Ten Favorite Science Fiction Novels

Jack McDevitt

  • Gregory Benford and David Brin, Heart of the Comet
  • Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
  • Arthur C. Clarke, Imperial Earth
  • Pat Frank, Alas, Babylon
  • Fred Hoyle, October the First Is Too Late
  • George Orwell, 1984
  • Nevil Shute, On the Beach
  • H. G. Wells, The Time Machine
  • Jack Williamson, The Legion of Space
  • John Wyndham, The Kraken Wakes (aka Out of the Deeps)

It occurred to me, while thinking about this project, that there's a difference between 'ten best' and 'ten favorite.' The latter category necessarily includes books that hit hard and resonate forever, even though perspective may adjust one's judgment as to their literary quality. Thus, in the list above, some of the novels are not even the best work of the individual writer, let alone the best of the genre. No one would argue, for example, that Imperial Earth is Arthur Clarke's masterpiece, or that Jack Williamson never exceeded The Legion of Space.

The Martian Chronicles isn't even a novel at all.

However all that may be, each of these books, for one reason or another, has stayed with me over the years, creating a condition which allows me not only to recall my reactions quite vividly, but also to remember where I was and what life was about at the time of the encounter.

In the Benford/Brin collaboration, I accompanied an expedition out to a comet (Halley's, as I recall), landed, spent time with a group of people I came to care about, and watched the solar system go by. It was an exhilarating ride, begun while I was on a flight to National Airport and finished several days later during a torrential rainstorm in Crystal City.

Pat Frank provided Alas, Babylon, with its depiction of a nuclear war and its aftermath. I read this one in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis. I can remember sitting in my car outside the Philadelphia Main Library, at 22nd Street just off the Parkway, with the book on the seat beside me, listening to radio reports coming in while the Navy moved to intercept Soviet cargo ships. Of everything I have ever read, this is the one that conjures the demons.

Arthur C. Clarke believes that things will turn out well for the human race. Reason, he implies, will triumph and technology will provide the tools. Imperial Earth is typical in that sense: We have moved out into the solar system, life is good and getting better, and threats can be handled with persistence and ingenuity. The novel arrived at a time when my own life had gone into a temporary backwater and it was just what I needed to help me get my act together.

October the First Is Too Late was my first experience with unreliable time travel, in which none of the characters quite knows what's going on. The images of continental Europe still in the dark ages, while Britain had receded into the far future, and other areas (on the other side of the forest) were God-knew-when, stick with me to this day. Time travel has never been the same.

On the Beach was an end-of-the-world novel in which I got to know the characters so well that I literally went into mourning for them. The submarine mission in pursuit of the radio message from a dead America, and the harrowing explanation for that signal, constitute one of the most sobering, and heartrending, sequences anywhere in the literature. And the final departure from Australia remains a killer. Years after I'd read the novel, the production crew for the Stanley Kramer production came to Japan enroute to Australia to do location filming. I was stationed there at the time, and several months later got to see the results. The movie, I thought, was every bit as haunting as the novel. And the atmosphere wasn't helped by the fact that it was 1959 and China was periodically shelling Quemoy and Matsu, the Nationalist offshore islands. I'm not sure yet how folks felt back in the U.S., but for those of us in the immediate neighborhood, it was an unsettling time.

After Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Wyndham was the first sf writer to whose work I became addicted. Triffids and cuckoos. And, most compelling of all, the deepwater invaders of The Kraken Wakes. Nobody did extraterrestrial attacks the way he did.

In 1947, Jack Williamson provided John Star, Giles Habibula, and the Legion, a rousing group of good-guy adventurers. (I loved Giles and was delighted, a few years later, to discover him again as King Henry's buddy Falstaff.) I was twelve, sitting on my front porch during that happy UFO summer of 1947 when the Legion followed alien raiders back to Alpha Centauri and crashed in the ocean of a world with a corrosive atmosphere. Their ship sank while they ran a desperate evacuation, escaping finally onto a floating tree trunk, circled by a giant shark fin. And Williamson was enjoying himself: At the far end of the trunk was a pile of jelly, which began rolling toward them. Guilty pleasure? I guess. The Legion of Space insured that I'd remain a science fiction fan for life.

I've read a lot of Wells, and should be honest enough, I suppose, to admit that Weena failed to enlist my sympathies. I never really believed in her. She had a symbolic value of some sort (as opposed to being a real human being), but at the time I encountered The Time Machine, I wasn't sure what it was. For me, the narrative didn't really take off until the Time Traveler left 800,000 A.D., with its nightmare social problems, and proceeded to that beach near the end of the world, where an enormous cold sun dominated the sky, while giant crabs crawled through the surf of a dying sea. At that point, though, it went into overdrive. I was on a train between Wildwood, NJ, and Philadelphia, and it all gets mixed up now, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the bleak sky, the whisper of the receding tide, a dixie cup full of ice cream, tentacles out beyond the surf line, the upholstered seats, something large and black glistening just out beyond the waves, a baseball field with two kids. That single sequence puts the book on the list. I'm sorry it never seems to make the film adaptations.

I was fourteen when I picked up 1984, which I mistook for a standard science fiction novel. 1984 was far and away the most depressing reading experience of my life. I kept trying to put it down, to walk away from it. To forget it. But the thing wouldn't let go, and I hung on, certain that something good would happen, that Winston Smith would break free somehow, would at least save himself. I recently attended a school board meeting at which some of the members (or at least one) wanted to ban J.D. Salinger. It strikes me that, for entirely different reasons, we should ban Orwell. At least from the impressionable among us. Say, anybody under ninety. For me, 1984 is the ultimate horror novel.

And that leaves The Martian Chronicles.

As everyone knows, The Martian Chronicles is a loose collection of related stories describing the discovery and colonization of a Mars that sadly exists only in our imaginations. There's a moment early in the book in which an expeditionary force completes the long ride from Earth and descends to the ground in their rocket. (They didn't use landers in those days.) They come to rest near a small town, with picket fences and frame houses and paved roads and church steeples. And when the captain opens the hatch, he hears someone playing a piano.

It's "Beautiful Dreamer."

This story, sometimes called "The Third Voyage" and sometimes "Mars Is Heaven," gets my vote for the best SF story ever. The captain at the hatch, and that piano, will be with me all my days. The Martian Chronicles is filled with such things: the house that dies, the children who discover who the Martians really are, the man who can never quite get to the telephone before it stops ringing.

There have been other books with similar impact. Ask me tomorrow and I might make a few changes. But however that may be, the ten above, in my view, are pure gold.


Results of the Ten Favorite SF Books competition