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Great Science-Fiction
& Fantasy Works

science-fiction & fantasy literature:
a critical list with discussions

Obiter Dicta

"o·bi·ter dic·tum N., pl. obiter dic·ta   
1. An opinion voiced by a judge that has only incidental bearing on the case in question and is therefore not binding. Also Called dictum.
2. An incidental remark or observation;a passing comment. [Latin, something said in passing: obiter, in passing; dictum, from neuter past participle of dicere, to say]"

--The American Heritage® Concise Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition.

This page holds various thoughts and oddments of information more or less related to science fiction and fantasy literature, which comments didn't quite seem to properly belong on any of the other pages but which I did want to say somewhere on the site. I will doubtless keep adding to it from time to time; right now, what we have here is this:

But Where's . . . ?

Some of you will be puzzled and a few (especially those who regularly jump about sites without reading the explanatory material we site makers so painstakingly labor over) likely angered by the omission here of certain prominent science-fiction and fantasy authors, many sometimes referred to as "canonical." I can but repeat: this site is premised on literary quality. Period, the end.

Any who wish to argue that Isaac Asimov or Arthur Clarke or Robert Heinlein wrote tales that an unbiased but sophisticated reader would dream of calling "literature" are welcome to set up sites--as many have--to tell the world how and why they think so. Such naiveté wants no further comment.

But past such obviousness is a different category of "canonical" authors. Many members of this second category will have advocates of voting age and then some claiming that those authors' writings are indeed literature, and in many cases first-rank literature at that. Such advocacy illustrates well the awful insularity of our fields.

As I point out elsewhere, "science-fiction and fantasy literature" only became a going concern in the 1930s, which is, as literature goes, scarcely any time ago at all. The Big Bang was the birth and explosive growth of the pulps (those inexpensive crosses between a magazine and a book, so called because they were printed on cheap "pulp paper"). That first generation of tales was virtually all sludge, and the memory of that sludge taints our fields' reputation to this hour. Science-fiction and fantasy grew up with remarkable speed: today--perhaps but three generations from that "Big Bang"--there is in science-fiction and fantasy a distribution of quality little different from that in "mainstream" literature. But if three generations is not much from a historical standpoint, it is a lot from the standpoint of living memory.

During that growing-up process, some new writers entered onto these fields, writers who saw the potential they offered for saying old but important things in new and vital ways. Many, likely we would be fair to say most, of those newcomers were writers of competence, though not of towering ability; but seen against the backdrop of the then-established standards in these fields, they seemed giants, for they walked among pygmies. And so it was that they were taken for giants by the many reading in these fields having little or no experience of the real thing which, sad to say, was probably most such readers.

(In order here would be an extended comment on what is still called, if wrongly, education--it first degenerated into schooling and then into mere training--but that's too far off topic. But if X or Y--fill in appropriate names--is "a high-quality writer," what terms have we left for Herbert Read or Virginia Woolf or Italo Calvino or G. K. Chesterton?)

Thus it came to pass that a generation of readers in our fields grew from adolescence to adulthood believing that certain writers--for various reasons, I name no names--of decent but not enduring quality were titans. Some of those writers are still working today, themselves firmly convinced that they will yet be read in centuries to come, though that is as likely as Andy Warhol's repute outliving his fans' lifetimes.

I want to here repeat, with emphasis, that my omission of this or that author does not necessarily mean that I consign him or her to the dustbin. First, of the established but older authors in our fields, many are writers I need to re-visit after many, many years' absence from their works; what I recall of reading them when their books were new releases doesn't mean a lot anymore. An example is Phil Dick: I much enjoyed Eye in the Sky but didn't much care for The Man in the High Castle--but I was a different person then. As someone or other has observed, the past is a foreign country, and all who live there are strangers. Second, many of the authors who have blossomed in the last decade or two are also likely to be under my radar, owing to sheer time pressure: with between, on average, three to four new titles being published each and every day of each and every year, how does one person keep up? Third, with the best intentions in the world, one can miss certain now-obscure writers, especially if they produced only a book or two that is in our fields (I'm finding a good few of this sort lately).

(Because of all that, I have now set up a separate list page of Candidates, authors who seem, from my poking about in various nooks and corners, reasonable candidates for these lists.)

You Could Look It Up

It is neither my intention nor my desire to become a master lister of links on the web. I have a page of links to key sites for authors listed on this site, and a page of links to sites that link to this one (on the theory that such sites have a higher than average chance of being of interest to you).

But there are a few sites out there that are so pleasing in their quality and coverage that I feel an incumbency to list them especially. Once not so long ago, there were many sites that were comprehensive, almost comically comprehensive, lists for links relative to science fiction and fantasy, but most of those seem now either officially dead or clearly moribund (as indicated by a "last updated" date a couple of years back). What I list here is sites all still active, all still thorough, and--paramount--all supplying good information. (This is no sort of exhaustive listing--it is just some excellent sites that I kept coming across time and again as I researched the authors written up here.)

  • The Author's Calendar, also a general guide to world-class authors; its writeups are invariably full of solid data plus useful interpretations.

  • The Modern Word, general literature, but containing several authors mentioned on this site; it has a subdivision, The Scriptorium, expressly for speculative-fiction authors.

  • The Complete Review, a really fine general literary-review site; it has even has an explicit science-fiction and fantasy division.

  • Science Fiction Studies, a scholarly journal (published three times a year) of DePauw University; the linked site has "abstracts of all articles, as well as the full texts of all reviews, historical documents, and selected essays appearing in the journal since its founding" (but not till they're a year old in print).

  • Science Fiction and Fantasy Book List, being just what it says, no more and no less: a very extensive list of speculative-fiction books, organized by author, showing author name, nationality, year of birth (and, when applicable, death), and for each book, the year of first publication.

  • The Grumpy Old Bookman, a perpetually fascinating blog from a professional who has been involved in the publishing industry for a long time and from a variety of of viewpoints (including author). [GOB's blog is now officially "on sabbatical", but may return; but what is archived there is well worth reading.]

  • The Locus Index to Science Fiction, an excellent fact-lookup source.

  • The Internet Speculative Fiction DataBase, another invaluable lookup site.

  • Bookslut, a sound, solid general literary site, one that even has a "Specfic Floozy" subsection.

  • Feminist Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Utopia, as it (accurately) says, "a complex bibliography that lists and cites and describes sf & critical works from a feminist perspective".

  • StarShipSofa, a podcast of science-fiction commentary and analysis; they have recently added a discussion Forum as well. In honesty, I haven't heard any of their casts, simply because I am not set up for hearing podcasts; but it seems to be well received, and innovation should be rewarded.

  • Monstropedia, a wiki site billing itself as "is the ultimate online encyclopedia of monsters in myth, magick and legend"; it is (mid-2008) rather new, but looks to be quite useful for fantasy-fiction readers.

Free Read Free!

First, there was Project Gutenberg; then came others. There are now several simultaneous projects running, each with the goal of making available on line, and free, as much of the world's literature (not to mention other sorts of books) as possible. All so far are, of course, concentrating on "public domain" works (those works for which the copyright, if there ever was one, has expired), though some are actively negotiating with authors and publishers for in-copyright books, too.

It is no longer practical for this site to try to list all the titles, even just from our own lists, that some site somewhere makes available on line at no cost. All I can do is to point you at the search pages of the largest current sources, after which it's have at it on your own. There are, right now, apparently a half-dozen major sources, and (with links to their search pages) here they are:


I recently re-read one of Dani Zweig's "belated reviews", that of Edgar Rice Burroughs' work; in it was raised a good point that needs occasional hammering on. Veteran writers and readers in these fields have a large vocabulary of shared knowledge and, above all, shared concepts. We know what a generational starship is and what the possible variations are for the life experiences of the passengers; we know the numerous paradoxes of time travel and the many ingenious ways each might be resolved; we know the many ways fools can get tricked making deals with demons; we understand the potential difficulties in making contact for the first time with a truly alien life form; and so it goes, on and on through all the many--but by no means infinite--themes science-fiction and fantasy writers have dealt with over the decades, some stupidly, some brilliantly. When someone says "Barsoom," we know what they're referring to.

Now along comes John or Jane Cleverdick, fresh from a turn as one of this week's postmodernist (or whatever) stars of mainstream literature, looking for--dare I say it?--new worlds to conquer. Wow! How about that science-fiction stuff, or fantasy, or whatever they call it. Gee! Think of all the things I could get up to! I mean, anything goes, right?

And so Cleverdick writes something, maybe decently written, maybe awful all through, but for absolutely, positively, 132% sure naive to any veteran science-fiction and fantasy reader; but they who pass for The Wise in the world of mainstream literature--and who know zip of science-fiction and fantasy and wouldn't soil their dainty little eyeballs reading any of it on a dare--look at this garbage and say "Oh, Yes! How wonderfully Cleverdick has treated this excitingly novel idea of [fill in the banal blank]! Why, Cleverdick's new book actually verges on science-fiction and fantasy, though of course it's not--it can't be, as We Have Pronounced It Good."

If that's an exaggeration, it's not much of one. Look at the fawning respect mainstream critics gave the bilge that flowed when Doris Lessing thought to try her hand at s.f., and look at how hard they backpedalled trying to explain that Lessing's own frank use of the term "science fiction" was in error--the writer herself must be in error about what her own work is!--attitudes that are just the sort of crap I describe above. Here's a link to a representative piece from The New York Times, lest you think I'm making this up (and that review itself is a fine specimen of the sorts of things that drive even good folk to thoughts of bloody murder). Incidentally, Lessing may or may not be a good writer when she stays in her proper fields; I neither know nor care, though Harold Bloom, in The Western Canon, dismisses her--and I mean dismisses--in one sentence. I seem to recall that Pierre Boulle's S.F. nonsenses got some decent mainstream reviews too (what do you know of The Garden on the Moon?).

If you're going to essay science-fiction and fantasy tales, do your homework. Otherwise . . . we know who you are and we know where you live.

The Book on the Borderland

At several points in the author discussions I have had occasion to note that so-and-so has several other books that, while not truly speculative fiction, read much like it and which ought to be of interest to readers of their other works.

Here I will point out some of those; not all of these are mentioned elsewhere on this site. In some cases, the author is not someone listed on this site, owing to his or her having written no strictly "speculative" fiction (that I know of).

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