Monday, March 25, 2013
Based on a request made by a good friend of mine, I recently put together a list of the Top Ten novels that I feel are absolutely essential reading in the all too often belittled literary genre known as science-fiction. This list is presented in no particular order, and is based on a number of criteria including, but not limited to, the quality of the prose, the level of innovation, influence on subsequent works, entertainment value, etc.
Needless to say, I am looking forward to discussing and debating the merits of some or all of these works with all of you in the comments section at the bottom of this page. So please, feel free to take a giant crap on my list and offer up suggestions of your own, if you please.
And now, with the formalities out of the way, I present to you...
THE TOP TEN MUST-READ SCIENCE FICTION NOVELS OF THE PAST 100 YEARS!
1. DUNE, by Frank Herbert
It is a well-worn cliche but no less true for being so that Dune is to science fiction what The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. In Dune, written in 1965, Frank Herbert manages to create a completely believable world of the far-off, distant future - meticulously presented, from its deep ecological roots all the way up to the loftiest heights of its treacherous interplanetary politics - and then fills that world with believable and fascinating characters, complete with intricate histories and psychological make-ups all their own. The science, philosophy, theology, politics, psychology and even geology of the Dune universe are each explored in depth to great effect, but it's the sum total gestalt of it all that makes Dune so special. Simply put, everything in Dune hangs together incredibly well. There are very few novels in the English language quite so richly layered, so vividly imagined or so intellectually absorbing as Frank Herbert's visionary masterpiece, Dune.
2. CHILDHOOD'S END, by Arthur C. Clarke
In 1953's Childhood's End, legendary author Arthur C. Clarke envisions a relatively peaceful invasion by alien beings who, despite igniting a new Golden Age for humanity, seem to be keeping some very big secrets from the very race they say they've come to help. Would you be willing to evolve, if evolving meant becoming something that you might not recognize as being quite human? It's a scary idea, and one that is fully explored in this wonderful novel, which - at under 300 pages - also happens to be a brisk and breezy read.
3. DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, by Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick has written so many classic novels - my own favorites being this one, UBIK, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Martian Time Slip - that it's hard to pick just one. 1968's Do Androids...? is, of course, the novel upon which the Ridley Scott film Bladerunner was based. The resulting film, however, had very little in common with the source work, so just because you've seen the movie, don't assume you know the book. In his writing, PKD never stops asking the Big Questions. What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of empathy? What separates mankind from the animals... and from the machines? If you find these topics at all interesting, then by all means read this novel at the first opportunity. It also happens to be quite a thrilling adventure story.
4. THE STARS MY DESTINATION, by Alfred Bester
1956's The Stars My Destination is Alfred Bester's dark, twisted, adrenalin-soaked, balls-to-the-wall revenge-fueled science-fiction freak-out masterpiece. When I finally got around to reading this novel for the first time a few years ago, it was one of the biggest surprises of my reading life. How could this bat-shit crazy story have been concocted over half a century ago?! It felt so fresh and innovative and new. Small wonder it's been cited as one of the major influences on the late 20th century cyberpunk sf literary movement. Containing elements that would make it difficult to turn into a film without serious revision (I refer here to the evolutionary leap of "jaunting", or teleportation), this work is probably destined to remain a purely literary pleasure, at least in the short term.
5. SNOW CRASH, by Neal Stephenson
1992's Snow Crash stands out as the landmark work of so-called cyberpunk, despite arguably being somewhat of a satire. Being rather self-consciously post-modern, Snow Crash simultaneously features a philosophical deconstruction of the cyberpunk genre while also being a magnificent, textbook example of the same. One of the most debated and critiqued works of late SF, Snow Crash is densely packed with intriguing concepts, wildly imaginative characters, and hilariously over-the-top techno-shenanigans... a vast smorgasbord of a novel.
6. THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, by Ray Bradbury
First published in 1950, The Martian Chronicles features a group of inter-connected Ray Bradbury short stories chronicling the colonization of Mars by Earth men, conflicts with the Martian civilization they encounter there, and ultimately, the reaction of Mars colonists to the devastation of their homeworld, Earth, by atomic war. This book has been described as a short story collection and an episodic novel, and indeed it does contain stories previously published by Bradbury in various science fiction magazines of the 1940's. However, thanks to interstitial elements added by Bradbury, the whole does manage to hang together as a singular piece of science-fiction literature, more than just the sum of its parts.
7. AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, by H.P. Lovecraft
Many fans and literary critics consider this 1931 novella - Lovecraft's longest work - to also be among his very best. And despite its heaping helpings of trademark "cosmic dread", it is also completely devoid of any supernatural elements. It is thus, in all respects, a work of pure science-fiction, containing the ancient DNA of such future works of science-horror as Ridley Scott's ALIEN and John Carpenter's The Thing (with which it shares an Antarctic setting).
8. STAND ON ZANZIBAR and THE SHEEP LOOK UP, by John Brunner
Our first tie, featuring two books by the same author. 1968's Stand on Zanzibar is Brunner's mixed-media exploration of the overpopulation dilemma, while 1972's The Sheep Look Up examines issues of ecological catastrophe. Both novels are also stylistic homage to John Dos Passos' U.S.A Trilogy, a critically acclaimed collection of early Modernist novels featuring a mix of stream of consciousness, "newsreel" sections and snatches of political speeches, pop song lyrics and other elements to give depth to the world being portrayed. Both novels are also ripping good yarns in their own right.
9. HYPERION, by Dan Simmons
First published in 1989, Hyperion is Dan Simmons' multiple award-winning epic science fiction version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a voyage to Hyperion, seeking answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Hyperion is home-world of the Shrike, a terrifying creature that lives in the Valley of the Time Tombs, structures that move backward through time. Some worship the Shrike while others wish to destroy it. This novel is a great story, well told, and an excellent example of late-80's science-fiction at its best.
10. 1984, by George Orwell / BRAVE NEW WORLD, by Aldous Huxley / A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, by Anthony Burgess
At number 10, I have decided to declare a three-way tie between these three dystopian novels, all of which often find themselves included on high school students' reading lists everywhere in the English-speaking world. In fact, it is their very ubiquity that leads me to lump em all together here, despite the fact that they don't share all that much in common. 1984, published in 1949, is the story of Winston Smith, an individual who becomes disenchanted with the totalitarian world order ruled over by Big Brother and dreams of rebelling, going so far as to explore various avenues of doing so - with tragic results. Huxley's Brave New World (1931), which explores a future world of social control based on pharmacology, eugenics and social engineering, is the "hardest" of these three novels, by which I mean that it is the one that takes the "science" behind the fiction most seriously. Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (1962) is perhaps most notable for the author's creation of a realistic future slang (called NadSat) and for the resulting scandal/success of Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film version, but it also stands up very well on its own merits - more than well enough to merit a place on this list.
Well, I hope you have enjoyed this little list that I've put together for you. By no means should you consider it a comprehensive overview of the science-fiction genre, but I think it serves as an adequate "sampler" to get you started reading in this rich and varied genre. Please let me know once you've read a few of these novels so I can put together an "advanced" version of this list, featuring 10 more classic SF novels that every well-read person should know about!
yer old pal Jerky