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.