SF 100

I rather like lists. I may not always agree with then - in fact I seldom do, come to think of it - but that's not important. That may make them even more interesting.

100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels, edited by Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison, with a foreword by Christopher Priest, is a splendid book, especially on a short tube or tram trip (or indeed on the bog). It lists, you probably guessed it, one hundred science fiction novels that everybody ought to read. I've read forty of them. In case you're wondering. Will probably end up reading quite a few more, as several of the unread ones really do seem quite interesting.

The choices are, for the most part, fairly obvious. There are a few exhilaratingly quirky books thrown in. It begins alphabetically with Brian Aldiss (Hothouse) and ends with Roger Zelazny (This Immortal). The earliest novel is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818/1831) and the only other 19th century novels are Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth and a trio of Wells's - The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau and The War of the Worlds. Apart from Conan Doyle's Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars - which by the way came out the same year: 1912 - it's all pretty modern stuff. The most recent is Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon (2002), with close runners-up J. G. Ballard (Super-Cannes, 2000) and Stephen Baxter (Moonseed, 1998).

The POV is excessively Anglo-American, frighteningly so. Only three novels published in another language are deemed worthy to grace the pages of the book. They are the aforementioned Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (written in French), Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (written in Polish) and the Strugatsky brothers' Roadside Picnic (written in Russian). There are about three times as many American novels as UK ones. And, oh, one Australian one: Greg Egan's Permutation City (1994). Probably only a slip-up.

So this we learn, well and proper: valid Science Fiction is written in English (most preferably American English) and written sometime around or after 1950. Good to know.

The violent American slant amazes all the more as the book is a British one, A Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide, in fact. Though what the old Bloomsbury lot, Virginia Woolf and company, would have made of good old honest science fiction I have no idea. Actually I do. They'd have loathed it. Well, they couldn't even stand James Joyce, he was far too horrid and grubby and plebeian for them.

A few authors are in with two books: Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik), Isaac Asimov (I, Robot and The Foundation), J.G. Ballard (The Drowned World and Super-Cannes), Alfred Bester (The Demolished Man and Stars My Destination), Ursula K. LeGuin (The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed), Robert Heinlein (Orphans of the Sky and Starship Troopers) and Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451). And Wells, of course, is in with three. Ballard is clearly over-represented, and so is Heinlein. Frightfully so. And probably Asimov as well. I doubt their work will retain its value over the years. They won't be forgotten, they're too good for that, but most of their stuff will be. And justly so.

A lot of authors clearly belong on the list, but haven't quite got that seminal piece of work. Robert Silverberg's book is The Man in the Maze. Could have been any of a dozen others. He does keep his standard even and extremely high, but the stellar performances may be missing. Arthur C. Clarke's book is Childhood's End. Not a bad choice, not at all. Philip José Farmer's is The Lovers, which is actually a wise and inspired choice. The Lovers is actually a seminal work, now that I reflect upon it a moment.

Michael Bishop's Ancient of Days is a superb choice and quite surprising. It's one of those books that you can't categorize, a book that transcends the narrow constraints of genre, a book that is good science fiction, delightful fantasy and a full-bodied and thought provoking mainstream read - at the same time. And so is Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. An obvious choice, painfully so, but a necessary one. He's written a few other science fiction novels but nothing as lasting as this one.

D.G. Compton's The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is one of the books I haven't read but certainly shall. I've seen the movie though and it had a great impact on me. This is one of those instances where the author has nailed the future with amazing accuracy. Much to our distress. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is one of the self-evident ones. It had to be chosen. Barry N. Malzberg's Guernica Night is another one I've managed to miss. He's a bit elusive, one doesn't come across his stuff very often. But it's always worth reading. And it always tends to be funny, dark, more than mildly deranged and mind-bogglingly amusing.

I have my doubts about Samuel R. Delany. To me he seems wildly overrated. Especially books like Nova. So that's a choice I'm not entirely happy with. Larry Niven's Ringworld, however, I do agree with wholeheartedly. Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao I've tried to get my hands on for years. I'm still trying. John Sladek's Tik-Tok was quite far-out and cutting edge for it's time but has it lasted? I certainly hope so. Connie Willis's Doomsday Book seems a little light-weight in this company. I did enjoy it, immensely. But more as an easy-reading entertainment than as a serious science fiction novel. And of course there's Orwell's 1984. Another self-evident choice and an imperative one. I can't argue with Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-five either.

Disch (The Genocides), Budrys (Rogue Moon), Spinrad (The Iron Dream), Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash), Miller (A Canticle for Leibowitz), Keyes (Flowers for Algernon) are splendid choices. In many cases I approve of the author but not the selection. Can't be helped, I suppose.

Re-reading Priest's foreword I notice that he shares my concerns in most cases. I don't know if that's good or bad. But I guess it boils down to this: a question of what one sees Science Fiction as. Is it an entertaining vehicle for space adventure and suchlike - or a serious, and I might add powerful, tool for intellectual curiosity. Is it an end in itself or a means for posing important and interesting questions? The latter, I think. But also, in a lesser and blatantly self-indulgent degree, the former. One certainly does tend to like Science Fiction just simply because it is Science Fiction.

To my dismay I find that I've read hardly any of the novels written in the '90s. Naughty me. Will have to look into it. All of them can't be rotten.

But. There's a lot missing. Where's Stapledon? Where's Douglas Adams? Where's Stanley G. Weinbaum? Where's Richard Cowper? Where's Poe? Insanity!

Another thing. The meat of the genre is more often than not in the short story. That's the best vehicle for the idea hence the entire genre. The novels, well they're mostly padded out just for profit. That's what readers want. So they get fix-ups and one-trick ponies and a lot of useless pages. A lot of science fiction novels really don't need to be novels, don't want to be novels. But still, some of them really are worth the reading, all the same, abundantly worth it. In fact, many of them.

So the problem remains. There are too many books. And, alas and alack, too many good books. Can't possibly read them all.

Oh, the misery of it all.

And, of course, reading rubbish also has its definite charms.

So I guess we're buggered both coming and going.

But if one can't read all the books one ought to read, one can at least read about them. It's something, anyway.


Anonymous said...

Mitä merkillistä? Kaipaat Douglas Adamsia ja toisaalta Connie Willis on lähes liian viihteellinen? Onkohan mielessämme sama Adams ollenkaan? Ja ihan mielenkiinnosta: onko naisten kirjoittamia kirjoja listalla muita kuin nuo harvat mainitsemasi? Eikö yhtään Sheri S. Tepperiä tai Joanna Russia? terkuin TM

PS said...

Aiheellinen kommentti. Scifin kirjoittaminen ei siis vaikuttaisi olevan pelkästään englanninkielisten ja erityisesti amerikkalaisten suvereeni yksinoikeus - vaan englanninkielisten amerikkalaisten MIESTEN yksinoikeus. Kirjassa on toki naisiakin: Pat Cadigan (Synners), Angela Carter (Heroes and Villains), Leigh Kennedy (The Journal of Nicholas the American, Maureen F. McHugh (China Mountain Zhang), C.L. Moore (Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams), Joanna Russ (The Female Man), Kate Wilhelm (Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang) - aikaisemmin mainittujen lisäksi. Octavia Butler nyt ainakin olisi voinut olla mukana. Russin Female Man on muuten yksi niistä listan kirjoista jotka minun ehdotomasti pitää lukea, se on jo hyllyssä odottamassa vuoroaan.

Mielenkiintoista muuten huomata että osalla naisista (Moore, Cadigan, Leigh) nimi ei suoraan tuo esille sukupuolta. Ei liene sattumaa sillä mieleen tulee muitakin, etenkin vanhemman polven sf-naiskirjailijoita joiden sukupuoli ei käy ilmi kirjailijanimestä. Lienee ollut pakkoratkaisu ennen 60-lukua, ainakin jos kirjoitti kovempaa scifiä.

Adams, niin. Kaikesta hauskuudestaan huolimatta Adams on perin filosofinen ja jopa synkkä kirjailija. Koko hänen tuotantonsa käsittelee inhimillisiä peruskysymyksiä, nin yksilön kuin lajinkin tasolla. Miksi me olemme täällä? Minne me olemme menossa? Mitä järkeä koko tässä hommassa on? Adams onkin minusta saanut ihan turhaan hupimiehen maineen, mikä tekee sekä hänelle että hänen tuotannolleen suurta vääryyttä. Eikä viihteellinen ja viihdyttävä aina ole vakavan kirjallisuuden antiteesi. Mutta usein kyllä.

Anonymous said...

Kiitos tiedoista. Huomasin heti kommentin lähettämisen jälkeen unohtaneeni kysyä Butleria, ja mieleen tuli myös Margaret Atwood sekä nobelisti Doris Lessing. Mutta Nobel siis ei auta listalle pääsemiseen.

Joanna Russ kantaa feministin leimaa kuten osa muistakin scifiä kirjoittavista naisista. Toisaalta osa kirjoista, jotka aikoinaan leimattiin feministisiksi, ei enää nykyisin vaikuta ollenkaan niin kärkeviltä kuin edellisellä vuosisadalla. Muistaakseni pidin enempi The Adventures of Alyx -kirjasta kuin The Female Manista, mutta ehkä itsenikin pitäisi tarkistaa, kuinka aika muuttaa tapaani lukea tietyn aikakauden kirjoja.

Tepperiä kysyin siksi, että ties mistä syystä Ruohojen maa (Grass) on iskenyt minuun jo kaukaisina aikoina ja luen sen säännöllisin väliajoin uudelleen. Järkevä ihminen ehkä lukisi aiemmin lukemattomia kirjoja, mutta koskapa minä olisin järkevä ollut.

Douglas Adams muuten olisi lunastanut paikkansa listalla jo pelkän Marvinin luomisen vuoksi. Niin, mitä lopulta on vakava kirjallisuus? Kun ottaa huomioon, kuinka paljon masentuneita Suomessakin tätä nykyä on, tilausta olisi samanaikaisesti nauruhermoja kutkuttaville ja ajatuksia herättäville teksteille. Mutta kumoaako nauraminen ihmisen aivoista kyvyn ajatella kyseisiä naurun aiheuttaneita asioita vakavasti? TM