What SF is Great Literature?
Question from Jim Millen in the comment thread of the previous post:
Just out of curiosity, John, are there any SF books in particular that you would say are great literature? Obviously I guess this is going to be hugely subjective, but I’d be interested in what you, or anyone else for that matter, thinks.
I’m writing up a response, which I’ll post here as an update, but I don’t want the rest of you who would like to give your own answers to have to wait on me to finish. So if you would like to nominate some science fiction (or fantasy) that you think is genuinely great literature, please do. It would also be swell if you could at least briefly explain why that those works ring the “great lit” bell for you.
Update: Here are five of my “Great Lit” picks for SF/F:
Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley — generally regarded as the first SF novel, and sets the fiction template for future tussles between hubris-filled scientists and God/nature.
1984, by George Orwell — Once of the first and best evocations of a political dystopia, and one of the few SF books that is more important as political literature than as science fiction.
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury — Another dystopia, one that places literature itself in the crosshairs. I think The Martian Chronicles also qualifies, for being a brilliant testimony of the mid-20th century’s relationship with Mars.
Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin — Glorious writing that re-imagines New York into the sort of place that makes Oz look pedestrian. Arguably the best written fantasy novel ever.
The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman — Uneven (particularly in the parts when Gaiman had to pay fealty to the DC comic book universe) but ultimately one of the best examples of how the graphic novel format can be used to illuminate an already compelling tale (or set of tales in this case); it also features a main character tragically true to his own nature.
Alan Moore’s Watchman is also brilliant and arguably great lit, too, but for my money it’s a little too dependent on context (i.e., you have to know enough about comic books and superheroes to get all the deconstructing Moore does). The Sandman series is largely self-contained (even the previously-mentioned DC comics universe intrudes only lightly, and you can still get the full effect of the work without knowing anything about it — ask my wife).