Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Famous for the wrong book?

The Guardian has an interesting topic asking if novelists' most famous works are their best. Their list examines literary fiction, so I thought it would be interesting to look at the SFF field.

Stephen Donaldson
Most famous work: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever.
Best work: The Gap Series.

Stephen Donaldson became one of the founders of the modern epic fantasy movement in 1977 with Lord Foul's Bane, the first in his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series (originally a trilogy but now nine books, with one more to come). It's his biggest-selling and most famous work, and certainly a laudable attempt to bring more adult and literary techniques to bear on the subgenre, but for me it's outclassed by The Gap Series. The Gap starts with a short, lyrical novella about perspective and truth before suddenly exploding into a colossal SF reworking of Wagner's Ring Cycle, filled with complex clashes of characters and cultures and delicious political intrigue. The best thing Donaldson's written. No-one bought it though, hence the return to the Covenant books.

Arthur C. Clarke
Most famous work: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Best work: Childhood's End

Thanks to the era-defining movie version, 2001 is easily Arthur C. Clarke's best-known work. However, the novel is actually among his less impressive books, rich in atmosphere but lacking in overall incident. In fact, purely on a novel basis, I'd rate its sequel 2010: Odyssey Two as being a much stronger book. Childhood's End, on the other hand, is for its day visionary, transcendent and mind-blowing, with a stunning finale marking the end of the human race (or rather our current stage of existence) and doing so in an unforgettable way.

Isaac Asimov
Most famous work: The Robots/Foundation universe
Best work: Nightfall

Picking out Asimov's most famous work would have probably involved some elaborate Twitter polling on whether I, Robot or Foundation was up there, but fortunately Asimov solved this problem by, somewhat unconvincingly, retconning them into the same universe. However, for me his strongest work is the short story Nightfall, in which some scientists on a planet with six suns in its sky discover that for the first time in recorded history there's going to be an eclipse with only one sun visible, meaning that for the first time in thousands of years, night will fall. A simple story based on a rudimentary scientific premise with tremendous ramifications for society and the individual people involved. Terrific and, rather unlike the 15-book Robots/Foundation/Empire universe, straight to the point. The novel version (with Robert Silverberg) is interesting but lacks the short story's punch.

Paul Kearney
Most famous work: The Monarchies of God
Best work: A Different Kingdom

Possibly a bit of a stretch, given that Paul Kearney is still chronically under-read and even the splendid Monarchies of God fantasy series is still reasonably obscure (though now rising, with the recent reissuing of the series in two omnibus volumes). However, when people talk about Kearney, it's his epic fantasy series which are always mentioned (Monarchies, Sea-Beggars and the current Macht trilogy). His finest work for me is A Different Kingdom, which starts out as a semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in rural Northern Ireland before fantastical events start taking place. The protagonist finds himself drawn into the woods neighbouring his farm, and finds a different world waiting. Rich and mythic, A Different Kingdom can be summed up as an Irish Mythago Wood, whilst also being totally different to Holdstock's masterwork. Overdue a re-release.

Christopher Priest
Most famous work: The Prestige
Best work: The Separation

Thanks to Chris Nolan, Priest's very fine novel about battling 19th Century magicians is now quite well-known. However, for me his finest novel remains his most recent, The Separation. Almost killed at birth by uncaring publishers, the book was rescued by Gollancz and is a staggering achievement. A pair of twins become embroiled in the Second World War, but not necessarily the war we are familiar with. With dizzying shifts in perspective and constant evolution of the backstory, the book is mind-blowing and will invite constant re-reads and analyses to tease out its secrets.

George R.R. Martin
Most famous work: A Game of Thrones
Best work: Fevre Dream

After HBO's great adaptation of A Game of Thrones, it's easily currently Martin's best-known work. But it's not his best. In the context of A Song of Ice and Fire itself, my favourite piece of writing is The Hedge Knight, the novella set 90 years before the novels and introducing the adventures of Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire, which uses Westeros' rich backdrop for a much simpler, much more concise story than the expansive novels. However, even beyond that, Martin's 1982 horror novel Fevre Dream has something going for it his fantasies don't (so far): an ending. Martin's story about vampires on the Mississippi trying to develop a drug to wean them off blood is dark, gripping, rich in atmosphere and tragic. Someone needs to make the movie (and cast Ron 'Rodrik Cassel' Donachie as Abner Marsh!) yesterday. And resist the urge to turn it into a True Blood prequel.

Tad Williams
Most famous work: Memory, Sorrow and Thorn
Best work: Otherland

Tad Williams exploded onto the scene with his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy in the late 1980s, which was hugely influential and set the scene for many of the authors who followed. Whilst overall a fine work, the trilogy skews very much to the traditional and has a somewhat annoying ending. Otherland, on the other hand, is much more original, being a cyberpunk-fantasy crossbreed. Williams uses the SF backdrop to explore a lot of excellent and fantastical ideas. Whilst the saga is still too long, its episodic structure makes it fun to read and the premise makes for a rich vein of story ideas which could sustain entire series (the reverse-Aztec invasion of Spain is particularly interesting). Overall, a strong series which has now spawned an MMORPG and a particularly large fanbase in Germany.

Any other thoughts and suggestions? On Twitter I've already had Gene Wolfe nominated, for Soldier of the Mist over The Book of the New Sun.


Anonymous said...

Agreed on Donaldson, but Clarke's Childhood's End is generally better regarded than 2001: A Space Odyssey anyway. As for Asimov... 'Nightfall' is a terrible short story, badly-written with cardboard characters, unconvincing world-building and poor pacing. Mind you, I've no idea what I would consider his "best" work as I have a low opinion of everything he wrote.

Incidentally, many of the "best known" works you name have film and/or television adaptations. This probably accounts for their popularity... For example, Frank Herbert's most famous work is Dune but I'd argue his best work is The Santaroga Barrier.

Adam Whitehead said...

Childhood's End is certainly better-regarded amongst SFF readers, but 2001 is the title that made Arthur C. Clarke a household name (though more for the film than the novel). It's also arguable that Rendezvous with Rama is also the more famous novel due to its numerous sequels, computer game adaptation and so on.

The Dude said...

I absolutely agree on Tad Williams. The Otherland series is insanely huge (the shortest of the four books in paperback is over 700 pages and the largest is over 1200), but I loved every single page. It blows Memory,Sorrow,Thorn out of the water.

But I disagree with you regarding Stephen Donaldson. I usually refer to the Thomas Covenant books as "My Lord of the Rings", because they're my favorite epic fantasy. The books made such an impression on me when I read them that the Gap series, even though very good, can't compare.

And regarding Gene Wolfe, I haven't read Soldier of the Mist, but I have serious doubts that it's better than Book of the New Sun. Is that your opinion Adam, or was that a suggestion from your followers?

Adam Whitehead said...

Yeah, that was someone on Twitter. I've only read BOOK OF THE NEW SUN and LONG SUN from Wolfe, so I can't comment on that suggestion.

Mike Bonsiero said...

I liked Otherland, but I don't agree it's better than Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Otherland could have easily been 30% shorter and not lost anything from the story. In the middle of the third book it gets to where it is repetitive.

Clarke has several works I think that are better than 2001. You mentioned Childhood's End, I'd also list Rama and Against the Fall of Night (although I haven't read the latter in years).

Wastrel said...

I've heard Long Sun, Short Sun, Soldier, and Peace all suggested as Wolfe's best. But I've only read New Sun.

Ursula Le Guin? Best known for Earthsea, but maybe Left Hand and/or Dispossessed are best?

Not sure I entirely agree on Nightfall. It's a great story, but maybe not the best. "The Last Question", "The Bicentennial Man", and "- That Thou Art Mindful of Him" are all possibilities. I've also heard people suggest "The Ugly Little Boy" and "The Dead Past".

Strawberry said...

What about Neal Stephenson? Best known - the Baroque Cycle/Snow Crash; best - Cryptonomicon.

neofish said...

I've read most of Wolfe's books (difficult, he's quite prolific). Whilst I loved the Soldier series (and There Are Doors is another personal favourite), the Book of the New Sun is simply incomparable. Soldier in the Mist and its sequels is a masterpiece, but New Sun is an almost unbelievable literary achievement. I can return to it again and again for its language, vision, ambition and invention.

Adam Whitehead said...

I've never read SNOW CRASH (bad blogger, I know), but CRYPTO is certainly a stronger (and notably shorter) work than the BAROQUE CYCLE.

Anonymous said...

Just based on Goodreads, Snow Crash has 3 times as many people who read it than Crypto, and Crypto has twice as many people as Quicksilver

Anonymous said...

I agree on the Donaldson recommendation, I found Lord Foul’s Bane to be so agonizingly slow and tedious that I couldn’t bring myself to read another one, yet The Gap series is an incredible ride from start to finish and one of my favorite series. I am still baffled that the same author wrote both.

Soldier of Mist is a great book, but I’m not as thrilled about Arete and Sidon. I prefer The Fifth Head of Cerebus over Solider of Mist.

Erik said...

John Scalzi
Famous for: Old Man's War
Best work: The Android's Dream

The Android's Dream is genuinely hilarious, but also has the best characterization and most piercing insights of any Scalzi novel. Its action scenes are also bang-up. It's got Hollywood blockbuster written all over it.

Erik said...

Orson Scott Card
Famous for: Ender's Game
Only good book he ever wrote: Ender's Game

Oh, wait...

RobB said...

I just picked up the full set of The Gap by Donaldson recently, which hasn't been easy to find in the States.

I'd say that King Rat or The Scar are Mieville's best novels despite Perdido Street Station being his most famous work. King Rat is a perfect length, which doesn't allow Mieville to get too verbose and The Scar is probably more imaginative than PSS.

Anonymous said...

In thought the Gap series were at least fairly successful, popping up in the top 10 of the Sunday Times bestsellers, for example.

Mitchell Hundred said...

('Fevre Dream' Spoilers below)

The way that the main conflict of 'Fevre Dream' is resolved has always bothered me. Relying on the bloodrage to defeat Julian when York said the species needed to reject those ways just seemed to be thematically inconsistent. It's a small flaw, but I believe it to be a significant one, as it happens at the climax of the story. If you ask me, 'A Song of Ice and Fire' finds and keeps its voice much more consistently, and so I would list that as the better story (so far, at least).

Will said...

I like some of GRRM's short stories more than ASOIAF and Fevre Dream. If I had to pick I'd say that The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr is my favorite.

Russ said...

You could get some really good arguments going with Heinlein fans on this topic- Stranger in a Strange Land? Time Enough For Love? Starship Troopers?

sadface said...

Most famous work: The Lord of the Rings
Best work: Silmarillion?

Jussi said...

Interesting post, Adam. I think that Shadowmarch series is Williams' best work. I also enjoyed Donaldson's Covenant books more than the Gap Cycle.

Anubis said...

Best known work: LotR
Best work: The Hobbit

Best known work: Elric
Best work: Gloriana

Alex said...

Otherland is exceedingly repetitive IMHO. The Alice through the looking glass skiff is carried on at least a volume to far. The War of Flowers is better but still not as good as Memory Sorry & Thorn. I'm currently reading the GAP series for the first time since the last hardback came out. They're not bad but typical Donaldson in as much as talking takes centre stage. Some things never change, the latest Covenant book spends a couple of hundred pages at the start with some just sitting around. Ho hum.

Anonymous said...

I'm definitely with you on Otherland - I couldn't get through Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn; found it dull and derivative, tbh - but I raced through Otherland. Can't comment on the others as yet, but I have Childhood's End in my sights...

Vins said...

There is much that I agree with here, but more with which I do not, especially about Donaldson. The Gap is one of the most boring series I've ever worked my way through. But then again I wouldn't say that Thomas Covenant books are much better in general. Both series are powerful in regard to imagery and rather poetic prose at times but in my opinion a lot is missing in both characters and let alone action.
Much more satisfying are even less known series such as the Mordant's Need duology or the Man Who...series of noir books written under a pseudonym Reed Stephens.

Also a word about George R.R. Martin: Fevre Dream is a great book, right up until the last quarter of it and the whole "scientific vampire" bit...and because of that I've always considered Armaggedon Rag a more successful book, if nothing else in the terms of internal consistency of the genre.