Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Five Most Important Science Fiction Novels

Here are what I think of as the five most important science fiction books (and in some cases, series' of books) that I have read. By that I do not mean that I regard them as the most important books where the history of the genre is concerned. This particular list is more personal than that, presenting instead those books that did most to shape my ideas about what science fiction is, and what it can be, by demonstrating significant possibilities, and in most of these cases, leading me to whole stretches of genre territory of which I had previously been scarcely aware.

1. Frank Herbert's Dune (1965).
I thoroughly enjoyed Dune as a space opera full of adventure and intrigue, capped off by the most soaringly triumphant finale I had ever read. However, there was also the sheer richness of his fictional universe, not only the much-praised invention of Arrakis and its Fremen, but the galactic empire of which it was a small part, which staggered with its complexity (this novel is far more impressive than most fantasy in giving a sense of the complexity of feudal life) as well as its scale. There was, too, a sense of great depths--of uncounted lives being lived over uncounted years on uncounted worlds, of emergent, species-level developments--just beneath the surface of his prose, at times frustratingly out of reach, and yet, unapproachable any other way (reminiscent for me of many an experience reading German philosophy).

When I turned to the sequels, both scope and depth extended through the stories' time horizon, itself extraordinary. Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, for instance (which I only got to later), went to the end of the universe and beyond, but it was written as future history, one that got progressively less detailed as it moved further and further away from our time. By contrast Herbert offered fully fleshed plots and characters living out a story unfolding over tens of millennia.

And the sense of verisimilitude through it all was extraordinary. The interplay of multiple ambitions and agendas and forces; the victories that prove Pyrrhic, or fleeting (the soaring triumph of the first novel followed by the crushing defeat of the second and third); the inevitability with which reaction followed action; the incompleteness and ambiguity of the tale's turns; give it the same sense of mess as real history (admirably captured in Willis E. McNelly's Dune Encyclopedia, and conspicuously lacking in Brian Herbert's many sequels and prequels).

In all these respects, it seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, everything that an epic work of science fiction should be.

2. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992).
I regard Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age as a richer, more polished work than the novel that made him a star. I might also add that among the cyberpunks and post-cyberpunks I find his writing exceeded in zaniness by Rudy Rucker (as in his Ware Tetralogy), and conceptual density and audacity by Charles Stross (check out Accelerando). Paul di Filippo is funnier. And where social and political vision are concerned, Stephenson has always struck me as playing it quite safe, which I suppose has something to do with the extent to which his pronouncements command respect in business fora and other such places. (Picture Forbes doing an interview with Ken MacLeod, more on whom later.)

Yet, Snow Crash was also my first exposure to contemporary (post-1980) hard science fiction, and the tradition of which all these authors are a part, and I think of it as having been a gateway to all of these other works. This was, in part, a function of its accessibility; my early attempts to read cyberpunk greats William Gibson and Bruce Sterling led only to frustration with what seemed to me their overstylized and underplotted writing, and it was years before I was able to appreciate their genre-defining books--but I got into Snow Crash right away, and stayed with it to the end. That reconciliation of concept and flash with sheer readability is a significant accomplishment, one which has likely gone a long way to making him one of the few writers of recent decades to enjoy something like household name status, while all these years later I still smile at the remembrance of such quirks as the author's naming his main character "Hiro Protagonist."

3. Michael Moorcock's Byzantium Endures (1981).
Prior to encountering Colonel Pyat my impressions of the New Wave were based primarily on a couple of Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius short stories, and a bit of J.G. Ballard.1 The J.C. tales, which utilized cut-up technique, seemed to me a waste of time for both author and reader, while, heretical as it sounds, Ballard's writing left me cold and annoyed. It seemed to me that the celebration of these authors, and the larger New Wave, was merely another exercise in that particular form of intellectual snobbery which equates a work's value with the extent to which literary experimentalism renders it unreadable.

Byzantium Endures changed that. I had never before seen an author make such compelling use of an unreliable narrator, from the standpoint not just of entertainment value, but the development of a theme, and there is no question that it made me more open to Modernist and postmodernist approaches. These books also led me to the rest of Moorcock's work, like his heroic fantasies (not just the adventures of Elric, but tales like The Eternal Champion and The War Hound and the World's Pain), and his proto-steampunk (The Warlord of the Air making a far stronger impression on me than Gibson and Sterling's mostly frustrating The Difference Engine), which did much to give me a deeper interest in both those genres. It also led me to a reevaluation of the New Wave, and so to writers that I have since come to admire enormously, like Brian Aldiss, and Norman Spinrad, and John M. Harrison.

4. John Shirley's Eclipse (1985) and Ken MacLeod's The Star Fraction (1995).
At an early point in my explorations of cyberpunk I happened upon Nicola Nixon's essay "Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?" Nixon held that in spite of its radical pretenses, cyberpunk was "complicit in '80s conservatism." At that point I had seen little in the writing of Gibson, Sterling and Stephenson to dispute such a reading, and much to affirm it. Reading older science fiction (Olaf Stapledon, George Orwell, Frederik Pohl, for instance) I had been impressed with the ways in which earlier generations of authors had used their work to explore political and social ideas--but now wondered if the genre had lost that capacity, if it had not, in fact, become incapable of doing anything but repeating the orthodoxies of the moment.2

John Shirley's Eclipse put paid to that notion. Instead of the playful irony of Stephenson, and the thoroughly privatized, thoroughly head-gamed detachment of Gibson, here was a writer who could be very funny (as the short fiction gathered in Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories demonstrates), but who could also feel something for people and take politics seriously, and actually be angry and sad and scared; who could imagine them fighting for things worth fighting for. (I do not think I will ever forget Rick Rickenharp's peforming A Song Called Youth atop the Arc de Triomphe as the war machines of the Second Alliance ground it into dust.) Instead of the Davos Man conservatism of Bruce Sterling there was an audacious leftishness. (I was astonished, for instance, to find Marxists still a political factor in his version of the 2020s.)

Of course, Shirley did differ from other cyberpunks in this respect, but he still finished the cycle in the late Cold War, and while he continued to publish striking political tales (like his rebuff to the dispensationalism of the Left Behind series in The Other End), I still thought of Eclipse as belonging to the past--perhaps not as much so as Stapledon's work, but still on the other side of the great divide that was "the end of history." However, that was not the case with Ken MacLeod's post-Cold War The Star Fraction, which did not have Eclipse's dramatic intensity, but offered a more crisply sophisticated take on twenty-first century politics which would even have outdone it in audacity had it been published in the '80s, with its Balkanized Britain and Trotskyist resolution. The Star Fraction was also my introduction to recent British science fiction, in which I found authors like Iain Banks and Charles Stross, each in their way a game-changer for me.

Hence the tie between the two books for this spot on the list.

5. Clive Cussler's Sahara (1992).
Clive Cussler, of course, is never discussed as a science fiction writer, but his works do qualify, regularly including as they do near-future political scenarios, futuristic technology, and other such speculative elements. (In Sahara we have the United Nations deploying in-house commando forces, solar-powered toxic waste processing facilities, a world-threatening red tide that has the incidental effect of turning people into psychotic cannibals, a high-tech superyacht which is a combined scientific research vessel and warship, and the rewriting of history with a wildly different explanation of President Lincoln's assassination.)

This book showed me that it is possible to write a novel that actually feels like a Hollywood blockbuster, and for a long time I regarded Cussler as the standard when it came to this sort of writing. Matthew Reilly, who writes in a similar vein, has since pushed the envelope further, something David Williams also does in his own more futuristic novels, but again Cussler was first, and for many years his works were an important model for my own efforts--with Sahara remaining my favorite of his books.

I suppose much of the list (Dune, for instance) seems rather obvious, but then that is only to be expected. The most well-known, widely available books are the ones that a newcomer to the genre is likely to encounter first, and find comparatively accessible--while the first books one encounters are also those most likely to make the strongest impression, especially when they have become classics for good reason.

I suppose the list also seems rather weighted toward action-adventure (and I imagine a few people reading this are appalled by the importance I accord the lesson that books can be written like blockbuster movies), but then my pop fiction tastes had, once upon a time, run mainly to spy novels and action thrillers (books like Sahara), and my earlier selections naturally reflected that taste.

I suppose my list does not seem especially highbrow (excepting Byzantium Endures). Where, one might wonder, is Vonnegut, for instance? It may seem impious, too. What about legendary Grand Masters like Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein, one might wonder? Wells? Philip K. Dick? And, and, and . . . I read them, of course, and enjoyed and admired much of what I found, and like to think that I learned from them as critic and writer. But this is the order in which things played out, and it should hardly be a surprise that the pivots in our personal literary histories do not tidily match received opinion and its hierarchies.

What about you? Any surprises in your own "top five?"

1. I had some contact with a few other works by a few other authors, and actually rather enjoyed Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Tick-Tock Man," but it was still Moorcock and Ballard who loomed largest in discussion of the New Wave.
2. That was one reason why, impressive as the older authors I mentioned here were, they did not have quite so profound an effect on my thought. Another, of course, was that I had seen plenty of Star Trek in its various incarnations, which, much as some snobs put it down, had been an introduction to such things.

Review: The Other End, by John Shirley
Reading Literary Classics
On Star Trek Bashing
Trillion Year Spree, Twenty-Five Years On

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