Thursday, October 8, 2015

Time travels they are a changin'

Amazon has produced their latest "100 Science Fiction and Fantasy books to read in a lifetime" list. Like most listicles, it's a marketing tool, but at the very least, it's an obvious marketing tool, coming from one of the three legs of the marketing (s)tool that makes up the Interwebs (the other two being Google and porn.) Couple things:

1. Why they feel compelled to combine SF and Fantasy, rather than splitting them into their own lists, is kind of jarring. They were always combined as the wing of geek literature that most booksellers didn't care about. Now, with the prevalence of all things geek (see: Game of Thrones, Marvel movies, impending Star Warsapalooza, etc.), you'd think that there's enough material to define each genre on its own. But, then again, it might be weak on the Fantasy side, but I think it's weak just based on what they have listed already (more below), especially since they insist on including some of the hoary classics that aren't even good books.

2. On the one hand, it's gratifying that they're including a lot of new (and very good) material rather than exclusively dwelling upon said hoary classics. OTOH, this is a marketing tool that can be used to sell new stuff, amirite? So, as with most listicles, this is one set of opinions and far from definitive. That said, again, good to see new(er) stuff, in addition to some things which may not have been recognized before.

I've read only 54 of them, believe it or not. Guess I'm slacking(?):

1. A Wizard of Earthsea. The first of three LeGuin selections. It's gratifying to see her reputation continue to grow as the decades pass, as she was among the best of the New Wave that elevated SF and Fantasy past what the Sad Puppies were whining for at the Hugos for the past few years. I liked the Earthsea stuff, but didn't stay with it.

2. The Windup Girl. One of the aforementioned newer selections. This was excellent.
3. Snow Crash. Still Stephenson's most iconic work, even if it is awash in "old school" cyberpunk trappings and came during his "troubled ending" phase, where it seemed like he had much more story to flesh out but decided to cut it off before he wandered too far afield. The Deliverator lives on.
4. Starship Troopers. Iconic and inflammatory in a far different way than the Verhoeven film, which remains high comedy in the guise of action.
5. Cloud Atlas. I enjoyed this one and I think the film was decent on its own merits. Do I think it belongs on this list? Maybe in one possible future.
6. 20K Leagues Under the Sea. This is one of those classics that I'm OK with in terms of giving the reader a broad appreciation of how the genre has developed and where it began.
7. The Forever War. This is one of those irreplaceable choices, because it remains timeless, even if it was a very pointed statement for its time.
8. Solaris. Lem's work was always legendary among the SF set. It's starting to descend to the hoary level, as one film after another tries to capture it and fails. I actually read this for an SF course at Michigan, suggesting that you can get something useful out of education.
9. The Road. Obvsly.
10. Slaughterhouse Five. Something else I read in that course at Michigan. Prior to that, I'd never really considered Vonnegut or his status as an SF author.
11. Blood Music. This was a selection in one of those "10 books for a penny" deals that Publishers Clearinghouse used to run. I knew Bear's name from several other books I'd seen on the shelves in bookstores, but had never stopped to read one. That's what marketing used to be.
12. 2001: A Space Odyssey. I appreciate the story, but this one has more impact for Kubrick's film, which makes me question its status as an actual thing you should read before you die, or simply one of those boxes to be checked.

13. Game of Thrones. This was also a selection on a different Publishers Clearinghouse list (yes, I guess I'm a good example of marketing success; that was the original cover, too), shortly after it was first published in 1996. I knew Martin only vaguely, but the blurb about political infighting in a fantasy world was enough for me to snag it.
14. Ender's Game. Another checked box. His best book and the one that should really be read is Speaker for the Dead.
15. Old Man's War. So, similar question: Do you include the first of a now-iconic series or do you replace it with the better writing and better story of later entries?
16. A Wrinkle in Time. I have several friends who swear by these books that they read when they were kids. I was unimpressed when I did.
17. The Sword of Shannara. Here's where we arc from pseudo-serious list into the land of total marketing. Sword was a blatant Tolkien ripoff and not a good book in any way. If you want to recommend anything from the Shannara series, you want The Elfstones of Shannara.
18. The Martian Chronicles. Box checked, but still a great work.
19. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Worked better as a radio play, honestly. I think Adams would agree with me.
20. Sandman Slim. As pleased as I am to see this new(er) work here, I'm also kind of surprised. I didn't think it had gained the kind of cachet needed for this list.
21. The Left Hand of Darkness. Another LeGuin and probably her most famous.
22. Good Omens. I have a hilarious story about the attempts to write a screenplay of this book...
23. I Am Legend. Book decent, not sure it belongs here. Movie awful
24. Dune. Still probably the best fictional political tale until GoT and yet shared the Hugo with a much smaller book (This Immortal) written by a man absent from this list.
25. 1984. Box checked. Predictions continue to resonate, even 31 years past. The more things change...
26. Childhood's End. Forget 2001. This is the Clarke book that should be here, even if the imagery does get kind of heavy-handed. (Devils? Really?)

27. Lord Foul's Bane. Eh. I really enjoyed the Thomas Covenant stuff when I read it at the age of 10, even if it was an obvious Tolkien lift (it was done better than the Shannara stuff...) I guess it's become kind of a pillar of Fantasy, but I'm still arching an eyebrow.
28. Pawn of Prophecy. Awful. Eddings wrote these as an "exercise of the form" and his paper-thin characters and lack of real action display that to the fullest.
29. The Lord of the Rings. Box checked. Still worthwhile as the foundation of modern fantasy.
30. Ringworld. Possibly Niven's best stuff.
31. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Read these as a kid. Liked them better than l'Engle, even if the Christian imagery was obvious even then.
32. Red Mars. Was a great leap forward when it emerged. Robinson has been doing great stuff.
33. Dragonflight. Has unfortunately been an anchor around her neck ever since. I liked it when I first read it, but I drifted away from her books as I got older.
34. Stranger in a Strange Land. Overrated, but interesting for the deep insights into Heinlein's philosophy and his dismay at the changing times.
35. Brave New World. See: 1984.
36. The Gunslinger. Again, have a few friends who loved this series. I read this one and stopped. I just wasn't impressed.
37. American Gods. I don't have a good screenplay story about this one, but it's the better book of the two Gaiman selections included.

38. Neuromancer. Easily my favorite of the list. Gibson rejects this work now, but I'm an old-school cyberpunker and I still love the taut but fluid prose in much of it. This book inspired me to write more than any other.
39. The Handmaid's Tale. You can see the dreams of much of the Republican base. Solid, if unheralded, film, too, even if it largely deviates from the book.
40. World War Z. Great book. Riotously awful film.
41. H.P. Lovecraft: Tales. I've read all of them, even if not in this particular collection.
42. Riddle-Master. I read all of these on the advice of another of these lists (but printed on paper, as they did, back in the 80s) but never quite "got" them, I think.
43. Hyperion. Like Red Mars, kinda ground-breaking at the time, and deserving of all the praise it's gotten.
44. The Time Machine. Probably the better pick of the hoary classics, between this and War of the Worlds, since it's a social statement on the level of 1984 and others.
45. The Stars My Destination. Another I picked up as a kid from a "Best of" list.

46. Perdido Street Station. This is one of those books that discourages me from writing, since I don't think I'd ever be able to do something this good.
47. Interview with the Vampire. Ugh. Got 23 pages into it and put it down because she'd used the same phrase 4 times in those 23 pages. Old girlfriend insisted that it got better. It didn't.
48. The Hobbit. Marketing. Not a great book, prologue to LotR or not.
49. The Colour of Magic. Yes, it's the beginning, but The Light Fantastic is where the series and his writing really begin to shine.
50. A Canticle for Leibowitz. Still excellent, even today. That he didn't follow up is one of the great voids of the genre.
51. Frankenstein. Box checked. Read this for that class, too.
52. I, Robot. I find it fascinating how Asimov's Laws have become a kind of public property for much of science fiction.
53. Fahrenheit 451. I also find it fascinating how Bradbury's political views changed so much over the decades that he objected to Michael Moore's averring to his title.
54. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Perhaps the one instance where I'll say the movie (Director's Cut only!) was better.

Requisite "But where...?" response, albeit brief:

Where are Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny? If Neuromancer was the book inspiration, those two were my author inspirations. Strangely, they have the effect of both Neuromancer and Perdido Street, in that I read their stuff and am just awed into depression. The insight of Ellison and the poetic flow of Zelazny are both mind-blowing and crushing, all at once. "Maybe there was a pocket universe under my bed. I'd never looked." kind of sums it up.


  1. Another "but where?" A Clockwork Orange. It belongs on the shelf next to Brave New World and 1984 and in some ways is subtler and more disturbing in its moral ambiguity. And Burgess was a terrific writer.

  2. Yeah, that's valid. I'm betting that they kept the other two because Orange has been more notable for the film. They also clearly wanted a mix of approaches and, since it is a marketing tool, the other two would doubtlessly lead people through Amazon to Orange.