Friday December 8, 2006

Most Significant SF Books

I was too busy to write up a response the first time I saw this list of the 50 "most significant" SF books mentioned, but now somebody else I know has written about it, so it must be destiny.  I bow to the inevitable.

Here's the list, with the ones I've read in bold and my comments in parentheses, including the the notation [+ling] if the book has a linguistics angle.

  1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien  (Hard to argue with putting LotR at number one.  [+ling])
  2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov  (Absolutely influential, but I don't think these have aged well, unfortunately.)
  3. Dune, Frank Herbert  (I was more impressed by Dune than entertained, I think, but I've still gone back and reread it several times.  The sequels got bad fast, as I recall. I think God Emperor of Dune was the first book I didn't finish, in fact.  [+ling])
  4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein  (Definitely Heinlein's most significant novel, but also one of his worst.  I'm a huge fan, but Stranger does nothing for me—and I liked Job!  Read the juveniles instead.  [+ling])
  5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin  (Absolutely.  This is the book I tell people they should have read when they tell me they liked Harry Potter.  [+ling])
  6. Neuromancer, William Gibson  (HUGELY inventive and still a great read.  My favorite scene in the one with the payphones in the Istanbul airport.)
  7. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke  (Eschatology for atheists.)
  8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick  (I read this, and then, as with every Dick novel I've read, I forgot it completely.  I never really got into the movie, either, though Roy's speech at the end is very quotable.)
  9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley  (I got about halfway through this before the whole "woman good, man bad" thing finally drove me away.  I'm still awarding myself the point, though.)
  10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury  (I'm not a huge Bradbury fan, but this book shows he's the best he is at what he does.  Kurt Vonnegut without the pathology.)
  11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe  (This was the hardest-to-read book (series) I ever really liked.  That's a compliment.  [+ling])
  12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.  (Read it and forgot it.  There's a nuclear war and a manuscript, right?)
  13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov  (This series held up better than the Foundation books, I think.)
  14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras  (Nope, and I had to Google it, but now I want to read it.)
  15. Cities in Flight, James Blish  (OK, but forgettable.  Plus the title gives away the whole story!)
  16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett  (I stopped reading the Discworld books for some reason, but I can't remember why, because I really liked this book.  My favorite scene: flipping a coin to detect a magical field.)
  17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison  (Good stories, but I read this anthology too late for it to Freak My Shit Out as intended.  If "The Book on the Edge of Forever" was still online I'd link to it here.)
  18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison  (Also failed to Freak Me Out.  Ellison's writing never spoke to me, but I used to enjoy his readings on "Hour 25" in LA.  His rendition of Clark Ashton Smith's "The City of the Singing Flame" was spellbindingly awesome—if it was online, I'd link to it too.)
  19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester  (Hmm, this one sounds strangely familiar...  [+ling])
  20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany  (Never gotten around to this one.  I just finished Babel-17  , though ([+ling]).  Now if I can just work up the enthusiasm to write about it...)
  21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey  (A commercial for the Eragon movie just played on TV while I was typing the previous entry, showing the enduring appeal of having your own personal dragon.  It's a romance novel in disguise, yet I still read my copy of this book to death.)
  22. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card  (Good, but the novelette was better.  Hated the sequel.)
  23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson  (I gather I'm supposed to be embarrased for liking these, but I did.  OK, he's epically self-involved, but you're not supposed to like him.  I'm not sure what definition of significant they qualify under, though.)
  24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman  (Excellent. Reread it a dozen times.  They should publish it dos-à-dos with Starship Troopers.)
  25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl  (Clever concept, enjoyed it at the time, but I remember very little of it now.)
  26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling  (Not impressed.  See my comment on A Wizard of Earthsea, above.)
  27. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (Brilliant all the way through.  [+ling])
  28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson  (A fun little book, but was it really in the top 50?  Is it because of the Charlton Heston movie?)
  29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice  (Ah, another romance novel.  This one didn't do it for me, though.  Too much pouting and posing.)
  30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin  (Fantastic.  I should reread this.  [+ling])
  31. Little, Big, John Crowley  (As I've mentioned, this is sitting in the to-read stack.  OK, OK, I get the hint!)
  32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny  (There no point in me summarizing it, because it'll sound stupid, but it's an amazing book.)
  33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick  (I'm nothing if not consistent.  Dick = Meh.)
  34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement  (I'm a sucker for physics essays wrapped in a thin tissue of plot.  If you liked this, you'll love Close to Critical, which is the same novel.)
  35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon  (Read it and forgot about it.)
  36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith  (I think I haven't read this one, though I've read The Instrumentality of Man. Smith is on my what-the-hell-was-that?-maybe-I-should-try-it-again list.)
  37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute  (One of the pillars of post-apocalyptic fiction.  You can tell it's Serious Literature because of the ending.)
  38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke  (It's been years since I read this and I could still describe Rama to you in great detail.  Why haven't they made a movie out of this?  I know the characters are thin—go ahead add an evil drug-company executive and a wisecracking kid if you need to!)
  39. Ringworld, Larry Niven  (Weirdly, this might be my least favorite of the Known Space stories, at least until, Ringworld Throne, but it's still a great read.  Niven's not afraid to think big!)
  40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys  (I think of this book every time I play a video game that requires learning by making mistakes and going back to the last save point.)
  41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien  (I liked it, but it doesn't belong on this list.  It's just an extended appendix to LotR.  [+ling])
  42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut  (I liked Vonnegut when I was in high school.)
  43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson  (Awesome first chapter and a great book overall.  [+ling])
  44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner  (Sigh.  I started it but lost momentum.  It's sitting at home taunting me from my to-read shelf.)
  45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester  (Gully Foyle was into facial tattoos way before any of you modern primitive posers.)
  46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein  (Definitely in the running for my favorite book of all time.  I saw part of the movie on German TV the other day, but turned it off in disgust. The book may have, without exaggeration, the most cinematic, most exciting first chapter ever written—they parachute out of orbit and start tossing A-bombs around, fer chrissakes!—and they left it entirely out of the movie.  Unforgivable.)
  47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock  (I liked the Elric books OK whlie I was reading them, but they only left a vague cloud of dark-sword-and-dark-sorcery impressions on me.)
  48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks  (Shit sandwich.)
  49. Timescape, Gregory Benford  (Read it and forgot it.)
  50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer  (One of the best high concepts ever, but the series kind of fell apart.)

45 out of 50—not bad.  Almost 20 years ago, I got it into my head that I was going to become well-read in science fiction, and I set out to read all the "classics".  I guess that accounts for my having read some of the more obscure books on the list like I Am Legend.  There certainly are some odd choices on this list, though, and some odd omissions.  No love for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Startide Rising, or The Mote in God's Eye?  And what about my man Piers Anthony?  (Just kidding.)  I definitely have to give Little, Big and Stand on Zanzibar another try.

I'm sure I missed some marking some [+ling] books, by the way—feel free to refresh my memory.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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Terry Brooks = shit sandwich
I agree

Dragonflight is a love story? Damn I need to re-read that. I loved all the McCaffery books when I was in high school. A good fun run.

Posted by: EFL Geek at Dec 8, 2006 5:28:30 PM

In high school I absolutely adored Corwainer Smith and he was, like, my favoritest author ever. Of course, I contemporaneously adored Dragonball Z, and it was, like, my favoritest TV show ever. Consequently, I've been hestitant to revist his stuff even though I very much want to.

Also, I recall that I read A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequals around the time that kids are usually introduced to Harry Potter, and all I can say is that I recall next to absolutely nothing about them.

Posted by: includedmiddle at Dec 8, 2006 7:24:24 PM

I'm surprised that George R. Stewart's Earth Abides wasn't on the list. Published in 1949 it really established the modern post-apocalypse genre.

Or anything by ERB... I mean was he not significant? Or maybe A. E. Van Vogt's The World of Null-A? Or Yevgeny Zamyatin's We?

Posted by: Eric Anondson at Dec 8, 2006 9:59:24 PM

As I recall, there's a bit of ling in Canticle for Leibowitz. I recall one guy getting freaked out after finding a "nuclear fallout shelter", because fallouts are really scary creatures (and there was a shelter full of them!). I think it had something to do with how English was this little-known classical language and he knew barely enough about it to get some idea.

Also, Gully Foyle spoke gutter speak. "Vorga, I kill you deadly!".

Maybe they don't count for +ling, but there's some ling in those books after all.

Maybe old Lovecraft is missing because there isn't a book by him per se for a list like this, but a lot of short stories and a whole pantheon of hard-to-pronounce deities. Like or hate him, he's influential, I'd say.

Posted by: Erkki at Dec 9, 2006 8:44:45 AM

Another person agreeing. Terry Brooks was big when I was in high school, and though I read everything I could get my hands on at the time, I quit those books after the first one.

My own Mists of Avalon story was that I read it until I got the flu and had hallucinatory dreams about the earth giving birth to rivers of blood. I was relieved to have an excuse to stop reading it, because I've never read a more obnoxious version of Guinevere. My overall opinion has been that MZB was a better editor than writer.

And finally, just a note, but I found that I had to be in the right mood to read Little, Big, but when I finally got around to it, it was fantastic.

(Oh, I wrote about Babel-17 a few years ago, should you care to read my early-grad-school era thoughts. And I found two other linguistics-related short stories recently.)

Posted by: Dana at Dec 9, 2006 12:49:51 PM

Oh, man, I slogged my way through the whole of the Riverworld series (by "whole" I mean four books; there may be more, though I steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the possibility) just hoping and praying it would stop getting worse.

Maybe it gets [+ling] if only for the Esperanto-tacularity.

Posted by: earthtopus at Dec 9, 2006 2:51:08 PM

Terry Brooks used to be my favorite, but I started reading him when I was 11. I probably stopped when I was 20. The last time I tried to reread a Shannara book, I got totally bored.

I think since I'm a woman, I was able to stomach Marion Zimmer Bradley all the way through The Mists of Avalon, but it's another one I have a hard time taking seriously when I've tried to go back and reread.

Posted by: Erin at Dec 12, 2006 1:07:49 PM

Stand on Zanzibar, like the Ellison, feels a tad dated now, but is still very good. The Sheep Look Up and The Shockwave Rider are also good Brunner.

Posted by: FS at Dec 13, 2006 12:25:26 AM

FS beat me too it. _Stand on Zanzibar_ and _The Shockwave Rider_ are the only two by Brunner that I've held on to...but of the two, _The Shockwave Rider_ is much the better book.

And indeed, there ought to be some Lovecraft on the list.

Posted by: Will Duquette at Dec 17, 2006 3:34:44 PM

Interesting, a lot of read and forget though, a fair amount of "huh? like who did that influence?" (e.g. Brooks).

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) at Dec 20, 2006 4:59:23 PM

I think Sword of Shannara is on the list merely because it was the first major fantasy AFTER LotR to crawl on to the NY Times list and set up camp. It was in just about every junior high and high school library across America. Sure, it's shit sandwich, as you say, but there was a time period where every neophyte to fantasy was picking it up, and all the little teenagers (including me) were scribbling away on stories just like it. (And hopefully, most of us grew out of that. The Just Like part, not the scribbling part. There's waaaaay too much description and not enough story in those books.)

MZB's Mists of Avalon: A one-time read for me too.

Posted by: PixelFish at Dec 23, 2006 10:34:50 AM

Some of the missing authors that some people are pointing out can be explained by pointing out that the list was for books in the fifty years from 1953 to 2002.

Posted by: George at Dec 26, 2006 7:28:11 PM

I don't remember details of The Sword of Shannara, but I seem to recall that it was a blatant LotR derivative. I think I wondered whether Brooks had to pay royalties to the Tolkien estate. Do I misremember this? If not, how can it possibly be considered "influential"? Perhaps because it was the first in a long line of ripoffs?

Posted by: DAW at Dec 27, 2006 6:49:22 AM

I would have said that Stephen R. Donaldson wrote the first successful Lord of the Rings ripoff, and his was out a year before Brooks'. But I will concede that Brooks is clearly even less original, perhaps that wins him points?

Posted by: Sol at Dec 27, 2006 12:55:44 PM

Also, Gully Foyle spoke gutter speak. "Vorga, I kill you deadly!".

Bester wrote, "Vorga I kill you filthy!" It was changed in the British edition to "deadly" by a prudish editor.

Posted by: FS at Apr 6, 2007 11:24:01 AM

You have a generally good list of books there, Tensor, but I'm afraid some of them are not Science Fiction. Some of the more glaring examples are: Lord of the Rings (fantasy) - Mists of Avalon (historical fantasy), Thomas Convenant (I mean, really), Harry Potter (highly overrated hocus pocus kids' fantasy nonsense), and as for Interview with a Vampire (that surely would be found in the horror section of any bookstore). I'm not criticising your reading list (most of which is pretty good), just your categorization of it.

Posted by: Michelle at Sep 14, 2007 9:21:57 AM