Sci-Fi Masterworks and more

Posted 6 Oct 2009 at 16:59 UTC (updated 7 Oct 2009 at 14:25 UTC) by lkcl Share This

flogger asks on slashdot what sci-fi stories are recommended for reading as part of a teaching class about sci-fi. As I've read over 500 sci-fi and fantasy books, and own over 300, I've written up some of the best. Covering history, politics and the best and worst of human nature, science fiction's freedom opens doors which remain firmly closed to traditional fiction. It just has to be done well enough to be believable.
(updated 7oct2009 with fantasy list)
Science Fiction

The absolute first book to be read by a class, without a shadow of doubt, is "Last and First Men", by Olaf Stapledon. The reason is simple: this book covers from the 1930s when it was written, and from there each chapter jumps ten times further into the future than the previous one, spanning, eventually, four billion years into the future. Pretty much all other science fiction is, therefore, merely "filling in the gaps". The incredible thing about Olaf Stapledon's book is his startling prescience and ability to accurately predict World History up into the 21st Century, including the fall of the League of Nations and the rise and fall of its replacement, the United Nations; the creation and detonation of the Atomic Bomb; the rise and fall of the United States. This latter should cause much hilarity when, if the "Sci Fi Masterworks" version is put in front of the class, in the context of reading Stephen Baxter's foreword, where Mr Baxter (a sci-fi author to be avoided at all costs), basically splutters his polite indignation at Stapledon's "obvious mistake".

The second book must be Asimov's "The End of Eternity". It is again one of the defining books of Asimov's career, dealing with the consequences of Time Travel and hinting at the background behind the "Foundation" series. One of the key things to note in the book is the use of the word "Computer" as a title, like "Professor". Very few people now remember that the word "Computer" was originally given to "one who performs computation". Computer Harkan, the lead character of the book, is the person given the unbelievably responsible job of "computing" the "minimal necessary change" to a historical timeline that will result in the desired changes to the future _without_ causing other drastic side-effects. Eventually, Computer Harkan meets some of future humanity who explain things to him... I won't say more - it's a fascinating book, and quite short.

The third book I'd put on the list would be: "Lord of Light", by Roger Zelazny. In this book, a reasonable and perfectly plausible explanation is given as to how the old "Indian Gods and Legends" were considered to "perform magic", whereas in fact, just like Arthur C Clarke said famously, "any superior technology is indistinguishable from magic".

Other than that, I'd say that it was about authors.

Asimov. Asimov's Foundation series is very hard going, as are pretty much all of his books except those about "Robby the Robot", which, coauthored with his wife, are really quite fun. Also, the "detective series" novels are absolutely fascinating, but very dry, take getting used to. If there's one at all that has to be read, I would recommend the one where Isaac Bailey, a human, is called for to investigate a murder on the world Solaria, where the total number of humans (extended lifespans) is something like a million (50,000 acres is a small estate); the number of robots per human measures 1,000 to 1; the concept of "seeing" someone involves 3D Trimensional viewing (holograms), and it's part-way through the book that we discover that Solarians are utterly reviled by the concept of physical human contact. Later on we discover that the whole murder has been a setup (by a robot! despite the 3 laws!) in order to determine which of the species of humans is most suitable for robots to encourage to expand out into the galaxy. As a result, this book is again one of THE defining books behind the "Foundation" series (which is itself pretty dry and heavy reading).

Moving on from that, the books commissioned by the Asimov Trust are much more readable, such as the "Caliban" series, and "Forward the Foundation" which is in fact by Greg Bear. I very much actually enjoyed the books about the "No Law" robot, Caliban. Caliban was an experiment to see if a robot would develop its own laws, if it was given a brain on which the infamous "Three Laws" were NOT imprinted. The experiment was a "success", but it was a very humbling experience for all humans involved. There is more, much more. The Caliban series harks back to Asimov's earlier detective-based books, but without the dryness of Asimov's own writing style _but_ with access to Asimov's notes and incredible background material, these books are expansive, enjoyable and also cover a great deal of sci-fi technology as well as moral ground.

Alasdair Reynolds. Reynolds entered sci-fi fairly recently, and has produced some absolutely incredible and dark gothic "Space Opera". He also tells short stories (which I really don't like to read - I much prefer books of 300 to 1000 pages). However, on the one occasion where I did accidentally buy a short story of Reynolds, it was "Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days". Diamond Dogs is *definitely* worth reading.

Ian Banks. Absolutely, without a shadow of doubt, Ian Banks has to be on the list. Two that are essential: "The Player of Games" and "Matter". The Player of Games is just astounding, covering political corruption on a galactic scale, with one weakness: the winner of a year-long series of strategy games becomes the Emperor, and, in a show of "Good Faith", one person from "The Culture" is selected as an ambassador, to play in the games. Actually... he's blackmailed into going. I won't say any more, other than it's a breathtaking book with some truly evil and matter-of-fact unrepeatably despicable moments which are very important to the story. It's well worth reading, but do be prepared to be very shocked at the lessons that Banks is asking readers to reflect on: humanity's darker nature set against overwhelming and breathtaking scope.

The other book, "Matter", is a more mature "Culture Series" book, and it uses some pretty heavy-duty sci-fi concepts (hyperspace, advanced energy-based weaponry) and weaves them in a tale of civilisations living one above the other in a "Shell World". The reason for the existence of these worlds is not explained (but the fact they are not explained _is_ explained, as part of the story!), but they are believed to be created by beings with multi-billion-year lifespans, about whom virtually nothing is actually known. Some civilisations living in these 9-layered "shells" are tolerated; others are wiped out in shell-wide storms. Against this background, there has to be some sort of order and hierarchy, and it's against this hierarchy that one race decides to flout the rules, and that's where the trouble starts. Like all good sci-fi, the "technology" just "blends in" to the background of the story. Even the bits where entire towns (or civilisations) are wiped out in moments: Banks does nothing to "glorify" technology, he just gets on with the job of telling believable stories where advanced technology is just part of the picture. But, ultimately, this book is about people, and how they cope with horrific circumstances and when presented with advanced technology and weaponry well above their own level. The characters range from those living in medieval-style circumstances to "Minds" with intellectual capabilities far exceeding human-level intelligence by several orders of magnitude: all of them are thrown into a situation truly beyond their expectations, as the consequences of the deception and arrogance of the rule-breaking race unfold. It's an absolutely stunning reflection onto humanity's own arrogance with technology and the responsibilities involved, with the devastation that unfolds simply underscoring the lesson with graphic clarity. As such, it has to go on the list, but only after some of the other books have been read.

Neal Stephenson also deserves a special mention. Of all the books that he has written, one in particular stands out and the other has become a cult classic: they are "The Diamond Age" and "Snowcrash", respectively. The Diamond Age is particularly compelling as it covers Turing Machines right through to Nanotechnology, by way of a book ("The Primer") which falls into the hands of a young "thete" girl (well below "lower-class", bordering on poverty, even in an energy-rich technology-rich society). At the heart of the story is one child's struggle to find the woman who effectively becomes her mother, raising her at arm's length through the cryptograhic anonymity guaranteed by the futuristic Internet and The Primer, but Nell's rise to power, even as a teenager, is only one tiny part of the subversive tale of politics set against a background where Nanotechnological Warfare is not quite forgotten, but not quite remembered either. The story is funny, informative, heart-warming, insightful and more.

I could go on, as there are so many more, but the authors to choose from are: Bruce Sterling; Arthur C Clarke (choose carefully); Peter F Hamilton (anything), Orson Scott Card (especially the "Ender Series" and the "Xenocide" series, as well as "Enchantment"); William Gibson; Ian Macleod (for his ability to project the emergence of different political structures based on Marxism and Communism into the far future, where light-speed travel is possible). I would definitely recommend any of Ian Macleod's sci-fi books. They take getting used to, but once you get the hang of them, they are both funny as well as insightful.

Authors to avoid are definitely U.S.-based ones: I don't know what it is about U.S. sci-fi authors, but their stories just don't hang together very well. Stephen Baxter's works should be read - only once - to find the truth of this, but only after reading many of the above recommendations does the shallowness of his works become apparent. Robert Heinlein, famous for introducing even a narrative style which only he of all sci-fi writers can get away with, is truly slapstick dreadful, but because he _is_ Robert Heinlan, he gets away with it. Don't read the "Xanth" series by Piers Antony! Even Piers Antony is embarrassed by them. Piers Antony is an acquired taste. Like Anne McCaffrey, his works are best suited to younger audiences. Both these authors are still fun, though, but nothing like the depth of the other authors recommended here.

Overall, then, there is an incredible range to choose from, with the absolute best being those that mix politics, technology, humour and much more into quite insightful lessons for humanity and for the reader, as well as being just absolutely gripping reads. The best authors are ones who cover a story and its background over several books (Clarke, Bear, Asimov, Hamilton, Reynolds, Card, Gibson etc.) as the background, whilst invariably unnecessary to enjoy an individual story per se, makes it easier on readers to follow along. The absolute best ones are where technology blends into the background, and it is through the break with "normal" fiction, jumping timelines and entire galaxies, that Science Fiction authors can explore the limits of human endurance, creativity and adaptability that are otherwies entirely closed to Fiction writers. Lastly: if you can find it - look up Bruce Sterling's advice to wannabe sci-fi writers. It's both insightful and comical.


Fantasy writing is diverse, generally "shallower" and more entertainment than science fiction, with "moral lessons" being there but harder to discern. As a general rule, books tend to follow a pattern where someone with or without some special abilities tends to meet people with or without some special abilities; there's some sort of a bun-fight in which people tend to either find out that they have special abilities after all and/or lose them.

Then, there are the books that "define" fantasy writing. The writers of such books had a particularly tough time, as, being really the first of the genre, they very much had to "spell out" the scenery and the background. Meaning, of course: Tolkein. Tolkein's works are absolutely incredible, but if you have read other fantasy works, they are truly a bit much.

So, as a general rule, it's quite difficult to find fantasy books to recommend that have obvious, easily discernable but not "in-your-face" morality or insights, whilst at the same time being enjoyable to read, especially by all ages.

Take the "Narnia Chronicles" as an example of being thoroughly enjoyable for young children. These tales I truly enjoyed, and was disappointed to learn many years later that the tales were designed as an allegory for Christianity.

Then, there's Anne McCaffrey's "Dragon Series", which are, until the later books, formulaic along the "youngsters who discover that they have special powers, and learn to use them in the face of adversity" lines. Only the last books in the series link us back to Ultra-High-Tech Interstellar Colonialisation which goes badly wrong, with the adaptation to the hostile climate requiring near-medieval working and living conditions.

Then, Anne McCaffrey's other works - the co-authored ones - get particularly interesting, where she interweaves real-world research into living conditions or other areas of humanity deprivation, such as child slave labour and the effects of rape during wartime, with a fantasy story where, again, the main characters discover themselves to have some special abilities which they learn to use just in time to overcome all odds. As such, these books can be recommended for young teenagers but not too young, and not too old, either.

Then, there's Piers Antony, whose fantasy writings are prolific but very, very strange. The most fascinating part about his work is actually the notes at the end of his books, where he keeps a diary regarding the events occuring in his life at the time of writing. Through these notes, he describes his interactions with his fans, one of whom he probably saved her life by incorporating her suicidal tendencies into one of the characters, and thus showed her that there is in fact value in overcoming adversity. As a general rule, Piers Antony's works are worthwhile reads to young teenagers.

Then, there's David Eddings. His books are to be almost entirely avoided. Two near-identical-storyline series of books (one of which is the "Belgariad"), totalling five in each series: even David Eddings himself is on record as wishing that they would come to an end. There really isn't much to recommend about them, other than if you enjoy cheerful mindless repetition.

So, there are really only two authors whom I can genuinely, genuinely recommend: perhaps three. At the absolute top of the list is Terry Pratchett, not just for the Discworld series but for all of the forty or more books he's written. Second would have to be Robert Jordan, for the "Wheel of Time" series (not least because of the sheer overwhelming number of characters, plots, sub-plots and sub-sub-plots). Third place would have to go to Orson Scott Card, for such wonderful stories as "Enchantment", and the gripping "Pandora's Box", and Greg Bear's "Songs of Earth and Power" fourth.

Terry Pratchett's books are just funny, fantastic, and insightful. Yes, they revolve around the formulaic "people find out that they have special abilities and overcome adversity with them" genre, but the characters are thrown into such comical situations, behind which absolutely diamond-sharp political modern-day insight shines through, that you hardly notice the formulaic aspects. The characters are believable - even and especially the bad guys. "People tell me that my mind was des-turrb-ed, but that's not true, see, 'cos, 'cos i really WANTED to kill him, see?" is just one of many examples that give us some really chilling insights into pathological criminal behaviour whilst at the same time being very funny.

Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series is just incredible. Each book averages nine hundred pages, and, at the time of Jordan's death, he had completed book eleven. It is only the latter book where the pace and depth, present in all previous books, begins to tail off. The first book begins with three boys and three girls as main characters. Two further good main characters and one bad one are then introduced. By the end of the book, a further fifty main characters are individually introduced, along with around ten different power groups covering religions, magicians of differing kinds, kings and queens, rulers, politicians and the "Houses" or "Factions". In subsequent books, different ethnic races and Clans, along with different species, are also introduced. And this is all done skillfully and with care and attention to detail. I've not yet encountered one single other fantasy author who has tackled material spanning 10,000 pages that is actually readable, and contains new and innovative ideas sufficient to keep the reader interested in purchasing the next book in the series and waiting impatiently for the next. Yet, again: there's nothing about the story itself that isn't "people discovering abilities and overcoming adversity", it's just that the tale is done so incredibly well and with such depth and diversity that it remains fresh and believable.

Orson Scott Card's "Enchantment" is an interesting re-take on medieval fairy tales, especially ones from Russia, of "Baba Yaga" and "Ivan". At the heart of the story is "Snow White", with a modern-day hero accidentally encountering a well which takes him back to medieval times, where he kisses the princess and everything is _not_ well because "Baba Yaga" finds out. It's an incredibly funny and insightful story, cleverly tying together past and present, and explaining the myths behind Russia's fairy tales by transporting people and objects between the two different times.

Card's "Pandora's Box" is just outright scary, with the lead character being pathologically overwhelmed by a witch's mind control abilities. The very existence in the 20th century of a witch with such powers over the human mind, leading the main character to believe utterly wholeheartedly in the lies of a "real" marriage with "real" love being fed to them, and for everyone else to believe that they are simply losing it, is just such a complete anathema to us in the modern era. For that reason, this tale is well worth reading as a stark reminder of what it was that people in the medieval times feared most about people that they labelled as witches.

Greg Bear's "Songs of Earth and Power", a republication of two books in one, covers magic and the effects of music, especially its use to convey magic. Again, its about the discovery of hidden abilities to overcome adversity, but in this case, it's the way that the story unfolds that is so compelling. There are surprises and discoveries that Greg Bear takes the reader through, with plausible explanations.

Next down the list would have to be Peter F Hamilton for the "Void" series and its predecessors, revolving around "The Commonwealth". Whilst being strictly speaking sci-fi, there is enough cross-over with mention of "The Silfen" - aka Elves - and the "paths" between worlds, to warrant a fantasy mention. In particular, much of the "Void" series actually covers a medieval-style world where the power of thought clearly and undeniably has an effect. The problem lies in the fact that the universe in which this world exists is in fact an experiment by "higher aliens" in an alternate reality, and is powered by ripping vast amounts of energy out of the fabric of the "real" universe.

Overall, then, throughout every single fantasy book, the characters discover magical abilities or simply the strength of will to continue against adversity, in settings which differ sometimes partly and sometimes completely from the "standard" universe we believe in. Gateways, portals, parallel universes and parallel world (such as Zelazny's "Amber" Chronicles) abound. In this regard, there is little to choose from, despite the wealth of reading material from so many authors, with the exception of those few authors whose ideas cross over to give us truly creative entertainment, political insights, insights and analogies into the human mind and more. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that some of the best fantasy works are written by accomplished sci-fi writers (Card, Bear, Hamilton) as their works often cross over into much more diverse, and believable, backgrounds.

So there is plenty of fantasy material to choose from (J.V.Jones and Karen Mills and so many more not mentioned here) but it has to be said that fantasy works are much more of a "personal taste" thing than science fiction, with those fantasy books that truly sparkle being really quite rare. The best and worst ones, in the opinion and experience of this writer, are listed here, but they are only one opinion amongst many.

AI Science Fiction List by Mentifex, posted 6 Oct 2009 at 22:50 UTC by mentifex » (Master)

OK, I'll bite, posted 9 Oct 2009 at 12:44 UTC by fzort » (Journeyer)

Thanks for the list. You forgot Stanislaw Lem (Solaris - bullshit-free investigation on the limits of human knowledge [1]; His Master's Voice, ditto; Cyberiad, children's storybook from an Earth that never was) and Vernor Vinge (A Fire Upon The Deep, sensawonda overload).

[1] ignore the movie and the ridiculous cover.

Descriptions rather than proscriptions, posted 15 Oct 2009 at 08:46 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

the number of comments on the original slashdot article numbers 1,000. moderators gave up at around the 150-200 comments mark. i encountered a number of "lists" of books, with discussions then taking place regarding each. ok. some.

on that basis, i decided to write up in a little more depth about some of the books i've read. there's a perspective to be gained from so many books in a genre and it was this perspective that i wanted to share with people. of course, in amongst 1000 comments, the chances of the original poster encountering it was fairly negligable, hence the article :)

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