Penguin books has long been synonymous with the classics. Just as one example, S. T. Joshi cited the Penguin classic edition of Lovecraft’s work as marking the pulp author’s ultimate canonization. But that was a long time ago– way back in 1999. I’m afraid, however, that Penguin is clearly losing their touch. Boing Boing has the story:
Last October, Penguin released its Galaxy boxed set, a $133 set of six hardcover reprints of some of science fiction’s most canonical titles: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin; Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein; 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke; Dune by Frank Herbert; The Once and Future King by TH White; and Neuromancer, by William Gibson.
The series is curated and introduced by Neil Gaiman, whose essay on the charm and value of science fiction appears at the start of each of the handsome volumes….
It’s a gorgeous, lush package, the kind of thing that looks great on a shelf and feels wonderful in your hand — well made editions of brilliant books, introduced with grace and wit. Really, what’s not to like?
What’s not to like? I’m glad you asked!
What an absolutely awful set of books to be pedaling as canonical. Not that I am in any way surprised to see the so-called “Big Three” of science fiction in there. If you’re going to include a Heinlein, I don’t know why you wouldn’t include Starship Troopers, easily his most influential work. And while 2001 is undoubtedly among the more iconic films out there, the book series spun off from it is decidedly underwhelming. If you were going to include just one by Clarke, I would put forward Childhood’s End as his signature story.
And speaking of the “Big Three”, did something happen to cause Asimov to be read out of the club at some point…? Regardless, having some completely random fantasy novel here in place of Foundation Trilogy is completely off the wall. Granted, I think science fiction was pretty well all downhill following its divorce from fantasy, heroism, and romance at the hands of guys like John Campbell. But if you’re the sort of person that accepts Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke as being the face of science fiction… you wouldn’t see it that way at all. The selection therefore comes off as weirdly incoherent, which I guess is par for the course for people that write for Dr. Who these days.
The choice of Gibson is equally baffling. I mean, given the number of people mindlessly repeating the factoid that Mary Shelly somehow invented science fiction, it’s rather galling to have something from the eighties here. Gibson is great, but in terms of raw canonization, he is nowhere near the level guys like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Time Machine would both be far better suited to take his place. (And no, it’s not easy settling on just one representative work from authors as prolific as Verne and Wells.)
So what books would I recommend for someone looking for the real science fiction canon…? Oh, that’s easy:
That is a great deal of fiction from the 1930’s there, but it’s a fact that that was when the really good stuff was being written– all the more so when you consider that H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard wrote science fiction as well.
And that is the biggest problem with lists like the one that Neil Gaiman and Penguin have put together. Looking at them, you just wouldn’t have any idea that this period was an especially productive one in the history of science fiction. You wouldn’t get any sense at all of the books that science fiction fans were most inspired by up through the seventies. And you would never get the slightest hint of the fact that some of the best stuff in the field was produced in the pulp era. Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein didn’t just come out of nowhere, after all. They didn’t invent science fiction. They were fans of it before they made their careers. And the stuff they were inspired by was actually pretty good.
A genuine attempt to convey the depth and breadth of science fiction canon would at the very least make some kind of nod to these works. But they’re incapable of doing it.