The Fifty Essential Authors of Science Fiction

A reader unwisely asked me to list what I consider the essential authors of science fiction. My only qualification to answer is that I am an enormous fan of the genre, and by ‘enormous’ I mean, of course, obese.

On the other hand, as G.K. Chesterton once famously observed, even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel. Having disqualified myself to answer, let us first, as befits a philosopher, examine the question before attempting to answer.

Let us first say what the question is not. I was not asked my personal favorites: those should be obvious enough from my own writing, which steals shamelessly from, er, I mean, pays homage to writers who shaped my imagination: A.E. van Vogt, Olaf Stapledon, Poul Anderson, Keith Laumer, Roger Zelazny, Jack Vance, H.P. Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, Cordwainer Smith, Ayn Rand, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis. If you read what I write, you can tell who I like. If you do not read what I write, then why are you reading this essay? There are also authors I admire, but I cannot steal from them because I lack the skill to copy them: Gene Wolfe and J.R.R. Tolkien.

The question is also not about the historical impact of the books discussed. It is not a list of award winners. It is a list of books which I think every devoted science fiction reader should read in order to understand where his favorites fit into the grand scheme of things.

It is embarrassing to wax enthusiastic over some science fictional idea, such as that all the life around us may be an illusion as in the film THE MATRIX, only to discover the idea has been done better earlier (as in the film DARK CITY) and is indeed a tried and true, if not shopworn, trope of the genre, as old as NIGHT OF DELUSIONS by Keith Laumer, THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH by Philip K. Dick, ‘They’ by Robert Heinlein, WOLRD OF NULL-A by A.E. van Vogt, or even ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS by Lewis Carroll.

Contrariwise, it is fascinating to see where certain tales are specific answers to other tales from earlier in the genre, even a rebuttal. The metaphor I propose is that all science fiction books that rise above mere space adventure yarns are attempting to take part in a generations-long conversation about the basic ideas that define the genre. Unlike spoken conversation, the Long Talk takes place at book length, or at least short story length.

What makes a book ‘essential reading’? On the surface, the answer is easy enough: a book is essential reading if all the Cool Kids who read and discuss the genre have read and are discussing it. You need to know what the Cool Kids are talking about to participate in the Long Talk.

Digging deeper, what makes a book something the Cool Kids talk about?  While there are occasional statistical anomalies where a book is praised and discussed for some reason unrelated to the book’s quality, for the most part the books that everyone talks about are talked about because they are great. Even if they are bad literature, they contain great ideas.

I will try to be objective, that is, to give due credit to books I dislike or even despise, in order correctly to portray their place in the genre. But, because I am listing essential books, and not great books, I will pay more (perhaps undue) attention to their predominance in the conversation of ideas I here call the ‘Long Talk.’

What is the Long Talk about?

Science Fiction is the mythology of the scientific age. It is the attempt to wrestle with (or play with) the revolution in human thought that accompanied the scientific revolution.

In science fiction, man is not the exile of paradise seeking to regain his lost immortality, a creature little lower than the angels but the lord of creation. Instead he is the son of pond scum which evolved from ape-man to cave-man, and shall soon — if our nerve fails not — evolve from space-man to superman.

In science fiction, Man is simultaneously the microscopic inhabitant of a tiny world whirling about an insignificant star in a minor arm of a galaxy lost among myriads, and the destined race that will one day rule the sevagram. (And if you don’t catch that reference, there are books on this list you should read.) And yet science fiction cautions that if we do not mend our ways, the far future will not hold Men Like Gods in their shining towers and laboratories who control the secret energies of the cosmos and practice nudism and vegetarianism; instead by the year 802701 AD man will have devolved into pretty and hapless Eloi and troglodyte cannibal Morlocks.  (And if you don’t catch that reference, start at the beginning of this list.)

History turned a corner during the scientific revolution. Our perceptions of past and future changed as did our notion of man and his place in the cosmos. The old image of the universe was shattered. Once the common man was aware that technological change had changed how his lived his life differently from his forefathers, then adventure stories speculating about how differently his posterity would live became sellable. Curiosity about conditions in the new universe prompted speculations and dreams, from wild flights of fancy to sober considerations of what the future held.

There are those who, for perhaps perfectly laudable reasons, want to claim continuity between science fiction and the imaginative epics of former ages, quoting the flights to the moon by Lucian of Samosata, Dante, Cyrano de Bergerac and Ariosto as ancestors to the more sober moon-shots by literature’s first men in the moon: Hans Pfaall, Impey Barbicane, Professor Cavor, Richard Seaton, Kurt Newton, Leslie LeCroix. Nonetheless, spiritual journeys or voyages by hippogriff-back do not take place in the modern, scientific view of the universe. Science fiction cannot be older than the science which inspired it.

I artificially limit myself to 50 authors, and I exclude works set in worlds like Middle-Earth, Narnia, Earthsea, Prydain.

So, first on any list of essential SF reading we must list those who created the genre

  • FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley. Listed because it is not just a first, but the first. The principle preoccupation of science fiction is the central theme of this antique work: namely, the role of Man in the scientific conception of the universe.
  • FLATLAND by A Square (Edwin Abbott)
  • TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA by Jules Verne. Scientific speculation so solid that it later came to pass. Likewise, FROM EARTH TO MOON. Likewise, MASTER OF THE WORLD.
  • THE WAR OF THE WORLDS by H.G. Wells. Invented the trope of alien invasion; solid speculation about the nature of Darwinian evolution. Likewise, THE TIME MACHINE. Likewise, THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU. Likewise, THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON.
  • ‘The Machine Stops’ by E.M. Forster. An brief and ironic rebuke to Wells.

Verne and Wells are the inventors of Hard SF and Soft SF respectively. Verne invented the trope of describing his fictional machines in sufficient detail to convince the reader they were real. Ironically, the fact that the much less realistic Wells (Antigravity metal and time machines are fantasy compared to submarines and aircraft) used fantasy science to make telling commentaries on the human question keeps him more current and more readable than Verne.

  • VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay. This inclusion on this list is problematical, since this obscure work had little effect on the genre. Nonetheless, it is the single most sustained act of imaginative excess I have ever read, and the first attempt to use science fictional tropes to address philosophical, metaphysical, and religious questions.
  • LAST AND FIRST MEN by Olaf Stapledon. First literary attempt to plot the course of future history from the present (1930) through the rise and fall of eighteen distinct evolutions of mankind into new races until some two thousand million years hence. The sheer ambition of the conceit is enough to call it essential reading. Likewise, STARMAKER.
  • “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges. Included here to provoke an argument on what constitutes science fiction.
  • NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by George Orwell. Perhaps the most sobering dark satire of all time; so sobering some critics do not realize it is a satire.
  • BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley.

While the literary giants were treating SF with serious ideas, pulp magazines in America were burgeoning. Those who would stuff our more embarrassing ancestors into the closet when guests call are doing the genre a disservice.

  • THE MOON POOL by A Merritt. The transition from ‘Lost Race’ adventures to true science fiction. Also, THE METAL MONSTER.
  • A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Invented the Planetary Romance genre. This book is surprisingly mature science fiction, despite its juvenile theme and style. Likewise, GODS OF MARS and WARLORD OF MARS.
  • SKYLARK OF SPACE by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith. Invented the Space Opera, or, at least, the large-scale intergalactic adventure tale. Also, SKYLARK DUQUESNE, including merely for the audacity of its final sequence, when whole galaxies are obliterated. Likewise The Lensman Series by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith includes THE GALACTIC PATROL, THE GRAY LENSMAN, SECOND STAGE LENSMAN and CHILDREN OF THE LENS. This is the quintessential Big Budget Space Opera, and the first tale to postulate a peaceful civilization embracing many utterly alien species.
  • ‘A Martian Odyssey’ by Stanley G. Weinbaum. First depiction of aliens who are not really monsters, and not merely humans. (Albeit that honor is disputed with the Lensman series, see above.)
  • ‘With Folded Hands’ by Jack Williamson. Also see LEGION OF SPACE and LEGION OF TIME. See also ‘The Moon Era.’
  • ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ by H.P. Lovecraft. Also, ‘A Whisperer in Darkness’ and ‘Shadow Out of Time’. Arguably outside the science fiction genre, these weird tales contain a mythic power of cosmic awe and mystery far beyond their meager literary merit.

The Golden Age writers of John W Campbell Jr did work in short stories and novellas which give these shorter work disproportionate influence on the genre. Unlike their pulp predecessors, more scientific verisimilitude was included in these yarns.

  • ‘The Black Destroyer’ by A.E. van Vogt. This story started the Golden Age. SLAN by A.E. van Vogt. A successful depiction of a superhuman by a human author. Also, WORLD OF NULL-A and PLAYERS OF NULL-A. Likewise, THE WEAPON SHOPS OF ISHER. The right to buy weapons is the right to be free. Now largely forgotten, at one time van Vogt was considered one of the Big Three of SF (the other two being Asimov and Heinlein, see below.)
  • FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov, including FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE and SECOND FOUNDATION. The decline and fall of the galactic empire. Also, CAVES OF STEEL, THE NAKED SUN. First example of science fiction detective stories.
  • “The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert Heinlein. First use of a coherent future history. Also “Requiem” and “Green Hills of Earth” also see ORPHANS OF THE SKY by Robert Heinlein. First use of multigeneration ships. No one can call himself an SF reader who has not read a Heinlein juvenile. Any of them will do, but I suggest HAVE SPACE SUIT WILL TRAVEL, CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY and STARMAN JONES. Also, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Heinlein. For its time, a daring countercultural satire.  STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein. First military SF.
  • FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman. A counterpoint to the above.
  • OUT FROM THE SILENT PLANET by C.S. Lewis. This is Lewis’s reply to H.G Wells. Also PERELENDRA and THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH.
  • CHILDHOOD’S END by Arthur C Clarke. This is Clarke’s reply to Lewis. It also forms the definitive expression of science fiction’s central myth. Also, 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY. Also ‘Against the Fall of Night’ aka CITY AND THE STARS by Arthur C Clarke. Also RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA.
  • CITY by Clifford Simak. Also WAY STATION
  • MISSION OF GRAVITY by Hal Clement. Widely regarded as the best ‘world building’ done in an SF tale.
  • ‘The Man Who Counts’ by Poul Anderson. A fine Nicholas van Rijn tale. Likewise ‘The Queen of Air and Darkness ‘ Likewise, BRAINWAVE, TAU ZERO or HARVEST OF STARS. You have to read some Poul Anderson to be a SF reader.
  • DINOSAUR BEACH by Keith Laumer. Few other time travel stories attempt to cover all the aspects of what time travel would entail.
  • THE BIG TIME by Fritz Leiber. And this is one of the few. I would include CONJURE WIFE or OUR LADY OF DARKNESS on this list, but they are not SF.
  • ‘Nightwings’ by Robert Silverberg. No short story better captures the eerie sense of immensities of time.
  • RIVERWORLD by Philip Jose Farmer. Or perhaps WORLD OF TIERS instead.
  • ‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Godwin. This is included as the crucial short story that put a period to the Campbellian optimism of the Golden Age.

The Silver Age writers concentrated on literary devices rather than big ideas.

  • ‘Repent Harlequin Said the Ticktockman’ by Harlan Ellison. Not being to my taste, I am not sure why this tale is famous, but it is an essential of the genre.
  • THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE by Philip K Dick. As above.
  • LORD OF LIGHT by Roger Zelazny. Myth and SF blended. Also, NINE PRINCES IN AMBER. Technically not SF, but widely influential on all later multiverse style stories.
  • FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury. Likewise, THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. Mr Bradbury is lyrical and subtle, and considered one of the ABC’s of SF. (The other two being Asimov and Clarke, see above.)
  • STAND ON ZANZIBAR by John Brunner. The quintessential ‘serious’ SF book about problems which history has since shown to be non-problems, such as overpopulation.
  • THE JEWEL IN THE SKULL by Michael Moorcock. He has written more earnest works, some dreadfully so, but a science fiction reader should read up at least one of the Eternal Champion stories. Also, ELRIC OF MELNIBONÉ and THE KNIGHT OF THE SWORDS.
  • ‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes. Science fiction so poignant that even muggles read it.
  • A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller. Future Dark Ages done right.
  • DUNE by Frank Herbert. A sober version of a Swords and Spaceships story, but with everything from messianic prophecies to anti-computer jihads to meditations on ecology thrown in. Also, first Hugo winner.
  • ‘Scanners Live in Vain’ by Cordwainer Smith. Likewise, ‘The Dead Lady of Clown Town’ and ‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard’ and ‘The Ballad of Lost C’Mell’ These stories established new ground for SF.
  • LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K LeGuin. Lyrical and profound, this book broke new ground in what might be called anthropological science fiction. Likewise, THE DISPOSSESSED. LeGuin rapidly colonized what Cordwainer Smith had pioneered.
  • ‘The Dragon Masters’ by Jack Vance. Also ‘The Last Castle.’ Also THE LANGUAGES OF PAO and EMPHYRIO. See especially THE DYING EARTH.
  • MOTE IN GOD’S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. A first contact story the way it should properly be done.
  • RINGWORLD by Larry Niven. The quintessential ‘Big Dumb Object’ story. See also ‘Neutron Star’ as the crucial example of how to do a scientific puzzle tale.

The Bronze Age is characterized by a shift from short stories to novels and trilogies, and the influence of media SF on the genre. Thanks to STAR WARS science fiction was hereafter mainstream.

  • The New Sun books by Gene Wolfe: THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER, THE SWORD OF THE LICTOR, THE CLAW OF THE CONCILIATOR and THE CITADEL OF THE AUTARCH. Also, URTH OF THE NEW SUN. These are Wolfe’s homage to Jack Vance ‘Dying Earth’ tales. See also ‘Fifth Head of Cerberus’.
  • NEUROMANCER by Walter Gibson. Invented the Cyberpunk genre.
  • SNOWCRASH by Neal Stephenson. Made Cyberpunk worth reading. See also, THE DIAMOND AGE.
  • HYPERION by Dan Simmons. Chaucer in space.
  • THE WATCHMAN by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. So I included a comic book on my list. What are you, a snob?

I limited myself to fifty must-read authors, and no doubt overlooked some giants in the field. But, this being the Internet, I can always sneak more names onto the list here below in days to come.


  1. Comment by Ishmael Alighieri:

    Handing in my geek/nerd card – I’ve read hardly better than 10% or so of those books and stories:

    The Azimov, Bradbury, Cordwainer Smith, W. Gibson, Miller, most of the Heinlein & Clarke, Verne & H. G. Wells – and a little here and there in the rest of the list.

    I fear I will not live long enough! The city has yellow-tagged the pile of books by my bed as a structural hazard, and it continues to grow faster than I can get through it….

    Good-looking list, though.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Keep in mind that the point of the list is to acquaint geeks with the previous generation of writers. My own reading after 1980’s is very spotty myself. The list is weighted toward the 1940’s and 1950’s authors.

      • Comment by CPE Gaebler:

        Well, that explains the depressing lack of James P Hogan!
        Although I haven’t the foggiest idea whether he had any sort of Noteworthy Influence on the Dialogue of Science Fiction; I just read a bunch of his books when I was a kid. INHERIT THE STARS and sequels were pretty fun, and it amuses me that the fact that he wrote during the Cold War really shows.

  2. Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

    I only have a list of 21 (which I’ve tried to put in alphabetical order). Mine is more a list of books that felt important to me. Zelazny and Wolfe are my favorite authors but I listed only my favorite “book” of theirs.

    Lovecraft, H. P. – The Call of Cthulhu
    Huxley, Alduos – BRAVE NEW WORLD
    De Camp, L. Sprague – LEST DARKNESS FALL
    Orwell, George – NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR
    Bester, Alfred – THE DEMOLISHED MAN
    Blish , James – A CASE OF CONSCIENCE
    Herbert, Frank – DUNE
    Zelazny, Roger – LORD OF LIGHT
    Asimov, Isaac – THE GODS THEMSELVES
    Clarke, Arthur C. – RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA
    Haldeman, Joe – THE FOREVER WAR
    Butler, Octavia – WILDSEED
    Gibson, William – NEUROMANCER
    Card, Orson Scott – ENDER’S GAME
    Simmons, Dan – HYPERION
    Wolfe, Gene – BOOK OF THE LONG SUN

  3. Comment by The OFloinn:

    STAND ON ZANZIBAR was also remarkable for its use of multiply-formatted chapters. I would also mention THE SHOCKWAVE RIDER which concerned computer hacking on an interconnected computer network well before any others, and introduced the term “worm” into computer language.

  4. Comment by Andrew Brew:


    I’ve read some 60% of the authors listed, but not all of their books. I have some catching up to do, especially in this company. In particular, I never developed a taste for Vance or Simak. Several others are on my to-read list, though (and have been for far too long).

  5. Comment by Mary:

    I’ve read a far chunk of the authors.

    * Edwin Abbott
    * Jules Verne
    * H.G. Wells
    * David Lindsay.
    * Olaf Stapledon
    * Jorge Luis Borges.
    * George Orwell.
    * Aldous Huxley
    * Edgar Rice Burroughs.
    *E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith.
    *Stanley G. Weinbaum.
    * Jack Williamson.
    * by A.E. van Vogt.
    * Isaac Asimov
    * Robert Heinlein.
    * Joe Haldeman.
    * C.S. Lewis.
    * Arthur C Clarke.
    * Clifford Simak.
    * Hal Clement.
    * Poul Anderson.
    * Alfred Bester.
    * Keith Laumer.
    * Fritz Leiber. (Though I’m not sure I’ve read his SF.)
    * Robert Silverberg.
    * Tom Godwin.
    * Harlan Ellison.
    * Philip K Dick.
    * Roger Zelazny
    * Ray Bradbury
    * John Brunner.
    * Daniel Keyes.
    * Walter M. Miller. Fu
    * Frank Herbert.
    * Cordwainer Smith.
    * Ursula K LeGuin.
    * Jack Vance.
    * Jerry Pournelle
    * Larry Niven.
    * Gene Wolfe
    * Walter Gibson.
    * Neal Stephenson
    * Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

  6. Comment by Paul Weimer:

    So are we now in an “Age of Iron”?

    I’ve read nearly everything on your list. I’d have to think long and hard if I want to quibble with any of your choices.

  7. Comment by John Hutchins:

    The movie Tron came out before the book Neuromancer. I would say it was more of the launch of Cyberpunk.

    • Comment by Jacob:

      I’m not sure if I would classify it as cyberpunk, as there is a distinctive lack of “punk” in it. It contains none of the hallmarks…there are no antiheroes, there is no sense of disenfranchisement from civilization, etc. It could be argued that the MCP represents civilization, and that is what they are rebelling against (though at this point you might as well call the Allies in World War II punk). The good guys were fighting for freedom…but more importantly for the Users. They were fighting because a computer program told other computer programs to stop believing in and being loyal to the Users. Then one day, a User came to save them, and rescue them from the evil one, and then was taken bodily into the next world. Sound familiar? As John C. Wright once said, it is an Easter story.

    • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

      I think NEUROMANCER was the first big cyberpunk novel–or at least the first to receive much acclaim. If you haven’t read it you should try Roger Zelazny’s CREATURES OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS, while not truly cyberpunk it covers a lot of similar ground and is from the late 60s or early 70s.

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        I did not list CREATURES OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS because LORD OF LIGHT covers much the same ground, and is a more famous (and better executed) work. However, like nearly everything Zelazny wrote, it was poetical and witty and thought provoking and memorable.

        • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

          LORD OF LIGHT is one of my favorite novels. CREATURES while not quite as brilliant had, at least to me, more of a cyberpunk feel though it also has a very poetic feel. It is a great shame that Zelazny is not more widely read.

          • Comment by lampwright:

            Heh…only a few years ago, everyone read Zelazny.

            • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

              I thought so too. But it seems like anytime I talk to anyone under 35 that claims to be a SF fan they either have never heard of Zelazny or have never read anything by him.

              • Comment by deiseach:

                Kids these days, eh?


                R.A. Lafferty is a unique writer who should have had more of an influence than he did; I can’t say he’s an essential writer if you want to know where SF began and how it developed, but I would recommend at least a taste of his work to anyone wanting to know “So, what’s so great about SF? It’s all rockets and robots, isn’t it?”

                • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

                  The only Lafferty that I have read are some short stories.

                  I have segued into reading a lot of mysteries and general fiction over the last five years with only the occasional SF or fantasy novel.

  8. Comment by Noah D:

    So why then is Ellison’s ‘Repent Harlequin’ an ‘essential of the genre’?

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I don’t know why. Other people whose opinion I respect list him as a first rank author, and this is his most famous story.

      I have read it. It struck me as having a particularly lazy ending, saying that Harlequin was treated like “Winston Smith in 1984” — so that George Orwell does all the work of conveying to your imagination what happens in Ellison’s story.

      If I were listing a list of my personal favorites, I would not list it. However, I know authors influenced by him, including Octavia Butler, Neil Gaiman, and the movie TERMINATOR.

      • Comment by deiseach:

        Have you read the other stories in the collection from which “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktock Man” comes, “Paingod and Other Delusions”? The collection as a whole is probably why he is so influential. Actually, several of his short-story collections, like “Deathbird Stories”, are well worth reading. He wasn’t as experimental as the New Wave writers, and there was a definite linkage between more traditional SF and his work, and a genuine sense of outrage at certain elements of society (as distinct from manufactured outrage, where it is just following the chic targets of attack). He could be mistaken, but he was at least sincere.

        And the titles were just fantastic: come on, how can you not want to read something called “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream” or “The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World” or “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54′ N, Longitude 77° 00′ 13″ W” or “Shattered Like A Glass Goblin”?

        And the story “Croatoan”, while he claims is neither pro- nor anti-abortion (and indeed he boasted of having announced at a convention that he had had a vasectomy), is (as the Wikipedia article on it says) about “The story is character driven, focusing on Gabe’s growth beyond the pleasures of sex and casual relationships to embracing fatherhood and maturity”. It does denounce – yes, I think that can be said for it, whether or not Harlan meant it to say that – the notion of the foetus as a clump of cells which can be casually disposed of and not considered as human or a child.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          I have read “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream” and “The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World” and “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54′ N, Longitude 77° 00′ 13″ W” — I don’t recall the collection or where I read them. My only recollection is a vague sense of disgust, and the oddness of the doctor in Langerhans quoting the Wizard of Oz rather than giving a science fiction explanation (akin to that in Isaac Asimov’s novelization of FANTASTIC VOYAGE) to explain the process.

          I also recall reading FIVE FATES where five different authors penned the ending to a scene by Keith Laumer where the main character enters a suicide booth and takes an injection (a la ‘Repairer of Reputations’ by Chalmers). Harlan Ellison was one of the authors. The others were (go, go, gadget Internet!) Keith Laumer, Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, Frank Herbert.

          I don’t have any critique of his work. I don’t think the tales are bad, but they are not to my taste: too much outrage over too little matter. Your mileage may vary.

          His influence is wildly disproportionate to his output: his fame rests on five short stories and two anthologies. Compare that to the output of Jack Williamson or Poul Anderson or Robert Heinlein, who penned a novel a year twenty years running. But I do not deny his influence or his fame, which is why he is on my list.

          I don’t think he is as good a writer as R.A. Lafferty, who is a mad genius, and does that off-the-wall black humor better than Ellison, and with more matter to him. But Lafferty is not on the list because his influence was meager.

          I will always have a soft spot in my heart and compliment on my lips for the furious Mr Ellison because of the noble character he showed in defending A.E. van Vogt from disrespect at the hands of the SFWA.

          When I met him in person, I thought I detected dim flashes of honesty and integrity beneath all the layers of bullshit and arrogance he shows the world. I thought he had a soul worth saving. I was favorably impressed.

          • Comment by lotdw:

            “His influence is wildly disproportionate to his output: his fame rests on five short stories and two anthologies.”

            I don’t think that’s fair. He has 8 Hugos to his name (I think that’s more than any writer except for Connie Willis), 4 Nebulas and a host of other awards. A few of his short story collections are considered the very best in the genre (I was a huge fan, though I have mellowed some with age). He wrote a number of television scripts which are among the best examples of SF in the medium. And those anthologies – I assume you mean Dangerous Visions – are often said to have launched the New Wave, and at the very least are packed with quality weirdness. He himself brought an entirely different style of writing to SF, which I would say is his greatest triumph. For the period in which he wrote, I think he’s one of the most influential figures.

            And his collection Ellison Wonderland has pretty much the greatest title ever.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              I am not expressing disapproval when I say his influence far exceeds his output. I would make the same claim for Cordwainer Smith, who is famous for one group of short stories small enough to be gathered into one volume or two, and one novel.

              I merely submit that Mr Ellison’s awards and lauds rest upon the few short stories for which he is famed, and his DANGEROUS VISIONS anthology. He would not be recalled as the author of ‘City On The Edge of Forever’ were he not already famous for other things.

              I completely agree that he is one of the most influential figures in the period: that is why I include him on this list. Anyone who has not read him cannot call himself a well-read SF fan.

              But I do not think I am being unfair if I say his output is teeny tiny. He has not written any famous trilogies or series or set of juveniles or a future history series as Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke, Roger Zelazny and Larry Niven and Poul Anderson have done. I cannot bring to mind a single novel-length work by Mr Ellison — or ever heard one discussed among SF fans.

              • Comment by Mary:

                One volume for Smith, definitely. I own it. (It is, to be sure, fat.)

              • Comment by R Tyler Sperry:

                Yes, Ellison is a tricky one to handle. Novels are just not his strength. I have read his 1960 novel The Man with Nine Lives and was not impressed; the central gimmick of being reincarnated as different creatures on different worlds seemed to be heavily influenced by Jack London’s The Star Rover.

                Further complicating things is how few of his stories are actually science fiction. Indeed I seem to recall that by the 1980s he was insisting that he not be called a science fiction writer.

                All that said, I agree he was extremely influential on the field. On your list I probably would have cheated and pointed to Dangerous Visions; it would expose people both to his short story style and his essay style, and at the time it came out DV was a much bigger deal than any piece of Ellison fiction.

                That said, I think your list is a good one as it stands, with no omissions I can think of. There are plenty of “almost made it” authors to choose from, but if you start down that path you wind up with the 75 essential authors — and you’d still have people asking why you had X instead of Y.

                • Comment by deiseach:

                  Harlan is a hard one, right enough. Some of his attitude makes me want to punch him hard in the mouth, then I read something like “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” and the next thing is, I get the image of a poor, skinny, short Jewish kid who likes books and is a bit of an outsider and victim of bullies, so he determines to construct a persona of a really tough so-and-so who is going to make something of himself and show them, show them all!!!!

                  So a lot of his bravado is, I think, that: he’s deliberately being aggressive and in-your-face and provocative, and underneath it all is the distant memory of that geeky kid. So I have some sympathy for him…

                  … and then he does something totally idiotic (usually involving being insulting to women) and once again, I want to smack him in the kisser.

                  Ever read his book of essays on television “The Glass Teat” (and the belated follow-up, “The Other Glass Teat”)? Very much of its time, so it’s dated, and there is a certain amount of fun in seeing exactly how wrong he got some things (e.g. he praises an actor named Zalman King for his raw, authentic style and forecasts great things for him; fast-forward some twenty years or so and Zalman King is probably best known to you all as the producer of “The Red Shoe Diaries”), but when he gets it right, he gets it right.

                  It might be called biting the hand that fed you, but writing for tv and daring to criticise the medium and the bad effect it was having on the viewers? If he could have foreseen the flood of reality tv shows, he would say “Didn’t I tell you so?”

                  • Comment by R Tyler Sperry:

                    We are agreed, deiseach. How can one not sympathize with a short-for-his-age kid who also happens to be one of those rare Jews in 1940s Ohio? It could not have been pleasant.

                    In my high school years I adored his writing, and his essay style undoubtably influenced my blossoming love of playful phrasing and hyperbole. I like his non-fiction style of writing to this day. My love of his fiction, however, has dimmed over the years and I’ve found his later stories to be almost parodies of his own style.

                    Alas, I am also long enough of tooth to have read some of his TV columns in their original alternative newspaper form. I attended some of his signings and a couple of nights of the UCLA program, Ten Tuesdays Down a Rabbithole. All great stuff. And in the 1980s we would occasionally run into each other in business or social venues.

                    Which leads me to my agreement with your occasional want-to-smack-him-one response. I recall a party of mutual friends we both attended. The couple hosting it announced to their assembled friends that after years of dating and cohabiting they had finally gotten married. Amidst the hubbub of various congratulations one could hear Harlan loudly exclaim, “Well, that’s the end of *that* relationship!” Want to pop him one in the kisser? Oh, you betcha!

                  • Comment by lotdw:

                    I think he’d point to “Our Little Miss” as being pretty prescient:


              • Comment by lotdw:

                I think his output is small when put up against novelists of the Golden Age, sure – but that’s because A) he’s a short story writer and B) there’s a higher quality-to-quantity ratio (a lot of those early writers wrote a lot of dreck, all the way to Philip K. Dick at least, which doesn’t really happen any longer). Harlan did write novels early in his career – one in particular, Spider Kiss, is excellent – but by the time he got to sci-fi a novella was the longest he ever wrote (Mefisto in Onyx). But the Essential Ellison is over 1000 pages, and he does have the four Edgeworks books which are ~400 each, and it’s all good stuff. I also think Ellison got a lot of cred for being countercultural, for being Hollywood, etc. which other sci-fi writers never did.

                May as well say that Borges’ influence is disproportionate to his output – but he could pack more into 20 pages than most writers into 200 (or 800). And Homer only wrote two poems, but man, what poems!

                • Comment by John C Wright:

                  But Borges’ influence IS disproportionate to his output. I have his collected fiction at home in one cover.

                  I did think I was saying something either controversial nor condescending. Mr Ellison is famous for a few short stories and one anthology. David Lindsay is on the list for one short novel, and he is not even that famous: you have to be a true bibliophile even to know the names of his other, even more obscure works than VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS. Cordwainer Smith is famous for a few short stories. E.M. Forster wrote one science fiction short story (albeit he is famous in other genres). Walter M. Miller is famous for one novel. Daniel Keyes is famous for one novella. Tom Godwin is famous for one short story.

                  I am not listing it as a mark of shame. I am just noting the disproportion.

        • Comment by SFAN:

          Did you like “Deathbird”,then? (It’s Ellison taking a stab at the anti-religious tract)

        • Comment by robertjwizard:

          After a night of occupational violence and police reports I can only say I found Ellison, after only knowing of him for his notoriety, to be a unique and engaging writer. Worth more than the reputation that precedes him. The image, a frozen snapshot, of the Harlequin unleashing a shower of jellybeans upon a busy crowd was instantly etched in my perma-memory.

    • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

      ‘Repent Harlequin’ has a very experimental almost feel to it which might be one of the reasons. From all accounts Ellison is a brilliant writer of short stories — even from a technical standpoint where he can produce good short stories on demand under strange and quirky circumstances.

  9. Comment by docrampage:

    1. I suspect that one of the most influential authors on modern SF authors is Andre Norton who was a prolific and popular author of young-adult science fiction when they were young.

    2. How is Starship Troopers the first military SF? What about the Lensman series?

    3. What about Laumer’s Bolo stories? I’m not sure about timing here, but aren’t they the first intelligent machines as genuine characters? There were earlier humano-form robots, but those were just SciFi golems.

    4. David Drake probably should be credited for initiating the modern sub-genre of hard military SF.

    • Comment by Tom Simon:

      1. Andre Norton is an interesting case: widely read, widely beloved — but seemingly a bit of a dead end in terms of influence on the next generation or two of writers. Based on what I’ve read, her influence was more widely felt in Sword & Sorcery fiction than in SF. Her SF could perhaps be compared to the music of J. S. Bach: perfect stuff of its kind, but representing the terminus of a line of development that went heavily out of fashion soon after.

      2. I should say the Lensman series was space opera of a high order, not military SF. The innovation of Starship Troopers was to tell the whole story from the point of view of an ordinary infantryman — something that the Lensmen most emphatically were not.

      3. Laumer’s Bolo stories did not begin to appear until 1976. To take only the most famous and obvious example, Asimov had been using his positronic robots as ‘genuine characters’ since the 1940s. Though I’m not at all sure what distinguishes ‘genuine characters’ from ‘SciFi golems’ in your system of definitions, so perhaps you consider all pre-1976 robots and androids mere ‘golems’. I can only say this is an extreme minority point of view and would take some justifying.

      4. I agree with you about Drake. However, hard military SF is almost a separate genre in itself. If Our Host wishes to justify Drake’s exclusion on the grounds that hard military SF is not essential reading for an understanding of SF in general, I would be willing to accept that claim. It certainly wanders very far in subject matter from the ‘Long Talk’ that Mr. Wright identifies as the core concern of SF.

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        No, David Drake is not on the list only because he did not invent the genre for which he is famous, and Heinlein did, which is why I included STARSHIP TROOPERS. Had Heinlein been excluded from that spot, I would have included Drake on the grounds that some representative of Military SF should be on the list.

        And I would say EE Doc Smith’s Lensman series is no more Military SF than Homer’s ILIAD is. One could make an argument equally convincing that Lensman was a pirate story or a police procedural or superhero tale, since the Lensman are buccaneer-hunters and undercover detectives or psychic crimefighters a la The Shadow or Doc Savage as much as military officers.

        I agree with Tom Simon that the idea of telling the story about the grunts, the footsloggers, the professional military man, is original to STARSHIP TROOPERS.

        • Comment by docrampage:

          Well, I should know better than to challenge a geek of such widespread expertise and of such a disturbing knowledge of detail, but I just don’t see it that way. Now, Starship Troopers was clearly an influential work for its politics, social statements and other things, and it may have been the first military SF, but it didn’t spawn a sub-genre like Hammer’s Slammers did. Starship Troopers was published in 1959, and there is little other other military SF until after the late 70s. As a member of a sub-genre, it seems to be more influential as a subject of nostalgia than it was as an original work. Just from the dates, it seems like military SF took off due to the influence of Hammer’s Slammers and then people started writing homages to Starship Troopers for reasons of nostalgia. It didn’t inspire imitators until it was an antique.

          • Comment by John C Wright:

            Are you claiming that HAMMER’S SLAMMERS was not influenced by STARSHIP TROOPERS? It looks to me like TROOPERS is the seminal novel that fathered HAMMER’S SLAMMERS.

            Indeed, when John Scalzi’s OLD MAN’S WAR came out, the book to which it was analogized by reviewers and blurb writers was TROOPERS, not SLAMMERS.

            “As a member of a sub-genre, it seems to be more influential as a subject of nostalgia than it was as an original work.”

            Well, maybe so, but I do not see how a book can be the subject of nostalgia unless it was influential in its day. Nostalgia hearkens back to something: the something in this case is Military SF. The big innovation of STARSHIP TROOPERS was that it was just like a John Wayne picture. Except with Power Armor.

      • Comment by Mary:

        Well, Norton did have a heavy influence in getting women to write in the generation prior to mine.

        Not mine. Mine was the generation that didn’t realize Andre was a boy’s name until our teens, because the only Andre we knew of was female.

      • Comment by docrampage:

        1. Well, I guess you may be right about her lack of influence. My perceptions may be distorted by the fact that I gravitate to stories similar to what she wrote, and have no interest in most of the new-wave scifi authors. In fact in the 90s, I had pretty much abandoned scifi for fantasy because scifi as a genre had taken on so much literary pretentiousness that I began to find the majority of new purchases not worth finishing. The success of hard military SF seems to have reminded publishers that some people read escapist literature for escapism, not to be bludgeoned about the head and shoulders with repeated nagging about the futility of life or the dangers of capitalist exploitation of the environment.

        2. If military SF is defined as SF war stories told from the point of view of common soldiers then I agree that the Lensman series is not military SF. But that also means that much of David Weber’s work (such as “The Shiva Option”) is not military SF because it’s told from the point of view of commodores and admirals, and that strikes me as counter-intuitive. My view of military SF is that it is an SF war story told from the point of view of participants but also dwelling on genuine military matters, not just a personal story.

        3. What I mean by “scifi golems” is that stories about humanoform robots used human-like properties of the robot despite the unlikely physical design so that they could exploit it to evoke empathy or create familiarity or for some other literary purpose. I usually found myself hung up on the technological absurdity and it made it hard to enjoy the story. The robots often seemed to be metal angels or monsters or side kicks or wise men that could just as well have been Frankenstein monsters or clones, or some other form of constructed being to fill the part. It wasn’t really about the nature of intelligent devices. By contrast, Bolos were technologically plausible intelligent machines. Not only did the body design make a lot of sense, so did the design of the personality.

  10. Comment by deiseach:

    Everything you said :-)

    I would include, for the Silver Age literary SF, Samuel R. Delany and J.G. Ballard. I haven’t read a great deal of Delany, but what I did certainly made an impression; so Delany for his short-story collection “Driftglass” and his novel “Babel-17”, and Ballard because he pretty much cornered the market on Brit SF 60s dystopias/post-apocalypse worlds. Also, the storm-in-a-teacup fuss over “I don’t write Science Fiction, I write Speculative Fiction” which enabled him and others to acquire literary cachet by rising above mere genre fiction at the same time as letting his publishers keep the “SF” tag to sell their works to we knuckle-dragging fanboys and fangirls of the genre. Again, have not read all of Ballard, but I would recommend for short stories “Low-Flying Aircraft and Other Stories” and apocalypse novels “The Drowned World”, “The Crystal World” and “The Burning World”.

    He also wrote the biographical novel “Empire of the Sun” which was adapted as the film by Spielberg, which may or may not be a recommendation :-)

    • Comment by Tom Simon:

      Unfortunately Delany is best known nowadays for Dhalgren, and Dhalgren is known primarily for being impossible to read.

      Ballard I should say was more important for his attitude than for any particular work of fiction. He’s probably an Essential Author, but it’s very difficult to pin him down as having written an Essential Book.

      • Comment by deiseach:

        Couldn’t tackle “Dhalgren”; took it off the shelf in the bookshop, tried a page or two, replaced it :-)

        But Delany – regardless of his personal attitudes on matters of sexuality and various other bits’n’bobs – is definitely worth reading. He’s the only other author, besides Gene Wolfe, who’s made me feel “Okay, there’s something going on here. It’s not just obscure for the sake of it. He’s definitely smarter than I am and it’s because I am so dense I am not getting it”. There are plenty of authors who are foggy and obfuscate and are all effect and no substance, but not Delany. I have to (guiltily?) confess, I loved “Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand” and would love to read the sequel, if he ever gets around to it (which is about as likely as Harlan Ellison ever producing the last “Dangerous Visions” volume) so that I can find out the resolution of the romance between Rat Korga and Marq and do they end up married (yes, even though they’re a gay couple and yes, even though the promiscuity in the society of the novel is breath-taking in its audacity). Oh, yeah, and to find out was the threatened galactic war averted, but the romance is the main attraction :-)

        Ballard probably was more influential over on this side of the Atlantic.

        • Comment by lotdw:

          “Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand” is a marvelous book. It’s a matter of great sadness to me that he’s never going to finish it.

          • Comment by deiseach:

            If there are libraries in Heaven, they will contain all the works that were never finished, and the second book resolving the plot of “Stars in My Pocket” will be there.

            W.H. Auden, “Epilogue”, About the House, 23:

            “Time has taught you
            how much inspiration
            your vices brought you,
            what imagination
            can owe temptation
            yielded to,
            that many a fine
            expressive line
            would not have existed,
            had you resisted:
            as a poet, you
            know this is true,
            and though in Kirk
            you sometimes pray
            to feel contrite,
            it doesn’t work.
            Felix Culpa, you say:
            perhaps you’re right.

            You hope, yes,
            your books will excuse you,
            save you from hell;
            without looking sad,
            without in any way
            seeming to blame
            (He doesn’t need to,
            knowing well
            what a lover of art
            like yourself pays heed to),
            God may reduce you
            on Judgment Day
            to tears of shame,
            reciting by heart
            the poems you would
            have written, had
            your life been good.”

        • Comment by SFAN:

          ( Shhh…I must admit I sold Dhalgren second -or third- hand with only a quick scan, but I’ve read Nova and others and I’m taking note on “Stars…” :) )

          • Comment by deiseach:

            Now I feel I should have stuck a Parental Advisory label on that one – if you’re thinking of reading “Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand” be advised that (1) he’s doing some experimental writing there (some of which is sheer playfulness, like messing around with pronouns) and (2) it is of its time, so the sexual liberation is in full force and er, um, graphic content all over the place when Marq is being young, free and single.

            But then again, I was (am!) dying to find out so – Marq and Rat – do they end up happily ever after? Oh, yeah, there’s something about a galactic war brewing as well in the background but forget that, does the romance end well? :-)

            Nova is good, and based on the Grail legend, but that’s not necessary to understanding what’s going on (if you can understand what’s going on). Babel-17 is good, too, and again plays with various concepts and is a bit brain-melting in places. Dhalgren I cannot speak of because I’ve never read it, nor have I read his detour into fantasy with the Neveryona novels. The short-story collection “Driftglass” is where I first, with my brand-new adult library card at the age of fifteen, encountered his writing; in those far-off, pre-Internet days, I thought “Delany” meant he was of Irish extraction like R.A. Lafferty. Like Rick in “Casablanca”, I was misinformed ;-)

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        “He’s probably an Essential Author, but it’s very difficult to pin him down as having written an Essential Book.”

        G.K. Chesterton is similar. I can recommend him, but he has no definitive master work.

        “Unfortunately Delany is best known nowadays for Dhalgren, and Dhalgren is known primarily for being impossible to read.”

        Honestly, I would recommend NOVA before I would recommend DHALGREN. There was more original SF-ish thought there (cybernetic interface with one’s machines at work) and I thought the characters more likeable. But, again, tastes differ.

      • Comment by pfhawkins:

        I had the darnedest time reading DHALGREN. There was so much in it that made my skin crawl, but there was so much more that expanded my mind I wished that the mind-expanding stuff could be found without the skin-crawling stuff.

        And then I read BOOK OF THE NEW SUN. And lo, my wish had been granted.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I thought of including J.G. Ballard as the representative of 60’s hand-wringing dystopia, but I gave that honor to John Brunner instead.

  11. Comment by Owain_Glyndwr:

    This is a bit off topic, but could you do a list of essential fantasy authors, or is that outside your area of expertise? I’m trying to get some recommendations- I recently re-discovered the pure awesomeness that is Lord of the Rings (read it as a young boy, but was disappointed it wasn’t an extended version of the Hobbit), which led on to the Tale of Sigurd and Fafnir, Beowulf and a bit of Conan, oddly enough. Some entries in your list – Moorcock, Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and the Dying Earth – tend to overlap into fantasy.
    Lovecraft is an interesting example- I’m not sure whether he goes in for science fiction themes, or just develops earlier traditions of horror for a modern age- hence the focus on man as a primordial weak being, pathetic in a hostile universe, which I suppose is the desperate man trapped in a haunted house writ large.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I have read my fair share of fantasy, so I could compile such a list, but with this warning: my reading in the genre dropped off sharply at just about the time when the genre started really expanding. There are major authors with major series and major influences of whom I have never read a letter. I am only qualified to expound on fantasy authors from before the 90’s, which was last millennium.

      • Comment by Owain_Glyndwr:

        Literally any suggestion would be appreciated. Preferably the sort of High Fantasy, Knights, Chivalry and romance sort of thing.
        I gave Conan a go (Queen of the Black Coast and currently Red Nails) and while I enjoyed it very much, couldn’t help but compare it to Lord of the Rings. Conan would take the ring in a second if given the chance- a bit like the old pagan stories, he seems to worship mere strength. Quite an ugly character.

        • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

          I would suggest the list below:

          Card, Orson Scott – THE TALES OF ALVIN MAKER
          Hobb, Robin – THE FARSEER TRILOGY
          Kay, Guy Gavriel – THE FIONAVAR TAPESTRY
          Keyes, Gregory – THE AGE OF UNREASON
          Lewis, C. S. – CHRONICLES OF NARNIA
          Lieberman, Fritz – CONJURE WIFE
          Martin, George R. R. – A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE
          Moorcock, Michael – ELRIC OF MELNIBONE
          Tolkien, J. R. R. – THE LORD OF THE RINGS
          Williams, Tad – MEMORY, SORROW, THORN
          Wolfe, Gene – THE SOLDIER SERIES
          Zelazny, Roger – THE CHRONICLES OF AMBER

          In particular Orson Scott Card’s ALVIN MAKER series is amazing, and if you like High Fantasy you might like Greg Keyes THE KINGDOM OF THORN AND BONE more than his UNREASON series.

          • Comment by Owain_Glyndwr:

            Cheers, Rade.

          • Comment by deiseach:

            And here is where the hair-pulling starts :-)

            I don’t like “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn”; to my tastes (after I had ploughed through the three volumes) it’s just typical doorstop fantasy, with the “our elves are different” attempt that doesn’t come off as so different (at least to me: they were just humans-with-pointy-ears).

            There are good parts and original touches, but one large book would have covered the whole plot rather than spinning it out to a trilogy.

            However, tastes vary (as the old woman said when she kissed the horse) so of course, try the first book and if you like it, keep going.

            For “essential” – I’d recommend something by E.R. Eddison, “The Worm Ouroboros”, but I don’t know how much of an influence he had on the field. His work was much praised and valued by those few who knew it, but I don’t think he made a mark or had a wide effect on the genre. So in that case, someone like Tad Williams or Raymond Feist were probably more influential.

            But for “essential to the history of the development of the genre”, I’d add some Lord Dunsany. Yes, he was an Anglo-Irish peer so I’m bigging up a fellow countryman, but that statement of bias aside, “The King of Elfland’s Daughter” and his stories collected in “The Sword of Welleran” or “The Gods of Pegana” are necessary additions to any list.

            His “Pegana” was the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s “Randolph Carter” stories set in the worlds of Dream, and reading one before the other will allow you to see the influence.

            Besides, you have to love an author whose family names included his own: Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany; his mother’s – Ernle Elizabeth Louisa Maria Grosvenor Ernle-Erle-Drax, née Ernle Elizabeth Louisa Maria Grosvenor Burton; and his brother – Admiral The Honourable Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax. (His father, by contrast, had the positively pedestrian soubriquet of John William Plunkett, 17th Baron of Dunsany).


        • Comment by deiseach:

          The trouble is, that a list of Essential Fantasy works (if they follow the conditions for the Essential SF list) would need to include ones that had the most influence on the field, which would mean we would have to include the Shannara novels, and I would chop off my typing fingers before I would recommend the Shannara novels.

          No disrespect to Terry Brooks, who did the best he could with what he had, and I’ve read worse by authors with pretensions to being better, but I cannot recommend them. It would be like telling someone who had never tasted chocolate “Try this to see what the flavour is like” and then handing them a bar of “chocolate flavour” carob-substitute artificial ingredient ersatz product.

          • Comment by KokoroGnosis:

            I’m going to preface this by saying that I haven’t read any Shannara novels in at least a decade, but while the Sword of Shannara was pretty much hack work (And I understand that there was no fantasy outside of Tolkien, Lewis, et al. at the time.) they did get better. I can defend Elfstones, Wishsong, and the Scions series with a clean conscious.

            I also rather enjoyed the fact that it was set in the future, rather than our past. Or someone’s past.

            • Comment by Owain_Glyndwr:

              That was the reason I got the first Shannara- I love post-apocalyptic themes, so I thought the idea of having a magic world being the result of WW3 was pretty awesome.
              But then I read some rather smart people who opined that it was a completely awful ripoff of LOTR. So now it just sits there in the midst of the ‘To Read’ pile, waiting…

            • Comment by CPE Gaebler:

              “I also rather enjoyed the fact that it was set in the future, rather than our past. Or someone’s past.”

              Read the Empire of the East trilogy and the Books of Swords by Saberhagen, then. Also far-post-apocalyptic fantasy, and they’re far better. Although, again, there were a COUPLE Shannara ones that didn’t suck. The first one, though… it didn’t even TRY to not be a cheap LOTR rippoff.

        • Comment by Manwe King of the Valar:

          Last year I asked a similar question, and I got alot suggestions, most of which I have read, and the remaining ones I have sinced learned more about.
          Sadly I’m not the greatest list maker out there, so instead I think I’ll give you some suggestions.
          First however I’d like to warn you, you said that you prefered “the sort of High Fantasy, Knights, Chivalry and romance sort of thing.” And you also mentioned that you started reading the Conan books, but thought he was a rather ugly character, correct? Then heads up on the list Rade Hagedorn gave you. While there are some good choices there, there are also at least two you may want to avoid. Moorcock’s Elric books for starters. If you though Conan was ugly, he is even uglier. And if your in the mood for ‘high fantasy, knights, Chivalry and romance’, then stay far, far away from Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books. They are the complete opposite. Sure there are knights, but knights stripped of all that is knightly. Yes, it’s fantasy, but ‘low’ fantasy. Chivalry, lol! Romance, no. But lots and lots of sex! If you are aware of the dark/nasty trends in modern fantasy, these books could have been the father of them. I should also mention that nihilism runs heavily through this series (as it does in the Elric books).
          Now what to suggest for you? Well here are a couple off the top of my head, some are more popular than others, some are more obscure, but I enjoyed them all. I’ll give you links to a few as well.

          • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

            I think that I’ve read a Conan short story or two many years ago, but if I don’t recall his personality at all. I would say that Elric, for the most part, rebelled against his heritage and tried to be a ‘good guy’, even giving up Stormbringer for awhile for his beloved. However even when he tried to do good, everything was twisted by his sword or the gods. It is probably true that the Elric books are essentially nihilistic.

            I wouldn’t say that Martin’s books are nihilistic–especially since we haven’t seen the end of the story yet. Instead I’d argue that Martin is trying to create a ‘realistic’ setting where tragedy comes from misunderstandings and even the supposed heroes die. I do have an idea where I think he is going with the story so it will be interesting to see if I am right. His books are dark though there are some very moral and chivalrous characters (such as Ned) they just don’t always survive.

            • Comment by Manwe King of the Valar:

              God, I hate my mouse so much. I just had a nice long response to this, and then my finger slipped, and I hit the ‘page back’ button, loosing everything in the process :( Now I’m all frazzled! I don’t want to write all that over again!!! Maybe I can just give you the talking points? I’m sorry, hope you don’t mind!

              As for Elric, check out this essay by ol’ Tom Simom, he describes the series (and the author) better than I can. You should read the whole essay, it’s pretty good, but the relevant stuff is near the end.
              As for Martin’s books (this is what most of my original post was about!!), to make a long story short, there are bascially two views of the series, ‘yours’ (usually held by it’s defenders), and ‘mine’ (usually given by it’s detractors, or even by those who are just tired of all the grim and gritty, even if they enjoy the series). I don’t think we will be converting each other on the matter. Needless to say, I don’t find them ‘real’ so much as I do intentionally played up the way they are to be either edgy/”adult” or to reflect the world view of the author. A good example of the excesses of the series, not to mention one of the reasons I don’t call them ‘realistic’, is that he has his medieval knights going around swearing like they were modern day drunken sailors (as the saying goes). That seems less Martin trying to be true to the era then it does him vulgarizing his series intentionally to make it more edgy, and unlike other fantasy out there. I do want to say however that my beef is not with you, but rather with the airheads I have to deal with all day long, who are so insistant that fantasy needs to “grow up” and leave behind Tolkien, Lewis, REH, Jordan, Rowling, ect who are “meant for children” and embrace the ‘realness’ of Martin, Abercrombie, Erikson, ect who are meant for “adults”. I dislike the route modern fantasy has taken, and I hope it does not stay that way forever. Grim and lyrical is fine by me, but grim and gritty just needs a good vacuuming, as Jonathan Moeller once put it. :)
              However I’d still like your thoughts on where you think the story is going.

              • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

                Having recently reread ELRIC I find him more a tragic character who strives to be moral in an immoral world, than a nefarious character that worships strength.

                I don’t know that I agree that Ericsson and Abercrombie are attempting to create ‘realistic’ fantasy novels. Rather I have taken it that Ericsson is trying to craft military-fiction stories set in fantasy worlds while Abercrombie is trying to, for lack of a better term, create film noir.

                Martin on the other hand is, in my opinion, attempting to write his interpretation of real history as imagined in a fantasy world.  As to the outcome of the story, I am of the opinion that Jon Snow is the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen and that eventually he will wed Daenerys Targaryen, resulting in the end of the war and restoration of House Targaryen to its rightful throne.

                Areas of Martin’s books that I find interesting is the importance of oaths, how characters justify their actions to themselves, and how everyone completely misinterprets what other characters are thinking.

                • Comment by Manwe King of the Valar:

                  “I don’t know that I agree that Ericsson and Abercrombie are attempting to create ‘realistic’ fantasy novels.”

                  Oh, I was not saying that I believed it, I was quoting others (in this case, the airheads that I spoke of earlier).
                  As for Elric, tragic yes, moral no. I don’t even think Moorcock intended that.
                  And thanks for giving me your take on the road Martin’s books are headed. :) But I would not be surprised if Jon Snow got whacked just as he was ascending the throne. That, to me, is quintessential Martin. But who knows, have to wait and see.

                  • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

                    I’m not saying that Elric always makes the moral choice (though oftentimes immoral seemingly immoral actions are ‘accidents’) but that he has amoral struggle and often broods upon his actions. I’d read long ago, and it might be apocryphal, that Elric was intended as the antithesis of Conan.

                    Who knows where Martin is ctually going. I rather suspect that the story has gotten away from him. I do think that his original intent was the one I outlined, but I also believe tgt I read he originally intended a trilogy.

                    • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

                      Oftentimes I hate what auto-correct does to a sentence.

                    • Comment by KokoroGnosis:

                      I’ve been feeling for a while now that Martin doesn’t know where the story’s going. With the last book, the subtle vibe of a show that had to switch out all its cast mid-run because the stars everyone liked were unhappy with the production/contract/whatever and contrive excuses for it is becoming distinct. The final few chapters of ADwD may be the nail in the series’ coffin for me.

            • Comment by deiseach:

              I would second Manwe’s reservations about Elric, if you’re looking for a High Fantasy style and found Conan a bit too willing to worship strength (I think was your objection?)

              Try “The History of the Runestaff” four-volume set instead, which has a more sympathetic hero in Dorian Hawkmoon.

              • Comment by SFAN:

                I recently read The Quest for Tanelorn to wrap up the Multiverse with a happy ending of sorts, and that’s partly because it’s Hawkmoon who is the main character (eg see him getting over his angsty mood).

        • Comment by Manwe King of the Valar:

          Well I posted a reply to this, and it was the lead in to my list, but it has not showed up yet, my guess it will pop up later. You should read that too Owain. In the meantime here is my list, again, remember there was a previous part to this post, it should show up soon. Like I said in the previous post, I’ll provide some links, just so you can read a bit about them, maybe look at some reviews.
          Here you go:
          The Fionavar Tapestry–from the guy who helped Christopher Tolkein put together “The Silmarillion”! It shows too. It is a trilogy by the way, but I’ll just link you to the first book

          The Wizard Knight–Gene Wolfe’s attempt at High fantasy. If you have read any of Wolfe’s other books, you should like this series. There are two books in this series btw, here is a link to the first

          Three Hearts and Three Lions–you can’t forget about Poul Anderson! This is a fantasy classic, and has been influential on the genre in general.

          The Broken Sword–another Poul Anderson fantasy classic, one of his better books btw. This is not about knights however, it is about the Norse. Norse myth plays a large role in the story.

          Wheel of Time–I wonder why I never see the books mentioned here? Very long, of course, but good none the less. I should also note that it can take a bit before the story sucks you in. There are 11 books so far, the 12th and final part comes out this year.

          The Pendragon Cycle–Stephen R. Lawhead’s retelling of the Arthurian myth. Lawhead takes the myth back to it’s celtic origins, even while adding his own spin on it (like Atlantis). Lots of knights and chivalry here, lol. There are five books in the cycle, though the first three are part of a trilogy, the last two parts are more or less add-ons.

          The Magic Ring–this book is an oldy(written in the early 1800s), but a goody! Fouque was trying to write a book very much in the vein of the old romances/chivalric tales. It was praised in it’s own day, but sadly was forgotten with the passing of time. Lucky it’s just been reprinted!

          More expensive illustrated edition here:

          Since you spoke of knights, romance, and chivalry, why not try out the classics! How about Le Morte d’Arthur? Still my favorite telling of Arthur’s tale. Or how about the Roland stories (Orlando Furioso and what not, Morgante). Seeing as how these are books from around the middle ages, there are so many different editions I would not know which ones to link for you.

          Jerusalem Delivered–old classic, though new (and excellent) translation. This is right up there with Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur!

          I could also recommend R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden saga. Though it’s D&D, of course. 21 books and counting so far, and still going with another out this year. I don’t normally read D&D books, but I ended up enjoying them.

          I also enjoy some of the Warhammer novels, but again, that is another series linked to a rpg. If you don’t mind that, they can be fun. The world is pretty much the middle ages meets Tolkien’s middle-earth.

          I just finished reading the second book in the Legacy of the Stone Harp, but that is a hit or miss series. One of those you either love or hate. It’s more obscure, but who knows, you might enjoy it?

          Hope this helps a little. There are some more I could give, but I think this is enoguh for now.

          • Comment by Owain_Glyndwr:

            Thank you very much Manwe- though I’m afraid I’ve already ordered Elric. I got the impression it was a sort of epic tragedy. But I also ordered The Broken Sword, so hopefully they’ll balance each other out.

            • Comment by Manwe King of the Valar:

              Your very welcome! Glad I could be of some help to you. :)

              “though I’m afraid I’ve already ordered Elric.”
              Well it won’t kill you, so I’m sure you’ll be fine ;)
              I only spoke against it because not only did it not meet the criteria you gave, you also expressed an ill sentiment towards Conan, and if you thought him ugly, Elric is far the uglier. Again, to paraphrase Tom Simon’s words, Tolkien’s villians were more noble than Moorcock’s heroes (Elric). So I thought there was a large chance you would end up disliking the series, but maybe you wil still end up finding them fun after all.
              “I got the impression it was a sort of epic tragedy.”
              Again, see my above comments.
              “But I also ordered The Broken Sword, so hopefully they’ll balance each other out.”
              Excellent choice! Broken Sword is one of Poul Anderson’s best! But as for balancing it out, maybe not, while The Broken Sword is good, it rather dark (though not in the sense of being nihilistic). Now Anderson’s other work, Three Hearts and Three Lions, now that would balance the two out! That one is a little harder to get a hold of, at least if you are looking for a new copy.

              • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

                I feel like I should pull out the ELRIC series and write an essay of my own. It is insane hyperbole to write that LOTR’s villains were more noble than ELRIC’s heroes and makes me wonder when the last time was that anyone read ELRIC. Certainly Elric is not a traditional good guy but rather a member of a depraved human-like race who because of his inherent weakness develops a moral sense (perhaps the first of his race to do so) and tries to do good and often grieves over the evil that he does — even those times when it is an accident staged by Stormbringer.

                • Comment by Manwe King of the Valar:

                  “It is insane hyperbole to write that LOTR’s villains were more noble than ELRIC’s heroes and makes me wonder when the last time was that anyone read ELRIC.”

                  lol, calm down Rade! I don’t think it is either insane, or hyperbole, that is of course why I quoted Simon (it was a quote actually, not me paraphrasing, my mistake). Again they were his words, not mine, but I do agree with what he wrote in that essay.

                  • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:


                    I’m not uncalm, but I am beginning to doubt your familiarity with the Elric novels if you think, for instance, that Sauron or Shelob are more noble than Elric or Moonglum — or that they are even comparable in general.

                    • Comment by Manwe King of the Valar:

                      “I’m not uncalm”
                      When I said to calm down, I meant that as a joke.

                      “but I am beginning to doubt your familiarity with the Elric novels if you think, for instance, that Sauron or Shelob are more noble than Elric or Moonglum — or that they are even comparable in general.”

                      Ok, where to begin? First, did you actually read the eassay that I pulled that quote from? Again, you point the finger at only me, I was quoting Tom Simon, in his essay. And I believe the LOTR villian he was talking about was Saruman, not Sauron or Shelob. And the hero was Elric (not moonglum). If you had read the article, you would have seen that. About doubting my knowledge of the Elric novels, why? Because we came to very different conclusions? Right or wrong, I certainly don’t stand alone in those conclusions. Of all the books I mentioned here in this thread, not one have we come to the same conclusion on, thus I suggest we leave it here, and agree to disagree. No point in continuing this, we both see Elric in a different light, so be it.

                  • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

                    “I’m not uncalm”

                    When I said calm down, I meant that as a joke.

                    And I took it as such, that’s why I wrote that I’m not uncalm.

                    First, did you actually read the eassay that I pulled that quote from?

                    I did, but I might note that you were correct the first time  when you wrote that you paraphrased Mr. Simon as his actual quote is substantively different from your paraphrase.  Be that as it may, you appeared to be using this paraphrase to make a larger point (as I suspect was Mr. Simon in his article) about Moorcock’s and Tolkien’s respective heroes and villains and it is not a particularly compelling point if you’ve recently read the Elric books.

                    If you had read the article, you would have seen that.  

                    So your question to me was a rhetorical flourish?  That hardly seems friendly and I’m not certain what I’ve written that has seemingly irked you.  Was it that I evinced doubt on how recently you’ve read any of the Elric books?  That doubt stands as you don’t seem to be clearly recalling them as shown by your use of Mr. Simon’s article–an article which displays as much a disdain for Moorcock as Moorcock has for Tolkien.  A disdain which overwhelms what actually happens in the Elric novels.

                    About doubting my knowledge of the Elric novels, why? Because we came to very different conclusions?

                    Not at all.  Perhaps I’m misreading what you’re writing and the article you are pointing people to.  Elric hates Stormbringer.  He clearly identifies it as evil.  Elric despises the inhumanity of his race and sought to change it, which is why he was overthrown by his cousin.  Elric does not worship strength and is overwhelmed by remorse and grief over his actions (both intended and unintended) frequently.  If there is a parrallel between Elric and one of Tolkien’s characters, it is between Elric and Boromir.

                    The reason I doubt you’ve read the Elric books recently is that the statements you make about Elric don’t true up with the books.  Instead it seems something written by someone that has either read about Elric or someone that read the Elric novels long ago and has become hazy in his recollection.  For instance, I read some Conan stories about twenty-five years ago (around the same time I read two Pern novels).  All I really recall is that I liked neither the Conan stories nor the McCaffrey novels enough to continue reading more of either.

                    Of all the books I mentioned here in this thread, not one have we come to the same conclusion on

                    Really?  I suspect that you don’t like Elric novels (and perhaps nothing by Moorcock) though I don’t know that you have really outright stated such and are a fan of neither Abercrombie (I think he is overrated but created an interesting character in Logen Ninefingers) nor Martin (I enjoy the book’s complexity and some of the early surprises, but think that he lost control of the plot and has too many characters for the story he is telling).

                    we both see Elric in a different light

                    Perhaps.  I’m not certain that you clearly understand what light I see Elric in and you have really not said all that much, and what little you have you then attribute to Mr. Simon.  I actually have the Elric novels on my iPad as they were available free on Amazon not that long ago which is why I’ve recently read them.  Before that I’d avoided Elric as I’d read that he was an unreedemably evil monster of a protagonist and had only Moorcock’s original Corum trilogy.

    • Comment by SFAN:

      Which could be another connection between Lovecraft and Lem: Solaris is partly his take on the haunted house.

    • Comment by Mary:

      My List of Classic Fantasy to Read;
      • The Lord of The Rings, by JRR Tolkien
      • Three Hearts and Three Lions, by Poul Anderson
      • A Midsummer’s Tempest, by Poul Anderson
      • Operation Chaos, by Poul Anderson
      • Lud-In-The-Mist, by Hope Mirreles
      • The Man Who was Thursday: A Nightmare, by G.K. Chesterton
      • The Ball and The Cross, by G.K. Chesterton
      • The Charwoman’s Shadow, by Lord Dunsany
      • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
      • A Fine And Private Place by Peter S. Beagle
      • Kai-Lung Unrolls His Mat by Ernest Bramah
      • The Golden Hours of Kai-Lung by Ernst Bramah
      • Riddle of the Stars by Patricia McKillip:
      o Riddle Master of Hed
      o Heir of Sea and Fire
      o Harpist in the Wind
      • Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. LeGuin:
      o A Wizard of Earthsea
      o Tombs of Atuan
      o Farthest Shore
      • Chronicles of Prydian by Lloyd Alexander:
      o The Book of Three
      o Black Cauldron
      o Castle of Llyr
      o Taran Wanderer
      o High King
      • Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        Mary has the same bookshelf I do, it seems. My one exception is that I would never reread Heir of Sea and Fire. You can skip from the first book to the third without missing anything.

      • Comment by Manwe King of the Valar:

        That is a nice list Mary! Though I’m a little unfamiliar with some of the latter ones.

        I do wish “A Midsummer’s Tempest” was easier to get a hold of! I’d like to read it, but it’s so hard to find. Why, when Poul Anderson is such a big name author, are alot fo his works out of print and hard to find?!

        And on an unrealted note: do you have any published stories anywhere? I could be mistaken, but I thought you wrote.

        • Comment by Mary:

          Yes. You can find my works in Sword and Sorceress XI, XIV, XV, XVI and XVII.

          You can also find one in Warrior Wisewoman — in print! Buy a copy! Buy a dozen! They make great Christmas presents!

          (Author will go calm down now. After mentioning that she is looking for an agent with her first novel and really ought to get her act into gear about it.)

          • Comment by Manwe King of the Valar:

            Oh you do have some out! Maybe I’ll check out the Warrior Wisewoman! However it would be more helpful if I knew what your short story was about.

            Regardless, I hope you do find a publisher! :)
            If you can’t, would you ever consider going the self published ebook route? Granted, a published book seems so much more the ideal, but anything is better than not being published at all, right?

            • Comment by Mary:

              It’s — despite the title — a collection of SF stories. “Among the Wastes of Time” is about a woman contemplating sabotaging some equipment in the wake of her son’s death.

              Why — well, I didn’t write a whole story because I could sum up her reasons in a sentence. 0:)

  12. Comment by Gian:

    Mr Wright,
    Long back I had read a SF novella in which a machine civilization was bent on exterminating all biological civilizations it deemed a threat. To escape this doom, an intelligent civilization bioengineer-ed themselves to be a non-threat. Basically they blinded themselves among other things. So now their descendants are shown moving about blind on the planet surface, rather helplessly. It was very poignant and pathetic.
    Unfortunately I don’t remember the title or the author and perhaps you know of this book?

  13. Comment by Oscillon:

    No Kurt Vonnegut? Intentional or oversight? I’d add Cat’s Cradle.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      No room. I also do not have Theodore Sturgeon or RA Lafferty or Bruce Sterling or Gordon R Dickson, or CJ Cherryh …

      While Vonnegut is not to my taste, his influence on the genre is undeniable.

      Myself, I would have put SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE or SIRENS OF TITAN on the list before CAT’S CRADLE, but your mileage may vary.

  14. Comment by Scholar-at-Arms:

    Mr. Wright, I’m going to have to dispute one minor point on your list. You cited Asimov for the first SF mystery with “the Caves of Steel,” but that is incorrect. That honor goes to another. The way I heard the story, Campbell was having lunch with some of his authors and said something along the lines of “too bad a science fiction mystery can’t be done. The writer could just give the detective any gadget he needs to solve the case, it would cheat the reader.” A few months later Hal Clement tossed the manuscript for “Needle” on his desk. That being said, I found your list excellent. I’ve read well over half the works on it, and all but a handful of the writers.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I would never have described NEEDLE by Hal Clement as a detective story. Perhaps my memory fails me: is that the one were a microscopic alien inhabits the fluid in the main character’s eye?

      • Comment by Scholar-at-Arms:

        More or less, but(pedant alert) the symbiotes are not microscopic when they are outside of a host, and they can do much more than control the ocular fluid. I consider it a detective story because the protagonist’s symbiote WAS a detective(or perhaps a bounty hunter, memory fails) and the whole plot is determining in whom on the island the criminal symbiote is hiding. The protagonist is the partner of a detective, there is a list of suspects in the main human cast(none of them are the culprit, but one of them is hiding him), and investigation and deduction are employed in determining who is hosting the culprit. Those are all the necessary criteria for a detective story in my book.

  15. Comment by Iapetus:

    Thanks for the list! This should prove very helpful. :)

  16. Comment by SFAN:

    “DUNE (…) Also, first Hugo winner.”? (You probably meant something else, but I thought the first Hugo winner was Bester’s The Demolished Man (1953)…)

    Great list. A few books, like Anderson’s Brain Wave, are at the top of my reading pile… or will be now :)

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I confused the Hugo with the Nebula. And I had meant to look that up and confirm. Oh, well.

      • Comment by SFAN:

        After I wrote that,I was -offline- like “He obviously meant the first Hugo winner on the list, you airhead”, but then, I vaguely remembered you had mentioned Bester (and even Zelazny,who shared it)… I guess using computers dulls mentat skills… although we could always try to catch that Brain Wave (or was it all the disorienting influence from Stand on Zanzibar -which I was supposed to read soon-?) XD

  17. Comment by rlbell:

    H. P. Lovecraft’s greatest achievement was that he managed to successfully write stories about things that words fail to describe.

    • Comment by SFAN:

      Even if most of the time he mainly did that by simply telling you how undescribable or horrific or whatever they were (although I guess that the fact that he can’t “show,not tell” is kind of the point…) XD

      • Comment by deiseach:

        He had some fun with that very point in his story “The Unnameable”:

        “We were sitting on a dilapidated seventeenth-century tomb in the late afternoon of an autumn day at the old burying ground in Arkham, and speculating about the unnamable. Looking toward the giant willow in the cemetery, whose trunk had nearly engulfed an ancient, illegible slab, I had made a fantastic remark about the spectral and unmentionable nourishment which the colossal roots must be sucking from that hoary, charnel earth; when my friend chided me for such nonsense and told me that since no interments had occurred there for over a century, nothing could possibly exist to nourish the tree in other than an ordinary manner. Besides, he added, my constant talk about “unnamable” and “unmentionable” things was a very puerile device, quite in keeping with my lowly standing as an author. I was too fond of ending my stories with sights or sounds which paralyzed my heroes’ faculties and left them without courage, words, or associations to tell what they had experienced. We know things, he said, only through our five senses or our intuitions; wherefore it is quite impossible to refer to any object or spectacle which cannot be clearly depicted by the solid definitions of fact or the correct doctrines of theology – preferably those of the Congregationalist, with whatever modifications tradition and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may supply.”

        Of course, they see a horrific apparition, and the sceptical friend ends up quite unable to describe what they saw in any other terms than “the unnameable” :-)

  18. Comment by KokoroGnosis:

    “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” was chilling. I remember reading while standing in line at Chipotle and the when it dawned on me what was going on. Borges gets my vote for anyone that likes Gene Wolfe– and vice versa.

    I have to disagree with you on Riverworld. Something about it left me totally cold and I never really found it memorable.

    To anyone reading Last and First Men, stick with it. In the long run, I found it to be worth the price of entry (Stylistically, you’re reading a textbook) especially with a couple sad and poignant sequences towards the end.

  19. Comment by dionysius:

    Mr. Wright,

    You simply cannot leave Christopher Stasheff off the list. Rod, Gwen, Magnus, Fess, Doc Angus, Yorick, ST. Vidicon of Cathode, Gramarye, witch-moss, SCENT, VETO, and SPITE…these are all the stuff of science fiction legend!

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I am not compiling a list of my personal favorites. I have read and enjoyed Christopher Stasheff, but I do not take him to be someone who, if a reader has not read, that reader is woefully ignorant of the basic texts of SF.

      Do you think he has had more influence than Theodore Sturgeon or Neil Gaiman or Edgar Pangborn or Clarke Ashton Smith or C. L. Moore or L. Sprague de Camp, or Andre Norton or Abraham Merritt? These are all writers I cut from my list due to lack of space.

      I would rank Stasheff in the same rank as Sterling E. Lanier or Lawrence Watt-Evans or Jack L. Chalker. Writers can put out an enjoyable, workmanlike product without being a “must read.”

  20. Comment by jtherry:

    On and on Coeurl prowled!

  21. Comment by dionysius:

    I doubt I’d have read much science fiction without the influence of Stasheff. He goes way back to–1969–and has continued to be popular into the 21st century. What is more, I think that his popularity helped to put Harold Shea back on the map for many later readers. Also, he is one of the few writers I can think of that openly includes Catholic characters in the far future. He’s also a literate author who brings the Medieval and Renaissance periods alive in a way far superior to the likes of Anderson, Miller, Herbert, and in some ways, even Wolfe. These latter authors give us the Middle Ages and Renaissance as we moderns see those ages (IMO influenced a great deal by Howard and Burroughs); however, Stasheff presents them like the educated of the Middle Ages (especially late-Middle Ages) and the Renaissance would have understood them. That’s important because science fiction can find its origins in those ages. However, I will not labor the argument. I just figured that if Alan Moore is on there, Stasheff should certainly be.

  22. Comment by robertjwizard:

    I’d say I’ve read 50% of the authors on this list, at least two from each category. I have not had the pleasure of reading E.E. Doc Smith before, I think that is my one glaring oversight. But I only got serious about reading the essentials a few years ago. Before that I read whatever struck my fancy in the genre.

    • Comment by KokoroGnosis:

      There are very few works that have made me laugh with delight, no matter how much I’ve enjoyed them. The Lensmen books are one of those few; I have a fondness for ridiculously overpowered weapons systems, and when it comes to ridiculously overpowered weapons systems, the fleets of either Civilization or Boskone would glance at the Death Star and toss it aside without much thought. There’s a reason why TVtropes has a trope called “The Lensman Arms Race.”

      • Comment by deiseach:

        The “Lensmen” books have ridiculously over-powered everything. Space Marines boarding ships with their trusty space-axes, by Klono’s gadolinium guts! The slang can, in places, be dreadful, but in other parts it’s marvellously ridiculous and purposefully overstated.

        I love Clarissa McDougall, though, because she is absolutely wonderful. And Kim Kinnison may be a superman, but at least he suffers for his art. And I am still, after all these years, a tiny bit in love with Worsel of Velantia :-)

      • Comment by robertjwizard:

        Ah, now I know why there is a sci fi convention called Boskone. Seems the Lensmen series are not nearly as available as the Skylark stuff. Not even the nesfa has his collections. But I do like over-powered weapons, I will have to splurge and get these bits.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      As the librarian Ultan tells Severian the torturer’s apprentice, you may be over the age when the Book of Gold is found: by which I mean, the purple prose and pulp story telling conventions of E.E. Smith grate on the modern ear as oddly as the conventions of Irish poetry on the ear of an Englishman.

  23. Comment by SFAN:

    Happy Candlemas / Inbolc :)

  24. Comment by Ishmael Alighieri:

    As a public service, here is Mr. Wright’s list in easy-to-print-out-and-take-to-half-priced-books format:

    1. Mary Shelley:
    2. A Square (Edwin Abbott)
    3. Jules Verne:
    4. H.G. Wells
    5. E.M. Forster
    • ‘The Machine Stops’
    6. David Lindsay
    7. Olaf Stapledon:
    8. Jorge Luis Borges
    • “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”
    9. George Orwell
    10. Aldous Huxley
    11. A Merritt
    12. Edgar Rice Burroughs
    13. E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith
    • The Lensman Series by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith includes
    14. Stanley G. Weinbaum
    • ‘A Martian Odyssey’
    15. Jack Williamson
    • ‘With Folded Hands’
    • ‘The Moon Era.’
    16. H.P. Lovecraft
    • ‘The Call of Cthulhu’
    • ‘A Whisperer in Darkness’
    • ‘Shadow Out of Time’
    17. A.E. van Vogt
    • ‘The Black Destroyer’
    • SLAN
    18. Isaac Asimov
    19. Robert Heinlein
    • “The Man Who Sold the Moon”
    • “Requiem”
    • “Green Hills of Earth”
    20. Joe Haldeman
    21. C.S. Lewis
    22. Arthur C Clarke
    • 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY.
    • ‘Against the Fall of Night’ aka CITY AND THE STARS
    23. Clifford Simak
    • CITY
    24. Hal Clement
    25. Poul Anderson
    • ‘The Man Who Counts’
    • ‘The Queen of Air and Darkness ‘
    • TAU ZERO
    26. Alfred Bester
    27. Keith Laumer
    28. Fritz Leiber
    • THE BIG TIME .
    29. Robert Silverberg
    • ‘Nightwings’
    30. Philip Jose Farmer
    31. Tom Godwin
    • ‘The Cold Equations’
    32. Harlan Ellison
    • ‘Repent Harlequin Said the Ticktockman’
    33. Philip K Dick
    34. Roger Zelazny
    35. Ray Bradbury
    • FAHRENHEIT 451
    36. John Brunner
    37. Michael Moorcock
    38. Daniel Keyes
    • ‘Flowers for Algernon’
    39. Walter M. Miller
    40. Frank Herbert
    • DUNE
    41. Cordwainer Smith
    • ‘Scanners Live in Vain’
    • ‘The Dead Lady of Clown Town’
    • ‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard.’
    42. Ursula K LeGuin
    43. Jack Vance
    • ‘The Dragon Masters’
    • ‘The Last Castle.’
    44. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
    45. Larry Niven
    46. Gene Wolfe
    • The New Sun books
    • ‘Fifth Head of Cerberus’.
    47. Walter Gibson
    48. Neal Stephenson
    49. Dan Simmons
    50. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

  25. Comment by amazing stories editor:

    I’ve read all but one of the works you listed and obviously would have constructed a different list myself (though your selection is not a bad one at all).

    I think you might have saved yourself a bit of angst by putting a contemporary limit on it though; don’t include anything less than, oh, say, 25 years old (pick your own decade).

    Your points were spot on, particularly your mentioning of both readers and authors thinking that they’ve broken new ground, only to be informed that someone they never heard of broached the concept in the 1930s, got reprised in the 1940s, had several oppositional novels addressing it in the 1950s, was branched to encompass film, comics and television in the 60’s, was ignored in the 70s, and has been continually “mashed-up” from the 80s until the present.

    It is indeed a strange world; very few individuals, believing themselves to be good cooks, would walk into the kitchen of a cordon bleau establishment and tell the chef to go home; very few believing themselves to have a voice would step onto the stage at the met – or even join the line for an American Idol tryout; those playing with vintage erector sets in the basement would hardly attempt joining a work crew on a skyscraper in NYC and yet – they all seem to think they can write the breakout SF novel of the century (note – not the decade, the CENTURY) – after having done exactly ZERO homework.

    But it does seem to come with the territory, doesn’t it?

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “I think you might have saved yourself a bit of angst by putting a contemporary limit on it though; don’t include anything less than, oh, say, 25 years old (pick your own decade).”

      Party this is due to the age of your humble host. I am simply not familiar with what has been written recently. Part of it is the nature of time. Recent books that make a big splash (PERDIDO STREET STATION or THE GOLDEN COMPASS or THE SPARROW or BLINDSIGHT) might be influential to future generations, or might be a fashion that fades. Without the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to say. One cannot call a book an immortal if it has not yet stood the test of time.

  26. Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

    This is also an interesting list from the Center for the Study of Science Fiction:

  27. Comment by Nick Tramdack (@swordsnsolvers):

    John C Wright achieves gender ratio of 48:2 in “50 essential SF authors”… herp derp girls dont know bout spaceships

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I should have known that some vile PC-nik would count up the sex and race of the authors mentioned, and sneer. Being an American, of course, I judge the work by the work product, by the merit earned, not by the unearned merit generated by an alleged victim-status of the group to which the author happens to belong. Next time anyone compiles a list, he should studiously exclude any female authors, in order to achieve gender balance with those lists that include them.

  28. Comment by Manwe King of the Valar:

    Looks like this post is long since dead, so be it. But I just saw the last comment by Rade adressed to me. Where to I begin? Truth be told I don’t know. The reason I wrote little was specifically to avoid a long drawn out argument, kind of like the one we got into. Second I used Tom Simon because in general he says things better than I do, and in this case he did just that. Nor did I mean to insult you by wondering whether or not you read the article, I meant it just plainly as that. You did not irk me either, not sure why you think I was. Also I never said that I read Elric yesterday, but just because it was a FEW years ago, does not mean that I have no memory. Simon’s point and mine were not particularly interesting if one had read the books recently? Then I’m in good company as it seems many people got the wrong impression of elric. Indeed I have never heard a defense of him until you came along. I like many others picked up the fact that elric was an anti-hero, indeed that was part of his popularity, he was even billed as such. Simon called him worse than some of Tolkien’s villians, because even his villians had some redeeming qualities, where as Elric betrays and kills both friend and foe, everything is not the fault of his sword, Elric is not a good character, nor do I think Moorcock intended him to be, but maybe I am mistaken. And as for Moorcock, no I don’t like him, why on earth would I? A christian hating anarchist? Not much for me to admire. But I would not accuse his books of something unless I really believed it to be there, regardless of my opinion of the author. And Simon hating Moorcock? Maybe, but you missed the point. Tom mocked Moorcock, because of his own idiotic mocking of Tolkien, a far, far better author, and a much better man in general.But the disdain did not overwhelm the appraisal of the books. Simon gave an honest assesment. If you think he did not, why don’t you write to him? He blogs as well. You even said yourself “Before that I’d avoided Elric as I’d read that he was an unreedemably evil monster of a protagonist”, again that means I’m not the only one who thinks so, but you act as though I am. Do we see elric in a different light? Let me rephrase that, we seem to see things in general in a different light. You have defended every dark, gritty, even nihilitc book I have mentioned, indeed you have even defended them against such claims. To this I throw my hands up in the air, it’s why I said I did not want to continue the debate (something I didnt even want to get into in the first place, hence why I did not go into length by debating things word for word).
    I’m rather tired of ‘dark’ fantasy (or whatever it is one calls the current trend), not even because it’s dark (I can take dark), but because it’s cheap, ultimately false, and has little to do with either the fantastical, mythological or the the past, but is very reflective of the ugly modern world, especially it’s ideologies. From what you have said, I imagine you either like this kind of stuff, or are ok with it, or somehow miss what is obvious to many people, myself included. I’m not the first to think ill of elric, I don’t know why you seem to think that implies I either have not read the books or that I must have forgotten them. Moorcock’s whole Elric universe is marred, especially by the juvenile philosophy behind it. I think even Mr.Wright pointed that out once on this blog. I’m not a fan of the books, correct, but that is not why I said what I said. Maybe I, and many others like me, are wrong about elric, but that matter little in regard to how this whole debate occured. This all began when you gave as a suggestion, a book that did not at all meet the criteria Owain gave.The man asked for a good high fantasy, with knights, chivalry, etc. Elric has none of this, period. Nor did Martin’s books, which have so few good characters in them, who so often are lead to slaughter, and thus leaves the series filled with different shades of villians. My whole point was that it was a bad suggestion given the criteria.
    I don’t have anything personal beef with you, btw, I just don’t agree with some of your assesments. I trust that statement is true for you as well.

    • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

      I used Tom Simon because in general he says things better than I do, and in this case he did just that.

      I don’t have particular issue with your using Mr. Simon’s essay as an enunciation of your position — though I do want to address his essay in a moment.  What puzzles me is how you use his essay.  For example, if I write something in disagreement of a particular point you appear to me to retreat behind a response of “I am not the author of the essay.  Take it up with Mr. Simon.”

      The problem of course is that I am not having a discussion with Mr. Simon, but with you.  I didn’t bring in Mr. Simon’s essay as a position piece reflecting my own, but you did.

      Let me provide an example to show how I find this frustrating from the point of having a discussion.  Let us imagine that we are discussing the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution, if you are not from the US) and I say that Dr. Jack Rakove’s DECLARING RIGHTS: A BRIEF HISTORY WITH DOCUMENTS sums up my position and does so more elegantly than I otherwise might.  I then parcel post you a copy for your reading enjoyment.  Later you argue that Dr. Rakove is quite mistaken and that the US Constitution is not a break from the English constitutional tradition only to find my response is, “I didn’t write the book so you shouldn’t assume it to be my position.  If you disagree write to Dr. Rakove.  And by the way, he and I are not the only people to hold that opinion.”  I’d hope that you’d find my response somewhat frustrating.

      Also I never said that I read Elric yesterday, but just because it was a FEW years ago, does not mean that I have no memory.

      I don’t know what a few years ago means, and I really don’t know if your memory is particularly good or particularly bad.

      However let me provide an example.  Mr. Simon writes, “Nowhere in the Elric books is there any indication that Moorcock’s hero regrets his pact, or feels that his victims have any worth comparable to his own.”. The pact hat Mr. Simon references is Elric’s use of Stormbringer to provide him with strength — without the sword Elric is feeble bodied almost to the point of immobility.

      Mr. Simon’s statement however is simply dishonest.  Several times Elric tries to rid himself of Stormbringer (such as casting it in the ocean) and once even sets it aside in a vault for several years — only recovering it when his wife is kidnapped.  Beyond that, Elric is always bemoaning the evil that Stormbringer does.  However, one of the points that I continually made is that Elric is no Faramir or Samwise or Galadriel.  Where Faramir and Sam and Galadriel were able to resist (at least temporarily) the evil of the Ring, Boromir, Smeagol, and (eventually) Frodo were not.  Elric falls into the latter set.  Stormbringer plays on Elric’s weaknesses.  Elric is literally addicted to Stormbringer.

      I’m in good company as it seems many people got the wrong impression of elric. Indeed I have never heard a defense of him until you came along.

      But this is simply an assertion and an argument to the popularity of your position.  Be that as it may, I’m still not certain what your impression of Elric is.  Mine is this: Elric is a non-human master-race raised in a decadent and decidedly evil culture who is the first of his race to develop a moral sense.  Elric’s moral sense develops because as a physical invalid he can empathize with others who are weak.  Elric, while moral, is imperfect both because of his addiction to Stormbringer (a sentient sword-shaped demon) and because he has other moral weaknesses such as giving in to pride, anger, etc.  Elric often recognizes his moral weaknesses and often tries to oppose them but is usually undermined by circumstance or Stormbringer.

      Simon called him worse than some of Tolkien’s villians, because even his villians had some redeeming qualities, where as Elric betrays and kills both friend and foe, everything is not the fault of his sword, Elric is not a good character

      I’d like to bring to your attention that you are providing caveats to Mr. Simon’s essay that were not there.  That is fine, but it should provide you the reason for the way that I responded as I did.

      If you are suggesting that some of Tolkien’s villains (maybe all of them) had redeeming qualities, perhaps you are right.  Saruman, Boromir, and Denethor (for example) all certainly had justifications for why they did what they did.  However, you seem to be implying that Elric had no redeeming qualities or justifications which is simply not true — especially if you are going to imply that Saruman did.  Imagine, if you will, LOTR told from Saruman’s POV from the moment he arrived in Middle Earth to the moment of his death in the Shire.  Gandalf tells us that Saruman was a great Istari but Saruman fell (and with him even the corrupting influence of the Ring can’t be blamed) because of his pride and became a pale shadow of Sauron who was but a shadow of Morgoth.  In the Elric books, Elric is not even as corrupt as Saruman and (though perhaps I am mistaken) I can’t think of one instance where he kills a friend when not under the influence of Stormbringer — or of Stormbringer actually just outright killing the person itself as Stormbringer can move of its own accord.

      And Simon hating Moorcock? Maybe, but you missed the point. Tom mocked Moorcock, because of his own idiotic mocking of Tolkien, a far, far better author, and a much better man in general.

      I think that I got Mr. Simon’s point.  Though it is a fair criticism that I might not have.  I would suggest that a mocking essay is perhaps not the wisest course of action unless your intended audience already agrees with you and even then I don’t know that exercising one’s spleen is either becoming or a good idea.  Tone aside, I find Mr. Simon’s essay hyperbolic to an extent that by not acknowledging the hyperbole it becomes dishonest.  I assume that this is because of his clear dislike for Moorcock (a point to which I as a Christian might suggest he pray on) but it could simply be his writing style.

      I lack any substantial knowledge of Moorcock as a person and have only read his Corum novels (I recall enjoying them as a teenager), his Elric novels, and once made an aborted attempt to read a book of his about Jerry Cornelius that I loathed so much that I didn’t even make it a quarter of the way in.  If Moorcock is anti-Christian (and I trust that you are correct in this) then undoubtedly this would be a source of tension between us.  I was anti-Christian once so I have certain preferences as to how such people should be interacted with.

      Simon gave an honest assesment. If you think he did not, why don’t you write to him? He blogs as well.

      I suppose if he asked me to I might, but it seems somewhat arbitrary and awkward to seek him out to argue over an old essay of his.  I do wish I could cut-and-paste from my iPad’s Kindle app as I’d otherwise provide you more concrete examples of many of my points from the Elric books, but I’ve been traveling a good deal I don’t have my PC and it is frankly awkward to jump back and forth between two apps.

      You even said yourself “Before that I’d avoided Elric…again that means I’m not the only one who thinks so, but you act as though I am.

      You perceive me to be acting that way.  I actually have pointed out, fairly clearly, that I disagree with both your and Mr. Simon’s characterization of Elric.  If, for example, Mr. Wright or Mr. Flynn popped in and made a statement I might disagree with them as well.  You and Mr. Simon’s essay have been all I’ve had to argue against.  To be honest, I don’t even know if I disagree with you and Mr. Simon or if I just find your rhetoric to be hyperbolic.  Are you familiar with Faramir in LOTR?  Where Boromir wants to use the Ring to destroy Sauron and bring peace to Middle Earth his brother Faramir believes such thinking to be noble but misguided.  Boromir is not evil per se but he is wiling to use evil for good.  Faramir is much more resistant to this idea — which is not to say that he is incorruptible but just more resilient — and rejects the Ring.  Elric is very similar to Boromir.  He is a basically good person who thinks that he can use evil (Stormbringer) to do good.  In this he is wrong.  At then end of the books Stormbringer even tells Elric that he was wrong.

      we seem to see things in general in a different light. You have defended every dark, gritty, even nihilitc book I have mentioned, indeed you have even defended them against such claims.

      It may be that we have different definitions of nihilism — life lacks intrinsic purpose, meaning, or value. I am also not certain what you mean by I have defended.  I wrote that Abercrombie is overrated and seems to be trying to write fantasy noir (like film noir or the gritty novels of Hammett, Chandler, or Woolrich).  I personally don’t know that Abercrombie is shooting for Nihilism but he may come the closest.  I’ve been unsuccessful in completing a Steven Erikson novel, but what little I did read struck me as if he were trying to write Military Fantasy and as I don’t like Military SF I haven’t really sought out anything else by him.  Where we might have real disagreement is that I believe that G.R.R. Martin is a very good author and that his books are far from nihilistic.  Rather than being nihilistic I suggest that Martin is trying to write a piece of ‘historical’ fiction set in a fantasy world.  I also think that the story has overwhelmed him and that he has  either lost control or interest in the narrative.

      To this I throw my hands up in the air, it’s why I said I did not want to continue the debate (something I didnt even want to get into in the first place, hence why I did not go into length by debating things word for word).

      I apologize for my response.  I enjoy discussing books and really looked at this conversation as more of such a discussion between two bibliophiles than a debate trying to change the mind of the other.  I just prefer that an assertion be backed up with an example — at least when there is a disagreement.

      I’m rather tired of ‘dark’ fantasy (or whatever it is one calls the current trend)

      to be honest, I don’t read enough fantasy these days (I seem to be reading more detective fiction, theology, and history) to have much of an opinion as to whether dark fantasy is pushing out other types of fantasy novels.  I read maybe two or three fantasy novels a year right now, and not all of them are contemporary novels.

      or somehow miss what is obvious to many people, myself included. I’m not the first to think ill of elric, I don’t know why you seem to think that implies I either have not read the books or that I must have forgotten them.

      But are you and others accurate in your assessment of Elric?  I haven’t argued that Elric isn’t an anti-hero or that he doesn’t have moral failings.  I argued that he isn’t a depraved villain, that he feels and expresses remorse, and that he often actively struggles with his worse nature.  I argued that he is a moral agent and recognizes traditional morality even when he doesn’t live up to it.  I also argued that Elric does not worship strength.  I’m not clear what is obvious to many people that I am missing.  Is it that Elric is not a role model or a paragon of virtue?  I agree.

      What makes me think that you have either not read or are misremembering the books is your touting of Mr. Simon’s essay as an honest assessment of the Elric books.  In the main the essay is an attack on Moorcock that on occasion alludes to the Elric novels (but never offering a direct quote) that completely misrepresents the novels.  Allow me an example.

      “Elric intended to simply disarm Nikorn.  He did not want to kill or maim this brave man who had spared him when he had been entirely at the other’s mercy…Stormbringer suddenly shifted in Elric’s hand.  Nikorn screamed.  He runesword left Elric’s grasp and plunged on its own accord towards the heart of his opponent.  “No!” Elric tried to catch hold of his blade but could not…Elric sobbed.”

      This all began when you gave as a suggestion, a book that did not at all meet the criteria Owain gave.The man asked for a good high fantasy, with knights, chivalry, etc.”

      I suggested well written books, many of which are either highly regarded or are highly influential.  I agree that they did not meet all of the requesters desires.  I don’t know that I could list ten good fantasy books that could.  Elric as high fantasy, knights, and chivalry but has an admitted anti-hero.  It would be interesting to know if he actually likes any of the Elric books should he read them.

      I thought of suggesting Wolfe’s KNIGHT and WIZARD KNIGHT but it is an odd read, and even Able could be taken as an antihero.

      As for Martin’s books, just talking about the first book (since if it wasn’t liked I doubt that anyone would read further) the POV characters are Eddard (Ned) Stark, Catelyn Stark, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys.  All of them are objectively heroic except Sansa who is at first spoiled and weak (shades of Edmund Pevensie), and Tyrion (who is mostly a good guy in a bad position).

      Anyhow, sorry for the long post.  I don’t think that you are evil because we disagree on some fantasy novels.  I do think that you are minimizing the qualities of some characters because the books are not to your taste — which is fine.  There are numerous authors and books that are highly regarded that I didn’t enjoy or couldn’t force myself past the first chapter or two of: Frankenstein, Perdido Street Station, Gardens of the Moon, Dhalgren, The Left Hand of Darkness, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Catch 22, etc

  29. Ping from Links During Lent | Semicolon:

    […] John C. Wright: 50 Essential Authors of Science Fiction. I’ve read only a handful of these authors, and I don’t really feel a need to read all of them, since some sub-genres of sci-fi (cyberpunk, military sci-fi) are not to my taste. The ones I have read and can recommend on some level are Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, 1984 by Orwell, Brave New World by Huxley, Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky or Stranger in a Strange Land,, C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, Perelandra in particular, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin, and Dune by Frank Herbert. […]

  30. Comment by Trigonotarbid:

    I havn’t read all the 153 responses, so it is possible that this has been mentioned before.
    Your list says: “‘A Martian Odyssey’ by Stanley G. Weinbaum. First depiction of aliens who are not really monsters, and not merely humans. (Albeit that honor is disputed with the Lensman series, see above.)”

    J.-H. Rosny aîné also wrote about weird aliens, among them Les Xipéhuz, from 1887. Even if they kill humans if they have to, they are not really monsters, and they are not easy to understand. A review of the story:

    Another important writer that is largely forgotten today, is Camille Flammarion. His work include
    La pluralité des mondes habités/The Plurality of Inhabited Worlds (1862), Real and Imaginary Worlds (1865), Uranie (1890) and La Fin du Monde/The End of the World (1893). Much of his writings were translated to English, and had a strong influence on people as George Griffith (also forgotten, but not that important) and Edgar Rice Burroughs when he wrote John Carter, even if Percival Lowell often is given credit for being the main inspiration. According to Brian Stableford, it his highly likely that he influenced writers like William Hope Hodgson and Stapledon. The First and the Last Men could be seen as an updated version of Lumen. The way one of his characters are travelling in time, making a stop in the future now and then, before ending up in a dying world, could have inspired HG Wells as well.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Here I am merely out of my reckoning. I know nothing of science fiction writers outside the English speaking world, with the sole exception of Jules Verne, and so could not include them on the list.

      • Comment by KokoroGnosis:

        Les Xipéhuz has actually been recently translated, along with two other Rosny stories, arranged in such a way as to be reminiscent of Last and First Men. (Slightly, anyways.) It’s an interesting read, especially in the light of the translators’ suggestion that he is the father of hard scifi.

        Probably not worth 35 bucks, though. It was significantly cheaper a month ago.

      • Comment by Trigonotarbid:

        Maybe it would be more correct to say that Weinbaum was the first writer who wrote about aliens different from humans, which had any influence to speak of in relation to later science fiction.

        Considerng that J.H. Rosny’s science fiction was just recently translated, I didn’t have that much of an influence outside France. According to Brian Stableford, who sadly seems to be sick and dying (and who learned himself French just so he could translate the most famous works), the evolution of science fiction in France, UK and USA evolved independently from one another at first, with the exception of Poe, Wells and Verne. Link:

        Stableford also mentions Stapledon and Lumen:

        Stapledon was a well-read PhD in philosophy, and it would be surprising if he hadn’t read either Flammarion or works directly inspired by him. His writings include everything from astronomy, astral travels, biology, philisophy and so on. For those interested in any of these subject, and who studied their history, it is pretty likely they would come across one or more of his books sooner or later.

        But the influence of Camille Flammarion is very clear. Even if his books are not that remembered today, they inspired other writers to create their own work based on his thoughts and ideas. He was very popular in his own time, much of his work was translated into English shortly after being published in his own country, and there is no doubt they were read by other important authers.

        He was living in very exciting times, in my opinion. The idea of a soul was nothing new, and ideas about alien life was not a newcomer either. But what made his world different from our own is that spiritism back then was considered as a serious scientific discipline and accepted by many as a fact, and that Mars was “proven” to contain intelligent life. There was evidence of alien civilizations in the telescope, and souls were talking to living humans through mediums. That’s a paradigm that’s dead today, but it attracted Flammarion. And because of his huge popularity even among “common people”, he could spread his ideas and affect others through his books. Darwin’s theory of evolution, on the other hand, was something new. But it seems like Flammarion and many other writers back then didn’t fully understand the concept, and their ideas are more related to those of Lamarck instead of Darwin. One could wonder if the stories would be different if they understood Darwin better.

        Flammarion had as mentioned a dominating positition in society. He was a gifted astronomer, and knew all the right people who shared his own interestes in science, religion and spirituality (among them Arthur Conan Doyle). He collected everything of interest that had been written before him, choosed what he liked, fused it with his own speculations and created something new. Not everybody shared his beliefs, but they were excellent material for inspirations regarding their own work.

        It seems like it was the search for inner peace that was the driving force for Flammarion, as he was living in a world where new scientific discoveries was changing the old biblical paradigm in society, creating a spiritual crisis that forced a lot of people to look for alternatives. Immortality has always been popular in science fiction.


        “John Clute describes him as an “astronomer, mystic and storyteller” who was “obsessed by life after death, and on other worlds, and [who] seemed to see no distinction between the two.” Thus, Flammarion actually incorporated inhabited planets into a new religious view centered on reincarnation.

        Flammarion’s influence was great, not just on the popular thought of his day, but also on later writers with similar interests and convictions.”


        “Beginning in the sixties of the nineteenth century a French writer who was to have a great influence on ERB, Camille Flammarion, began writing his scientific romances and astronomy books. Not only did Flammarion form ERB’s ideas of the nature of Mars but this French writer was imbued with the notions of spiritualism that informed his science and astronomy. He and another astronomer, PercivalLowell, who is often associated with ERB, in fact, spent time with Flammarion exchanging Martian ideas. Flammarion and Lowell are associated.

        So, in reading Flammarion ERB would have imbibed a good deal of spiritualistic, occult, or esoteric ideas. Flammarion actually ended his days as much more a spiritualist than astronomer. As a spiritualist he was associated with Conan Doyle.

        Thus in the search for a new basis of immortality, while the notion of God became intenable, Flammarion and others began to search for immortality in outer space. There were even notions that spirits went to Mars to live after death somewhat in the manner of Bradbury’s nixies and pixies. In his book Lumen Flammarion has his hero taking up residence on the star Capella in outer space after death. Such a book as Lumen must have left Burroughs breathless with wonderment. Lumen is some pretty far out stuff in more ways than one. After a hundred fifty years of science fiction these ideas have been endlessly explored becoming trite and even old hat but at the time they were excitingly new. Flammarion even put into Burroughs’ mind that time itself had no independent existence. Mind boggling stuff.”


        “Over all Flammarion wrote over fifty titles including what the English called Scientific Romances or proto-Sci-fi as well as popular astronomy titles and volumes based on psychic research. While he was not a member of the Society For Psychic Research he was aware of it and was in frequent contact with Arthur Conan Doyle who was a member. Doyle for a period of time visited him at his private observatory at his home at Juvisy near Paris. Flammarion considered psychic research a science.

        Urania seems to have been a major influence, perhaps a catalyst on the terrific neo-Romantic novels of George Du Maurier which I have also reviewed on ERBzine. Du Maurier was, of course, an ERB influence also. The tone of Urania is also similar to William Morris’ novels who, Lin Carter believes, as do I, was an influence on Burroughs. So a very strong romantic psychical infuence is operating in Burroughs’ imagination.”

        Where Edwin L. Arnold, the writer Lieut. Gulliver Jones, got his ideas from, is not mentioned.


        “Flammarion’s passionate belief in life on other worlds was nurtured by his readings of previous pluralist authors such as Fontanelle, Cyrano de Bergerac, Huygens, Lalande, and Brewster. He, and another French writer, J. H. Rosny, were the first to popularize the notion of beings that were genuinely alien and not merely minor variants on humans and other terrestrial forms. In his Real and Imaginary Worlds (1864) and Lumen (1887), he describes a range of exotic species, including sentient plants which combine the processes of digestion and respiration. This belief in extraterrestrial life, Flammarion combined with a religious conviction derived, not from the Catholic faith upon which he had been raised, but from the writings of Jean Reynaud and their emphasis upon the transmigration of souls. Man he considered to be a “citizen of the sky,” others worlds “studios of human work, schools where the expanding soul progressively learns and develops, assimilating gradually the knowledge to which its aspirations tend, approaching thus evermore the end of its destiny.”

        Flammarion’s fertile imagination moves from romantic science to scientific romance in his Recits de l’infini (1872) and La fin du monde (1893). The former includes several tales which describe the reincarnation of a spirit on other worlds in various alien forms, while the latter has been seen as a precursor to Stapledon’s Last and First Men.”


        “Reynaud, Jean (1806–1863) was a French statesman and writer who, in his Terre at ciel (1854), set out a religious system based on the transmigration of souls which he believed was reconcilable both with Christianity and pluralism. He advocated that, at death, souls pass from planet to planet, progressively improving at each new incarnation. Among those on whom the book had a strong influence was Camille Flammarion.”


        In 1802, Les Posthumes was published, by Nicolas-Edme Rétif.

        “In it, we meet the fictitiously-named character of the “Duke Multipliandre”, capable of transferring his soul into the body of another person, even on other planets and in the future. These last powers appear to have exceeded the capabilities of the Face-Stealer, but remind us of the Great Race of Yith described by H.-P. Lovecraft. This could, in fact, be a clue as to how the Face-Stealer discovered the technique of soul transfer, and acquired his own powers. ”


        “Flammarion’s ideas about the planets were extremely influential during the end of the 19th century, and are still fascinating to read today as works of free-wheeling speculation and flights of fanciful logic. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to read the particular book that fired Lowell’s imagination (La planète Mars et ses conditions d’habitabilité, 1892), since much of Flammarion’s work isn’t freely available in English.

        But suffice to say that Flammarion believed that planets all went through more or less the same stages of development, but at different rates depending on their sizes. Thus, the small Moon was a dead Earth — its water evaporated, its atmosphere scoured away, and its inhabitants long expired (unless they survived in deep valleys). Jupiter, on the other hand, was a collapsing sun and an “Earth-to-be” — a world that would condense itself down to a rocky core and attain an Earth-like state favorable to life thousands or millions of years in the future.

        In Flammarion’s view, Mars lay on this developmental axis somewhere between the Moon and Earth. Mars was drying up, losing its water and atmosphere, but was perhaps not quite dead yet. In this context, it only made sense that the canals observed by Schiaperelli might be the last gasp of a dying civilization, attempting to shift water from the shrinking poles and oceans to the habitable zones where their cities were built.

        If you’re getting shades of Barsoom from all of this, that’s because Flammarion’s ideas heavily influenced Edgar Rice Burroughs’s concept of Mars. Other early science-fiction writers were equally inspired in other ways. George Griffith refers to Flammarion constantly in his round-the-solar-system planetary romance A Honeymoon in Space (1901) and William Hope Hodgson’s vision of a dying Earth in The Night Land (1912) has a lot in common with some of the astronomer’s ideas. Flammarion himself even wrote science-fiction, such as the end-of-the-world story La Fin du Monde (1893).”


        Apperantly Flammarion also read C. I. Defontenay (Star, ou Psi Cassiopea (1854)), another story claimed to have similarities with Stapledon’s work, and could have used some of the most interesting, but other than that, not much is mentioned about it.

        Today, the use of astral projections when travelling through space and/or time is more or less abandoned. The most recently use of the method that I am aware of, is Galápagos (1985), by Kurt Vonnegut.

        What I find interesting is that the story repeated itself some years later. In a time where the idea of canals on Mars and souls travelling through space and being reborn of different worlds was pretty much gone, something new happened.

        Just as the idea of travelling souls and incarnation was not something new, neither was telepathy and other paranormal power something new. What was new, was that it was scientifically “proven” by J.B. Rhine in 1934, with the publishing of Extra-Sensory Perception. Once spiritism was a scientific fact, and not ESP was a scientific fact. And little over a decade later, with the first sightings of UFOs in 1947, it was clear that we were being visited by aliens from other planets.

        Suddenly we were living in a world where telepathy and telekinesis were the next natural step in human evolution, just waiting for some mutant to show up, and in a universe where extraterrestrial visits were not just something from science fiction. John W. Campbell was obsessed about, and a lot of the science fiction writers, among them Arthur C. Clarke, actually belived it to be true and correct. Only later was he disillusioned.

        If Stapledon’s Last and first Men and Star Maker are updated versions of ideas from especially Camille Flammarion, and taken further, so is Childhood’s End an updated version of Stapledon’s work. Astral projections have been replaced with spaceships, and spiritism and spiritis from other worlds with ESP and aliens in flesh and blood. Rather than being reborn as a higher being on another planet, we are evolving into superhumans able to read minds and lift objects with our thoughs. Scientology followers still assume this. And will end up as a being of pure thoughs.

        In present times, some decades later, most people have lost the interest. Stories of the kind from the era mentioned above are still being written, but rarly by (sometimes obsessed) writers who belives that the fundament in their writing is true.

        These days, it’s more about mind uploading and trans- and posthumanism (for instance Blood Music by Greg Bear, or uploading in many of Greg Egan’s stories). Quantum physics and the understanding of its nature is mentioned as an explenation for how Frankenstein’s Monster can teleport in Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein. The trasnformtation of Paul in Stephen Baxter’s ‘Vacuum Diagrams’ is said to be partly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Starchild, and sounds almost religious:

        “He was – discorporeal; It was as if the jewel of consciousness which had lain behind his eyes had been plucked out of his body and flung into space.

        Driven by curiosity he began to experiment with his awareness. Physically he was composed of a tight knot of quantum wave functions; now, cautiously, he began to unravel that knot, to allow the focus of his consciousness to slide over spacetime. Soon it was as if he was flying over the arch of the cosmos, unbound by limits of space or time.

        Paul saw how the great star system rotated as one, as if solid. The Galaxy’s visible matter was no more than a fraction of its total bulk; a vast, invisible halo of dark matter swathed the bright spiral, so that the light matter lay at the bottom of a deep gravity pit, turning like an oil drop in a puddle. Now Paul climbed out of that huge, deep gravity well and passed through the halo of dark matter. The ghostly stuff barely impinged on his awareness. Photinos – the dark matter particles – interacted with normal matter only through the gravitational force, so that even to Paul the halo was like the faintest mist.

        Cautiously, clinging to his wave-function ropes, Paul sank into the dark matter ocean.

        Currents of photinos swept past him. The moving masses distorted spacetime, and the density was high enough for him to perceive vast structures gliding through his focus of awareness. Gradually he came to understand the structure of his Universe.

        At first Paul described to himself the places he visited, the relics he found, in human terms; but as time passed and his confidence grew he removed this barrier of words. He allowed his consciousness to soften further, to dilute the narrow human perception to which he had clung. All about him were quantum wave functions. They spread from stars and planets, sheets of probability that linked matter and time. They were like spider-webs scattered over the ageing galaxies; they mingled, reinforced and cancelled each other, all bound by the implacable logic of the governing wave equations.

        The functions filled spacetime and they pierced his soul. Exhilarated, he rode their gaudy brilliance through the hearts of ageing stars.

        He relaxed his sense of scale, so that there seemed no real difference between the width of an electron and the broad sink of a star’s gravity well. His sense of time telescoped, so that he could watch the insect-like, fluttering decay of free neutrons – or step back and watch the grand, slow decomposition of protons themselves…

        Soon there was little of the human left in him. Then, at last, he was ready for the final step.

        After all, he reflected, human consciousness itself was an artificial thing. He recalled Green, on the Sugar Lump, glee-fully describing tests which proved beyond doubt that the motor impulses initiating human actions could often precede the willing of those actions by significant fractions of a second. Humans had always been adrift in the Universe, creatures of impulse and a causality, explaining their behaviour to each other with ever more complex models of awareness. Once they had believed that gods animated their souls, fighting their battles through human form. Later they had evolved the idea of the self-aware, self-directed consciousness. Now Paul saw that it had all been no more than an idea, a model, an illusion behind which to hide. Why should he, perhaps the last human, cling to such outmoded comforts?

        There was no cognition, he realized. There was only perception.

        With the equivalent of a smile he relaxed. His awareness sparkled and subsided.

        He was beyond time and space. The great quantum functions which encompassed the Universe slid past him like a vast, turbulent river, and his eyes were filled with the grey light which lay behind all phenomena.

        Space had never been empty.

        Within the fight spacetime limits of the Uncertainty Principle, ’empty’ vacuum was filled with Virtual particle sets which blossomed from nothing, flew apart, recombined and vanished as if they had never been – all too rapidly for the laws of mass-energy conservation to notice.”


        Which reminds me a bit about Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen:

        “Reassembling myself was the first trick I learned. It didn’t kill Osterman… did you really think it would kill me? I have walked across the surface of the Sun. I have witnessed events so tiny and so fast they can hardly be said to have occurred at all.”

        Then there is the transformation of Jobe in the first The Lawnmower Man, or the cosmic ascension in Stargate SG-1 performed by those simply known as the “Ancients”.

        The ideas from the old days of science fiction and spirituality are still alive today, they have just changed a bit and been adapted for more modern times.

        • Comment by Hildebrandt:

          It’s possible that Flammarion as a name is not particularly well know, but I’m sure many are familiar with the famous Flammarion Woodcut.

          Speaking of non-English writers, is it not possible that Stanislaw Lem may have had some impact in the genre? I just wish there was a movie who did justice to Solaris, and others of his most interesting novels dealing with aliens and other planets.

          The superhuman tradition also got some input from Henri Bergson, writer of the book Creative Evolution. So many thoughts about the future evolution of man in the old days.

          It is true that Arthur C. Clarke included many elements that can be seen as religious. In The City and the Stars, we have immortal humans, telepathic humans, good and evil creatures of pure mind, and something that have similarities with a cosmic version of the jews’ journey to the promised land. The same idea about a journey to the promised land, or planet, is repeated in Rendezvous with Rama. I have not read the sequels yet.

          Most of Clarke’s cosmic fables use the ideas about non-physical beings, immortality, ascension, the creation of life by if not omnipotent than at least very powerful aliens, the end of days, cosmic guardians, babysitters or mentors, and journes with an unknown but very promising destination.

          And to some degree, Stephen Baxter continues with the same traditions as Clarke once did. The four big ones, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov and van Vogt, and some likes to include Bradbury too, were very different writers in the field.

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