Coming out the closet with a science fiction book in my hand

I don't often play these meme games but since none of the other female SciBlings have jumped on the bandwagon, and I've read at least as much science fiction as some of the other Scibs in the game (PZ, Mark, Afrensis, Orac, Joseph, Bora, and John), I just had to join in.

First, for the record, I think whoever came up with this "The Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years, 1953-2002" overlooked some truly wonderful authors. I'll share some of my favorites in a little bit.

How did I get started reading SF?
When I was a child, we lived in a house with a crawl space underneath. Dark, and musty, with a dirt floor, and the promise of hidden treasure, it was a wonderful place to explore. My brother and I spent hours crouched inside with our flashlights, pretending we were in a pirate cave looking for booty.

We found it, too. Boxes and boxes of books with intriguing artwork on the covers. Half naked women with spears fighting monsters. Alien beings cavorting in mystical landscapes and spaceships. And hours more of fantastical adventure. No one ever said I couldn't read those books I found, but somehow, discovering them under the house, hidden away made them more appealing.

And read them, I did.

At the same time, some of the cover art gave me pause. I know you should never judge a book by it's cover, and certainly the stories inside of science fiction books rarely resembled the cover at all.  But let's face it.  The cover art often made the books a bit difficult for me to buy.  A book with a skimpily dressed maiden fighting a huge ugly beast doesn't look like it's meant for girls to read.

Even if the writing is good, who wants to be seen buying a book that looks like it's been written for an adolescent boy?

Consequently, for most of my life, I only read science fiction books that people gave me. Even so, I read quite a few. And I've certainly read enough to know that some of the best and yes, most important, science fiction works are missing from the long list that my fellow SciBlings have been knocking around (here, here, and here).

First, then, for the record, I will share the authors and books (or series) that were missing from that list. Then, I'll add the list from the "The Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years, 1953-2002" meme with the books I've read marked in bold.

My favorite SF & F authors and books:

Andre Norton
I said earlier that I never purchased science fiction books myself, but Andre Norton is an exception. If I can hand a pile of Andre Norton books to a librarian without blushing, you know that they must, at least, look okay.  And for me to do that on a regular basis, means that they read very well, too.

I loved Norton's stories about communicating with animals, searching for artifacts from ancient inhabitants of the universe, and traveling between the stars as traders.  "Moon of Three Rings" was the first SF book that I ever checked out from the library.  What could be better?  The Free Traders land on a new planet, and one trader ends up in the body of a wolf-like creature, under the protection of one of the magical moon singers. The story continues through a few other books while the trader tries to recover some kind of human body and the moon singer loses hers. Simply wonderful.

Now that I've been inspired to revisit her writing, I'm going to buy some of her books for my kids.  I know they'll love these.

Sheri Tepper
Sheri Tepper is a fantastic story teller and like Andre Norton, she is such a wonderful author that I have a hard time picking my favorite from all of her books.  One moment it's "Gateway to Women's Country," where she builds a scenario from some interesting views of genetics and eugenics.  Another moment it's "Grass," the novel that originally got me hooked on her writing.  If you can picture a science fiction novel derived from a love of horse-back riding, this would be it. Tepper's work contains the sort of ideas that quietly slip into your mind on a still night and shake you up a bit, leaving you pondering the fate of "Beauty," or obsessively building a tiled monument in "Raising the Stones."

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
A truly frightening book that explores what life might be like if the US were ruled by religious fundamentalists.  This should be required reading for anyone who doesn't understand why separating the church from the state is an important thing to do. Fortunately, it's entertaining as well as alarming.

Too many years of reading Heinlein and Ayn Rand left me with an intense hatred of preachy literature.

Harry Harrison
I would propose the "Winter in Eden" trilogy.  This series explores what might happen if one species of dinosaur were intelligent. 

The Dragon and the George
Written by Gordon R. Dickinson, these books don't contain troubling concepts or important ideas. They are quite simply, lots of fun.  Our hero, a struggling graduate student, is magically transported to a medieval world, where magic replaces physics and somehow he can turn into a dragon.  My daughters really enjoyed these.

And last, the famous 50:

The books I read are in Bold.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov

Dune, Frank Herbert

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin

Neuromancer, William Gibson

Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick

The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe

A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr

The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov

Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras

Cities in Flight, James Blish

The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett

Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison

Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison

The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester

Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany

Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey

Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card

The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

Gateway, Frederik Pohl

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

I Am Legend, Richard Matheson

Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Little, Big, John Crowley

Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny

The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick

Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement

More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon

The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith

On the Beach, Nevil Shute

Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke

Ringworld, Larry Niven

Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys

The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien

Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner

The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester

Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein

Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock

The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks

Timescape, Gregory Benford

To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer


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Good Grief - Roger Zelazny was completely ignored :( I must say I've read the entire 50 stated above over the years and they certainly have left out rather a lot. If they are going to count Harry Potter as SF instead of Fantasy then how could they possibly leave out one of the greatest of them all H. P. Lovecraft who had, and continues to have, an enormous impact on the genre. I amk however relieved to see someone mentioned Cordwainer Smith :)

I mentioned Andre Norton in a comment over at Good Math, Bad Math. I'm glad I'm not the only ScienceBlogger who likes her.

By afarensis, FCD (not verified) on 11 Mar 2007 #permalink

Roger Zelazny is there in the list with Lord of Light.

You're absolutely right though, about the intermixing of F & SF. After all, if you're going to include Harry Potter, why not include the Narnia series?

And I really don't know how "Interview with a Vampire" got classified as science fiction. Maybe the guy that picked the 50 books likes Tom Cruise.

Thanks Afrensis,

You have pretty good taste for a 41 inch primate.

I'm going to have to add Tepper to my long (and growing longer by the minute as I read these series of blogs) sincs Norton was also one of my all-time favorite authors growing up. I had the advantage of having an aunt with a huge sci-fi collection that was like my own personal library.

I recently read Stranger in a Strange Land - I dont get what the big friggin deal is. Two notable exceptions, I think are:

Hyperion by Dan Simmons and A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. Both are masterworks by authors at the top of their games. I'd put Ribofunk on there too (if you're a biologist this is the book for you), but that's just me.

Also why is Interview with The Vampire on there? It's only significant in how boring it was.

By zachwilson (not verified) on 11 Mar 2007 #permalink

Strangely enough, I know someone who was named (in part) for Micheal Valentine Smith, the hero in "Stranger in a Strange Land." The book also gave us the word "grok." It's not as interesting to me now, though, as it was when I read it as a teenager.

Thanks for the recommendations, too. But I don't know about Ribofunk. I can't read SF that incorporates molecular biology 'cause I get too bothered when the science is wacky.

Where is George R.R. Martin? He's written a lot of fantasy but also some brilliant SF short fiction stories (e.g., Sandkings, In the House of the Worm, Bitterbloom)

Also, Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" and Cormac McCarthy's latest "The Road" should be at least considered.

By Tony Gill (not verified) on 11 Mar 2007 #permalink

Stranger in a Strange Land: "It's not as interesting to me now, though, as it was when I read it as a teenager."

It's been suggested that The Golden Age of Science Fiction is ... 12.

I suspect The Golden Age of Heinlein is about 17.

And, yes, I do count my own experience in that. Have Space Suit, Will Travel got me started on SF, when I was probably about twelve. Several years and many devoted readings later, I recall vividly the time I loaned a copy of some Heinlein or another to my first girlfriend, and the tone of her voice two days later when she said to me, "This is incredibly sexist!" I read it again, with fresh eyes, and no, I don't find Stranger (or any of Heinlein's later work) as interesting anymore.

Thanks for adding your observations to the meme stream.

I have to agree with zachwilson, Fire upon the Deep and the Hyperion series are excellent. Also by Dan Simmons are Ilium and Olympos. These are awesome novels, quantum mechanics, greek gods and shakespeare. I just had a shiver.

Heh, I noted the glaring absence of Andre Norton both at Skepchick and at my own blog.

As for Stranger in a Strange Land, I guess you have to keep in mind the time period in which it was written (1960 or '61 I think). Polyamory was nothing short of pornography in those days and add to that the blatant indictment of Judeo-Christianity and you've got a firestorm. I've enjoyed every word of Heinlein myself, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset was one of my other favs, though I doubt its influence is as strong as Stranger.

And "grok" is the most awesomistical word ever!

Of the Hyperion Cantos, I think I like Endymion the best, but I'm probably in the minority on that, too.

What can I say? I'm a contrarian.

(And one small correction, if I may offer it without sounding too snotty - the character's name in Stranger was Valentine Michael Smith - Just so y'know.)

There's a road near the WV/MD border along I68 named M.V. Smith Rd. I've often wondered about the pedigree of the name of that road... Somebody with a sly statement, perhaps?


Well, I read "Stranger in a Strange Land' a long, long time ago. And, flipping the names around makes the match between name of the person I know and the Martian all the better.

I guess I'm going to have to read the Hyperion Cantos, now that I'm getting so many recommendations.

And, I'm really embarrassed to admit this, but no one else has pointed it out either, but some of my other very, very favorite science fiction books have been missing as well. Those are a trilogy by John Varley: Demon, Titan, and Wizard. I haven't been able to think about John Phillips Souza in the same way ever since I read those.

Sandy..You might enjoy Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement. It was featured as a serial in Astounding Sciemce Fiction Magazine in the late 50's. It really is an exciting and interesting novel about an alien species in a planet of incredible gravity (like Jupiter)....Dad

By Fred Porter (not verified) on 17 Mar 2007 #permalink

I will print out this entry as a reference for future reading! I'm a woman who's read science fiction since I was perhaps twelve years old, and it's the only kind of book I can ALWAYS find interesting, no matter what else is going on in my life at the time.

I would add some of my personal favorites to the list (maybe a list of 50 really isn't big enough for the genre!): most anything by Octavia Butler, and two books by Mary Doria Russell, "The Sparrow" and "Children of God."

I enjoy your blog!

By Melinda Stees (not verified) on 13 Apr 2007 #permalink

One more quick comment--I read many of Robert Heinlein's books as a teenager and loved them, but now they seem painfully sexist, and I can't easily get past that to the relevant ideas that surely are still there.

By Melinda Stees (not verified) on 13 Apr 2007 #permalink