Must Reads

Enter here to tales of yore,

Everyone has their list of books that they think are amazing.  We tend to tell people that they must read these books, thus the title, must reads.  However, while there are a lot of great books out there, and a lot of books that are beneficial to read, there are relatively few books or authors that one ‘must read’.  Books/authors that one ‘must read’ are books/authors that have become foundational to a particular genre, or that have significantly changed that genre in some way.  So, I have compiled a list of ‘must reads’ for Science Fiction and Fantasy fans.  You will not that this list is relatively short (comparatively speaking) and at least a few books that you think should be on it, aren’t.  Again, these are books/authors that founded or significantly altered the genre.

Isaac Asimov: Asimov wrote numerous short stories and a number of novels.  However, he is best known for his Foundation Trilogy.  Asimov effectively founded the Science Fiction genre, and thus is definitely a must read.

J.R.R. Tolkien:  Tolkien was a prolific author, so prolific that books of his short stories and still be found and newly published by his descendants.  Best know for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien is to fantasy what Asimov is to Science Fiction.

C.S. Lewis: While not as prolific a fiction author, nor as influential to the genre as Tolkien, Lewis’s work and relationship with Tolkien are both significant to the genre.

Edgar Allan Poe: Poe is not the first person to come to mind when one thinks of sci-fi/fantasy.  His work primarily belongs to the genres of horror and mystery, but the influence of Poe’s writing is felt throughout the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres and thus he is a must read for any fan.

H.P. Lovecraft: Like Poe, Lovecraft’s writing belongs primarily in the realm of horror.  However, Lovecraft’s influence is also felt throughout all three genres, and to truly understand any of them, one must be familiar with his work.

Frank Herbert: Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune are all profoundly influential novels that have helped to shape the sci-fi genre in its entirety.  It is difficult to find a good sci-fi author (or film maker) who has not been influenced by Herbert’s work.

Of many man and dragons score,

Robert Heinlein: Like Herbert, Heinlein is a name that should be familiar to all sci-fi fans.  While Herbert dealt more with the philosophical, Heinlein’s fiction deals with practical and political concerns.  Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers are suggested.

George Orwell: While there are many great dystopian authors, Orwell is arguably the most prolific and influential (thought both Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley rank only slightly lower).  Animal Farm and 1984 are suggested.

Sir Thomas More:  More’s novel Utopia (1516) is responsible for the great flood of dystopian fiction of the 20th century.  While the novel itself is not a must read, familiarity with its ideas is important.

George Macdonald: Macdonald was a significant influence on the work of both Tolkien and Lewis, and many consider Macdonald’s writing to be the first true fantasy written for adults.  Phantastes is recommended (although my favorites have always been The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdy, though these are written for children).

Robert E. Howard: Best known for Conan The Barbarian, and his many short stories involving this character.  It is argued that Howard introduced the first protagonist with a significantly different moral structure in fantasy.

Ursula K. Leguin: The Earthsea series is almost as foundational to the development of modern fantasy as Tolkien’s work.

Terry Brooks: While his work is often as maligned as it is loved among fans of the fantasy genre, the Shannara series led a major change in the way that fantasy was published (if not the way that it was written) and opened doors for many other fantasy authors.

And of the living lands all covered in war.

Stephen R. Donaldson: Donaldson’s work in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever stood side by side with Brooks’ Shannara novels in reintroducing the fantasy genre to the American public.

Glen Cook:  While Brooks and Donaldson changed the way that fantasy was published, Cook changed the way that fantasy was written.  Before Cook the fantasy genre was dominated by stories about kings, princes, and maidens.  The tales tended to revolve around men and women of significant power and influence, who changed the world.  Cook’s The Black Company changed this focus.  Cook’s series looks at fantasy through the eyes of the soldier, the mercenary, and the peasant.  Instead of great heroes, Cook’s protagonists are men and women who’s primary goal is to stay alive, and to get home with all their parts intact.

Should You Avoid Cliches?

Why do you think no one writes about Hobbits?

The short answer to this question is, yes.  You should always do your best to avoid cliches.  I mentioned in an earlier post that you should think long and hard before allowing a cliche into your work.  Generally, even when you do it intentionally, a cliche is going to come off as just that, a cliche.  It will seem trite, silly, and obvious and will bring the entirety of your work down a level.

Now I know you’re thinking, ‘but what about so and so? He had such and such?’  Yes, most of your favorite authors probably have cliches in their work.  They can get away with this for two reasons, 1)When they were writing, those cliches weren’t cliches (it is often the best authors that actually create a cliche, because everyone copies them) and 2) They are better writers than you.  Unless you really, honestly think that you are the next J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, or Steven Erikson (and have outside, professional corroboration of this opinion) then you can’t judge what you can do by what they can do.

Think of it this way: You’re trying to lose weight.  Your best friend, however, is the kind of person that never puts on a pound and runs five miles a day.  Your friend can get away with eating two cheeseburgers and three jelly donuts for lunch.  You, on the other hand, probably need to stick with a salad.  Right now, stick with the salad.  You’ll get better, you’ll get published, you’ll find an audience that loves you.  Then, if you still want to, you can start writing those stories about farm boy heros, timid princesses, and fearless knights.

I mean really! Tolkien is responsible for a lot of the cliches in the fantasy genre!

The other thing you need to realize, and I’ve mentioned this before, is that everyone sees different cliches.  Personally I tend to think that the entire Medieval Fantasy genre is cliche.  I’ll only read the best of the best of the best when it comes to Medieval Fantasy, because I don’t like it.  Give me Oriental fantasy, ancient fantasy, South American fantasy…actually I’d love to see some South American or African Fantasy.  I can only think of one South American fantasy novel that I’ve seen (and it didn’t look very good), and no fantasy in a strictly native African setting.

Personally most of what I’ve written has been fantasy with either a Middle Eastern or Oriental setting, a little in a Native American styled setting.

I say this so that you realize that, at least for some people, entire genres can be considered cliche.  This is not to say that any specific genre is entirely horrible (there are many people that love Medieval Fantasy), but that people define cliche differently on a regular basis.  There are even some people that love cliches, and seek them out (though these people are generally not publishers).

So, to sum up all of my posts on this topic in one sentence: Avoid cliches, but don’t be afraid of them.