This week’s question was suggested by Electric Velocipede‘s John Klima, who suggested a seemingly simple question that’s quite challenging to answer.
(Actually, I misinterpreted John’s original verbiage, as he explains below. So this questions isn’t quite what he was asking. Still, the response was high enough to warrant breaking this up into two parts. Part 1 appears below. Part 2 will appear next week.)
Here’s what this week’s panelists said. Do you agree with their choices? What would you pick?
- Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny – Perhaps the original genre-bending novel. The first time you read it, it’s fantasy, but the second time it’s clearly sf. And every time, it’s a great adventure book.
- The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein – No, not a novel, but still a continuing story. Some of the best world-building adventure tales of the Golden Era before Heinlein went all, uh, funny.
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin – Again, great world-building and free-form thinking. How to write a didactic novel without making you feel like you have a responsibility to read it.
- I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – Just because.
- Neuromancer by William Gibson – This book invented a genre when we thought we were genre’d out.
- Ubik by Philip K. Dick – One of the best examples of reality-shifting and a decent of this seminal writer’s work.
- Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany – The epitome of the ‘New Wave’ movement.
- The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – Not only a good time-travel piece, but a great example of how to write a political protest book.
First, let me say I’m thrilled to be invited to participate in a Mind Meld. I read them all the time and I always learn something new when I do. So when I was asked to do this, I dashed to my library and pulled down a lot of books. My problem was narrowing down the list. So being strict about the titles being only science fiction helped (if you count eliminating some of my favorites as helping. Poo!) Anyway, these are the books I loved first as a fan and then as a writer.
On my list, I would have to include many short story collections and first would have to be A Woman’s Liberation edited by Connie Willis and Sheila Williams. This is just a lovely collection of stories. “Even the Queen” by Connie Willis, “Rachel in Love” by Pat Murphy, “Speech Sounds” by Octavia E. Butler, and the title story “A Woman’s Liberation” by Ursula K. Le Guin are all stories I think every science fiction writer should read and have in their collection. This is a gem in my library. I mostly love these stories because they illuminate the female in scifi. These stories don’t just say “yes, women can do this, too” but “yes, women did it and did it well, without compromising the vision and essence of being women.”
The Locus Awards edited by Charles N. Brown and Jonathan Strahan is another anthology that is just a “must have.” Everything about this collection is wonderful, from the cover done by the great Michael Whelan to all the classic stories included, like “Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison. This book is great for seeing the changes in science fiction over the span of 30 years. I also have a special love for this collection for introducing me to the work of Ted Chiang.
And speaking of Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others is a book that if you don’t have in your library, for gosh sake, don’t tell anyone of your oversight and run out and get it right now! Chiang’s short stories and novellas are a perfect example of why the current obsession with the novel is so misguided. My favorites being “Tower of Babylon,” “Hell is the Absence of God,” and the title story, “Story of Your Life.” His work does that little dance on the genre line. But his stories are so wonderful, any form of fiction should be proud to claim him as theirs.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a goddess. No, I mean it. Her words should be studied like sacred texts. I’ve read The Left Hand of Darkness maybe 3-4 times. I’ve lost count. It’s that good. The way she plays with the ideas of difference and sexuality are genius. My favorite line from the book is “don’t touch me.” Read it and look for that moment. Every time I hit that part of the book, it just sends chills down my spine.
Dark Matter edited by Sheree R. Thomas. It was so ground-breaking at the time of its publication. But beyond that, it’s just a good collection of stories that no scifi bookshelf should be considered complete without it.
Dune by Frank Herbert may have been the first real science fiction novel I ever read (or rather tried to read). When I was in the 11th grade I checked this book out of the library. I tried to read it and didn’t get past the first chapter. I liked the writing, but I couldn’t follow what was going on. I tried again when I was a sophomore in college and I was sucked right into the world Herbert created–the sand, the over-obsession with water conservation, the worms. I think every science fiction fan and writer should read this book at some point because it’s just a great example of the power of world building.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler, aside from just being an excellent, excellent read, is one of those books that sets your mind on fire. Ms. Butler always said that she wrote in such a way that a sixth grader should be able to read her work. I never understood how amazing a statement that was until I started writing myself. To be able write simply and eloquently while distilling down difficult concepts the way she did is just … well … for lack of a better word, genius. No wonder she won the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” award. Recently I’ve been trying an exercise of typing out a whole chapter from this book. You can get a real sense of the amazing way she was able to say so much with such economy of language. For example, the first line from chapter 2, “At least three years ago, my father’s God stopped being my God.” Simple. Powerful. Delivers a lot of information. Sets up drama. All in one sentence. Like I said, genius.
Adding The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov to my list is kinda cheating because it’s four books, but it is really impossible to separate them, so that’s my excuse. 🙂 The Foundation Series is a great example of how scifi can be epic in scope. While I may not be that crazy about Asimov’s writing style, I am just amazed by his plotting ability. He builds stories like nobody’s business. This is a must-have for every scifi fan’s bookshelves. I remember seeing Asimov speak at a symposium when I was in college at BU (he was a professor there). The audience was huge. We were all pretty much there to hear him but we had to wait for 2-3 others to make their presentations. They were well rehearsed, prepared talks. I was hot and bored and even thought of leaving. Then Asimov took the microphone. He had no papers before him. He actually looked like he might be BS-ing the whole thing. But he kept the room captivated. I don’t think I moved, blinked, or even breathed for the entire time that he spoke. That was the power of this master storyteller. It doesn’t matter if your story is true or not, just how well you can spin it. And no one did it better than Asimov.
Any list of “good” or “important” books is inescapably subjective and doomed to be incomplete. With that in mind, here are some books that any SF fan would probably be happy to own and read. I am not suggesting that they are the best or the most notable but they are modern works that, to my mind, exemplify some of the newer ideas in SF while combining outstanding writing and the capacity to be enjoyed through second and subsequent readings.
- Market Forces by Richard Morgan for its treatment of a near term and dystopian future combined with a complex and sympathetic protagonist.
- Implied Spaces by Walter John Williams for combining current ideas of a post-singularity and -scarcity future while at the same time keeping those ideas in check such that they don’t overwhelm the plot or characters.
- Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks for setting the bar for modern, “big” space opera in concert with a literary style and poignant plot.
- Blindsight by Peter Watts for redefining the degree of alien-ness another species can embody in a narrative so full of ideas and images that I thought about it for weeks after finishing it.
- The Skinner by Neal Asher for reminding me of how much fun creating an alien ecology can be and for delivering a perfectly paced adventure.
- The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi for demonstrating a wit and humor that’s all too rare in SF and is as important to me as “big” ideas and “new” concepts.
- The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod for demonstrating that the politics of the future can be as different from what came before as any other element in an imagined world.
This is my list. These are all terrific books, and if I had more time to think, I would probably swap out some, but that’s only because I don’t strongly dig top-tenning: you know, if I asked you to keep your top ten bodily organs and that the rest would be removed, you could do it, but you’d suffer anyway. Same with this. So consider this list really to mean, “Ten terrific books I had the time to write about today without having to go back and read others.”
- The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez – A robot engineered to wipe out humanity just doesn’t feel like it, so he turns to cab-driving. How can you not love that set-up? A miserable bot, he cares about his next-door neighbour’s kids, and when they get kidnapped, he becomes a reluctant private (electric) eye. With great twists on femme fatales and countless other dick-fic conventions, Martinez’s book is easily one of the most fun and pleasurable SF books I’ve ever read. Consider it Alan Moore’s Top Ten meets Walter Mosley’s Socrates Fortlow.
- Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer – A giant arachnoid alien crosses the galaxy to visit the Royal Ontario Museum to prove Creationism is scientifically valid. Like all Sawyer’s writing, Calculating God is intellectually rich. Combine that richness with the suffering and authenticity of the book’s characters, and Calculating God becomes a profoundly moving, haunting, unforgettable story. One of my favourite books.
- A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller, Jr. – A Canticle for Liebowitz was the first SF book I ever read that explored the most common religious expression on the planet: Catholicism. Doing so in a post-apocalyptic/nuclear terror mode makes the book sound like one long trek through guilt and gloom, but not so: Canticle was also the first funny SF book I ever read (not providing chuckles and smiles up to and not beyond page 20, like a certain other celebrated “hilarious” SF novel). Managing all that across three future historical epochs and still delivering profound examinations of history, faith, and the fate of our sinning species, while delivering a stunning end? That’s a masterpiece.
- The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin – LeGuin’s The Dispossessed isn’t a triumph of prose or pacing, but structurally and intellectually it’s a must-read. Tracing the life of a physicist in two paths (childhood and adulthood) in alternating chapters, LeGuin explores how the application of theoretical anarchism to an entire society (in this case, a moon orbiting a hyper-capitalist planet) would shape individuals and society (with the physics being a metaphor for all that, if I recall). In the tradition of 19th century utopian fiction, The Dispossessed throws itself into the task of making us consider and reconsider what we think we know, which is surely one of SF’s most important tasks, and does so with spectacular results.
- Dune by Frank Herbert – Dune. Only four letters, but a whole universe in them. When I was 15, I’d never encountered a work of fiction so vast it required its own glossary. Herbert stunned me with the richness of his endless worlds, and especially of Arrakis itself; at age 15 I found myself wanting to be on Arrakis. At 15 I also saw Dune as the story of a boy hero defeating the greatest villains of his time, but when I was older, I saw it for what it was, a profoundly tragic story of how the yearning for freedom can easily become a mission of vengeance, conquest and dictatorship. While a professor would later show me what should have been obvious, that Paul is T.E. Lawrence and that Dune is the story of the Arab Revolt (I got part of that at age 15 from the Fremen as the descendents of the Zensunni and the large Arabic and especially Islamic terminology in the book) against the Turks (Harkonnens), I would go on to see how the tragic path of the Fremen jihad says as much about Mao’s China as it does about the betrayals and failures of the Revolt. In short: Paul Muad’Dib is Harry Potter meets Osama bin Laden.
- The Final Reflection by John M. Ford – A Trek book on my list? Am I kidding? Nope. John M. Ford, who died way too young, created an encompassing backstory for the Klingon Empire in a story from the Klingon point of view, taking place about 50 years before Kirk was a baby. A Klingon commander learns what it is to be human while teaching what it is to be Klingon, and in the end must fuse a synthesis of those reflections or face a war of annihilation. Pre-Next Gen, this book doesn’t dish out the appalling, simple-minded stereotypes of Klingons (I know Klingons aren’t real; my point is that aliens are stand-ins for specific foreigners or “general foreigners” in SF) that came to dominate Trek. Instead we meet Klingon children and the abusive class-style oppression that warped them; we see cultured, sophisticated Klingons dining on pastries and fascinated by literature; we glimpse the non-theistic Klingon religion and its secular applications to politics that are eerily reminiscent of modern America, especially at the time of the latest financial crash. A compassionate and exciting book, The Final Reflection should have been the blueprint for, quite literally, all Trek that followed.
- Finch by Jeff VanderMeer – It’s mutopian fiction: the story of the body and of society transformed into unrecognisability. In an alternate earth in a region reminiscent of Victorian England, humans live under the occupation of intelligent fungal oppressors. And one man, John Finch, veteran of not-forgotten human wars before the occupation, saves his own ass by becoming… a collaborator with the occupiers and therefore hated by everyone, including himself. VanderMeer’s prose stuns throughout, with all the iridescent subtlety and hurricane force of entheogenic mushrooms. Blending detective fiction, science fiction and elegy, Finch explores transformation of body, society and mind in a pulse-pounding plot. Dare I say it? This book reminds me of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but in one way after the other, it’s superior.
- Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – A masterpiece of psychological insight, symbolism and structure, Flowers for Algernon can be and deserves to be read annually, each time yielding new perspectives: fiction as kaleidoscope. Charlie Gordon, a mentally retarded 32 year old, undergoes an operation to grant him normal intelligence, but ends up instead as the smartest man alive. But his discoveries of the world of the mind do nothing to prepare him for the miserable life of the heart, the indignities he’d been unable to perceive before his growth and the alienation his growth guaranteed him. Profoundly emotional, intellectual, psychological and mystical, Flowers for Algernon is easily one of the finest novels the United States ever produced.
- Valis by Philip K. Dick – So get this: Valis is told from the point of view of a counter-culture SF writer named Philip K. Dick about his friend Horselover Fats. Except it isn’t, because Phil understands that actually, he is Horselover. Except when he forgets. Which is most of the time. From this psychofragmentary opening, Dick unveils an exploration of his own life and hallucinations and delusions he evidently believed were real: that a satellite beamed pink light into his brain to warn him of a hidden, lethal illness in his child’s body that needed immediate medical attention; that that satellite was God; that the Roman Empire never died, and was the real world behind the matrix of illusions of which we are all victims. An enormously frustrating, bizarre, autopathographical, mentally deranged manifesto disguised as a novel, Valis is also a brilliant, a stunning work of Gnostic fiction that leaves one changed by its end. Surely this book was the source for about 89% of Charlie Kaufmann’s Adaptation. An excellent movie, by the way, but that film’s a disco ball compared to the supernova that is Valis.
- The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury – What if the European invasion of the Americas, and the European war of racial genocide to occupy especially the Old West permanently, were conducted on Mars instead? From that question arises much of The Martian Chronicles. With flights of whimsy into any number of Bradbury’s social rages along the way, The Martian Chronicles, while shockingly uneven (and even cruel in the case of “The Silent Towns”), demonstrated the quality of prose that SF deserves: flowing, elegiac, scintillating. And unlike the SF tradition that celebrated European global conquest and its many holocausts, The Martian Chronicles, like Wells’ The War of the Worlds before it, tells its tale by demonstrating the suffering and loss of the targets of imperialism, rather than the self-satisfied, fanatical “heroism” of those who carried the swords and aimed the cannons.
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein. Because she invented the genre. We’re still picking up the pieces. We’ll continue to create artificial life (zombies? Turing-competent computers? cloned babies?) until somebody clones Mary Shelley.
- Ursula LeGuin, Left Hand of Darkness. Amazingly emotionally involving book about what it means to be alien and yet human
- Joe Haldeman, The Forever War. Haldeman wrote the seminal book about what war means and what The Other is besides our enemy.
- Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land. This is actually a book about peace, love, and what we expect out of god-man.
- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451. Seminal book on censorship and tyranny and why they aren’t such a good idea.
- Roger Zelazny Lord of Light. Amazing extension of the possibilities of narcissism and at the same time selfless sacrifice for humanity.
- Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle. Ice-nine. What more can I say?
- Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog. Willis can be screamingly funny while driving railroad spikes through your internal organs. To say nothing of the Bishop’s bird stump.
- Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time. Has been cited as an explanation for time travel anomalies more than any other book in history. Plus we discover that conformity is bad for you. And the kid-characters are adorable.
- Anne McCaffrey, Dragonflight. Cinderella with flames and wings. The ultimate revenge against people who keep children in poverty.
My other faves which I am not allowed because I already gave my ten:
- Gene Wolfe, Soldier of the Mist. A brilliant literary experiment based on an actual psychological diagnosis.
- Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End. I think this is happening. It’s called the Internet.
- Frank Herbert, Dune. Huge scary worms, drugs that let you navigate space, and that “I must not fear” poem that everybody loves.
Agh! Only ten? Dear lord, what shall I do?
- O.K., to start of you should have Frankenstein because you are talking about the mother of science fiction, and just because I’ve always found the creature incredibly compelling. The final moments of the book are heartbreaking.
- You should have something by Phillip K. Dick. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was the first novel I ever read from him, and it remains my favourite. Dick is incredibly trippy and, if anything else, he’s bound to take you on a wild ride.
- The Stars My Destination is one of those stories that packs so much stuff inside: teleportation, gigantic companies, telepaths, spaceships, tattoos. It’s a retelling of The Count of Montecristo, which is one of my favourite books, so more reasons to read it.
- You should have Dune. I’ll tell you, I was never too fond of this one, but my dad loved it, and I can see why it had such a huge impact on science fiction. It weaves an intricate, vast net of characters across the universe, all plotting against each other. Plus, Sting played one of the villains in the movie adaptation.
- A Clockwork Orange is a must have due to, well … basically everything. The whole world is brilliantly constructed. I loved the slang! Yes, my droog. You ought to keep this on close.
- I’m torn between Fahrenheit 451 or The Martian Chronicles. Both are Bradbury titles, though seemingly opposing in nature. I was deeply awed by Fahrenheit 451 when I read it for the first time, but Bradbury’s Mars has a sense of melancholy that I enjoy.
- Nineteen Eighty-Four may seem like an oldie – and yes, I know I keep referencing stuff from decades and decades past, but you must forgive my propensity for retro-love – but it’s still a goodie. I think it’s just a solid book. Plus, sometimes I think I’ve spent long stretches in the Ministry of Truth.
- The Left Hand of Darkness should be there because you have to have Ursula K. Le Guin in the mix. Her world is truly compelling and if you look at the context of when this was published, it was a very bold look at gender and communication.
- I am fond of anthologies. Cosmos Latinos is an overview of Latin American and Spanish science-fiction and I think it is worthy to see the perspective of authors you wouldn’t normally stumble into at the local bookstore.
- Another anthology that I just adore, and I think you should find if you haven’t read yet, is Women of Wonder. I discovered a lot of authors through it.
- Frank Herbert – Dune – At age fourteen I picked up a battered copy of Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novel Dune. ‘You’re too young to read that,’ insisted a family friend, so of course I had to give it a go. That novel bent my head. Heroic Paul Atreides; the desert planet Arrakis; giant sand worms; mutant spice navigators folding space and the creepy Bene Gesserit sisterhood… Along with Star Wars and Doctor Who, this book made me the sci fi nerd I am today.
- John Wyndham – Day of the Triffids – A world struck blind. Such a simple concept and far more terrifying than the carnivorous plant species of the title, which became the focus of the screen adaptations that were to follow.
- Ursula K. Le Guin – The Dispossessed – There can be no utopias. This book shows us why.
- Russell Hoban – Riddley Walker – The first three chapters are a struggle. After that, it becomes a challenge not to think in the language of a post holocaust Earth a few thousand years on.
- William Gibson – Neuromancer – Still fresh twenty-six years later. He made it all seem so inevitable.
- Kim Stanley Robinson – Red Mars – When I am 100 years old and barking senile, I will believe I was one of the first 100 colonists of Mars and that KSR’s entire Mars series is a reputable historical document. Anyone who argues with my version of reality will cop a poke from my umbrella.
- Isaac Asimov – The Caves of Steel – Because I heart Daneel R Olivaw. Will somebody please make a decent movie out of this book instead of tiresome rehashings of quality movies that did not require messing with in the first place.
- Margaret Atwood – Oryx and Crake – A book that puts biopunk squarely on the map. Atwood’s characters are as deeply engrossing as the ruined post-commercial environment they inhabit. She could write a shopping list and I’d be holding my breath all the way to the bitter end.
- Peter Watts – Starfish – Scientist as deep sea more-alien-than-alien, enduring the lure of the abyss.
- Edited by Charles N Brown and Jonathan Strahan – The Locus Awards: Thirty Years of the Best in Science Fiction and Fantasy – Look no further for an excellent short fiction overview of the genres(s). Every library should have a copy of this substantial volume so that whenever a non fan claims all science fiction is rubbish you can bop them on the head with it.
- The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
- I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
- Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
- Dune by Frank Herbert
- The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
- Neuromancer by William Gibson
- Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams
- Accelerando by Charles Stross
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
When I proposed this question to SF Signal, I was ordering books for the library and then started thinking about how the SF&F collection likely needed weeding. Often, when a library weeds a collection they look at how often something circulated and how easy it is for patrons to get the book from their library system. If it’s something that wasn’t checked out much and there were a lot of copies in the system, you could feel safe pulling it from the shelf. But, were there books that you wouldn’t weed no matter what? And what science fiction books should every library have in their collection? I know that John put the question to people as if thinking about a personal library, but since I was thinking about a public library when I sent the suggestion to him (and more importantly John said it was ok to do this) I’ll be writing about a public library.
I won’t go into a lot of detail about the individual books, but rather I’ll talk about why I chose them over others. This is a difficult mental exercise as no library would bother making a science fiction section with only ten books. You’d be better to make a list of 100 core books so that someone who had nothing had a decent collection with which to start. When making a library collection, you want to represent the breadth of what’s available in those books. That said, there needed to be something from the origins of science fiction. While I leaned heavily towards Frankenstein for a long time, in the end I had to go with H. G. Wells or Jules Verne. I’m better read in Wells than Verne, so I picked The Time Machine.
Then I wanted to hit some classic themes: robots, life on other planets, and aliens coming to Earth. I, Robot has an easy pick as it’s the foundation (see what I did there?) of many of current thoughts and tropes concerning robots in fiction. Asimov’s Laws of Robotics are presented within these pages, and those if nothing else have gone on to our subconciousness. I would be hard pressed to consider a SF collection serious if it lacked Dune. When thinking about life on other planets you could certainly bring books like Solaris, Aldiss’ Helliconia books, Farmer’s World of Tiers books, and many more. But for me, it’s Dune with its big ideas and big conflicts that takes the cake. Similarly, when I think of aliens coming to our planet, it’s Childhood’s End that comes to mind (particularly since I already had a Wells’ novel and didn’t need to consider War of the Worlds). At this point, I couldn’t help thinking that I was leaving out people who needed to be in the list, Heinlein, Bradbury, Dick, Vance, van Vogt, but with only ten books to work with, I couldn’t include everyone.
The Stars My Destination combines a lot of those elements, and is loved by many, many fans. It’s not a book that worked for me my first time through it, but it’s something that stuck with me and I plan to read again. It may not be as well known as other books in my list, but I think it’s a good example of showing what science fiction can do that people might not expect. I also considered books like Flowers For Algernon, Lords Of Light, and The Man In The High Castle, but decided to go with the Bester based on how fervent its fans are.
The next three books also showcase the diversity of the field ranging from a young adult space opera to a pioneering cyberpunk work to the beginnings of a very funny series of books. I could have picked A Fire Upon The Deep, Doomsday Book, Snow Crash, Hyperion, The Shadow Of The Torturer, Ringworld, Gateway, The Forever War, and on and on. There aren’t a lot of examples of humorous science fiction (a lot of humorous genre work is done in fantasy) and you almost have to get the more recent Jasper Fforde novels to find those. Both the Card and Gibson books won both the Hugo and Nebula, a feat that doesn’t happen all the time (although Card did it again with Speaker For The Dead).
Moving into modern times, it was hard to decide what could be considered essential. There could be a book that people aren’t reading now that becomes more important in the future. I considered books by Cory Doctorow, Maureen McHugh, Robert Charles Wilson, Kelly Link, Richard Morgan, China Miéville, but I kept coming back to Stross’ Accerlerando. There’s too much good stuff in the book to not put it in the collection.
It was at this point that I was horrified I had no women in my list. In some ways, that only shows how male dominated the genre has been for so long. And while that might be a subtle tick at the field, I doubt that your average library patron would even notice. And it’s too bad as there are a lot of phenomenal books by female authors. Le Guin’s Left Hand Of Darkness, stand out above the rest. It’s also a book that only a woman could write. A winner of the Hugo and Nebula (before Card or Gibson by a mile), it one of the more challenging to read books in my list, but it definitely worth it. The book will make you think. But if building a collection should show diversity, this book can’t be left out.