Sunday, March 22, 2015

 

Rod's SF Best of the Best


Muchachos, this list is my best. My top of the SF pops. Not yours. Not everybody’s. And most assuredly it is not (necessarily) the most critically acclaimed novels, novellas, and short stories of print science fiction. These are the works that moved me or enlightened me or educated me, yes, but also the ones that were fun to read. Few works of SF are more critically acclaimed than Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren, and few are less fun—you did finish it, didn't you? I did, though I admit to doing a fair amount of skimming toward the end.

I didn't start reading science fiction with Dhalgren in 1975; I began at least a dozen years before with the Heinlein juveniles. I was dimly aware of the genre even before then, since Mama was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club and could often be found holding a novel with a picture of a rocket ship on the cover (but, alas, no pictures inside).

The first thing I remember reading on my own that could even vaguely be described as SF was a comic book, the August 1960 issue of DC’s Strange Adventures. This one, #119, sported a Technicolor riot of a cover by Murphy Anderson that depicted a trio of giant, bug-eyed aliens using butterfly nets to capture Earthling jet fighters. I clearly remember sitting on granny’s front porch reading that 4-color masterpiece open-mouthed. It made a tremendous impression on me.

Above all, I wanted to know where I could get more stuff like that. More aliens and rocket ships and spacemen. In just a couple of years, I found out, when my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Dixon, turned me on to the Heinlein juveniles starting with Rocket Ship Galileo. After that, there was no turning back.

This started out as a top ten list, but there were a couple more I just couldn't leave out—couldn't, I tells you! You’ll also notice this is all pure SF, no fantasy. We’ll tackle that some Sunday soon. Finally, all are older works. That is because I am an older work.

So, without further ado, in no particular order…

Rocket Ship Galileo

This is where it begins for me, with the simple and seemingly ludicrous tale of three teenage chums who, in the service of their uncle, wind up on the first Moon flight aboard a surplus mail rocket. Improbable? Sure, but in 1947 no one know what form the space program would take. Would the government launch the Moon rocket? Would it be private industry? Or would it be clever inventors like the Wright bros.?

What is abundantly clear is that here, as in many of the other juveniles, Bob Heinlein does some of his best writing: clear, direct, good dialogue, believable characters. Some of his “adult” work can’t hold a candle to this. Just ask my wife, Dorothy, who is a huge fan of the juveniles, re-reading them frequently (she has a nice collection of the wonderful old Signet paperback releases). After this one, I devoured any of Heinlein’s “kids’” books I could get my paws on.

Note Rocket Ship Galileo was loosely (very loosely) adapted for my favorite 50s sci-fi film, Destination Moon (1950).

“The Star”

Rocket Ship Galileo and the other juveniles were the first SF books of any kind I read, but Arthur Clarke’s “The Star” was the first adult work I attempted. Not too long after I discovered Heinlein, I noticed a fat Arthur C. Clarke novel/short story collection on Mama’s bookshelf, From the Ocean, From the Stars. The title was what caught my eye. It sounded like, yes, science fiction, and Mama verified that, though she opined I might have a hard time with it. Indeed, it looked kinda difficult, so I thought I’d start with a short story, “The Star,” which sounded pretty spacey.

The writing in this story is up to Clarke’s usual standard, which is good, very good indeed. In my opinion, his skill with prose puts him at the head of the Asimov-Heinlein-Clarke triumvirate in that regard. It was not the writing, however, that caught me up. It was the story, the plot, the idea.

“The Star,” which was initially in a collection called The Other Side of the Sky, and which also appears in the popular The Nine Billion Names of God, tells the story of an expedition to a distant planet whose advanced civilization has been destroyed by a supernova. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it, but I guarantee the last paragraph will leave you in chills if not tears.

Yes, Rocket Ship Galileo brought me to science fiction, but it was “The Star” that showed me the potential of the genre. After reading that one story sitting in Granny’s living room (I always equipped myself with plenty of reading material for those long Saturday visits), I realized there was far more to SF than Tom Swift or even Bob Heinlein’s Space Cadet.

Note:  Not surprisingly, “The Star” won a Hugo (1956). I feel privileged to have exchanged a few emails with Mr. Clarke. He was a keen amateur astronomer and a big fan of Sky & Telescope.

2001: A Space Odyssey

The year 1968 found me not just an SF head, but a member of the Science Fiction Book Club. Down here in the Swamp in those days without any sort of science fiction club or con, I suppose being a member of the SFBC was the main badge of fandom. The big news (SF wise) that year wasn't print books, though; it was a movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even if I hadn't read about it in Time, where it was being heralded as movie science fiction of a New Type, RESPECTABLE filmed science fiction, I aware it was going to be mucho different from Angry Red Planet. It was being directed by the man who did Dr. Strangelove, Spartacus, and Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick. Even better, the screenplay was being co-written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.

One afternoon in 1968, a couple of months before the film’s release in April, the SFBC’s little newsletter/catalog arrived in the mail. I always read it immediately, since most of the time I needed to “decline” the monthly selections by returning the enclosed card lest I suffer Mama’s wrath (if you didn't return the card, they shipped one or two books to you automatically). This time what was on the cover of the little pamphlet was Clarke’s novel adaptation of his and Kubrick’s screenplay. I didn't decline. Without even asking Mama, I wadded up the reply card and tossed it in the trash.

What is the 2001 novel like? It’s a little different from the film. In the book, for example, the Discovery’s mission is to Saturn. In the movie it was changed to Jupiter since special effects director Douglas Trumbull gave up on producing a realistic looking Saturn with the technology of the day. One strength of the novel is that some of the film's puzzling constructs are made more understandable. That’s a weakness, too, though, since it takes some of the magic away.

In truth, book and film are complementary. Young Rod, after considerable agonizing, decided not to read the book before he saw the movie. That was a mistake. While I, unlike some of the folks in the theatre that day with me and my brother, Danny, got the film, it would have probably meant more to me with the background provided by Clarke in the book. So, if you've never seen the movie (horrors) find the book and read it first. It is still in print and easily available.

Note:  If, after reading 2001, you want to essay Clarke’s three follow-on 2001 books, I won’t fault you, but be aware they have not aged nearly as well as the original.

Childhood’s End

This Clarke novel was published in 1953, the year of my birth, so don’t ask me how I missed reading it until the summer before my senior year of high school. Probably because the title, which I’d no doubt seen before in the backs of paperbacks in lists of available Clarke books, didn't sound too interesting. However, while trolling the shelves of Bookland in Bel-Air Mall, the SF section, natch, one evening, I ran across a new edition of Childhood’s End, and the cover, which borrowed heavily from 2001, made it look darned interesting indeed.

That summer of 1970 was for me the summer of Lord of the Rings and Childhood’s End. Which I loved best, I can’t say. Certainly, the Clarke book touched me. Not just because of its fascinating story of an alien invasion whose purpose is to do the human race transcendental good, but because of its echoes of Mr. Spock’s IDIC philosophy, which struck me to the core. The aliens were nasty looking, but they were friends.

This was my favorite SF book for years. Hell, it may still be. I hoped and hoped that somebody would make a movie out it, but that hasn't happened (quite) yet. When Stanley the K. was first contemplating an SF movie, Childhood’s End was one of the works he considered filming. While he and Clarke borrowed the book’s concept of the furthering human evolution (in a less explicit fashion than in the book), that was all of Childhood’s End that made it to the movie.

I've always thought the lack of a Childhood movie was because there was no way of doing the devilish-looking aliens convincingly. That has obviously changed, and the SyFy channel has said they are planning a mini-series based on the book for release this year. I have not heard anything about it of late, however, and given the channel’s recent history (like what they did with Stargate Universe) I am not hopeful this will end well.

Note:  I still remember one afternoon in class in my senior year, when a friend of mine passed me a note (that was our primitive form of texting, kids). It was a little quiz—favorite movie, favorite book, etc. Same kinda thing that gets passed around in texts these days, I suppose. It was a warm and pretty spring day and we were bored. Naturally, I wrote “2001,” and “Childhood’s End.” The note’s sender was surprised at my outré responses, especially since, she said, that was exactly how a girlfriend of hers had answered. I've always wondered what would have happened if I’d asked for that girl’s name.

The City and the Stars

We’re still on Clarke here, folks. I guess you can tell which one of the big three authors has always been my favorite. This book, the expansion of the Clarke novella Against the Fall of Night, was included in Mama’s The City and the Star’s, and after I’d plowed through all the short stories, was what I read next. And, man, what a read it was.

The book is melancholy, no doubt about it, concerning the last human city, Diaspar, on a dying earth eons in the future. The main character is a rebellious teen whose elders simply do not understand him. “HEY! He’s JUST LIKE ME!” Needless to say, I just ate it up and implore you to find a copy and read it immediately. Especially if you are a teenager in years or heart.

While I like the original, Against the Fall of Night, which I eventually tracked down and read, I find the novel a distinct improvement except for its title. “Against the Fall of Night” is from an A.E. Housman poem and really can’t be improved upon. Like 2001, there’s a sequel, Beyond the Fall of Night, co-written by Clarke and Greg Benford. It is more interesting than the 2001 follow-ons, but, like them, tends to take some of the magic away from the original. The City and the Stars is at times obscure and mystical and feels like an epistle from the future.

Note:  This is another one I've always dreamed of seeing on-screen. I don’t know that anybody’s ever even considered that, however, and I guess I know why. It’s really not very cinematic and to make it so would be to change it irreparably.

Starship Troopers

Sure, I, like almost every sixties, child read Stranger in a Strange Land, but I must admit this is the (adult) Heinlein that really kept me turning pages when I finally got around to reading it when I was a freshman in college. As was often the case, what initially attracted my attention to it on the mall bookstore shelves was a cool looking green toned cover with an awesome alien starship on it.

What makes Starship Troopers so good? The immediacy and fervor of the first-person narrative with which this seminal space marine tale is told. You feel like you are right there in the ranks alongside Lieutenant Rico as you face hordes of the dreaded bugs. What makes it not so good? For me, its politics go a step beyond Heinlein’s usual libertarianism to the borders of the far, far right. For example, in the world of Starship Troopers only military veterans can vote. Mostly, though, I can overlook the excesses. I am still baffled, however, that the man who wrote Stranger in a Strange Land also formed a group, the Patrick Henry League, to encourage U.S. atmospheric nuclear testing.

Note:  I believe this is Dorothy’s favorite Heinlein novel and it probably is mine too despite the reservations above.

Cities in Flight

Cities in Flight is actually four relatively short novels, They Shall Have Stars, A Life for the Stars, Earthman Come Home, and The Triumph of Time. All are wonderful, though the first is mostly a prologue and is the slowest. It’s quite a transition from Starship Troopers to Cities in Flight. James Blish is light-years from Heinlein in politics most of the time, and that is especially evident in these novels. Cities in some ways is science fiction’s The Grapes of Wrath. Which is explicitly referred to within the series, with the inhabitants of the cities and the cities themselves being called “Okies.”

What’s it about? A tired and depleted Earth is deserted by her cites who take flight, literally, by means of a space drive called the “spindizzy.” What you get in the four books is adventure, both adult and juvenile, philosophy, politics, and action. The standout character is Amalfi, Mayor of the City of New York In Flight. You will like him. You will like everything in these novels. Go get ‘em.

Note:  Until he read Cities in Flight, silly Rod thought James Blish was just about Star Trek. Blish will always be remembered for his Star Trek adaptations, sure, but he is so much more. The man was a master.

All the Traps of Earth

Looking for a rather different sort of SF? Thanks to another of Mama’s SFBC books, I discovered it in Clifford D. Simak.  What’s my vision of the typical Cliff Simak story? It’s a warm spring night in Kentucky or Tennessee. A hillbilly and an alien are sitting on the front porch of a shack, passing a jug back and forth. A robot comes walking up the road. They offer him a drink but he naturally has to decline. Instead, he asks for their help…

Simak's prose is decidedly gentle and warm, but that gentle warmth sometimes conceals a knife. His characters, human and alien, tend to be humorous and likable. Almost all are on some kind of quest, usually one with mystical overtones; they are searching for God or for gods or at least for a greater something. This is set in a world that at first seems familiar, but in the end turns out to be a little less so than you thought. Another way of saying that is that Simak's short stories, especially, have a very Twilight Zone feel. If you liked the original show, you will like Simak.

I had a hard time deciding which of Simak's works was my favorite, and which would be the best introduction to his writing for those of you who haven’t tried him. City? Way Station? Both great books, but I stuck with my first Simak, Mama’s All the Traps of Earth (which has an honored spot on our bookshelves to this day). It is full of wonderful short stories—not a clinker in the bunch.

Note: I don’t believe this one is in print, and what a shame, but it is easy to get used on Amazon.

Farnham’s Freehold

One more Heinlein? Sure, why not? I don't remember Mama reading this one, but I’m sure she would have if she'd run across it, as Atomic War was one of her favorite themes in SF. That is partially what Farnham's Freehold is about. The first part of the book is the story of a middle-aged-libertarian-iconoclast that could be Heinlein himself. How the fallout shelter that his family laughs at allows them to (more or less) survive a thermonuclear attack. I like it very much, and you probably will too, even if you look askance at the hero’s questionable sexual morality (having sex in the shelter with a young woman while he’s got his wife knocked out with pills). It’s the second section of the book that gives me pause.

To put it plainly, the second part of Farnham's Freehold is racist. Somehow, the shelter is transported through time to the future by a really big bomb. That future is ruled by technically advanced black Africans who are nevertheless slave-holding savages. What hurts most is that this is unexpected. In the first half of the book, Heinlein spends some time preaching racial equality, if in condescending terms. My suggestion? Enjoy the first part and skim the second. If you even skim it.

Note:  Heinlein was actually very worried about nuclear war and decided to move away from Los Angeles, an undoubted target area, to Colorado Springs, Colorado. Imagine his dismay, then, at receiving a private communique from the Air Force (he did quite a bit of military consulting) not long after he and his wife had settled in. Colorado Springs was, it said, to be the site of NORAD's new Cheyenne Mountain Complex, which would make the little town the target of every 25-megaton city buster the Russkies could throw at it.

The Foundation Trilogy

How about that other SF Grandmaster, Isaac Asimov? I like his books very much and always have. But I usually don’t love them and keep coming back to them time after time after time. The Foundation Trilogy—Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation—is the exception.

The Foundation books are space opera done right. This tale of a galactic empire on its last legs and the efforts of one man to save what is good in the star-spanning civilization is beyond memorable. Since it was published (serially in Astounding) in the 1940s, the novels have influenced every similar tale up to and including Star Wars. What makes then better than, say, Doc Smith? They've aged well. Asimov was smart in offering only the most occasional and generalized descriptions of the technology of the far future. You won’t find rocket tubes here.

Note:  Asimov did four additional Foundation books in the 80s. Unlike Clarke’s 2001 sequels, these are mostly good and interesting, and some have almost as much power as the original.

Dangerous Visions

In the early 1970s, I was rebellious, you were rebellious (well, most of you), and even SF writers were rebellious, with few being moreso than Harlan Ellison. Rebellion can be a good thing, for a while, anyway. And rebellion is at the heart of science fiction’s New Wave movement. New, revolutionary, counter-culture-oriented storytelling for our genre and generation. In the U.S., the New Wave began with Dangerous Visions (in the UK, which was way ahead of us, the keystone was Michael Moorcock's New Worlds magazine).

While Dangerous Visions came out in 1967, I wasn't ready for it then. I knew a little bit about New Wave as the 60s ended, but what little of it I had read seemed unsettling at best. Then I tuned in, turned on (just a little bit), and not quite dropped out and was ready, in 1971. 

Dangerous Visions is a huge anthology edited by Mr. Ellison. Edited and created by Mr. Ellison. Inside were not just writers who’d always been “new wavey,” like Robert Silverberg and Phillip K. Dick, but mainline writers testing the new waters, Fred Pohl and Larry Niven for example. If the stories can be said to have anything in common, it’s, yes, a spirit of rebellion and a penchant for a non-linear narrative structure.

How does Dangerous Visions hold up today? There’s good and bad, with much of the fat volume being a product of its time. Some of the titles belie that:  “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World,” “The Day After the Day the Martians Came,” "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" Still, there’s much good here—though quite a bit is tiresomely polemical for modern readers—and you owe it to yourself to read DV if you consider yourself a serious fan of science fiction. While the New Wave petered out in the mid-late 1970s, it still continues to influence today’s science fiction. Not just in that writers feel free to use alternative styles of narrative, but in the area of what was perhaps the book’s (and the New Wave’s) biggest contribution. S-E-X.

In the John Campbell era, any depiction—or even reference to or mention of—human sexuality was absolutely verboten. The New Wave changed that. John Varley’s Titan would never have been published in its original form before the New Wave (Analog still censored it when they serialized it in 1978). Instead of being hacked up or banished, Titan was a Hugo and Nebula nominee (and a Locus winner) thanks to Dangerous Visions.

Note: So enthusiastically was Dangerous Visions received that a second volume, Again Dangerous Visions was published in 1972. There were even plans for a third DV, The Last Dangerous Visions, but for a variety of reasons, including, in no little part, the decline of the New Wave, that never happened.

Ringworld

Though Larry Niven’s Ringworld was published in 1970, there surprisingly little of the New Wave in it. Oh, there’s some, with a slightly freer narrative than John Campbell would have liked and certainly more allusions to sex than he would have permitted. What it is is a book of wonders in the old mold. So huge was its affect on me when I read it in 1973 that for a while I didn't want to read anything but Larry Niven's Known Space stories.

The book is very well done, with its depiction of its alien characters, with the Kzin, Speaker to Animals, and the Puppeteer, Nessus, being amazingly convincing. The plot is interesting and exciting. But it is the setting that makes it remarkable, the Ringworld. The Ringword is an artificial world, like a slice of a Dyson Sphere, and is huge and beautiful and rich with the strange and wonderful. The best thing I can say about this book is that, like most of Niven’s SF work, it doesn't age. It isn't a bit dated and is as fresh as when I opened it on a summer day in 1973. That is saying one hell of a lot.

Note: For some crazy reason Ringworld hasn't been made into a movie thus far, but you can get a taste of the setting in Microsoft’s remarkable Halo videogame series. As is the case with Childhood’s End, SyFy has announced a miniseries based on the book, but I've heard even less about its status than that of the Clarke series.

Dune

I finally got to Frank Herbert’s Dune in the early 70s, and that was the perfect time for me to do it. Its combination of hard science fiction, fantasy, and mysticism was like a kick upside the head for little old me at the time. It’s also a cracking good space opera in the old mold. Even today, I find myself drawn back to the book’s world, the clash of great houses over the spice trade played out against the stars.

Is there anything bad about Dune? Not the characters. Most are excellently drawn. Settings? Great. The planet Arrakis is complex and believable. The plot is tight for such a big book. If there’s a problem, it’s that there is just too much of it. Dune is the first book of a long series and, much as I liked it, it seemed a hair long to moi. And it was followed by five big sequels and many more by other writers after Herbert’s death. Better too much of the crazy-good Dune Universe than too little, though, I suppose.

Note:  In 1978, I was thrilled to see the remains of one of Herbert’s sand worms on Tatooine in Star Wars. A so-so Dune film was made in 1984, and that was followed by a really good TV mini-series in 2000 (by SyFy, so maybe there is hope for Ringworld).

And that is that, muchachos. Oh, I could keep going, of course. I didn't mention Macroscope. Or Orphans of the Sky. Or The Mote in God’s Eye. Or The Illustrated Man. Or Falkenberg’s Legion.  Maybe there’ll be a Part II of this sometime. As for next time…

Next Time:  That depends. If I am able to have a go at Jupiter, you’ll get the Part II of my planetary imaging piece. Right now, it looks like it could go either way weather-wise. But come back next Sunday anyhow; there’ll be something.

Comments:
This made me smile. A lot of my favorites there too. Chuck in War of the Worlds, the Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the Tripods trilogy and The Kraken Wakes and I'm done. Thanks Rod!
 
Too bad we weren't neighbours growin' up! You've given me a couple of new titles to catch up on. Dhalgren is my #1.
 
Can't fault you choices as I have read most of them. Two more I can recommend is the Rama series of 4 books by Arthur Clark and Gentry Lee. Reading for the third time. Also by AZimov Is The Robot novels and the Foundation series. One more I liked was by Greg Bear, a tWo parter Called EON. Still have most of these books in my collection Great memories.
Frank Russelo
 
My favorite SF book as a youth was "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel" by RAH. Other than the great list you gave, I would add "Moon is a Harsh Mistress" - my favorite RAH, "Earthlight" by Clarke, "The Martian CHronicles" by Bradbury, and of course the Lensman series by Doc Smith. Into fantasy, I would add the John Carter series by Burroughs. Lots of wonderful reading !!!
 

Rod,
Another book co-authored by Larry Niven that you might enjoy is "Lucifer's Hammer."
It isn't a SF novel, rather it's an end of the world yarn with a comet (the hammer) hitting Earth. It's a good read. I think you would like it.
Matt
 
Read it many years ago, Matt, and, yes, I loved it even though it wasn't part of "Known Space." :-)
 
I love the Heinlein juveniles, but my favorite Heinlein has to be "The Puppet Masters." It still gives me chills.

If you haven't tripped over it already, I highly recommend "Leviathan Wakes" by James S. A. Corey. It's reminiscent of Heinlein at his best -- compelling characters, great action -- and has an utterly compelling vision of humanity expanding into the solar system. It's the first of a series; I ordered the fourth, sight unseen, and was delighted with it. I'm about to order the fifth, again sight unseen.
 
The remake of the Twilight Zone from the 80's had an episode based on "The Star". Same title too.
 
+1 on The Martian Chronicles by Bradbury. I also liked S is for Space. Larry Niven's Neutron Star is also a good read. I have read and reread The Foudation series a few times since first reading it in the mis-sixties. I also liked the classics like the Time Machine by HG Wells. I would credit SF as being primarily responsible for my interest in astronomy.....Dwight
 
Cities in Flight and The Foundation Trilogy are two of my favorites. While this might be more in the realm of fantasy, ERB's Martian series (i.e. John Carter, not to be confused with that awful movie) is my all-time favorite.
 
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