Science fiction has always been more than adventure stories for me. Science fiction is my Aristotle and Augustine, giving meaning to our meaningless reality. When you recall the science fiction tales that meant the most to you, were they thrill rides? Or maps of speculation? I use science to statistically explain how reality works, but I use science fiction to speculate how we can manipulate reality. That was when I was young. Now that I’m older, I use science fiction to imagine how things might play out on Earth after I leave.
I’ve often wondered why science fiction is my chosen literature. Why do we pick the things we love? Is it free will, or some kind of adaptation or instinct? If a super-AI studied my habits like human scientists study chimps, what would it make of my choices in literature? Do aspects of my personality explain why I was drawn to science fiction?
Over at the Classic Science Fiction book club, we’ve been discussing our personal top ten favorite science fiction stories. What surprised me was the diversity of titles we embraced. Many of the stories are not on my Classics of Science Fiction, a list of the statistically most remembered science fiction books. You can see what stories members picked listed here. This made me wonder why we love the science fiction stories we do. The picks are as individualistic as fingerprints. There’s been some discussion at the group about all of this, but it inspired me to write this essay. Are we attracted to objectively great books, or do we seek books that mirror our subjective selves?
Sometimes I feel there’s no such thing as a great book, at least not in a measurable sense. The books we think are great are merely the ones that reflect our strongest desires. They don’t need to be well written, brilliant, or literary. They just need to trigger emotions. With me it might be accidental that they are science fiction. Or, are science fiction fans the kind of people drawn to the fantastic? Is mundane reality too tame for our ordinary lives?
Here are the ten titles I sent the book club. The list might be different on another day, or maybe not. These are the books I reread. These are the books I keep writing about. (Title links in the list go to WWEnd pages, title links in the essay are to older essays.)
- Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein (1958)
- “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany (1967)
- Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (1955)
- Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949)
- Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein (1956)
- Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany (1966)
- Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick (1959)
- The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)
- The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (1895)
- The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein (1957)
My favorite science fiction is 50 years or older, and written by men. Is this list a Rorschach test for my personality? I do love modern science fiction, and often think it better written and more sophisticated than my favorites here. And I do prefer the diversity of modern SF. Yet, these are the stories burned in my memory. I read most of these stories before I turned 20. It might be our life-time favorites are the books we read in youth. First impressions are often the lasting impressions.
I first read Have Space Suit-Will Travel during the 1964-65 school year, at the dawn of Project Gemini. I was in the 8th grade and dying to blast off into space – just like Kip, the main character. I wished I was like Kip in many ways, but I wasn’t. I wanted to work hard in school, have my own science workshop, and live in a stable happy family located in a small town. None of those were true for me. I’ve read Have Space Suit-Will Travel six or eight times. It is the definitive science fiction novel for me. Back then it was my road map of the future, now it’s the tintype of my nostalgic past. For some baby boomers growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the Heinlein juveniles were our substitute for religion. Those twelve books gave us faith, not in a sacred heaven, but in a secular outer space.
“The Star Pit” is also about the relentless desire to go into space, but ultimately deals with the limitations that hold us back. I first read this story in 1968, when I was slightly older and knew I wasn’t going into space. “The Star Pit” is tattooed on my heart, and whenever I reread it, the story squeezes tears out of my eyes, like beautiful songs of heartbreak. It might be the most mature of the ten stories I list here, even though it was written by the youngest writer at the time. The main character and my father were alcoholics who always had the restless urge to run away. I was Ratlit, and I wished my father had been the older Vyme. This story could easily have been a mainstream literary work without science fictional elements. I imagine its based on Delany’s own experiences, and he knew he wasn’t going into space too.
I read Tunnel in the Sky and Time for the Stars during the same school year as Have Space Suit-Will Travel. Both were about boys who left their families to be on their own. My parents’ marriage was a train wreck, and I wished I could have divorced them. I grew up loving stranded on deserted island stories, and Tunnel was a science fiction version of one. I believe the reason I was so attracted to the Heinlein juveniles is because their teen heroes always found ways to leave their parents.
Earth Abides also belongs to one of my favorite kinds of stories – last man on Earth stories. There is a side of me that wishes I was the last man on Earth. I love the idea of starting civilization over with a few other people or even being the last person watching nature reclaim the planet. I’ve always been kind of a loner even though I’ve been married for 38 years and have many friends. My childhood would have crushed most children, but I survived by dreaming, especially science fiction dreams.
Empire Star fits me philosophically. I read it maybe in 1967. Delany was closer to my age, and his work felt radically different from all the older science fiction writers I was discovering. Heinlein was like a father figure, but Delany was like a brother. Empire Star has wise advice for young people going out on their own for the first time. Delany’s insight into simplex, complex and multiplex was the best concept I ever learned from science fiction. I completely identified with both Comet Jo and Ni Ty.
I love Confessions of a Crap Artist because it’s how I remember the 1950s. My uncles were crap artists. I think all science fiction fans have a bit of crap artist in them. I love this novel because it shows we’re all crazy in unique ways. I believe this is PKD’s best book. Confessions is somewhat autobiographical, and one of Dick’s attempts to write literary. I love The Man in the High Castle because it’s about a little guy trying to survive in a very strange reality and make sense of it. How universal is that? PKD was great at writing about powerless people. His wife at the time he wrote these novels, Anne R. Dick, has written a memoir of those years, The Search for Philip K. Dick. To become a Dickhead means falling down the rabbit hole of trying to decipher PKD. I keep rereading his literary novels and his biographies to figure out why he wrote all those bizarrely wonderful novels that resonate with me.
I love The Time Machine because I consider it the archetype of science fiction. The time machine was cool, but not the point. Wells’ speculative explorations were epic. That’s how I define science fiction – as speculation. I love The Time Machine in the same way I love Olaf Stapledon’s majestic speculations. This is what I want from science fiction – to think really big thoughts.
I fell in love with The Door into Summer for two reasons. First, it’s about inventing robots in a home workshop. I always wanted to build robots. Second, Daniel Boone Davis slept his way into the future, and I would love to do that. I wish I could take 50-year naps to see how history progresses.
There are many other science fiction books I love, but for the moment, these are the ten I picked to share with the book club members. Picking ten books is just something fun we did this week, but I think our choices are revealing. Certainly more telling than exchanging astrological signs, maybe with as much validity as a Briggs-Myers test.
If you want to be revealing, list the ten science fiction stories you love most in the comments below.
We’ve recently updated the Classics of Science Fiction list from version 3 to 4. Because of this, some books that were on version 3 have fallen off the latest list. My main reason for producing the classics list is to track how books are remembered and forgotten. Most books are forgotten soon after they are printed, so to get on our list and stay on it for years means a huge number of readers are remembering those books. When books fall of the list, it doesn’t mean those books are unworthy of reading anymore, but that readers are forgetting them. Sometimes books are rediscovered, especially if they get new editions, produced as audio books, or made into films or television shows. Generally, books slide into obscurity. Old readers die off, and new readers never find the better older books.
Many of the titles that dropped off the list were books published before 1950. For version 3, we used several lists for library collection development, or critical histories of science fiction. For version 4, we had more fan polls. Version 3 had many short stories collections and anthologies that didn’t make it to version 4. Plus, many classic titles from 1950-1975 fell off. I assume newer readers aren’t discovering older books.
I also think version 4 is a better list than version 3. Most of the second half of version 3 didn’t make it to version 4. Which makes me wonder if the bottom half of version 4 will disappear when we create version 5 in ten years.
Here are the titles that fell of the list this time. The ones in red are books I’ve reread in the recent years and think still deserve to be read. There are plenty of books on the list below I still plan to reread.
- 334 (1972) by Thomas Disch
- The Absolute at Large (1927) by Karel Čapek
- Across the Zodiac (1880) by Percy Greg
- Again, Dangerous Visions (1972) edited by Harlan Ellison
- Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell
- Astounding Science Fiction Anthology (1952) edited by John W. Campbell
- Back to Methuselah (1921) by George Bernard Shaw
- The Battle of Dorking (1871) by Sir George Chesney
- Before the Golden Age (1974) edited by Isaac Asimov
- Behold the Man (1969) by Michael Moorcock
- The Best of C. L. Moore (1975) by C. L. Moore
- The Best of C. M. Kornbluth by C. M. Kornbluth
- The Best of Henry Kuttner (1975) by Henry Kuttner
- The Best of Science Fiction (1946) edited by Groff Conklin
- Beyond Apollo (1972) by Barry N. Malzberg
- The Big Time (1961) by Fritz Leiber
- The Black Cloud (1957) by Fred Hoyle
- Brain Wave (1954) by Poul Anderson
- Bring the Jubilee (1953) by Ward Moore
- Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad
- Casey Agonistes (1973) by Richard McKenna
- Chronopolis and Other Stories (1971) by J. G. Ballard
- The Chrysalids (1955) by John Wyndham
- The Clockwork Man (1923) by E. V. Odle
- The Coming Race (1871) by Edward Bulwer Lytton
- Dark Universe (1961) by Daniel F. Galouye
- Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn
- The Death of Grass (1956) by John Christopher
- Deathbird Stories (1975) by Harlan Ellison
- Deathworld (1960) by Harry Harrison
- Deluge (1927) by S. Fowler Wright
- The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth and Other Stories (1971) by Roger Zelazny
- Dorsai (1976) by Gordon Dickson
- Downward to the Earth (1970) by Robert Silverberg
- The Dream Master (1966) by Roger Zelazny
- The Dying Earth (1950) by Jack Vance
- E Pluribus Unicorn (1953) by Theodore Sturgeon
- The Embedding (1973) by Ian Watson
- Engine Summer (1979) by John Crowley
- Erewhon (1872) by Samuel Butler
- Final Blackout (1948) L. Ron Hubbard
- The Girl in the Golden Atom (1922) by Ray Cummings
- Gray Lensman (1951) by E. E. “Doc” Smith
- Greybeard (1964) by Brian Aldiss
- Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift
- The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911) by J. D. Beresford
- Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
- The Iron Dream (1972) by Norman Spinrad
- Islands in the Net (1988) by Bruce Sterling
- The Lensman Series (1948) by E. E. “Doc” Smith
- The Listeners (1972) by James Gunn
- The Long Tomorrow (1955) by Leigh Brackett
- Looking Backward (1880) by Edward Bellamy
- The Lost World (1912) by Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Lovers (1961) by Philip José Farmer
- The Machine Stops and Other Stories (1909) by E. M. Forster
- Make Room! Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison
- Man Plus (1976) by Frederik Pohl
- A Martian Odyssey and Other Science Fiction Tales (1975) by Stanley G. Weinbaum
- The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) by John Wyndham
- A Mirror for Observers (1954) by Edgar Pangborn
- Norstrillia (1975) by Cordwainer Smith
- Nova (1968) by Samuel R. Delany
- Of All Possible Worlds (1955) by William Tenn
- On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute
- On the Wings of Song (1979) by Thomas Disch
- The Past Through Tomorrow (1967) by Robert A. Heinlein
- Perelandra (1943) by C. S. Lewis
- The Persistence of Vision (1978) by John Varley
- Play Piano (1952) by Kurt Vonnegut
- The Poison Belt (1913) by Arthur Conan Doyle
- Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban
- The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One (1970) edited by Robert Silverberg
- The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (1976) by Edgar Allan Poe
- The Science Fiction of Jack London (1975) by Jack London
- She (1886) by H. Rider Haggard
- The Sheep Look Up (1972) by John Brunner
- The Short Stories of H. G. Wells (1927) by H. G. Wells
- Sirius (1944) by Olaf Stapledon
- The Skylark of Space (1946) by E. E. “Doc” Smith
- Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Lewis Stevenson
- That Hideous Strength (1945) by C. S. Lewis
- To-Morrow’s Yesterday (1932) by John Gloag
- Under Pressure (1956) by Frank Herbert
- Untouched by Human Hands (1954) by Robert Sheckley
- A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay
- The Wanderer (1964) by Fritz Leiber
- War of the Newts (1936) by Karel Čapek
- The Weigher of Souls (1931) by Andrew Maurois
- Who Goes There? (1948) by John W. Campbell
- The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1975) by Ursula K. Le Guin
- The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz
- Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) Marge Piercy
- The World Below (1930) by S. Fowler Wright
Editor’s note: WWEnd has recently updated our Classics of Science Fiction list from version 3 to match Jim and Michael’s new version 4.
I buy lots of used books from ABEbooks.com and Amazon.com. And it appears that selling used books online is big business. And when businesses get big, they automate. Most of the used books I buy online now come with barcode stickers. I’m sure such automation is needed to keep prices down, and handling to a minimum. What I hate, though, is when they put the barcode sticker on the front of the book, or the spine.
Don’t they know that some of us are book collectors? Don’t they know that used book buyers love the cover art? I sometimes decide on buying the paperback or hardback by their cover art. And the best thing about science fiction paperback books from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s are their covers. I sometimes pass on a cheap ebook just to get an old paperback with a great cover.
It drives me nuts to get a book with a beautiful cover and a damn barcode sticker is right in the middle of the art.
Most of these barcode stickers aren’t easy to remove, or damage the cover when removing. It would be different if they peeled off easily leaving no mark. But that’s not the case.
And I can understand the urge to put the barcode on the spine of the book, because that makes shelving and finding books easier. But if the sticker doesn’t peel off, I have to look at them on my book shelves, and they’re ugly.
If you have to put a barcode sticker on a book, use the back cover. And don’t cover up the book’s original barcode. Goodreads users, as well as many other book database programs, use the ISBN barcode to scan in with a smartphone. When that barcode is covered, I have to type it in by hand.
I understand booksellers make their money by selling in volume. I don’t buy $300 first editions. When I buy from ABEbooks, which orders their default searches by lowest total cost, I’m getting an out-of-print book shipped to me from across the country for just a few dollars. So I can’t expect much. But the condition of the book, and its cover is important to me.
Some of these books are fifty years old, and their cover art takes me back to my childhood. They are a dwindling resource, and damaging them reduces their collector value.
- The Chimes by Anna Smaill (Sceptre)
- The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf)
- The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
- Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)
- Savages by K.J. Parker (Subterranean)
- A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay (Morrow)
Our congrats to Anna Smaill and all the finalists. You can see the complete list of winners in all categories over at Locus.
Logan has seen some shit and it has taken it’s toll on him. I really like where they’re going with this. Long-term consequences are not often portrayed in superhero movies. Here we’re going to see just what years of superhero-ing can do to a man. I’m wondering if his healing powers are on the wane with all those scars on display. And the Professor does not look too good either. They both look rode hard and put up wet and the Johnny Cash song plays perfectly to emphasize the decay and remorse. Can’t wait.