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Chip’s Picks

One evening in chat, someone asked me for some “must-read” SF. I tossed together a list off the top of my cerebrum, and later posted it here on the site as a “Top Ten” list. I’ve decided to revisit the list as a series of blog posts, expanding upon the reasons behind some of my choices, and even updating my Very Favorites List here and there.

Let’s put the big ol’ disclaimer right up front: This is a highly-opinionated list, and my tastes may not be the same as yours. If you can’t imagine why I overlooked one of your favorites, or if you completely disagree with my inclusion of an author you hate…um, tough. I’ll be happy to compile a list of other readers’ favorites, though. Feel free to add your opinion in the comments section, or drop me a line at with your choices.

My inaugural “Chip’s Pick” will be: Robert A. Heinlein

Let’s start by mentioning something that Heinlein fans try not to talk about: Heinlein is a flawed author. He’s got some pretty funky ideas–particularly to modern eyes–about women, minorities, and politics. (Even though some of his misogyny and bigotry can be excused by taking into account the time when he was writing–in much the same way that James Thurber and Mark Twain seem jarringly bigoted to readers today–some of the positions he espoused were inflammatory even to his contemporaries, and he sometimes used science fiction as a cloak to promote ideas that were too uncomfortable for mainstream fiction.) The books he published after he became too famous to require the services of an editor make it abundantly clear that he needed the services of an editor. His characters–particularly in his juvenile novels–are preposterously well-prepared and -educated. The stuff he wrote after his stroke was dreck from beginning to end.

That being said, if I had to pick a single SF author as my very favorite, it’d be Heinlein. Better than any other author, he captured the sense of wonder, the limitless possibilities available to humanity, that is the very heart of science fiction. Heinlein’s humans triumph because they deserve to. His aliens hint at cultures beyond human ken. And, as many others have noted, he was the master of the throwaway detail (“The door irised open” tells you more about a milieu’s technology and architecture than two pages of Asimov).

Heinlein is a consummate storyteller, and definitely deserves his position as one of the Grandmasters of SF.

Books to look for include:

  • The Puppet Masters – Pretend you’ve never heard of a movie by this title, and just read the book. It’s one of the classic alien-invasion novels, and captures both the paranoia surrounding an infiltration and the pure human revulsion toward hostile aliens in a way that feels “real.”
  • The Door Into Summer – Boy builds robot, boy gets cheated out of his earnings, boy travels back in time and really socks it to his enemies. Oh, and boy gets girl, but that’s hardly the point. The technology is comically outdated (the hero builds a commercially successful house robot using vacuum tubes), but the storytelling couldn’t be better.
  • Glory Road – Heinlein’s attempt to reconcile fantasy with science fiction, the witches all use dramatically advanced technology and the dragons breathe fire by way of enzymes and methane. This one is a romp from beginning to end.
  • Have Space Suit, Will Travel – Heinlein’s “juvies” actually hold up pretty well even to an adult audience, and have the added advantage of not involving any message to speak of. Boy hero battles space pirates, meets alien races, proves that humans are really pretty neat, and saves the day. Fun!

Update: Oh, oh, oh! How could I have forgotten The Green Hills of Earth? A wonderful short story collection, part of Heinlein’s “Future History,” it contains both the titular story and The Black Pits of Luna, the story that got my dad–and by extension, me–hooked on SF in the first place.

Dan Simmons
Tim Powers
Neal Stephenson
Roger Zelazny
Richard Morgan

Posted in Books & Authors November 10th, 2006 by Chip
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