In previous columns we’ve pondered the best in Time Travelling, Post-Apocalyptic, and Generation Spaceship books, along with the best Unknown Gems in science fiction, all of which started me to thinking…
…actually, before we start, I’m not coming at this from the “If you were being exiled to a desert island and you could take only ten science fiction books, which ones would they be?” type point of view. Nor do I wish to create a “The one hundred best science fiction books of all time” type list…
What I’m thinking is… if you were introducing someone to science fiction, what would you consider to be the “Crème de la Crème” – the “must reads” – the ones that grabbed you by the “short-and-curlies” and swung you round the room and left you gasping for more (metaphorically speaking)?
Before we start, let’s set a few “ground rules” – such as the fact that we are talking about hard science fiction and not fantasy (we can work on separate fantasy and horror lists in the future). Actually, I think that’s pretty much it as far as rules. Also, let’s split things up into younger readers, intermediate readers, and older readers, although things obviously get a little “fuzzy” here. OK, I’ll go first (grin)…
One author who really influenced me was John Christopher with his Tripods Trilogy. This is set about 100 years in the future when the humankind has been enslaved by aliens who control our minds using “caps” that are applied when kids reach their 14th birthday. During this tale we follow our hero, 13-year-old Will Parker, and his friends as struggle to find out all they can about the Tripods and overthrow their rule.
I also devoured the books Robert Heinlein wrote for a younger audience, and I personally would class all of the following as “must reads”: Red Planet, Tunnel in the Sky, Time for the Stars, Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Orphans of the Sky, Space Cadet, The Rolling Stones, Farmer in the Sky, and Citizen of the Galaxy. Hmm, there's another book I want to include that's on the "tip of my tongue", but I'm doing this from
memory and I refuse to "cheat" by spinning my chair around to look at my
bookshelves. Of course Heinlein wrote many others, but the ones I've listed here would be on my “must read” list (see also the Older Readers section below for more Heinlein).
And I don't want to neglect Andre Norton, who wrote numerous science fiction books for kids, but one that really stuck in my mind was Star Man’s Son (also known as Daybreak – 2260 AD).
Well, we certainly can’t ignore Isaac Asimov. I think his Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation) simply have to go on the “must read” list. And others that demand our attention are The End of Eternity, The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, Pebble in the Sky, and I Robot. Once again, there are many others (Asimov was nothing if not prolific), but these are the ones that immediately pop into my mind. Arguably you could say that the ones I’ve shown here are applicable to a younger audience; the reason I’ve classed them as “intermediate” is that I think they really make you think (if you see what I mean)
I also really love the works of Clifford D. Simak – a writer who had his own unique style, which is usually described as “gentle and pastoral.” One of the things that really set him apart, in addition to the quirkiness of his stories, is how the characters in his books (both human and alien) usually converse in a civilized, “gentlemanly” manner. If I had to restrict myself to just one of Simak’s books for the purpose of this “must read” list, that book would be Way Station, because it totally grabbed my imagination when I first ran across it as a teenager.
I tell you, so many titles keep on popping into my head (it’s like having the equivalent of a bag of popcorn cooking in the microwave going off in my brain), but I’m really trying to restrict myself to “The best of the best of the best”…
Let’s start with Heinlein. Two of his works that I would class as “must reads” for older readers are The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers. Now, I know a lot of folks are going to ask me about Time Enough for Love and Stranger in a Strange Land. I have, of course, read (and much enjoyed) both of these books more times than I care to remember, but… do I really want to add them to my “must read” list? I must admit that this one is a bit of a “toss up”, but in the end I’m going to say “No” … of course you may disagree…
It goes without saying that we have to include Dune by Frank Herbert. When you get someone like Arthur C. Clark saying "Unique...I know nothing comparable to it except 'Lord of the Rings'," you know you have to be talking about something exceptional (for the sake of charity, let’s not mention how subsequent books in the series spiraled down into the mire).
Now, you may disagree with my remaining choices, but these are all books that really, REALLY grabbed my imagination and made me think about things in a completely different way: Steel Beach by John Varley, Eon and Blood Music by Greg Bear, Great Sky River by Gregory Benford, and – last but not least for this time – one I bet you’ve not heard of, Open Prison by James White.
Well, that’s all for now, but I can feel my brain starting to hum, so I think it’s fair to say that we’ll be seeing a Part 2 to this column in the not-so-distant future. In the meantime, what have I missed? Are you saying to yourself “The boy is a fool; he didn’t even mention The Weapon Shops of Isher, The World of Null-A, or The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A.E. van Vogt!”
Seriously? Did you really think I had forgotten these? You might as well say that I would overlook Mindswap by Robert Sheckley or Captive Universe by Harry Harrison. The point is; should we really class these as “must reads”, or are they better described as “certainly some of the best, but not quite essential”? I await your feedback in dread anticipation…
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