Saturday, December 14, 2013

Half Price Books' List of 100 SF Novels: 26-50

Here we have Part 2 of my look at Half Price Book's list of 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy novels, covering selections 26 to 50.  This idiosyncratic list was selected by 3,000 bibliomaniacs, or so says the Half Price Books website.

26) Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
I read the first volume of this series when it was new, and enjoyed it, but didn't pick up the second volume when it came out.  Perhaps for the best.

27) The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
I'm not really into alternate history or any of that, and I think stuff like the I Ching is ridiculous.  Still, if I was living in an alternate universe in which I had to read a Dick novel, it would probably be this one, as it is so highly regarded.  Also, the title is good poetry.

28) Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov
Is this the detective one in which the shock ending is that a woman had sex with a robot?  I read this as a kid, and was disappointed that there wasn't something more to it.

29) Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

30) I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein
I'm a little surprised to see this on the list instead of Starship Troopers, which is so famous and controversial and includes the awesome and influential opening chapter in which the heavily armored human marine fights aliens with a hand flamer.

I read I Will Fear No Evil as a kid, and, looking back, I am surprised I finished it.  Presumably I was charmed by the idea of a friend in my head to keep me company, and I guess there must have been some sex in the book.  I do want to reread this one; I think Heinlein has a good writing style, and there is no way it could be as bad as Number of the Beast.

31) Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind 
This is the Objectivist fantasy epic, right?  I'm sympathetic to Ayn Rand's individualistic philosophy, but I don't want to spend time reading a long book about it.  I haven't read any Ayn Rand's own novels, and I'm not going to read any of this guy's novels.  Those two page articles in Reason magazine about Rand are enough for me to get the gist of her thought and move on.

32) A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs    
This is one of my favorite books.  I love everything about it; Burroughs comes up with a very exciting, even beautiful, version of Mars, and his writing really brings it to life.  The fact that the book is so old, and written in an old-fashioned style, and espouses old-fashioned values (it is basically an apologia for 19th-century imperialism, isn't it?) makes it even more alien and perhaps paradoxically even more believable.  At the same time it is an over the top wish fulfillment fantasy: John Carter is immortal, the best swordsman in the solar system, and also scrupulously honest and decent.  He doesn't use his superior fighting ability to rob people and sleep around like Conan; he is faithful to his wife and tries to teach the people of Mars how to behave.  Somehow Burroughs makes it work and people like Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Gene Wolfe have been singing Burroughs' praises ever since.

33) Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
I read the four Hitchhiker books as a kid, and I enjoyed them, but I remember little now.  I might read these again.

34) Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffery
I read a bunch of these Pern books as a kid; I liked the idea of having a little friend dragon that would keep me company all the time.  Also, the idea of the Thread attacking the planet every century or whatever is exciting.  As an adult I tried to read Dragonflight, which I think is the first of these Pern books, and thought it was horrible and wrote a scathing review on Amazon. 

35) The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks
I loved the Elfstones of Shannara as a kid; it was like 300 pages of guys running around, fighting with swords and bows and magic fire.  I imagined that the Elfstones were like my light blue plastic D&D dice.  Then I read The Sword of Shannara, and I liked it, but I found the end disappointing, anti-climactic.  It was trying to teach you a lesson about telling the truth or something, which I found condescending.  I can still remember sitting in the car, riding home from Nana's in my Dad's car, reading by the dashboard light, finishing the book and thinking, "Is this really how it ends?  This is like a book for kids."  I got the Wishsong of Shannara as a gift, and started it, but the magical artifact wasn't as cool as the Ellfstones, I was older, and the story seemed repetitive, so I abandoned it.

I've been thinking of reading Elfstones again, but I'm afraid the same thing might happen as happened when I tried to read Dragonflight.

36) The Once and Future King by T. H. White
My mother gave me a paperback copy of this and it sat on my bookshelf for twenty odd years.  I don't know where it is now; maybe my brother has it.

37) Brave New World by Aldous Hiuxley
This is pretty good.

38) Foundation by Isaac Asimov  
I tried to read this as an adult; I read the first two or three stories, and then abandoned it.  Asimov's writing style was feeble.  Even worse was the plot: besides being outlandish (a guy can predict exactly what will happen hundreds of years in the future?) it is terrible drama.  (A guy teleporting to Mars and sword fighting everybody is outlandish but good drama.)  The stories consist of a guy sitting in a room, watching a movie of a dead guy telling him what to do; then he does it, all goes perfectly, the end.  There is no humanity, no feeling, no tension, it's as exciting as watching a guy order a burger at McDonalds' drive thru; wow, look, he ordered a quarter pounder and... he receives a quarter pounder! 

What is the ethic, the ideology of these stories?  That an elite of smart guys should manipulate the rest of us behind the scenes?  Sickening. Who does this appeal to?  Smart guys who want to manipulate other people?  I've heard that Paul Krugman and Newt Gingrich love Asimov's Foundation books, that they were inspired by the idea of using math to bend history and society in the direction they want it to go.  Horrible.

I remember, as a kid, reading an essay by Isaac Asimov.  I'd like to read it again, but of course I can't recall the title or where I saw it.  It must have been in an SF anthology or something.  Asimov was decrying stories in which a barbarian defeats a wizard.  Presumably he was referring to Conan.  I had never read such stories, they not being at the local library, and I remember thinking it odd that Asimov, who had like a dozen books at the local library, was attacking writers whose work I had never seen as if they were a ubiquitous plague.  Asimov thought it bad that the smart guy in the story was the villain, and the strong guy the hero, that this would teach people the wrong values or something.

Obviously, in the Foundation stories we see Asimov doing the opposite, giving us a story in which a smart guy tricks the strong guy.  In one of the stories I read in the first volume of the Foundation series the heroes win by selling to the villains a space battleship that they have sabotaged.  The villains are so stupid they don't realize the ship has been sabotaged and try to use it to conquer some planet or other, and of course are humiliated when their weapons don't work.  Maybe this is the wish fulfillment fantasy of a smart but weak kid, but to me, this is not drama.

Maybe it was not obvious to Asimov, but it seems obvious to me why stories of strong guys fighting hand to hand with enemies and monsters is appealing -- it is an allegory for our lives, which are a long lonely struggle which we are doomed to lose.  And it is obvious why people like the story of the ordinary man who defeats the smart man who has specialized knowledge.  In our everyday lives we are all at the mercy of people who are smarter than we are, or have knowledge we lack: lawyers, politicians, doctors, bankers, car mechanics, etc.  These people could use their specialized knowledge to take advantage of us, and sometimes they do.  And of course many people envy the wealth that clever people in our modern society can accumulate.  So of course people like the idea of the barbarian overcoming the crafty wizard.  Who would identify with a guy who sells another guy defective merchandise, a guy who wins by lying, by trickery? A lot of people, apparently, because we see Foundation on these lists all the time, but I don't get it.  

39) Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman
This is the guy who hates religion, right?  I'm an atheist already, so what would be the point of me reading this book?  Religion in the West has been in decline for centuries; is it fun to kick a man when he is already down? 

My brother read some of these His Dark Materials books, and said the early ones were good, but they got worse as more and more anti-religious stuff took over the page count.

40) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick
This is the basis of the film Blade Runner, I believe.  I thought that movie was OK, but apparently it is common for people to praise it extravagantly.  Once I was sitting with two college professors, and one of them told the other that Blade Runner was the movie that best portrayed "the urban space," or some jargon like that.  I think they were talking about the movie Children of Men, which he had just seen and thought was Blade Runner's only competition for top spot in depicting what city life was all about.  I haven't seen Children of Men, and I haven't read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and I don't need to use the I Ching to tell me I am probably not going to do either.

41) Anathem by Neal Stephenson
This guy has a good reputation, but somehow his books always look like a slog, like a project, and self-consciously educational. Forbidding.

42) The Black Company by Glen Cook
I have read all ten of the Black Company books, and enjoyed and recommend the first four.  The first one, or maybe the "spin off," The Silver Spike, are the best.  As the series ground on it became slower paced and eventually tedious, but out of curiosity I read them all.

The Black Company are a bunch of ruthless jerk offs, a mercenary unit in a world dominated by warring evil wizards. In the first episode of the book the Black Company betrays and murders the people who have hired them because they realize they are on the losing side of a war. The cool thing about the first book is that Cook conceives of ten bizarre evil wizards, each one with a cool name, like The Hanged Man or Nightcrawler or The Howler, and each one has a weird deformity, strange mannerisms, and special powers.  I would have loved reading about these wizards and their insane adventures trying to conquer the world and each other.  Unfortunately, these wizards all get killed pretty quickly.

The books in the Black Company series are the record of the Company's career, written by the unit's annalist.  Early in the first book the Black Company is hired by a female wizard known as The Lady, the most ruthless, evil and powerful wizard in the world.  In a bizarre piece of foreshadowing, the annalist entertains the Black Company's troops by writing and reciting pornographic stories about his imaginary love affair with The Lady!  (This pornography is not reproduced in the book.  You can decide on your own if this makes the books more attractive or less attractive.)  Then, to my dismay, the Lady is overthrown and joins the Black Company and turns out not to be a bad person after all and the Black Company starts being the good guys.  With the Black Company now the good guys, the series loses much of what made it distinctive. 

The Silver Spike is a sort of noirish story of criminals who mess with an undead wizard or something like that; there are lots of plot twists and double crosses and so forth.  I liked it.

43 & 44) The Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn and The Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
I saw these, but I didn't touch them.

45) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll      
I haven't read this.  My wife read it some years ago.  I may read it someday. 

46) Legacy of Heorot by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and John Barnes
It took three guys to write this?

I read this when it was new, a million years ago.  As I remember, some guys try to explore or colonize a planet, and some monster attacks them.  This novel is an homage to "Beowulf;" the monster is called "a grendel."  I'm not exactly a fan of the whole "I'm going to rewrite Romeo and Juliet and put it in a New York slum," or "I'm going to write Moby Dick, but in outer space," or "I'm going to write a feminist version of the Trojan War," school of literature.  I guess everybody thinks they can do this because James Joyce did it.

I did like when Gilligan and the Professor put on their own production of Hamlet, though.

I guess I liked Legacy of Heorot, but was disappointed that there weren't more monsters or something else going on with the plot.  Or maybe Niven's, Pournelle's and/or Barnes's writing style wasn't doing it for me.  Still, I'd consider reading this again.

Niven and Pournelle aren't exactly master wordsmiths, but they seem like smart guys and Niven definitely has good ideas when it comes to setting.  I liked the setting of the two Integral Trees books, and Ringworld was alright, and Mote in God's Eye was pretty good.  I'm a little surprised Legacy of Heorot is here and not Mote.  I'd bet a million dollars Mote is more famous and sold more copies.

My rule of thumb, based on my career working at book stores and in academia, is that when more than one author is listed, the last person listed probably actually wrote the book.  So I'm guessing John Barnes did most of the work on Legacy of Heorot.  I have two John Barnes books on my shelf, but I haven't read them yet.  I bought them because Orson Scott Card and Poul Anderson both compare Barnes to Heinlein.  I should make an effort to read them.

47) Dark is the Sun by Phillip Jose Farmer
I am surprised this is on here instead of To Your Scattered Bodies Go.  I have mixed feelings about Farmer, who tries to do adventure stories like, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs, but tries to make them more "modern" or sexy.  I've read several of Farmer's books, with To Your Scattered Bodies Go being good, Maker of Universes bad, and Dayworld and Dare average.  I might read Dark is the Sun if I stumble on it for a few dollars or at a library.  The cover looks like that of a solid adventure story, and my man Tarbandu at PorPor Books Blog praises it.

48) Off Armageddon Reef by David Weber
I've considered reading Weber, but never actually done it.  I am interested in military history (I have big piles of books about WWII tanks and planes and ships, books about Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, a stack of those Osprey books about medieval knights and WWII infantry tactics, etc.) and like the idea of space navies fighting vast wars, but the few times I've tried to read "military SF" I've been disappointed.  Heinlein's Starship Troopers, Haldeman's Forever War, and the Aubrey/Maturin books by Patrick O'Brian are good fiction about guys participating in wars because Heinlein, Haldeman and O'Brian are good writers, and their books are about more than just fighting, they are about politics, society, human relationships, etc.  I guess I'm worried that Weber's books will just be page after page of people shooting it out, and I have no idea if Weber is a good writer.  Perhaps I am doing him a disservice.

49) Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg
This is, in my opinion, Silverberg's best book, and the book of his I'd expect to see on a list like this, a book that is quite like a modern mainstream literary novel, about a smart guy living in a big city, trying to face life and its challenges and changes.  I think this is the kind of book a person who reads Nabokov and Saul Bellow, but looks down at science fiction, could enjoy.

50) Watch on the Rhine by John Ringo and Tom Kratman
Most of what I say about David Weber above could probably go for John Ringo.  This book, according to the synopsis on Wikipedia, seems kind of crazy, like it was deliberately written to piss people off.  Aliens attack the Earth, so the Earth raises the Waffen SS from the dead to fight them?  Cripes!   


Tomorrow the saga of Half Price Books' list of 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy books will continue.     


  1. The distinct lack of female authors is incredibly bothersome.... But then again, the majority of books are so incredibly average. I can't believe that a few good ones like Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg even sneak into the list!

    But yeah, even my 14 year-old self though Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov was dull and unremarkable. Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind is the most bloated fantasy crud possible... etc etc. Don't even feel like engaging with these types of lists.

  2. I live to engage!

    As for female authors, I didn't make a count, but there are three LeGuin titles and two Butlers, and they are important SF writers, not just shoved on there to fulfill some diversity requirement. McCaffery and Gabaldon are popular, and they are there. So I'm not sure it is so bad. It would have been fun to see Leigh Brackett. I would have expected Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, but they must consider that "horror."

    Women like Kit Reed and Judith Merrill are missing, but so are men like Harlan Ellison and Fred Pohl. Obviously the list isn't based on "importance to the field" or "critical consensus."

  3. Your list reactions continue to amuse non-stop. Some of these choices really baffle me, especially Heinlein and Niven. I can think of several by both that I would put on here before the selected titles.
    Re: Weber and Ringo, if you don't love manly, gun-toting, red blooded Americans and hate lily-livered liberals, you might not enjoy Ringo. I don't. Weber is a bit better and keeps his politics slightly more under his hat. I recommend starting with "Crusade," wherein fundamentalist turtles invade the Human Commonwealth. You'd probably know pretty quickly if it's your bag or not.

  4. I'm glad you enjoy my look at the list; I enjoyed writing it.

    I'll keep Crusade in mind as the Weber to pick up. Turtles as villains, though? Turtles are adorable! Next you'll be telling me there's a movie about an army of penguins trying to take over New York City!