The Rest of the Big Three

I’ve already mentioned Asimov, whose most important works I’ve read, excepting his Robot series. He published over 500 books in his lifetime, however, so I’ll never really be done Asimov. When I see a second-hand copy of an out-of-print story or essay collection, I’ll always pick it up. But what about the other two writers comprising the “Big Three of Science Fiction”?

I think I can equally say I’ve read Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s most important stuff. The entire Rama series (the original works as a stand-alone but the later sequels are also minor gems, I think), the entire Space Odyssey series (which is solid enough, but of course the original, 2001, is the only must-read), one of his most well-known stand-alones, Childhood’s End.

Missing from that list is The City and the Stars, The Fountains of Paradise, and I’d like to read his last published book, co-written with Frederik Pohl, The Last Theorem. It started with Clarke’s outline but he got so sick that Pohl pretty much did all the heavy lifting himself. He finished a final draft, Clarke took a look and was happy with it, and died days later. So all three of those are on my list.

Robert A. Heinlein is possibly less prolific than Clarke, and certainly much less so than Asimov. But I have the most catching up to do with him. I’m definitely considering reading every single one of his novels, which is probably why I’m much further behind than the other two.

His work is generally broken into early-, middle-, and late-period Heinlein. Early Heinlein includes the Golden-Age short stories in Astounding and other magazines (a good chunk of which I’ve read), and his juvenile novels for Scribner (plus a few non-juveniles written under pen-names during the same period). I’ve read about half of the juveniles, leaving perhaps five or six to go. His last book of this period is Starship Troopers, and also the most influential, but there’s a lot of good stuff in this period and it’s worth reading almost all of it.

Middle-period Heinlein includes what are generally considered his greatest works: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land were both written during this period of the 1960s and early 1970s. I plan to read all of these (excepting possibly his fantasy novel, Glory Road), but having read his two most important works, Moon and Stranger, the ones I really need to read next are Farnham’s Freehold and Time Enough for Love.

After a period of ill health, Heinlein began writing again in the ’80s. These last few novels generally aren’t considered his best work, tending to meander and proselytize a bit on his political beliefs. That said, while his plotting was less tight, some of those flashes of brilliance that make Heinlein great still occurred, at least by some accounts.

I haven’t read any late Heinlein, but plan on reading at least The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and we’ll see where I go from there. Job: A Comedy of Justice was, apparently, flawed, but also important, so we’ll see.

I should note, though, there have been far more than three important SF writers the last 70 years. I’m familiar with Pohl but not Bester, Silverberg and Haldeman but not Niven or Ellison, Bujold but not LeGuin. There’s still a lot of catching up to do.

Getting Through Asimov

Isaac Asimov published nearly 500 books in his lifetime. An oft repeated (but incorrect) claim is that Asimov has published at least one book for every category of the Dewey Decimal system. In reality he missed one, the 100 category, philosophy and psychology. Still, it’s an impressive body of work.

I have no intention of devoting that much reading time to a single author, but I’ve been hitting his major works over the last several years. His Empire series, his Foundation series (the original trilogy, but not the later books of the ’80s), two of his most critically successful novels, The Gods Themselves and, just yesterday, I read The End of Eternity (pretty good, an epic tale of time travel).

The only real “must-read” left on my Asimov list is his Robots stories (on which the film I, Robot, starring Will Smith was based). This is a bit funny, because years before I’d actually read anything by him, back in high school, I did know the name Isaac Asimov, and the one thing I knew about him is that he had written some science fiction wherein he laid out the “Three Laws of Robotics”:

1) A robot may not harm a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm.

2) A robot must obey human beings, unless this would conflict with the first law.

3) A robot must protect itself, so long as this does not come in conflict with the first two laws.

That’s from memory. I’m sure just about everyone has heard of those before, even previous to the Will Smith movie. Part of the delay in reading the works in question that I’ve been trying to make sure I got the right collection. It’s not as easy as a book series; I don’t want a “best of” collection that randomly picks robot stories. I’m looking to get the complete set of stories in publication order, and it’s not always clear on product descriptions what collections include which stories. I did get the I, Robot collection to start, and will read it when I’m back in Canada.

That’s not to say I’ll be “done” with Asimov after that. But when it comes to the classics, including sci-fi classics, I try to hit the most important stuff first. I may eventually read everything Heinlein’s written, for example, but when I decided to check him out for the first time, I started with Stranger in a Strange Land, then Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I didn’t stop there, but if I hadn’t happened to like him, I would at least have wanted to see what the fuss was about with those particular novels.