Science fiction in "501 Must Read Books"

TalkScience Fiction Fans

Join LibraryThing to post.

Science fiction in "501 Must Read Books"

This topic is currently marked as "dormant"—the last message is more than 90 days old. You can revive it by posting a reply.

Oct 21, 2015, 3:03pm

I'm a big fan of the 501 Must-Read Books list, and even created a group here on LT devoted to it. But every time I look over its sci-fi section, I feel some hesitation. This seems to mostly be a compilation of old masters rather than true "must reads" before I die. What books would you say I should spare myself bothering with, versus which should I definitely read?

PS - there's an unwritten rule I've detected in the list as a whole, that no author may have more than one work listed (per genre).

352. "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", Douglas Adams
353. "Hothouse," Brian Aldiss
354. "Brain Wave," Poul Anderson
355. "I, Robot," Isaac Asimov
356. "The Handmaid's Tale," Margaret Atwood
357. "The Crystal World," J.G. Ballard
358. "The Demolished Man," Alfred Bester (first Hugo winner)
359. "Who Goes There," John W. Campbell (basis for "The Thing")
360. "The Invention of Morel," Adolfo Bioy Casares
361. "Planet of the Apes," Pierre Boulle
362. "The Martian Chronicles," Ray Bradbury
363. "The Sheep Look Up," John Brunner
364. "A Clockwork Orange,"
365. "Erewhon," Samuel Butler
366. "Cosmicomics," Italo Calvino
367. "2001: A Space Odyssey," Arthur C. Clarke
368. "A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder," James De Mille
369. "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch," Philip K. Dick
370. "To Your Scattered Bodies Go," Philip Jose Farmer
371. "Neuromancer," William Gibson
372. "Stranger in a Strange Land," Robert A. Heinlein
373. "Dune," Frank Herbert
374. "Brave New World," Aldous Huxley
375. "Two Planets," Kurd Lasswitz
376. "Left Hand of Darkness," Ursula K. LeGuin
377. "Solaris," Stanislaw Lem
378. "Shikasta," Doris Lessing
379. "Stepford Wives," Ira Levin
380. "Out of the Silent Planet," C.S. Lewis
381. "I Am Legend," Richard Matheson
382. "Dwellers in the Mirage," Abraham Merritt
383. "A Canticle for Leibowitz," Walter Miller
384. "Ringworld," Larry Niven
385. "Time Traders," Andre Norton
386. "Nineteen Eighty-Four," George Orwell
387. "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket," Edgar Allan Poe
388. "The Inverted World," Christopher Priest
389. "The Green Child," Herbert Read
390. "The Laxian Key," Robert Sheckley (short story)
391. "City," Clifford D. Simak
392. "Donovan's Brain," Curt Siodmak
393. "Lest Darkness Fall," L. Sprague De Camp
394. "Last and First Men," Olaf Stapledon
395. "More than Human," Theodore Sturgeon
396. "Slan," A.E. Van Vogt
397. "A Journey to the Centre of the Earth," Jules Verne
398. "Slaughterhouse-Five," Kurt Vonnegut
399. "The Island of Dr Moreau," H.G. Wells
400. "Islandia," Austin Tappan Wright
401. "The Day of the Triffids," John Wyndham

Oct 21, 2015, 4:49pm

Personally my taste runs to the more contemporary, so given there's virtually nothing under 40 years old, not much there for me.

Edited: Oct 26, 2015, 2:15pm

352. Quite puzzled by the hype around that one, it didn't really strike me as imperishable material but you'll probably want to read it anyway, as a conversation-fodder and a very common reference even beyond regular SF readers.

355. Skip unless you've really read none of Asimov's robots books until now.
356. Read.

358. Skip. I can see why it may have been major, but as one coming later I don't feel I would have missed much if I hadn't read it.

360. Read if you're a fan of one or some of the many items this one has spawned more or less directly.
361. Skip. Meh. You probably won't miss much if you've already seen one of the more faithful film adaptations.
362. Read.

364. I've been giving that one a berth as I suspect it's probably not for me, just as some forms of horror or thrillers aren't. Might be unfair or excessive, who knows.

367. Read.

370. Skip.
371. Read.

373. Read.
374. Read.

376. A personal favorite, can probably be swapped for The Dispossessed if you're not sure you will appreciate (not-so-)alien gender politics.

379. If you've already seen a good film adaptation I'd skip or swap for This Perfect Day.
380. Read.
381. Read.

383. Read.
384. I'd say skip. Like a rather broad swath of Golden Age stuff it didn't age so well IMHO.
385. Skip. It still reads better than a lot of books from the time but not unforgettable.
386. Read.

391. Read.

395. Read.
396. Skip or substitute. Has problems. For a similar protagonist Joan D. Vinge's Catspaw is probably more rounded out. Would probably swap in the Isher duology instead if same author is to be conserved.
397. Can't really imagine NOT having read this or 20.000 Leagues Under the Sea and quite a few other Verne books growing up, but hey, I suppose that may vary depending on one's place of birth and circumstances.

399. Read.

401. Read.

Oct 21, 2015, 6:44pm

I just found out that there are five novels built around the K-PAX concept. The first one is just titled K-PAX. I love the movie version that stars Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, so I just sent for used copies of the first 4. Looking forward to reading them.

Oct 21, 2015, 6:46pm

As with all these lists, what is the point? Once you determine the point, then you can decide how seriously to take it.

Are they must reads to gain a sense of the history of SF? Must reads to discuss with other fans? Must reads on their own aesthetic merits?

Frankly, this list strikes me as not really adequate to any of those three.

Skimping on recent titles skimps on recent history and "A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder" is probably there only for the Canadian contingent since I've mostly seen it in the "see, we wrote early sf in Canada" context. (And there's no Lovecraft. Love him or hate him, Lovecraft is a big influence on certain modern sf.)

The Sheckley title seems strangely obscure given his more famous stuff and, again, the lack of recent stuff is going to inhibit conversation.

As for aesthetics, that is a web of contention I'm not going to get caught in.

Edited: Oct 22, 2015, 11:24am

362. The Martian Chronicles - I just finished a read of this one, and I can't call it "must read before you die" caliber. It hasn't aged well, but it was never really a futurist narrative. The prose is elegant, and it contains some striking fables. But I'd propose the Leigh Brackett collection Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories over Bradbury's Chronicles. It gathers Brackett's best sword and planet stories -- a subgenre not represented on this list, and one where Brackett is superior to its pioneer Edgar Rice Burroughs.

370. To Your Scattered Bodies Go - Good grief, why? This was a book that totally failed to impress me, other than the weirdness of its initial conceit. And it isn't really a stand-alone work, serving more as the entry to a series.

371. Neuromancer - Is this 1984 novel the most recent sf in the 2006 book list? I think maybe. There was a lot of good stuff written in those 22 years.

372. Stranger in a Strange Land - Should be read in its shorter original edition, not the bloated posthumously de-edited version.

387. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket - Well I like it, but it will be long "for what it is" in the eyes of readers less dedicated to that particular vein of weirdness. It certainly wouldn't top a list of "must reads" by Poe. I'd say, replace this one with Poe's successor Lovecraft: Either At the Mountains of Madness or The Shadow Out of Time for sf-canonical purposes.

Edited: Oct 22, 2015, 10:24am

It seems most people agree with my doubtful attitude concerning this portion of the 501 list. It's this subset that I'm still looking for opinions on:

354. "Brain Wave," Poul Anderson
357. "The Crystal World," J.G. Ballard
359. "Who Goes There," John W. Campbell (basis for "The Thing")
360. "The Invention of Morel," Adolfo Bioy Casares
369. "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch," Philip K. Dick
375. "Two Planets," Kurd Lasswitz
382. "Dwellers in the Mirage," Abraham Merritt
388. "The Inverted World," Christopher Priest
389. "The Green Child," Herbert Read
391. "City," Clifford D. Simak
392. "Donovan's Brain," Curt Siodmak
393. "Lest Darkness Fall," L. Sprague De Camp
394. "Last and First Men," Olaf Stapledon
395. "More than Human," Theodore Sturgeon

Oct 22, 2015, 10:47am

I haven't had enough caffeine (at all), but I'll briefly say yes to the following:

357, 359, 369, 391 (maybe), 393, and 395.

I'm not saying no to any of these (although I'd rather stab my eyes than read 360, and I never heard of a couple of them).

I'm biased on PKD, but I still believe that's a very worthy work, even if I may be wearing blinders. I don't know that Campbell's work is interesting to read so much as it is rather like a piece of a puzzle. You ought to read it, just because you otherwise have a hole in your worldview of SF that needs to be filled. Even the edge pieces are important in a jigsaw puzzle.

Oct 22, 2015, 10:53am

I don't think Inverted World belongs with Priest's best work. I'd suggest The prestige or perhaps A dream of Wessex instead.

Edited: Oct 22, 2015, 11:22am

359. "Who Goes There" - Read it recently. I'd say yes.

369. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch - A good book, and important to me, but not Dick's best. I'd recommend VALIS or UBIK over it.

395. More than Human - As a Sturgeon fan, I'm embarrassed not to have read this one. I've liked other novels by him well enough to include them, and this one has them beat out by popularity.

Edited: Oct 23, 2015, 7:48pm

Well, there are entries for the author of 360 and 389 in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia though I didn't recognize the names.

They may have merits on their own, but I'm dubious they have been influential on the development of the genre. So, again, it depends on what you want the list to do.

Oct 22, 2015, 11:39pm

The Crystal World by Ballard has stuck in my mind from a reading years ago. Not sure why; as I remember, it's one of his disasters-changing-the-world stories. Somehow the surrealism of the crystalization was vivid & stuck with me.

I'm fond of Abraham Merritt's pulp fiction. If you like that colorful genre, you might like him. I prefer The Moon Pool and The Face in the Abyss to the title on this list. Wonderful science-fantasy tone pictures, but the plots tend towards the "adventurer saved by love of native girl" type. Or if you like fantasy, his Burn Witch Burn is a classic that holds up pretty well vs. the contemporary supernatural fiction series.

I remember City as being pretty good (it's hard to say on many of these, I read them so long ago).

The Stapledon falls in the category of things to read for a better grasp of SF history, not itself.

Oct 24, 2015, 7:05am

>4 MaureenRoy: I loved the film and the first book. I went on to read the second and third books and they did nothing but damage the story in my opinion. I was very disappointed but managed to put the second and third books out of my mind and continue to enjoy the magic of the first book and the film.

Oct 25, 2015, 4:11pm

7> The Dick is good, but I would also/instead read Martian Time-Slip and/or The Man in the High Castle.
City is fun, a collection of related stories, but hardly a must read. I prefer Way Station.
I tried re-reading More than Human earlier this year and tossed it into the giveaway pile after twenty pages.

Oct 26, 2015, 9:08am

>14 Jim53:

Yeah, Man in the High Castle is probably the right choice for canon and literary reference. (I saw the amazon series TV trailer yesterday, and I'm certainly interested!)

Edited: Oct 26, 2015, 4:58pm

I have to say I'm ambivalent about 393. It is one of his better works, but is it that good? No Avram Davidson, I note - same era, much better author.

Heck, if you're including Merritt, why not Clark Ashton Smith instead? I wonder if the list is really only for novels; authors better known for short stories aren't being included.

Oct 27, 2015, 2:06pm

Martian Chronicles and Cosmicomics are listed and probably others. Those just popped out immediately to me

Nov 2, 2015, 6:07pm

Canon making has fallen on hard times. Reading the comments, I'd say that >5 RandyStafford: is right in saying that you have to determine the criteria for inclusion. Some of the most famous books in SF history are already judged unworthy, or at least unnecessary in the comments so far. Is that because SF is a sub-literary genre with no permanent classics? Maybe, maybe not. I can go to Amazon and find bad reviews for every world famous literary work ever written. Not too long ago I saw a review of Doestoevsky's Notes from Underground which warned prospective readers that there were no nice characters in it. The truth is that everyone is entitled to their honest opinion, but not all opinions, honest or not, are equally worthwhile. Literary criticism isn't like addition and subtraction with definite answers (given your base), but opinions need to be defended with rational arguments to be worth taking seriously.

Obviously, there's still some hunger for a list of classics, or this 501 thread wouldn't have come up. I don't particularly like all of the lists choices, but I think the effort is still worth making.

Nov 3, 2015, 7:45am

>18 lansingsexton:, I appreciate that. The origin of the 501 list is purposely veiled in mystery, but on the whole I have a high degree of respect for its other categories. But where they run the gamut from certified classics to modern bestsellers, the Sci-Fi selection above seems to be stuck in one gear. I've the impression the list maker enlisted someone else's help, emphasizing "must read" and that person decided to show off their chops by really going back to the origins of sci-fi, looking for titles that were original influences for the genre at its roots. If I read this list, would I have a better view into "where it all began" that might inform my viewing/reading of more modern work? Maybe. I'm not convinced it will be high on entertainment itself, though.

Nov 3, 2015, 9:51am

I would tend to take issue with an attempt to define sf in terms of its genealogy anyhow. It is a genre that ages poorly (many individual works notwithstanding), and one that has found wider audiences--both more sophisticated and more naive--with the passing of time.

Nov 3, 2015, 4:05pm

1> Firstly, if you're going to include one Arhtur C. Clarke book, it should be Childhood's End

Secondly, the books that shouldn't be on any good list:

The Martian Chronicles
To Your Scattered Bodies Go
Last and First Men
The Day of the Triffids

Just my personal view, and I've only mentioned books I'm familiar with.

Books that should be on the list but aren't? You could add Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and maybe Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

Nov 3, 2015, 4:14pm

Just reading through the list again...Doris Lessing??

Nov 3, 2015, 4:37pm

>21 EnsignRamsey:

Everyone is entitled to an opinion - you can say they do not belong on your good lists - you cannot say that they do not belong on any good list; I would strongly disagree about all 4 for my good list.

Ready Player One is fine; I want to see it after 10 years though or even 20 -- I cannot see it aging well.

Edited: Nov 4, 2015, 1:02am

Personally, did not like Ready Player One. More than did not like. And To Their Scattered Bodies Go is one of my all-time favorites. No accounting for taste, I guess.

As for that list, I like many of them, but my top preferences would be :

361. "Planet of the Apes," Pierre Boulle

363. "The Sheep Look Up," John Brunner

370. "To Your Scattered Bodies Go," Philip Jose Farmer

372. "Stranger in a Strange Land," Robert A. Heinlein
373. "Dune," Frank Herbert

383. "A Canticle for Leibowitz," Walter Miller
384. "Ringworld," Larry Niven

393. "Lest Darkness Fall," L. Sprague De Camp

396. "Slan," A.E. Van Vogt
397. "A Journey to the Centre of the Earth," Jules Verne
398. "Slaughterhouse-Five," Kurt Vonnegut

401. "The Day of the Triffids," John Wyndham

I am decidedly not a fan of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And I would discourage Kevin Anderson's sequel to Slan. It is abominable. YMMV

Nov 4, 2015, 3:26am

It's a bit worrying when you've been reading sf for 40+ years, and there are allegedly classics you've never heard of... Abraham Merritt? Adolfo Bioy Casares? Herbert Read? James De Mille? Austin Tappan Wright? It's a strange definition of "must read" that goes cherrypicking obscure novels.

As for the remainder... a handful of seminal works (which does not mean they're necessarily any good), a novel better known as the film on which it was based, some random choices from the oeuvres of the genre's best-known historical names... and only four women writers?

Edited: Nov 4, 2015, 7:40am

>25 iansales: And if Ian's never heard of them, then that's really plumbing the depths of the obscure! (I only mean that in a good way, of course.)

Nov 4, 2015, 12:36pm

Interesting. I definitely have always thought of Islandia as classic and well-known.

Nov 4, 2015, 12:53pm

>27 ChrisRiesbeck: Possibly a US thing?

Nov 4, 2015, 1:57pm

The Invention of Morel & The Green Child are both good books, but certainly not "must read" as sf - interesting footnotes to modern lit tho. De Mille hasn't really aged that well. I too would have thought Islandia was well-known and fascinating, if not "must read" - sort of the Moby Dick of 1970s speculative fiction (and still worth struggling through.) But . . . but . . . but A. Merritt was very popular and I like a lot of his work: Ship of Ishtar, The Face in the Abyss, etc - can't really have missed him for 40 years (maybe "Abraham" fooled you?)

these lists always entertain

Edited: Nov 4, 2015, 3:04pm

>27 ChrisRiesbeck:, >29 bookstopshere:, on the other hand Islandia has been out of print a good while and I've had trouble getting a copy (looks interesting), which would be unusual for "classic and well-known".

Nov 4, 2015, 5:08pm

Herbert Read is mainly remembered as a leading British art critic. The Green Child is his only novel. It's a fantasy, generally highly regarded ever since its publication in 1935. Read, Huxley, Vonnegut, Calvino, Lem, Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Anthony Burgess and Lessing are all mainstream writers who dipped into SF/Fantasy for their own reasons. Lessing wrote five SF novels, which didn't do her sales or reputation much good, but she did still win the Nobel prize. Adolfo Bioy Casares was an Argentinian writer. Jorge Luis Borges called The Invention of Morel a perfect book. Islandia is a once famous postumously published utopian novel. A. Meritt was a very popular fantasy writer from the 'teens through the 30s. He's in the science Fiition Hall of Fame. {The Moon Pool, Dwellers in the Mirage and The Face in the Abyss are some of his better known titles.

I've never heard of James De Mille either.

We already have recent threads suggesting that only some 21st century SF books are readable because everything else is too backwards culturally or socially to be bearable. I still think The Time Machine is an SF masterpiece. Generally speaking, the newer something is the less sure you can be that it's a classic. In the 501 list, the Bradbury, the Miller, the Simak and the Sturgeon certainly strike me as classic SF. The Dick and Bester books are the wrong ones.

Ira Levin, Pierre Boulle and Curt Siodmak belong on lists of popular writers whose books were filmed. Their presence here is ridiculous and makes the whole enterprise suspect.

Nov 5, 2015, 7:00am

Ira Levin and Pierre Boulle are much better writers than several on the list.

Nov 5, 2015, 7:43am

>31 lansingsexton:, According to the list's description, James de Mille published A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder in 1888. Other than outlining the plot, it doesn't say much else that's informative. Wikipedia tells me he was Canadian. I was able to get this one as a free ebook since it's well beyond copyright now.

Edited: Nov 7, 2015, 4:35pm

Planet of the Apes: the book was better than the movie. That may be setting the bar a trifle low.
Admittedly, I haven't read it in a long time.

Join to post