A List of Books Some Comic Book Writer Grew Up Loving

Friday , 13, January 2017 17 Comments

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:

  1. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
  2. Dwellers in the Mirage by A. Merritt (1932)
  3. C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories (1933-1936)
  4. Stanley Weinbaum’s Planetary Series (1934-1935)
  5. Jack Williamson’s Legion of Space Series (1934-1939)
  6. The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett (1949)

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.

  • This list looks like an attempt to cater to the factions of fandom, or rather the factions Penguin and Gaiman care about. So Stranger is in there for the hippies, Neuromancer for the cyberpunks/goths, etc.

    Clearly mil-SF fans and pulp aficionados are not people whose money they want.

  • Carrington Dixon says:

    Of course, any “attempt to convey the depth and breadth of science fiction canon” would require something like a six-foot shelf rather than six books, however chosen. And even then there would be bitching and moaning about what did and did not make the cut.

  • Nathan says:

    Hmm… on a second thought, this also is a fantasist’s view of science fiction, and not a rocketship jockey’s.

  • anonme says:

    >So what books would I recommend for someone looking for the real science fiction canon…? Oh, that’s easy:

    No E.E. Doc Smith? No Edmund Hamilton?

    Yeah, I know, it’s hard to include everyone, but I would think these guys would warrant a mention as well.

    The wonderful thing is could cover both lists mentioned in this article.

  • Anthony says:

    Honestly, if you’re picking one Heinlein novel, I know it’s not big with us pulp/Castalia guys but “Stranger in a Strange Land” is a pretty good pick.

    “The Once and Future King” is a terrific book, but it’s not sci-fi in any sense of the word. There are many better picks for a sci-fi list.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Six books just isn’t enough to do SF justice, but that’s a heck of a list you have there, Jeffro.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    Neil Gaiman is a lying liar who lied.

    OK he didn’t but if this isn’t an implied endorsement of canon I don’t know what is.

    And it sure as hell is not Gaiman’s canon.

    “C.S. Lewis was the first person to make me want to be a writer.”


    “Tolkien’s words and sentences seemed like natural things, like rock formations or waterfalls, and wanting to write like Tolkien would have been, for me, like wanting to blossom like a cherry tree or climb a tree like a squirrel or rain like a thunderstorm.”


    “I definitely don’t write like Kipling but he was a literary hero as a kid.”

    Note here: You know who was inspired by Kipling?


    “The odd thing is that the finest gift from Lovecraft was less the Cthulhupoid stuff and more some amazing pointers at the things that he was influenced by: one of the Granada paperback reprints, Dagon I think, all of which I read when I was eleven or twelve at my grandmother’s house in Southsea, contained his essay on Supernatural Horror in Literature and it was like being handed a road map for where I should be reading and what I should be looking for.”


    First “eleven or twelve”!!!!
    Second I need to find that Lovecraft essay!!


    also if you are so inclined feel free to search “Neil Gaiman Lord Dunsany”

    Stardust will likely come up but if duckduckgo was being being honest Sandman should have as well.

    Anyway there are a couple other very Christian authors (Mikhail Bulgakov, G. K. Chesterton) who are neither pulp nor appendix N who influenced Gaiman and I could write multiple sentences, MULTIPLE, about nihilist Neil.

    But that is for another time.

    • caleb says:

      I can’t say that I ever truly enjoyed anything of Gaiman’s fiction, other than perhaps American Gods (tho, Guidall’s reading no doubt helped there). Props where they’re due tho, man DID champion quite a few of quality, non mainstream, genre fiction authors of conservative and/or Christian disposition: Lafferty, Cordwainer Smith, Gene Wolfe…

  • icewater says:

    Their choice of that particular Heinlein novel is obviously politically motivated. And it will STILL trigger some of their target audience. If I’m not mistaken, one and only (praise God for that) John Scalzi numbers himself among its haters…

  • The canonical put me off from the get go.

    If one accepts the concept of canon, and if set within limits I can, those limits being set within a period of time, then one can come to a list of canonical works.

    For example Isaac Asimov thought very highly of E. E. van Vogt’s The Dark Destroyer.

    TL;DR: with the passage of time canon expands and changes.

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