If ignorance is bliss, why aren’t more people happy?

One of the things I’ve learned in the process of building our own farm from nothing more than a patch of bush with a fantastic sea view, is that starting from absolutely nothing is one hell of a lot harder than starting from something.  Literally, anything, but ideally something that requires little more than a redecorate and moving your furniture in is definitely this game on ‘lowest difficulty’ setting. From the regulatory/bureaucratic quagmire point of view, any sort of existing house, especially if it has electrical and sewage systems in place is going to save you a mint of money and may substantially reduce your chances of informing the FBI that your local council has a video of President Trump kissing Vladimir hidden somewhere on their premises.

Starting from nothing… well, you MAY get what you want, to your own desires and design. On the other hand, speaking from personal experience here, you may well end up building, taking down and rebuilding… at least three times to achieve something sort of Okay, in a good light, or at least when viewed through ‘I do not want to do it a fourth time, and it isn’t falling down immediately. Besides, it has character!’

This is equally true of writing.  I spent a lot of years in a large crit-group, which exchanged critiques.  You very rapidly got to recognize the writing efforts of 1) Those who had never read anything much. 2)Those who never read anything in the genre.  Writing is not a movie.  After a while I started to be able to pick the influences (I read a lot, and have read a lot, and I have a very high retention) among those who had plainly at least read some of the genre.

Frank statement: most of what I was offered to critique was like reading slush… 10% OK and 0.1% great. I did a couple a week for near on a decade. I have no idea if I was much good at it – but I learned a lot. Just having to explain what didn’t work (and grasping what did) forced me to think about these things, to actually put instinctive reactions into ‘why’ – and to learn some of the lessons without having to do the dumb things myself. Well… SOME of the dumb things myself!

And in all that time, I never saw one ‘OK’ let alone ‘great’ from the class of ‘don’t read much’, and one – literally one who wrote a good story but was ‘inventing’ the genre as she went along. It still wasn’t great but it was readable.  I wish I’d kept a number record, but I am almost certain there was a direct correlation to the obvious fact that the writer had read a lot of sf/fantasy to how good their own efforts were.

Now: let me be clear here.  Just because you’ve read every work of sf/fantasy/horror back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, doesn’t make you a great writer. The odds are still very low. But if you don’t read, there’s a microscopic chance. Electron microscope required. If you don’t read the genre, you’re up to merely needing a nice collection of zeros after the decimal point to put before the 1.

You know… many of the great artists… and many great chefs… and many great musicians… don’t follow the rules of their field. But you will inevitably find they KNOW the rules. They know the conventions. They reached their branching out point off a very solid foundation.

What on earth gives anyone the idea that writing is different?

So: what got Dave onto this topic?

Well, one of the leading lights of our field (or so we are told – A publishers’ darling anyway, even if I don’t personally like her work) came out with the curious statement in the last week or so:


Um. And we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

If this isn’t Orwellian re-writing of the history of our field, she must be very, very, very happy.

Speaking as someone who has actually read an awful lot of very old (and a lot of middle aged, and fair amount of get off my lawn, whippersnappers) sf and fantasy… sf/fantasy has one defining political characteristic: at least until the 1980’s it was an exceptionally broad church, including anything from C.S. Lewis to Samuel Delany, Zenna Henderson to John Norman, Ursula LeGuin to George MacDonald.

After that, it started to crimp down. By the mid-90’s it was becoming doctrinaire and narrow… and becoming much narrower in class and social diversity appeal as well as becoming increasingly left-wing dominated. Curiously, although reading, and populations grew… sf particularly lost readership.

Personally I think the weakness in the field –particularly in traditional publishing comes from having a bunch of ‘writers’ who… Don’t know who Robert Silverberg is. Who do not fall about laughing helplessly when someone says ‘Science Fiction has always been Progressive.’

So I thought: in the spirit of helpfulness, that we should come with a list of 5-10 foundational but less known novel recommendations from no later than 1970 that have taught us the fundamentals of how to write the genre.  My only restriction being: they should appeal to ordinary, average readers and should STILL be easy and pleasant to read.  Everyone’s mileage will vary.

Because we’re a writing site: try to include the reason you think it valuable. And don’t rank them. We’re not trying to start a pissing contest.

Here are some I thought worth using to build my writing on:

Eric Frank Russell – Next of Kin. EFR was possibly a con man who came up with tall stories people believed (spontaneous human combustion). If you can do that… you’re worth learning from. This story – like most of his centers on quite a complex idea (the possibility of a soul or spiritual doppelganger) and how to exploit the differences in language. It’s satirical, and funny, and yet in very simple easy to read English.

Zenna Henderson. No Different Flesh. How to write character, and how to make the extraordinary ordinary and identifiable with.

Mack Reynolds. Space Pioneer. How to blend unusual cultures and traditions (Albanian) with modern sf.

Clifford Simak. Goblin Reservation. Simak was a small town newspaperman. He loved his rural people – but he also wrote at a level they’d be comfortable with. This means he’s carrying complex ideas (the werewolf principle!) in very simple easy to read English. – A nice trick if you can do it (trust me, it takes little skill to write a complex idea in complex English. Why anyone thinks that being hard to understand is a mark of competence is beyond me.) Simak also illustrates to me the problem with this – he’s TOO easy. His writing lacks the depth to do justice to the ideas. Often his characters are pretty cardboard. (Goblin Reservation has some of the more attractive ones – Alley Oop and Shakespeare’s Ghost).

James White: Hospital station. How to write memorable aliens. Seriously, also how to do one of the more difficult tricks in writing – a drama with minimal violence.

H. Beam Piper: Lord Kalvan of Other When – I think this is foundational parallel universe/multiverse tale

L Sprague De Camp. Lest Darkness fall – Ok you might say Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court was the first ‘alternate history/time travel back to start another branch of history story – but this is really what you have to read if you’re going to write Alternate history. The key here – to me – is the problem solving.

Jack Vance. The Blue World. It’s satire, it’s incredibly clever in its questioning of societal assumptions – but it’s adventure first, and centers on problem-solving (something that was very common when sf was a first choice for hands on engineers, and now seems so very rare. Maybe Gender Studies graduates don’t have to solve problems much.)

Your turn.

I’m a day older tomorrow but at the same time a year older (when most of you will be reading this) so my replies may be even more sporadic than usual. Time travel does that to a bloke.


87 thoughts on “Foundations

  1. Daniel Keyes – Flowers for Algernon: How to write in dialect and vary the complexity of vocabulary without throwing your reader out of the story, and making it still an incredible emotional punch. Also, that the test subject is just as viable a point-of-view as the scientists or pilots.

    Frank Herbert – Dune: If you grab a different religion & culture’s story, one not very well known to the public at the time, and set it in an environment that’s exotic but incredibly well realized, you can really capture the imagination of the public. No, they don’t need to read about people who look just like them.

    Robert Heinlein – Starship Troopers: How to make your infodumps be leavened with enough story people will sit through ’em. Also, how to sneak cultural subversion and yanking the reader’s prejudices… And, how to open with an action-packed prologue that’ll make the reader stick around through the boring training scenes.

    H. Beam Piper – Little Fuzzy: Look, if you can write a scifi book that’s still beloved and recommended long after all the tech in the story is outmoded, then you’ve written an awesome story. Wish I could figure out that trick.

    And I would recommend Niven’s Ringworld for sheer awesome original worldbbuilding, but a quick check shows that was ’71. (I actually preferred his Integral Trees, but that was ’84. Way too late!)

    1. Hey I read Flowers for Algernon in class. Liked it a lot but never thought of it as SF. At that age SF meant starships..

      1. A subtle SciFi. Experimental medical technology. Robin Cook’s, Coma was a similar subtle sci fi using what would have been considered experimental medical technology back in the 70’s. unfortunately, she published in 1977?78? so disqualified from Dave’s criteria.

        1. I’d suggest Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. The descent into the subterranean lab did a great job at setting the stage. (I’d think of it as world-building in miniature.) It’s also a pretty good shot at hard SF, with technologies that were a few notches beyond state of the art, but were plausible.

  2. The ironic part of “Science Fiction has always been Progressive” is that the Evil Robert A. Heinlein (don’t hit me Sarah) was somewhat progressive FOR HIS TIMES.

    Yet, those idiots consider RAH, racist, sexist and what else piece of idiocy they “think up”. 😦

    1. I feel compelled to point out that both RAH and Sarah try to conceal their rampant homophobia by writing complex yet believable gay characters.
      You see, once you’ve read Alinsky you can tar and feather any opponent at will, that is if you have the stomach for it.


    This is a small part of the usual MO for Progressives. They push into an area, (attempt to) take over, and normalize. This is part of the normalization step. By declaring that SF has always been Progressive, they make anyone else an aberration, something invasive that needs to be fought against. Progressives tend to live on “the feels”, and nothing feels better than punishing the outsiders who turn everything to s#!t.

    1. There’s a long history of year zero revisionist history in history. Everyone good came from the current regime, which is perfect, invincible, and no society that can really be considered fit for a human being is outside of it. That I can only trace it back two thousand, maybe three and a half thousand years is only because I’m not very well read in my history, and am very much not current with what recent archeology may be telling us about earlier periods.

      Very possibly what really happened with Islam.

      We see it in the French Revolution. Changing the calender that much? Would have made a lot of the historical record impenetrable if they had made it stick completely. The architects of the Russian Revolution explicitly modeled it on the French. I usually talk more of how the tumbrels influenced the Soviet Union, but the year zero was also a heavy influence, and fed back into the purges. It is how we find out that Trotsky, Hitler, and much later the entire Soviet Union had always been right wing, and hence not a stain on the lily white reputation of leftism. Modern leftism is basically the state cult of the Soviet Union, complete with outer and inner party.

      I think your last sentence is perhaps comparable to claiming that “Christian gullibility towards felons claiming to have redeemed themselves by changing their ways” is an innate tendency of mankind.

    1. I’ll add my best wishes to that. Although isn’t it the time where you were born that controls? (Don’t know, myself, I’ve never been more than three time-zone hours away from home on my birthday.)

      1. or maybe its how many times the solar system has circled the center of the galaxy, in which case Dave is older by a small increment.

  4. Curiously, although reading, and populations grew… sf particularly lost readership.

    Cuz it became weapons-grade boring. Especially in the magazines, where the stories just barely, if at all, qualified as sci-fi/fantasy. They had no imagination. No adventure. Nothing wondrous and fantastic. I had a story rejected at one mag specifically on the charge of having “too many wonders.” I’m recommending stories that would be brought up on those same charges (mine had elements of two in particular).

    Recommendations that fit the pre-1970 parameters (and readily available on Kindle):

    In a high school sci-fi class — which a teacher tried to keep me from taking, on the grounds that it was intended for the kids below the college prep track — everyone enjoyed George Stewart’s “Earth Abides.” I’d say it was apocalypse done right, because Stewart appeared to have met actual humans, and his fellow Americans in particular. No stupidities such as people deciding to sort themselves into narrow castes during their teenage years. Nope, the main character even assess his chances of survival at the beginning: He figures he might survive because he’d already had his appendix removed. It was published in the 40s, which was supposedly a time when sci-fi ignored women and racial minorities. Stewart didn’t get that memo.

    ~ Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars” — when John Carter came out, I decided to test the office Kindle with this book. “Princess” astonished me because this was exactly the sort of story I’d been searching for during the Great Drought: Adventure! Romance! Wonder! Aliens! On another world! It broke all the rules enforced by those early 2000 sci-fi mags. Published in 1917.

    ~ Frank Herbert’s “Dune” — an excellent example of anchoring your future/fantastic worlds in real-life cultural analogs. During the Second Gulf War, some sci-fi nerds actually thought that Saddam Hussein had stolen the idea of the fedayeen from the Fremen.*** But rather, the Fremen were based on real-life Arab/Bedouin cultures. Published 1965.

    ~ Andre Norton’s “Witch World” — for those unwilling to follow the current rule that magic = medieval-level tech. You have witches battling aliens from another dimension, and Tregarth uses firearms in fights. He even crash lands a flying car in a swamp filled with sapient ape people. Published 1963.

    ~ Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth,” particularly the “Mazirian the Magician” story — a lot of fans of sci-fi/fantasy moved on to video games because that medium still has the wonder and adventure. Fans of Dungeons & Dragons may appreciate the source material of the spells (prismatic spray) and mechanics (wizards must memorize spells, then forget them after use) and artifacts (the Boots of Speed) used in those games. Published in the 50’s.

    Also, in a critique group I keep running into the problem of characters having powers whose limits are never explained or dealt with. Kills suspense, and everything that benefits the character seems a convenient deus ex machina. Mazirian’s limits aids the suspense, and obliges the character to think his way out of problems.

    ***Granted, the discovery that Hussein enjoyed Frank Frazetta-style art may have contributed to the idea that he would have read “Dune.”

    1. Not to mention his virtual buy up of all the world of one early 80’s fantasy artist, Victoria. And commissioning a portrait of himself by her. And having a creep crush on her.

    2. For that very reason, I dropped reading the genre in the early ’90s.
      Blame Mike Flynn and Firestar for dragging me back in.

      If we’re talking about foundational, someone has to stick up for Jules Verne. As a kid, he was one of my favorites, even though they’d become obsolescent.

    3. My SF reading went on hiatus when I was working on a masters in 1986-90. At the time, I couldn’t quite figure out why I couldn’t get back into it (until I re-discovered Niven and Pournelle), but yeah, stuff put out in the late 80s and early 90s (SF book club in particular) was boring.

  5. “Science-fiction of the past was racist/sexist/homophobic!”

    “Science-fiction has always been progressive!”


    1. I pick option number three. Anyone so ill mannered and ignorant of the actual genre as to present those ill conceived statements as valid should immediately be told to FOAD.

    2. Science fiction as an immanent artform always was progressive, while the off-colored and wrong-gendered writers usually subverted it for their own greedy, toxic and phobic reasons.

      1. Believe? Adamantly insist is the phrasing I’d use. I doubt they believe it, given the way they re-define “racist” every three months.

        1. If I’m not mistaken, the precise descriptor is “catechism”. These phrases are to the likes of our three-time Hugo Award victim as “What is the Chief End of Man?” and its answer are to a Presbyterian.

    3. As far as I’m concerned, those two statements aren’t really all that mutually exclusive. Some of the biggest racists I’ve met are progressives. Of course it’s the “soft” racism of lowered expectations, but to me, believing minority people are incapable of taking care of themselves, holding jobs, resisting crime, or making good decisions without (progressive) government assistance is pretty racist.

      The first statement (racist/sexist/homophobic) has a little bit of “truthiness” to it. If you judge the past using today’s standards, well yea. I grew up in the 70s. Gay jokes were “the norm” in society. The (evil dreaded) “N”-word had begun to be phased-out, but it was still in use by a lot of people in society (especially older people). Just watch the movie Blazing Saddles. Just a dozen or so years previous, it had been in normal everyday use. The sexist ideas that women were practically property and should stay home and take care of kids and home while men went to work was likewise considered relatively normal. Those were the times. Those things were “normal”, so people didn’t question them. They didn’t KNOW to question them.

      Fast forward to the present, Gay jokes aren’t considered so funny anymore and aren’t the norm in polite society. Racial slurs are likewise no longer accepted. Women aren’t just “allowed to work”, women go out and get jobs and have careers and it’s normal. Yea, judging by today’s standards, the past WAS racist/sexist/homophobic, and the ideas of the time were reflected in everything. Not just Science-fiction. The real sad thing is the Progressives (purposely) ignore that society is naturally evolving. They run around decrying racism, sexism and homophobia, when with every generation those things have been becoming a thing of the past and are far outside the norm anymore. The progressives don’t see it and are getting left behind, because now THEY are the ones that can’t give it up and move on into this bright future. It’s sad really.

  6. Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game. And I personally liked E.E. Smith’s Lensman series. How he dealt with a higher power’s ‘intrusion’ into the mortal world was interesting.

  7. Oh, I *like* that Idea. (The one about video.)

    Wonder if the FBI’s already had reports about the septic inspector? I can think of a couple people who deserve the FBI more, but they’re in prison, so . . .

    (Don’t worry, I won’t. As someone who’s first impression of the FBI was formed by Ruby Ridge, even I’m not quite that vindictive.)

    1. Ruby Ridge and Waco happened to other people.
      Winter Hill Mob hits covered up by the FBI happened to family.
      That’s makes my antipathy toward the organization VERY personal.

    1. Nope. Not even when they “win”. Just look at the pillorying of Silverberg on Twitter.*

      *Not recommended for those suffering high blood pressure.

      1. I missed the business with Silverberg on Twitter. Was this over his comment about Jemison’s speech?

        And she slipped my mind earlier, but Leigh Brackett. Most of her work was at shorter lengths, but she could write loners and dying civilizations like nobody else.

        1. Yup. Lots of vulgar and classless commentary is being hurled his way by morons who see nothing but his sex and race. In some cases, it’s clear that’s the only thing they know about the man.

          Asshats, all of them.

          1. While a lot of Silverberg’s work is not to my taste, I’d be willing to bet $$$ that he’s still going to be read after a lot of these people have been forgotten.

            I’m tempted to look some of these tweets up so I can know who to avoid, but I’m swamped with classes starting and I suspect I am probably not reading most of them anyway.

            Still, I’ll try to work some Silverberg into the rotation over Labor Day.


    To steal a line someone (Christopher Chupick, maybe?) said last week on this subject: good to see H. P. Lovecraft acknowledged as a progressive.

    I’m going to toss out A Gnome There Was by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore) Short stories in which humor and cynicism have never been blended better.

    Northwest Smith by C. L. Moore This was the prototype for Han Solo. A unique blend of space opera and dark fantasy, with some of the stories having some really interesting sexual imagery (even though there’s little to no explicit sex).

    Jack Williamson’s The Humanoids, an example of taking an idea to its logical extreme and a response to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

    1. Nope, that was someone else, but I’m glad I’m the first person who sprang to mind. 🙂

  9. Dragonflight and Dragonquest by McCaffrey. Good adventure sf pretending to be fantasy.

    I robot. I was too young to get it but I loved Asimovs Lucky Starr.

    Frank Baums Oz. Probably more fantasy, but it comes across as sf.

    Jules Verne. Lots of them.

    Except for Mccaffrey, I read all of this in translation and did not think of it as foundationsl. Just the stuff that filled my backpack.

  10. James H. Schmitz.
    Keith Laumer
    Poul Anderson

    But yes, to be accurate there has always been crap “progressive” books in Science Fiction, which I roundly ignored until that is literally all their was.

    Now I’m part of the Great Slush Pile, writing instead of reading. Hopefully Schmitz, Tolkein, Lewis and the rest have inoculated me against being the next Empress Theresa. ~:D

    1. If you stop wading in the sewers, the rats will stop chewing holes in your boots.

      However thanks for making the link an archive, I’d have hated to contribute so much as a click to that festering boil of preposterous poppycock. The author doesn’t even have a blurb page.

    2. Wow. What a load of nonsense. Don’t these people realize that everything touted as progressive today will be seen as hopelessly dated, homophobic, racist, and sexist in about twenty years? Tearing down what came before to make yourself look better is pathetic.

      1. Also, so it’s okay to alter past works to suit current left-wing sensibilities but Christians doing the same thing in the past are of course utterly abhorrent. My eyes are still rolling.

      2. 2056: “Unconscious blanco-priv of Jemisin totes problematic. Suggest more prog authors instead.”

    3. “So I set out to write a book that works through my feelings on this. I started with a teenaged woman (Middle-earth has fewer women in the center of the narrative than I would like, as well) named Madeline. She’s privileged in a lot of ways: white, upper class, well educated, smart, and likeable. The only catch is that she has a terminal lung disease.”

      “…and she’s the Tenth Walker and she has violet eyes that change color when her feelings change and Aragorn and Legolas are both in love with her and she can sing haunting songs that would make Luthien give up in despair and…” (To be fair, which is not a favor any Torling would extend to ME, the synopsis could’ve made an interesting light read. I am, however, guessing that Madeline’s author is *also* upper class, well educated, and white.)

  11. Philip K. Dick- Master of the mindscrew. Perhaps the most adapted authors that most film audiences have never heard of- Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Man in the High Castle, Paycheck, Minority Report… and the most surprising thing is that many of those adaptations are pretty good, or at least entertaining.

    1. I certainly don’t resent Dick’s Hollywood success, but dang it, he’s not the only SF writer with an extensive back catalogue! Read another author!

      1. Then again, the obscurity works in Hollywood’s favor- they can change and adapt and move things around without too much fan outrage.

    2. I never liked his stuff, to be honest. Didn’t like Bradbury either. Pretentious and boring.

      I did like the Compleat Enchanter by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. One of my all-time faves.

      1. Uh-oh; the peasants are going to bring their pitchforks and torches again…

        Anything Bradbury wrote was like getting stuck in tar, dear Lord, why did I start another one of these… Dick was one of the worst of the New Wave “random stoner rantings, ooh!” writers. But somehow they got fans, many of whom are borderline rabid…

        For that matter, add Tolkein to the list. The Hobbit wasn’t too bad, but the Rings just went on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on, and I’m sitting there with my eyes glazed over and spiders are spinning webs in my hair while I wait for something resembling a plot to briefly surface before the story goes off into the archeology of Middle Earth burrowing insects,or some other filler material that doesn’t advance the story.

        I read Main Kampf; a book so boring the Gestapo could have used it as a torture instrument. “Read the book. There will be a test!” But a least it had its (possibly unintentional) hilarious spots, while the Rings had no redeeming value I can remember, other than perhaps as a cure for insomnia.

        1. I imprinted hard on The Martian Cronicles by Bradbury. That and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein . . .

          Kept getting them confiscated for reading when I was supposed to be doing other things as a teen.

          Farenheit 451 made SO much more sense when I reread it after Sad Puppies got started, than it did when I was a teen. Freaking partially-prescient science fiction writers . . .

          Tastes are so different.

    3. Anthony Burgess and A Clockwork Orange. Not sure the dystopia was anything special, but the created language (Nadsat, according to Wiki) of Alex and his droogs was a good example of how to do it. (I know Burgess created the language for the Quest for Fire movie.)

        1. The book version in Britain of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is longer (by at least a chapter) than the book version originally published in the US.

          The British version has a happy ending which was left out in the American version.

          The movie was made from the American version and the producer of the movie thought Burgess “destroyed the theme of the book” with the British ending. 👿

        2. It had a great soundtrack, too, courtesy W[alter|endy] Carlos. OTOH, I’ve been a sucker for Beethoven’s 9th for decades.

  12. You guys covered most of the stuff I like, also I have amnesia the moment I’m asked for the names of any books.


    The Puppet Masters – Robert A. Heinlein

    The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein

    Werewolf Principle – Clifford Simak

    A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter Miller Jr.

    The Still Small Voice of Trumpets – Lloyd Biggle Jr.

    1. After the movie, I don’t know if “The Puppet Masters” would meet the “lesser known” criterion. Though it seems few moderns have ever heard of anything other than “Starship Troopers”, and some of those probably don’t know it was from a Heinlein book.

      It must be terrible being an SJW. They want to unperson sexist racist Heinlein, but they need him too badly as a whipping boy…

  13. If fantasy is included, my list would include the (probably obvious) The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia Chronicles (which I think of as one book in serial rather than seven separate books). I don’t know if something like the Borrowers qualifies, because there’s no magic, just little tiny people.

    1. The Borrowers totally qualifies, though maybe more as SF than Fantasy. (It’s an intelligent, nonhuman species that tries to avoid contact with humans, with its own customs and survival skills. Sounds SFnal to me!)

  14. Samuel Delany’s “Nova” (1968) is a brilliant gem of worldbuilding with interstellar travel, cyborgs, terraforming, all shown from the bottom up, by how they affect the lives of ordinary people. The main story is a struggle for resources between two empires, as fought between two very compelling characters. (One of whom, Prince Red, is still one of the creepiest characters I have even encountered in fiction.)

  15. The War of the Worlds, HG Wells
    The original earth invaded by aliens story. Some people will find the writing style ponderous, but lots of people still enjoy historical novels.

    The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin
    She’s a great writer, very minimalist prose that looks so simple but is really hard to do. And this is one of the first and best science fiction stories where the one new thing isn’t technological.

    The Dying Earth, Jack Vance
    As already recommended. The basis for so much of Dungeons and Dragons and in turn World of Warcraft. And his writing style is a splendid contrast to Ursula Le Guin, flamboyant and evocative yet still moving along.

    No Direction Home and The Big Flash, Norman Spinrad
    Short stories rather than full length, so harder to find. He wrote a lot of 1960s near-future science fiction, but these two still hold up well today. And he’s really good at writing multiple viewpoint stories with many participants.

  16. Very interesting that you mention H. Beam Piper. I literally just re read Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (first read it in the 80’s) and man it still is darn good. Read a lot of Sprague through the years as well.

    I wanted to go back through the Kalvan books with “Great Kings War” (loved that one back then) as well as the others that were recently released on Amazon as a revisit. So far, it is a real difference reading it with different eyes than when I was a teen. Still good, but definitely not the same “hand.”

    1. Go to Gutenberg or and get the Real Thing. Some of Piper’s work has been mucked about with when reprinted.

      Piper’s novels varied widely in quality; his best work can be found in his short stories.

  17. Not much time for thinking. I’d need that for a full array of stories.

    I recently got my hands on Doc Smith’s Subspace Explorers. I think that may have been mentioned here for this before, but I found it very informative to see what harm was done a story by putting in too strong of a message I agreed with. I think also some other issues, but it has Smith’s fingerprints on it. In my eyes fairly definitive proof of the importance of story over message. Liked it, but not as much as ‘could have been’.

    1. Yup. Dean Koontz is one of my guilty pleasures, but despite the fact that I agree with much of his philosophy, his books get walled a fair amount.

      I pick them back up later.

    2. I loved L. Neil Smith’s first few books, but he went the same route. I agree or sympathize with almost everything he’s lecturing on, but there’s a time to STFU and let the story speak for itself; let the character show me by his actions, don’t beat me over the head with shittle-spewing propaganda.

    3. Drake’s 1979 The Dragonlord was a major lesson to me, because I read it after reading many of his later novels, so it was interesting seeing him paint in so few colors.

      I haven’t read a lot of pre-1972 fiction, and a lot of what I have read was not read so recently that I could learn much from the storytelling, or I haven’t finished reading it.

      Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber. I haven’t reread Amber recently, but that opening.

      I have plans to read a number of fairy tales, children’s books, adventure, classical translations, and sci fi off gutenberg as time permits.

      Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October is on my list for ‘get ahold of to learn from’, when money permits.

  18. > list of 5-10 foundational but less known novel recommendations from no later than 1970

    I’ve had at least three people act offended; “I only read *new* books!”

    Gonna be slim pickin’s, dude and dudettes…

    1. In fairness, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book more than ten thousand years old.

  19. > less known … 1970

    “The Stars My Destination” by Alfred Bester.
    “Way Station” by Clifford Simak
    “The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets” by Lloyd Biggle
    “City of the Chasch” by Jack Vance
    “Crossroads of Time” by Andre Norton
    “A Plague of Demons” by Keith Laumer
    “Secret of the Sunless World” by Carroll M. Capps (C.C. MacApp)
    “Whipping Star” by Frank Herbert
    “The Star Fox” by Poul Anderson
    “Mission of Gravity” by Hal Clement
    “The Starkhan of Rhada” by Robert Cham Gilman (Alfred Coppel)
    “Wolfling” by Gordon R. Dickson
    “The Caves of Steel” by Isaac Asimov
    “Sinister Barrier” by Eric Frank Russell
    “The Complete Venus Equilateral” by George O. Smith
    “World of Ptavvs” by Larry Niven
    “The Technicolor Time Machine” by Harry Harrison
    “The Transfinite Man” by Colin Kapp
    “Simulacron-3” by Daniel F. Galouye
    “The Green Odyssey” by Philip Jose Farmer
    “The Avengers of Carrig” by John Brunner
    “The Door Through Space” by Marion Zimmer Bradley
    “Voyage of the Space Beagle” by A.E. van Vogt
    “The Coils of Time” by A. Bertram Chandler
    “The Wheels of If” by L. Sprague de Camp
    “Sleeping Planet” by William R. Burkett

    I’m slightly prejudiced on this list; I had read almost all of them before my teens; I grew up with them, and they had some influence on who I decided to be when I grew up…

    While “The Stars My Destination” is widely known, ISFDB says the last mass market printing was in 1987, and I know I haven’t seen a copy at a used book store since well before the turn of the century, or I’d have bought it. It’s one of my list of books I always buy when I see a copy, to give away to non-readers and people who “don’t like science fiction.” “Here, read this book. It won’t hurt you…” [snicker]

  20. Tolkien.

    Lord Dunsany.

    Masses and masses of other writers whom I could not possibly disentangle.

  21. “The Crystal Cave” by Mary Stewart (the only book in the series that makes the 1970 cutoff) which I found to be an interesting retelling of the Arthurian legend told from the point of view of Merlin.

    “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Thomas Malory – this one of course is the inspiration for so many other stories in multiple genres.

    “The March of the Ten Thousand” by Xenophon perhaps a bit dry (depending on the translation), but one heck of an adventure story.

    “The Odyssey” by Homer – another great adventure story of the “quest to return home” sort

    “Jason and the Argonauts” – classic example of a story about a band of heroes/misfits/heroic misfits who set out acquire/steal an Important Doodad for noble reasons/personal gain (tragic ending optional)

    “The Epic of Gilgamesh” – this one might be the original buddy story. It has action, adventure, and (depending on the translation) a fair amount of comedy. As I understand it, one of the surviving examples of this story is the earliest known story for which the author signed his name.

  22. H. Rider Haggard (many of his Alan Quartermain books are at least borderline Fantasy).

    P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books (a great lesson in seeing the ordinariness of the fantastic, and the fantasticity of the ordinary).

    C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, especially the first and third books: my introduction to space-flight, new races on other worlds, and Mars (Malacandra). Also to Dystopiana in the form of the N.I.C.E. (whose takeover of Edgestow wouldn’t need to be nearly so dramatic in the 21st c.).

    Jules Verne, especially 20,000 Leagues, Mysterious Island, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, all painting fantastic but contemporaneously plausible microcosms just around the next corner from the reader.

    H. G. Wells’ Invisible Man is a classic Mad-Science tale, and First Men in the Moon deploys edge-of-physics handwavium and similar new-world wonders to those CSL echoed in “Out of the Silent Planet” (above).

    Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles: Worldbuilding by a mosaic of vignettes.

  23. Poul Anderson — Three Hearts and Three Lions. Non-JRRT High Fantasy.
    Poul Anderson — Tau Zero. The second-best exemplar of Hard SF, after Clement’s Mission of Gravity (and, when you read MoG, see if you can find it in an edition that includes “Whirligig World”, the short essay he wrote on how he went about writing MoG). For me, Niven’s RIngworld is probably third. Opinions vary, of course.
    Poul Anderson — the 7 volume future history edited by Hank Davis, beginning with The Van Rijn Method. It collects all the novels and shorter works, and shows how to build a multi-millenia future history.
    Leigh Brackett — The Sword of Rhiannon. What planetary romances used to be like. She wasn probably the best at it (although I can’t argue too hard against C. L. Moore’s Shambleau or her Jirel stories).
    Gordon R. Dickson – Dorsai!. What MilSF can be.
    Randall Garrett — Too Many Magicians. You can do a mystery in a magic universe. And Tuckerize a lot of SF/Fantasy/Mystery/TV in the process.
    Edmond Hamilton — Battle for the Stars. Space Opera by one of the masters (and it was filed as YA in my library when I was growing up, even though it isn’t by today’s rules).
    Henry Kuttner/C. L. Moore/Lewis Padgett (depending on edition, any of these could be the author) — Fury. Another planetary romance (along with “Clash By Night”, a novella set in the same setting).
    Fritz Leiber – Conjure Wife. You figure out what category this belongs to — it’s been marketed as almost everything.
    H Beam Piper — Space Viking. Another exemplar for Space Opera.
    James Schmitz — The Witches of Karres. Magic, Spaceships, Pirates. What more could anyone want.
    Clifford Simak — City (yes, I know it’s a fixup of short works, not a novel — but it’s Simak at his best).
    E. E. Smith — the Lensmen series. Bad science. Outdated language. Clumsy wording. But the plot grabs you by the collar, and never lets you go. If you can find the magazine versions (four volumes, starting with Galactic Patrol, it’s even more interesting, since watching things unfold is, I think, a stronger story than the six volume version).
    Roger Zelazny — Lord of Light. Another genre problem, since it’s clearly SF, but doesn’t read like it. And total mastery of plot, and language.

    I know I went past ten — but I really didn’t want to chop any more. Most of these are OP, except for the Andersons. And, unfortunately, every one of them is dead.

    1. Just remember, the older you get, the more dead people you know.
      Just remember to appreciate that you knew them.
      So learn to appreciate what you have, before it is gone.

      1. I really wish somebody would reprint the original Lensman series from Astounding. It’s a brilliant job that Smith did in revising it from the original version to the six book one that most people are familiar with. But the unfolding of the real enemy to the reader that was in the original version is missing in the revised one, even though it’s still there for the characters in the story. And, not counting the two books added, and some of the text in the introductions to each book, it’s only a few hundred words of revisions that he had to do for the expansion.

        But, unless you’ve read it in the original Astoundings, you never get to see what he’d originally done. And, since Galactic Patrol started being serialized in 1937, I suspect that most of us didn’t read it when it came out (although you can collect the Astoundings and read it there — but only a few times, since the paper is pretty brittle).

  24. Ward Moores Bring the Jubilee
    Flowers for Algernon
    Keith Laumer, but more for the Retief stories than the BOLO’s.

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