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Great Science-Fiction
& Fantasy Works

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

Great Science Fiction & Fantasy: an Apologia
Part 2 (of 2)

"So oblique was this view that it needed long study before it could be interpreted."

--Report on Probability A,
Brian W. Aldiss

Pleasing the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Reader

The journeyman writer--or, let's be frank, the hack--will compose a science-fiction or fantasy tale for but one reason: the standards for quality in the field, as with any "genre," are materially lower than in mainstream publishing; it is, simply put, far easier to get published.

The reason for that ease is scarcely occult: it is supply and demand. Omitting portentous sociological and political analyses, I set forth as plain fact--you may accept it as such or not--that we live in unpleasant times and, in consequence, there exists a large class of folk who would rather be (or, more correctly, suppose that they would rather be) in any of numerous other places or times than the ones they now occupy. For those many, genre fiction supplies what its direst critics unceasingly accuse it of--escapism, pure and simple; whether the tall, dark, handsome, mysterious, capable hero wields a six-shooter or a rapier or a ray gun or a broadsword in fighting his way through villains and plot contrivances to the girl he invariably gets in the last chapter is irrelevant. Readers choose genres whose staple settings and plots best comport with their own fantasies (that word again); hack writers choose genres that best comport with their own prior genre reading.

(Manifestly, not all science-fiction and fantasy authors are hacks--else this site would be purposeless. Writers who are not hacks choose these fields because of the special opportunities they afford. But, despite those special opportunities, not all good writers choose these fields--indeed, too few do--first, because of the evil reputation the fields bear, and second, because the special opportunities are balanced by corresponding special hazards and special demands on the writer.)

I must emphasize--strongly--that while a desire to be somewhere or somewhen else, and the use of literature to temporarily achieve that being, is certainly "escapism," that does not to sensible minds automatically make such escaping or the literature used to achieve it an object of condemnation. Professor Tolkien has elegantly pointed out the vast difference between the escapism of the shirker seeking to evade legitimate responsibilities, which is rightly to be condemned, and to which I was referring above, and the "escapism" of the unjustly confined prisoner, which is a duty and to be praised. Tolkien argues--and who among us would disagree?--that the modern world in effect unjustly imprisons the human soul; the consequent urge to escape is thus more than merely innocent: it is healthy. Deciding who is shirking and who breaking free requires a moral judgement, for all shirkers will report themselves unjustly imprisoned by bars others would call merely rightful responsibilities. Cases vary; know thyself.

Setting the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Tale

As I noted earlier, it is in setting a tale more than anywhere else that the prentice hand most often reveals itself; that is superlatively true when the author is a complete worldmaker. A mainstream hack can only go so far wrong describing the mean streets down which his puppets must trudge; a writer essaying a world from the core out must take far greater care to neither skimp nor overburden us.

There is in this worldmaking business a clear example of the oft-cited observation that circumstances generate their opposites. In years not yet beyond living memory, it was a commonplace of science-fiction and fantasy criticism to assail writers for careless and thus inept worldmaking: suns of impossible color for their size in the sky, cities off in the middle of mountain ranges with no conceivable economic basis for existence, that sort of thing. It was, and apparently remains, an article of faith with science-fiction and fantasy authors that readers care very much about such matters and will recoil in horror from any such inconsistencies. (To me, barring comically gross ineptitude, such flaws are invisible, but I must--as with the joy of drinking tea--take it on faith by report that the phenomenon exists; I suspect, however, that few of the carpers, if such there truly be, are of voting age.) In consequence, a new generation of science-fiction and fantasy writers undertook never, ever to tell a tale set in a world for which they had not worked out exactly the exchange rates of seventeen various currencies, the tidal height at the equator and both tropics, the number and names of all spices added to stews (by season), the geomorphology of five separate continents (if Doctor Watson wishes to distinguish between separate continents and whatever the alternative kind may be, let us not differ), and the sexual habits of uncountably many species of domestic animal. That, in itself, was harmless: idle hands do the devil's work and it kept such folk off the streets at night.

But beware what you wish for: you might get it (there's no saw like an old saw). What was not harmless, though predictable, was those writers' feeling that having gone to all that effort nary a jot nor yet a tittle of it was going to be wasted time: you wanted planned-out world-making, you bleeping well got it, and five Appendices (Geography, Chronology, Vocabulary, Botany, and Biology are the commonest, but the disease takes many forms) to prove it, not to speak of endless sequences of pages (weep for the trees, oh weep) filled with things you don't care to know about your own home town much less some Podunk in another dimension. I suppose a large part of this tsunami of sludge was generated by the earthquake that Lord Of The Rings was in the ocean of science fiction and fantasy; but the diarrhea (or logorrhea--yes, it's a real word) still lapping at our bookshelves is as literate and persuasive as the things turned in at the annual Hemingway-Imitation contest (again yes, there really is one), and it shows, like its sibling the annual Bulwer-Lytton Imitation contest (yes, yes), how trippingly parody falls from the tongue. The difference is that the Hemingway and Bulwer-Lytton imitations are supposed to be excruciatingly awful.

What a successful world-maker must accomplish is to fully imagine the world of the tale, then simply tell that tale in that world. Really, that's it: tell that tale in that world. Where the tale, of its own accord, intersects some aspect of that world that differs from our own, there are two basic possibilities: the difference matters to the tale, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, pass on: leave it that the heroine heard the haunting notes of a traditional kabba played mournfully on a drall. Does it matter a rat's ass what a kabba or a drall is? No? Then don't kill trees telling me about them. If it does, then--and then only--in the fullness of time reveal to me these things. Do you suppose Zane Grey devotes pages to explaining how an exploding compound of niter propels a blob of lead out of a short metal tube at so many and so many yards a second? OK, you spent a lot of time thinking through your private Brave New World: get over it.

Telling the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Tale

Authors of quality tales must first of all be competent users of language. I think at once of an exemplary series of fantasy novels, extant as I write: the author has plots worthy of Victor Hugo, refreshingly plausible characters with interesting thoughts, and a vivid world-setting--a recipe, one would think, for greatness or at the least sound quality--but the novels are all unreadable owing to the author's tooth-grindingly awful writing.

(The world is full of books on how to set out one's thoughts in decently crafted English--no one writing professionally has any excuse for lacking Fowler and Follett, Barzun and Read, and no one possessing them has any excuse for pouring gabble onto the printed page. Exacerbating the problem for the poor reader is that almost all science fiction and fantasy--to its publishers, cheapjack stuff--gets minimal and horrid editing and proofing.)

Created worlds allow the master hand license not only in setting but in language; regrettably, few take sufficient advantage of the possibilities. (Jack Vance has shown us the immense scope of those possibilities.) In this too the prentice hand shows all too quickly. Books that would be tedious to begin with become pounding headaches when the author casually undertakes spurious dialects. The innumerable grotesque parodies, all unintentional, of medieval speech are a perpetual fingernail on the blackboard of science-fiction and fantasy literature--Robert Newton's Long John Silver ("Arrrhh, arrrhh, Jack me lad!") had more integrity than any of those hideous stews of usually incorrect thees, thous, wots, and inverted word orders (the Hall Golden) served up to us monthly (or however often publishers come to term).

(Re: incorrect wot, courtesy of Wilson Follett: "But had I wist, before I kissed." The word was already obscure by Shakespeare's time.)

The thing that masters never forget and all others, it seems, never remember is that to the characters speaking in a tale, their speech is normal and natural and should be so rendered in the telling. It is only when a character is speaking in a mode that his contemporaries in the world in which he resides would find higher or lower or otherwise different from their norm that we need to see that speech rendered in a way that conveys that differing tone to us. Bilbo and Frodo and Sam speak as you and I would (or at least as we would if we were English); Aragorn and Boromir and Faramir do not, but their mode--more dignified and resonant--is only a sort of background difference and is not deeply other: varlet and sirrah and prithee are not a part of that mode any more than they were to another dignified and resonant speaker, Winston Churchill. We--readers and authors alike--are perhaps misled by the degree to which languages shift with time. Never mind Shakespeare (much less Chaucer): Dickens, scarcely a century past, today seems full of quainteries--but they are only phrases that were everyday speech in his day and if he were writing today he wouldn't use those "quaint" phrases, he would use their contemporary equivalents.

I have said that to the characters speaking in a tale, their speech is normal and natural, and so it is. On occasion, however, an author will wish us to see a world so different from our own that its "normal and natural" speech cannot be rendered in contemporary idiom. Consider: the folk in a mainstream novel from, let us say, 1910, do not talk to one another with the same words that their contemporary equivalents would use to say the same things. Whether we think modern speech patterns more honest or those of 1910 more civil (not incommensurable views), we cannot mistake the one for the other, nor freely interchange them. Recalling the vital premise that all literature, including science-fiction and fantasy literature, really talks about us, here, now, warns us that the author choosing for whatever reasons to give us a world-setting in which contemporary idiom is inappropriate for "normal and natural" speech is engaging in a chancy business. Nonetheless, chances sometimes come off, and in this delicate matter of rendering the "normal and natural" speech patterns of an imagined world the craftsmanlike author uses a more powerful tool to tell us about that world than volumes of "linguistic appendices."

(Professor Tolkien, a professional philologist, claimed he devised Middle Earth only to have a world in which to imagine speakers of the languages he liked to invent; so--even if we disbelieve, as many do, his claim--we accept his linguistic appendices as integral to the works they are attached to.)

Populating the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Tale

It is in the closely related areas of plot and characterization that the skillful writer can best use the special freedoms of science fiction and fantasy to please readers. My opinion is that readers, on the whole, prefer tales about large people or large events or both: a protagonist who remains throughout the tale a quite ordinary person must participate in large events; events that are in themselves quite ordinary must be redeemed by a protagonist of unusual dimension. The book in which the protagonist is ordinary and the events are ordinary yet the effect achieved is large is comparable to and as rare as the exquisitely carved cameo. It can be done, and when well done is especially impressive, but it is the equivalent of running a race horse with sand bags: it is the overcoming of a deliberate handicap.

The difficulty in dealing with large characters and large events in mainstream fiction is that by and large we already know a lot about them: the author has very little scope. It is impossible to keep your readers in suspense about who will win the Battle of Waterloo. The Titanic sinks. America wins the war. Kennedy is assassinated. In an imagined setting, there are no such restrictions. The author can tell us tales of great folk doing mighty deeds while yet developing plot and characterization howsoever seems fitting. That is not, as some hacks take it to be, a license to contrive wildly: whatever happens, whatever the characters do, must be faithful to their natures and to the world setting. Moreover, a grand scope is no guarantor of a grand fiction: inter-galactic wars or The Ultimate Confrontation Between Good And Evil are, as themes, not only not assurances of grand results but, from experience, horribly suggestive of something quite other. In literature as in life, liberty demands wise and discreet usage to be a virtue.

Using Science Fiction and Fantasy To Stimulate The Reader's Mental Processes

Some Pitfalls Noted

A science-fiction or fantasy tale, like any other, must first of all please to be good: that is ever and always its first duty, as it is of any tale of any kind, and the degree to which a tale pleases us must forever be the chiefest of our criteria for evaluation. After that, however, the science-fiction and fantasy tale rises in our esteem--again, like any other tale--largely in proportion as it causes us to first see or to better understand or feel something important about, well, "Life, The Universe, and Everything."

Here, however, we return to the problem I discussed earlier under the heading Adolescence & Adulthood--the difficulty of stimulating, with fiction, the mental processes of a reasonably sophisticated adult.

Science fiction especially largely touts itself--well, strictly speaking, most of its authors tout it--as "the literature of ideas." Brian Aldiss is himself a respected science-fiction author, and his historical examination of the field, Trillion Year Spree, can rightly be called a landmark or seminal work: presumably, Mr. Aldiss more than qualifies as an expert. But on just the very third page of that book, still in the Introduction, we read:

SF cannot exist without divergent opinions. The material with which it deals is itself controversial. Shall we increase technology until the whole surface of the planet is covered by concrete and steel? Is all religion an aberration? Is war inevitable? Will artificial intelligence take over our governance, and is that desirable? Do we need to conquer space? How would utopia come about? What of our immortal souls?

Now those are without a doubt important questions and ones for which there are no accepted answers. But they are also questions that, not to be condescending but just to speak plain truth, are generally fairly obvious to bright 12-year-olds. We do not need a homily draped in an allegory to bring us out of some presumed stupor to a Zen enlightenment that war is bad yet humans continually make war and maybe we should try to find a way to break that cycle. Duh.

I hope that no one reading that will wantonly draw the conclusion that I am opposed to ideas in literature in general or in science fiction and fantasy in particular; I am not. Contrariwise: tales that embody a working out of large ideas are enhanced thereby. What I object to, mightily, is the belief that ideas in a tale represent some sort of all-day pass, that the author who puts a Big Idea in a tale and presents therein some answer or comment on that Big Idea has now paid in full the purchase price of our attention and respect. As I said earlier, the author who sets forth consciously and deliberately to enlighten is a tiresome creature, better occupied composing tracts for door-to-door distribution.

A distressingly high percentage of science-fiction and, nowadays, fantasy tales really are works by tale tellers who think--well, let me not asperse them by saying what they seem themselves to believe, let me say "tale tellers whose fans seem to think"--that they are giants in the earth because they have written tales that raise or address Big Questions. Take two aspirin with a milky drink and call me in the morning.

Authors who believe that their task is quite done when once they have set a Big Question before their readership will generally do little more with the tale: their purposes have been fulfilled. In drearily inevitable consequence the characters will all be card-carrying members of the Allegorical-Symbols Union, Local 666; the settings will be water-based paint on environmentally sound recycled cardboard; and the language use will be of a level suited to reach the kind of hare-brained dolts--or the adolescents--the author supposes need all this Deep Enlightenment.

The sort of auctorial zealotry or condescension described above is awfully widespread in science fiction. It is less so in fantasy, at least if we view that field as a historical whole. For a long time--from well before there really was such a literature as "science fiction" (a hatchling of the '30s, Mr. Aldiss, who traces it to Mary Shelley, notwithstanding)--there was a literature of fantasy, or "fantastical fiction" as it was often called. While fanatics try to trace fantasy back virtually to caveman days, if we call "fantasy" the deliberate making of a false, artificial world for largely literary purposes--as distinguished from myth or folklore or epic, which are stories meant to be thought true (or at least a reasonable or plausible facsimile of truth, as with Dante's Comedy)--fantasy is no older than the novel, but still by and large much older than "scientifiction." Many of the early writers of "fantastical fiction" had, very assuredly, something to say, but they came of a literary tradition that didn't stint the telling of a tale just because the tale might carry a message or viewpoint. They were, to use a now-plagued phrase, well educated.

(Yes, I have heard of such people as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and the cited Ms. Shelley. I mean above that there was no going school of "science fiction" writing until the pulps of the early '30s; earlier works were not in their time much distinguished from what we today call "fantasy," the lot being--as noted earlier above--lumped in as "fantastical fiction.")

It wasn't until into the twentieth century in America that "writers" with little more than a love of technology and a conviction that they were possessed of a vision that would transform humanity started getting widely published (if the pulps were "wide" publication). In time, fantasy of course "caught up" with science fiction: more and more authors with convictions and little else started writing, and getting published, presenting tales next to which Pinocchio is high literature. Nowadays the two forms, fantasy and science fiction, are closely parallel in quality or lack of it.

(That discussion is giving the hacks the best of it by assuming that they have visions, however puerile, that they urgently want to pass along. In truth, many of them are folk who simply see a relatively easy buck there for the having; the rest never really outgrew their teddy bears and are read by folk of the same stripe.)

Science fiction, from its explosion in the '30s, was not in absolute terms--perhaps one to two generations--long in maturing to the stage in which quality work appeared regularly. But with the field as a going concern only three or so generations old right now, necessarily a large percentage of the total body of works is sludge. Meanwhile, the new success of science-fiction publishing eventually caused fantasy to collapse from a literature into a mass-market publishing category; as science fiction worked its way uphill, fantasy stumbled downhill. But, because fantasy is much the older field and didn't turn into a mill until after science fiction was already well along, the body of decent works of fantasy is, and will likely remain for a good while, substantially larger than the body of decent works of science fiction. Neither form is inherently more suited to quality work: it is a simple numbers game. In consequence, if we are today assembling a library of quality science-fiction and fantasy works, we must expect a marked tilt toward fantasy--much of it old enough to be "classic."

Dancing Around The Pits

The Great Unwashed seem to think that science fiction and fantasy are about things that are very other: aliens, far-future civilizations, magicians, the usual suspects. The truth, as I have already noted, is just the opposite: science fiction and fantasy comment on us, here, now. All valid literature does that and nothing else or it is not literature, it is anthropology or some such thing.

The mainstream author has to jump high hurdles to accomplish much, for the unavoidably tedious familiarity of everyday "real" life makes it difficult to create characters and situations so compelling that we can recognize in them universals of any sort; the mainstream author must, in effect, strip his characters naked for us to really see them at all. Science-fiction and fantasy authors have a technique of inherently larger scale: instead of being obliged to strip their characters, they can dress them in an infinite variety of wild costumes.

To pursue the metaphor, a science-fiction or fantasy tale is thus like a costume party at which we find old friends dressed far differently than we have become accustomed to seeing them; they are still, under their masks and costumes, themselves--but their bizarre appearances (bizarre to us, who know them quite else, though their new persona might be perfectly ordinary in itself--a crone, a sailor, a stock broker) may well give us to reconsider questions of identity. "Who, after all, is this fellow, that lady? Do I truly know them? Did I ever?" (Masks are powerful things, as most writers and readers well know.)

Science-fiction and fantasy authors have the privilege not only of holding such parties but of designating who shall attend wearing what costume. By artfully designing the costumes to each reveal or highlight some particular element of the wearer's character or nature, the author enables us to see our old friends in new lights. (At the risk of offending the thoughtful by obviousness, I reluctantly remind you that I am still, of course, speaking metaphorically, and that the "persons" at such masques are in actuality ideas, institutions, and suchlike, even if incarnate for the purposes of the tale.)

If such a party is to be a success, the host or hostess must be an artist. It will not do, for instance, to be blatant: one cannot simply parade the folk one dislikes in a masquerade of monsters. Nothing is thereby demonstrated except the paucity of one's creative imagination. The science-fiction or fantasy writer may, then, perhaps best be characterized as a costumier of ideas. Excellence at the task requires wit, scope, grace, subtlety.

Other Thoughts

What They Are Not

Science fiction and fantasy are too commonly portrayed, even by their friends, as supplying answers to the question "What if . . . ?" What if a flying saucer landed on the White House lawn tomorrow? What if some people could cast spells? What if we were all androgynous? What if the gods revealed themselves? What if we were each made twice as smart overnight? And so on. In honesty, a great deal of science fiction and fantasy is written from just such considerations. That does not make it good science fiction or fantasy, nor does it define the field as the answering of such questions.

There is in baseball an expression that describes a class of poorly handled infield grounder: "He let the ball play him." Writers who generate science-fiction and fantasy tales simply because they have asked themselves "What if . . . ?" and thought of a clever answer are letting the ball play them. The task of an science-fiction or fantasy writer is to create a tale wherein the special liberties available allow a more focussed or wider or deeper or more something presentation of the ideas than would a "mainstream" treatment. Such a tale can be an answer to a "What if . . . ?" question, but if so the answer provided, and the question, should flow from the necessities of the tale, not the tale from the necessities of the answer--otherwise the boors who incessantly drone on about science fiction and fantasy not being "real" literature have another bullet in their gun.

A Little Advice For Newcomers

"Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket for that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!"

--The Man Who Was Thursday,
G.K. Chesterton

The newcomer to these lands requires a gentle warning; Mr. Rod Serling used to issue it regularly: "You are about to enter . . . The Twilight Zone."

Writers of tales set in the fields we know--"mainstream" fiction--may at once give us some minimal scene-setting backdrops and then parade their actors before those backdrops and have them speak their pieces. Writer of tales set beyond the fields we know have the huge additional task of giving us not sketchy backdrops but an entire cosmos to comprehend before we can grasp the significance of their actors' words and deeds.

The science-fiction and fantasy author may signal the otherness of the tale's cosmos in two basic ways. The first method is immediate; none, for example, are likely to mistake this for a place and time with which they are familiar:

It wove through the warp of the desert; a dusty trail looping around wind-eroded buttes, over dry stream beds, among clumps of gray scrub brush. Straighter, but always within sight of the roadway, was the elevated train track. No trains had run in centuries and the track was streaked with verdigris. Though there were seldom travelers to hear it, the wind in the trestles keened atonal scherzos.

Closer to the city, the road was lined with the burned-out shells of what had once been buses.

(The opening words of Cinnabar, by Edward Bryant.)

Now consider this place:

Coastal southern California is a semiarid land crosshatched with mountain chains, narrow valleys, and dry riverbeds. The upper reaches of its steeply sloped canyons are nearly impenetrable--its sunny broken rises blanketed with greasewood and sumac and mesquite, dense miserly plants that survive eight or ten rainless months each year. The shady slopes, turned away from the sun, are covered with oak and fern, and at higher elevations maple and big cone pine. On the flats and along streambeds grow sycamore and alder, their roots sunk deep into the loamy alluvial soil. In rare decades when one drought year follows another, stands of alder along dry creeks wither and die as groundwater falls away deeper and deeper into the earth.

(The opening words of The Rainy Season, by James Blaylock.)

You could, you think, get in your car and drive there. But as the tale set in this place unfolds, little by little--a strange remark here, a curious thing there, an inexplicable act the other place--it will irresistibly be borne in on you that the rules in this place are not what you thought they were. We knew--well, we very likely knew--when we picked the book up that it was fantasy (and what curious reactions we may have if we did not know!). But the pace at which to measure out to us the manner in which the tale's world is other is a thing the author has had to carefully consider.

You must not presume that authors have some contractual obligation to all at once display fully their tales' universes, set out fair and square with no contradictions. You will be given so much as the author cares to deliver, delivered at the pace and in the manner that author chooses; such control on giving is of the essence of these fields, and by how well an author makes use of it we may in good part judge that author. And until you are given data, you must just go along understanding the place and its inhabitants as best you can--recalling, though, that things may not be as they seem. Above all, you must trust your author to have foreseen likely difficulties and to have dealt with them in a suitable place in the tale.

In sum, the newcomer to these lands must absorb the rules visitors to otherworlds, from Gilgamesh through Dante, have ever needed for survival: assume nothing, stay alert, trust your guide.

To keep page lengths down for faster loading, this discussion was divided into two parts.
To return to the first part, click on the text below.

Apologia - Part 1 (of 2)

Or you could digress to look at some rambling Musings on science-fiction and fantasy matters.

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