As a teenager I didn’t read a lot of science fiction books; my tendencies were more in the direction of epic fantasy. It was only as an adult that I started seriously reading SF. I’ve always felt therefore that I needed to catch up on the science fiction classics. How do you know what the classics are though, and when you’ve identified them, who’s to say they’ll even be in print? I was wrestling with these questions one day when I first came across the SF Masterworks series, from publisher Gollancz.
The first Gollancz paperbacks came out in 1999 in numbered black cover/spine paperbacks, starting with The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. In total, there were 73 numbered books in this edition. I’ve got a few of these, but I only started collecting properly after 2007 when Gollancz reissued them in rather attractive yellow and white covers (doesn’t sound great, but they do look good). These are unnumbered and issued in no particular order. So far, there’s over a hundred books in the series, and they release a handful more each year.
What are the books like though? Are they a decent selection, are there any complete howlers, or any essential SF classics that are missing? Lets have a look!
The first thing that’s obvious is that this isn’t a definitive list of SF classics. The reality of publishing and copyright restrictions is that there are always going to be lots of omissions – there’s no Ray Bradbury in this collection, and there’s only minor works by the likes of Asimov and Heinlein (though Arthur C Clarke, for instance, is well represented). There’s no Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the paperback edition, though they’re included in the small hardback range that have been released.
I’ve only read about 25-30 of them to date, but so far I’ve not come across any duds. There’s some that haven’t been entirely to my taste (though to be honest, even these are few and far between). Here’s a selection of my favourites.
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – This is the first book in Connie Willis’s time travelling historian’s series. it was originally published in 1992, and released in the SF Masterworks series in 2012, so more of a modern classic. It is, however, an excellent book and one of my favourites in this series. There’s been various imitators (I don’t mean this disparagingly), but in my mind Connie Willis’s books are the original and best of the time travelling historians sub-sub-genre.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin – I’m really pleased that Le Guin is well represented in the SF Masterworks, and The Dispossessed is my favourite of her books. A good story, it introduced me to her Hainish books (even though technically it is one of the later books in the series, it doesn’t actually matter), and gave me a lot to think about – politics, society, philosophy…
The City and the Stars by Arthur C Clarke – This is one of the few SF books I read in my early teens, and has been a favourite ever since. Short, but manages to feel epic in scope as it tells the story of Diaspar, mankind’s last city. So good it gives me goosebumps.
The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney – The whole ‘invasion of the body snatchers’ is something of a worn cliche today, but this is the original book that started it all. It’s not a deep, thinky book but it’s a great story that I enjoyed immensely (and far more than I expected to as well).
Wasp by Eric Frank Russell – This is one of those books I’d n ever heard of before, and only found it because it was in the SF Masterworks series. The concept that a small wasp can cause havoc and destruction in an enclosed car is expanded out to the idea of an agent dropped into enemy territory to create mayhem. Inventive, clever and fun!
The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis – A great early take on the ‘alien who falls to earth and tries to fit in’ concept. It just reads really well. It’s also a film starring David Bowie (the pop star – strange but true) which I’ve yet to watch but is supposed to be good.
For more information on the SF Masterworks, visit the Gollancz SF Masterworks Web Pages.