Musings on Greatness

I recently got around to looking at the Whitcoulls top 100 books list. Obviously there is not much there for the SF fan, so I do not intend to discuss it in any detail. However, as it has done for others, it did get me to thinking about some of the great Science Fiction titles and the influence they have had on the genre and on me personally.

The first thing that struck me when I started to think about this topic was that many of these books are no longer in print. It is a feature of modern publishing that the back list does not exist in the same way that it used to. Only a very limited set of really top sellers survives for more than one or two print runs. As soon as sales for a title fall off, the books are pulled from the shelves and remaindered or pulped. Luckily, some publishers will occasionally re-issue major titles from their back list, but even those do not stay on the shelves for long. An obvious exception is Lord of the Rings - the top ranking book in Whitcoulls list and never out of print. Unfortunately, it is very much an exception.

We can be thankful for the second hand bookstores. Without them, there would be no way we could get hold of many of the great books from the past. I recently purchased, from such a shop, a copy of Frank Herbertís Dosadi Experiment - no longer available new of course. This has always been my favourite Frank Herbert novel, dealing with the nature of justice and the way a society evolves when put under extreme pressure. I particularly like the idea like the idea of an official bureau of sabotage, which has the role of slowing down government so that it does not make too many changes too fast.

Frank Herbert is much more famous however for Dune. And justifiably so, as it is a major novel and deserving of a place high on the list of great genre titles. Certainly it is one of the first I thought of when working out which titles to include in this article. Again it plays with Herbertís favourite theme of the nature of society and the forces which control it. It is the evocation of the great desert planet and the people who live in it which seem to strike a chord with people and lift it to greatness. At least, I think so - it is a complex book which appeals on many levels.

Ignoring fantasy and books written before there was a Science Fiction genre, probably the most famous of all SF works is Isaac Asimovís Foundation trilogy. Always published as three books, it can easily be treated as one work - after all, the three volumes together are smaller than many single novels these days. Of course, Foundation was actually written as a series of short stories and novellas for John W Campbellís Astounding magazine. Campbellís influence on SF of the period around the 1940ís cannot be overstated. Asimov always acknowledged his major influence on the way he wrote and the subject matter. This is very true of Foundation and explains the human only nature of the Galactic empire about which it is centered. Asimov used the Roman Empire as a model for this Galactic empire, but we can be thankful that he did not pick up many of the religious elements from that time - probably related to his desire to keep Campbellís rather odd pseudo scientific religious mania to find a way in. To many current day readers, Asimovís all conversation and no action prose style seems dated and dull. But to so many others, it was their first introduction to Science Fiction and the great adventure which kept them hooked.

Robert Heinlein was another Campbell era author. At that time, he was probably the biggest name in the field. Over time his image has been tarnished by his right wing libertarian views. However, he cannot be ignored in any discussion of great works. Stranger in a Strange Land is probably the greatest of them - so great in fact that Heinlein spent the second phase of his career essentially re-writing it over and over again in his other novels. Perhaps because of this, the original has become neglected by time. It tells the story of a human raised by aliens who then returns to Earth. Because of the powers given to him by the aliens, he is able to achieve notoriety and form a religious movement. - incorporating Heinleinís libertarian views of course.

Another novel neglected by time is John Brunnerís masterwork Stand on Zanzibar. Written at a time when the population explosion was the big environmental problem in front of everybody, Brunner extrapolated a world where people were everywhere. In its time, Stand on Zanzibar won every award and acclaim going. Now it is almost impossible to find. I suppose that one test of greatness is that it survives the test of time and therefore the fact that this novel is not on the shelves means that it did not make the grade. But having re-read it recently, I can attest to the fact that it still has relevance and impact for today.

William Gibson did not invent Cyberpunk. Nor was he the first to write about a hi-tech near future anarchy. He was not even the first to write SF in a style reminiscent of detective noir fiction as exemplified by Raymond Chandler. What Gibson did do was write a novel called Neuromancer which incorporated all these aspects and created an explosion in SF. This novel and its sequels ushered in a new movement into SF and a new readership with it. For alone qualifies it for a place on any list of great works.

In the process of writing this article, I have come to the realisation that I have opened a gigantic can of worms for myself. As I write, more titles keep occurring to me. There is no way that I can accommodate them all in one article. Then there is the added factor that many of the greatest works of SF were works of shorter fiction. In fact until the late Ď50s SF was primarily a short story and novella genre. All this means, I suppose, is that there will have to be more such articles. In the meantime you might like to see if you can still buy a copy of any of the following - good luck:

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Tiger! Tiger! (a.k.a. The Stars My Destination) by Alfred Bester

The Ophiuchi Hotline by John Varley

The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman