MIND MELD: What Science Fiction Books Should Be in Every Fan’s Library? (Part 2)
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 explained in Part 1. So this questions isn’t quite what he was asking. Still, the response was high enough to warrant breaking this up into two part. Part 1 appeared last week. This is Part 2.)
Here’s what this week’s panelists said. Do you agree with their choices? What would you pick?
I’m going to go with three books that have been in my library since I was a fan (which means they predate 1990, when I turned pro, officially).
- Hal Clement’s Needle – After I tried to read some SF titles too young (I was under ten) this book brought me back to the genre. The seemingly simple story of a boy encountering two aliens, both dangerous in their own way, is far more complex than you realize, and the experience of reading it stays with you long after you may have moved on to more overly complicated stories. Old-fashioned now, yes, but still worthy.
- Joe Haldeman’s Mindbridge – The first book I ever read that combined so many different forms of storytelling (first person, third person, mission extract, musical notation, graphs, etc) into what was actually a cohesive whole. It made me realize that it was the story, not the format, that mattered, and probably blew a few other assumptions to hell as well. And that’s before you get to the actual story, which was my “Joe is God” revelatory moment.
- Phil Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – Not the movie. Nothing like the movie. Raised the question of what it meant to be human, the contrast between empathy and psycho/sociopathy, and an entire semester of Psych 102.. No easy answers or happy endings, just a lot of questions that still resonate. Exactly what I want my SF to do.
If I had the time, I’d probably list a lot more books and go into much more detail than I can now. However, when I saw the question, one book popped immediately to mind: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein.
Given that I’m more of an Asimov fan, it might be anathema for me to pick a Heinlein novel as the one novel that should be in every science fiction fan’s library. But Heinlein’s novel is a classic. It won the Hugo Award, and I think it was well-deserved, because I recommend the book all the time as a textbook on how to write a science fiction novel.
In the book, Heinlein demonstrates how to extrapolate a believable future based on the world of today. The lunar society he creates rings true, as does the technology of the future as well as the political conflict between the people of Luna and the people of Earth. The one piece of technology that it is most difficult to accept as pure extrapolation is the Artificial Intelligence named Mike, and Heinlein showed proper restraint by making that the one point on which readers would have to suspend their disbelief. Everything else in the novel – the science, the technology, the culture, and the politics – feels like it could have happened for real (or would have happened for real, in the 2070s) if the world had stayed on one particular track.
I’d say more, but I think I promised this as a full essay for Argentus one of these days.
Science fiction books? I’ll assume this means novels, not collections and anthologies.
In no particular order:
- Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon. A human mind explores the cosmos, encountering strange civilizations. Brian Aldiss called this ‘the one great grey holy book of science fiction’. By modern standards, it’s short. It has the highest idea-to-page ratio of any SF novel.
- A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge. A big thick engrossing book that brought galaxy-spanning space opera back to the cutting edge, and shaped the vocabulary of an entire generation of internet pioneers. Hexapodia is the key insight.
- Pavane, by Keith Roberts. England in the 1960s, in a world where the Spanish Armada won, the Reformation was reversed, and progress retarded, until: ‘Rebellion was once more in the air’. Fascinating alternate history, with an adult intensity of character and feeling from its unforgettable first story/chapter, ‘The Lady Margaret’.
- A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. Monks preserve and copy the documents of a fallen civilization: ours. Even if that means painstakingly blocking in all the blue in blueprints, not realising that it’s the lines that matter. The ultimate fruit of their labours is that the rockets rise, and the bombs fall, again. SF’s kindliest take on Catholicism.
- The Sword of Rhiannon, by Leigh Brackett. Science fantasy, really: an archaeologist on a dried-out, decadent Barsoom-like Mars falls back through time to when the planet’s seas were full and the canals hadn’t yet been dug…
- Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson. The very opposite of Brackett’s: 1990s hard humanist SF about the colonisation of Mars and the political conflicts that result. One memorable eye-kick after another: you’ll feel you’ve been there.
- The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin. One of the few works of SF to become respectable, it’s a subversive mirror of our world.
- Shards of Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold. The first of the Vorkosigan books, and one that should make you want to read the rest, at once. In my first enthusiasm I described it as ‘like James Bond written by Jane Austen’. Follows a basic romance plot: find the most dangerous man in the universe, and marry him.
Em, tough one… I own an alarmingly large set of bookshelves crammed with SF books, most of which I’d be reluctant to part with. But since I have to make a selection, here are a few books that blew my mind away (with some attempt at variety both in subgenre and publication date):
- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne: it was the first science fiction book I read, before I was even aware of genre, and it’s still a great novel. Sure, a lot of it is clunky, and Verne is prone to pages and pages of infodump (it was first published as a serial, which meant that you get infodumps whenever Verne was feeling out of inspiration for advancing the real storyline). But seriously, it’s got everything: the awesome ship (in this case a cool submarine), the mysterious and brooding genius who might or might not be a good guy (Nemo), and oodles of underwater goodness (the kraken fight, which was given such a prominent place in the movie version, is only a small part of the underwater exploration Verne paints so thrillingly–though not always accurately). And it’s one of the founding books of the genre.
- The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov: again, one of my first science fiction loves, read as a grey French paperback edition (it was years before I could get my hands on the English version). Again, it has dated a bit, and Asimov never was the best author for characterization or dialogue. But the stories themselves did a terrific job of taking a simple scientific postulate (the Three Laws of Robotic), and exploring all the conundrums, failures and exceptions they could lead to. It’s an approach typical of a scientist or an engineer (establish the laws or the system, and figure out all the ways it can go wrong), which makes for great science fiction. The stories were also remarkable for having a prominent female scientist in the person of Doctor Susan Calvin, which went a long way towards convincing me women could embrace science and be successful at it in their own right (many of the other SF novels I subsequently read were much more backwards in terms of gender representation).
- Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny: this one blew my mind away. It took something which I always assumed to be the province of fantasy (myths and legends, in this case drawn from Hindu mythology), and transposed it to a colonized planet. Along the way, it examined interesting questions like access to technology and knowledge, the nature and use of enlightenment in a world where many people could set themselves up as gods, and briefly touched on issues of colonization and the relationship of colonists with the indigenous people. And it did so with Zelazny’s lyrical voice and wry sense of humor. Brilliant in every sense.
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin: again, an instant classic for me, on a different level. This one focused on gender and how it shapes our perceptions–and how disturbing it can be to arrive on a planet where gender is irrelevant. The prejudices and mistakes this basic assumption leads to are explored in a terrific narrative. I also liked the way this was focused more on intimate relationships and less on grand politics than many SF books. (Genly’s and Estraven’s harrowing trip across the ice, when they learn to discover and understand each other, was a terrific passage).
- Grass by Sheri Tepper: a much later read for me, but also memorable. It fits into that category of what I’d call “the puzzle plot”, where the entire book is about solving a particular scientific mystery (in this case, the nature of the planet Grass, its ecosystem and the way it’s mingled with the settlers’ aristocracy). It’s particularly well done here, narrated from the point of view of the conflicted Marjorie Westriding Yrarier, a diplomatic envoy who seeks the cure to a galactic plague in a closed society which seems to welcome her, but hides its dark secrets from her. The suspense and pace of revelations is well-handled, as is the gradual collapse and endangerment of Marjorie’s family, forcing her to take a final, tense stand against the underbelly of Grass’ seemingly genteel society. The sequels are middling good, but this one is beyond excellent.
- China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh: a great alternate history where Communist China dominates the world, and the story of characters trying to find their place within a strange new world that might not have much use for them. As a non-Western dominated future, it’s a terrific read: both strange and exhilarating, and nailing a lot of characteristic Asian and Chinese traditions (I just loved the kite races, as well as the constant play on words and characters that informs so much of Chinese thought and that you find all over the books). It’s also a great look at what it means to fit in, and how people can learn to deal with what fate deals to them.
- Blindsight by Peter Watts: a terrific look at brain processes, and on the nature of consciousness. Among all my selections, it’s the closest thing there is to hard sf, though a lot of book actually seems closer thematically to horror in space. The main characters are far from being likable, but they all present variations on the standard psychological makeup of humans, and all react in a different and convincing way to what they discover. It’s a harsh and unrelenting book, one which ends up making you question the way you perceive things, but it’s definitely worth a read (if not several).
- Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: because every SF library should have something a little more fun than all the aforementioned selections. It’s not really a fluffy book, as much of its humor is so pointed it can get downright devastating–in the way of the best jokes. But it’s a very funny one that pokes at a lot of human (and extraterrestrial) foibles, with some of the best punch lines ever. And the best part is that it has a slew of sequels which are just as hilarious.
I’m a modern-day science fiction reader. By that I mean that I’ve tried but never been gripped by the founding fathers/mothers of SF. As someone recently pointed out they had a tendency to put science above story. So my selection is three books that put story over science without being any the less amazing.
My choices are:
Hitchhicker’sHitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
I can’t think of another book that has such a stupid premise. The Earth gets destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. This leaves Authur Dent the last human alive. Not only that his best friend is an alien. And together they end up hitchhiking across the galaxy.
It’s not a book to be read for depth of character or emotional insight or even a sensible plot. But that’s not Douglas Adams’s strength. His strength his imagination and his playfulness with language.
It’s a book that shows that science doesn’t have to bog down science fiction story. Instead it can lead the imagination into coming up with Vogon poetry, Slartibartfast and the answer to life the universe and everything.
- Stone by Adam Roberts
The short answer as to why this is essential is that the main character throughout is talking to a rock. Now it takes a certain madness to think that talking to a rock is going to work for a whole novel. But it does.
The other thing is the main character, ‘I am a bad man. I still think of myself as a man, in fact, although there’s little scientific evidence to support that fact.’ He’s also a prisoner on a prison at the centre of a star. Then he is sprung and employed to wipe out the population of a planet. A task he is well capable off.
Though the main attraction for me and what has stayed with me since I first read it is the sorrow you end up feeling for the main character through his personal retelling of his tale. Though he is no way a character you should feel sorry for.
- The Gabble and other Stories by Neal Asher
This last book is a story collection centered on Asher’s The Polity. Why this short story collection? Lots of writers produce some excellent short stories that only work in isolation from one and other.
This collection contains ten aspects of created universe and served for me as an introduction to Neal Asher and his imagination.
Three examples are the stories: “Choudapt” where Simoz in on a mission to neutralise an act of terrorism; I’ve got a soft spot for the Gabbleduck after the revelations that come from The Gabble, which is a great bookend for the opening “Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck”, that hints that it has more intelligence or maybe that should be more humanity than is originally thought; And “Acephalous”, because it brings together the AIs that control the Polity, the golems, nanotech and information on the ancient races that has been teased at during other tales.
At the end Neal comments on each story and it reads like a box of fan treats showing where they originally come from and little comments on the story themselves.
For some reason the mix, or perhaps it was the focus of this collection, made me an instant fan of Neal Ashler and allowed me instant access to his imagination and his creation. I can’t think of a better endorsement for a writers work than getting titbits and immediately wanting to read more from him. And that’s what I’m doing. Slowly reading all this longer Polity-related works.
So there you go. Three books that are British and different but each, I hope, shows that Science Fiction is a tool to access stories that couldn’t be told any other way.
Disclaimer: My list is not so much “ten books every sci-fi fan should own” as “ten books that came to mind between house hunting and a number of other surprisingly time consuming activities this week.” I wish I’d had the time to put together a more thoughtful list, and I’m sure I’m leaving out all kinds of books that I will think of later.
- Douglas Adams, The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide Deluxe Edition. Five books in one! An antidote to the mental perils of living in our contemporary world, plus, a robot!
- On another comedic note, Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog. I get a Tendency to Sentimentality if I talk too much about this book, so I shall spare you.
- Sheri Tepper, Six Moon Dance. One of Tepper’s best and most accessible books.
- H.G. Wells, The Time Machine. Ah, the Morlock diet. Yum.
- Kurt Vonnegut, Welcome to the Monkey House. Body stealing, mind stealing, heart stealing and a review of a dictionary. What’s not to love?
- Lois McMaster Bujold, The Vorkosigan Saga. I couldn’t settle on a specific book, so I’m cheating and just recommending the entire series.
- Octavia Butler, Lilith’s Brood. I originally wrote Wild Seed here, then realized that Wild Seed is really more fantasy, so, my second favorite Butler work (actually a trilogy) Lilith’s Brood instead.
- C.L. Moore, The Best of C.L. Moore. Mostly because of a single story here, “No Woman Born,” about the meaning of humanity – and robots.
- Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad, because no collection is complete without funny robots.
- Alexander Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo. Perhaps a touch more on the superhero side of things than straight science fiction; still, this ultimate revenge story does contain one or two science fictiony elements, and in any case, it’s such a marvelous book that you should immediately go and read it anyway.
In no particular order:
- The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein Not only does it have a perfect structure but it pictures that hardest of all social movements to portray convincingly in a novel: a widespread, successful revolution. I re-read it often, the only drawback being, every time, it leaves me speaking without articles.
- Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury – It is a book of deep sociological analysis, but it is still fun to read and romantic and poetic. More importantly, it stays with you. My application to AFS (the international exchange program through which I came to the US as a student, twenty nine years ago) started with “I’m seventeen and I’m insane…” Needless to say you should read just about everything by Ray Bradbury.
- City – Clifford Simak – An odd novel, structurally, but beautifully executed and who else could capture that sort of deep-time movement with no loss of interest or pacing. I still cherish the scene of “uplifted” dog and man communicating, I’ve never looked at a kaleidoscope the same way again and I read it aloud to my children, who were just as impressed with the idea of a world in which no one knew what a man or a city was. I’d also like to recommend Way Station and They Walked Like Men by this grossly under-appreciated writer.
- World of Tiers – Phillip Jose Farmer – though the series decays somewhat towards the later books (mostly a matter of editing, I think) the meld of science fiction and classical mythos is a heady one and engrossing particularly since he managed to keep it at a very human and down to Earth level, at the same time.
- The Dragon Riders of Pern – Anne McCaffrey – again, over-extending my mandate, I’d recommend the first five or six books. A masterly feat of world building.
- Ubik – Phillip K. Dick – for any of us of a philosophical turn of mind, the book and its haunting depiction of the afterlife will linger. I can still remember almost all of it and I haven’t re-read it in ten years, which reminds me I should.
- A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr. – was the third science fiction book I ever read and its forecast of an apocalyptic future seemed all too plausible. It is, in a way a nightmare, but such a beautiful nightmare it draws the eye like a painting by Goya.
- The Man In The High Castle – also by Phillip K. Dick. Another nightmare world, but characters you identify with every step of the way. The last line still gives me shivers.
- Starship Troopers – Not only a coming of age story, but it spawned a whole subgenre of science fiction and as such it should be read at least once.
- Diamond Age by Neil Stephenson. Much underrated in comparison to the Cryptonomicon, but IMHO a superior work.
And if you have any money after buying those books, try for Connie Willis’ Bellwether. It is in its own way a breakthrough and something that’s hard to picture — a soft-science hard science-fiction book, but again another masterpiece, beautifully done.
What science fiction books should be in every fan’s library? Mine, of course! But once you’ve stocked up on your Edward Willett titles (don’t worry, there aren’t that many, it won’t be expensive), then I’d say you should have these:
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Brian W. Aldiss calls this the first science fiction book, and he makes a persuasive case for it. It’s not exactly a rollicking fast-paced read by modern standards, but it’s still the ancestor of every “if this goes on” cautionary tale of the unforeseen consequences of technology that has come along since.
- War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Wells was the first to play with many of the tropes that have become mainstays of SF in the years since, and this seminal alien invasion story continues to hold up, even if the science in it doesn’t. (Unless, of course, those vast alien intelligences on Mars are simply smart enough not to let themselves get photographed by orbiters, landers and rovers.)
- I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. I’ve always thought of these stories like poetry: not in the beauty of the language, for no one has ever accused Asimov of writing prose that brings one to tears from sheer aesthetic pleasure on a sentence-by-sentence level, but in the working out of possibilities within a restrictive structure. Shakespeare had the sonnet; Asimov has his three laws. The robot stories (and the sonnets) are both examples of self-imposed limitations enhancing rather than inhibiting creativity. (And that may well be the only time Asimov has ever been compared to Shakespeare!) Plus, no one has ever been able to write about sentient robots in the same way since.
- The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. Or pretty much anything else by the early Heinlein, including the “juveniles” (I particularly recommend Have Space Suit, Will Travel; among other reasons, because Heinlein’s Mother Thing is a truly fascinating alien). Whenever I teach a class in writing SF, I like to say we are all Heinlein’s children. Some of us are obedient children, and some are rebellious, but within science fiction we all owe a debt to the man who worked out many of the problems inherent in telling tales set in fictional far-future worlds half a century or more ago. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I just re-read recently with my wife the telecommunications engineer (who had never encountered it before and loved it) is still a fascinating exploration of artificial intelligence, not to mention the conflict between individual liberty and responsibility and the ever-encroaching power of government (an always timely topic, as any perusal of the news will prove).
I’ll stop there. And yes, these are all old books. Are there books coming out now that should be in every fan’s library? I’m sure there are, and I hope some of the other respondents will point them out. But something else I always tell my students is that science fiction, perhaps more than any other field of literature, is in constant dialogue with itself, with books and authors responding to, arguing with, or emulating what has come before. These four books I’ve listed are among those that have come before that today’s writers continue to be in conversation with, and for that reason deserve I believe definitely deserve shelf space…or disk space…in every fan’s library.
Tagged with: Michael A. Burstein
Filed under: Mind Meld
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!