Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Essential Science Fiction


A couple of months ago, Brandon (of Siris) wrote a post in which he listed twenty must-read science fiction novels. Please read the comments where many people add their own suggestions. I am not exactly sure what the criterion was - the best ever, Brandon's personal favourites, or something else - but ever since, I wanted to write a similar post. Not that I disagree much with his choices - I don't - but I just wanted to make my own list.

I grew up on science-fiction, in Serbo-Croatian translations at first. Yugoslavia was always a big hub of SF fandom and many books were translated. I devoured books by Bjazic and Furtinger. I was fortunate enough to grow up during the 13-year tenure of Sirius, a fantastic monthly magazine emulating Asimov's. I still remember the cover story of issue #2 - 'Mewhu's Jet' by Theodore Sturgeon (after which I call my cat Mewhu).

I am not going to limit this to just 20. I am also not going to limit it to just one book per author. I will not even limit it just to novels - some of the best SF is in the form of short stories. In some ways, this is a "Best of" list, in others it is a "My favourites" list.

The way I made it was to think what books I would buy for a young person (let's say a niece or nephew going off to college) as an introduction to SF - in other words: where to start when entering this genre. Another way I thought was to think of a long list of SF works that can be used (once pared down to a managable size) in teaching a course "Science Fiction for Biologists."

As my brother says, and I wholeheartedly agree, it is a sacred duty of all scientists to read science fiction, not just for research ideas, but also because all societal and ethical consequences have been explored by SF writers long before any federal ethics committee ever got assigned to think about it. So, here it is:

Let's start with the pioneers, of course, then progress more or less chronologically.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth is my favourite by Jules Verne. I have read quite a lot by him (mostly when I was a kid), but this is the only one I went back to and re-read it a few more times. I'd also like to read his newly-discovered novel about Paris.

H.G. Wells is tough to choose from. The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau are the novels I liked the best, but it is his collection of stories, The Stolen Bacillus And Other Incidents, that I think is his best work by far. There are many different collections of his stories, but try to get the most complete one, like the one I linked to.

The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley is a classic that rarely makes its appearance on Best-of lists. Do not get the abridged (American) edition as they cut out the best parts, afraid of insulting local Puritan sensibilities. For an evo-devo biologist, this book is a must!

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is undoubtedly a classic. Read it online.

Edgar Rice Burroughs. Well, of course, Tarzan is great fun and I have read many of those. The Mars novels are also cool. The Land That Time Forgot is everyone's favourite. But I want to point you to a less-well known series of his, the Pellucidar series, which happens inside a hollow Earth (and has its effects on circadian rhythms and perception of time - so it really makes it cool for me). At the Earth's Core, Pellucidar and Tanar of Pellucidar are the first three in the series (wich apparently can also be found bound together). The remaining four are Tarzan at the Earth's Core, Back to the Stone Age, Land of Terror and Savage Pellucidar. I have not read them but I am very curious. These are cheap paperbacks, so if you are in a cheritable mood, I have placed them on my wish list.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Of course. (also found online).

English-speaking list-makers tend to focus only on works originally written in English. But there is a lot of good stuff that one can find in translation. The best and most influential of the early Russian SF is We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.

A list of SF classics cannot omit RUR by the Czech writer Karel Capek, a SF play that gave us the word "robot". Personally, I prefer hisWar With the Newts. When I first read it as a kid, I loved the beginning and the end, where all the action is. When I read it again as an adult, I loved the middle part where there is a lot of science and philosophy. Another must for evo-devo folks, too.

Alexander Belayev is probably the best known SF author from the old USSR. He was definitely the most prolific. Some of his stuff is horrendous - peans to the invincibility of the Soviet Man (I guess he had to write such things to keep himself on the good side of authorities) - but other stuff is great. Unfortunately, much of his stuff has not been translated into English (I read them in Serbo-Croatian translation). My own favourite, by far, is The Amphibian, another must-read for evo-devo biologists. I'd like to read it in English translation one day, too.

Solaris is supposed to be the best novel by Stanislaw Lem. I disagree. Tarkovsky's movie version is better than the book. I have not seen the Clooney version yet. If you want to read a really amazingly good novel by Lem, pick up The Invincible. On the other hand, you will laugh out loud at the adventure of Ijon Tichy, especially in the first book in the trilogy, The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy. It is followed by Star Diaries: Further Reminiscences Of Ijon Tichy and Memoirs of a Space Traveler: Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy. I think a reviewer on Amazon nailed it: "If Borges had written "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," it might have resembled "The Star Diaries.""

The Titan of Space by Yves Dermez was fun to read when I was a kid. I have no idea if it exists in English, though.

Another fond memory from shildhood is Planet of the Dreamers by John MacDonald.

Olaf Stapledon is really hard to pick from. I have not read Odd John. His magnum opus is the duo of The First And Last Man and Star Maker, but my personal favourite is Sirius.

It is funny how in 1984 people laughed and said that George Orwell's novel 1984 completely missed on all its predictions. The only thing George got wrong was the title. He should have placed it another 20 years into the future and be right on the spot. Healthy Forests. Patriot Act. Tax Relief. Intelligent Design. Strict Construction. No Child Left Behind. Tort Reform. War On Terror. Activist Judges. Sound Science. Fair and Balanced. War On Eurasia. Black is White.... If anything, George was not creative enough.

But George was not alone. Aldous Huxley also got a lot of stuff right in the Brave New World. Again, twenty years ago people said he got it all wrong but those same people have to eat their words today. My personal favourite of Huxley's work is After Many A Summer Dies A Swan (ah, yet another must-read for the evo-devo crowd). Has anyone read Ape and Essence? Is it any good?

The one anti-utopian SF novel that got it most right of all of them is Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and Cyril Cornbluth. Decades later, Pohl wrote an excellent follow-up novel, The War of the Merchants. Follow the money, as Rush Limbaugh would say. Speaking of Pohl, his Gateway series is worth checking out (at least try the very fist in the series).

While we are still in these dark areas, probably the darkest is The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, an alternative history in which WWII is won by the Axis. Dick is one of my favourite authors and it is hard to pick just one novel as the best. Ubik is excellent. I also liked The Man Who Japed and Counter-Clock World. Also, his Galactic Pot-Healer is refreshingly different, funnier than usual and almost a fantasy.

As for Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 is his best anti-utopian SF. Martian Chronicles is a beautiful, almost poetic collection of stories. The Illustrated Man contains probably his best stories. Something Wicked This Way Comes is wicked horror. Wanna try something different? Try Dinosaur Tales, equally enchanting for kids and adults.

And a list of prophetic anti-utopian SF cannot be complete without the newer, but perhaps even scarier, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Have you heard of T.J. Bass (Thomas J. Bassler)? He has published only two novels. Perhaps not brilliantly written as far as prose goes, but they harbor some great ideas and a wonderful exploration of the evolution of (eu)sociality and what it means to be human. I warmly recommend both of them: Half Past Human and Godwhale. The second is usually considered to be better. I wish he has written more.

No list can be without Robert Anston Heinlein, probably my most favourite SF writter of all. He was so prolific, it is really difficult to choose. If you want to introduce a young person to SF, some of Heinlein's juveniles are the best entry point. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers, Have Spacesuit - Will Travel, Friday, Podkayne From Mars, Farmer in the Sky, Puppet Masters and many others are people's favourites. Stranger In The Strange Land is probably his best novel, certainly notable for giving the English language the wonderful word "to grok". My favourite is Time Enough For Love, though it may perhaps be a little too much for a young novice (give the prequel, Methusaleh's Children, to a younger reader instead - there is a cool multi-sex breeding system described within)).

Clifford Simak has written one novel many, many times. Whatever you read by him you will like. Also, you will want to move to Wisconsin after reading any one of his books. While Way Station may be his most famous piece (and it is very good), the real classic is The City. The City belongs even on the shortest, most restricitive list of the best SF ever.

I have only read More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. It is a classic for a reason! Anything else worth reading?

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. is always on these lists. I have to admit, sheepishly, that I have not read it yet. I own a copy and want to read it but it somehow never happens...Perhaps one day....

Arthur C. Clarke is not one of my greatest favourites of all times, but his Childhood's End is brilliant. His short stories are better, so check out this collection of his, or perhaps Tales from the White Hart.

I have read preciously little by Isaak Asimov, not even a single Foundation novel. I guess I, Robot is a classic that has to be on every 'must-read' list.

Phillip Jose Farmer is the author of the fabulous Riverboat series. The first three books are superb. The fourth is passable (and it answers some questions and ties some loose ends). Don't bother with the fifth one - that one was written just for the money. Lovers is my favourite Farmer novel - another interesting mating strategy. Then, The World of Tiers trilogy is one of the rare pieces of fantasy that I liked. Still, I most prefer his stories, so I'd give, as a present, a collection of his stories. I am still in love with Dr.Legsandbrains from the story "Only He Can Make A Tree". I've been looking for her all my life....

Speaking of fantasy, apart from a bunch of Tolkien and very few other pieces (OK, OK, Harry Potter series), my favourite is the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula LeGuin: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore. I think this was the real inspiration for Potter, not Narnia or Lord Of The Rings as most people believe. Again, read just the first three books. I heard that the follow-ups are atrociously bad. Most of the other stuff by LeGuin is pure SF and it is all good. How about Collected Novels (of the Hainish Series) as a holiday gift to a person you like? Dispossessed and Left Hand Of Darkness are her most famous and arguably best novels. The Lathe of Heaven is also very good. Wanna know my personal pick? The Word For World Is Forest.

John Wyndham is dark, dark, dark. Chrysallids is the one I've read multiple times, first time when I was far too young for it.

James Blish. A biologist must love this guy! Seedling Stars is the most evolutionary SF book ever! Titan's Daughter is quite thought-provoking - one of the earliest novels about genetic engineering. And try Cities In Flight, too.

Kurt Vonnegut. What's to say? The Man is The Master! the most science-fictiony of his works are Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle, Galapagos, The Sirens of Titan and
Timequake. I think I have read every single book Kurt has ever written, including all the collections of stories.

When Frank Herbert was still alive and churning out new installments in the Dune series every year, I promised I'd wait until he died, buy the whole series, then wait until I am bed-ridden for a few weeks to read it all. Well, he died. I collected all installments in Serbo-Croatian. Then I moved to the USA. Fortunately, I still had no opportunity to read it. Not even the first one. But I loved his Green Brain! Social insects and stuff. And again in Hellstrom's Hive.

I am not much into cyberpunk. If you are, the best start, they say, is William Gibson: Idoru, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition. One day I will force myself to read some of that stuff....And you can read his blog, too.

Gordon Dickson. Although the very last book in the series, The Final Encyclopedia is independent enough from the rest of the Dorsai cycle to be read on its own. It is brilliant. People who think a lot about blogosphere, wikipedia, connectedness and knowledge, should read this. And if reading it makes you want to read the series from the beginning , start with #1, the Necromancer. My Dickson favourite? Masters of Everon, where animals behave in a strange way.

Will Baker is a newer, younger writer, and most of his stuff is not SF. If you thought Masters of Everon was good (and I did), you'll be floored by Shadow Hunter, where animals behave in a REALLY strange way. I bought three or four copies once and gave all but one to friends as presents.

Poul Anderson. Try Brainwave.

Gregory Benford: A scientist's hard SF. Try Timescape, Beyond Infinity, The Martian Race or Eater.

Harry Harrison. First, the serious stuff, the Eden trilogy:West of Eden, Winter in Eden and Return to Eden. Deathworld is a misnamed classic. Make Room Make Room is the book on which the movie Soylent Green was losely based. On a less serious note, Harrison is one of the funniest SF writers. Try Bill the Galactic Hero (and subsequent novels in the series) or The Stainless Steel Rat (and many more in that series).

Brian Aldiss. Try Long Afternoon Of Earth, Non-Stop, Greybeard and Galaxies Like Grains Of Sand, to begin with.

The Drowned World is the only novel by J.G. Ballard I have read. I really should read some more.

Orson Scott Card. Ender's Game is absolutely brilliant. The follow-ups are, in comparison, nothing special. Tales of Alvin Maker: Seventh Son, Red Prophet, and Prentice Alvin is another one of the preciously few fantasy series I liked. I hear that nothing else by Card is worth your time and money, but have not tested that hypothesis myself, as I don't want to waste my time and money testing it.

Buy yourself The Ultimate Hitchhikers Guide to Galaxy - all five books in one tome. Not enough Douglas Adams? Try Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul.

Momo by Michael Ende is supposedly for kids, and it barely qualifies as SF, but I loved it. It's about time thieves.

Michael Crichton. Stay away from his latest! But some of the old stuff is pretty good and fun to read, including
The Andromeda Strain, Timeline, Sphere, Congo and Jurassic Park.

Raptor Red, a story narrated by a dinosaur, was written not by a professional writer, but by a professional paleontologist - Robert Bakker. Thus, the prose is not the most beautiful you have ever encountered, but it is a cool read for science geeks like me.

And he is not the only paleontologist trying his hand at SF. George Gaylord Simpson wrote The Dechronization of Sam Magruder, which was published only after he died.

A for Andromeda by the astronomer Fred Hoyle is actually a fast good read.

Terry Pratchet is hillarious. Pick any one you like. My recent favourites: Thief of Time and The Truth. The former about the consequences of building a perfect clock, the latter about the newspaper business. Don't drink and read (or use a napkin).

You want funny? Here's funny: Robert Asprin - anything by him. I love the M.Y.T.H. Inc series - all of it. I like the Phule series. I like the Thieves' World series. I liked the best of all The Cold Cash War. Light summer (or travelling) reading - very funny.

Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy is excellent - aging, societal control and scary fast action.

John Darnton. The Experiment is one of the better takes on cloning. And the Neanderthal is pretty good, too. The Darwin Conspiracy is new and I want it - a modern-day Rashomon. I'd also like to read his Mind Catcher.

Conrads' Time Machine by Leo Frankowski is a hillarious prequel to his series. If what reviewers say - that this is the weakest book in the series - is true, I can't wait to get hold of the others!

Speaking of time-travel stories that gave up on explaining the paradoxes and just invite you to go for a ride (together with a baby Brontosaur), the best one is John Kessel's Corrupting Dr. Nice. If you like it, try his other novel, Good News From Outer Space or the collection of his short stories, The Pure Product.

Vernor Vinge is another Grand Master. A Fire Upon The Deep and A Deepness in the Sky are astoundingly good. I can't wait for his next, Tatja Grimm's World, to come out in January! In the meantime, I should read some of his other stuff, like The Peace War.... On the other hand, I could never really warm up to the works of his wife, Joan Vinge. Just not my style, I guess.

Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson is pretty good, although it starts slow - I almost gave up in the beginning, but then it became better as the pace quickened. Perhaps I should give him another try.

Cory Doctorow's Eastern Standard Tribe is the best SF novel that is, among else, about blogs and Internet. Of course he would know, he runs Boing Boing and Craphound!

C.J.Cherryh, Bruce Sterling and Ken MacLeod are bloggers, too. I am ashamed to say I have not read anything by them. Where should I start?

Speaking of SF bloggers, I really need to buy and read Hominids, Humans and Hybrids by Robert Sawyer. What else by him is good?

Still with SF bloggers, David Brin is really good. I really need to read more of his stuff. I have only read The Uplift War, but so long ago I barely remember it, and, more recently Postman (which I reviewed here). Is Glory Season good?

And speaking of books I reviewed here, Jennifer Government by Max Barry is really good.

I did not review it, but I used it as a starting point for a post before - Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear (who also has a blog). While James Blish tapped into neo-Darwinian Synthesis for his evolution-rich novels, Greg Bear is up to date on the current version of evolutionary theory, the evo-devo kind. The second book in the series, Darwin's Children is as good if not better. I can't wait for the third one. In the meantime, I've been reading a lot of older Bear's stuff, and loved it all. I can say that he is my currently favourite SF author. I've read and (except for, perhaps, Heads) recommend Blood Music, The Forge of God, Anvil of Stars, Psychlone and Vitals. My wife has read and loved Dead Lines, but then she gave it away before I had a chance to read it. And I should read Moving Mars before the movie comes out.

Joan Slonczewski is a real biologist who writes SF in her spare time and also uses SF to teach biology. So far, I have read the delightful Wall Around Eden and am looking forward to her more hard-SF stuff, like The Children Star, Door into Ocean, Daughter of Elysium, Still Forms on Foxfield and Brain Plague.

Connie Willis. So far I have read To Say Nothing of the Dog, Bellwether and Fire Watch (a collection of stories), and am looking forward to reading Passage. Wonderful writer. Amazing researcher of historical minutiae, too!

Pest Control by Bill Fitzhugh is one of the funniest books I have read in the past 10 years. It is a delight for entomologists, too. The exterminator, in this case, uses genetically modified insects to exterminate people - for money. I've also read Organ Grinders by the same author, and will seek some of his other books soon.

David Dvorkin is a Kossian. I got his Ursus and Time for Sherlock Holmes recently. Reviews look good, but I have not read them yet.

Neal Stephenson is all the rave these days. I own, but have not read yet, his big hits, Snow Crash, Zodiac and The Diamond Age. I have recently bought, and intend to read one day, the trilogy: Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World. Is Big U any good?

The Calcutta Chromosome : A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery by Amitav Ghosh was a tremendous surprise. It is an amazingly good novel. Has anyone read anything else by him? Is it SF?

The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq was the most recent pleasant surprise. The catch is - and I am sure not everyone is going to like that - you don't know it is SF until the very end.

Add your own in the comments...

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