Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Little Light Reading

A young colleague asked me to draw up a list of books I liked... he had no idea what he was in for.

Great Books and Shows

I don’t know your level of intellectual involvement, so I’m going from the ground up – no insult intended

Cultural Classics

The Iliad & The Odyssey

Get the translations done by Stanley Lombardo, he’s done them as performance pieces and the language is very modern and non-stilted. These are both extremely important to understanding how we got where we are.

Anaximenes, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Democritus and Thucydides

on general principles, learn about life, the universe and everything.

Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles

Every plot under the sun was invented by these guys.


Because this is where dialectic begins, this is also where critical thought begins.


Because this is where dialectic ends (until Marx), the man had an opinion on everything – and he was usually right. Defined western thought for a thousand years and more.

Ovid – “Metamorphoses”

The most subtle use of Latin - ever.

Julius Caesar

Clear, insightful, explicative… bloody, cruel, awful... brilliant, perceptive, prescient... shall I go on?

Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius

On general principles: Lucretius for the most beautiful Latin ever written and especially Marcus Aurelius 'Meditations' for the view of the Empire in Autumn.

Augustine – “The City of God”

To find out how one severely fucked up (probably sexually abused) priest proceeded to fuck up the entire western world for a thousand years or more…


If you read nothing else, Shakespeare would give you a complete education. Also the most beautiful period of the English language.


Proved you didn’t need god to justify your existence.


Proved you could be god if you wanted to (and re-invented The Calculus on the side – Archimedes did it first).

Adam Smith - The Wealth of Nations

Proved you didn’t have to be god if you understood markets.

BTW “The Invisible Hand” so beloved of ‘free’ market aficionados is mentioned only once in 1200 pages and even then in a very narrow context.

Locke, Hume, Rousseau

Progenitors of the Enlightenment, midwives of the American and French revolutions – some real thought here.

Darwin - The Origin of the Species

Everyone claims to have read this book but very few actually have, beautifully written by an excellent observer. Every religious fanatic should be required to read this, it will pretty much shut them up once and for all.


High priest of German Romanticism (aside from Goethe), thought deeply, wrote beautifully and was barking mad, nonetheless, read “Genealogy of Morals” and “Thus Spake Zarathustra”
BTW “ubermensch” means “overman” not “superman”. He was referring to the ethical and moral qualities of the evolved human being, the fascist fanatics, as usual, got it completely wrong.

Von Clausewitz

Though a mere lieutenant in the Jaeger-Prussian army, his writings on the principles of war in simple, elegant prose have made him standard reading for warriors for two hundred years.

Bertrand Russell - Principia Mathematica

The last great re-invention of mathematics and written in Latin, no less. He and Alfred North Whitehead pretty much rewrote mathematics from the ground up at the start of the 20th century. Also was the first of the great modern peace activists.

Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky on general principles

That pretty much covers my range of Great Western Thought. There are many more of course, but I think these represent the best of the best. Frankly, I think that anyone who wants to understand our culture should read as many of these folks as they can or just read Will and Ariel Durant’s 26 volume tome “The History of Philosophy” as an alternative.

now on to more fun stuff

Speculative fiction

The earliest SF writers are an astonishing lot:

Cyrano de Bergerac – From the Earth to the Moon

Jules Verne – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

H.G. Wells – War of the Worlds

But science fiction didn’t really arrive until…

The pulp authors – 30s and 40s authors who wrote the original space operas, cited for their adventurous imaginations not their technical or scientific rigor

E.E. “Doc” Smith

The Lensman series – everything George Lucas ever did, he stole from this.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Martian Series – just wonderful, completely off the scale as fantasy

There are many others here worth reading but these two are the class of the field.

The new guard (now old I suppose)

These are the first wave of serious speculative fiction writers who appeared in the late 40s and early 50s. A lot of these authors wrote short stories, novellas and novels that they realized later were connected in some way. You will often find ‘timelines’ with the various stories plotted along the way. These were mostly done after the fact but recognized the natural commonality of the tales. Some of these folks are in here for one or two of their tales only but they deserve their place nonetheless. I haven’t put in many from later periods, partly because I haven’t read them and that is mostly because they are derivative and boring. (So I’m a curmudgeon, sue me).

Arthur C Clarke

'Childhood’s End', 'The Deep Range', 'Tales from The White Hart', '2001'

Clarke invented the concepts of: geo-synchronous orbit satellites, re-usable orbital shuttles, tethered lifting ribbons, setting space colonies at the L3 and L5 points, and many other technologies.

Robert Heinlein

'Stranger in a Strange Land', 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress', 'I Will Fear No Evil', 'The Green Hills of Earth', 'Starship Troopers', 'Friday', 'The Tales of Lazarus Long' and many, many others.

Bob Heinlein is not really a great writer, in fact he’s not a very good writer at all – he is, however, an absolutely wonderful storyteller with a keen eye for human foibles and a fearless advocacy for human freedom.

Isaac Asimov

'The Foundation Series', 'I Robot' and about 140 other books both fiction and non-fiction

Prolific and sometimes profound Asimov is always interesting. His intelligence and imagination have a huge range and depth.

Frank Herbert – Dune

The Dune series is probably the most complex political SF series ever. Intricate, complex, intriguing and exasperating.

Ray Bradbury

R is for Rocket’, ‘The Martian Chronicles’, ‘Dandelion Wine’, ‘Green Hills, White Whale’

Wonderful, evocative writer with a unique style, a peculiar look at the world and an unbounded imagination.

Larry Niven

'Protector', 'Ringworld', the Polesotechnic League, The Long Night

Great hard science type writer, the description of a realistic space battle complete with Bussard ramjets and using a neutron star in a battle maneuver in “Protector” are priceless.

Orson Scott Card

The Ender series – a series of six (?) books all revolving around a ‘first contact’ gone awry and the ramifications that ensue, “Speaker for the Dead” is especially good. Very empathic, try reading “The Lost Boys” with the knowledge that he has an autistic son.

Note: Quite a few of these authors run hot and cold, some of their books are really great while others are junk. If you’re not sure, ask me.

Robert Silverberg

Wrote three great books: ‘Dying Inside’, ‘The Stochastic Man’ and ‘Up the Line’. The Majipoor stuff is crap.

John Brunner

Great British writer, always provocative, ‘Stand on Zanzibar’, the unbelievably prophetic ‘The Sheep Look Up’ and many more… doesn’t like America very much but his critiques are spot on.

Phillip K. Dick

You already know him from 'Bladerunner', he wrote some great books: ‘Ubik’, ‘A Scanner Darkly’, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, wrote some others that are crap: ‘Clans of the Alphane Moon’, etc. Sad to say he kinda went round the bend at the last ‘Valis’ and ‘The Transmigration of Timothy Archer’ are pretty much paranoid-schizophrenic nightmares.

Ursula LeGuin

The Earthsea Trilogy’, ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, ‘The Dispossessed’ A woman’s view on SF. She really understands dragons.

Philip Jose Farmer

Riverworld’ and a great many others. Farmer wrote a lot of really out there stuff, alien thought, alien-human sex, underworld/netherworld. Sometimes very erotic, sometimes very disturbing.

R.A. Lafferty

Unique style, off the wall imagination, funny and scary, never what you expected. Mostly short stories, well worth finding/reading.

Harlan Ellison

Insulting, irascible, insanely intelligent. Most famous for ‘Repent, Harlequin, Cried the Tick-Tock Man’

Theodore Sturgeon

Short stories that bite: ‘Occam’s Scalpel’, ‘If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?’ Author of Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of Everything is Crap”, his stuff is in the other 10%.

Cordwainer Smith

Brilliant, odd, funny, awful, charming, gut-churning… just the titles tell a tale: ‘The Burning of the Brain’, ‘Scanners Live in Vain’, ‘The Lady Who Sailed The Soul’, ‘The Ballad of Lost C’Mell’, ‘The Game of Rat and Dragon’. All the stories meld into a timeline/evolution of man and near-man over thirty thousand years of change.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Red Mars’ ‘Green Mars’ ‘Blue Mars’ trilogy. How Mars will really be terraformed and the interplanetary politics involved. Very well done, a little dry but essentially a manual for how to do it.


The Lord of the Rings’ Trilogy

IF you haven’t read this, read it right away… no the movie doesn’t even come close, in fact, try to forget the movie completely. This is the oldest, and by far the best, of the fantasy genre. It helps that Tolkien was a gifted writer, it helps that he was a professor of linguistics at Oxford, most of all he is original and creates layer upon layer upon layer to give his created world authenticity and credibility.

Robert Jordan

Wheel of Time’ series

Not the greatest of writers but I got snagged and if you’ve got a week or two to throw away get the series and read it through, he’s still writing the last two but has amyloidosis and may die before it’s done. Strong on magic and the Source, female characters very strong but basically batshit crazy, pretty much a typical ‘guy’s eye’ view. Some good moments.

Update: Robert Jordan died late last year and the last book of the series is being completed from his extensive notes

George R.R. Martin

The Song of Ice and Fire’ series

Blood ‘n Guts sword-and-sorcery epic. You can see the denouement a mile off, but it’s the journey that counts. Pretty good characters, involving and interesting, each in their own revolting way. He has a nasty habit of killing off or gruesomely maiming anyone you might actually get to like. The Dragon Empress is a hottie.

William Gibson

Neuromancer’ etc

He’s here because he got famous for work that a lot of other people actually did before him, nevertheless his stuff is a good read, in a techno-punk, dystopian sorta way.

Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash’, ‘The Diamond Age’, ‘Cryptonomicon’. ‘The Baroque Cycle’

The first three are brilliant, prophetic, warp-speed, up to the nanosecond books chock full of excellent writing, total contemporaneity (wow! what a crappy neologism). What William Gibson wishes he were.

The Baroque Cycle’ is a 3,000 page romp through the 18th century, lots of fun characters, oh and BTW you'll learn about the origins of scientific methodology, modern economics and how to deal with syphilis if you don't have access to penicillin.

There are others out there working in associated fields, such as:

Graphic novels

Neil Gaiman and ‘The Sandman’ series. Neil is a cult figure for many – not my cuppa

Frank Miller and, basically anything he’s involved in: ‘The Dark Knight’ (Batman), ‘Sin City’, ‘Elektra Assassin’ and many others. Frank's also a cult figure, I like him.


The Day the Earth Stood Still’ intelligent SF (see also ‘This Island Earth’ made in the same year for a hilarious comparison

Forbidden Planet’ Monsters from the Id! Aaiieeee!! Still really good SF (although stolen wholesale from ‘The Tempest’) Note the very young Leslie Nielsen in a dramatic role.

Alien’ Ridley Scott’s version of: ‘There’s a Mouse in the House’ it’s seven feet tall, drips slime and wants to eat you, nevertheless… it has the all time greatest role for a woman since ‘Ninotchka’ Sigourney Weaver plays Ripley, the uber-competent second mate of the ‘Nostromo’ (look it up, see Joseph Conrad). Makes you proud to be a human being.

Aliens’ James Cameron cut his teeth on this one, did Jimmy. Not much for story but it’s in the running for the greatest action flick of all time, and we get to see Ripley be even more heroic.

Bladerunner’ Ridley Scott’s staggering SF opus, still arguably the best SF film ever made. Note the very young Edward James Olmos (since Miles Davis’ death, officially the ‘Coolest Man on the Planet’ see below: Battlestar Galactica)

I won’t go on about the films, you’ve probably seen a lot of the newer ones: long on SFX, short on intelligence. The one good thing about low budget films is that they make you think harder.

You might try comparing versions of ‘Solaris’ Tarkovsky vs Clooney, not as lopsided as you might think although Clooney is merely good while Tarkovsky is (was) a genius.


Oddly enough some pretty good SF has leaked through into the boob tube (no, I’m not talking about 'Blake’s Seven' or 'Red Dwarf')

'Doctor Who' is an acquired taste but has some good moments (I prefer David Tenant in the role).

Obviously, 'Star Trek' is legendary, you should really watch some of the early episodes, hilarious, complete with space-bimbo of the week. There were some very good ones though: ‘City on the Edge of Forever’ (written by Harlan Ellison, see above) and ‘Space Seed’ with Ricardo Montalban as Khan, one of a genetically enhanced breed of ‘supermen’.

Actually ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ was pretty good as a series, good actors, good writing. See ‘Inner Light’ and ‘Metaphor’ and the dark ‘Yesterday's Enterprise’.

I liked ‘Babylon 5’ quite a lot but didn’t get excited about ‘Firefly’. I liked ‘Andromeda’ but detested 'Star Trek Voyager'.

This is a little off topic but I’d like to nominate ‘La Femme Nikita’, the TV series as an actual SF show notwithstanding their conceit that it was real-world, it definitely wins as the most paranoid television series ever shown, the tension was palpable in every episode, every relationship, every movement… the relief when each show was over was like serotonin overload.

But pride of place for best TV SF ever must go to 'Battlestar Galactica' (no, not the original series done back in the eighties, although watching that one is absolutely hilarious, I fall off my chair every time they push the “Turbo” button on the Vipers). The new one is fabulous, highly charged, rife with conflict, brilliantly written, superbly acted and confirms that Edward James Olmos (as Commander Adama) is the “Coolest Man on the Planet” (the honor used to belong to Miles Davis but even Miles can’t hold onto this one when he’s dead). To get a feel for this show see the episode “33 Minutes”, after your heartbeat slows down and you stop sweating, give me a call.

That’s about all I can think of for now, I’ll send more if/when I smack myself in the forehead and say ‘Why didn’t I think of that one!”

Once again, you may know all of these, I certainly don’t mean to presume that you don’t and no condescension is either overt or implied.

Have fun,


There definitely will be more added to the list, as I went over this several more candidates appeared iin my memory...

1 comment:

Narble said...

Interesting post. The only squeak I have is that I think Harlan Ellison is probably most famous for "A Boy and His Dog." It's not his masterpiece, but I'd argue that it is his best-known piece.