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.

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