March 5, 2008

My Top 20 Science Fiction Novels, Part 1

I hadn't forgotten about my own version of the "Top 20 Science Fiction Novels," but I did want to think about what novels I would include in such a listing. If you read my last post on this topic, you know that I agree that the following books should be included in the top 20:

The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien; 1954/55)
Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card; 1985)
Dune (Frank Herbert; 1965)
Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein; 1959)
Rendezvous with Rama (Arthur Clarke; 1973)
Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein; 1961)
Speaker for the Dead (Orson Scott Card; 1986)
Childhood's End (Arthur Clarke; 1953)

So that's eight. Now, before we talk about the remaining twelve, let's talk a little more about criteria. Two issues come to mind:

Because science fiction is so series-oriented, do we count the series as "one" book or do we only look at each book individually?
My answer: We look at each book individually. Let's be honest. Most SF series are written over a number of years (if not decades) and individual book quality often varies within the overall series. I love Anne McCaffrey's work and while a good number of her books are top-notch, there are a few that are absolute crap. (Especially when she decided to reuse some of her old plots from previous novels.) Likewise, Frank Herbert's Dune series is wonderful, but Children of Dune and Dune Messiah don't come anywhere close to the quality of the other four books in the series.

Is a "big concept" good enough to ignore bad writing?
My answer: No. Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven have created wonderful ideas for their novels in the form of "the Foundation" and "Ringworld," respectively. Both men wrote a number of books using those two concepts, and both are great concepts, no question. But Isaac Asimov was a novice writer when he wrote Foundation, and it shows. Likewise, the original novel "Ringworld" reads like a poor man's imitation of Robert Heinlein. ("Louis Wu" in particular has always seemed to me to be a rip-off of Heinlein's cranky yet lovable father-figure, whether that's Jubal Harshaw, Citizen of the Galaxy's Col. Richard Baslim ("Baslim the Cripple") or, to a lesser extent, Lazarus Long.) So, as much as these two books deserve recognition, no; they'll wait until I write a "Top 20 Most Influential SF Novels" post, insha'allah.

So, to be in the top 20, a novel has to be not just a good read, but a great read. It has to have both, at the very minimum, a good concept and good writing. Ideally, it should be the type of book that you want to read again and again.

So, the remaining twelve are... (to be continued)

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