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).

Review: Great Science Fiction by Scientists, ed. by Groff Conklin

A couple of months ago, I reviewed Mike Brotherton’s anthology, Science Fiction by Scientists, for Tangent. This inspired me to read Groff Conklin’s Great Science Fiction by Scientists, which I’d had laying around for awhile. It’s a 1962 anthology from Collier which includes sixteen stories (mostly post-WWII, including two original stories, but going back to 1926) written by people ranging from those with scientific training to those who actually¬† practice science. The stories themselves are sometimes surprisingly unscientific, though most of them are science fiction and some are pretty typical hard SF. Conklin makes the odd editorial non-decision to present them alphabetically by author which leads to a rather random feel and some odd streaks (for instance, the first story is a fantasy and the last six are fairly weak). It does have several strong stories, though.

Only two primary clusters really struck me, though there are another two lesser clusters. One is of surprisingly melodramatic stories which are, in some cases, even more surprisingly effective. J. B. S. Haldane’s “The Gold-Makers” is probably the strongest of these, dealing with a complicated noir mob-like plot turning on the financial implications of being able to create gold, with some parties trying to achieve this and others trying to suppress it. This is wrapped in an “I’m publishing this true story as fiction” wrapper, which is entertaining. Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King” may offend modern sensibilities, though it’s actually somewhat ahead of the curve of its time of writing (1926). It’s set in darkest Africa and deals with a scientist manipulating the tribe that has captured him, initially for self-preservation and eventually for more grandiose reasons. A couple of Europeans happen upon this situation and get involved. “The Ultimate Catalyst” by Eric Temple Bell (John Taine), is another jungle tale, this time in a South American dictator’s realm and is a sort of “Jungle of Doctor Moreau” tale which creaks and clunks a bit with its exotic horror trappings involving strange fungi but is fairly readable. Norbert Weiner’s “The Brain” is another mob tale involving a brain surgeon. It’s odd that scientists, being especially interested in causality and probability would write so many stories in which the plotting is markedly contrived or convenient but there are several such tales here and this is one of them.

The second group involves entities coming to wrong conclusions based on insufficient evidence or other issues, sometimes with the “crackpot” with the “crazy theories” really being a misunderstood genius and the only one who’s even close to being correct. The best of these is the excellent “Learning Theory” by James (V.) McConnell. It focuses on confirmation bias and turns the table on a psychologist by having him get abducted by aliens and put through his paces in accordance with their pet theories, so to speak. Very clever and with a sound critique of a scientific problem. On the other hand, Leo Szilard’s “Grand Central Terminal” just has some aliens, on earth after we’ve blown ourselves up, trying to figure out why metal disks were placed in excretion chambers and trying to save a crackpot’s reputation by shooting down its crazy theories. Finally, “John Sze’s Future” by John R. Pierce (J. J. Coupling) is a rather weak piece original to this book which uses more confirmation bias and linguistic ambiguity to poke some fun at John “C”ampbell and his love of “psi.”

While the last two of those touch on humans doing bad things with the atom or otherwise going extinct, handling that subject isn’t their primary objective. It is the primary objective of Ralph S. Cooper’s fiction article “The Neutrino Bomb,” Louis N. Ridenour’s “Pilot Lights of the Apocalypse” (a “playlet in one act”), and Chan Davis’ more conventionally narrated “after the bomb” story, “Last Year’s Grave Undug.” None of these are particularly successful as fiction though Davis’ is the best of them.

Other than the interior of a ship in “Learning Theory,” we only leave Earth twice and move to a supposedly alternate Earth once. That’s disappointing in itself but perhaps the most disappointing story in the book for me was “A Martian Adventure” (aka “At the Perihelion”) by Willy Ley (aka Robert Willey). I was excited because: it’s Willy Ley; it’s Mars; it’s a long novella. It does have some good discussions of orbital mechanics and such but, alas, to call its plot “picaresque” would be kind and even I, who usually ignore “social datedness” as irrelevant, was struck by the approach to (even low level) native life and the human woman. On the other hand, Arthur C. Clarke’s tale of “man against the elements” with “Summertime on Icarus” was superb, being strongly plotted and making me feel like I was on Icarus myself. Both stories, oddly, deal with extreme heat in space. The alternate world story is Miles J. Breuer’s memorable “The Gostak and the Doshes,” which tells of a guy slipping into an earth in which people madly emote over senseless slogans rather than using reason. (These days, this earth feels like the alternate one.) It’s rather lazily plotted but makes up for it with its other excellences.

Of the remaining tales, Conklin bizarrely selects Isaac Asimov’s fantasy, “What If…” which involves a married couple seeing alternate paths presented to them by a weird guy with a hypnotism ball. Conklin defends the selection by saying it’s “completely charming” and that it’s “by Asimov.” Well, everything by Asimov is by Asimov and I don’t pick up Great Science Fiction by Scientists to read even completely charming fantasies. It is a fine story, of course, but not a great choice. Then there’s “Kid Anderson,” an android boxer tale from R(obert) S. Richardson which has another contrived plot and isn’t very good, and the sociological “The Mother of Necessity” by Chad Oliver which is okay, but not particularly compelling.

To recap, I particularly liked:

  • “Summertime on Icarus” by Arthur C. Clarke
  • “Learning Theory” by James McConnell
  • “The Gostak and the Doshes” by Miles J. Breuer
  • “The Gold-Makers” by J. B. S. Haldane
  • and perhaps “The Tissue-Culture King” by Julian Huxley

If you have a particular interest in the anthology’s subject, I mildly recommend the whole thing but, if not, hopefully you can find some of the recommended ones elsewhere because you probably wouldn’t care for the anthology itself.