Wednesday, July 21, 2010

New and Noteworthy: Items From the Hiatus #2 (Ian Sales on the 10 Worst SF Series)

Not long ago writer Ian Sales offered his list of the ten "worst science fiction series."

David Weber's popular Honor Harrington series occupies the number ten spot, Kevin J. Anderson's Saga of the Seven Suns number four, and Anderson appears yet again (with Brian Herbert) at number one for the Dune prequels (specifically the three-book cycle about the Butlerian Jihad). Getting more attention, however, are the classics on the list: Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy (#2), L. Ron Hubbard's Mission Earth (#3), and E.E. Doc Smith's Lensman (#5) in particular.

Lists of "all-time worsts," like "all-time bests," are always tricky, and this one seems problematically named. (Given that it consists wholly of space opera, it might have been more fairly labeled a list of worst space opera series, rather than worst science fiction series, period.) Still, there are lots of bad books here, and some interesting commentary about them. I, for one, found the Legends of Dune nearly unreadable, failing to get past page two hundred of The Butlerian Jihad in my two attempts to read the trilogy-only partly because I disliked the tossing out of the actual backstory to the Dune novels (elaborated in the brilliantly executed Dune Encyclopedia, which reflected the vibe of dynamic, frustrating messiness that genuine history has, and which helped make the original series so great).

I can't claim to be a big fan of the Harrington books, either, which fall far short of their stated goal (arguably, unattainable in hard SF) of transferring C.S. Forrester's Horatio Hornblower tales to the realm of space opera-the cultural and technological distance may simply be too vast, and there's no denying the many flaws of the execution here: the sheer bloatedness of the narratives, the flat characters and all the rest. (Even at the conceptual level they fall short. While I've enjoyed many a tale of galactic empires, the monarchical-feudal system on Manticore never worked for me, and neither did the whole rationale of the war with the "People's Republic of New Haven." The space battles, for all their flash, appeared old-fashioned next to what writers like Scott Westerfield and Charles Stross have offered, without achieving a retro charm-though I did like the Warshawski sail idea. And so on and so forth.)

Having recently read Smith, I certainly can't argue for the brilliance of his prose, but I don't think the #5 spot is fair. For all their many literary weaknesses, the books really were groundbreaking in their ambition and innovation (and it seems unfair of Sales to single the books out for their retrograde social attitudes, when these pervaded fiction in general at the time). In a similar vein I found the Foundation novels a disappointment, but that was in part because of the exaggerated expectations with which I came to them, and these books (which seem to routinely get picked on as overrated) deserved better than #2-again, because it is possible to be great even without being good.

New and Noteworthy: Items From the Hiatus (Best VG Movies, Summer B.O., Scott Timberg on Dune, Cory Doctorow on the Ipad)
7/20/10

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