Classics Club Round-Up 1 – Science Fiction

When I joined the Classics Club back in June 2016, I created a list of 90 books which I planned to read and review during the next five years. That has stretched out a bit to nearly six years, but I’m now reading the very last books. I divided the original list into five sections: American, English, Scottish, Crime and Science Fiction. So rather than trying to summarise the whole thing in one post, I’ve decided to give each section a post to itself as I complete it. Here’s the first…

THE SCI-FI SECTION

This turned into a bit of a roller-coaster ride. I knew in advance that I’ve never been a huge fan of science fiction, especially modern SF, but I hoped that by reading some of the recognised greats I’d learn to love it. Hmm. The best-laid plans and all that! I discovered that I love Wyndham and Wells, that Verne is my type of guy, and that Nevil Shute’s venture into speculative fiction is excellent. Asimov is feeling a little dated but is still interesting. Tarzan is fun, feminist literature bores me to tears, and Clifford D Simak deserves further investigation. I also learned that, with very few exceptions, I don’t like modern SF at all! (Modern in the sense of 1950s and ’60s, that is.) It’s occasionally crass, sometimes misogynistic and often badly written. And fantasy is not and never will be my thing. So, in fact, mostly I confirmed what I already knew…

Starting with the bad and working up towards the good then:

ABANDONED

Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs

The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Starship Troopers by Robert A Heinlein

The Drowned World by JG Ballard

Five abandoned or decided against out of the fifteen original selections will give some indication of how I struggled with this section. My own rule was that if I abandoned a book too early to review I’d replace it with an alternative. How tired I became of searching for SF books that tempted me without simply sticking to the two or three authors I already knew I enjoyed! These were nearly all abandoned for the crime of being dull, except Naked Lunch which I realised from the blurb and reviews I really didn’t want to even start. I did manage to finish some books that I hated even more…

THE BAD ONES

Bad is, of course, a subjective term. The quotes are from my reviews.

Earth Abides by George R Stewart – “As post-apocalyptic books go, this is the dullest I’ve ever tried to read. In a world full of interesting people, what a pity that tedious Ish is the one who survived…”

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – “If you want to read about a vile man doing vile things in a vile society, highly recommended!”

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – “Interesting, if you want to have nightmares about a world with no quarrelling, no disputes, no politics, no ambition beyond motherhood and child-rearing; and worse – no Anne and Gilbert, no Jane and Mr Rochester, no Cathy and Heathcliff, no flirting, no sex, no dancing, and no Darcy! Me, I’ll stay in this world and just keep striving for equality, thanks very much.”

THE MIDDLING ONES

Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke – “Overall, then, it didn’t wow me as much as I’d hoped, but I’m still glad to have read it, partly because it’s considered a classic in its own right, and partly because I was intrigued to read the book that inspired Kubrick [to make 2001: A Space Odyssey].”

Foundation by Isaac Asimov – “Sad news, sisters – apparently even in the distant future all scientists, politicians and even criminals will be men. Still, at least we’ll have automatic washing machines…”

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin – “This book, written in post-revolutionary Russia in 1920, has an eerie familiarity about it. This is because it has basically the same story as both Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, both of which have borrowed so heavily from it it feels close to theft.”

Wild Harbour by Ian MacPherson – “The book is a bleak account of this survivalist life – there’s no attempt to present some kind of false idyll. And as the distant war rumbles closer, the story turns bleaker yet, with the tone becoming almost dystopian towards the end.”

The Society of Time by John Brunner – “It’s very well done, although I admit that sometimes the complex paradoxes left my poor muddled brain reeling – this is my normal reaction to time paradoxes though!”

Hari Seldon from Foundation, long after he’s dead…

THE GOOD ONES

Way Station by Clifford D Simak – “The concept of the way station allows for all kinds of imaginative aliens to visit, and Simak makes full use of the opportunity, plus the actual method of intergalactic travel is both fascinating and disturbing – personally I’ll wait till they get Star Trek-style matter transference working, I think!”

Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas by Jules Verne – “And what adventures! They will visit coral reefs and underwater passages between seas; they will slaughter all kinds of things for food or fun; they will visit islands inhabited only by savage tribes and find themselves in danger of being slaughtered themselves for food or fun, which seems like poetic justice to me!”

The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells – “Read purely as an adventure, this is a dark and terrifying story indeed, from the first pages when Prendick and his fellow survivors are afloat on an open sea with no food and running out of fresh water, to the scenes on the island when Dr Moreau’s experiments go horrifically wrong.”

The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells – “[Cavor]’s one of these scientists who is so obsessed with his own theories and experiments, he doesn’t much care what impact they might have on other people – even the possibility that he might accidentally destroy the world seems like an acceptable risk to him. He simply won’t tell the world it’s in danger, so nobody has to worry about it.”

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs – “It’s a sort of innocent charm – I feel sure he’d be amazed and appalled if he thought he’d offended anyone. He so truly believes that white Anglo-Saxons are the pinnacle of evolution and that women will forgive any little character flaws (like cannibalism, for example) so long as a man has rippling biceps and the ability to fight apes single-handed.”

On the Beach by Nevil Shute – “We are uniquely creative in finding ways to bring our species to the brink of extinction, so the question of whether we will face our communal death with dignity is ever present. Shute chooses to suggest that we will. I’m not so sure.”

Johnny Weissmuller playing Tarzan…

THE BEST ONE

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – “Josella has as strong a survival instinct as any of the men and an equal ability to adapt to new ways of living. She’s witty and amusing and occasionally a little wicked. She’s a true partner for Bill, rather than a pathetic encumbrance that he has to protect. She is, without exception, the best female character I can think of in science fiction of this era and indeed for decades to come.”

* * * * *

So it may have been a struggle at points, but I found enough good and great books to make it all worthwhile. Thanks for your company on my journey!

64 thoughts on “Classics Club Round-Up 1 – Science Fiction

  1. Great write up, FF. Sci-fi is definitely not my genre, but I admire a number of examples, including On The Beach and Day of the Triffids. I recently watched the BBC’s 1981 mini-series of the latter, a fascinating philosophical exploration of how to re-build in a post-crisis world. A little close to the bone, perhaps. On my list is Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel – though this one is almost too close for comfort.

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    • Station Eleven is too recent to be included here but I enjoyed it too and am intrigued by the sound of her new one. I love the more thoughtful approach of Wells, Shute and Wyndham – they really use SF to explore humanity, rather than being interested in the SF aspects for itself, if that makes sense. But on the whole I think I’ll stick to the tried and true in SF from now on!

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  2. This is a genre where I’ve had very limited explorations. I have read The Day of the Triffids – all too convincing! Of your other favourites, I’ve only read On the Beach, and I remember its increasingly oppressive atmosphere. Way Station and Twenty Thousand Leagues are on my TBR. Good on you for persevering to eventually find some satisfying reading.

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    • I read quite a lot of SF from the library when I was young, but again more of the older stuff than what was contemporary then – probably the ’70s and ’80s. The ones that work for me are where the authors are more interested in the impact of the situation on the humans involved, rather than the science stuff itself. It was a slog getting through some of these but I’m glad it persuaded me to re-read Wells and Wyndham, and finally get around to Verne!

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  3. SciFi isn’t generally my think, FictionFan, if I’m being honest. But I do respect a well-written story with strong characters. I’m glad you found some good ‘uns here, even if you did have to wade through some DNFs. And well done on finishing the Classics Club challenge – I’m impressed!

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    • It was interesting seeing if my tastes had changed since I abandoned SF long ago, but unfortunately they really haven’t. It was a slog sometimes getting through these, but I’m glad it tempted me to re-read Wells and Wyndham, and finally get around to exploring Verne! My next Classics Club list is less adventurous, I think, but hopefully that will lead to fewer abandonments…

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  4. I remember many of the reviews you allude to here, and generally agree where our assessments overlap, but could I not persuade you that the Bradbury is worth a second glance? My review might help persuade you: https://wp.me/p2oNj1-1X5

    Interestingly I borrowed the triffids book from the library last year for SciFiMonth as a reread half a century or so after first enjoying it, but somehow just wasn’t in the mood. Ho hum, another time probably.

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    • I loved Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles but I fear you can’t tempt me with this one – it’s a while since I tried it now but I don’t think I got far with it at all, and I didn’t much enjoy another of his too, From the Dust Returned. I wasn’t even thrilled by Fahrenheit 451!

      It had been ages since I last read Triffids too and I think I actually liked it even more this time round – lots of thoughtful philosophical stuff that I probably skimmed over when I was a young’un.

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  5. Science fiction is indeed subjective. I found Earth Abides engaging and Asimov’s books not at all what I had hoped. Strongly suggest Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven. Have you considered Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker books? HG Wells does seem to hold his own after all these years. Do you consider dystopian to be part of science fiction? Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games, Divergent and the like?

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    • I liked Asimov a lot back in the day but I don’t think he’s ageing very well. Some of the much older writers seem to have managed to imagine a future where things are different, but Asimov has really just stuck 1950s society into the future. I did read and enjoy Fahrenheit 451, but didn’t love it – I loved The Martian Chronicles though! I haven’t read any Le Guin novels, but came across a short story of hers in an anthology recently and thoroughly enjoyed it. Actually in general for me, SF works best in the short story form – it’s only the novels I struggle with. I enjoy what I think of as “real” dystopias – things that might actually happen, like viruses or nuclear winters or climate destruction. But as soon as it gets to “fantasy” dystopias it loses me, I’m afraid. I think I’m stuck in the real world for better or worse!

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    • I loved Asimov back in the day but he does seem to have aged rather more than some of them, probably because his books really just stick people form the 1950s into the future! The Day of the Triffids is definitely worthy of your time.

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  6. A very good idea to go a section at a time (which was also a very good idea). Needless to say I haven’t read any of these but I’m encouraged to read the Verne and Shute. But most of all I think you deserve a massive pat on the back for keeping up with a genre you weren’t sure of and not just resting on your favourites, looking forward to your next round up!

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    • The Verne is very good as a sort of cross between SF and adventure novel, whereas the Shute is much more about how people react to the impending end of the world – very thoughtful, even if I did disagree with Shute about how we’d behave. Ha, it was interesting trying to find SF I liked and I did find some, but I’m kinda glad to be done with it now. There are a few on my new list, but all bar one are from authors I already know I enjoy.

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  7. Enjoyed inspecting the list! I actually do like sci-fi, mostly because I grew up reading my dad’s mass market paperbacks of “Golden Age” authors (think Heinlein, Asimov, Bester, Leigh Brackett etc). At that age, it was like reading tales! I’m afraid I’m not a big H.G. Wells fan (I need to try him again as an adult) & I’ve missed Day of the Trifids, which I may check out at some point. At this point, my forays into speculative fiction are usually in the fantasy genre, provided the book isn’t a Tolkien ripoff.
    I’ve read & liked On the Beach; Way Station; The Stars My Destination (we differ on this one!) & Childhood’s End (probably my favorite Arthur Clarke).
    As a teenage, I liked Asimov’s Foundation series. I tried re-reading it about 20 years ago and couldn’t manage — the writing was just too clunky. You are correct in perceiving that Asimov’s future is like Asimov’s present — totally male, but then, that was the sci-fi world back in his days (it was also very white). Things are now very different, with the advent of so many very talented women writers. Have you seen the television adaptation of the Foundation? It’s only loosely based on the books but it’s really updated the characters, so that many are women and many are people of color.
    As you say, “good” is a subjective term. I’m not a huge Bradbury fan, but Something Wicked isn’t too bad IMO.
    Starship Troopers? I read ALL the Heinlein stuff; at the tender age (this was considered young adult fiction) in which I did so, I didn’t notice the nazi overtones. Have you seen the movie? It’s appalling BUT if you look at it as satire, cheesily amusing as well. Although much of Heinlein’s stuff is incredibly sexist by todays standards, back in his day it wasn’t too horrible — he had women engineers & pilots for example (I think his wife was an engineer); while the main character was invariably male, at least his women did something!
    I’ve no desire to read Naked Lunch. I also struggle with J.G. Ballard and resolve the problem by avoiding his work!

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    • I read a fair amount of it back when I was a teenager, partly from the library, partly because my older sister used to force them on me – she was a huge SF and fantasy fan all her life. But while I always loved the older stuff like Wells, the then contemporary stuff (’70s and ’80s) never really worked for me. I did love Asimov though, but I find he’s dated quite a bit more than even others writing at the same time. He seemed to imagine future technology better than he could imagine a future society. I haven’t seen Foundation, but am not much of a fan of them messing with books so even if they’ve improved it it would probably annoy me! I re-read all five of Wells’ SF stories recently and thought they were wonderful – even better than I’d remembered, saying a lot about his society and the science of his time.
      My favourite Clarke (of the two I’ve read!) is Space Odyssey – I had such fun with the book and the film a couple of years ago. The only Bradbury I’ve loved is The Martian Chronicles – everything else I’ve tried has either been just Ok or not for me.
      Haha, I don’t think I got far enough with Starship Troopers to notice any Nazi stuff! It was all the bombs that got to me. My comment on Goodreads says: ” ‘I saw a building and directed a bomb with a funny name at it. It blew up. I saw another building and directed another bomb with an equally funny name at it. It blew up.’ Ad nauseam. If only I had a bomb with a funny name I could blow this book up.” 😉

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    • I loved The Princess of Mars and the next couple in the series! Tarzan is just as enjoyable, though being set on this planet means you have to contend with some outdated attitudes. I was fairly easily able to overlook them though and just enjoy it for what it is! I have his The Land That Time Forgot trilogy on my new Classics Club list. 😀

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  8. I’m amazed you haven’t offed yourself, considering how bleak many of these books sound. Maybe one indicator of a book’s quality is the font size ratio between the title/author’s name. As the ratio approaches 0, so does the quality of the book.

    I read On the Beach as required in high school and must say that it was far too depressing for me to enjoy it. I also recall trying to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when I was a child and abandoning it probably a quarter of the way through. If Verne wanted to create the sensation of drowning in words, he was successful. I’ve never had the urge to pick it back up.

    But the Triffids book sounds like it has potential.

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    • Hahaha, I shall look out for that ration in future! Yes, there’s an awful lot of dystopia in SF, but it appears we humans don’t like happy books! 😉

      On the Beach is interesting for what it says about how we would deal with such an eventuality, but it is definitely depressing! Haha, it was a new translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues I read, and it was very good, but there was still an awful lot of stuff about fish classifications! Between it and Moby Dick I must be an expert on sea creatures by now…

      The Day of the Triffids is great – worthy of your time!

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    • I don’t remember if I watched it but I’d imagine I would have. I was a big TV fan back then and watched most book adaptations. But it clearly didn’t leave an indelible impression on my memory!

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      • That’s the series I just finished watching on DVD! It was particularly interesting for the way it grappled with different ways of rebuilding society after catastrophic collapse. And the triffids were suitably scary!

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        • It sounds like it must have stuck quite closely to the book then, since that was what made it so interesting too. I’m pretty sure I have some triffids in my back garden… 😉

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  9. I have grown to love both classic and contemporary SF in my adult life. (I read very little of it as a child or teen… and I guess some of what would have been contemporary then is classic now! 😂) I’ve read two of your abandoned books and will agree that the Heinlein was pretty bad. (but not as bad as the film, which my husband loves 🙄) The Bradbury was not my favorite his, but it was okay. I enjoyed Earth Abides, and loved Way Station and The Day of the Triffids (which makes me hopeful for The Chrysalids). Several others here are on my CC list, so fingers crossed.

    I didn’t know Emily St. John Mandel had a new book! I’ll have to watch for it at my library. I loved her last two novels.

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    • I wish I enjoyed it more. As you know, I love the SF short story anthologies – it always works better for me in that format than novels. And a few of the less well known ones the BL has brought out have been interesting, the Muriel Jaeger ones for instance. I want to read more Simak, and continue re-reading my way through Wyndham – he wrote some great stuff, and I’m pretty confident we’ll both enjoy The Chrysalids! Yes, it’s called Sea of Tranquility, and I think it’s due out in April – it sounds interesting. I didn’t love Station Eleven, but I liked it well enough to give her another try…

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      • Have you read Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man? It’s a collection of short stories (I listened on audio) and I thought several of them were very good.

        And speaking of contemporary… I think you mentioned liking The Martian by Andy Weir? I read Project Hail Mary last year and liked it every bit as much. I’ve yet to read Artemis.

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        • I haven’t, but I loved his The Martian Chronicles – he’s another one who works better for me in the short story format, so I might give The Illustrated Man a try sometime. I loved The Martian, and then hated Artemis – it was like YA with added swearing. So I was too wary to try Project Hail Mary but I’ve been hearing so many people praise it… tempted…

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  10. I have to admit I would struggle with this group except for ‘We’ which was interesting to me because it was actually a rather accurate picture of what was happening in the early Soviet Union. Reading some of Ursula K. Le Guin’s more traditional science fiction titles will be interesting!

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    • I was in the middle of a Russian Revolution reading marathon when I read We, so it fitted very well with that, and I was intrigued at how influential it had obviously been on Huxley and Orwell, and probably dozens of other writers during that era.

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  11. Interesting way to present the round-up. You had quite a lot of good books, so that’s really good. I’m not into sci-fi, although I read a book I loved, Ender’s Game. The ending for that book is heartbreaking and unexpected, well worth reading.

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  12. Kudos for sticking to the task, FF. I’m assuming there will not be an SF section on your second list! I’m also not a huge fan of the genre but I loved Wyndham’s books back in the day and was spooked by On the Beach. But I read these decades ago. Maybe I should revisit ..🤔 I’m disappointed to see that Something Wicked was THAT bad for you. Each to her own of course, and in some ways I’m glad it was that bad: A one-star review of it would have made painful reading for this fan! 😂

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    • Ha, no – both American fiction and SF have been relegated to a few books each this time round, on the grounds that I feel I’ve suffered enough! 😉 Wyndham and Wells were the highlights for me, but both were re-reads – I read most of their books back in the day and loved them so they were safe bets! I wish I liked fantasy but it never works for me, or very rarely anyway, so I really must stop trying. I’ve liked other Bradbury stuff, though, mainly his short stories.

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    • I think you might enjoy The Day of the Triffids. It isn’t nearly as horrific as Doctor Moreau – that one really does have some upsetting stuff in it! The triffids seem almost cuddly in comparison! 😉

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    • I was going to watch the movie after I’d read the book. Needless to say that didn’t happen! I’ve tried with SF and some of it has been great but I’m still not really a fan. Too many awful ones (in my opinion, of course). A pity, but there it is!

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  13. I enjoyed this post, FF! You did a great job summarizing things. I, too, read quite a bit of SF during my younger years, but I haven’t read much in that genre lately. Perhaps I need to remedy that? And I just might start with some of the ones you’ve listed here that you particularly enjoyed — thanks for the nudge!

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    • Thanks, Debbie! It’s odd, because I quite like SF on TV or movies, and I enjoy short stories, but I so often find the novels dull or offensive, or both! Maybe I need to read really modern stuff some time and see if it’s any better – but I’m going to have bit of a break from it for a while, I think!

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    • It’s a genre I wish I liked more than I do, but there are some great books in it – mostly the older classics. I think you’d enjoy The Day of the Triffids. The SF part is really just a way of destroying society and providing a few thrills – the bulk of the book is a kind of debate of what kind of society we could and would create if we had the chance to start again from scratch. It’s fascinating and has a great female character, which is quite unusual in SF!

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  14. I am more of a SF reader, but I really dislike a lot of SF from this period – I prefer either older or more contemporary work. Your comments therefore really made me laugh (especially on Foundation! I think Asimov did better when he just forgot to include women altogether than when he tried to incorporate them into his vision of the future). I loved Triffids but haven’t much liked any of Wyndham’s other work so far – I haven’t tried him in a while though, and you’ve reminded me that I do still want to read the rest of his stuff, just to see if any of it lives up to that level!

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    • I loved both Asimov and Wyndham years ago, but am enjoying re-reading Wyndham more than Asimov. I think Asimov was even quite out-dated in his attitudes when he was contemporary! But he did give us the Three Laws of Robotics and R Daneel Olivaw, so I forgive him. I’ve read very little really modern SF so don’t have an opinion on what it’s like now – I suppose I ought to find out sometime, but it’ll have to wait till I recover from some of these…

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    • I’ll go on with books from the authors I know I like, and maybe a couple that I feel I *ought* to read, but on the whole I think SF will be drifting back onto the back-burner. I always enjoy SF short stories more than novels, though, so I’ll still be reading some anthologies probably.

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