The Grauniad is listing “1000 novels everyone must read” and lately the sf/f novels on the list have been bouncing around the genresphere. It was almost instantly memed. You were supposed to italicize the ones you’d read, strikethrough the ones that induced an existential crisis, and smear butterscotch pudding on the rest. (Finally, a use for butterscotch pudding!) Or something like that.
Who am I to resist a meme? (You can’t spell “meme” without writing “me” twice. I have no idea what that means, but it must mean something. You can’t spell “something” without spelling, “So, Me-Thing…” I rest my case.) But I had to resist this one because I couldn’t really get behind the list itself. There’s lots of stuff that really belongs there, e.g. Bester’s The Stars My Destination, and some stuff that belongs nowhere, e.g. something by Edward (“It was a dark and stormy night”) Bulwer-Lytton. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is conspicuous by its absence, as is anything by Zelazny or Leiber. Then there’s some stuff that’s just puzzling. I’ve read Matheson’s I Am Legend and I think it’s worth reading. Is it something Everyone Must Read? Eh. If you like modern “fast zombie” movies you should probably read it. Not Everyone does, or should.
The thing that made me finally dismiss the list was, oddly, a book I like very much: Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees (Il barone rampante). This is a wonderful book. Practically everyone in it is crazy, except the title character, who protests against everything by taking to the trees early in his life and spending the rest of his life there. The hero’s demented and malicious sister Battista is particularly memorable; she keeps cooking meals from disgusting ingredients and making her brothers eat them. When a meal of snails is planned, the brothers rebel. The snails have been left to starve in a barrel, so that their digestive tracts will be purged before they’re cooked. The hero and his brother (the narrator) make a hole in the barrel so the snails can escape. A day and a half or so passes. Late at night, the household is awakened by a gunshot. Battista, who patrols the house at night with a musket, has spotted the fugitive snails and is firing at them like a jailor at fleeing prisoners. “Help They’re all escaping! Help!” Hilarious consequences, i.e. the rest of the novel, ensue. Great stuff.
Here’s the thing, though: this book is not science fiction or fantasy; however improbable, Calvino’s account of his hero’s career is at least possible. And Calvino did write novels, brilliant novels, that unquestionably fall within the genres of fantastic fiction: Invisible Cities (where Marco Polo spins bizarre traveller’s-tales for Kublai Khan), or The Non-Existent Knight, where Charlemagne’s most faithful knight turns out to have a slight handicap, or The Divided Viscount. which is like the episode of Star Trek where Kirk is divided into Good Kirk and Evil Kirk. (That script was written by Richard Matheson, by the way. Everything is connected. Everything. Except what you just thought of.)
Calvino’s greatest achievement in sf/f might be the long series of Cosmicomics published in several volumes. These are little cosmological fantasies, where Calvino speculates on what it would be like to be present in the monobloc before the Big Bang, etc. They are bizarre and wonderful work. Then again, his masterpiece might be his superb collection of Italian folktales. Or The Castle of Crossed Destinies where a Boccaccio-like series of stories is told through the use of Tarot cards. Head-twisting; brilliant; fun. Not on the list.
Also, in true Grauniad tradition, they misspelled Samuel R. Delany’s name.
I guess my point is: This is a flawed list; it is less than wholly perfect. I know; you’re shocked. I, too, needed a moment before I could carry on.
Then I realized I could blog about it, and everything was fine.