Review: The Trouble with You Earth People by Katherine MacLean

The Trouble with You Earth People
by Katherine MacLean

Date: 1980
Format: Trade paperback
ISBN: 0-915442-95-7
Pages: 237
Price: $4.95
Publisher: Donning (Starblaze Editions)

Contents:

  • “The Trouble with You Earth People” (Amazing, 1968-02, novelette)
  • “Unhuman Sacrifice” (Astounding, 1958-11, novelette)
  • “The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl” (Analog, 1975-01, short story)
  • “Syndrome Johnny” (Galaxy, 1951-07, short story)
  • “Trouble with Treaties” (Star SF #5, 1959-05, novelette, with Tom Condit)
  • “The Origin of the Species” (Children of Wonder, 1953-03, short story)
  • “Collision Orbit” (SF Adventures, 1954-05, short story)
  • “The Fittest” (Worlds Beyond, 1951-01, short story)
  • “These Truths” (Royal Publications, 1958, short story)
  • “Contagion” (Galaxy, 1950-10, novelette)
  • “Brain Wipe” (Frontiers 2, 1973, short story)
  • “The Missing Man” (Analog, 1971-03, novella)
  • “The Carnivore” (Galaxy, 1953-10, short story)

The opening and title story, “The Trouble with You Earth People,” is a first contact tale involving aliens who appear somewhat dog-like (possibly illustrated on the back cover). It tackles human taboos which manifest in suppressed language and suppressed thought which, in the story, result in an inability to fully make contact with the aliens or to understand their science (drawing on Whorf). It’s a delightfully oddball tale which simultaneously feels like a classic Silver Age tale of first contact and a thoroughly New Wave “dangerous vision” with its alien expressing its joy of meeting and desire for understanding by taking off its clothes and telling the thoroughly flustered elderly anthropologist, “You are beautiful. I would fertilize you if I could.”

Themes of repression and the use of animal-like aliens to help construct what are almost beast fables abound. There are bear-like aliens (or teddy-bear-like aliens) on Venus in “The Fittest,” which questions what defines the “fittest” to survive and the lion-like aristocats of “These Truths” which demonstrates that all cats might be brothers and shows how they might be encouraged to be more democratic, not to mention a menagerie of various herbivores whose fears of humanity’s aggression result in a tragically high cost in “The Carnivore.” Among the many stories which feature some element of repression, “Brain Wipe” is one of the more direct, dealing with an abusive father and his son who faces the titular punishment. “Origin of the Species” is more of a superman story and considers what it was like for the Promethean monkeys who were more human than their counterparts and what it would be like for a post-human among today’s humans, including the various kinds of repression it would face.

For one reason or another, while none are bad, these aren’t the strongest stories. “These Truths” has an odd tripartite structure which initially feels like it’s going to be time travel or alternate history (something MacLean rarely or never does), “Brain Wipe” lacks any sort of catharsis or conceptual breakthrough, “Carnivore” is somewhat similar in that regard and suffers from problems such as humans not actually being “carnivores,” and so on. Another of the less successful tales is “The Trouble with Treaties” which, perhaps due to being co-written, feels less like MacLean and aims at humor but doesn’t always hit the mark (though mileage may vary). It involves an aggressive multi-species empire running into a ship full of pacifist psionic humans and their goldfish, parakeets, and cat.

On the other hand, one of the strongest, if not the strongest tale is the second, “Unhuman Sacrifice,” which deals with the two crewmen of a small starship, the missionary they’ve had to convey to an alien world, and the natives who have a bizarre coming-of-age ritual which involves tying the youths upside down to trees and is sometimes fatal. From religious motives, the preacher wants to intervene with words and, from compassion, the initially resistant crewmen get involved with action. If you don’t see it coming, the result should be shocking and, even if you do see it coming, the result is well-constructed and still thoroughly effective. A couple of my favorite parts involve the main native’s very strange yet completely plausible perception of what the humans must be and the extremely exciting “fighting the flood” scene that basically forms the climax. In terms of combining dramatic action and thoughtful concepts, this is SF at its best.

(As “Unhuman Sacrifice” is a classic first contact tale, “Contagion” is an example of the classic “lost colony” tale and enjoyable, if less successful. The biology of the drastic effects of the first colonists on the second wave seems far-fetched, to say the least, and there are other issues but it’s a dramatic tale with interesting psychosexual dynamics, replete with irony, and with an interesting Catch-22.)

The third tale, “The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl,” is part of MacLean’s four-story “Hills of Space” set. Another example in this collection is “Collision Orbit.” I’m not sure of the precise political philosophy term but both stories depict a sort of anarchist or libertarian frontier society of tin cans (or “barrels”) in the Asteroid Belt in which people are supposed to be quite self-sufficient and non-aggressive but can defend themselves to an extent and depend on their neighbors for even more defense, all done in a sort of ad hoc communal way. The first tale is a very peculiar and funny tale of a Christian mother and her passel of children. When one goes out to make his way in the world and comes back with a sinful girl from a gambling hell as his fiance (fancifully illustrated on the front), relations are strained but, when the thugs from the gambling hell arrive to force her back to work, the family members again band together and demonstrate their resourcefulness. Similarly, when the protagonist of “Collision Orbit” is faced with a gang of robbers on the run who try to take over his establishment, he also shows he’s not to be trifled with.

The fourth tale, “Syndrome Johnny,” anticipates James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” with its biological tale of plague and comes right on the heels of de Camp’s Brazil-centered Viagens stories in depicting a Federated States of America which has more of a Spanish than English flavor. (Incidentally, “The Trouble with Treaties” and “Unhuman Sacrifice” and perhaps others feature “brown” characters who may be of South European, African or other ancestry.) This is also partly a superman tale or “next stage” story and can be interpreted as being extremely tough-minded and cynically realist. Like “Contagion,” it may be a little “super science” more than scientifically realistic, but is still quite interesting.

“The Missing Man” is the largest and most significant chunk of her other series of Rescue Squad tales, which were fixed up into the novel Missing Man (1975). I recall enjoying the novel but, very similarly to Silverberg’s Nightwings, the fixup sort of buries the special excellences of the core novella, regardless of its own merits or that of the other pieces. It tells the tale of the empathic George and the logical Ahmed who are searching for the missing man, Carl Hodges. Hodges is a computer and repair man of a futuristic New York in which there are, for example, underwater Brooklyn and Jersey domes. He has wandered into a “teener” gang’s area and been captured. His knowledge of the city’s weak points is being used by the gang’s clever terrorist leader as a method of extortion/political activism, beginning with the destruction of the Brooklyn Dome. With its overpopulated city and its gangs and activism, it is part of its “turn of the Sixties” era and kin to other stories such as Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room!, but when it describes commuters glued to their portable TVs akin to our “phones” and describes people literally living in “kingdoms” of similar people akin to our metaphorical internet bubbles (while “nonconformists who could not choose a suitable conformity” live in “mixed places”), it seems quite contemporary. Either way, her future city is a brilliant conception, the empathic and half-lost George is an interesting protagonist, the initial stages of the story are well-plotted, the action when George is desperately trying to escape the Jersey Dome is exciting, and the philosophical/technical moments of the later stages are provocative, even if the plot starts to decohere a bit at that point. (Since this is the story I first read in Nebula Award Stories Seven which led me to explore MacLean further, I obviously recommend it, even if it didn’t blow me away the way it did on a first reading.)

As mentioned, some of this collection’s recurring motifs are unconventional social structures (“The Trouble with Treaties,” the Hills of Space stories, “The Missing Man”) and aliens (usually of a familiar animal-sort) almost always in first contact scenarios. One thing that’s remarkable is that only one is a “the world watches as the aliens arrive” sort of tale and they’re all different in their ways, showing creativity in ringing the changes on the type. Another recurring motif is psi powers, which feature in several stories in some way or another (“Trouble with Treaties,” “The Fittest,” “The Missing Man”) but rarely in an especially magical or comic book way. Multiple stories are biologically-focused and deal with evolution and/or next-step supermen (again, not in a comic book way) and deal with the question of what is “fit” and how to survive. Some involve crime and punishment, which ranges from assimilation in “Collision Course” to brain wipes in “Brain Wipe,” along with the kindred subjects of taboo and religion. Perhaps the main impression this group of stories leaves the reader with is that of species struggling against limitations and trying to persist in an effort to become something greater.

I don’t know how her first collection, The Diploids (1962), would fare on re-reading, but I recall it being superb. Based on the recollection of that collection, I would say it was the more essential of the two but The Trouble with You Earth People is still recommended as a whole. Individually, I recommend “Unhuman Sacrifice” and “The Missing Man” and also appreciated the title story, the two “Hills of Space” stories, “Syndrome Johnny” and “Contagion,” while the rest are never less than readable.

(A caveat on the physical book: it is “edited and illustrated by Polly and Kelly Freas” but the interior illustrations are sparse, the book is filled with typos, and the prefaces to the stories are confusing and only one is attributed. I don’t know if the rest are by MacLean, the Freases, or Hank Stine (the one attribution). But it’s a nicely constructed book with durable covers and excellent front and back art and, depending on the story, is one of the few ways or the only way to have it in book form.)

Edit (2018-05-26): re-positioned cover image, rearranged the bibliographical information, added “ex libris” tag.

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Top Ten Most-Read “Recent” Authors

Two weeks ago, inspired by another blogger’s post, I posted my Top Ten Most-Read Authors. That list was heavily weighted to older authors with the only post-New Waver being C. J. Cherryh, who broke into print in 1976. I was curious what newer authors were being eclipsed by the older so I compiled a second “top 10” list just like the first except limited to authors who broke into print no earlier than 1976. (Ties are broken by giving the higher place to people who haven’t been in print as long.)

10. Rudy Rucker (8)

Rucker is a gonzo math freak who writes like Lewis Padgett smoked Lewis Carroll’s ashes. My favorite Rucker is probaby Master of Space and Time, though White Light, Spacetime Donuts, and Software are all quite good. The last of those became the first volume of his most famous series but the Ware series suffers from an extreme case of diminishing returns. I haven’t kept up with him beyond the occasional story which he can still knock out of the park, especially in collaboration.

09. Alastair Reynolds (8)

Reynolds writes mostly gothic noir neo-space opera. He’s a funny case for me. He got a 10-year contract for 10 novels for 10 million bucks or something but I like his short fiction. I love Zima Blue as well as the Revelation Space collections Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days and Galactic North. I read three of the first four novels in that universe and they’re okay but the last one’s been sitting unread for years. (Someday!) Also read Pushing Ice and I love all of it but the two main characters whom I hate. (I’m counting Slow Bullets as a book, though it’s just a novella. If I didn’t, there’d be a three-way tie at tenth place with seven books by him, Stephen Baxter and Lisa Goldstein.)

08. Greg Egan (9)

Greg Egan writes the hardest of hard SF – so hard he comes out the other side, sometimes inventing entire universes which have nothing to do with this one and can thus be seen as a species of incredibly rigorous fantasy. But, seriously, when he operates in this universe, he’s incredible. He excels at short fiction and long. My favorites are probably Axiomatic for short fiction and Diaspora for novels. He ranks much, much higher than his eighth place showing here. More like in the top handful of all time.

07. Neal Asher (9)

Neal Asher is another New Space Opera guy, with a particularly action-packed and violent style. I’m crazy about Prador Moon and he’s also rightly famous for the core quintet of “Agent Cormac” Polity books, of which The Line of Polity (#2) is my favorite. Not shabby at the stories, either. “Alien Archaeology” turned me into a fan.

06. Timothy Zahn (10)

And, believe it or not, none of the ten are media-ties. My favorite is probably his novel Spinneret but he’s a perhaps surprisingly good story writer, too. Aside from Star Wars books, he’s probably most famous for the Cobra books. I’ve read the original trilogy and it’s a mixture of mostly good with a trace of silly. I think his Blackcollar books (read the original two) are actually better, but they haven’t had as much success. He’s basically just a good old-fashioned story-teller of mostly space/military tales. Kind of surprised it turns out I’ve read so many, especially given that there are still more in the To-Be-Read Pile.

05. Jack McDevitt (10)

McDevitt is another story-teller. I very nearly read only one McDevitt, starting and ending with The Engines of God, which is a book in the Academy series which didn’t do anything for me. But I had A Talent for War, also, and read it and liked it. I went ahead with the belated sequel to it and it turned into a sort of comfy, cozy SF-archaeological-mystery series which seems to have run its course but was really enjoyable, overall. I also was surprised to enjoy Eternity Road. I’m not usually a fan of post-apocalyptic tales but that one was captivating. His first novel (of first contact), The Hercules Text, is even better. I’ve only read that in its revised version but the original is now in the Pile.

04. Allen Steele (10)

Another space-based story-teller. His debut novel, Orbital Decay, is probably still his masterpiece, along with Sex and Violence in Zero-G. The latter is a collection of stories set in the same Near Space universe as that debut novel and its sequels. Steele is now probably most famous for his Coyote series but, other than reading the start of it in the magazines and some later stories in various places and diving into Hex (glorious BDO but unfortunately with small dumb characters) I haven’t read it (it’s in the Pile).

03. Charles Sheffield (11)

An English science guy who came to America, took up SF writing, and married fellow SF writer Nancy Kress. Between the Strokes of Night (original version; haven’t read the revised one) is a “cosmogony opera” and one of my all-time favorite books and The Compleat McAndrew (sequence of stories about a brilliant scientist zipping through the solar system) is right near it. He’s written many books only slightly above or below “okay” but when he’s good, he’s among the best.

02. Bruce Sterling (14)

Another one of my very favorites and the greatest cyberpunk. His debut novel is still(!) in the Pile and I lost track of him after 2009 as he’s become relatively scarce but every novel and collection from 1980 to 1999 (with one caveat) is essential. From the next decade, I only really enjoyed The Zenith Angle, though Zeitgeist has its points and Visionary in Residence might be a great collection except in comparison with the first three. The caveat is The Difference Engine. This was a hugely important book in the history of steampunk and unites the biggest names in cyberpunk but I was very unimpressed (and haven’t enjoyed the steampunk movement either). But enough of that – for some highlights of the early period, his 80s neo-space-operatic Shaper/Mechanist stories (found in Crystal Express) and his novel in that universe (Schismatrix, which can also be found together with the stories in Schismatrix Plus) are fantastic. His first three collections (Crystal Express, Globalhead, and A Good Old-Fashioned Future) are indispensable, up there with early Zelazny, Tiptree, and Varley collections. He not only engages with high-tech near-future reality as his forte but he’s a stylist of the finest sort – everything is stamped with Sterling qualities but reads with Crystalline clarity and Express speed.

01. Jack Campbell (15)

Mmm…kay. This is weird. Jack Campbell (whom I first met as John G. Hemry in the pages of Analog) shows at #1 because he wrote a fifteen-book series (the Lost Fleet/Stars series, built out of two and a half sub-series of Lost Fleet, Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier, and Lost Stars) and I bought and devoured the whole thing. Gigantic series of best-selling military space opera are not generally my thing but Campbell’s mixing of hard SF elements into wild-eyed space opera and his solidly centrist and sensible military, political, and social textures (which address 9/11, infinite war, becoming one’s own enemy, etc.) really sold me, along with his meticulously described space battles. Granted, it starts shaky and has some awkwardness in character interactions throughout but the things were just compulsively readable. He’s the only author on this list with nothing in the Pile, as I read everything the minute I bought it. He’s not up there with the likes of Egan and Sterling, but he delivers good clean honest entertainment that I enjoyed a lot.

Top Ten Most-Read Authors

The “Top 10 Monday” at Thrice Read was on “Authors I’ve Read the Most Books From.” I don’t guess this is a “tag” and I don’t usually (ever?) play on them anyway but I got curious and ended up making the list and jotting some comments (that got increasingly out of hand the more I got excited). I don’t do the Goodreads thing so I just had to cobble the list together as best I could. The result isn’t a list of “favorite” authors but it certainly includes a lot who would be on such a list. It is also composed almost entirely of older authors with all that entails mainly because some newer authors haven’t had as much time to accumulate.

The list has eleven authors because I originally thought Spinrad and Dick were tied at #10 with eighteen but then I remembered I’d read Radio Free Albemuth but didn’t feel like deleting Spinrad because of that. Though I have another Spinrad novel and a non-fiction work in the Pile, I still have three PKD novels and a collection (it’s a big Pile), so he’d still be behind. Speaking of non-fiction, the numbers for Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov would go up if counting non-fiction.

11. Norman Spinrad (18)

Spinrad’s peak for me was from Bug Jack Barron (1969) to Child of Fortune (1985), with Bug Jack Barron, The Iron Dream (1972), and The Void Captain’s Tale (1983) (along with the novella Riding the Torch (1974)) being the essential long Spinrad works. The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde (1970) is an essential collection and No Direction Home (1975) isn’t bad, either. Spinrad’s a New Wave guy and The Iron Dream savagely parodies SF&F archetypes by presenting the novel as written by Hitler and The Void Captain’s Tale is a kind of “art space opera” which is thickly stylistically experimental. So absolutely not my kinds of things but Spinrad is just amazing anyway.

10. Philip K. Dick (19)

PKD is overrated and overread (if only because he’s so highly rated and widely read) but I do love Martian Time-Slip (1964), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and Ubik (1969) and like some others. His “Collected Stories” (five volumes, of which I’ve read four) also contain a lot of great stuff. He’s a brain-bending beatnick who grapples with the nature of reality, the dehumanization of automation, and god and insanity.

09. Roger Zelazny (20)

Roger Zelazny is now probably most famous for fantasy novels and the things he ought to be famous for are pyrotechnic SF(-ish) stories. Another sort of new-wavy guy with a lush style and vivid imagination. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of his stuff but love a lot of it, too. The early novels (excluding the expanded versions of excellent novellas) are pretty good, but his collections are where it’s at. Four for Tomorrow (1967) only contains two stories not repeated in The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth and Other Stories (1971) and both are still essential, as are My Name Is Legion (1976) and even The Last Defender of Camelot (1980) and Unicorn Variations (1983).

08. Arthur C. Clarke (23)

Clarke is another guy I’ve gotten rid of a lot of. His very earliest novels are too much like travelogues and such of his later novels as I’ve read seem a little tired but the run of SF novels from Childhood’s End (1953) to 2010: Odyssey Two (1982) (excepting Imperial Earth (1975)) is excellent. I’ve also read and enjoyed most of his collections before replacing them with The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (2000) which would have to be essential even if a story or two slipped through the cracks. One of the few hard SF writers who seem to also make literary folks at least somewhat happy.

07. Robert Silverberg (24)

Robert Silverberg was a story factory in the 50s. I’ve read very little from that period but have vague but fond recollections (those are not from the 50s) of Master of Life and Death (1957). His critically esteemed period began when Frederik Pohl, who’d recently become sole editor of Galaxy and If, made him a deal in about 1963. This manifested in book form by 1967. So Silverberg also became a sort of new New Waver. Probably the most successful novel of that period was Dying Inside (1972). But again, for me, the stories were the peak and probably the essential single book would be Beyond the Safe Zone (1986), which is an omnibus of Unfamiliar Territory (1973), The Feast of St. Dionysus (1975), and Capricorn Games (1976) which, along with Born with the Dead (1974) and the stories fixed up into The World Inside (1971), collect the vast bulk of his stories from 1970 to his brief retirement period of about 1976-79. Later in 1979, he began serializing the superficially sunnier fantasy-tinged Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980) which is nevertheless SF filled with dark undercurrents. Regardless, it’s an excellent book and became the start of a series for which he may now be best known.

06. Fritz Leiber (24)

Fritz Leiber is the protean master of everything. He’s a very good SF writer in addition to being one of the very best in both fantasy and horror. I’ve never read his Burroughs pastiche, Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966), and think A Specter is Haunting Texas (1968) is only okay while The Silver Eggheads (1962) is very nearly bad (and maybe a couple of his collections aren’t perfect) but you can’t go wrong with anything else. His Changewar series is one of the major time travel series in SF and his Fafhrd & Grey Mouser/Lankhmar series is a cornerstone of fantasy, while a huge number of stories and novels like Conjure Wife (1943) and Our Lady of Darkness (1977) are important to horror. I have a special fondness for a couple of relatively neglected works. One is a solipsistic mildly nightmarish tale that appears in various forms under various titles such as You’re All Alone and The Sinful Ones (c.1953, either version is good) and the other is a bit of exhilarating slapstick weirdness called The Green Millennium (1953).

05. A. E. van Vogt (25)

A. E. van Vogt. What can you say? People tend to view Campbell’s Astounding as monolithic but there was a great deal of variety throughout, manifested most obviously by the colorful overreaching towards transcendence of van Vogt amidst the cool reason of Asimov and the folksy groundedness of Heinlein. It would be easy for a critic (such as Damon Knight) to trash van Vogt but a more admirable critical task would be to analyze exactly how he managed to create such worlds that mesmerized generations of readers with such unconventional materials and methods. As Dick said,

Damon feels that it’s bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor. It’s like he’s viewing a story the way a building inspector would when he’s building your house. But reality really is a mess, and yet it’s exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe which is not to be feared.

Van Vogt’s career went in at least two phases. From 1939 to about 1951, he poured forth a mighty torrent of stories and novels. Then (perhaps due to his penchant for odd systems of promised empowerment) he became involved in Dianetics (not Scientology) and basically quit writing except to “fix up” a bunch of stories into sorts of novels. In book form, this covers stuff from basically 1946 to 1968. The dynamic Frederik Pohl struck once again, getting van Vogt to write new stuff from about 1963 which manifested in books from 1969 on. I’m not very familiar with the later phase but almost anything from the earlier phase is fantastic. Again, while the Weapon Shops and Null books and things like The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) are famous (and rightly so) I also feel like mentioning my appreciation for a somewhat less famous early fixup, The Mixed Men (1952, aka Mission to the Stars).

04. Poul Anderson (27)

Poul Anderson is an odd writer for me. Works such as Brain Wave (1954) and Tau Zero (1970, an all-time favorite) as well as The Enemy Stars (1958) and The High Crusade (1960) are classics and quite various in content. (He’s also very highly regarded as a fantasist and I have a couple in the Pile but haven’t read any.) He’s written innumerable stories of equally wide variety and high caliber. His Polesotechnic League/Terran Empire future history series, featuring Nicholas van Rijn, David Falkayn, and Dominic Flandry, is very good. So I’ve read a lot of Anderson books and enjoyed a lot. But I’ve also gotten rid of several and he’s definitely a guy who wrote too much with a lot of stuff rarely less than serviceable but often not much more than that. And (kind of like the often excellent Jack Williamson) he seems to lack, for me, some sort of pizzazz or spark or whatever many of my very favorite writers have. Nevertheless, at his best he’s very good.

03. C. J. Cherryh (35, maybe 37)

C. J. Cherryh’s well known for fantasy works and has written excellent singletons of a more or less science-fictional nature such as Wave Without a Shore (1981) and has written stories (even winning her first Hugo for one) but (at least until the Foreigner series) she was best known for the series of novels set in her Union/Alliance universe and particularly those at the core of it, running from the Hugo-winning Downbelow Station (1981) to Finity’s End (1997). She can be a difficult author, writing complex, claustrophobic, tough tales and, indeed, I read a book eons ago, then another couple fewer eons ago, before she finally clicked for me while giving her yet another try (which included a re-read of Downbelow Station). Then again, some folks dive right in with no problem. Either way, she’s a superb science-fictional anthropologist with a great knack for creating aliens and putting hapless humans in their midst. Also, for such a space-oriented author who doesn’t usually focus on specific hard sciences, she nevertheless plays closer to the rules of the universe than most authors. In addition to Downbelow Station and the other core Merchanter works, some of my favorites of hers are The Faded Sun trilogy (1978-79, really one big novel published in three parts) and the Heavy Time/Hellburner duo (1991-92) except that those two really need a third book. I also especially like both the original trilogy and the belated sequel that make up her “science fantasy” Morgaine Saga. In fact, aside from shared-world stuff and post-1988 fantasies, I’ve read all her stuff until around 1992 when it gets more sporadic and the only one of those I really didn’t care for was Hestia (1979), though Brothers of Earth (1976) might be my next least favorite. Basically, it’s all good. I’m sure the Foreigner stuff is too but I read either the first volume or first trilogy in the series (which is why I’m not sure of the count for Cherryh) and I just didn’t feel like getting involved with that.

02. Robert A. Heinlein (40)

Heinlein and Asimov. Basically, if you don’t know who they are, go find out. If you don’t love one or both of them, I’m afraid we can’t be friends. (I kid. Sort of.) When I was younger, I actually liked all Heinlein but he definitely breaks into two clear phases with a fuzzy phase between. His late phase (which I mark from 1970-1988) didn’t survive either my getting older or my re-reading them or both. Friday (1982) comes closest to the early magic. The middle phase, basically from 1961-1970 is very choppy but does include a couple of Hugo winners, a late and brief addition to the Future History stories and the much-belated publication of both of the two related stories that make up Orphans of the Sky (1963). But it’s the early phase of 1939-1959 that is nearly solid gold. This period includes virtually all the Future History stories and juvenile novels as well as many other independent stories and novels. All the virtues of Heinlein and almost none of the vices are present in those masterpieces of science fiction.

01. Isaac Asimov (44)

While I’m not going to argue with anyone who prefers Heinlein, my personal favorite is Asimov. Partly, this is nostalgic and honorary in the sense that I recall reading The Foundation Trilogy (1951-53 from 40s stories) and having my brain irrevocably altered. But leaving that aside, he’s still my favorite for his clear prose, imaginative scope, embrace of logic and reason, and sense of humor.

He preferred his Robot stories and I prefer his Foundation stories but I love both and they’re both essential. His work divides into early (1939-59) and late (1982-1992) with a couple of books and several stories between and many people disregard the late period, including the Robot and Foundation sequels. Even I will admit that they aren’t as essential but at least the first of the new works, Foundation’s Edge (1982) and The Robots of Dawn (1983), while different from the earlier titles, are still very good and none are bad.

I’d also make a pitch for the often slighted trio of Empire novels (1950-52) which, after all, are important precursors (and, ultimately, connective elements) between the Robots and the Foundation. Even considered as stand-alones, they really captured my young imagination. Paradoxically, I put off reading his six Lucky Starr juveniles (1952-58) until my imagination was no longer especially young. Asimov lacks Heinlein’s easy rapport with youth so they don’t stand up to his juveniles, but they’re still pretty good. (On the other hand, I read one “Norby” book when I was young but I believe they were basically written by Janet Asimov and targeted at people much younger than I, and I have never had any interest in reading more. Also, while both Silverberg and Asimov are on this list, I didn’t care for the one book I read of the several in which Silverberg expanded Asimov stories into novels.)

More important than those (if not as essential as Robots and Foundation) are The Gods Themselves (1972) and The End of Eternity (1955), as well as the story collections which include great works like “Nightfall” and “The Last Question” (usually along with chatty, amusing, informative introductions to the volumes and stories).