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.

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