Saturday, November 09, 2019

This is not the science fiction you're looking for

Image result for star wars star trek logos
STAR WARS isn't science fiction. Science fiction explores the ways that science can change how humans live... the impact that technology has on human thought and behavior. Had someone written a story in the 1910s talking about a hypothetical 1970s in which there were mass produced horseless carriages everywhere, which not only changed the way we built our cities and homes and office buildings, but which also changed our entire culture's sexual morality, that would have been science fiction, at the time. (Pretty shocking sci fi, too, that probably wouldn't have gotten published.)

A story about people in a future where everyone has learned how to teleport, or where the police are all telepathic, and how that changes the way people live and interact with each other... that's science fiction.

STAR WARS would be science fiction if we ever saw anything like, oh, a political movement to grant droids freedom and equal rights, or if it was established that all of the Senators in the Galactic Republic were from an elite superclass of immortals who had access to life extension technology that they restricted to themselves and their families. Or even if it were revealed that the reason the technology in the STAR WARS universe has been completely static for hundreds of thousands of years is because the insidious Jedi Order has been telepathically stifling original thought in all sentients to 'maintain peace'. Any of that would make STAR WARS sci fi.

But STAR WARS is, essentially, just a fun adventure story where the advanced technology has no real impact on how people live at all. The characters in STAR WARS are us. They are the exact same as us. They have the same kinds of government as we do. They have the same cultural morality as we do. Good and evil in the STAR WARS culture mean the same things as they do in contemporary American culture. The dwellers of 'a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away' are monogamous, apparently primarily heterosexual, marriage is between one man and one woman, etc, etc. Aliens are only alien in appearance; otherwise, they act perfectly human... even gigantic mountains of pulsating slime-slug lust after pretty pretty princesses in gold mesh bikinis.

So, no, STAR WARS is not science fiction. (Neither is STAR TREK, except in very rare episodes like "A Measure Of A Man', where the question of Data's humanity and status as a full citizen of the Federation is explored.)

One of the reasons that true science fiction has such a limited appeal, and that, therefore, most of the 'sf' in movies and on TV isn't actually science fiction, is that true sf explores worlds that are different from ours... generally, worlds with humans in them, but where different technology has caused those humans to evolve difference societies than ours. It requires imagination to enter those worlds, and sadly, imagination has always been in short supply. Always... and never more so than in today's world, where more than ever before, people's active imaginations have been stunted since early childhood onwards by TV, movies, and now, perhaps most pernicious, video games.

If your protagonist is from a world where every woman has 17 husbands, you do not need to reveal right away that it's because the humans there were originally kidnapped by insectile aliens and kept as slaves to the hive, and even after they won their own freedom and killed most of their insect oppressors, they still adapted their society without really thinking about it to match what they'd seen of their one time masters. You can throw this info out in dribs and drabs, as part of your backdrop. And it doesn't need to be central to the storyline at all, it can simply be a form of interesting color in your protagonist's background... he/she really feels that this is the 'correct' and 'right' way to live, because it's all that he/she knows.

Back in the 70s, a guy named Gerry Conway (probably the worst writer and/or editor to ever work in comics, certainly the laziest and most appallingly unoriginal) created a comic series named FIRESTORM. The series was a direct response to Marvel's NOVA, and featured a character who was ripped off from about eighteen different, better sources. Conway also published an editorial in FIRESTORM #1 in which he attempted to head off any and all criticisms of the character's grimly derivative nature by truculently declaring that there were no original characters left in comics, that it was impossible to do an original character.

This is, essentially, the same thing as "every story has already been told". It's an excuse for not thinking, for not being creative, for not bothering to try to do something new. Not every story has been told. Originality is still possible. It's foolish and lazy to claim otherwise... and in science fiction, above and beyond all other genres, it's just silly. Science fiction is about going boldly where no one has gone before. (It's ironic that, as I've already mentioned, STAR TREK is rarely actually science fiction - more often, it's just, as Gene Roddenberry infamously described it in a pitch meeting, "WAGON TRAIN in space".)

I'm not saying writers always have to be original. As I've mentioned before, you will find no bigger fan of pulp fiction than me anywhere, and pulp is never original... it's all hackneyed cliches, well worn stereotypes, oft repeated formulas... tropes and memes that we've all seen a thousand times before. But pulp does this because these tropes and memes work; they remain fun and fresh and exciting no matter how many times they are trotted out, if they are handled correctly. A story doesn't have to be original to be fun. It does have to be written with skill and talent, it has to have interesting characters, it has to take us inside it and make us feel what's going on... but it needn't be something we've never seen before.

STAR WARS is never science fiction, and STAR TREK only rarely is... but STAR WARS is always, and STAR TREK is often, pulp fiction. Sometimes they're even really good pulp fiction.

Nonetheless, science fiction... speculative fiction... is all about newness, innovation, originality.

I love pulp and I love sf. Pulp can never be literature, and cheerfully doesn't try. Science/speculative fiction CAN be literature, it can be great, it can say something important about human behavior and the world we all live in... but it should always, always, always strive to be new and different and unique and explorative.

If you think you're writing sci fi and you genuinely believe that every story has probably already been told and it's not important if you're original or not, you're not writing sci fi. You're writing pulp. There's nothing wrong with pulp... but you should understand the difference.

I just finished rereading Jack Vance's wonderful and brilliant DEMON PRINCES series. Wonderful and brilliant, yes. One of the finest depictions of a human galactic civilization, yes. Science fiction... mrm.... not really. Despite faster than light travel and focused energy weapons, the humans of the Oikumene live exactly the same way as humans of present day Earth, with exactly the same mores, exactly the same cultural taboos... the Demon Princes are evil under exactly the same ethical and moral definitions as shape present day Western culture. There are a few planetary human sub cultures that differ from the norm (the Sarkoy, the Darsh) but they are regarded as vile and noxious by the rest of the Oikumene, and clearly cast as villains in the narrative.

Vance was, I think, far more comfortable writing fantasy than he was writing sf, which is why even his greatest sf is, essentially, fantasy with rocket engines and blasters in it.

There's nothing wrong with 'science fantasy', 'space opera', etc. These are mainstays of pulp fiction, and no one loves pulp fiction more than me. But it's important to use words correctly and to understand what we mean when we say certain things. Science fiction is not simply fiction with advanced technology in it. It is fiction in which some form of technology is central and essential to the storyline, and which examines and analyzes exactly what kind of impact that technology has had and may have on human culture and human behavior.

Friday, November 08, 2019


Image result for who watches the watchmen logoSome thoughts on WATCHMEN - graphic novel wise, movie wise, HBO series wise, and otherwise.

So my wife and I have started watching the HBO series, which has moved me to take the graphic novel down off the shelf for the first time in years. It also moved me to try to watch the movie adaptation again today.

The graphic novel is brilliant but very deeply flawed, on both a conceptual level and in terms of its execution. There are a lot of things I dislike about it, and some of them I've already written up, in places like Leaving aside that, I still can't get past the fact that Moore seems to have written WATCHMEN as if it was set in a universe with hundreds or thousands of superhumans in it, like the Marvel or DC universes. But WATCHMEN has, at most, like fifteen superheroes in it, and at the time that a national police strike over, apparently, superheroes paralyzes the country and causes Congress to make masked vigilantes illegal, there are all of five active. Five heroes, four of whom have no powers, are not gong to make police forces from coast to coast go on strike. Five heroes, four of whom have no powers, are not even going to be a thing.

Moore's choice to make all but one of his characters simply 'costumed athletes' is also, well, sloppy, lazy writing. He wants to examine the psychological impact that the existence of a godlike human has on our culture, but he doesn't want it to get too messy or complex, they way it necessarily would be if he were trying to do a realistic, four dimensional analysis of a world with thousands of superhumans. So he created a handful of men and women who dress up and fight crime, mostly for unworthy reasons because Alan Moore simply doesn't believe in actual heroism in real life, and then he creates one character who is basically god in human form, and he leaves it at that... but that's nothing like a 'realistic' examination of superheroes. It's, frankly, a cop out.

I also don't believe the ending of WATCHMEN and never have. I still think that what should have happened was, Ozymandias' manipulations should have brought the world to the brink of nuclear war -- and then, when he teleported his artificial space squid into New York City, it should have triggered the nuclear exchange he was trying so hard to prevent. The last people alive on Earth should have been a small collection of costumed adventurers in an Antarctic retreat. That's how it should have ended, logically.

I'm also starting to find a lot of Moore's stylistic flourishes tiresome and clumsy. I especially feel this way about the constant use of parallel narratives in WATCHMEN -- where narration from one particular subplot will be used to overlap another, separate subplot, in ways that are supposed to be dramatic, evocative, and emotional. In the first issue, when the two detectives dialogue is layered over the flashbacks of Veidt beating the shit out of Blake and then throwing him out the window, it's contrived and clumsy and painful to read. The frequently doubling of the pirate comic book narrative over whatever the hell else is going on in the rest of the world is just annoyingly strained and false seeming. Occasionally Moore makes it work, but most of the time it just falls flat.

I tried to watch the movie again today and just couldn't do it. The visuals are lovely but the dialogue is terrible. Carla Gugino and Jeffrey Dean Morgan clearly have no clue how to handle their characterizations in this film ,and it's just as clear that Snyder has no better idea how to guide or direct them. Where the script keeps the original Moore dialogue more or less intact, the actors chew it up like beef jerky, and where they change it it's just awful. The whole movie is just excruciating to watch whenever any character is saying anything at all, ever. (I will give a hat tip, though, to Jackie Earle Hailey's inspired rendition of Rorschach, while singling out whoever played Dreiberg, Veidt, and Osterman for especial ridicule.)

The changes that the script makes to the original storyline are always, always, always objectionable and wrong. The very concept that there was a second superhero team called 'The Watchmen' enrages me, and it further infuriates me that poor Captain Metropolis got one lousy cameo in one lousy flashback, and the astonishingly short and precious Ozymandias of this movie took Cap's place everywhere else in the plot. And having Dreiberg go talk to Veidt about the mask killer instead of having Rorschach show up to warn him was dumb as fuck, too.

Given that the WATCHMEN series on HBO is obviously not in any way related to the movie, though, I guess the movie hardly matters to this essay and I needn't have wasted time on it.

In the series itself so far (spoilers!) the writers seem to be trying hard to direct us to certain fairly obvious conclusions. One is that an elderly black man who was alive during the Greenwood Riots/Massacres of 1921, was apparently Hooded Justice. I love this idea; it would be nice to have a central non white character in WATCHMEN from the beginning, and really, Hooded Justice is the only one who could feasibly be shown to not be Caucasian, as we never saw anything of him in the comic except the skin around his eyes. But Hooded Justice was also depicted as a homosexual and a Hitler supporter, and it just seems kind of unlikely that the wheelchair bound elderly black man portrayed by Louis Gossett Jr is either of those things.

The plotters could still just shrug and say "yeah, though, he's Hooded Justice and that stuff you read in UNDER THE HOOD is just wrong". But that would seem like, again, a cop out on the part of the writers.

There are also strong indications that the sheriff who was hung at the end of the first ep was actually Nite Owl. But in the second ep, we discover that that sheriff had a Ku Klux Klan outfit hidden in his closet, and in the third ep, we're told that Nite Owl went to prison. So that would seem to let that out, leaving us only to wonder, how did this guy get hold of Nite Owl's flying ship Archie?

There are other strong indications that Adrian Veidt is actually Dr. Manhattan in disguise -- he seems to have created semi functional artificial humanoids, and he's writing and staging a play that depicts the events of Dr. Manhattan's life -- something Adrian Veidt seems unlikely to be interested in.

All I can really say at this point is, I find the HBO series to be so far more interesting than the original graphic novel or the movie. But it's always much easier to create tension than it is to resolve it satisfactorily, and I have little faith that the showrunner who brought us THE LEFTOVERS and LOST will do any better a job on this than he did on those other two.

Still, we're still in the building tension phase right now, so the show hadn't fucked itself up too badly yet.

It's when we get to the 'release the tension in a satisfying manner' stage that stories generally so badly south (see, LOST and GAME OF THRONES, just to name two).   It's why many shows with continuing storylines that seem to be building to some sort of big blow off have great first seasons and then seem to end in such a disappointing fashion.  A lot of content provides out there have mastered the art of creating tension -- J.J. Abrams and George R.R. Martin, for example, are great it it -- but they don't seem to be able to release that tension again in a way that the audience will find satisfying.

We'll have to see if WATCHMEN can get over that hurdle that has tripped up so many, many others.

Thursday, November 07, 2019


Daniel Keys Moran posted his list of the 50 Best Novels of all time. Which made me think about what I'd put on my own list. His rules were that he wouldn't list anything that he hadn't read in the last 15 years, which seems like a pretty good guideline, so I'll stick with that.

Now, having said that, there's simply no way I can list them in any kind of order. I just can't. Sorry.

LORD OF LIGHT by Roger Zelazney

I like a lot of Zelazney, but this is not only his best work, it is probably the best science fantasy novel ever written. I know I said I wasn't going to rate the entries on the list, but I lied; this one I will rate absolute number one.


I like a lot of Clemens, too, but this one is still the best.


I can't pick just one; each of them have their own strengths, and unlike most series, each installment improves on the previous one. DEMON is by far the most fun of the trilogy, but in places the style is rough, as if Varley might just have needed one more draft to get everything polished up correctly.

MINDBRIDGE by Joe Haldeman

I'm a big FOREVER WAR fan, but to me, MINDBRIDGE is the best thing Haldeman has ever written, which is saying a lot. Also, Haldeman has never released an unedited version of MINDBRIDGE which turned the original reading experience into utter drudgery, as he did with FOREVER WAR. Nor has he written any dumbass sequels to MINDBRIDGE.

EMERALD EYES by Daniel Keys Moran

I enjoy all the Continuing Time stuff, but EMERALD EYES is my favorite... I like Carl Castaneveras, and his cast of contemporaries, much much better than I like any of the next generation who populate the ongoing episodes.

CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY by Robert A. Heinlein

Probably my favorite Heinlein book, and the best of his 'juveniles'.

BLOOD GAMES by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Cool ass vampires in Nero's Rome by a serious student of history who also writes with enormous skill and talent.


The first (or, maybe, the second, or, possibly, the third, sequentially) in the Vorkosigan series... all of them are well worth reading, but this one is probably the best.

DRAGONSBANE by Barbara Hambly

There is much goodness by Hambly, but this one is the best.

TO REIGN IN HELL by Steven Brust - few writers have the balls to take on subject matter like Lucifer's rebellion against God, and no other writer I can think of would have the talent to make it work as well as Brust does. It's unfortunate that this novel is out of print, but it's definitely worth tracking down.

STAND ON ZANZIBAR by John Brunner - Brunner is one of my favorite writers, and has done stuff I like better than STAND, which is actually one of the most depressing novels I've ever read. His other distopian novels that have more upbeat endings, like THE SHOCKWAVE RIDER, THE WRONG END OF TIME, and THE STONE THAT NEVER CAME DOWN are all a lot more fun to read. But STAND ON ZANZIBAR is a masterpiece, and an astonishing accomplishment... and is outdone even in the 'wow, that's depressing department' by its kinda-sorta sequel, THE SHEEP LOOK UP. I can only imagine that every Pink Floyd lyric ever written was inspired by this book.

THE STAND by Stephen King - King's masterpiece, and the story that taught me that it's not always necessary for your heroes to actually accomplish anything. The difference between the original version of THE STAND and the monstrously bloated uncut edition should be enough proof for even the most obtuse just how badly Stephen King needs a competent editor to do, not his best work, but anything beyond incoherent, self indulgent garbage.

I'm very fond of nearly all of King's early work -- CARRIE is like no other book I've ever read, THE SHINING is a masterpiece of creepy atmosphere, THE DEAD ZONE is a very tight and effective bit of character work, and FIRESTARTER is one of my favorite guilty pleasures... but THE STAND is the closest thing to real literature King is ever going to write. Not that that means much to me, but it is without a doubt the book that shows his undeniable talent to the fullest.

Let me interrupt myself for a moment to note as an aside: this Best Novels stuff is a tough gig. Favorite authors would be much easier. In fact, favorite ANYthing would be much easier, I could shamelessly list stuff like Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise work (prose and comic strip) and the Lester Dent Doc Savage stories and Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes canon. But much though I love the way all those authors write (O'Donnell, especially, is an absolute master of simple, point to point prose and compact characterization), I simply cannot in truth call any of their works a 'best' novel. That stuff is all pulp with no redeeming literary value. I love it, and make no apologies for my love of it... but you can't call it a 'best'.

STARTIDE RISING by David Brin - Brin's obstinate blind pigheaded utterly misguided insistence on writing about events rather than characters turned the remaining Uplift books into increasingly aggravating exercises in frustration, as after reading STARTIDE RISING, all anyone wanted in the world was to find out what happened to Jillian, Toshio, Creideki, Tom, Akki, and Lucky Kaa... and what we got was the equivalent of George R.R. Martin writing one book about the Stark kids and then giving us five more novels set in the same universe, but telling the stories of fifty or sixty entirely different and urelated characters on the other side of the planet.

Regardless of that, though, STARTIDE RISING is without a doubt one of the best novels ever written and one of hard science fiction's most shining achievements. Brin's POSTMAN is also one of the best post apocalypse SF stories ever, but I like STARTIDE a little better... perhaps just because they've never turned it into a cinematic turd starring Kevin Costner.

THE ODESSA FILE by Frederick Forsythe - I admit it, as far as books go, THE DOGS OF WAR and even DAY OF THE JACKAL are probably better, but I really enjoy this one. It's probably Forsythe's only novel with a really admirable and likable protagonist, and it's also the only one that managed to completely surprise me the first time I read it with that great twist ending.

MARATHON MAN by William Goldman - most people who'd put a Goldman book on a Best Of list would go for THE PRINCESS BRIDE every time, and I like TPB a great deal. But MARATHON MAN is Goldman at his absolute best, hitting you with a genuinely surprising twist every chapter, and has a fabulously satisfying resolution. It even made a pretty good movie.

SYSTEMIC SHOCK by Dean Ing - nuclear war shakes but does not shatter civilization and the Mormons emerge as the new power elite in post apocalypse Streamlined America. Ing only ever wrote one solidly good book, but that one is definitely one of the best.

BRIGHT ORANGE FOR THE SHROUD by John D. MacDonald - I enjoy all the Travis McGee novels, but if I have to pick a favorite, it's this one. Wonderful settings, terrific plotting, and as nasty a set of villains as anyone could ever ask for make this, to my mind, the best of the McGee run, which is really saying something. The world took a big hit the day it lost John D. MacDonald.

THE HOBBIT by J.R.R. Tolkien - I recently reread this, and was charmed to discover that, as with C.S. Lewis, Tolkien really writes better when he thinks he's writing a children's story. Everything charming about the Middle Earth setting is present in this story, and the fairy tale nature of the plot makes it almost impossible to notice just how two dimensional all the characters are... something that becomes extremely evident a chapter or two into THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

THE CALIFORNIA VOODOO GAME by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes - I love the entire Dream Park trilogy, but I think Niven and Barnes saved the best for last. TCVG takes all the elements previously introduced in the first two books -- amazing basic concept, wonderful characters, interesting plots-inside-plots, corporate intrigue -- and amps it all up to unprecedented heights in this mad geek romp through a deserted arcology infested with zombies.

THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle - It's... yeah, I mean, it's almost mandatory on any Best Novels list compiled by a middle aged SF/fantasy geek, but, well, there's a good reason for that; the book is that frickin' good. Just read it.

RED DRAGON by Thomas Harris - back before Harris completely lost both his mind and his dignity and forgot the importance of anything except royalty checks, movie rights, and best seller list status, he was probably the finest writer America had, and RED DRAGON may very well be his strongest book. BLACK SUNDAY and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS are all very much worth reading, too, but Harris was at his peak in this one. The less said about immoral trash like HANNIBAL and HANNIBAL RISING the better.

WILD TIMES by Brian Garfield - the autobiography of fictional Western hero Hugh Cardiff, WILD TIMES is not only the best thing once popular author Brian Garfield has ever written, it's probably the best piece of Wild West 'literature' ever written. If David Milch didn't read this book forty times before he ever pitched DEADWOOD, well, he should have.

The original FOUNDATION trilogy by Isaac Asimov - I enjoyed all the new installments, but the first three are still the best.. not just the best Foundation books, but the best Galactic Empire space opera ever written. You can't really be a science fiction fan if you haven't read these.

THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE by Pat Conroy - forget the truly horrifying movie adaptation, this tale of ritual humiliation at a thinly disguised fictional version of the Citadel may be one of the most powerful books ever written about friendship, military tradition, honor, hypocrisy, and the wonderful effects of chocolate Ex-Lax brownies on a class of sadistic asswipes.

BLACK AND BLUE MAGIC by Zylpha Keatley Snyder - Ms. Snyder wrote nearly as many charming children's novels as Beverly Cleary, and Snyder's were a lot whackier, too. This one is my all time favorite, a delightful tale of a young kid who does a favor for a down on his luck peddler of magical goods, and as a reward, is given an enchanted potion that gives him big white wings. The story of his magical summer of adventures flying around San Francisco Bay getting into trouble and back out again is just tremendous good fun.

THE ILLUSTRATED MAN by Ray Bradbury - Bradbury was my first ever 'favorite writer', and this book contains probably the most brilliant framing sequence for an anthology of otherwise unrelated short stories ever dreamt up by the mind of mortal man. A few of the stories are clunkers (that's right, "The Man", you crappy, crappy, crappy religious allegory, I'm talking about YOU), but many of them -- the incredibly creepy "The Veldt", the hauntingly atmospheric "The Long Rain", the melancholy "The Rocket Man", and the brilliantly evoked "Marionettes, Inc", just for a few -- are among Bradbury's finest stories ever, which, of course, means they are SF/fantasy classics in their own right.

NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman - They haven't made a mediocre movie adaptation of this one yet, so, to date, I regard this as the best of Gaiman's novels.

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, by C.S. Lewis - Like J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis writes better when he thinks he's writing for children. The NARNIA books are all frankly wonderful, except for THE LAST BATTLE, which is a stinker, and a wretched no fun stinker at that, but if you just ignore it, the rest of them are tremendous and must reads for any real fantasy fan. Ignore all the unfortunately overly obvious Christian allegory and just enjoy them for the wonderfully written fantasies they are.

MIND OF MY MIND by Octavia E. Butler - few writers can pull off that cool shifting narrative viewpoint thing that Joe Haldeman does so effortlessly, but I suspect Haldeman learned the trick from Octavia E. Butler, who expertly employs her shifting viewpoints to portray the tale of the deathless Doro and the subculture of his psionically powerful descendants that he breeds as psychic food... and what happens when one of his prize subjects grows powerful enough to battle him for her freedom.

JUMPER by Steven Gould - this astonishingly original and charming reworking of a standard sf cliche bears nearly no resemblance to the wretchedly bad movie that was based on it, a dichotomy Gould attempted to close by writing another version of the book based on the incredibly bad movie script. I had a hard time forgiving him for that, but it should be noted that the original JUMPER is, in addition to being a fabulous story in its own right, one of the few novels that has a sequel, REFLEX, which is just as good as the original.

THE GAME OF FOX AND LION by Robert R. Chase - star spanning corporate intrigue, interstellar warfare, genetically engineered superhumans and the Unified Church of Humanity - give sf hackmeister supreme Ben Bova all those elements to write about and you'd end up with a literary turd big enough to choke a New York City sewer tunnel, but in the hands of Robert R. Chase, it's all transmuted into one of the best space operas since FOUNDATION. Chase wrote a sequel to this book called CRUCIBLE which is also pretty good, but it can't hit this book's level, nor can Chase's other book, SHAPERS, although that one is an excellent and original SF novel in its own right. It's a pity Chase seems to have stopped writing SF, as with these three books, he established himself as one of the authors I still search for new books from whenever I'm in a bookstore.

HOMUNCULUS by James Blaylock - Completely indescribable, this book is... well, it's out of print, for starters, but if you can get a copy, snatch it up and read it. It's just tremendous -- set in Victorian London, this is sort of a steampunk version of Shea and Wilson's Illuminatus! without all the incoherent Joycean stream of consciousness bullshit to fuck up the narrative. If you can possibly dig a story featuring six inch high artificial men, secret societies, heroic tobacconists, and dirigibles piloted by dead men, among many, many, many other fantastical plot elements, then this is definitely a book for you.

A WRINKLE IN TIME and sequels, by Madeline L'Engle - If you've tried to read these books, then either you love them and absolutely agree without hesitation or reservation that they belong on any Best Novels list ever compiled, or you gave up halfway through WRINKLE and cannot comprehend what the hell all the fuss is about whenever those people you know who actually read for fun get together and talk about their favorite books ever. It should be obvious which side of that divide I fall on. I loved the TIME books as a kid, and I was recently delighted to discover that since the last time I checked (probably fifteen years ago) L'Engle had written two new ones, and the latest, MANY WATERS, was in many ways the most fascinating entry in the series. As with the NARNIA books, there's a lot of annoying Christian allegory (if you're the sort, like me, that finds that stuff annoying) but again as with the NARNIA books, the writing is good enough to let you ignore it and just dig the story.
YEAR OF THE UNICORN by Andre Norton - I read a lot of Andre Norton when I was growing up and I have a lot of respect for Ms. Norton's talents. Having said that, a lot of her books kind of blend together after a while. YEAR OF THE UNICORN, though, is probably her best novel, the one where she manages to bring her Witch World setting most vividly to life, and to create her most three dimensional protagonists, as well. I can't claim anything Andre Norton has ever written has been all that influential on my writing style, but certainly, YEAR OF THE UNICORN has been hugely influential on how I design fantasy roleplaying backdrops. Which doesn't mean much to anyone but me, but, hey, I'm the one posting this, and it's not like anyone out there is going to wade all the way through this nonsense anyway.

ALTERNITIES by Michael Kube-McDowell - probably the best alternate timelines novel ever written, bar none. This book is so good that I keep trying to read other stuff by Kube-McDowell, and I keep ending up disappointed... apparently, this was his best idea ever, and nothing else will ever compare. But this is a fantastic book.

PARATIME by H. Beam Piper - It's an anthology, not a novel, but I don't care; PARATIME needs to be on this list. If you haven't read it, I urge you to rectify your error... assuming you're a science fiction fan. If not, you're not reading this list anyway, so, whatever.

1984 by George Orwell - It's great, it's brilliant, it's tremendous, it's iconic, it's awesome, it's one of the finest novels ever written, and it's un-fucking-believably depressing. Reading this book is much like Orwell's description of fascism, i.e., having a boot stamp on your face over and over again forever, or, at least, until you finish it and put it back on the shelf for another decade. But if you haven't read it, you should. Everybody needs a little face stomping once in a while, to keep them honest.

THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF by David Gerrold - In many ways one of the most twisted books ever written, but you have to give Gerrold his props, he sat down and thought this bastard through. If there's a kinky, raunchy potential ramification of personal time travel that Gerrold doesn't pretty thoroughly explore in this NC-17 rated extrapolation of Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps", well, it's beyond my ability to imagine... and to paraphrase Han Solo, I can imagine a LOT of kinky, raunchy time travel ramifications.

THE OUTSIDERS by S.E. Hinton - the original teen angst novel, and still the best. I myself kind of like THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW a little better, but THE OUTSIDERS is a better book, on its literary merits, anyway.

LEST DARKNESS FALL by L. Sprague DeCamp - I love DeCamp's writing; like British writer Colin Wilson, he's someone who has so much writing talent that he can literally write anything, and write it in clear, clean, beautifully expressive text that anyone can understand, no matter how complex a concept or sequence of events it is he's trying to explicate. I am especially fond of DeCamp's pulpier stuff like the Krishna series or his Conan adaptations (Robert E. Howard was a reasonably talented hack, but DeCamp actually understands characterization, story structure, and every other aspect of the craft of writing beyond atmosphere and setting, which is pretty much all Howard knew how to do), but for a Best Novels list, you have to try and find something with at least a little redeeming literary value. So this story of a time traveling engineer trying to import modern high tech into the Roman Empire in order to forestall the Dark Ages is the one that gets the props.

THE DEMON PRINCES by Jack Vance - Galactic Empire fiction meets the Chronicles of Amber, and only the strong shall survive. If you've read Vance and aren't in absolute awe of his talent and his imagination, clearly, you're reading him wrong.

THE GIVEN DAY by Dennis Lehane - Lehane is probably the best literary writer working in America now, and THE GIVEN DAY may be his best novel. For all that Lehane still has no idea how to actually end a story or resolve a plot, his prose is so full of wonderment, and this novel in particular is so chock full of amazing historical details, that I'll forgive him for these minor failings.

Okay, that's 42 listed separately, but if you count all the actual novels in all the series I've listed, we're well over 50, and I'm tired of typing this. So there you go.