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Saturday, June 16, 2012

5 (Slightly) Underrated Sci-Fi Classics

A Guest Post.

With the recent passing of Ray Bradbury, safely canonized among America's literary legends regardless of his genre background, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the science fiction canon. How we determine which books are "great" is a central problem in all of literature, but in science fiction, marginalized by critics for so long but also the object of the most intense and jealous devotion among fans, it takes on a special difficulty. 

For years a fellow named James Wallace Harris has maintained a list online entitled "The Classics of Science Fiction" (http://classics.jameswallaceharris.com/), which is not a subjective selection but, rather, aggregates the major attempts of others to come up with a comprehensive list. This method has its virtues and its drawbacks. If the list has a bias, I'd say it's towards the old and hoary, which is typical for this kind of endeavor (critical opinion takes a while to sort out and is always a lagging indicator of success), but is especially problematic with a genre largely concerned with the future! But it's an excellent way to study the great tradition of science fiction. I've used it for years to help decide what book is worth reaching for next.
Here are five books I read from that list that blew me away. They are by no means "neglected," or they would never have made Harris's list, but they're not household names like the dearly departed Mr. Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and they ought to be, so I'm evangelizing for them here:
1.      Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner, 1968, #6 on Harris list)

This book is absolutely brilliant, but it's also a giant doorstop, so I bet it's the least-read among Harris's top ten, but it's totally worth it. The structure is brilliantly effective (I was going to say "innovative," but it's largely stolen from John dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy) with interlacing chapters that tell the story of this overpopulated future from different angles, almost as though you were channel-surfing.

2.      The Space Merchants (Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, 1953, #12)

Speaking of TV, this could now be pitched as Mad Men in space. This amazingly un-dated satire depicts a future where businesses have assumed nearly all political power and people have become consumers rather than citizens. This future is also known as "the present." I think of the Chicken Little chapter every time I read an article about "pink slime."

3.      Lord of Light (Roger Zelazny, 1967, #44)

Zelazny is probably best known for the Amber fantasy series, but this might be his best book, in which Earthlings use advanced technology to imitate the Hindu gods (until a reformer patterned after the Buddha comes along). Gripping stuff that lives up to the raw mythic power of its inspiration.

4.      The Sirens of Titan (Kurt Vonnegut, 1959, #59)
The most unclassifiable and indispensable voice to cross over into "serious" literature from sci-fi, Vonnegut is most often acclaimed for his more genre-bending works like Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, but this early novel is my favorite, and it has all his weirdness and emotional power while remaining proudly
5.      Double Star (Robert Heinlein, 1956, #87)

Admittedly minor Heinlein -- his Stranger in a Strange Land (#22), Starship Troopers (#58), and my personal favorite The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (#32) all rank higher on this list, and he probably wrote a dozen other more substantive books – I nevertheless have a soft spot for Double Star. Its title is, ahem, a double entendre, as the protagonist is an actor hired to "double" a kidnapped politician. This book won the first Hugo Award for Best Novel, so like I said, "underrated" is relative here, but don't quibble with it: just make sure you read these if you haven't (and reread them if you have)!
An experienced writer on all things related to higher education and business, Amanda Watson spends her days covering the latest stories on various topics such as web entrepreneurship, and social media marketing. You can contact Amanda at watsonamanda.48@gmail.com.

Thank you Amanda for your guest post.  I have read three out of your 5.    I do like Brunner and will have to track that one down.  For some reason I have never enjoyed Vonnegut.   There is a wealth of great reading out there and most of it is not on any NY Times best selling list.  Obscurity is not indicative of quality.  Each of us defines our own list of tops by our personal taste.   Thanks again for the thought provoking guest post.

This book may have been received free of charge from a publisher or a publicist. That will NEVER have a bearing on my recommendations.

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