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A Top 10 SF Novels
by Paul Barnett
Being asked to produce a Top Ten of anything is pretty loathsome. To realise the problem, imagine you were asked to produce a list of the Top Ten meals you'd ever eaten. As you'll instantly recognise, the demand is impossible: all the good meals you've ever eaten tend, in the recollection, to become blurred into one.
And yet, and yet, and yet... Perhaps, by taking the meals analogy a bit further, there's a way after all. One meal I remember vividly as having been a delight from beginning to end. It was in a restaurant in Exeter, UK, and I ate it in the company of Pamela D. Scoville and Carolyn McKee. At this meal, Pam and I told Carolyn (who is a very dear friend of ours) that we'd decided to get married, and Carolyn told us that she and Rowan Wilson (another very dear friend of ours) had likewise decided to get married: none of us knew quite what we ought to be cheering loudest about. The thing about this meal is that I what I remember is the happiness that lasted throughout it and the sense that, now Pam and I had told Carolyn what we planned, the enterprise had become (joyously) irrevocable; all I can recall about the food is that it was excellent - but ask me what it was that we actually ate and I'm stumped.
So what I can produce is a list of fantasy/SF books that I remember with that same sense of joy and irrevocable change. These books altered the course of my life, and I am so glad they did so.
When I was a child of about nine or even eight, my brother Keith - 11 years older than myself - was going through a phase of reading SF. (He doesn't read it at all these days, not even my books, dammit.) At one point, presumably in a desperate attempt to get this small pestilential person to shut up for a while, he lent me his copy of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and told me it was pretty good. By the time I got round to reading this somewhat intimidating tome - small print, big words - it was a couple of weeks later, and the family had gone on a holiday my mother could ill afford to Castro Urdiales in Spain (my father had died a few years earlier). This was the first time I'd ever been out of the UK, and so it was colossally exciting. To get there I had to go on a plane for the first time; that was colossally exciting as well. (The journey back was colossally exciting too, if for a rather different reason. The plane we were supposed to be travelling on broke down while trying to take off from Santander airport, whose runway I those days had to be cleared of the cows whenever planes had to use it. The crew attempted to repair the engine using a breadknife - at which point the passengers complained that enough was enough. Even though we eventually travelled out of a different airport on a different plane, there was a certain memento mori all the way home for all of us, including this small child.) As I say, it was while we were in Spain that I got round to reading Childhood's End, and for the two or three evenings it took me to read the book it was as if someone were putting an electric shock through me. I'd come across nothing as exhilarating as this before - not even The House at Pooh Corner or Through the Looking-glass (two fantasy novels that people consistently fail to mention in lists like this one).
Childhood's End was the first SF novel I ever read, and I still think it's one of the best. But it was more important to me than any literary quality it might have can explain. From that point on there was only one type of fiction I was interested in: the literature of the fantastic. Keith had brought with him a J.T. McIntosh sf novel whose title I no longer recall; I devoured that as well and remember it with affection, even though I was conscious at the time that it wasn't nearly as good as Childhood's End. (McIntosh wrote some fine stuff, but this wasn't one of them.) At a local street market in Castro Urdiales we found, miracle of miracles, a copy of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction; it contained one of Brian Aldiss' 'Hothouse' stories, and that blew my youthful brain too - as did the book when I read it some years later.
So there I was, at the age of nine (or was it eight?): a confirmed skiffer.
My love affair with the literature of the fantastic has continued ever since, even though nowadays I generally prefer fantasy to SF. Decades afterwards I worked on a nonfiction book with Arthur; I just hope I never let on, during the various phone conversations between Exeter and Sri Lanka, that he was the man who had changed my life. Similarly, I hope that Brian never discovers he was the man who, as it were confirmed the change.
Back home in Aberdeen, Scotland, the local library suffered the impact of the revolutionised Paul. I ran rampant through the children's shelves, reading anything and everything that could be remotely related to sf. The second book that transformed my life was thus Kemlo and the Crazy Planet by E.C. Eliott. Older friends might explain that a major premise of the Kemlo series was just plain damn silly - that the first generation of kids born in space stations had the ability to breathe vacuum - but that didn't stop me from romping through the entire series, enjoying every minute of it. Decades later - again - I discovered that half the writers active in UK SF had gone through the same experience; E.C. Eliott moulded a generation.
The contents of the children's library lasted me about three months, I'd guess. Most librarians in those straitlaced days wouldn't let kids borrow from the adult shelves, but one, recognising my frustration, did; she was, as a result, the first woman I ever fell in love with. Had she wanted to divorce her husband and illegally marry a ten-year-old some twenty years her junior, well, I would be only too delighted. Although I bit off my proposal, having the sense even then to know I was on a no-hoper, I hope she's still alive and reads this: her liberal (for the time) sense of what kids should be allowed to read was a huge contribution to the person I now am. Yes, some of the books I read as I whopped through the adult sf shelves under her benevolent eye had amazing things like sex in them, but this was perfectly timed for me. It was the only form of sex education I ever got (we're talking Aberdeen in the 1950s). So that was what a penis was for! My! I looked at my own with a new interest. Most of the novels were junk, I now recognise, but they fed an appetite in me that had to be fed. There was one about a planet where Earth's dead went and which was ruled by Queen Elizabeth I; in another novel the Pup (Sirius's superdense white-dwarf companion star, recently discovered, so this was a real cutting-edge-of-science bit of SF) had the power to attract, across the 11 or so intervening lightyears, any superdense materials created on Earth.
Meanwhile I'd discovered at home there were books on the shelves that catered to my addiction. I went right through The Complete Works of H.G. Wells without pause. There was a Chesley Bonestell book (probably now worth a fortune) that did give me pause: I spent at least a day or two just staring at the pictures. The Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James gave me the most astonishing hallucinations for 24 hours or so; my mother, not unreasonably as I screamed and yelled at the prospect of my bedroom light being switched off, put her foot down about my reading habits.
Then I started getting both pocket money and illness: not yer real serious illness, just chickenpox and the measles, but enough to make me bedbound for weeks at a stretch. Despite her earlier strictures, my mother very kindly took the pocket money to bookshops and bought the books I wanted, even though SF/fantasy covers were so gaudy in those days that it embarrassed her to do so. Among the books with those hideous covers were the three 'Perelandra' novels by C.S. Lewis, published by Pan with a sensationalist aspiration, and John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, which is my third transformational novel. In many of the kids' books I'd read it was more or less an axiom that the kids were brighter than the adults; here was an adult novel presenting the same notion and, moreover, depicting some at least of the adults as bigoted sadists. My lifelong detestation of bigotry - my belief that there is nothing that should be hated except irrational hatred - dates from the moment I started reading that book. This attitude was reinforced a few years later by the fourth book on my list, The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett, which I read some years afterwards.
By that time I was buying books myself, and in boggling quantity. The only way I could afford the number of books I bought was through the local Woolworths - by now the family home had shifted to London - where there was always a bin of paperback remainders. From that bin I got things like Hothouse, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and a few others by him, the two 'Robert Randall' (Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett) books... oh, untold treasures. Most notably, I got copies of the magazines New Worlds (edited by Michael Moorcock) and Science Fantasy (later Impulse, later SF Impulse, mainly edited by Kyril Bonfiglioli); in these I read, inter alia, Moorcock's Behold the Man, which ought to be on my list except I'm restricted to ten, and Keith Roberts' amazing Pavane, which is the fifth book that altered the course of my life. Here was a novel that could be fantasy or could be SF, but was brilliant either way; not only did it make me a part of its imagined world, not only did it tell me that novels could be made up of connected bits rather than a straightforward beginning-to-end narrative (I've since discovered all the hordes of other ways novels can be written, but this was astonishing to me at the time), it informed me of this delicious middle ground between fantasy and SF - a middle ground I've spent most of time writing in - and thus altered my view of the two related genres. Henceforward it was obvious to me - still is - that SF was merely a form of fantasy. It is astonishing that it took me so long to realise it.
My early twenties were turbulent. I accidentally fathered a daughter, but for complex reasons was barred by her mother from ever seeing her (the daughter has since established contact with me, and is much loved, but her mother still refuses to see her). As all this was going on, I was getting rapidly promoted. I'd started in publishing as an editorial assistant; suddenly I was an editorial director. I was writing extremely bad fantasy/SF stories that were getting rejection letters from the folk at the latest incarnations of New Worlds - the last paperback version and the magazine version that W.H. Smiths banned - and Impulse. I got nice, encouraging rejection letters from Mike Moorcock. I got nice, encouraging rejection letters from Jim Sallis. I think I got a nice, encouraging rejection letter from John Sladek, although perhaps I shouldn't have: I don't think he was ever officially on the editorial staff. I got a pretty shitty, totally discouraging rejection letter from Charles Platt. The last was enough to make me give up the prospect of writing for a while - the best part of ten years, in fact.
But I was editing books, and most assuredly I was reading them - usually on the long bus journeys to and from work. John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, the sixth book on my list, was one; it'd stand as my favourite sf novel of all time had I not later read John's The Sheep Look Up - which, despite its status as favourite, I do not count on this list because it didn't change my worldview the way that Stand on Zanzibar did; by then I knew what the literature of the fantastic was capable of. I also read, on those long bus journeys, virtually everything by Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Walter Scott, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Anthony Hope and a good many very obscure 19th-century novelists - but that is by the by. I also read Christopher Priest's A Dream of Wessex around this time; that knocked me out too.
And eventually I returned to writing, more by force of circumstance than by design: I had been headhunted in the late 1970s by the Exeter firm of Webb & Bower and had stupidly accepted their flattering offer to start my own editorial list under their aegis, only to be disillusioned so rapidly by the actuality that within eight months they'd made me redundant. (Not long after I'd been so summarily booted out, the same company behaved even more appallingly to the highly talented editor Nick Law.) There I was, stuck in Exeter, 200 miles from London, with a small child - my second daughter - and a wife to support, and no immediate source of money. I could write or I could freelance-edit, and I ended up doing both - as I still do.
Earlier I'd co-edited a book with Colin Wilson, and Colin was now exceedingly kind to me. (I could put several of his books on this list, such as The Philosopher's Stone and Ritual in the Dark, which latter I had sinfully, sinfully read in my pre-teens.) He not only recommended me to one of his publishers, Ashgrove Press, which led to a contract for my own book A Directory of Discarded Ideas; he not only agreed to co-edit with me The Directory of Possibilities; he also insisted that between the two of us we should write most of the latter. (In the end he wrote about half and I wrote a bit more than a quarter, with other contributors doing the rest.) In the process, he taught me how to write. I noticed that Colin's stuff was a lot better than my own, and eventually realised this was because he talked at the page, by contrast with my own stiffly self-conscious habit of writing at it. As soon as I cottoned on to this, I was a writer, and I've averaged several books a year ever since.
One of those was my Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters, for whose first edition I was sent across from the UK to spend six weeks or so on the Disney lot in Burbank, California. Those were great weeks... during the working week, that is. At weekends I had very little to do except drink cheap beer, eat the meals I bought from the Korean takeaway a couple of hundred yards up the road, and watch the appalling selection of TV channels supplied to me in my cheapo motel - or read books. These books I bought secondhand or remaindered by the fistful at a place called Book Palace (I think) in Burbank's Golden Mall (the Golden Mall was even worse than the name might suggest). I didn't care if those books were any good: cheapness was all, as I was on a tight budget. By statistical chance, some of them were pretty good, but was one of them was more than that: theoretically a children's book, Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl, the seventh on my list of greats, taught me that not only was the boundary between fantasy and SF illusory - I knew that already - but that the boundary between adult and children's imaginative literature was likewise. It's a book I've reread several times since, most recently this year; it gets better every time. I could spend a page explaining why or you could go out and buy a copy; the latter's simpler, so I suggest you do it.
OK, by now I was a writer, and some of what I was writing was speculative fiction, but I still wasn't really a fantasy writer, even though I had a few novels under my belt (some with Dave Langford, yet another very dear friend). It took Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale to effect this final transformation. This is a great novel from page one, but about two-thirds of the way through Helprin sort of says (or, at least, he said to me), "Fantasy is not just something to be written and read but something to revel in. There is nothing that fantasy cannot do." And he kicks off the shackles of conventional storytelling - a hitherto fairly mimetic tale lifts off in a way that is almost impossible to describe. This was the most intensely liberating experience I have ever gained from a book, which is why Winter's Tale is eighth on my list. It gave me the sure and certain knowledge that, in any fantasy I myself wrote, I could do exactly what I liked: I could use the medium to explore whatever I wanted, from my wildest imaginings to my most central preoccupations, whether those be moral, emotional or intellectual. It was a poor commercial decision to follow this path - more than one publisher has patiently explained to me that I'd be a far richer man if I'd be content with writing unimaginative pap and calling it fantasy - but I regret it not one whit. I can regard my own fantasy writing with respect, which was something I couldn't do before.
The first expression of this new insight of mine was my novel The World, some chapters of which I in fact wrote before I realised they were essential parts of the novel. The experience of writing this book (the ninth on my list, and unashamedly so) was then unique to me. Let me qualify that sentence. Rather than writing it I just sat there and watched it happen, watched it grow. It was the most creatively exciting experience of my life... with the possible exception of assisting at the birth of my second daughter. I still reread The World from time to time, and am amazed that it could have been born from this rather ramshackle brain of mine. And I'm delighted that the book has slowly gained at least a cult following over the years - any more than a cult following was impossible from the outset, because the editor who'd commissioned it didn't like it much and so published it in December, refused to submit it for an award whose judges (I later learnt) attempted to call the book in, did not persuade her rights department to make any effort to sell it to the USA, etc. It's a special book to me, and will always remain so.
As for a tenth on the list? Well, here I encounter yet more difficulties. The Art of Chesley Bonestell by Ron Miller and Frederick C. Durant III, although it's nonfiction, could qualify. I'm highly impressed by two forthcoming fantasy/SF novels I've read: The Villages by Dave Hutchinson and Dreams of the Compass Rose by Vera Nazarian. Richard Paul Russo's Ship of Fools should rate high on anyone's scale. But I guess my vote has to go to Sheri S. Tepper's Raising the Stones. It is certainly an sf novel, yet it unabashedly addresses many of the preoccupations of fantasy, and so what it did for me was rehabilitate me to the notion that SF could do what fantasy could. That's another lesson I am heartfeltly glad to have learnt.
So there's my ten.
Tomorrow the list may be different.
visit Paul's website
(alias: John Grant)
Buy books at:
tZ top 10 lists- critical listings by writers and authors of favourite SF books
tZ word works- reviews of new SF, media-related titles and art-books
tZ books list- comprehensive info about new science fiction and fantasy, plus nonfiction
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