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Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works

Science-fiction & fantasy literature: a critical list with discussions.

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Obiter Dicta


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“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

What All This Is

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:

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But Where’s…?

Some of you will be puzzled and a few (especially those who regularly jump about sites without reading the introductory explanations 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” as a recognized distinct class of fiction 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. But 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 ventured 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 L. P. Hartley famously observed, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. 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.)

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You Could Look It Up

It is neither my intention nor my desire to become a master lister of links on the web. I do have 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 of sufficient broad interest to anyone interested in SF&F that they constitute useful references, even if much of what they discuss might not make the lists on this site, and I feel an incumbency to list them here.

(It is quite sad to see once-wonderful resource sites now gone dark. Most of them have left behind their corpus up to the date the plug was pulled, and we owe a debt of gratitude to whomever is paying the freight at each such site to keep it on the web. And it’s not as if lots of newcomers are taking their places. Sad, sad, sad…

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Free Read Free!

First, there was Project Gutenberg; then came others. There are now numerous 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 many sources out there. Caveat emptor: usage conditions vary hugely. Some require registration. Some require that you tie in your public-library carrd. Some offer both free and for-pay downloads, and you need to take care which you’re requesting. And so on and so forth. I do not endorse any of these places, though a few—like Project Gutenberg or U. Penn’s “Online Books” page—are clearly OK.

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Interlopers

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.

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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).

Very obviously, this list is light-years from being exhaustive.

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