Seven 20th Century Classic SF/F Books You May Not Have Read

Over the course of this past week I posted the following recommendations on my Facebook page. These are all books I’m a big fan of, have read and re-read growing up. They played a major role in shaping my perception of genre as well as my own writing style.

The posts generated some interesting discussion and I figured it may be worth collecting them into a blog post, for those who do not read my FB feed. (Which you totally can. My posts are generally set to public and you can subscribe/follow if you wish.)

So, here goes:

Birthright: The Book of Man by Mike Resnick

This book covers the history of the human race over the course of several thousand years. It’s episodic: each chapter is self-contained and can be read as a short story. In fact, I was surprised when Mike told me it wasn’t put together out of individually written/sold short stories first but, in fact, written in order over several months.

I love episodic fiction and this is perhaps the finest example of such when it comes to space opera. It also outlines the future history of the setting of many of Mike’s popular novels such as Santiago, the Widowmaker series, the Starship series, etc.

 

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

This is my favorite Russian-language novel and Bulgakov is my favorite Russian author. In writing this book he invented Magical Realism decades before Marquez. In his “Heart of a Dog” he scooped Keyes by writing a superior version of “Flowers for Algernon.” Both of these books also have a humorous bend and engage in then-death-defying satire of the Soviet regime.

Inexplicably, Bulgakov was favored by Stalin, which protected him for a time. He died in 1940 and this novel wasn’t published until 1966. A very small print run was produced before the book was promptly banned by the censors and circulated mostly in samizdat until the late 1980s.

Although I can argue that this is one of (if not the) most influential Russian novels of the 20th century, I recommend it because it’s a great book that easily withstands the test of time and still reads fresh today.

 

Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

 

In honor of the release of ROGUE ONE, today I’d like to talk up Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars Admiral Thrawn trilogy.

I tend to strongly dislike media tie-in books. I’m of the opinion that they’re rarely any good, even when written by authors who are capable of producing excellent material. The combination of restraints placed by the IP holder, short turnaround times, and often crappy pay encourages writers to channel their inner hack and turn in bland, uninspired work that ranges from Meh to eyebleedingly horrible. There are, of course, exceptions, and Zahn’s Star Wars books are among the very best.

The Thrawn trilogy picks up five years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI and is full of intrigue, adventure, and unabashed space opera that makes Star Wars, well… Star Wars. He also introduces one of the best bad guys in the franchise, Grand Admiral Thrawn, who–in my opinion–is second only to Darth Vader himself. The alien tactician is brilliant enough to climb high in the Empire’s xenophobic hierarchy, and he makes a worthy opponent to Luke, Leia, Han and the rest of the gang.

Although older Star Wars books are no longer considered canon as per Disney’s decree, many of Zahn’s ideas took root. It was he who introduced the concept of Coruscant, the Republic’s planet-wide capital city, which was later featured in the movies. And although I haven’t watched the cartoon, I understand Grand Admiral Thrawn shows up in STAR WARS REBELS, so that makes him canon, too.

From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown

 

Much of what I know about writing short fiction in general, and especially flash fiction, I learned from reading Fredric Brown. He isn’t as well-known today as he deserves to be but I don’t think it would be much of an exaggeration to call him the father of flash fiction. He wrote beautiful, funny, clever little stories that fit onto a page or two but carried more punch than most longer works do.

Although you might not already know his name, chances are you’re familiar with some of his work. Two of his pieces are particularly well-known. The first is “Arena,” a short story that a Star Trek: the Original Series episode of the same name was based on. (The original short story is better, IMO.) The second is “Knock,” which opens with the world’s shortest SF/horror story. I shall post it here in it’s entirety:

“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…”

Brown goes on to elaborate on the concept in “Knock” but it’s these two lines that have spawned countless imitations and elaborations, and remain firmly embedded in our pop culture.

Although this book is a bit pricey, it’s well-worth it for the complete collection of Brown’s genre stories (he also wrote mysteries, which are collected in a separate volume.) In my opinion, anyone who is serious about writing short fiction must read this book.

The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge

A beautiful, evocative, complex science fiction novel, this and it’s equally-good sequel The Summer Queen are among my favorite books — genre or otherwise.

Vinge has written several other excellent novels (such as the Psion books) but a serious car accident in the early 2000s derailed her career. She appears to have published a couple of film novelizations since then, and little else, which is a great shame.

 

Labyrinth of Reflections by Sergei Lukyanenko

While I talked about my favorite Russian writer earlier, my favorite *living* Russian writer is Lukyanenko. He has written everything from urban fantasy to space opera to YA, but his very first published novel (I believe it is, anyway) remains my favorite. Labyrinth of Reflections is a cyberpunk novel written in the 90s and while some of the references (like AOL and saving a laughably small amount of data onto a diskette) feel outdated, the book withstands the test of time as well as Neuromancer.

You may already be familiar with Lukyanenko’s work from the NIGHT WATCH and DAY WATCH films (the books are WAY better than the movies.) He’s deservedly the most popular fantasist in Russia (as well-known there as Stephen King is in the US) and is well-worth reading. I can’t vouch for the quality of the translation below since I read this book in the original, but a cursory examination suggests it’s pretty good.

Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

 

Simak is, in my opinion, one of the best SF writers of the 20th century. His work was well-recognized with award nominations and wins but it has been out of print for entirely too long and younger readers are sadly unfamiliar with his books. Fortunately, Open Road Media brought his work back into print recently. Although many of Simak’s books are excellent, I consider WAY STATION and CITY absolute must-reads for every SF fan (and writer!) out there.

#SFWAPro

So what are some of your favorite genre books written in the 20th century? (With a special focus on titles that may not be as well-recognized as Dune or The Left Hand of Darkness or Ringworld)

 

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