dedicate themselves solely to de-constructing a book they claim to hate is downright silly.”

    Soley?  As their one act in life?  In literature?  In the sf/fantasy field? 

    I don’t think “solely” means what you think it means.

    Jonathan McCalmont: “Ender’s Game is Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Throne (1972) but without the irony.”

    Presumably Spinrad’s “The Iron Dream” is what Mr. McCalmont has in mind.

    Fred: “Why do I feel people dislike it? Heck, it is a well-regarded and awarded book (that I bet many have never read).”

    Better to have stopped there, Fred.  The idea that _A Canticle For Leibowitz_ is any sort of disliked or unknown, let alone hated, book simply doesn’t fly.  That lots of people who aren’t Catholic don’t know much about Catholicism is simply irrelevant.  It’s like claiming that _Rendevous With Rama_ is a widely despised book because most people aren’t engineers.  It simply isn’t true that either _Rama_ or _Leibowitz_ are books “that everyone else hates.”  It’s simply not a supportable or true claim.

    “Haven’t you noticed a trend among certain (vocal) groups of pros and fans that rather openly despise religion? Especially traditional religions?”

    Of course.  And yet _A Canticle For Leibowitz_ has been regarded as a popluar classic, selling millions of copies, and more or less universally praised by critics in and out of the field, for decades.  Interesting, isn’t that?

    John Klima: “I essentially went into this book feeling that my life would change having read it.”

    Yes, that’s somewhat lunatic.  It’s just a good book.

    It’s a shame some here, though, don’t go into, or analyze, why they hate a story or writer’s work.  For instance, Joe Sherry writes of how he hates Charlie Stross’s stuff.  But why?  Not a clue given.  Not very educational or interesting.

    Derek Molata, on the other hand, explores why he has problems with his cited book. That is useful.

  5. Not surprisingly there were several “hated” books on the list, all of which I  have come to in only the last 5-6 years, that I love:

    The Wizard Knight series

    Lord of the Rings

    Ender’s Game

    The Stars My Destination (though I completely understand how massive hype can kill any book for a person, regardless of how good it might be)

    The Foundation Series

    It is always entertaining to find out which books people dislike.  Just proves that it takes all kinds. What I find most entertaining is how definitive and authoritative people are in their hatred of certain books and authors and can only express it in ways that make it sound like anyone who could possibly like it must have awful taste.  That is where I disagree with people most, not in what they like or don’t like, but whether or not they should set themselves up as the arbiter of taste.

    Stross was mentioned and though I have no objective proof for it, I loved Halting State and given that it was a niche book written in the second person narrative I can only assume that it has a lot of haters out there.

     

     

     

     

     

  6. Yes… too right… Iron Dream.  That was bad, I only re-read it recently too.

    Great issue of Mind Meld though, really enjoyed this one.  Great work all!  I’ll definitely echo Thomas Covenant and the first Harry Potter.

  7. I absolutely love this Mild Meld not because I agree with everybody, but because it certainly shows why it is important to listen to different people and different points of view.  

    I can see the truth in all of the books people haven’t cared for, or at least I can for the ones I have read. I enjoyed Lord of the Rings, for example, but I agree that Tolkien’s story wanders quite a bit; just look at Tom Bambadil, who Tolkien himself admits is unimportant!  I like Consider Phlebas but agree that it is not Banks’s best work.  Heck, despite how much I enjoyed Wolfe’s The Wizard Knight I can understand it not working for others.

    For me Dune is like this.  I didn’t like it and found it to be too concerned with socio-political-religious elements.  But hey, many love it so I admit I’m just the odd one out here.

    I’ve also never been a fan of Ray Bradbury, with books like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles feeling loosely connected and heavy-handed.  But again, I understand completely how many find these books excellent.

  8. I can not for the life of me seem to finish a single Larry Niven book. I’ve tried reading several, but I’m only able to force myself to get at most halfway through before I put the book aside b/c either I don’t care about the characters or I’m bored.

    The Elenium and Belgariad by David Eddings are sometimes mocked as being the exact same series, and while I see the MANY parrallels, I love both series (and their follow-ups). They’re my go-to books for when I’m sick or just need something to make me smile.

  9. Much easier to come up with popular books that I hate.

    Brin’s Sundiver seems popular but I gave up after a couple hundred pages, I thought the writing was really quite amateur.

    The Dan Brown books?  I simply cannot understand the appeal, more amateur writing.  He constantly ends his 3 page chapters with something along the lines of “and just then he heard ominous footsteps creeping up behind him” only to start the very next chapter with “but it was just another pedestrian walking by” or something to that effect.  Come on now!  I get that same feeling when I see promos on TV for the silly Ghost Hunters show where it would appear that each show only amounts to two guys saying “whoa, did you hear that?” for a half hour.

    Michael Crichton was great at coming up with interesting sci fi ideas around which he wrote horrible books.  Its the reason so many have been made into movies, Hollywood just pulls the interesting ideas in the book to create a screenplay and jettisons the junk (usually).  He tended to self plagiarize as well, heck, he had someone drive/be pushed off a road and into a tall tree in both Jurassic Park and it sequel The Lost World.  Really, a car in a tree again?  Of all the possibilities on a dino infested island?  I have read several of his books but decided his book Next was the final straw….once you have decided to write from the POV of a smart talking parrot for an extended amount of time, things have gotten too absurd for me.  That book stunk.

    Heinleins’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  The book seems to be universally loved and I just detested it.  Went in wanting to like it but struggled to get through it.  Am not able to really define why either, sometimes a book just rubs you the wrong way….although I can say my dislike had nothing to do with the religious aspect of the book.  Different strokes for different folks, thank goodness there are (almost) endless books to pick from.

  10. @Rowan – I read Belgariad but disliked Eddings lifting entire paragraphs of descriptions from himself.  It was like he was too tire to write new so instead he cut/paste from the earlier books.

    @Mike – I agree completely with you on Sundiver, Dan Brown, and Crichton.  Especially Crichton – great ideas, poor execution.

  11. Mike mentions Stranger in a Strange Land which is a book that I have always assumed I would hate, despite liking all the Heinlein that I’ve read thus far.  There is something about it that seems very flower powerish about it that makes me cringe every time I think of reading it.  I can easily see that it will be the very last Heinlein I ever read and I’ll only do it in order to say I’ve read all his work.  And quite frankly I won’t be a bit surprised if it ends up overcoming my low expectations

    Rowan: Have  you tried A World Out of Time by Larry Niven?  It is my favorite Niven book and is one that I see so little talk about that I have to think it is another one that would be in my “love” list that others might “hate”.

     

     

     

  12. I am SO relieved to not be the only person in the world who did not enjoy the Thomas Covenant series. I tried. I read the first 3. The MC did not get it. I read the next 3, and the MC still didn’t get it. Wasted hours I’ll never ever get back. So why on earth did I give Donaldson another chance? I don’t know, but what he was unable to do with the TC books, he got right in Mirror of Her Dreams and A Man Rides Through – books good enough that I recommended them to others and rebought them when I moved from Hawaii to Maryland. I think I was looking for redemption – for the author – and he earned it.

    I tried to like, or learn from, Ringworld but really, “tanj?”

    Books I was surprised to enjoy include the Twilight saga. Like the Harry Potter books, I’d not jumped on them right away – but as I eventually started the Potter books and loved them, I had a chance to try Twilight (via my hair stylist). Other than one thing on the first page, I enjoyed it. Then, long story short, we ended up with the movie. My husband watched it with me and liked it enough to read New Moon – I’ve since finished Eclipse and he is reading them too despite the thought that he may lose his “man” card. I get the angst – there is good reason for it on all sides. I empathize with Bella at certain points. It drags me along when I never thought to step on the path. Of course, the whole Cedric/Edward actor thing is funny (again connecting HP and Twilight LOL).

    Then again, I loved the Belgariad while my husband hated it (at least he tried!). I guess he did not read Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain chronicles when he was younger.

    I love Restoree by Anne McCaffrey, but when I suggested it for a book club reading (looking at debut sf novels) I pretty much got a universal negative response. My writing group is split on the Kushiel books by Jacqueline Carey. I love them. I learned some people were not used to reading things like epic fantasy, that take a while to develop, so some did not start loving the first book until they’d read several chapters. But then they were hooked.

    Charles Stross was the GOH at Balticon last year, so I bought Singularity Sky, Accelerando, and Saturn’s Children. I definitely liked the last one best. The first was ok and I think the second one was not what I anticipated.

    We are lucky that there are diverse authors and audiences out there. Plenty of people to write books we love (or to read books we write). You can’t win them all. I can enjoy a good story despite issues, as long as the author tells it so well that the issues don’t impede on the experience. That whole “suspension of disbelief” thing. And while I love Heinlein in general (I think he needed a hug), please don’t make me read Number of the Beast again!

  13. Kudos to Jonathan McCalmont’s evisceration of Ender’s Game; I had no preconceptions about the book when I started reading it and had *exactly* the same response.  It is truly pernicious.

    I think Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun quartet gets tangled up in a similar kind of unholy aesthetic-moral knot.  I’m very puzzled by the lavish praise that quartet has received over the years.  It’s true that Gene Wolfe’s command of prose is very good, and his far-future Earth-in-decline is worked out in intricate and suggestive detail. But for me, the story as a whole has two big problems. First, everything that happens to Severian seems to happen by coincidence: wholly at random, Severian runs into secondary character A, who just happens to be his grandmother awakened from hibernation, and together they run into character B, who just happens to be his father; then they all get separated from each other and are improbably reunited elsewhere, where Severian meets character C, who just happens to be… and so on. This goes on throughout the four books, until Severian’s whole world, for all its scale and intricacy, seems to be populated by just four or five people, all of whom have some sort of special relationship to Severian and whose sole function seems to be to pass him back and forth amongst themselves like a passive baton. Second, Severian’s rise from despised torturer to exalted messiah-king is a very, very, very tired science fiction power-fantasy cliche. We got it in Dune, we got it in Ender’s Game… really, where *don’t* we get it in most popular SF? The fact that Severian is an unreliable narrator, who distorts his own account and fabricates certain episodes in his adventure, doesn’t *change* the larger fact that here is yet another SF story about some guy who finds out he’s God. It feels like another version of Ender’s Game — another “I’m the king of the world!” story which goes to baroque lengths to get its hero to the throne *and* pretend that’s not what it’s doing.  It’s frustrating to see all this stylistic talent and worldbuilding skill being put in the service of an incoherent and solipsistic story. And it’s doubly frustrating to see others falling for it.

    (Side comment: another book I’ve seen mentioned several times in this thread is The Stars My Destination.  I think that book has suffered by being overpraised.  It’s quite a whiz-bang novel, but it’s also emotionally distant and sort of over-the-top.  I’ve never felt it was nearly as tight and engaging as Bester’s first novel, The Demolished Man.)

    One book I’ve always preferred to its better-known siblings is The Silmarillion.  Here I think Tolkien’s clunkiness as a writer becomes kind of a virtue, since the texts within are meant to be actual traditional texts from Middle-Earth.  I feel The Silmarillion is more compelling as a kind of literary “artifact” than The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings.

  14. Robin Hobb is the one that most seem to love, that I loathe. I’ve read Tawny Man and Soldier Son and just find them to be mind numbingly boring.

  15. Ender’s Game is one of the most over-rated SF books in history, and I think it’s actually been detrimental to Card’s credibility among a lot of my personal friends.  I know many people who have read Ender’s Game, hated it, and never picked up another Card novel, despite my assurances that the are all superior.  In addition to this, I actually really like all the later Ender books quite a bit.  My favorite of his, though, is the Alvin Maker series, which I almost never hear discussed.  I think my wife and I are the only people I know who have read them.

    Also, while I do consider myself something of a Gaiman fan, I’m not so into his most famous stuff.  I really didn’t like American Gods, though I enjoyed some of the ideas in it.  Same with Sandman.  I think it has some fantastic moments here and there, but on the whole, it’s like, a B-.  Not the life-changing classic I expected when I started reading it.   I love a lot of his short fiction, though.  And Coraline.  What a fantastic little book!

  16. @ Gary Farber: Not much to analyze, really.  Very quickly i became disinterested in the story Stross was telling and did not enjoy the way he was telling it.  Referring to Accelerando.  I knew it was an acclaimed book, but I couldn’t figure out why and after several chapters / stories, I found the novel tedious. 

    I can, more or less, work out the basic shape of the opening to Stross’s science fiction.  For a couple of years, I continued to subsequent novels from Stross and his science fiction suffers from the same problem for me – it bores the shit out of me and, if I remember correctly, his characters feel to me to be cutouts through which Stross makes the words appear – rather than anything that resembles a person.  I actively resent the time I’ve spent attempting Accelerando, Singularity Sky, Iron Sunrise, Saturn’s Children, and Halting State.  I just don’t know how well i can articulate that. 

    Which is weird, because I rather enjoy his Laundry novels, mostly like the Merchant Princes, and thought Missile Gap was just fine. 

     

    And Lord Foul’s Bane?  I may never read any Stephen Donaldson again because of that book.  That’s a bitter, ugly, unpleasant, and despite any attempt to subvert the cliches of fantasy, unremarkable novel – except in the fact that i can’t help remarking about how much i dislike that book.

  17. So much to hate, so little time!  Overall, P.G. Raven coralled most of my most hated sacred cows.  It was nice to see some of the bloated names of epic fantasy like Terry Brooks and Stephen Donaldson get a mention (although there are more, many more), but I was perhaps more delighted by the calling out of thee Isaac Asimov who probaly should have stuck to his work in popular science.

    It is unfortunate that more urban fantasy (a la sexy vamp/were creature/kick-ass sorceress not China Mieville) didn’t get fingered.  Though I suppose singling out someone like Stephenie Meyer for literary derision is kinda like picking a fist fight with Stephen Hawking.

    Lastly, M. John Harrison’s <b>Nova Swing</b>.  An impressionistic novel that goes nowhere by design, and is utterly uncompelling.  Drifting from one hazy word-portrait to the next, the reader is shunted through a surreal yet boring version of gritty-urban-noir.  One is dragged through this muck by  characters are so variously and vaporously drawn, it becomes impossible for the reader to attach any concern to them whatsoever.  This perhaps is for the best, considering that the plot (what little there is of it) fails to resolve.  This novel has garnered much critical praise, including the admiration of some of my favorite authors, but I’m afraid it is all baroque styling and vague suggestion signifying nothing.

  18. I loved Mary Gentle’s Ancient Light and Jean Hegland’s Into the Forest, both of which a lot of people seemed to hate. More often I love books which no one else seems to have read, like The Masters of Solitude or Charles Whitmore’s Winter’s Daughter, or works considered “lesser” by critically acclaimed authors (The Simulacra is still my favorite Philip K. Dick book for its willingness to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the paranoid plot, and I like The Squares of the City over Brunner’s more well-known novels). Janet Morris seems to get regularly panned but I enjoyed her Dream Dancer/Cruiser Dreams/Earth Dreams trilogy, which I gather will make some people discount everything else I say. ;^)

    Books that were favorites of a number of other people that left me cold include all of E. E. “Doc” Smith that I’ve attempted, Childhood’s End (not awful, but give me The City and the Stars any day), Stranger in a Strange Land, Bug Jack Barron, Tigana, The Fortunate Fall and a lot of the erstwhile new British SF writers (Ken MacLeod, Al Reynolds, Neal Asher). And I dislike books like The Magus and The Malacia Tapestry that arrange for the protagonist to suffer a climactic pratfall in a very schematic way. At least George R. R. Martin gets you to the pratfall in a more organic fashion!

  19. I remember reading A Requiem For Homo Sapiens.  Well… the first two books at least.

    The original self-contained novel was pretty good and had loads of good ideas (starships that work thanks to pilots plotting mathematical proofs, city with ice streets, cave men, human diaspora) but I think the series simply took all of those ideas and teased them out at greater length and so mystery and evocative hints gave way to dull world-building.  I also remember it as being very emotionally operatic in that it revolved around a guy who grew up as a caveman who took a shine to this psychotic future dictator who didn’t even like him : Cue lots of chest-thumping and wailing.

     

    @Chris — The reason more paranormal romance didn’t get fingered (to use your incredibly apt turn of phrase) is because precious few people will admit to liking it.  Arguing that Stephenie Meyer and Laurel K Hamilton are rubbish is like kicing puppies.

  20. @Paul Connelly: I agree with you wholeheartedly about Brunner’s The Squares of the City. But honestly, isn’t that even more schematic than The Magus or The Malacia Tapestry, both of which you decry for being schematic. Personally I think The Malacia Tapestry is the best thing Aldiss ever wrote, and I’ve loved The Magus ever since I first read it.

  21. Brin’s Sundiver seems popular but I gave up after a couple hundred pages, I thought the writing was really quite amateur.

     

    This is a fair comment. Sundiver is not a great book, and neither is it will-regarded. Even die-hard Brin fans will usually say it’s his weakest novel. I would suggest giving Startide Rising a go though, which is a much better work. Whilst technically the second book in the six-volume series, it is set 300 years after Sundiver and contains no continuing characters or storylines from it.

     

    @ Joe Sherry: I found the Thomas Covenant series to likewise be awful, but was quite impressed by his Gap Saga. It may be worth a shot, especially as the first volume is extremely short and almost compelling in its bizarreness (especially its difference to the more traditionally-written sequels).

     

    I agree with the assertion that The Silmarillion is superior as a work of the imagination to Lord of the Rings, although I still think that is a decent book (possibly better if the Bombadil chapters were ripped out though).

     

    My own personal quirk is M. John Harrison’s much-vaunted Viriconium cycle, which I found to be quite spectacularly awful, and Nick Harkaway’s recent Gone-Away World, which everyone seems to have loved despite it coming across as a crazed mash-up of China Mieville and Robert Rankin without the talent of either.

     

    On the other side of the coin, I have a great deal of affection for Patrick Tilley’s almost-forgotten Amtrak Wars series, still rate the Forgotten Realms Empire Trilogy (and yes, like Jonathan M I have a lot of time for the Grubb/Novak trilogy, if only for the sentient dinosaur paladins) and find much to admire in Robert Jordan’s often-criticised Wheel of Time sequence (there is much to criticise, but much that impresses as well, at least in the first few books).

  22. Some thoughts:

    Adam Robert’s makes excellent points: why literature screams pretention to some while genre cries folksy is borderline nonsensical. That people can’t genuinely enjoy challenging, literary works is another tired trope.

    I’ll add my voice to those who can’t understand why Accelerando is so highly praised; the prose felt leaden, the characters felt like caricatures; I found the book completely unreadable, and haven’t attempted any Stross since.

    LOTR is awesome, and the Counsel of Elron is one of my favorite sequences from the first book. I can understand how if someone were reading for a straight and uncomplicated narrative that LOTR would seem like it meandered, but to me this just suggests that there are multiple ways of reading a book and LOTR demands a different one. Similar comments might also apply to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

  23. My own personal quirk is M. John Harrison’s much-vaunted Viriconium cycle, which I found to be quite spectacularly awful,

     

    I was almost going to add this to my response, but I thought the first novel in the cycle was pretty good so I couldn’t completely slag off on cycle. Where the story went from that first book, well, I just ceased to care.

  24. Oh, I like <i>Sundiver</i>.  That’s the book that got me interested in Brin. 

     

    Adam: Maaaaybe I’ll give Gap a shot.  It’s been years, but I am still so very turned off Donaldson. 

     

    I’ll grant you <i>The Silmarillion</i> being a superior work of imagination…but it’s still a shitty read.

  25. I need to get around to reading Xenocide and Children of the Mind.  Ender’s Game and Speaker were great reads.

    And speaking of great reads, The Silmarillion is fantastic!  It is like reading the very best history book about a group of characters that I’ve really grown to love over the last decade.  I came to all the books after the films and one of the things I take great pleasure in every year is sampling parts of them again and picking up some new (to me) book on Tolkien.  Its only a shitty read Joe if you aren’t interested in the topic.   For someone like me, who is in awe of what Tolkien created, The Silmarillion is a gift.

  26. @Paul Kincaid: It’s probably just down to taste, but Aldiss and Fowles left me saying, “So I just spent 300+ pages waiting for this bleedin’ idjit to get his comeuppance?” Boyd Hakluyt and Maria Posador aren’t idiots and even Vados and Diaz seem more driven over the edge by their prolonged impasse than stupid.

    It would be fun to have time travel just to jump ahead 50-100 years and see how many of these books are even remembered, much less argued over by then. (This is assuming enough people still read books at that point, and care enough about them, to find a quorum for a good argue-fest.) I’m hoping ridiculously underrated writers like Patricia McKillip and Robert Holdstock are still remembered, and are read and argued about then. I have a feeling that Asimov, Card, Heinlein, Herbert and many others high in today’s pantheon probably won’t be, entertaining as they can be.

  27. Paul: Great call with Patricia McKillip! Wonderful author who is not talked about near enough in my opinion. 

    I’m not so certain authors like Asimov and Heinlein will die away in another 50-100 years.  Authors who have some significant role in a genre like this tend to continue to be talked about, even if it is my a rabid few who keep their names and work alive.  Would be interesting to see though.

    I certainly hope people are still reading in 100 years, I don’t think I’d want to live in a world that wasn’t full of readers.

  28. This is down there on the front page, so I won’t waste much time responding to the Ender’s Game stuff, but I think you all have it wrong.  Loathesome?  Ender was a kid!  It’s a story about how we are so easily manipulated when we’re kids and how that haunts us for most of our lives.  He never meant to kill those kids and was sick when he realized what he’d done.  That doesn’t escuse murder, but he was a scared kid and a trained killer.  Spoiler Alert here: As for the Xenocide, he didn’t know what he was doing. Remember he still thought he was playing a video game?  Afterwards, he dedicated his entire life to helping the Buggers survive and the Queen’s relationship to him is truly inspirational.  It shows how we ought to approach life after war and how we could/should work together for peace and to forget our barbaric past.  Speaker for the Dead was an excellent exploration of this.

    Glad to see LoTR listed so much here.

     

    I would add The Demolished Man to my (at least) dislike list.  I just don’t get the hype and if Stars is a worse offender, I think I’ll take a pass.

  29. Oh, I like <i>Sundiver</i>.  That’s the book that got me interested in Brin. 

     I think Sundiver is perfectly okay, but also not particularly remarkable. I can see people reading it and not seeing anything in it to make them commit to the following five books in the series. Startide, on the other hand, is for my money a much, much stronger book.

     

    I’ll grant you <i>The Silmarillion</i> being a superior work of imagination…but it’s still a shitty read.

    If you can get over the cod-Biblical writing style in the opening sections, I think it does end up working very well. It’s also notable for featuring Tolkien’s best use of female characters (Melian, Luthien, Nienor and so forth are much more interesting characters than Arwen and Eowyn) and both his most kick-ass moments (the elves of Gondolin showing how they dealt with multiple balrogs back in the day) and his most surreal (Sauron getting his arse kicked by a wolf).

    It isn’t a novel though. It’s more along the lines of The Bible or Metamorphosis, which either works for readers or completely leaves them cold.

  30. Let me add my two cents:

    1. The book I like that everyone else dismisses is THE NIGHT LANDS by William Hope Hodgson.
    The critics here have a good point: the whole thing is written in this atrocious faux-Elizabethan monologue, and has no character development, no description, and the sketchiest of plots.

    What it has going for it is one awe-inspiring idea: the sun has died, and the remnant of mankind live in a seven-mile-high pyramid of imperishable metal, surrounded by a ring of psionic or magnetic energy, and they are besieged by creatures from some indescribably alien condition of being, motionless and gigantic, who have been surrounding this Last Redoubt, and waiting for its protective energy to fail for uncounted millions of years. At the feet of these monstrosities throng trolls and dire wolves and other creatures adapted to the endless cold and infinite dark, and the dwindling remnant of mankind have forgotten, or have never understood, what inhabit the towers and houses shining silently in the distance, and they do not know what meaning to attach to the vast shapes seen, dimly silhouetted against the volcanoscape beyond, groping slowly toward the pyramid.

    Then the hero hears in his mind the telepathic call of a women he loved and lost countless millions of years before, calling for help…

    2. The book I cannot understand why it won all the praise and love it did was Phillip Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy: THE GOLDEN COMPASS (or NORTHERN LIGHTS), THE SUBTLE KNIFE, and THE AMBER SPYGLASS. Now, to forestall the typical personal attacks beloved of the Left, let me hasten to add that I was an atheist when I read these books, both loyal and ferocious to my cause, so it was not the irreligious nature of the work that offended me. I liked irreligion; I sought it out. What offended me was the bad writing.

    Those who love the books have good cause to love the first book: GOLDEN COMPASS has a plucky heroine, a compelling plot, action, intrigue, escapes, ocy witches, daemon as critters, polar bears in armor, and one of the most memorable of invented worlds to come along in many a year.

    It is the plot holes that jarred the ride for me, and, by the third book, AMBER SPYGLASS, I simply felt the author had such contempt for his readers that he had no interest in following up or resolving even a single one of the threads he’d left dangling.

    The story was supposed to be about a boy armed with a magic knife whose mission is to kill God Almighty and establish the Republic of Heaven–a properly Miltonian conceit, I admit, on par with Steven Brust’s TO REIGN IN HELL. What comes of it? Nothing. Evil God is a drooling and senile Gollum who dies by mistake while falling out of bed. No republic is started. Instead, the plucky heroine girl commits some sort of assisted suicide on a bunch of ghosts, destroying their otherwise immortal souls. This was for no reason I could fathom, and nothing came of it.

    The Heroine was also supposed to be the new Eve, but no new race springs from her. She is parted from the hero, her (underage?) lover by the most arbitrary mechanisms imaginable: the writer simply announces at the last minute that people from other dimensions cannot be together (even though the whole plot hinges on the ghost-populations of the various worlds being flung into outer dimensions where they will be destroyed.)

    What, you can kill God Almightly by pushing him out of bed, and you have access to every world in the multiverse, but you cannot get Corwin of Amber to redraw the pattern, all circumvent this one law of nature? You cannot find the Ethicals from Riverworld to reincarnate the ghosts, nor can they remain in limbo as a sort of library for the living, but you have to destroy them? You have the whole multiverse to search from, and you cannot find a trio of Ghostbusters with unlicensed nuclear accerators on their backs to shoot the shadow-beings accidentally created whenever you open a spacewarp with the Subtle Knife? I wish the characters had been as subtle as the knife, and thought of some answers to their problems.

    I may be misremembering, but both the Evil Church and the Angels of the Evil God are still in business at the end of the trilogy. No one has accomplished anything. As best I can tell, we were promised a world-changing Twilight of the Gods, and a New Heaven and the New Earth, and we ended up with a lonely girl going to school and promising to be nice.  

    It is almost as if the author were trying to pair up the most titanic promises of the most overdramatic wonders he could imagine with resolution that were as Lilliputian and underdramatic as he could imagine. The ending to Dr. Seuss’ I HAD TROUBLE GETTING TO SOLLA SOLLEW deals with the concept of false promises of false hopes leading to inner strength with considerably more wit and fewer words: but in Seuss’ book the broken promise was made to the little fuzzy youth from the Valley of Vung, not to the reader. His expectations were dashed, not the readers.

    Imagine if, instead of Aslan returning from the dead, it had ended with Susan and Lucy going to school and promising to be nice. The White Witch is still in business, and it is still cold outside. Imagine is, instead of Sauron the Great, and all his works of darkness, collapsing into ruin, that flinging the One Ring into the Cracks of Doom had done nothing but made Frodo decide to go to school and to be nicer. Morodor is still in business, its factory chimneys fuming.

    I found the ending not just tangled and silly, I found it arbitrary, and, worse, it was arbitrary in a way that any competent editor could have told the author to fix: if you want to have it be an unpleasant surprise in chapter thirty that hero and heroine cannot be in the same world, all you have to do is establish that fact, or a clue leading up to it, in chapter three.

  31. John C. Wright didn’t like the Northern Lights series?  Quelle Surprise :-)

    Having said that, I do completely agree that after the first book it does start to wallow a bit. I also have a problem with the way the books are quite coy about tackling Christianity.  They borrow elements of real-world Christianity and channel Dante quite a bit but they cloak the whole thing in, I think, quite dishonest fantasy fancy dress.  As though Pullman didn’t quite have the wontons to tackle Christianity head-on.

    If you want a tale of God-killing then Ennis’ Preacher pulls much the same stunt without the coy fantasy disguises and in a much more straight-forward way.  To paraphrase Voltaire and Nietszche : If God were not already dead it would be necessary for man to kill him.

  32. “John C. Wright didn’t like the Northern Lights series?  Quelle Surprise :-)”

    Unfortunately for your quip, it is rabid-atheist John C. Wright who did not like the book, and not because of the Christianity, pro or con, but because of the bad writing.

    But even though I answered and disarmed this particular stinkbomb before you lobbed it, you simply had to throw it anyway. Quelle Surprise.

    “As though Pullman didn’t quite have the wontons to tackle Christianity head-on.”

    Do you honestly think it requires any courage to repeat the mindless, conformist, and historically illiterate anti-Christian bromides that deluge our current culture? I beg to differ.

  33. To Jeff Carlson. Who told you that Harry Potter and/or the Twilight series is epic fantasy. When you say you don’t get epic fantasy, you really mean it, don’t you?

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