“You will so love it.”

“Once you get used to it, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it.”

“You WILL have this. Just admit it and get one.”

“It will make your life so easy.”

That is what everyone has been saying to me for the past few years about their smart phones. You know, the appendages that stick to their hands and face? The reason no one talks to you or says hello? The appliance that keeps people from realizing that they are walking into fountains, that every stranger in the store now knows their business, that their kids are running into the street and … yeah, I’m exaggerating, but only a bit. Only that last one.

I have a phone, an older model about an inch and a half wide by three inches long. It fits in any pocket, even those silly little fake pockets. By iPhone standards, it is almost mechanical. It rings, I push one of a dozen buttons. The buttons depress. They are not button icons on a screen, but real buttons. I know how to use that phone, even if I do hiss obscenities at it occasionally.

No more. I have been gifted an Android and my service was transferred. I must use the new phone.

It’s very sleek but it doesn’t fit in my pocket. When it rings, I fumble to answer and push the green button on the screen repeatedly, but the phone keeps ringing. At me. Taunting me.

Sometimes it spits. Blrrrrrt! That could mean anything:  I could have a message, a calendar event is imminent, a stranger wants to play WordCrack. Or something else entirely.

R2D2 made funny noises too but they were cute. We understood him. This Android is an alien tease.

I spent an afternoon entering phone numbers of friends, and they’ve all disappeared.  Instead, every person who ever sent me an email fills up my contact list, but none of them have phone numbers.

I can’t tell when the battery is low because the icons on the top of the screen are too small. Maybe those icons would answer all my questions, if only I could see them clearly.

Those of you over 30, remember when we all started buying phones? The rationale for such a purchase was safety. We weren’t going to use the phone; we just wanted to have it in case the car broke down on a deserted highway and we needed to call for help. Now I’m not exaggerating. That was the selling point in the 90s. Get a phone; you’ll be safer.

No one got a phone so they could be tracked down by their office 24/7. No one got a phone to play games or keep calendars. We just wanted to be safe.

Shall i let this rude but charming flirt of a phone run my life? Aw, shucks . . . NO!

I don’t need a buzzer to tell me that I have to be at work in 30 minutes. I have been showing up at work on time since Apple computers were assembled in the Jobs’s garage. I do not need to take Facebook and Twitter with me when I get coffee or visit friends. I have sat across the table from enough silly people who ignored the company in front of them to stare at their screen, or dropped out of a conversation to look up points of trivia that no one really cared about.

Like the Tony Awards last week. One person at our small viewing party could not put her phone away.

“What are you doing? Are you playing a game?”

“I’m on imdb. You guys wanted to know what TV show Ken Howard was in.”

She looked up Long Day’s Journey Into Night (the movie), and Meg Ryan’s plastic surgeries. Even when the rest of us asked no questions, she was on her phone. Not talking, just staring at the screen as her thumbs twitched away.

After Frank Langella’s acceptance speech (lovely) I wondered aloud who won the Oscar the year that he was nominated for Frost/Nixon.

“I’m down to 3% of my battery!”

“You don’t have to look it up. I just wondered.”

Actually, what I wondered was if anyone remembered that performance or wanted to discuss it. You know, discuss . . . like we used to do before we all carried glowing almanacs and encyclopedias with us?

“No, here it is. Daniel Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood.”

What could I say but “Thanks”?

I’m pretty sure she watched the Tony’s later, on her phone. Once she’d charged it up.

And yet, the Andriod is making my life easier. Here’s how:

Because it doesn’t fit in my pocket, I no longer take my phone everywhere with me. I leave it on the table when I walk my dog.  I stash it in the side pocket of my purse,  out of sight and hearing. I stow it far away from my bedroom so its incessant chimes and chirps and spits don’t keep me up all night.

And I’m fine. I enjoy my walks without the phone. I never think about it when it’s stored away. For the first time in 16 or 17 years, I don’t have a phone with me every minute. It’s like being young again. (Remember, I was young long before cell phones. I was even middle-aged long before cell phones.)

I finally realize: I don’t need it.

Unless, of course, my car conks out on a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair. Then, you know, maybe it’ll come in handy.

If I can figure out how to use it.


Imagination is a good thing, but right now  I’m thankful for its limits.

Can I imagine a loud, pounding, neon-lit nightclub full of kids fresh out school, everyone laughing and dancing, drinking and flirting? No problem. But not the rest.

When I first heard about Orlando, I thought of a club like those here in the West (where those under 21 are not allowed inside if alcohol is served), and a sudden burst of violence and gunfire, like an explosion, taking fifty lives outright. That was bad.

But the interviews and details show that it was much, much worse. The shooting went on for three hours. People were huddled in bathrooms, soaked in blood, feeling each other die. The survivors endured through those long, dark hours before the killer was brought down and they were taken to safety.

(Safety? Will any one of them will ever feel safe again?)

The truly worst part: These people were 19 or 20 years old, for the most part. 19 or 20.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to go through horrific hours of terror, pain, and death  But when I try to factor in 19 or 20 year old, sense and thinking rebel. That just can’t happen.

In 1984, a gunman opened fire in a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, CA, killing 21. That included children, even a boy on a bicycle. I don’t think such a shooting had ever happened before. A fast food restaurant in the afternoon? Children and families as targets? Unbelievable shock came with the idea that this would happen again, because now people knew that it COULD happen. The genie was out of the bottle.

So we’ve got Columbine and Sandy Hook, and now Orlando. Terrorist tie-in or not, a guy goes sickly crazed, arms himself, and targets the innocent.

I wonder how people who want to preserve the right to own assault rifles can sleep at night.**

How will the survivors ever sleep soundly at night?

A takeaway that should be mentioned: a bouncer at the club, a young ex-marine, broke open a door and helped up to 70 people get out. He credits his training and experience in Afghanistan for his quick reaction, and doesn’t think of himself as a hero. He lost several friends that night. His name is Imram Yousef.

a PS

** I’ve given more thought to the remark about “how do people who want to preserve the right to own assault rifles sleep at night.” It was arrogant. Of course they sleep at night, because they believe they are right,  just as I believe I’m right in thinking that such arms should be banned. The fact that a weapon exists does not mean we all have the right to buy one and keep it. If we were talking about nuclear warheads, everyone would agree that private citizens don’t have the right to own them. So, we draw the line over what we have a right to own in a different place.

Right now, I think we all have to reconsider where we are putting that line.

My copy of Travels with Charley in Search of America is declared to be, by some effusive back-cover writer, “a moving elegy for more innocent times.”

No, it’s not.

It’s not, because the book is not an elegy. An elegy is a lament for the dead. This book is quite the opposite.

It’s also not a moving elegy for more innocent times because the year 1960, when John Steinbeck took off in search of American, was not more innocent. No way no how.

America in 1960 was about to see the rise of Martin Luther King and other leaders, demanding to be included in America. The fact that much of the country was treated differently than white males testifies that innocent — which I believe means “not guilty of a crime or offense” — is not an accurate adjective to be applied here.

I am impatient to the point of offensiveness with lavender-scented pablum being smeared over the past so that we can all pretend it was better than now. Not true! And if you are ever tempted to buy into such a distorted picture, please step back. Take a good look at all the horrors you are excluding from your nostalgic remembrances of olden times. You may have been an innocent child, but the times were not innocent. There were predators. There was cruelty. Men abused their authority. People stole and called others names. Racism and sexism were the status quo. Our sins had not piled up to the point that they could no longer be ignored, but they were there. Maybe you were sheltered, but that doesn’t make the epoch innocent.

I’m glad I got that off my chest. I’ll go read more of my book now.


Stilettos, it seems, are emblems of both lurid sexuality and feminism.

“Heels as power. Heels as sex, co-opted in the name of professionalism. Heels as, in all that, ambition. Avery Jessup, the hyper-ambitious Fox News reporter on30 Rocksummarized the thinking perfectly: “Flats,” she declared, “are for quitters.” ”

That comes about a third of the way through “Arch Enemies,” an engaging essay in The Atlantic on Very High Heels by Megan Garber, who admits she wears them, and wonders why throughout this marvelous article.It includes a history of high heels, which are a surprisingly recent (and masculine) invention.

A toast to he mystique, the danger, and the idiocy of stiletto heels!

The story kicks off with a visit to Thesis Couture, where a designer, late of SpaceX, has recruited (meaning in this case, hired & paid) rocket scientists, an orthopedic surgeon, and others to help design a more comfortable 4-inch heel for about $1000 a pair. And the waiting list for these still-in-the-prototype-stage-heels stands at 10,000.

The piece ends with a list of younger movers and opinion-shakers who are literally kicking off their heels. And a few who aren’t. Taylor Swift, for example, performs in Very High Heels.

For the record, I loathe such shoes, with that special loathing I reserve for anything that causes me intense pain yet implies an unreachable, magical world of coolness could be mine if I could only endure the agony a bit longer.

The writing of “Arch Enemies” is wonderful. In my opinion, heels are unworthy of Ms. Garber’s talents, and of the talent assembled by Thesis Couture to design them. I would love to see them all turn their attention to solving world hunger or global warming.

I do not like book series.

I avoid them, though I’ve been fooled a few times. The Eyre Affair by Joshua Fforde fooled me. I enjoyed it but I did not ever read the second novel in the series. Figuring out about 3/4 of the way through the book that this was an SF detective story with sequels already published took the momentum away. Spoiler Alert: Thursday Next is gonna be fine because she’ll be in the next book; her sidekick and pet dodo will also survive.

Of course there are serial exceptions to my antipathy: Harry Potter, LotR, Sherlock Holmes, and more. These are well-written, excellent books!

Most series, though, fall far short of the standards set by these wildly successful and worthy tomes. Allow me to list the reasons why.

1. Too often, a series’ only purpose to sell more of the author’s books

bookseries1A good book will prompt me to look for more by the same author. It doesn’t have to be a retread of the same book.

Sadly, my patronage doesn’t seem to be enough to keep most writers in business (possibly because I use the library more often than I buy). This could be a trend. So authors and booksellers find new, innovative ways to get readers to buy.

Among both Indie publishers and the big NY houses, a book series is the new black. Authors are taught that this is the path to success, just as they were taught 10 or 20 years ago that they must open their book with a bang to hook the reader, or 80 years ago that they should never end a sentence with a preposition.

Every author who’s ever read a bit of advice on a writers’ site or gone to a seminar knows that the current modus operandi for making money (by which I mean, of course, simply being self-supporting, not necessarily rich) is this:

  1. Write a novel, then a second novel with the same characters and setting, then a third and fourth -— as quickly as you can.
  2. Publish first novel.
  3. After 30 days (at which time it no longer qualifies for Amazon’s Hot New Release list), publish the second book. Make first novel free and advertise the hell out of it.
  4. After another 30 days, release third novel.
  5. Another 30 days, release 4th. By this time you’ve probably bundled novels one and two and are giving the set away.

That’s the way to do it, I’m told.

Never mind quality, editing, proof-reading, or any of those time-sucking dinosaurs. But DO pay for a sexy cover. That sells the book, after all.

These books often make money. They’re sold to people who just want a quick escape with familiar characters who will come out on top in the end. They’re not great literature. Pulp fiction has rarely achieved that status, but who cares?

2. Series volumes are predictable

Unless you are reading George R.R. Martin, you can be fairly certain that the hero of a series will keep escaping the bad guys. The heroine will not get her pretty self killed, the detective will solve the case, and the adventurous youth will grow in wisdom.

And if you are reading George R.R. Martin, you have nothing to do but brush up on your sigils and make bets with fellow readers about whether the book will follow the TV show plots, at least until the next book emerges in, well, whenever. May I suggest you pick up a classic by Robert Heinlein to pass the time?

I digress. The point is that little varies in the formulas of most series books, because the author doesn’t want to change a pattern that works. Most especially in mystery series. Readers supposedly like it that way. No upsets, no surprises . . . .

But a story is not real life! This is the world of imagination and drama! Books should keep you guessing and turning the pages. They should startle you. The last thing a book should ever be is predictable. That’s dull.

I admit, others disagree. My mother read and reread Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books till she died. She loved that they were all so alike, she was never quite sure if she was reading the same one over and over. I think the real reason she kept reading them was that she had a crush on Raymond Burr.

For myself: I DON’T have to know what’s going to happen in the end. In fact, I prefer to be surprised.

lr-short-33. You cannot recreate the wonder, charm, and surprise of the first book

The first time one reads about sandworms and bene gesserits, or Highland mists and romps in the standing stones, or even of societies that rank and order their citizens by whatever part of the color spectrum they can see (Joshua Fforde again), it’s mind-expanding. Magical. Exciting. Like falling in love. Ah, me.

Reading the second book is kind of like going back to the romantic glen that’s become a bit more damp and smelly over the years. The setting is just not as exotic as it was that first time. You’ve seen it, or at least you’ve imagined it all before. Whether it’s intergalactic smugglers, shape-shifting teachers, or romantic, sexual tension, by the second book we’ve been there already.

4. Lately, the first book in a series simply ends half way through (which brings us back to reason #1)

I paid for and downloaded one of the many books my Kindle advertises, even though I knew it was part of a science fiction series. It looked intriguing. What I got was half a book.

The story was fast-paced, the characters, for the most part, believable. I had minor complaints, like blank lines in the middle of scenes (clearly, I was meant to pause here) and hyphens where they didn’t belong, but nothing so awful that I was tempted to stop reading. One of the many characters was in great danger, and shocked by what he saw. Others, in different parts of the world, had barely started their dramatic journeys. Nothing was pointing towards an ending of any kind, but the book stopped. Just like that.

With a big ad for the second book.

That’s sleazy. I can’t think of a better word for it.

I will not buy the second or third book, out of sheer spite for the author. How dare he or she treat a reader that way!

Lord of the Rings, written 70-odd years ago, did stop each book in the middle of the story, though not at a cliffhanger. Resolution did not come till the very end. It was an epic tale told by a master, and really should be viewed as ONE book, too big to be bound. (One book to grab them all, one cover to bind them?)

But unless your last name is Tolkien, do not try this with your own work. It’s manipulative.

Summing Up:

Not all series are lacking in interest, but I don’t read most of them. Ever hear the phrase “So many books, so little time?” That’s the way I feel. There are millions of books out there, but I only have a couple of hours a day to read. I don’t want to waste my time with the second-rate ones.

I want my escapism combined with a story that enriches me. I want to read books by authors that took time with them. Years. If an author hammers out a novel a month, I will avoid him or her like the proverbial boil-producing plague.

I want to thrill over brilliant prose, not obsess over the constant typos, misused words and commas. I want  to feel a character’s angst, not marvel at its libido or derring-do. I want to learn something from each book. Maybe it’s about human nature and resilience, or maybe the author will take me to a world so different and spectacular that I’ll gasp, right there in Starbucks. Maybe I’ll cry.

Do me like that, baby, and I’ll tell all my friends to buy your books. Isn’t that what writers want?


00011060A picture-laden post on my other blog, History Los Angeles.

Since a multi-million dollar design was just picked to re-do downtown Los Angeles’ Pershing Square YET AGAIN (jeesh!) I posted a ton of pictures from its first century, the 1850s through the 1950s.


I’m watching an episode of Independent Lens on PBS titled.”My Nazi Legacy.”

The narrator/producer (who sounds uncannily like the late Alan Rickman), a lawyer named Philippe Sands, rolls out the story of two men, each born in 1939 to high-ranking Nazis. Both grow to be decent men as far as I can tell, each deeply ashamed of the atrocities their parents were part of.

From Jist News, http://jist.news/my-nazi-legacy-how-two-sons-of-hitlers-trusted-henchmen-and-a-british-lawyer-whose-entire

From Jist News, http://jist.news/my-nazi-legacy-how-two-sons-of-hitlers-trusted-henchmen-and-a-british-lawyer-whose-entire

One man, Nick, grew up hating his father. He carries, to this day, the last photo of his father, taken after the man was hung: a photo of his corpse. Nick has no problem repudiating his father as a killer and monster. In the top left photo, that’s Nick on the right, and his father is shown on the bottom right.

The other man, Horst, is more fragile, living in a fantasy world where his father remains good. Horst believes his father wanted to protect the people in Poland and the Ukraine and that he hoped Hitler would change his mind about the killing of Jews. Horst is sitting in the big photo, and his handsome father is on top right.

Narrator Philippe Sands is in the center of the top left photo. His family lived in the Ukraine. They were Jews. It doesn’t end well: 79 of 80 family members died before the end of the war. Sands’ grandfather, a child, is the only person who survived.

The stories of the two German men are interspersed with family photos and home movies, switching often to film of the home/lake/schloss/town as it is today. Effective and moving. And bleak.

One point of the documentary seems to be to break down Horst. He is so pitiable, trying to hold onto his image of his “good”  father without losing sight of the horrors committed. Sands is coming to grips with the destruction of his family in the Ukraine, and I almost have the impression that he didn’t foresee how deeply he’d feel his role in this story. Sands seems to be trying to keep his distance from his own tragedy, while pushing Horst to accept his.

Sands event talks about this: “When I hear him speak of his father’s good character and actions, I hear him to be justifying the killing of my grandfather’s entire family.”

One scene, filmed at what was the synagogue in Zhovkva, Ukraine where Sands’ family prayed, has much emotion held at bay. The centuries-old structure is empty. No Jews are left to fill it. They were all killed or driven out 70 years ago, and that includes Sands’ family. Horst insists that he can feel the place will be filled again. No one can break that protective image. But Sands is also keeping reality from crushing him, arguing with Horst like a lawyer.

It is Nick, so direct, who asks Sands what he is feeling here. And Sands answers by describing scenes he must have played in his mind over and over. Anger comes out, but still controlled. He is always the lawyer, putting words between himself and the darkness.

I really like Nick, incidentally. Nick has a bit of his hated father’s grandiosity, in a good way. He doesn’t mind the camera, the attention. He is self-confident, and despises the old man with an uncomplicated rancor that is almost refreshing.

No one could make these characters up. Their story eats at me.

Another Father & Son from Nazi Germany

untitledThey remind me a little of the son of a Nazi art dealer that you may remember. Hildebrand Gurlitt (right) was was the art dealer, one quarter Jewish. He nevertheless became a valued procurer for Hitler and his projected showplace of art in Linz. Gurlitt survived the war; he used his hidden Jewish heritage and played the victim after the war–poor me, I was only trying to survive. I lost so much because of the Nazis. I helped so many Jews by buying their art so they could get money to leave the country . . . but he made a HUGE fortune, paying pennies on the dollar (or franc) for valuable art, taking advantage of desperate families who had to get away from the Nazis.

Gurlitt died in the 1950s in a car accident. You can read about him here — actually, this is a review of a new book about him, but it lays out the bare bones of his story.

His son, Cornelius, barely a teen when the war ended, held onto his father’s art for years. He’s really the one I’d expect you to remember, even though Gurlitt was mentioned in books like The Monuments Men. (Now, of course, he is the topic of a couple of books for sale on Amazon.)

gurlitt_2902847bCornelius was “discovered” by the authorities and by the media around five years ago when he was on a train. He had a great sum of money. That’s not a crime but it is suspicious. He lived off the grid in Germany–got no pensions, no health care, etc. –I think he didn’t even had a bank account. So the authorities investigated. They were looking for tax evasion crimes. Instead, they found a cache of treasured art in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment worth around a billion euros.

Articles refer to him as socially autistic. For most of his 80 years, Cornelius protected, hoarded, and reveled in the art collection left by his father. Once he was discovered, he quickly sickened and died, broken perhaps. He insisted that his father had fairly paid for all the art, saving it, and that it was not looted.

I should mention that of the more than 1400 works of art, only four have been declared “looted.” Cornelius left it all to a museum, which is taking great pains to prove or disprove whether the art was stolen..

So what does that tell us? That the sins of the father continue to haunt, even cripple their children.

Like many kids, I used to pretend my Daddy was president. Cause I thought he was wonderful and I wanted to live in the White House like Caroline Kennedy. But what if your father was a Nazi? What if you were a fairly decent person who had to deal with that?

I feel for Horst and for Cornelius. Is it a crime to try and protect the childish image of your father as a good and praiseworthy man? To me, Horst and Cornelius just never grew up. I bet there are many men like them, who never grew out of idolizing their fathers. But we hear about these two men because their fathers accommodated Hitler.

My dad was a carpenter who never could have gotten elected to the City Council, let alone be president. Lucky me.

My Life on the Road and
Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles

Lookee! I read what Emma Watson read & You Can Too!

Lookee! I read what Emma Watson read & You Can Too!

Gloria Steinem’s new memoir, A Life on the Road, surprised me. All I knew about Steinem was her role as an early and eloquent, no-nonsense spokesperson for feminism, and the founder of Ms Magazine. I had no idea how she’d become one of the major faces of the women’s lib movement in the 60s and 70s. Now I do.

This book is not about feminism, though. It’s about growing up with a loving father who spent 3/4 of the year on the road – with his family, towing a travel trailer. It tells how Steinem became a touring public speaker, how her experiences shaped her and what she’s learned from them. She was present at Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and was involved in political campaigns for the Kennedys as a journalist and a volunteer. Mostly, though, she writes about brief encounters with college students and cab drivers—the small incidents that make up her life.

Steinem doesn’t drive. She says: “… being isolated in a car was not always or even usually the most rewarding way to travel. I would miss talking to my fellow travelers or looking out the window. How could I enjoy getting there when I couldn’t pay attention?”

And paying attention — listening — is important. I have a notebook page full of quotes from the book, but this one shows up in other reviews: “One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak.”

David Ulin reads his book at Vermin on the Mount.(gosrskypress.bandcamp.com)

David Ulin reads his book at Vermin on the Mount.(gosrskypress.bandcamp.com)

David L. Ulin is the former book critic of the Los Angeles Times and writes for many magazines. Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles is a collection of his own essays about walking in L.A. It is not about our city, but about the concept of our city; not about the streets and local history but about how we view those things. I felt as if I weren’t the target audience, in spite of my love for Los Angeles history. I suspect the book was written more for academics. For example, he sketches, very quickly, a few facts about  Angel’s Flight or the St. Francis Dam disaster, just a sentence or two to support his point about  L.A.’s changing self-concept. If you know the history already, that may be enough. If you don’t know it, though, the book is frustrating.

Ulin’s thesis is interesting: that streets in L.A. are private spaces masquerading as public spaces. We make them private because we travel them enclosed in our cars, never making contact with street life itself.

While he convinced me and I agree, it’s odd, isn’t it, that his presentation lacks personal contact, and keeps readers at a distance.

Steinem’s thesis seems to be that the road one travels keeps one human, no matter the vehicle.

Ulin’s book is about ideas: how do we define and experience our cities and roads? Steinem’s is about personal encounters that make up a life on the road.

Very different books, but with this message in common: You can’t know a neighborhood, a city, or a country by driving through it. You must get out of your car.

(This review — or most of it — was first published in the monthly newsletter LA Mentary)

This morning I saw two mockingbirds fighting a scrub jay above me. They were balancing on cables and tree branches. The mockingbirds would jump and lift off, the way they do when wanting attention, then settle back. The jay was like a bulldog, just ramming and shoving them.

I wonder what the birds thought of the fight?

Have you ever passed an accident and seen a kid, barely old enough to drive, standing on the curb, in acute distress? A girl, hands over her face, crying? Or a guy, hands on his head? OhMyGodMyDadIsGoingToKillMe! OhMyGodHowCouldThisHappen!  You know exactly how they feel. We’ve all been there. You ache for them, poor babies. Yes, honey, this is they worst day ever. You’ll survive.

Well, I wonder if those two mockingbirds are huddling together tonight. Was their nest destroyed? Are they thinking OhMyGodThisIsTheWorstDayEver? Do birds have context for those kind of thoughts? Do they remember this morning?

Just wondering.

Around three weeks ago, I put up my list of the classics of Science Fiction that all fans of the genre should read. I promised a Part II.

Was I nuts? It’s easy to look back a century or more, because time has winnowed the list of novels to something manageable. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; anyone would have come up with those guys! Then there’s Heinlein the Great,Neuromancer and Dune. Simple.

Gazillions of other SF books have been published. How on earth do I build a Part II?

WIth great trepidation and a bucket full of caveats. I haven’t read everything. I wasn’t always paying attention when I read. And what makes classic or great SF is hardly a settled definition; everyone’s got their own opinions.

This is not a list of my favorites, but rather the books that I think had the biggest impact on the world. These novels expanded our minds and pushed our self-imposed boundaries of what might be a little further.

  • 11984coversega8984 by George Orwell introduced us to Big Brother and the idea of mind control by a less-than-benevolent government. Orwell wrote it in 1949 when the title year seemed far away. As 1984 approached, post Viet Nam and post Watergate cover-up, the novel’s warnings began to look less crazy and more plausible. 1984  gave us concepts like newspeak, Big Brother, and thought police, and showed us how our horizons can be controlled, our history rewritten by media, and our lives shrunken to fit the boundaries set out for us.
  • 41ALV5fomnL._AA160_Atlas Shrugged is science fiction, a fact that many of Ayn Rand’s fans forget. Published in 1957 (though it took years to write) it’s set in a dystopian world, with this twist: instead of beginning her story after a cataclysmic, world-destroying event as most novels do, we are plunged into a the middle of the world’s destruction, following heroes that are trying to save it, one way or another. Rand’s world does not seem futuristic to us; Atlas Shrugged was written when trains, rather than planes, were the preferred method of travel, when smoking was fun, and when most women aspired to hook themselves to a strong, protective male, rather than strike out on their own. So it’s a period piece as well as an expression of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy — and a rollicking, imaginative story.
  • found1asIsaac Asimov’s Foundation, the first novel of a series, stands like a glimmering gateway into mounds of mid-century SF, where men are men and women are perky. Can the future be foretold based on the mathematical reading of trends? What can upset those readings? I was debating whether to include the Foundation Series in this book, wondering how to measure its influence, and then I read this 2012 quote by Nobel-prize-winner Paul Krugman:  “I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.” The fictional Seldon, of course, is the founding father of psychohistory, the science which guides the worlds in the Foundation Trilogy to survive the collapse of their empire and the ensuing Dark Ages.
  • left-hand-of-darknessUrsula LeGuin’s gender-bending The Left Hand of Darkness implied that physical sexuality might be expressed differently on other planets and that male and female were not the only categories. Released in 1969, when men and women were beginning to question what gender actually had to do with their choices and lives, and books were beginning to switch from using masculine pronouns for everyone (remember that?) The only explosions in LeGuin’s books were our stereotypes going “boom!” This book won the Nebula and Hugo and has always been highly praised.
  • 1125325The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy showed us that SF could be more than fun, it could be downright hilarious. It could be irreverent and satirical. We could laugh over the earth’s demolition for an intergalactic superhighway and the ridiculousness of life. Would we have been ready for the Disc World books by Terry Pratchett without the Hitchhiker series? Or any of Jasper Fforde’s wild tales? Dunno, and don’t want to find out. SF that makes me laugh out loud in a restaurant and not care how crazy I look is to be treasured as a giant step forward for all.

Shall I continue? I’m debating the inclusion of alternate history, but is that really science fiction? Probably not. How could I leave out Ray Bradbury? Andre Norton? Anne McAffrey? and on and on — but this list is for the books with the biggest impact, not the bodies of work by incredible authors.

If you want more (and why shouldn’t you?) just google “most influential science fiction.” I did, several times, and ended up with a huge to-read list. So maybe next year there will be a Part III.