Over the years a number of people have emailed me about how they use the Classics of Science Fiction list as a reading goal. Well, I’ve never had anyone tell me they’ve read through the entire list — until now.

There’s always been a misconception about books called classics. I think some people feel they are guaranteed great reads. Classics are only books that get remembered over time. Our list was assembled from many sources, including fan polls, awards, lists by critics, writers, and editors, and so on. Just because these books have been statistically remembered by our various sources doesn’t mean they will be loved by readers. I’ve always wondered how science fiction fans who do read from this list react to the books. Well, I’ve gotten one answer. His reaction is completely different from mine, but then I expected that. I expect everyone to love some books and hate others. And that’s okay to hate books called classics.

Lists are very popular on the web, but just how useful are they? Szymon Szott is the first person to tell me they’ve finished our list. This is his answer. Now Szymon admits he quit on some books, but he did try, and I think that’s good enough. I asked Szymon to write up his reaction and here it is:

Jim has asked me to share my thoughts after completing the Classics of Science Fiction v5.

The list is quite long (115 books) and I didn’t read them back-to-back. Some of them I read a long time ago and their plot remains a bit vague (Ubik) while others are among my all-time favorite novels and I’ve read them multiple times (Dune). In recent years, however, I’ve been trying to steadily chip away at the list. In mid-October I finished China Mountain Zhang and thus completed my quest, having read 36 books from the list this year. Overall, my average rating was 3.65 out of 5 stars and since I rarely give 5 stars to a book, it goes to show that I really enjoyed the experience.

My all-time favorite novels from the list are:

Ender's Game
Dune
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Red Mars
Snow Crash

No surprises there, my top three are the same as WWE’s Most Read Books of All-Time and the other two are acknowledged modern classics. However, I read the list to find books which would surprise me, so here are my top five unexpected hits with brief summaries to whet your appetite:

Mission of Gravity - a hard SF exploration of a cool idea: a planet where the gravity varies from 700 g at the poles to 3 g at the equator.

Flowers for Algernon - another exploration of an SF idea (increasing intelligence through surgery), but very human-focused, a moving tale.

Dreamsnake - a grand story set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it must have inspired the Fallout game series.

Ammonite - interesting planet exploration, where a virus alters the colonists.

The Windup Girl - near-future biopunk novel, which the author wrote during a SARS outbreak in Asia (making it unexpectedly relevant to current times).

I didn’t, however, find absolutely all the books amazing. In fact, I didn’t finish two of them: The Female Man and Synners. The former was just plain confusing while the latter had a combination of plot, characters, and prose style that didn't work for me. Out of the books that I did finish, here’s my bottom five:

Last and First Men
Star Maker
To Your Scattered Bodies Go
Dhalgren
Startide Rising

I read that the two Stapledon books were influential to many SF authors, but were just plain boring to read (having almost no plot or characters). The others aren’t terrible but have some element that put me off (sentient dolphins, a resurrected Göring, or all-combination sex).

Are there any books I think are missing from the list? Well, the arbitrary cutoff is at at 12 citations and here are some great books which I enjoyed that didn’t make it:

R.U.R.
On the Beach
Accelerando
The Stand
Perdido Street Station

They’re all quite different but at the heart of each is the exploration of SF concepts and all of them filled me with a sense of wonder.

Overall, I think the Classics of Science Fiction v5 list is a great resource. Should you read it from beginning to end like I did? Only if you’re either studying the history of SF or are an obsessive completist. Otherwise, treat the list as a recommendation of outstanding SF books and don’t fear to stop reading a book if it doesn’t meet your expectations. Life’s too short for books you don’t enjoy!

I believe Szymon’s finally recommendation is a good one. By the way, Szymon has written for us before:

James Wallace Harris, 10/22/21

6 thoughts on “You Won’t Love Every Work of Classic Science Fiction

  1. David G. Hartwell, in his book Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction, listing what he considered to be several outstanding SF works, commented that few readers would enjoy all of them unless their tastes were extremely catholic. I think this is true of most genres, and not just SF. Much of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein holds up for me (at least, what I’ve read by them–less of Heinlein than the other two), but I found Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men a real slog–I bailed out about four-fifths of the way through.

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    1. Carl, I was kind of shocked when Szymon said he didn’t like the Stapledon books, and then you say you didn’t like him either. Huh. I felt Last and First Men and Star Maker were mind-blowing SF — but then I remembered something. I couldn’t get into Stapledon when I was young, but I did this century because I listened to him on audio.

      I’ve learned there are lots of books I hate reading but love listening. I have a hard time reading dense prose. I didn’t get into 19th-century novels until after I subscribed to Audible.com. Listening lets me enjoy long nonfiction books too, like Captital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty.

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      1. If you’re fond of Stapledon, Jim, I didn’t mean to rain on your parade, and if I did this, I apologize. My problem with LAFM is that I found the style so abstract, and there were virtually no characters–not even the crude, one-dimensional characters of pulp SF. It seemed to be written entirely in third-person plural, as it were. Borges, in his preface to the Spanish translation of Star Maker, commented that Stapledon gave the impression of having read a lot of philosophy, but very little fiction or poetry, and reading LAFM gave me the same impression. I understand that Stapledon was an enormous influence on SF, and many writers (Clarke, Silverberg, etc.) have testified to how much he meant to them and their work, but I’d rather read their work instead. I love the cosmic aspects of SF–travels to the farthest reaches of time and space, etc.–but for me it also has to have some concrete human aspects, however minimal.

        Re audiobooks, I must admit I never developed the knack of absorbing a story by listening to it–I find that I need to have the page in front of me. (Maybe I’ll eventually learn to “read” stories by listening to them if my eyesight ever fails me.)

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        1. I wholeheartedly agree with what Carl writes about Stapledon, but you’re also right Jim when you say that some books can be better absorbed through the audio medium. I may try that, if not with Stapledon, then with the two I DNFed.

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        2. Carl, you’re not raining on my parade by disliking Stapledon. The whole point of the essay is readers don’t all like the same books, even books that have great reputations. I can perfectly understand why readers don’t like Stapledon. The two novels mentioned aren’t really novels at all. Last and First Men is a series of speculative essays, and Star Maker is a pseudo-spiritual memoir.

          Most of my friends don’t like audiobooks. I discovered I had to learn to listen like I had to learn to read. It took me years. And I’m still learning to read and listen. Listening makes up for my defects as a reader.

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