That list of 10 scifi novels everyone pretends to have read

Oh lists, how I love you. Anyway, apparently there are people going around “pretending” to have read books they have not, in fact, read. Insert something about our increasingly conformist, status-hungry society… you know my themes. The books in this list are apparently Important so I guess people feel like they should have read them, and are too embarrassed to admit they haven’t. Well I’m not. A book you haven’t read is a book you haven’t thrown across the room in disgust or tossed in the donation bin at Goodwill. I’ve read a lot of books, some of them over and over. I’ve even read some of the books on the list. Here is my list:

1.Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. I’ve not read this. I looked through it at the bookstore and it just didn’t seem like my cup of tea. Still doesn’t.

2. Dune, by Frank Herbert. Oh come on. Who pretends they read this book? I was unaware that having a movie and a miniseries made from a book turns it from a cult classic into a Must Have Read (So Chillax With These Cliff Notes). Anyway, I’ve read it. I even reread it a couple of times. But sometime ago I lost interest in the whole Dune thing. Still, guess what my fave part of the book is: The footnotes, chapter quotes, and appendices just like in a “real” scholarly work only they refer to things inside the novel (as in, they all refer to not real things). I just love that kind of shit. But Jack Vance does them better.

3 Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. I have never read this and never will. Pretentious arse-wash.

4. Foundation, by Isaac Asimov. I read this in high school at the behest of a guy friend I ate lunch with. It was okay, but already seemed dated (one of the few female figures, as I recall, was the wife of some official, who the hero promptly won over — he was looking to get funding or something yawn INO — because he gave her some kind of high-tech gizmo that gave instant pretty dresses at the press of a button.

5. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. This book was a big disappointment to me. I couldn’t finish it. It started off delightfully, with fully drawn interesting characters and a unique situation. But it bogged down in the middle like nothing I’ve read. This was some serious bog time. Everyone in the book just seemed to stop in their tracks and go off into reminiscing mode. I can’t even say this was a big block of exposition or speechifying or any of the other things that ruin a book. I can’t say what it was actually, that slowed the story down so much that it felt like time really was slowing down. There were just too many scenes of fairies and their captive humans dancing dancing dancing.

6. 1984, by George Orwell. Nope, not read it. I mean to though. I did flip through a copy and found a scene where Winston has found a book with blank pages, and decided to start writing a diary. His first effort is so much like the first blog post of someone who has gotten into blogs for the first time that I laughed and laughed.

7. First and Last Men and Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon. This is very early scifi and is weird up the wazoo. I’ve read First and Last Men, can’t recall if I read Star Maker. You can find them if you go to Gutenberg e-text, but be prepared, because those old guys had really strange hobbies.

8. The Long Tomorrow, by Leigh Brackett. I’ve never even heard of this thing. I’ve read some other Leigh Brackett stuff. In any case, this would not be some of it, because in general I avoided and still avoid post-Apocalyptic novels. I just can’t. No one who is not my age or older remembers what it was like living under the constant fear that one or the other of the principals involved in the Cold War would eat a piece of bad fish, or break up with their girlfriend, or something, and then PHOOM it’s all over. Also maybe back then it was New and Now but eleventy-umpteen years and novels with interchangeable plots involving wandering across a post-nuke landscape and encountering religious crazies (always Christian or Christian-derived cults) and my phaser is set to “avoid as thou wouldst a band of ravenous radioactive mutants.”

9. Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delaney. Nnnoooo thanks. I’ve read a couple of Delaney novels (Babel-17 and Tales of Nevèrÿon) but was never attracted to his more arcane stuff.

10. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. I’ll pass, thanks. For one thing, I was traumatized by reading one of his short stories about a couple who accidentally boil their baby. As for this one, reading the plot is enough to keep me away. I have no patience with the constantly reiterated obsession Americans have with Daddy and celebrity.

Anyway, there you are. Some of them I’ve read, some I haven’t but plan to, some I haven’t and never will.

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32 thoughts on “That list of 10 scifi novels everyone pretends to have read

  1. I’ve heard a lot about the E. E. “Doc” Smith “Grey Lensman” series, and its influence upon some of the Golden Age greats, and I’ve tried to read some of it, but oh man, is it dated–an insurmountable “boop-boop-be-doo” factor, although I’m sure there’s a better term.

    • I read some of the Lensman as a yout’, from what I remember it was ok, a bit much wiith its ‘eilie corps of wise fellows with a magic dingus that fixes everything’ trope.

      It must have been better than some other of his stuff that I read recently in a pack of Kindle books. I’ve enjoyed for years Harry Harrison’s parody book ‘Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers’ about three fellows who save the universe using a uber weapon made from an old piece of chesse. Apparenltly it’s plot was lifted entirely from Doc Smith’s Skylark of Space series.

      • I tried to read Smith’s Lensman thing, via Gutenberg e-text. I got though a few pages. It has not… dated well.

      • An 30’s author I like a lot is Stanley Weinbaum. Last I checked the Australian Gutenberg had some of his stuff. His “A Martian Odyssey” is a classic, and a lot of his other stuff is pretty good too.

        He has a series about a ranting “Mad Scientist” inventor who invents some crazy thing, then his sidekick gets in trouble with it. One is an “Idealizer” that somehow produces your ultimate ideal X from your brain waves and shows it to you. Dummy sidekick uses “Girl”

  2. I read about the first quarter of Dune. It was notable because it was the first book I ever started and did not finish.

    I’ve read #4, #6, #7. I’m just surprised that the rest of the list is of books I never had heard anyone was even supposed to read.

    I won’t go defending Ikey’s understanding of women, but in the second and third book of the series a couple of ladies play major roles in the plot. Foundation itself is the most disconnected, since it was written as a bunch of shorter stuff. By the time of the other books, it paid well enough for him to output about half a book in a sitting, so it is less episodic and a bit more character driven, not that that is Asimov’s strong suit regardless.

    I’m not sure who drove the change, but pre-Heinlein and Asimov SF stories that I’ve read tended to have a more traditional romance story structure than is common for later SF. Many stories are the boy meets girl (on Venus), they do stuff and get attracted, there’s some impediment to true love, and at the end they are all fixed up to get married.

    • It’s been such a long time since I read the Foundation books that I can’t remember anything much about them. I recall that at the time I thought some of the ideas behind them were interesting, but they didn’t peg my “read them again” meter.

  3. Of those, I’ve only read “Jonathan Strange….” (and yes, I finished it, despite the bog-down section. I rather liked it and it does get better towards the end, or so I thought) and 1984 (had to, for school.)

    I remember my Great Books discussion section read excerpts of Gravity’s Rainbow (it was presented as a modern-day version of The Satyricon, which I also hated).

    I tend to be a little leery of reading sci-fi because so much of what I read as a teen was SO dystopian, and reading about dystopias now as a sad old adult just makes me twitch.

    I will say I really love the Connie Willis stuff I’ve read; she’s written several long short stories and a couple novels dealing with time travel. (“To Say Nothing of the Dog” is probably my favorite of them, but “Doomsday Book” is a VERY close second).

    I generally don’t read stuff because someone tells me I “should” read it; spent too many years in school to do that. I read stuff that looks interesting to me. (I don’t even really go that much by others’ recommendations because I’ve read some “recommended” books that I really disliked.)

    • My refuge from the dystopian stuff was writers like Andre Norton and Jack Vance. Norton’s writing was always hopeful, even her more downbeat stories, and Vance’s style of writing as if he’s looking at everything from a wry, ironic distance, was a great steadying influence in the weird environs of science fiction. Most dystopian novels, at least the ones written by American authors, just seem too heavy-handed to me.

      I haven’t gotten into Willis yet. I hear that British people have been very irritated by mistakes she made in some of her books about their history and getting other things wrong like British speech patterns. But I haven’t read anything of hers.

      • One thing I always liked about Vance is that he hits the ‘oddity’ dial perfectly – he makes worlds that are different enough to not seem like ‘today’ but not so bizarre that people aren’t acting like people.

        And his ‘Last Castle’ was the only Vietnam era “Low Tech beats the High Tech” story to not be ham handed and awful.

        The Magnus Ridolph stories are a favorite, and the Moon Moth world is the coolest world ever.

      • I think “Last Castle” is one of the few Vance books I haven’t read. I don’t know why.

  4. I’ve read the first six.

    Though I don’t think Gravity’s Rainbow is really “science fiction”. And I’ve never even understood why anyone wanted to read Wallace in the first place.

    • Apparently someone somewhere decided Gravity’s Rainbow was scifi, probably because they wanted to sound more impressive (“sure I read science fiction but one of the books I read was Gravity’s Rainbow!”). As for Wallace, I just don’t get the deal with him. Whenever his admirers talk about him it’s always about his “sentences.” I don’t care about “sentences.”

  5. Cryptonomicon Not read.

    Dune Good book. If only Herbert had stopped here – each sequel is a step further into the abyss of hackery.

    Gravity’s Rainbow Read fragments in high school; never had any further interest.

    Foundation Asimov’s characters always make me think of attendees at an academic reception. It’s been thirty years since I last read it and don’t see any need to break my streak.

    Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell One of those books that does nothing to entice me to pick up.

    1984 Read it and found it frightening at the time. Now I don’t want to read it – too many parallels with real life.

    First and Last Men and Star Maker Never heard of either.

    The Long Tomorrow Ditto.

    Dhalgren Struck me as bizarre the first time I read it. On a later re-reading there was no reason to review my impression.

    Infinite Jest Never heard of this one either.

    • First and Last Men is one of those ‘project the future’ things, like the Time Machine Eloi and Morlocks but even more so.

      Kind of like that 70’s song “In the Year 2525” in text form.

  6. Skip 1984. Read Brave New World. Much better. Though both have their moments.

    Dune hasn’t aged well, but it was a good attempt to do in SciFi what Tolkien did with fantasy, make the world a prime character in the story.

    Most of the “golden age” stuff, and even some of the later stuff – like Foundation – was aimed straight at teenage boys. Pass it all by. Even some of the better stuff by Clarke, and Heinlein is stuck in the 50s. Sort of like trying to watch the first iteration of Star Trek. Fahrenheit 451 is worth the time – too many references to “reality TV” to not take it a bit seriously.

    Try some Tepper – The Gate to Women’s Country. Something by Connie Willis. Doomsday Book or “To Say Nothing of the Dog.” (That last one can still make me laugh out loud.) Or Uncharted Territory.

    How did nothing by Le Guin make it onto a list of “must reads?” The Left Hand of Darkness.

    Same with nothing by Marion Zimmer Bradley. There is an entire cult – or there used to be – around the Renunciates of Darkover. Bujold.

    And I think most people could stand to read Alas Babylon (given its Cold-War-setting it has held up pretty well) or Lucifer’s Hammer. Though the last time I read that one, the Soviet Union still existed.

    • Most of the “golden age” stuff, and even some of the later stuff – like Foundation – was aimed straight at teenage boys. Pass it all by. Even some of the better stuff by Clarke, and Heinlein is stuck in the 50s. Sort of like trying to watch the first iteration of Star Trek. Fahrenheit 451 is worth the time – too many references to “reality TV” to not take it a bit seriously.

      Well part of the reason for that is the writers were about that age themselves. Older writers went on to more mainstream stuff where the rates were better. Locking in isn’t unique to those periods – I suffered through interminable “Vietnam on Planet X” stories in the 70s, and of course the End of the World gendre is dated to pre 80s. I even remember a “Fear of Aids” story from the mid 80s that was terrible.

      Never really caught on to Bradbury much myself. F-451 was pretty flat outside of the “ooh the bad fellows are burning books”, To me even as a kid the rewiriting history was more sinister, and possible.

    • Dune hasn’t aged well, but it was a good attempt to do in SciFi what Tolkien did with fantasy, make the world a prime character in the story.

      Hmmm. I can’t agree that Tolkien made the world a prime character. LotR was firmly rooted in his world but the characters were preeminent, if shaped by the setting (as are we all).

    • Hmm, you know, I think I’ll be the one to decide what to read. Anyway, Brave New World is also on my “to read” list.

      I’ve tried reading Tepper, because feminism, but she has a hectoring style that put me off. And I don’t like dystopias, utopias, post-apocalyptic, in general. I’ll give exceptions to some stories, but they have to have a pull other than “the world as we knew it ended now everything sucks even worse!” I’ve read quite a few of all of these (since a large amount of scifi is of this sort) so I know what I’m talking about.

      I’m surprised too at the lack of Le Guin, though actually this is a list of “pretend to have reads” not must-reads. So I can only conclude that most people either read her stuff or are open about their lack of interest.

  7. I love reading the responses to posts like this, Andrea, thank you.

    Read Foundation and 1984 (not for class, I moved to the school the year after they were required). Remember little or nothing about them. Have heard of Dune, naturally – because there was a movie, I guess.

    Some people I know think each of these books and their writers are brilliant. As Oldcat says, ‘must reads’ that I didn’t read, and it doesn’t bother me at all.

    • I read Dune pre-all the movies, back when it was still a thing with hippies and the avant-garde in general. It was supposed to be different from the most popular scifi, which at least in the imaginations of the public was mostly thinly disguised Westerns + boy’s own adventure tales. And it was different — the author tried to do something with the idea of actually living on alien planets and what sort of societies would come about, how they would deal with each other, etc. It wasn’t very much like Tolkien as the world-building wasn’t simply a looking-back to a simpler, time on our own Earth. Just because your story contains an imaginary world doesn’t mean you’re like J.R.R.T.

  8. Haven’t heard of half the books on that list, and haven’t read any of them except for “1984.”

  9. I found this comment left by one “JC” in the spam queue. It’s one of those “is it or isn’t it” things that seem to make sense at first and then you read it a second time and say “what?” Here it is:

    1984 is key to understanding the premise behind Big Brother and it’s easy to see it in practice today by government. Here’s a simple example.

    FEMA says: Be prepared.
    NDAA says: Persons who are prepared may be considered a domestic threat.

    Conclusion, George Orwell is running the DHS.

    Without freedom, you can’t be anything–not even a songwriter, a film maker, or a blogger.
    Without freedom, you can’t do anything–except what you’re told to do.

    See what I mean?

  10. I’ve read Cryptonomicon about four times. I just got addicted somehow. It’s like comfort food. My real book-comfortfood is anything by William Gibson. I got most of the way through Dune before I became comatose and dropped over off the couch and waited to be eaten by Ewoks. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, as you say, got tedious around the middle but I forced myself to finish, like it was a serving of kale forced on me by my grandmother and there was no dog handy to sleigh-of-hand-devour it for me.

    • Maybe I’ll try Cryptonomicon, I don’t know. My attention span isn’t what it used to be. Re Gibson… I read his first famous story, Johnny Mnemonic, in Omni Magazine. I liked it, but for some reason just couldn’t get into cyberpunk after that. Maybe it’s the noir voice, which already is an inhuman, distant style that (imho) needs the humanizing touch of being set in the past? Or maybe it’s just that after things like Max Headroom and all those Billy Idol videos I couldn’t take it seriously.

      I sort of gave up on Strange and Norrell and skipped through it to the end, not at all my usual reading style. (I’m usually a grimly-forcing-myself-to-finish person, but as my attention span has lessened, so has my patience with finishing a book that has gone dull.)

  11. Anything by Thomas Pynchon should not be read. (And “anything” isn’t a title, either.)

    I used to read SF, and then I grew out of it when I started learning more about the human condition (at about age 19).

    I have read 1984 about six or seven times, but I first read it at age 15 — it was a set work for English Lit in our high school. Now it’s just a companion piece to the daily news.

    • My relationship with scifi is a strange one. I just don’t like most of the stuff most scifi fans care about, apparently. Also Western scifi in general has become about as interesting to me as the words on the back of a cereal box, and seems designed mostly either to get people to vote for (politician) or to buy these cool toys/see the movie. I’ve recently started reading some non-Western scifi and fantasy, where the innovation and energy SFF used to be known for seems to have gone.

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