Sunday, December 15, 2013

Half Price Books' List of 100 SF Novels: 51 to 100

Here we are as in olden days, considering Half Price Books' List of 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy books worthy of "geeking out" over.  Oh those kids and their wacky slang.  Today we are cutting a rug with selections 51 to 100, chosen by 3,000 "bibliomaniacs."  That's right, over the objections of the union, we are doubling production for this post.

51, 52 & 53) The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling, and Old Man' s War by John Scalzi
These are all books I have not read by authors whose books I have not read.  I remember people on the SF newsgroups praising Anubis Gates, and I have considered reading Stirling's books about people going to Venus and Mars, and John Scalzi gets a lot of attention in what the kids are calling "the blogosphere," but somehow I have not read any of their books yet.

54 & 56) The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers and The Electric Church by Jeff Somers
I haven't heard of these books or authors before.  Am I getting a magic realism vibe?

55) The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson  
This gets good press, but I'm not moved.

57) Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
I might read this some day.  It is my understanding that it is a condemnation of the Allied policy of raining bombs on Nazi Germany.  Maybe we've found something on which Vonnegut and John Ringo of Watch on the Rhine fame can agree.

58) Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
I own the very edition chosen by the bibliomaniacs to illustrate their list.  This is Volume II of the Gormenghast Trilogy.  I own all three of the books, and have read Volume I, Titus Groan. I wanted to like it, and I finished it, but it seemed very long and slow - its over 500 pages of tiny little print, like 38 lines to a page!  There wasn't much plot that I can remember.  A bunch of weirdos live in a huge castle and have difficult conversations with each other, then there is some kind of climactic one on one fight, then a funeral.  I must be forgetting something; I am told this is one of the greatest classics of 20th century British literature.

Gormenghast looks to be even longer than Titus Groan

I like Peake's illustrations to the book; will that protect me from charges of philistinism?

59) Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
People are always hailing this as a masterpiece, so I am not surprised it is on the list.  I don't find overpopulation and ecological scare books very interesting, though, and the only John Brunner book I have read (Maze of Stars) was very weak.  Also, this thing is over 500 pages long.

Add another charge of philistinism to my record.

60) Mort by Terry Prachett
I read the first Discworld book when it came out, and it didn't make me laugh, so I have never read any more Terry Prachett books.  I'm not crazy about SF books whose main goal is to be funny or to be a parody of other SF books. 

In a brush with fame, on June 30, 2003, I posted something banal on the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup, and Terry Prachett, or someone using the name, agreed with me.

61) Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
I remember women in the office reading this during the Harry Potter craze, and my wife read it as well.  Wizards during the Napoleonic Wars?  Not for me.

62) Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
I've enjoyed some Zelazny, like This Immortal and Damnation Alley and some short stories, and disliked some, including the first Amber book which I read as a kid, disliked, and then tried as an adult, and disliked again.  Lord of Light I have not attempted.  Maybe someday.

63) Ladyhawke by Joan Vinge
Ladyhawke?  I laughed when I saw this on here.  Joan Vinge is a respected writer, but a movie tie-in for a B movie?  Are the bibliomaniacs just recommending it because Michelle Pfeiffer is so good looking?   The cover image of the paperback is an arresting portrait of Pfeiffer, no doubt.

I hate going to the movie theater, smelling other people and listening to them eat.  I can recall all the films I have seen in a theater, because the number is so small.  Ladyhawke is one of the movies I saw in a theater with other kids when it came out.  We thought it was silly - we were cynical kids.  There is a scene in which we see the interior of a castle from the point of view of a fighting man in a visored helmet; we laughed because looking through the slots of the visor as the soldier advanced looked like the view from inside a TIE fighter.  The double crossbow also made me groan.  I was a real killjoy.     

Seeing the Ladyhawke tie-in here makes me wonder why there are no Star Wars or Star Trek books on this list.  If those movie/TV tie-ins were excluded, why not this one?  Half Price Books' bibliomaniacs work in ways mysterious.

64) I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
I read at least some of these stories as a kid, and of course like everybody I know the Three Laws of Robotics.  I can't recall anything about these stories, though.  I'm guessing they are puzzle stories, in which a robot behaves oddly and the human characters sit around and figure out the peculiar way the robot interpreted the Three Laws of Robotics.  Very droll.

65) Armor by John Steakly
I've already described my thinking about MilSF.

There's quite a bit of MilSF on this list, but not the series I thought was famous, one I have actually read a little of, David Drake's "Hammer's Slammers."   

66, 67 & 75) The Lathe of Heaven, The Wizard of Earthsea, and the Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
I've never read any LeGuin.  I've always assumed these books would be some kind of feminist polemic.  I got my fill of feminist polemic at Rutgers and CUNY. Maybe I am missing out.  My wife has read some LeGuin, but I think they were "mainstream" books, not any of these.

68) The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffery
I might have read this when I was reading those Pern books, or maybe I just read about it.  The idea of imbedding a human intelligence in a machine is of course a good idea.  Probably I wouldn't read this today.

69 & 71) Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell and Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
I must be out of touch; these I have never heard of.

70) War with the Newts by Karl Kapek
Here we go with the esoterica, a book written in Czech in 1936.  Maybe people are reading this in college?

According to Wikipedia this is an attack on racism, fascism, nationalism, consumerism, and scientism that lacks a central character.  Sounds like fun.  The film was scheduled to be released in 2013, and is still in production.  Don't pulp all those extra copies just yet, Half Price Books people! 

72 & 76) To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
I've never read anything by Willis.

73 & 99) Stardust and Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
I've not read anything by Neil Gaiman. This is magical realism, right?  My wife, Gene Wolfe, and Tori Amos all like Gaiman, but so far I have resisted their blandishments.

74) Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link  
You're not going to be shocked to hear I haven't encountered this one before.  The cover is a "reimagining" of my favorite painting by Leonardo Da Vinci, "Lady with an Ermine."  I think Leonardo is a little overrated; I like Leonardo, but I think Michelangelo, Rafael, and Botticelli are all superior.  One mark of their superiority is that the secret codes embedded in their paintings have yet to be deciphered.

77) Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
I remember the women in the office back in New York lugging this around.  This is a romance novel about a woman who goes back in time to fight in some sexy Anglo-Scottish war, right?  I can't really poke fun at this after gushing about Princess of Mars, can I?

Wasn't it annoying when every time Scotland came up in conversation somebody had to perform that "we got colonized by wankers" soliloquy?  I don't miss those days.  

78 & 79) Mockingbird by Walter Tevis and This is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow
These are books I've never heard of.  I've been living under a rock!

Mockingbird sounds like it might be interesting, and would give me excuses to reminisce about New York.

Morrow is one of those guys who makes sure his pets are mentioned in his Author's Bio.  Woof!  This is the Way the World Ends takes an audaciously bold stand and tries to awaken the public to the possible negative effects of a nuclear war.

80) Robotech: Battlecry by Jack McKinney
Ladyhawke doesn't look so crazy now, does it?

When it was first on U.S. TV I loved loved loved the Macross sequence of Robotech.  I thought the mecha designs and the Zentraedi space ship designs were brilliant, and I even thought the soap opera story of the Rick Hunter/Lynn Minmay/Lisa Hayes love triangle and the Romeo and Juliet story of Max and Miriya Stirling worked.  (On the inside I am a sentimental sap.)  I loved the background music and the funny subplot about the three alien spies (it's like Ninotchka, isn't it?). I bought Macross comic books and role playing game books, I drew Zentraedi battle pods in my notebooks during boring college classes. I was hooked.

When I first saw these Jack McKinney novels I was past my Robotech phase.  The story of how they came about, which I just read on Wikipedia, is pretty interesting.  Jack McKinney is a pen name for two writers, one of them Brian Daley.  As a kid I read Brian Daley's Han Solo's Revenge.  The other kids in school saw me carrying it around, and so, one day, when they were trying to start a fight between me and some other kid, one of these little bastards told me, "You need to get revenge on him, like Han Solo!" 

81 & 82) Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marrillier and Resurrection by Arwen Elys Dayton
These must have been published while I was in that coma.

83 & 84) Parable of the Sower and Kindred by Octavia Butler
I haven't read any Octavia Butler.  We were supposed to read a Butler book in my Science Fiction class at Rutgers, but either we didn't get to it, or I just neglected to read it.  I wasn't a very conscientious student.

85 & 86) The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass by Phillip Pullman
Covered these already.

87 & 88) Grass by Sheri Tepper and Three Days to Never by Tim Powers
Nothing is coming up on the scanner.

89) Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Often, at the New York Public Library's Mid-Manhattan Branch, I would pick up their hulking copy of this book, feel I should read it, then put it back as appearing too forbidding.  I had read Delany's Nova and The Ballad of Beta-2, both of which I thought were just OK.  Today I can remember almost nothing about either.  

The Wikipedia page for Dhalgren makes the book sound very exciting, with titans of SF ranged on both sides, ecstatically for or against the book.  800 pages full of typos, however, is an investment I am not currently willing to commit myself to. 

90) That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis
I was disappointed in Out of the Silent Planet, so didn't get to this one.

91) Logan's Run by William Nolan and George Clayton Johnson
I've seen this movie, and never considered reading the novel. 

92) The White Mountains by John Christopher
I read the three Tripods books as an adult, and enjoyed them.

93) Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov
I thought this movie was fun because of the art direction, special effects and cast, but I never thought to read the book Asimov came up with based on the screenplay.

94) Mister Monday by Garth Nix
I see this guy's name in the anthologies I take out of the library.  Is this a kid's book?

"Tuesday Afternoon" by the Moody Blues and "Drive In Saturday" by David Bowie are great songs.  When I was a kid I went through a U2 phase, and loved "Sunday, Bloody Sunday."  

95) Ringworld by Larry Niven
This is a good novel, but has a bunch of nagging problems.  The characters are too much like caricatures, you can't take them seriously and you can't care about them.  The book's tone is too silly and light.  Also, Niven's idea that "luck" is not only real, but hereditary, is irritatingly stupid.

96) The Misenchanted Sword by Lawrence Watt-Evans   
I kind of want to read this.  When I was young I read Watt-Evans' Cyborg and the Sorcerers and really enjoyed it.  I'd like to read that again.  

On a side note, I like many of the realistic cover paintings Darrell K. Sweet and Michael Whelan have done over the years.

97) Robopacalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
I feel like I just failed a spelling test. 

98) The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor
Looking Glass War is my favorite novel by John Le Carre.  Is this the sequel?

100) The Giver by Lois Lowry
This is SF?  Who knew?


Final notes on omissions
There is no Frankenstein, no Dracula, no I Am Legend, and no H. P. Lovecraft.  Maybe the Half Price Books bibliomaniacs consider that those popular and important books belong in the horror category.

There's also no H. G. Wells or Jules Verne, which is odd, especially when we see Karl Kapek on there.

Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance are not represented. Wolfe and Vance have devoted followings in the SF community, and are the kind of SF writers who receive praise from prestigious mainstream institutions like The New York Times, so it is noteworthy that the bibliomaniacs left them off but put a cartoon tie-in and a movie tie-in on there.

There are fantasies I've never heard of on the list, and fantasies the critics frown on as Tolkein clones, like Sword of Shannara, but no Conan or Elric.  Robert Howard and Michael Moorcock have been very influential, have critical defenders, and Conan and Elric are very popular, so it is a little strange.

If Lord of the Rings and the Pullman thing had been considered as a single book there would have been space for representative works of famous authors like Arthur C. Clarke or Harlan Ellison, writers important to the history of the SF field like Poul Anderson or A. E. Van Vogt, or acknowledged classics like Pohl's Gateway and Haldeman's Forever War.

Still, this is a fun list of SF books, and I encourage everyone to rush to the library to seek them out.  I mean to Half Price Books.  And keep an eye out for the faithful adaptation of War with the Newts starring Will Smith coming soon to a theatre near you.


  1. Tim Powers is not the greatest writer of the past three decades, but he writes engaging enough adventures. The Anubis Gates is often listed as a top steampunk story, but for me it was a nicely plotted time travel novel with a great ending - and I generally dislike time travel stories.

    John Scalzi is as mainstream as sci-fi gets these days. Reading his stories is like a lazy Wednesday night with nothing to do but watch that film you remember liking twenty years ago but now that you see it again, realize there's very little which sets it apart. I have the feeling that people will think the same of Scalzi 20 years from now.

    I have the same opinion of Zelazny's books as you. Almost everything I've read except the Amber books has been enjoyable. The critic Brian Attebery in his Strategies of Fantasy writes a very interesting essay on the risks of writing science fantasy, i.e. how easily it descends into the unintentionally comical. For me, the scene in the first Amber book (name?) where a car is racing an over-sized unicorn is a precise manifestation of Attebery's critique. (In contrast, Attebery cites The Book of the New Sun as an example of science fantasy that utilizes the best of both genres to enhance the story.) Read Lord of Light. I think the way Zelazny uses the narrative structure to parallel the ideologies under discussion makes it his best work.

    Much of Le Guin's work is 'feminist polemic'. But it wasn't until later in her career that she started banging the gong on that bandwagon. Her early works, though still 'soft science fiction', contain less feminism and more focus on humanist and philosophical ideals. is a Daoist coming of age; The Lathe of Heaven is another usage of Daoism, though this time it looks at social balance and active/inactive participation in life through a strange, dreamlike story; and , while having gender as a main theme, is not an 'everybody on your knees to beg forgiveness for millennia of female oppression' type of novel, but rather a more universal application of Said's Other embedded in a good Antarctic trek/political thriller. But, I'm guessing that will not interest you either. :)

    I'm surprised you have not heard of Richard Morgan. Based on the other books you cite as quality, Morgan's fit right in. His main characters utilize a very Robert E. Howard-esque attitude to the world, and the stories have no shortage of action in a well-realized setting. I personally think Altered Carbon is just a good beach read, but it may strike closer to home for you. It won't hurt to give it a try.

    Love the comment on the Morrow novel... :)

  2. Thanks for your interesting comments and kind words. And thanks for inspiring me to this quixotic endeavor!

    I'll keep Tim Powers and Richard Morgan in mind. I love a good adventure story.

  3. I see that I must have input my html marks wrong as A Wizard of Earthsea and are missing from the paragraph on Le Guin above. You'll have to imagine where they should be. :)

  4. I am greatly enjoying your blog and your reviews, though I sometimes disagree with you on individual books. Here are some comments on some of the books in the list you haven't had a chance to read:

    Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut - One of my very favorite books. Vonnegut has an ability to use very simple declarative sentences and calm language to somehow heighten the emotional impact of events. I don't see this as a condemnation of allied policy against the Nazis as a condemnation of the madness and destruction of war in general. Adding a protagonist cast adrift in time allows a detached viewpoint to the events of World War II and the social and economic development of the USA in the 50s.

    Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner - I stand with those who consider this a masterpiece--not so much for its message about population as for its sheer exuberance in experimenting with writing craft and its wry observations on human character. As predictive SF, it has suffered the same fate most '60s SF--developments in computers and population growth followed a different path than the one described in his world of Manhattan in 2010. However, in using exaggerated circumstances to observe and comment on human society, it is absolutely right on! It is very much worth tackling.

    Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny - Zelazny was a remarkably uneven writer, but at his best he could out-write almost anyone. In my opinion, Lord of Light was by far his best novel. The premise is that a group of humans had left a dying Earth to colonize a new planet. The ship's crew used powerful technology to give themselves god-like powers and took the identities and roles of the gods and demi-gods of the Hindu pantheon. The passengers of the ship formed the bulk of the population and the crew used their position as gods to keep the populace in line. The book takes place after this has been going on for several thousand years, and the society has become rigid. The protagonist takes on the role of Buddha and introduces Buddhist principles to overthrow the stranglehold the crew had over the populace. I'll admit I know very little about the Hindu religion and stories and even less about the real development of Buddhism. However, the novel is a gripping, taut story and a very rewarding read.

    The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin - This, I think is the best place to start reading LeGuin. I truly love most of her work, and my favorite novel of hers is The Dispossessed, but most of my acquaintances find that dry and requiring too much patience. The Lathe of Heaven is a terrific What If story--what if your dreams could change reality retroactively into the past? The protagonist, Geroge Orr, has to face exactly this dilemma. Interestingly, the plot in some ways inverts the plots and ideas of Golden Age SF. The protagonist does not want to change the world, while the antagonist wants to use this power to make the world a better, safer, and more humane place. This book is a little unusual for LeGuin's work because it proceeds from scene to scene quickly with less time for reflection than most of her work, making this a fairly fast-paced novel.

    Thank you again for your reviews and thoughtful commentary on SF. Have a Happy New Year!

  5. I'm glad you enjoy the blog. Thanks for your interesting commentary on some of the many important SF books I have neglected to read.

    Good luck in the New Year!