Friday, August 17, 2012

The Cover for My Upcoming Horror Collection: EDGEWISE

The Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction - Part 11

And the final list of ten books to complete my 100 books that make up the Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction:

1)      Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison
2)      A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
3)      The Entropy Effect (A Star Trek Novel) by Vonda N. McIntyre
4)      Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
5)      I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
6)      Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick
7)      The Cornelius Chronicles by Michael Moorcock
8)      Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
9)      Always Coming Home by Ursula K. LeGuin
10)  Darkover Landfall by Marion Zimmer Bradley

The first book on this list may raise some eyebrows, but part of what makes up the Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction is humor, and Bill, the Galactic Hero is a great representation of that. Like The Forever War I view this book as a commentary on, or response to, Heinlein's Starship Troopers, except taking a sarcastically funny tone. I bet a grad student somewhere could write a really interesting paper about books inspired by Heinlein's book.

A Fire Upon the Deep is a space opera packed tightly with all kinds of cool ideas, as well as being action-packed and a Hugo winner. This is the kind of book that makes science fiction fun to read, combining a sense of wonder with space battles and real speculative fiction.

Doomsday Book won both the Hugo (tied with A Fire Upon the Deep, actually) and Nebula and is a time-travel tale intensely told, with an interesting set of rules for time travel and really makes a good case for history as a science.

The Entropy Effect (A Star Trek Novel) will definitely raise some eyebrows for being on this list. However, when considering "the heart and soul" of 20th Century science fiction and admitting that, yes, Star Trek is actually science fiction, and further admitting that the bestselling novels in the science fiction genre are often (maybe even usually) media tie-in novels of popular movies or TV shows or even games. This is the book that really launched the tremendously popular and long-lived Pocket Books series. Since Star Trek books are very likely some of the only science fiction that many people read, these books certainly represent what science fiction of the 20th century was for them.

I Am Legend is more often considered a horror novel than science fiction, but it's really both (if only loosely science fiction). It has certainly inspired others, whether to make movies (three movies were based on the book, and the original Night of the Living Dead movie was based on it). It could be considered the progenitor of all zombies as perceived in modern pop culture.

Stations of the Tide is an interesting book with a great example of exotic "world building" with elements of (apparent) fantasy, written in an almost surreal style, has a lot of sex (there seems to be a strong subset of science fiction that incorporates sex, sometimes almost pornographic sex, into it).

The Cornelius Chronicles is actually four books: The Final Programme, A Cure for Cancer, The English Assassin and The Condition of Muzak featuring one of the incarnations of Moorcock's "Eternal hero," Jerry Cornelius. The first book was made into a movie in the early 1970s. These books may barely be considered science fiction, but are included here for several reasons, but mainly because they represent an extreme idea of what British New Wave science fiction was like, or perhaps what it was trying to accomplish, with its experimental writing style and surreal situations.

Stand on Zanzibar represents dystopian (another overpopulation book like Make Room! Make Room! but its an issue that I think deserves more than one representative work in 20th Century science fiction) with an interesting way of creating its world and a New Wave mentality.

Always Coming Home is an epic work of anthropological and post-apocalyptic science fiction that reads like a Native American tale mixed with articles and essays about an ancient Native American-like civilization rather than the far future.

Darkover Landfall is the "first" in a series set on the planet Darkover, a book that tackles the theme of colonization of another world and the development of a new culture (that remains consistent through multiple books in the series) and a prime example of future-history, which is key ingredient in the science fiction of a number of authors.

As stated before, these are not all the best books in science fiction, nor the top sellers, nor even my favorites. In fact, many of my favorite science fiction books are not on this list, although a few are. This is simply a list of the 100 science fiction books that I feel represent the character of science fiction, the heart & soul of the genre, if you will.

Doubtless, anyone familiar enough with science fiction could make substitutions here, replacing a book that I've included on my list with a book that they either like better, or feel is a better representation of specific theme or science fictional trope. An earlier list of mine had fewer female writers, and while my intention was only to focus on books rather than writers, it occurred to me that perhaps I should take another look at some of the books I'd passed over. Almost every trope in science fiction can be represented by multiple books, after all.

I did my best to fairly represent the topics, themes, ideas, tropes, concepts, styles, movements and subgenres of science fiction as my first concern; secondly, I hoped I managed to give fair play to female authors. I admit to drawing the line there, though. I did not go out of my way to include authors because of their race or sexual identity or nationality (save for members of the British New Wave movement, as opposed to American New Wave writers, whose works I felt needed to represented as distinct).

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction - Part 10

Here is another list of ten books that, in my opinion, should be considered part of the Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction. Here we see a mixed bag of super humans, books written for younger readers, epic fantasy disguised as science fiction, space opera, cyberpunk, humor, a short story collection and apes...

1)      Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold
2)      Monkey Planet by Pierre Boulle
3)      Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
4)      Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg
5)      A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
6)      Out of the Everywhere and Other Extraordinary Visions by James Tiptree, Jr.
7)      Podkayne of Mars by Robert A. Heinlein
8)      Slan by A.E. Van Vogt
9)      Grass by Sheri S. Tepper
10)  Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove

Barrayar is a great example of "space opera" and part of a "future-history" timeline called Vorkosigan Saga, and it was a major book in the genre when it was published, winnng the Hugo Award and being nominated for the Nebula.  

Monkey Planet, as the source material for the Planet of the Apes movies, is responsible for one of the most enduring images of SF cinema and is one of the most well-known tales of the collapse of civilization, a popular theme in science fiction that translates well to the big screen.

Snow Crash provides the perfect book-end to the Cyberpunk movement with Neuromancer, one heralding the creation of the sub-genre, the other signaling its descent into becoming, simply, just another flavor of SF crowded with hack work (the same can be said about Military SF and Alternate History SF).

Lord Valentine’s Castle is science fiction that reads like epic fantasy, which has become fairly common in the genre and is, in my opinion, a direct descendant of space opera (married with elements of epic fantasy). It is part of Silverberg's Majipoor series.

A Wrinkle in Time is a classic in the world of young adult literature and won a whole bunch of awards outside of the genre and in fact transcends the genre completely, pushing a "Christian-light" agenda (my opinion) and remaining popular continuously since it's initial publication.

Out of the Everywhere showcases some amazing short stories by a female writer who wrote under the name of a man, and who had such an effect on the genre that there were those who could not believe the stories to be from the hand of a woman. 

 Slan is a prime examples of early SF of the "tales about super-humans" variety, or √úbermensch stories, along the lines of Octavia Butler's work, or Sturgeon's More Than Human

Grass is a great combination of "big idea" science fiction coupled with what I call "investigative" science fiction, with an interesting premise: the idea that a plague afflicts all of humanity, despite their interstellar civilization, but for some reason does not affect humans on the world called Grass.

Investigative science fiction is often an element in the genre that is used to kick off the story, as in Rendezvous with Rama and The Mote in God's Eye, and as such leads to some of the most interesting tales.

Podkayne of Mars is arguably Heinlein’s best, most popular, and most daring juvenile novel (in the original version). Indeed, many consider it to be the best juvenile SF book ever written.

Guns of the South, while not the first Alternate History novel, is certainly the most celebrated in the sub-genre. Along with The Man in the High Castle is has real crossover appeal to general SF readers.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction - Part 9

And another list of ten books (well, two of them are actually trilogies) that I think should be included in the 100 books that best represent the Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction:

1)      The Best of Damon Knight by Damon Knight
2)      Gateway by Frederick Pohl
3)      A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
4)      Mirrorshades: the Cyberpunk Anthology edited by Bruce Sterling
5)      Riverworld and Other Stories by Philip Jose Farmer
6)      The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
7)      The Helliconia Trilogy by Brian W. Aldiss
8)      The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
9)      The Uplift Trilogy by David Brin
10)  The Best of C.L. Moore edited by Lester Del Rey

And here we have a couple single-author short story collections and an anthology that includes some of the most influential and/or celebrated short stories in the field. Plus there are 2 novels representing the New Wave, by Aldiss and Ballard, a trilogy by a bastion of hard SF, David Brin, a classic space opera by Niven and Pournelle.

Damon Knight was one of the founders of the Science Fiction Writers of America (now the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) and has long been consider a master of the short story. This collection includes the classic story "To Serve Man," which was made into a famous Twilight Zone episode.

The Heechee Saga is Pohl’s most ambitious SF and a perfect example of mainstream SF done well, starting with the excellent Gateway, which won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Campbell awards for best novel when it was originally published.

A Clockwork Orange is probably more influential as a movie than a novel, but since there would be no movie without the novel, here it is, and the novel is worth reading all by itself anyway, especially with regards to its use of language and the infamous "Ludovico Technique."

Mirrorshades is the definitive Cyberpunk anthology featuring the best writers of early fiction in the subgenre.

The collection by Philip Jose Farmer gives us a superb sampling of the best work by one of the most subversive writers in the genre, and features the original "Riverworld" story that served as the basis of his most success series of books.

The Mote in God's Eye best exemplifies the combination of Sense of Wonder with Military SF, and is quite simply a great "page turner" of a novel.

The Helliconia Trilogy (consisting of Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter) could be considered the pinnacle of New Wave SF (with a real Sense of Wonder) by a writer who, arguably best represents that movement.

Ballard’s The Drowned World is a classic post-apocalyptic novel written with a New Wave (and a British) sensibility. Honestly,  another "catastrophe" novel of his, The Crystal World, could be listed here in its place. A third, The Burning World, now seems prophetic given global warming and the effects of plastic garbage on the oceans. Ballard is considered to be a major influence on the Cyberpunk movement, and is referenced as such in the Foreword to Mirrorshades. His novel, High Rise, is also a classic. He is best known for two novels that were made into movies: Crash (not the one that won the Oscar for Best Picture) and Empire of the Sun.

The Uplift Trilogy is David Brin’s most interesting, and most important contribution to SF (and a top-notch example of Hard SF blended with Space Opera), although The Postman got more attention outside the genre (due to the movie). The trilogy consists of the books Sundiver, Startide Rising and The Uplift War.

The Best of C.L. Moore spotlights the short fiction of another (THE other?) female science fiction writer who rose to prominence in the early half of the 20th Century (along with Leigh Brackett). This collection features the classic novelette, "No Woman Born." 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction - Part 8

Continuing with the following 10 novels:

1)      Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock
2)      Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
3)      The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
4)      Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad
5)      Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
6)      Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison
7)      The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
8)      Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
9)      Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
10)  The Legion of Space by Jack Williamson

Here are some more books that are generally published outside of the genre; that is, their publishers do not usually put “Science Fiction” anywhere on the book. These are the works by Finney, Vonnegut, and Crichton. However, their influence on the genre cannot be denied.

Behold the Man is probably the second most important SF treatment (critique? condemnation?) of religion (after A Canticle for Liebowitz in terms of impact) and certainly one of the most daring. It explores the nature of belief as being a facet of desperation (at least, that's my opinion) from a writer at the center of science fiction's New Wave movement.

Solaris is easily the most important SF book by a non-English speaker. Lem’s entire body of work is a prime example of literary SF that has transcended the genre as well as his native Polish language. It is a haunting work that explores the difficulty (or, in this instance, impossibility) in communication between human and alien. 

Here we have several books that were turned into movies: Solaris, Soylent Green (Make Room! Make Room!), Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jurassic Park , and  Slaughterhouse-Five.  Books that become movies, especially in the case of a book like Body Snatchers, have an over-weighted influence on the genre by popularizing the ideas of science fiction.

The Man in the High Castle could be considered the true parent (or grandparent) of the alternate history sub-genre of SF and employs many of the devices that PKD used, such as the nature of reality.

Bug Jack Barron is another great example of subversive SF from a New Wave writer. Despite its use of gadgets and technology that has come to past, it probably is most notable for having foreseen the rise of the talk show host as a major influence in our culture.

Jurassic Park may raise eyebrows for being on this list, but its influence on the heart & soul of SF cannot be denied. As a bestseller and blockbuster movie it exposed more readers to SF than most books on this list. It may very well be the most well-known book in the genre due to its popularity in the mainstream. It is a fast read and exciting story featuring many of the tropes of sci-fi, including a mad scientist and a warning about messing with Mother Nature.

In Make Room! Make Room! we have a truly horrific account of the effects of runaway population growth leading an ever more authoritarian government, protest marches and riots, among other things.

The science fiction satire Slaughterhouse-Five is, like Haldeman's The Forever War, another book inspired by real-life experience in war. Vonnegut's book also explores the concepts of free will vs. fate. Vonnegut's other book to make the list so far (Sirens of Titan could be considered later) is the short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House. This collection of satirical stories may be the only science fiction collection where the bulk of stories in it originally appeared in magazines not primarily focused on publishing science fiction, such as Ladies Home Journal, Collier's Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post -- although the Saturday Evening Post, at least, also published stories by Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein. Vonnegut was another writer of science fiction who disliked the label.

The Body Snatchers has been criticized as lacking in merit both literary and scientific, and considered to be an unoriginal idea to boot, but the story itself seems to have stayed with us -- enough to spawn, so to speak, four movie adaptations so far. Therefore I felt it needed to be on this list as it seems to have seeped into pop culture in spite of its faults.

Finally, in this set of ten, we come to The Legion of Space by Jack Williamson, which is an early example of science fiction adventure known as "space opera" by a writer whose life spanned almost the entire 20th century (he was born in Arizona Territory...yes, before Arizona became a state). Human beings advance into space and encounter belligerent aliens. The series makes use of inventive weapons and alien societies, as well as some interesting twists on our own civilization, such as entrusting the stewardship of a "weapon of mass destruction" to women only. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction - Part 7

So far, it could be argued that there is a startling omission of women writers here. It would be untrue to pretend that women have not had a profound effect on science fiction. It could be argued that the large percentage of great science fiction writers who have emerged since the 1970s are women. In fact, it has been argued (to me by several women writers and scholars).

1)      Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold
2)      Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh
3)      Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh
4)      Impossible Things by Connie Willis
5)      Star Man’s Son by Andre Norton
6)      The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
7)      The Female Man by Joanna Russ
8)      Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
9)      Canopus in Argos: Archives by Doris Lessing
10)  The Xenogenesis Trilogy by Octavia E. Butler

Of these books, the best is, in my opinion, Native Tongue. This explores linguistics and feminism in a dystopian setting and came about as a "thought experiment," which, I like to think, probably most of the best science fiction is wont to do.

The most controversial is easily The Female Man, for being the first blatantly feminist novel to make a big splash in SF (and piss off some male writers, apparently, or so I've heard...from some of those male writers).

Cherryh is by far and away the most prolific of these authors, and she has developed a legion of fans. The two books listed for her are often considered to be her best, and most important. Both books, set in the same universe, are excellent examples of space opera.

Bujold is among the most celebrated SF writers around, and Falling Free is widely regarded to be her most inventive book (also one of my favorites), and catapulted her into the stratosphere of science fiction authors.

Impossible Things is a short story collection, which reflects the fact that Connie Willis is considered to be one of the absolute best short form SF writers, ever.

Andre Norton is one of the most prominent female authors in the field, although her influence has primarily been in fantasy. But her SF is important, expecially in juvenile fiction. Star Man’s Son is a classic juvenile and is important in showing that Heinlein was not the only successful voice in that world.

The Handmaid's Tale was published as a mainstream literary novel, and the author denied that it is "science fiction," instead calling "speculative fiction" and differentiating it from science fiction because it was "possible." Call it what you will, the definitions overlap, and frankly the labels "science fiction," "SF," "sci-fi," "specfic," "speculative fiction," "scientifiction" and "science fantasy" are all marketing terms anyway. Like Vonnegut, Atwood brings true literary recognition to the genre, intentionally or not.

One criticism of mainstream authors who write science fiction tends to be that their lack of knowledge of what has come before means that they tend to recycle old ideas and use genre cliches. While this may be true, it could also be argued that their perspective as "outsiders" to the genre allows them to approach such otherwise tired old ideas from new directions, breathing new life into them.

Doris Lessing is primarily known as a literary writer, and her SF is sometimes considered to be sub-par (as science fiction, but not as "literature"). But her Canopus in Argos books cannot be denied as literary classics with an SF bent. 

Octavia Butler has emerged as one of the most influential writers around, and she has two series that have really had an impact on the field. Her other one is the Patternist series. It could be argued that this one is more prominent than the Xenogenesis trilogy. But I feel Xenogenesis best displays Butler’s originality in exploring tried-and-true SF ideas from her unique perspective.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction - Part 6

Here in Part 6 we reach a total of 50 books. I intend to take this list up to a total of 100 books that I feel could, arguably, best represent the "heart and soul" of 20th Century science fiction. Accordingly, this next ten would include:

1)      The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
2)      The Best of Leigh Brackett edited by Edmond Hamilton 
3)      The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson
4)      Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
5)      Berserker by Fred Saberhagen
6)      Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre
7)      Kirinyaga by Mike Resnick
8)      The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
9)      The Lovers by Philip Jose Farmer
10)  Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

Yes, there is some cheating going on here, as there was before with the Pern books. I’ve listed multiple novels as one (even when these are not mere trilogies). The idea for including certain multi-book tales is to show that unity of vision within the context of related works by one author should oftentimes be considered the equivalent of one literary work. 

I declined to include all of the Berserker books, however, because I feel that reading just the one is enough. It is a wonderful examples of military SF, which has become a substantial sub-genre itself, as opposed to science fiction war stories like Starship Troopers and The Forever War, although obviously the war stories could be considered part of military SF.

This list starts off with what many consider to be a masterpiece of science fiction, both for its writing and SF parables, the New Sun books by Wolfe. SF is interesting from a reading perspective because as often as not one finds oneself reading books that achieve high literary aspirations one day, and then reading books that don’t even bother trying to achieve any literary standards at all the next. And there are many titles, and authors, who fall in between.

I've included The Best of Leigh Brackett because her work has had a huge influence on the genre, and also because with her work as a screenwriter, specifically on The Empire Strikes Back, she really helped define what makes a great science fiction movie.

Then, we have several epic SF tales...the Mars trilogy by Robinson and the Hyperion books by Simmons. I only list the first two Hyperion books because these are the ones that really had an impact. The rest are merely sequels. The Mars books are truly among the most well thought out tales about the conquest of Mars by humanity.

Dreamsnake is here because, as a winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, it stands as an example of just how good science fiction can be. It is also a great post-New Wave novel.

Kirinyaga is the most celebrated work by a prolific author who writes primarily fun adventure SF, and is also a very popular, lively guest at SF conventions.

The Sparrow is another multiple award winner and a solid example of how religion in science fiction can make for a powerful take.

Next is a great example of subversive SF at its best, by Farmer, The Lovers. Many consider this to be the first science fiction book to take sex seriously. Sex in SF is often gratuitous, and can read like something written by a perpetually 15-year-old boy with raging hormones. However, it is also often used as an integral part of a plot. At its best, sex used in SF is not erotic, but a tool for shining a light on social mores.

Finally, Anderson’s Tau Zero is a perfect example of “big idea” SF, although the writing is often considered substandard. This is typical in SF where, as stated before, writing skills take a back seat to the execution of the concept being explored.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction - Part 5

Were I to continue this process of identifying those books that make up the Heart & Soul of 20th Century science fiction with another 10 books, this is what I would recommend:

1)      Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
2)      The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany
3)      On Wings of Song by Thomas Disch
4)      Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell
5)      The Dragonriders of Pern trilogy by Anne McCaffrey
6)      The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth
7)      The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov
8)      The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
9)      The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World by Harlan Ellison
10)  The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein

Here again we see the importance of the short story with two more titles, and find one of the single-author collections is by Heinlein. His influence on science fiction in the 20th Century is probably (and arguably) greater than any other single author. He has written classics in the genre of all types, from adult novels to juveniles, from short stories to novellas.  Starship Troopers begat the subgenre of "military SF" while his juveniles impressed themselves upon scores of teenagers who would some day turn to writing themselves. Yes, at times his stuff reads like Libertarian wish fulfillment (but that’s only because, at times, it was). For all that, his collection contains some of the best short stories seen in science fiction.

Asimov and Clarke each have a book in this grouping as well, further underlining their prominence in the genre as, with Heinlein, the triumvirate of science fiction, and their influence in shaping the heart & soul of SF. While Heinlein may have had the greater influence on the genre, Isaac Asimov was probably the true soul of the genre. Indeed, personally, my love of science fiction took root with Heinlein, grew into Asimov and then matured with Clarke (and Bradbury, who always stood apart from the other three in my mind as coming at SF from a literary/artistic place as opposed to an idea-centric place.

The City and the Stars is a great example of Clarke’s continued success in evoking a “sense of wonder” while still managing to tell a wonder-filled tale.  The End of Eternity is one of Asimov’s most sophisticated and rewarding novels, truly an example of his growth as a writer from the Foundation days.

Nineteen Eighty-four  is a classic in literature as well as in the genre. It is the ultimate dystopian novel. It is also one of those SF books that affected our culture at large by giving us the phrase, as well as the concept of, “Big Brother.” This book may also be the main reason why “politcally correct” speech never really fully took root.

Androids may not be Dick’s best novel but as the source material for the movie Blade Runner it helped define the look and feel of cyberpunk later on, and perfectly represents Dick’s primary themes: what it means to be human, and paranoia. It is definitely another modern classic.

And, again, we have a collection of stories by Harlan Ellison who, to me, has become the poster-Infante of the science fiction short story. This collection includes "A Boy and His Dog," which won the Nebula award, and "Along the Scenic Route," and the title story, "The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World" won the Hugo award.

The Einstein Intersection is book that expands the boundaries of science fiction and speaks to the genres openness to experimental forms as well as "out there" ideas. 

On Wings of Song injects the counterculture firmly into the genre and continues the tradition of commentary on society that runs throughout science fiction.

The Space Merchants looks at the ultimate sociological implications of advertising on society; it also tackles popular science fiction themes of runaway population growth and diminishing resources. Given the recent announcements of "lab grown meat" soon to become available, this novel may prove prescient in that regard (if I recall there was something about artificially grown chicken).

Finally, The Dragonriders of Pern trilogy would seem, by its title and the cover art of the edition I read, to be a work of fantasy, but it is definitely science fiction and the original trilogy spawned a whole series as well as an entire subgroup of science fiction fandom. Pern is a fully realized, well thought-out alien world colonized by humans and touches on the themes of utopia and genetic engineering (the creation of the dragons to protect humans). 

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction - Part 4

If, after reading the books in the previous posts, and our imagined subject wished to continue, I would submit the following list of 10 more titles:

1)      The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
2)      Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
3)      The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
4)      Blood Music by Greg Bear
5)      Timescape by Gregory Benford
6)      Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement
7)      The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
8)      The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven
9)      Again, Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison
10)  Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison

Here we see Joe Haldeman answering Starship Troopers with his Vietnam War influenced The Forever War, probably the greatest science fiction war novel ever written.

In this list we also see the response in The Ringworld Engineers to errors discovered by fans in Ringworld. This illustrates the strong interaction between the fans and the writers in science fiction. In no other form of literature is this two-way relationship as well developed and entrenched as in science fiction.

Blood Music, Timescape, and Mission of Gravity may well be the three best examples of “hard SF” books in the genre, by 3 authors known for their hard SF.

The Stars My Destination could be considered as one of the ancestors of cyberpunk, and uses a favorite trope in science fiction, teleportation. It is considered by many to the one of the best science fiction novels ever written.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is, like Le Guin’s book before it, a classic of post-apocalyptic science fiction regardless of who wrote it, male or female. Cloning is also a key element of this book. It, the Alfred Bester novel, and the Haldeman novel expand the tradition of literary greatness in SF novels to create works that should be appreciated beyond the scope of science fiction fandom.

Speaking of literary greatness, this is also the first time a collection of Ellison’s own stories appears. Widely considered to be the best short fiction writer in the field (if not the English language), it makes sense to include his work at this point. I could switch Deathbird Stories out for The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World. Both collections contain a number of Ellison’s most important stories.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is included because it is by far and away the most successful, the best known, and probably the best example of humor in science fiction. Humor is a big part of a genre that can sometimes seem to take itself way too seriously, and this book reflects that better than any other.

So far, this list of books represents, to me, not necessarily the best that science fiction has to offer (although it probably does include books that many would consider among the best in the genre), but the character of science fiction as a genre heavily influenced and even shaped by a relatively few writers.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction - Part 3

If the list of 10 books in the previous post proved to open the door to a desire for more of the Heart and Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction, and led to a request for 10 more titles, I would submit the following:

1)      The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
2)      The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
3)      A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
4)      Ringworld by Larry Niven
5)      Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
6)      More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
7)      Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
8)      Neuromancer by William Gibson
9)      Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison
10)  The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol. IIA edited by Ben Bova

Now we see Ursula Le Guin represented by 2 books, indicating her status as (arguably) the most important female writer in 20th Century science fiction. Both of her books in this list are recognized classics. The Left Hand of Darkness examines questions of gender and identity, and also politics, while The Dispossessed explores ideas of utopia and, of course, gave us the ansible.

The other novels listed are also recognized as classics in the genre. Neuromancer kicked off a whole new subgenre of science fiction, cyberpunk.

Ringworld, like Rendezvous with Rama, in my opinion tops the “sense of wonder” classification of SF novels. Again, as with Left Hand of Darkness, one could argue that this book deserves a place in the top 10, replacing perhaps Rama.

A Canticle for Leibowitz brings an air of literary respectability to this list on a par with Bradbury’s works, is a great example of a post-apocalyptic setting, and also explores the relationship between church and state in a science fictional context.

Lord of Light, More Than Human, and Ender’s Game are all recognized as books that tower over most other SF, by authors who consistently generated very well-received works.Lord of Light is a great commentary on the origins of religion and how it is used to control & subdue. More Than Human tackles the theme of what comes next in human evolution. Ender's Game brings interesting questions about the psychological cost of winning a devastating war into the conversation.

The short story is once again represented here, this time by two books. The second volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame has collected  the great, classic novellas of the genre. “Nerves” by Lester del Rey is every bit as important to SF as most novels. And having “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells here gives a nod to a man who many consider to be the true Father of Science Fiction (Jules Verne may properly be considered the Grandfather of Science Fiction, then).

Dangerous Visions is an anthology of almost mythic proportions in the genre. As is its editor, Harlan Ellison. This anthology establishes what may be one science fiction’s most important effects on our culture: the pushing back of boundaries, inciting a literary riot when society needs one to shake things up.

Think science fiction has no effect on society? Think again. That’s what the stories in Dangerous Visions are saying.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction - Part 2

Ten books are listed below that, in my opinion, represent the core ten books of science fiction, speculative fiction, science fantasy, SF, skiffy, sci-fi, scientifiction, or whatever you want to call it. After the List of Ten comes an explanation. And after these ten, I will add 90 more book, each in groupings of ten. Each grouping of ten will be followed by a brief explanation as to why I chose each book.

While the first ten or even twenty books are more-or-less in order, as I see it, in regards to their influence on the heart & soul of SF, the rest are not. I have tried to list them in groupings that have some cohesiveness, but that may not have been successful.

Lastly, before the first list of ten, I would like to say that there was no underlying agenda here to leave out certain authors for political or any other reason. There are authors listed here whose politics I do not agree with, and others who I personally do not even like. None of that matters. What matters about this list, ultimately, is whether or not it sparks conversations among readers, or even lively debates, and perhaps even generates interest in the genre among readers of mainstream fiction who may have been put off by the garish covers or ridiculous story lines of Hollywood’s SF.

SF is a rich literature that more truly reflects, in the opinions of some, the world in which we live. It may even, according to some, be one way for the collective subconscious of our society to work out the many different potentialities that arise from the progress we make in science.

What are the potential problems (and benefits) that may arise from the development o robots and A.I. technology? Read I, Robot and Neuromancer and Snow Crash for some thoughts on the subject.

What may happen when humanity finally reaches the stars and comes into contact with an alien civilization? Read The Mote in God’s Eye and Starship Troopers and Childhood’s End for some thoughts on that subject, too.

Science Fiction may be preparing us to deal with whatever comes our way as we mature as a technological, space-faring civilization.

Anyway, enough of that, for now. Here are the ten books that make up the core of the core of the Heart & Soul of Science Fiction:

1)      Dune by Frank Herbert
2)      Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
3)      Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
4)      I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
5)      The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
6)      Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
7)      Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
8)      Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
9)      The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
10)  The Science Fiction Hall of Fame edited by Robert Silverberg

Why pick these books? Except for #1 and #10, I’ve picked two books each by four writers who have long been considered the pinnacles of science fiction. While between them these four writers have produced dozens of popular, and important, books, the titles I picked are recognized as the ultimate classics of science fiction. Robert A. Heinlein – the Dean of Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov – the Good Doctor, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury...these were the four brightest stars in the science fiction universe during most of the 20th Century. They have inspired countless others. There are few science fiction writers alive today who would not give a nod to at least one of these four as being a major influence.

While Frank Herbert may not have acquired the status of the other four men, his Dune is widely considered to be the greatest science fiction novel ever written. I would have to agree, although it is not necessarily my favorite.

And the short story anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame is on the list for several reasons, not the least of which is that the Heart & Soul of science fiction would be incomplete without short stories. Some of the greatest classics in the genre literature have been short works, like “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby.

Both I, Robot and The Martian Chronicles are short story collections. It speaks great volumes to me that 3 of the 10 books listed are made up of short stories. I contend that the short story is more important to the literature of science fiction than to mainstream literature in general, and certainly more important than in any other genre (although it could be argued that horror fiction is best served primarily by the short story...but that’s another argument). Short stories and novellas, which by their very nature allow for more experimentation and the flexing of literary (or scientific) muscles, are vital to the health and continuance of science fiction as a dynamic, exciting genre.

Represented here in this list are most of the hallmarks of science fiction: the “sense of wonder” in Rendezvous with Rama, the “What if?” of Childhood’s End, the cautionary tale of Fahrenheit 451, the magnificent scope of The Foundation Trilogy, or the radical social concepts in Stranger in a Strange Land. Many of the classic science fiction concepts are represented: robots, future war, superman, contact with aliens, star-faring human civilization, etc. Pulp sci-fi is there right alongside more respectable literary works.

I also decided to ignore the awards in creating this list. I don’t care which books or stories won the Hugo or the Nebula or the Campbell or whatever. Oftentimes one finds that the runners-up in such awards races wind up being just as important to science fiction as the winner.

What’s missing from this list so far? Well, women, for one. In fact, there is one woman represented in the whole list, Judith Merrill with her story “That Only a Mother” in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

There are many great women science fiction writers, to be sure. Ursula K. Le Guin was probably the most important in the 20th Century. It is conceivable that one of the books in the “top 10” listed might be replaced with her classic The Left Hand of Darkness. Were I to replace one, it would probably be Rendezvous with Rama. As this is one of my all-time favorite science fiction novels, it may be personal preference that I left it there.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction - Part 1

If someone came to me who had never read science fiction before and expressed an interest in reading ten books as an introduction to SF, what would I recommend? After giving it much thought, I decided that I’d want them to read the books which, I feel, make up the “heart and soul” of science fiction. To expand on this idea, I came up with the following conceit: What if a library decided that it only had room for 100 books to represent science fiction of the 20th Century? 

Which 100 books would be chosen? Which 100 books best represent what science fiction was during the 20th Century?

Bear in mind that I am not attempting to list the “best,” nor the “bestselling,” nor the “most important” books in the genre. Rather, this is an attempt to uncover the essence of science fiction in the 20th Century as a genre of literature. Science fiction is a wide field, yet for all its variety it can be argued that SF in the 20th Century maintained a certain cohesiveness. This cohesiveness diminished as the century wore on, primarily due to the increasing number of writers publishing the stuff. It can still be said that SF exists, even in the 21st Century, as a literature with a certain set of “core aspects.”

What are these aspects? Primarily, I think, a “sense of wonder” rests at the core of the genre. While not all tales told in SF may possess this “gosh-wow” factor, as it is often called, I believe most of them do on some level.

The use of science, or at the very least of what Charles Sheffield might call “the borderlands of science,” must come into play. This can be any of the so-called “hard” sciences such as physics, biology, chemistry, etc. Or it can be the “soft” sciences such as anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc. It can also incorporate pseudo-science that may be, or may have been at one time, considered the fringe of respectable science (as opposed to the lunatic fringe), such as ESP, or even faster-than-light travel (depending on who you ask). Sometimes it isn’t even science that a story depends on, but technology or engineering (such as most cyberpunk).

Other aspects can be couched in terms that reflect the types of stories which appear over and over in SF, such as “if this goes on,” which is cousin to the dystopian tale (or utopia-gone-awry tale). These kinds of stories often completely dispense with any real approach to utilizing real science in their fiction, as do many space opera tales, and humor/satire/parody stories.

Scope can also be important to SF, both in a space- and time-sense (a long time ago...and far, far away). How else to tell tales involving immortals, galactic empires, interstellar wars, or, even, God Himself?

Ultimately, one need only pay lip-service to science or technology in order for a work to be marketable as science fiction (although the “hard SF” readers may shun it).

It is no surprise, then, that SF books are generally measured differently than literary works. Let’s face it, most readers only know what is, or isn’t, literature because someone, usually a college professor or a critic, told them whether a work possesses literary merit...or not.

SF books are not measured using the same standards as mainstream popular fiction. Mainstream fiction tends to be judged based on either sales (achieving bestseller status results in more readers buying the book to see why it was so popular in the first place), or based on reviews that refer to such books as “page turners” or “good summer reading.” In other words, these books are judged based almost purely on their entertainment value.

SF books, while they can be judged on either populist or literary criteria, have their own standards by which all other SF books are measured, regardless of their readability, literary merit, or sales figures. These are the elements that make a science fiction book uniquely science fiction, and can best be judged using the following descriptors:  “sense of wonder,” “big idea,” “well-thought-out,” “gosh-wow,” and, finally, “internal logic.”

An example of a great review for an SF book, regardless of the literary quality of the writing, might go something like this: “The author achieves a true sense of wonder by creating a well-thought-out world that never violates its own internal logic.”

Renewed Commitment to This Blog

I've been pretty lackluster about posting in this blog, but I am going to make an effort to blog more as I ramp up some writing efforts in 2012. I am going to be posting an article I wrote a while ago, after cleaning it up a little, and talking about the YA sci-fi novel I'm currently working on (third draft), and discussing two new ebooks I will be putting out this year. I've read that regular blog entries can help boost readership, so that's my goal. Let's see how it goes.