Recently, okay just a couple of days ago, our esteemed publisher here at Amazing Stories, Steve Davidson, as a prelude to attending his first convention (Boskone) as The Man, asked his staff for some input.
“I would greatly appreciate it if each of you would take a few minutes to compile a list of what you consider to be the:most influential; most abiding; most interesting; most seminal; most important; most well-written; most historically critical…works in the SF, fantasy and horror genres.”
At first blush, it wasn’t entirely clear to me whether Steve meant the writers, or only their works (and no I didn’t ask for clarification). However, I liked the impromptu symposium as it gave me an idea for my column this week. After reading the email I immediately made a stab at coming up with my list.
Here are my thoughts and conclusions: for most influential…Robert A. Heinlein (any works by) [see I managed to cover both the writer and his works]; for most abiding…Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; for most interesting…The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester; for most seminal…1984, by George Orwell; for most important…Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein; for most well-written…The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkein; and for most historically critical…In Search of Wonder, by Damon Knight.
Here’s my reasoning, such as it is, for my choices.
For my generation, which includes those born directly after WWII, Heinlein was readily available at the school library, and at the public library. His juveniles were masterpieces that opened up the stars, mathematics, and engineering to several generations of young minds. His influence is undeniable. Joe Majors, editor of Alexiad, has done a commanding treatment of all these juveniles in his Advent publication, Heinlein’s Children (which see).
My selection of Fahrenheit 451 was made logically, not just from sentiment. I scanned my list of all the Hugo award winners, and 451 stood out. While the list contains many fine tales of wonder, this one by Bradbury stands alone as clearly the most abiding, memorable, and still as compelling today as it was when it was originally written.
Many readers might be critical of my choice for most interesting, suggesting that their favorite is by far the most interesting of all such tales. But in Tiger, Tiger (the British true first edition title) Bester brought everything from all the classic themes of science fiction together, successfully, in one mélange creating an instant classic of science fiction literature. In the pages of Tiger we find the hero is a vile villain, his face mysteriously covered by a tattoo that reveals his true inner character. His journey of implacable revenge is an epic tour de force taking him from an encounter with a pathetic telepath on Mars to the heights of one of the most intricate, and highly believable civilizations ever imagined. Did I mention? There are spies, chases, weapons of mass destruction, and teleportation as commonplace elements. I won’t spoil the ending, but it works, which is more than most writers accomplish with lesser themes.
The most seminal book of the last century was 1984. It frightened us all with the distinct possibility that this was in fact the immediate future waiting for all of us after the coming Atomic Wars. The totalitarian state of Big Brother still resonates and will continue to do so for generations to come. Even today we have failed to learn the lessons taught to us by Orwell, as waterboarding is a commonplace method of torture for the victims of the United Totalitarian States of America.
My reasoning for selecting Starship Troopers was very simple. When this book first appeared it was like a jolt of electricity running through not only fandom but through Heinlein’s peers. This was a wake-up call of the first order that science fiction had finally, at long last, become mainstream Literature. (Yes, Literature, with a capital “L” just as critic James Blish defined it in his seminal works, The Issue at Hand and Other Issues at Hand, as by William Atheling, Jr. (both Advent titles). In the Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies, as conducted by Theodore Cogswell (also an Advent title), this in-group fanzine of and by the science fiction writers of that day, the discussion of Starship was off the rails. The appearance of this title made everyone take a second, and third, glance. Even today, as this country is consumed by one war after another, militarism as the only path to citizenship still has its adherents.
For most well-written, I selected LOTR because…well…Tolkein did everything. He created a new language. He made detailed maps. He wrote songs, and poems for his characters to sing and further engage the reader. The depth and details of his imagined universe stagger the ability of most average writers, then as now.
In Search of Wonder as the finest work of criticism also speaks for itself. Blish was a fine critic, but he was one for the broad strokes, as he attempted to define this genre in terms of the world at large. On the other hand, Damon Knight was a technician of the first-weight. Like a surgeon with a scalpel, he eviscerated the needy and wanting, condemned the worthless and trashy, and praised the rare and few. And along the way, he discussed in great detail his methods, while doing what only the rarest and best critic is able to do, provide constructive criticism.
So, having made my list, I was about to email it off, but a nagging recollection caught me, preventing this from happening. I’ve found that the most important issue in fandom is context. While working on my book, The Anthem Series, I had already come across one of the most important symposiums on this topic, one from an older generation, those writers who had come up in the ranks before WWII. This provided the much-needed context for both my remarks and those presented back in 1949.
August Derleth while editing the Winter 1949 issue (the Science Fiction issue) of his Arkham Sampler for his publishing imprint asked a similar question of his generation in his article “A Basic Science Fiction Library: A Symposium.” Two questions were asked of six (although there were twelve responses) writers: (1) What books are essential to a library of science fiction? (2) Why?
The following seventeen titles were deemed essential: Seven Famous Novels, by H.G. Wells. Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. The Short Stories of H.G. Wells. Adventures in Time and Space, edited by R.J. Healy and J.F. McComas. Slan, by A.E. van Vogt. The World Below, by S. Fowler Wright. Strange Ports of Call, edited by August Derleth. To Walk the Night, by William Sloane. The Lost World, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sirius, by Olaf Stapledon. Gladiator, by Philip Wylie. Before the Dawn, by John Taine. Who Goes There? by John Campbell, Jr. The Best of Science Fiction, edited by Groff Conklin. Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon. Out of the Silence, by Earle Cox.
The selection represents the bias of a generation, primarily influenced by Olaf Stapledon, and the first-person narrative common in the long-winded British literature of the day, wherein essays rather than fiction was emphasized. Today many of these selections would be avoided, while others (notably Slan) would still list high on any list.
The first response was by Forrest J. Ackerman. In which Ackerman admits that some on his list he has never read. Overall, Ackerman gives the best answer to the second question. The next answer was by Everett Bleiler. Bleiler did not justify each of his selections or give any sound reasons for his pick, except to mention that he stretched it to include several British satires. The third response was by Dr. David H. Keller. Keller sententiously declared that there was nothing new in this type of literature, quickly emphasizing several old classics. To begin his list he assumed that most readers are poor, and lack both funds and the discrimination to create their own library, but then he makes his own suggestions. He does not answer the second question; he merely states his selection as gospel, with a brief description of the story line, like an advertising blurb. The fourth response was by writer and book reviewer, Sam Merwin, Jr. Merwin selected the same basic titles, but without any fanfare of description. His was the shortest essay. The fifth was by P. Schuyler Miller. Miller came the closest to answering both questions with brevity and alacrity. His list contains brief reasons for each selection rather than a description. The sixth was by superfan Sam Moskowitz. Moskowitz was next in brevity and succinctly answered the questions. He does step outside the area of concern by lamenting what he considers the fatal flaw of such questions (for his day), that so little good science fiction has made it from the magazine format into book publication. The seventh was by Lewis Padgett (most likely just Kuttner). Padgett took a different approach to his selection. He described the difference between fantasy and science fiction, as being that in the latter a known method is used to arrive at an unknown solution, while in fantasy this is reversed. On this basis he made his selection without further fanfare. After his short list, Padgett continued with his amusing answer, which by far was the best reading, and best answer of all. The eighth response was by Paul Lawrence Payne. Payne provided a list with short reasons attached. Critic and fan historian, A. Langley Searles, provided the ninth response. Searles declared that his selection was easy to make because there is so little good science fiction to choose from. No other reasons were given with his selection. The reader must thus take his list as gospel. The tenth was by Theodore Sturgeon. Sturgeon took an intellectual approach with his selections, after almost beginning with an amusing one. Not wanting to be tempted by creating a wish list, he applied himself to the task, delivering what he thought was expected. One wonders what list he might have created had he pursued the more amusing approach. His list contained the most obscure titles, mostly intellectual and not really fiction or entertaining. Not a list that recommends itself. The eleventh response was by A.E. van Vogt. Van Vogt divided his list with a historical and modern approach. It is interesting, but not as entertaining as Padgett. The last response was by Donald Wandrei. Wandrei also succumbed to the “there are no titles of merit” approach. He ended up with a list of intellectual titles, including The Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein, which as far as this reader can conclude is not science fiction.
(In order to read the Arkham Sampler article in full (which is highly recommended) the reader will have to find a copy of this very rare and obscure digest.)
However, it’s not difficult to make a couple of sage conclusions. Back then, as now, these lists are highly subjective. Arriving at a consensus is not only difficult but clearly would have dubious merit, as with the results in the Arkham Sampler, wherein the writers who did respond seem to have all clearly missed the mark completely.
I remember reading about another such symposium (can’t remember when or where right now), but among the books recommended as “must have” on a desert island, there was also the mention of having a book of matches. The cynic writing this response thought that the end result would be to use these “must have” books as kindling for a fire in order to survive. So it goes. Every generation has its own list and it is as different from the next generation as can only inconceivably be possible. The treasures of one generation are the kindling for the next generation.
Well, once again we have reached the most important part of this column, the fanzine reviews. Hopefully these fanzines won’t become the kindling for some future generation, but one can only wonder….
Drink Tank #365 seems like a good place to begin. February 2014. Bi-weekly at a guess. 41-pages. Edited by James Bacon and Chris Garcia. This is their Ninth Annual issue. Also it seems to be their swan song as Chris tells us that in exactly one year, Drink Tank will cease. So sad, and I was just getting to know this zine. I couldn’t find any TOC in this issue, so no clear credit on the cover art. Although it is signed I wasn’t able to make out the signature. Chris makes a quick segue from his announcement into his first article, one about the TV mini-series Twin Peaks, entitled “Just Outside of Town—Parodies of Twin Peaks.” He continues this theme with “This World, That World, Women & Me,” in which he discusses the female cast. Keeping with this theme is “Twede’s Café at Present Day,” by Tassoula E. Kokkoris, wherein the author enlightens us with more Twin Peaks trivia. This time about the café used as a set. John Klima continues the theme with a look at dead bodies in his “Beautiful Corpses: From Washington to South Korea.” In “Project Red Room—One Ring To Rule Them All,” by Jordan Chambers there is a discussion of the prop Owl Cave ring used. Mike Carroll gives with a Twin Peaks con report with “Damn Fine Con Report.” Chris returns testing his Haiku ability with “The Episodes In Brief—One Haiku Each.” “What did you think about Twin Peaks? An Instant Fanzine” is just that, written as a disconnected group of quotes from letters to the editor. With this ish, I now know more about Twin Peaks than I thought possible. The countdown has begun, only one more year to go….
Alan Stewart’s 1991 FFANZ Trip Report: 26-pages. Edited by Alan Stewart. FFANZ is the “Fan Fund of Australia and New Zealand.” It was established to foster further good relations between Australian and New Zealand SF fans. Modeled on the established fan funds such as TAFF, DUFF and GUFF, it is financed by donations and usually conducts an annual ‘race’ or election to send a fan across the Tasman Sea on a visit. One year the New Zealand delegate visits the Australian Natcon, and the other year an Australian fan visits the New Zealand Natcon.
In 1991 Alan Stewart was elected FFANZ delegate to attend the New Zealand national SF convention, Forrycon, which was held in Wellington. The con was so named because Forry Ackerman was the GoH.
One result of his trip was the publication of this Trip Report, which was sold to raise money for the fund. The printed copies came with a green cardboard front and back cover, were side stapled, and green tape was run up the spine and over the staples. The contents were in black and white, and all photos were ‘scanned’ on a grey tone photocopier to produce black and white images, which were then glued into the master pages.
This is a highly recommended read. It is a nice slice of recent fan history available thanks to Al and Bill Burns.
Science Fiction/San Francisco #149: February 2014. Monthly. 49-pages. Edited by Jean Martin mostly with help from Christopher Erickson and Tom Becker. Cover is “I’ve been getting a little behind,” by Lucy Huntzinger. This is the OO for the Bay Area fan club so it contains a lot of area and club specific stuff. Jean Martin kicks off with his editorial. Robbie Pleasant follows with “Sac Anime Winter Convention.” “Meet Me at (the Edwardian World’s) Fair!” by Diane B. Rooney follows. Chris Erickson gives with several different articles, “Clean Cup, Move Down: The 2013 Mad Hatter Ball,” “2014: A Look Ahead,” and edits the Letters of Comment. Then a large section is devoted to BASFA Meeting 1222-7, the Bay Area Fannish Calendar. The Sac Anime con report and the one on the Edwardian World’s Fair are the best for this ish.
Sporadic #23: January 2014. Bi-monthly. 17-pages. Edited Bill Plott. Cover art by Donald Stewart. Bill Plott is an old-time fan who has resurrected his zine for the Southern Fandom Press Alliance, a group he helped to found. In the first third of his zine Bill covers a lot of ground fast, with such topics as: “Egoboo Pool Results,” “Father Bing, Yes; Sister Ingrid, No” (about Bing Crosby), “Hello, I’m the Doctor” (about TV’s Doctor Who), “Bill’s List, Final New Beers of 2013,” and “Facing Deadlines.” The Mailing Comments are comments on comments made in other zines in prior mailings of the SFPA, thus they are for the most part hard to follow as they lack context. The last third of this zine is mostly devoted to book reviews. Bill’s zine is best when he brings forth fan historical anecdotes.
In 1959 the full-time writing career of former music professor Lloyd Biggle Jr. was going along swimmingly. Stories were appearing in Galaxy, If, Fantastic and other popular digest-size magazines. Then, he made a mistake. He had a story called “A Taste of Fire” published in Amazing Stories. This resulted in a teenager (Bill Plott) in Alabama writing a praising letter to the editor.
Biggle answered the letter with a simple thank you postcard. The lonely fan in Alabama could not be contained when he received mail from a real author in his favorite genre. And despite admonitions to the effect of “I cannot promise regular correspondence,” Biggle found himself unable to shake the kid. Correspondence did follow, often intermittent but occasionally timely.
Here is that correspondence: Lloyd Biggle Letters. Here you will find Bill Plott at his best.
A Trip Report Found in a Plain Manila Envelope is Murray Moore’s Canadian Unity Fan Fund (CUFF) 2001 trip report. Obligatory explanation for the rest of this paragraph. The Canadian Unity Fan Fund is a (very) loosely-organized SF-fandom nonprofit non-organization. The money raised for CUFF and donated to CUFF pays the travel expense and the hotel expense of a. Canadian SF fan attending the year’s Canadian national SF convention, the Canvention. The CUFF delegate after attending the year’s Canvention becomes the CUFF administrator, treasurer, and chief electoral officer, and remains such until replaced by a. successor. The CUFF winner is expected to write and publish a trip report and sell same as a fluid-raiser. 26-pages. Edited by Murray Moore. Another nice fan historical document, this one demonstrating the wit and wisdom of one Murray Moore.
And with that, my readers, we reach the end of another action-packed, cliff-hanging column. Stayed tuned to Amazing Stories for the next astounding weekly episode. If you are interested in reading the full, unedited, unexpurgated column, just follow this link to Twenty Second Century Enterprisesand explore my website, dedicated to all things Rog Phillips, among others.
—Earl Terry Kemp