Science Fiction Corpse Canonization

Tim Reluga

January 01, 2017
Started September 2002

HEY! If, a historic science fiction magazine, is now available from the internet archive! Also, there's a new Stanislaw Lem book! Well, not new but freshly translated from the Polish original for any pan-geeks with a taste for things like Solaris, Roadside Picnic, and Anathem. Summa Technologiae, reviewed at the Nautilus.

I love science fiction. The authors of the books below have given me many hours of fun. But part of the fun for me is the analysis of the works. So, my 2 cents on books for canonization follows. If a book was really cool at the time and place when I read it, it makes this list. If you see something your library doesn't have a copy, nag them until they get one (non-circulating copies do not count). I, myself, have had trouble finding copies of several of the books below even in "large" libraries. Better yet, buy two copies and give one away. - Tim Reluga

P.S. The internet makes a big world small, and so I need to pad some elbows. Nobody of consequence will hopefully ever read this, but if you happen to be one of world-builders mentioned by name below, you're awesome. I beg of you forgiveness and deference for this silly pastime of criticism.


Honorable Mention

The Bohr Maker
Linda Nagata (1995). This is a mid-future setting, where the near-solar system has been colonized, citizens of wealthy nations have transcended and move between corporeal and digital existence at will, but most of earth's human population continues to exist in poverty. Despite the technological advances, a conservationist political movement dominates governance, and further divergence from natural evolution of humans has been outlawed. This story tells of the events one outlawed AI sets in motion in his fit for survival. Rich in idea's like makers, ghosts, and solar colonization, this novel helped lay the foundation for transhuman concepts of the early 21st century.
The Difference Engine
Bruce Sterling and William Gibson (1991). World-building at its finest, giving birth to the steampunk genre. Alas, only 1/2 a story to go along with the world-building - some plot devices are much more offensive when than others when they fall short of their promises.
The Adolescence of P-1
Thomas J. Ryan (1977). This science-fiction story of AI-evolved-from-computer-virus is marvelous today for it's depiction of state-of-the-art computing in the 1970's, with mainframes, people reading assembly, and the rudimentariness of the concept of "operating system", among others. It's worth while for that alone, but you get the bonus of a well told, if recognizable-in-hindsight story to boot. Oddly, the limitations of technology at that time (such as an absence of sound-processing in computers) levels the playing field of man-vs-machine, making for a more believable conflict for me than almost all of the modern examples of the subgenre. The sense-of-place-and-time Ryan captures is also quite distinctive, both familiar and culturally distinct from today (though not all parts age favorably in my opinion). The 1985 Wonderworks presentation of the Canadian production of "Hide and Seek", (parts 1, 2, 3, 4 ), is only very loosely based on the book, and better for a younger audience, as the book contains adult material.
M. J. Engh (1976). If you don't know who you are yet, this isn't the book to use as guidance. It is the most divisive work I've ever read, and an unmatched warning for any who can accommodate it.
The Quantum Thief
Hannu Rajaniemi (2010). The story on the threshold of the far future, builds a world with a surprising balance between the human and the posthuman. It's hard to write transhuman fiction and keep the science from bending over into fantasy and magic, but Rajaniemi shows it can be done. He tells his story a little like Ursala K Leguin's Left hand of darkness with much richer technological entanglements. Things feel like they fall over the edge into fantasy too much for me at the end, but it's a rich and thought-provoking story along the way.
The Martian
Andy Weir (2014). A great contemporary hard-scifi frontier survival story.
Roadside Picnic
the Strugatsky brothers (1971), translated from Russian. This is another excellent science fiction novel from 1970's Russia, and a suitable companion work to Lem's Solaris. It's one of those things that's embarrassing - I knew about the concept long before I learned of the book last year. During my senior year of high school, I took a trip out to Oberlin college, which I was considering attending at the time. The one night I was there, the film "Stalker" was showing on campus, and a Egyptian student was wandering the dorm halls recruiting people to attend with her. I had no idea what to expect but science fiction was always intriguing, so I went. It was a miserable 3 hours - I was under-dressed and cold, siting in a hard wooden classroom chair, and instead of a special-effects ladened adventure, I got a tedious foreign film, low on dialog and devoid of action. And yet, it was still tense and compelling. To this day, scenes haunt my memory, including the finest rain-shower I've every seen on a movie screen. The style of the movie, forced into metaphorical rendition for by financial, technical, and artistic limitations, languished in a Zone of introspective psychological cinema for me, with little connection to emphatic science fiction. I find the book suffers none of these limitations - somehow, the text is much freer than the movie, and all those psychological moments take on tangible expression. I would love to see a new film adaptation - not one of our boom-fests or synthetic-world block-busters, but something subtle and close to the original Stalker. Just touched up so all that stress over "what if the next step is my doom"-moments carry visceral weight. Anybody brave enough to put the slime, bug traps, and grinders on screen in a sunny meadow with blue skies?
Neal Stephenson (2008). I breezed through the first 2/3rds of this book like nothing, really enjoying it. I think this is probably because of an unusual match between myself and the book. If you dislike philosophy, or think it's a waste of time, you probably aren't going to enjoy this novel, and will find it dull. If you are math grad student, and are interested in the philosophy of science, no other novel does what this one does. But I didn't like everything about it. At some point, the book just seems to lose its aim, and while there's still fun stuff here and there, I lost interest. But no great criticism there - Hamlet and Huckleberry Finn have similar issues, and nobody's questioning their worth. For an antipodal point, one may investigate Lem's satires, like "Odds".
Red Mars
Kim Stanley Robinson (1993). First book of a trilogy of hard science imaginings on the classic topic of Mars. Our popular-fiction fascination with mars is long and hallowed, tracing through the works including "A Princess of Mars", "The Martian Chronicles", "Stranger in a Strange Land", "War of the Worlds". Robinson creates a work with great research and the feeling of authority, drawing on ideas and insights that, despite their clarity, remain outside the veins of common discourse, while touching on recurring scifi issues of utopianism and pantropy. A great deal of time is spent with specific characters and their points-of-view, so if you don't like the characters, it's a haul to read, but still required.
The Listeners
James Gunn (1972). First contact novel comparable to Contact, Childhood's end, and His Master's voice. In this particular telling, Gunn is systematic, limiting himself to the ordinary science of the day, and addressing the roles of people and the implications for society in a careful and measured manner building on that period in American history. There is very little action in the story, and the aspirational style blunts the few tensions in the novel. Perhaps I would have preferred something with a hard-science edge, but it is a real-science utopian take on first contact, and for that I admire it. Gunn is better known for his excellent anthologies and teaching.
More than Human
Theodore Sturgeon (1953). The beginning of this novella is beautiful written. Put with the rest of the book, it's a well-told story, without the clutter of technology or pseudoscience, mildly triumphant but more emphatically disturbing in a depiction of human transcendence. Sturgeon tells the tale without the naivety of "Childhood's End" and with an impartial eye, leaving the judgments to the reader. I don't like the world he sees.
Vacuum Flowers
Michael Swanick (1987). This is the story of the adventures of a young woman in a solar system colonized haphazardly by humans with malliable personalities. It doesn't carry the excitement of an epic and the characters are a little flat, but the ideas, with strong cyberpunk elements, are interesting. In particular, as a pre-internet publication investigating the broader implications of computer programming. The core premise is that individuals can voluntarily have their personalities reprogrammed, and can even buy personalities off the shelf. Interesting implications abound, but Swanick doesn't quite capture the internal passions and conflicts that something like this is sure to generate. Pay attention to changes in perspective within the third-person limited narration.
John Barnes (2000). This short adventure is set at the end of the 21st century, and recounts the War of the Memes and its aftermath from the perspectives of two old soldiers. How would daily life work in a human world dominated by a meme? How would it compare to an Orwellian world? Can a program really fix the human conflicts of a Brunnerian world? Can a massive emergent intelligence be stable, and if not, what kind of instabilities will appear? Slow at some points, with its back-woods setting, but also with surprises and some bite.
Stand on Zanzibar
John Brunner (1968). Actually, this one needs some comment. It is very under appreciated, particularly at this point (2005) in history. Brunner's science was incremental, not prophetic. Today's high school students know more genetics. Television fades to the internet. But the scientific details have little importance. The book's strength is it's societal breadth. The closest above work is 1984. But where Orwell gives evil an incarnation in Big Brother, Brunner depicts more clearly that evil is an intangible. There is no monolithic Sauron who is the fountain head of all evil. We can not blame some mythical source of tyranny. We alone, as individuals and as society, share responsibility for the suffering and tragedy we decry. And the questions raised by comparison to contemporary history are very interesting. Is terrorism an incarnation of the muckers Brunner predicts. How do we handle the challenge of species improvement? And what do we do with so many of us that we do not fit on Zanzibar? This is a good starting point for understanding of the world before jumping off into the battle for improvement, a good read for all college freshmen.
Beggars and Choosers
N. Kress. Sequel to "Beggars in Spain". Kress's hard scifi depiction of the near future is alien and uncomfortable despite her very human characters. A world where the choices of a few can redefine us all. The originality of this pair of short novels makes them essential reading for all scifi fans, and will likely place them in the cannons of many readers.
C. D. Simak (1952). This is an interesting work, and namesake of our local book store. It didn't enthrall me, but it did hold my interest all the way to the end. City is a more process-oriented take on transcendence than Arthur C. Clark's. And Simak is more concerned with what we leave behind than where we go. The structure of 8 short stories works very well to convey the myth of "man". Published in 1952, this work's recent prehistory was WWII and the cold war. The future City sees is perceptibly colored in accordance, but is much more balanced and constructive than "Canticle for Leibowitz". Miller tells us of our doom along one path. Simak does not disagree, but points out that there are other paths and different people will choose different paths. My main objection was that the book's focus was a little too narrow given subsequent history, but I'm being picky. It really is a good book.
The Book of the New Sun
by Gene Wolfe (1980's). A tetralogy including The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Concilliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch, and The Urth of the New Sun. This dying-earth(far-future, failing sun, science plus minor fantasy) work has a realized setting with strong medieval overtones. The style is similar to that of Zelazny, but the writing is very subtle in places, and went completely over my head in the first book. Much of the story lies in the narrator himself, and the story folds back on itself more than I yet understand. It almost certainly demands a second reading some day. As a unified work, it was a more satisfying if less spectacular saga than Tolkien's. There are a few spectacular sequences in the tetralogy, 1 in the first book and 1 in the third book specifically, which richly blend emotion, drama, and adventure. The rest of the work is slow but seldom boring. In an otherwise solid work, I was troubled with the author's unnecessary employment of time-travel references in the final volume. The follow-up book has elements of worth, but can be skipped without much fuss.
The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. LeGuin. As the author says, less sci-fi, more thought experiment. Well written with some good imagery. Didn't fascinate me as I read it, mostly because it is a meditation on the human condition and tosses off some complex scientific issues hap-hazardly as background, but LeGuin does a good job with the task she set herself.
Have space suit - will travel
by Robert A. Heinlein. This is a very pure space adventure, colored (to its disadvantage) by standard 1950's postwar attitudes and science. There is enough real science(and math!) to keep the work believable. The adventure is fun and well-written, holding itself together where weaker or more fantastic authors would have fallen apart. I think it's a good book for a highschool freshman, but lacks meat for more seasoned readers.
Startide Rising, Uplift War
by David Brin - interesting idea of genetically engineered future but otherwise a standard if dramatic adventure piece. I have not read the originating novel, Sundiver, but have heard it lacks luster. The sequels(Infinity's Shore,...) are improvements.
The Man in the High Castle
by Philip K. Dick. Skitzoid alternate history. Too self-referential, perhaps.
Childhood's End
Arthur C. Clark. I don't buy transcendence, and some issues were resolved unsatisfactorily, but the story is well told.
The Crystal World
J. G. Ballard. The descriptions in this story are spectacular. In literature, there are parallels with The Heart of Darkness. But in the end, I couldn't identify with the protagonist. I wouldn't have guessed that before reading the story, though.
The Fifth Head of Cerberus
Gene Wolfe. This very well written. It consists of 3 intertwining novella's set on a pair of colony worlds. The stories are deep, with strong existentialist tones. I don't know what they mean. The illusions were too vague for me to grasp on a first reading. Even the significance of the title alludes me.
Snow Crash
by Neal Stephenson. A real fun piece of pulp, but less refined than his more recent works. Probably would have been cooler if I'd read it when I was 16.
(first two only) - Isaac Asimov
The Relic
Excellent pulp. The sequel is lower quality, but still fun.
Larry Niven. Good science, lousy story.
Rendezvous with Rama
Arthur C. Clarke. Good science, not much story.
A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller. This is a decent work, but the style of the subject matter presentation didn't move me. The horrors of nuclear war which drive this story are never related in moving emotional manner they deserve. Written near the dawn of the cold war(1959?), Canticle focuses on the deeper philosophical currents that had lead to the existence of a cold war. Its edge is tempered, however, by our existence in a post-coldwar world, where all that was prophesied by this work has not come to pass.

Good Sci-Fi Short Stories

Too many of these stories are hard to get a hold of.

Other works of Science Fiction

Works mislabeled as Science Fiction


I've found several sites useful in pursuing this project. Many have disappeared from the web since I started this project, but I've found new ones to replace the old.

Here are some links to contemporary scifi culture sites.

Reading List

Unusually interesting Science Fiction TV shows

TV shows are almost always bad science fiction - even at it's height, the medium's short form, visual nature, and economics constrains story-telling and world building explorations. This is maybe a little different during the current golden age, but we'll see.