Significant Science Fiction

Monday, March 10th, 2003

As an unrepentant science fiction/fantasy fan (not to mention a fan of lists), I found this list of ”The Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years” rather interesting.

When I scanned the list, I realized to my surprise (chagrin?) that I’ve only read about 16 of the 50 books listed. I could stretch it to 18 by saying that I think I’ve read The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and that I do actually own the Silmarillion and have read at least two or three pages of it. I could stretch it even more, perhaps, by saying that I’ve read other, unlisted books by some of the authors on the list - but that would be cheating. Sixteen it is.

I am the type of person who loves to re-read books, and I’ve read some of the books on this list more times than I can count. “Dog-eared” doesn’t even begin to describe my copy of the Mists of Avalon. Don’t laugh - it was a life-altering book for my 13-year-old self. Reading it now, I realize that it’s rather repetitive and the writing isn’t particularly good, but story-wise it’s still one of my favorite takes on Arthurian legend. My copies of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Dune are very well-worn too, but Mists of Avalon is certainly the book on the list that I have read the most often.

Dune is one of several books on the list that blew me away when I first read it. I have a vivid memory of sitting in the back seat of the car and reading it on a long trip to somewhere. I must have been about 12 years old, and while the convoluted political machinations and strange metaphysical and religious aspects of the story were pretty much over my head, the book still completely engulfed me. At the time, I considered it to be the best book I had ever read. Imagine my disappointment when I finally saw the movie…

I was very happy to see A Canticle for Leibowitz on the list. This book was recommended to me by Jeremy on this very site several years ago, but it was only in the past year that I got the chance to read it for the first time. It’s a very original take on a post-apocalyptic world, and it is in equal parts funny, bleak and horrifying. The atmosphere of the book, the conflicts between politics and religion, and the underlying themes of history repeating itself and the inevitability of man’s self-destruction stuck with me long after I finished the final pages of the story. It’s the kind of book that can get under your skin.

I was also pleased that The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester made it into the top 50 here (along with The Stars My Destination, which I’ve also read and enjoyed). I had to pace myself reading The Demolished Man so that I wouldn’t tear through it in one sitting. It was so good that I wanted it to last, and yet it was so suspenseful that I nearly had to physically restrain myself from turning to the last pages to find out what, exactly, “Demolition” entailed and where everything was leading. It also has some interesting typographical elements to rival those of Mark Danielewski. Great stuff.

You certainly can’t argue with Neuromancer being on a list of significant SF novels. It may seem quaint - or even antiquated - in some ways now, but as far as cyberpunk goes, Gibson literally wrote the book. I guess you could say Neal Stephenson wrote the follow-up book: Snow Crash, which is also on the list. Though I’m not sure that, in the long term, Snow Crash would be considered one of the most “significant” SF books of the past 50 years, it certainly is one of the most entertaining - and surprisingly warm-hearted - books I’ve read in a very long time.

Some of the books on the list are classics by any standard, like Fahrenheit 451 and Slaughterhouse-5. Even The Lord of the Rings would be difficult to argue with as a classic. It may have only gotten number one billing on this list because of the recent movies - but then, if Peter Jackson’s movies affect a generation of movie-goers in the same way that, say, Star Wars did, then maybe ultimately The Lord of the Rings could be considered the most significant fantasy book of the past 50 years.

The list is by no means exhaustive, of course, and I would take issue with some of the books listed - or not listed, as the case may be.

I mean, how can you have Harry Potter but not have Northern Lights by Philip Pullman - or even A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (another book I’ve read more times than I can count)? Okay, I haven’t actually read any of the Harry Potter books yet (I saw the movie - does that count?). But it seems to me that while Harry Potter has achieved great popularity, Northern Lights is more significant in a literary sense. But then, this is an American list, and I don’t think Northern Lights received quite the same degree of attention in America as it has over here in England. That’s quite a shame.

I’m also surprised that neither of the two Ursula K. Le Guin books listed are The Dispossessed. The Left Hand of Darkness was okay, and I admit that I haven’t read A Wizard of Earthsea. But I thought that, politically and sociologically, The Dispossessed was far more interesting and intelligent than most books out there, science fiction or not, and I think that it deserves more recognition.

And as for Stranger in Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, all I can say is: why? The same goes for The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson (I didn’t even make it through the first book), and, to a lesser extent, the Anne McCaffrey and Terry Brooks books (I never got into Anne McCaffrey, and while I have enjoyed some of Terry Brooks’ books, I don’t really think of them as “significant”).

Well, no list is perfect, and I guess “significant” doesn’t necessarily mean “good”, so I can’t gripe too much. It’s a better list than most, which is why I chose to comment on it here. And if nothing else, it’s reminded me of a few SF books that I hope to get around to reading soon (Dhalgren and Stand on Zanzibar, I’m looking at you).

Comments

1

Couldn’t make it through "Thomas Covenant" so sorry … When I first read it I was captivated by the anti-heroic actions of the character. Not something you usually see in fantasy/sci-fi! As for Heinlein, sorry I must again quibble as I loved all the books which dealt with Lazarus Long and Michael Valentine. I admit that they were a cash cow for the author but they were simply good fun for a lot of reader, myself included. I agree with the comment about "A Wrinkle in Time" and additionally wonder why nothing by CS Lewis neither Narnia or the space trilogy. Go figure …

Posted by Michael

2

dhalgren has some of those typographical elements of Danielewski and Bester

Posted by p-hawk

3

It is an interesting list, with many I both have loved and hated… The thomas covenant books (which I hated) as I recall started a revival in the fortunes of fantasy books, I could be wrong on the timings but I seem to remember there suddenly being a lot more SF books on the shelves after those ones…

As for stranger in a strange land… well I did really like this book, but beyond that this is a book which was massively popular in its era… people started cults around it!! so it really was/is significant.

Also one of the things I always loved about snowcrash was the description of anarchist America…(anarchist in the pol.sci definition rather than more common usage) It was very interesting, even if the latter half of the book did feel a little hollywood

Posted by scottbp

4

What a great list! I gave lots and lots of my hard-earned teenage dollars to SFBC. But don’t get this list mixed up with "best SF&F"! I think that here, "influential" means "got me to buy and read more books like this". I thought the Thomas Covenant books and the Shannara books were great when I was 15. I think they’re dreck now, but I have fond memories of how they transported away from my crap teenage world.

I think that’s why the list has Harry Potter but not Northern Lights, and Covenant rather than Narnia.

Oh, and by the way, NOBODY’s read more than 2 or 3 pages of the Silmarillion. I know I haven’t, and it’s not for lack of trying!

5

Agree on Northern Lights, indeed the whole trilogy; much better than Potter.

My total was 18, and I seldom read anything but SF…

I loved A Wizard of Earthsea every time I read and re-read it: I consider it and its three sequels almost perfect fantasy. Agree on The Dispossessed.

I did have an Anne McCaffrey phase, but don’t consider the books especially well-written. Boisterous fun, yes. Not much more.

I couldn’t get into the Thomas Covenant stuff.

I have just finished Stephenson’s System of the World; I think he is shaping up to be one of the most influential writers. I also like his warm-heartedness; it’s very engaging.

Posted by Stephen

6

List update: I have since read A Wizard of Earthsea (indeed, the entire Earthsea trilogy) and enjoyed it very, very much. And Stand on Zanzibar is now sitting on my bookshelf - still unread, but not for long…

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