Twenty years ago I wrote an article about the classics of science fiction for the fanzine Lan’s Lantern – and later made the essay into a web site at The Classics of Science Fiction. My friend Mike inspired the project when he asked me about my favorite science fiction books. I started reading science fiction as a kid in 1961, and then gave up SF in 1974 after dropping out of college to find reality. I returned to reading science fiction in 1984 after I had gotten married, finished college and settled down. By the time I wrote the essay in 1987 I had probably read well over a thousand science fiction books.
Now looking back with twenty years of hindsight I’m not sure how many science fiction books I would consider classic. The final Classics of Science Fiction list wasn’t selected by me, but was assembled from the most frequently recommended books from 28 best-of lists and other sources dating back to the 1950s. Of the 193 books on the list, I’m not sure how many I would personally recommend today. I’ve read most of the books on the list, and still reread many of them. I’m currently seeking out and listening to audio editions of books from the list. This week I’m listening to Timescape by Gregory Benford, #41 on the list, and a book on 16 of the 28 recommended references. I think it is a classic of sorts, but it’s doubtful you’ll find it at your favorite bookstore. I was surprised that Recorded Books had an unabridged audio edition. [By the way, RB is the very best place to find audio editions of the SF Classics.]
A few months ago I listened to Foundation by Isaac Asimov and I was appalled by how bad it was. I had forgotten most of the story. I had read the original Foundation trilogy back in the 1960s and accepted it then as a classic because everyone said it was so. Listening to it now it was obvious that it was a fix-up novel from a handful of Astounding pulp fiction stories. Even though I considered it bad writing it had ideas that made me wonder if it had been inspiration to George Lucas for Star Wars. As far as I was concerned it was too simplistic and had nothing to offer the modern reader. The Foundation Trilogy is #4 on the Science Fiction Classics List and was recommended by 24 of the 28 lists. It is well loved, but not by me anymore.
I wonder if the other fans, critics, writers and editors who created the original 28 recommendation lists still love all the books they once recommended Has the last twenty years changed them too? Here are the books I’ve listened to in the last five years:
#4 – Foundation by Isaac Asimov
#8 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
#19 – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
#22 – Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
#29 – Fahrenheit 451 – by Ray Bradbury
#32 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
#37 – The Humanoids by Jack Williamson
#41 – Timescape by Gregory Benford
#48 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (abridged) by Philip K. Dick
#58 – Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
#61 – Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
#67 – Startide Rising by David Brin
#87 – Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
#93 – Blood Music (novella version) by Greg Bear
#94 – Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
I have more SF Classics lined up to listen to, like Dune by Frank Herbert, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and a few others. They are on my Recorded Books Unlimited queue. Most of the books I have listened to were very entertaining, but I don’t know if I would call them classics. Library of America, a company known for publishing classic books, will publish a volume called Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K. Dick in June of 2007. The four novels are The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Ubik (1969) – all but Stigmata were on the Classics of Science Fiction list.
Are these the real classics of science fiction? I don’t know. PKD’s books hold up well in their audio editions and many of his stories have been made into movies, but his books were never mainstream science fiction. PKD was one strange dude, maybe a Poe or Meville of the sci-fi pulp writers, and although he wrote some books set in outer space, he was never considered an inspiration to the space opera crowd. I am a huge fan of PKD and I’m overjoyed that LOA has selected his books, but I don’t think PKD represents science fiction nor do I think his books represent American literature. Personally, I think Robert A. Heinlein fits that role better, but I’m not sure I’d pick any of his books as classics of American literature either. Many of Heinlein’s novels are my all time favorite books that I read and reread, but I don’t know if they represent America or its times. I think Have Space Suit-Will Travel represents the 1950s in the U.S. in a very special way but will future readers see that. Would nineteenth century New England want to be represented by Moby Dick?
The trouble is I don’t see any science fiction book becoming the Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations to the readers of the twenty-second century as those two books have become classics to us. Whether Jane Austin or Charles Dickens wrote accurate portraits of their times, their books do represent the times in which they were set for all future readers. Huckleberry Finn and Little Women will represent nineteen century America, like The Great Gatsby will represent the twenthieth century. Strange in a Strange Land is a 1960s book, but it will never be a book about the 1960s. Science fiction books will have to be classics like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan are classics but I’m not sure how many science fiction books will appeal to the young readers of the future.
H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and The World of the Wars have become classic books read by children for a century. Are there any books from the Classics of Science Fiction list that will follow in Mr. Wells’ steps? Ender’s Game might. Not on the list, but a book that might have a chance is Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel. It was recently made into a full-cast audio book and it holds up very well and doesn’t feel dated. But I think it only has an extremely rare chance. Dune might succeed since it has already had two film incarnations, which is a good indication. Fahrenheit 451 might have a chance since it is a timeless allegory about reading, but I don’t hold out much hope for The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury’s other classic that is so loved outside of the SF world. Flowers for Algernon has potential. Overall though, I don’t have much hope for any book on the Classic of Science Fiction list lasting another century and remaining popular. I think Wells and Verne will fall out of favor – if they already haven’t.
As many observers have noted, modern children prefer movies, video games and movies over books, so there’s always a chance that books won’t be popular in the future. However, I think hard-core science fiction readers will continue to seek and find the books on The Classics of Science Fiction list. The average science fiction reader will be content with the latest fad in science fiction and fantasy books. I think the desire to read science fiction is mostly based on the urge to find new and novel excitements – so the classic books that come from the 1940s and 1950s pulp magazines will feel old and quaint to them. Eventually, even the New Wave times of the 1960s and 1970s will seem old wave. Books from the 1920s and 1930s seemed quaint to me in the 1960s. I have a feeling that the most sophisticated science fiction written today will feel like a dime novel does to us when read by our grandchildren.
I guess my conclusion is science fiction goes out of date too fast to become classic. I wish I could live to be two hundred and find out the answer though. I think there are other reasons why these books won’t become classics but those ideas will have to be explored in a future blog entry. The main reason I think this is I’ve read many many great books in the last twenty years that I consider better than the books on the Classics of Science Fiction List.