I’m reading my way through the science fiction and fantasy of the twentieth century. Here’s why:

Like you, I have a homemade time machine in my basement. But, to me, time travel is like surfing the Internet. Unless I’m looking for something specific, I tend to wander aimlessly, lost, confused and barred by Niven’s Law* from altering history in any way. Jaunt after pointless jaunt into the past got me wondering about which time was truly the best to visit. 

For answers, I decided to hunker down and do a little reading.

Specifically, I have decided to read one work of science fiction published in each year of the twentieth century, beginning with 1900**. The books will be chosen at random and read non-chronologically, their merit carefully considered and then given a grade on a scale relevant to their content.

Some reviews will be pithy and insightful. Others will be uninspired. One will contain the word ‘falanaka’and will leave the reader wondering if it has been used correctly.

With each year of C20 represented by a book, the best book will ergo determine the best year, and I can set the coordinates of my time machine accordingly. And that’s when I’ll live, happy at last.

Stay attuned.

 

*During his Oscar acceptance speech for Best Actor in 1958’s Separate Tables, actor David Niven wittily surmised that “If the universe of discourse permits the possibility of time travel and changing the past, then no time machine will be invented in that universe.”

 **I know, I know. But it seems like a good place to start. A nice, round year.

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If only there was a book in which a young Merlin is instructed in ‘magic’ by a race of aliens who seek to unite a balkanized post-Roman Britain and use humankind as weapons in a millennium-long war against their own enemies. Wait a minute…there is! Merlin’s Mirror is a seamless combo of Chariots Of The Gods and The Sword In The Stone that both entertains and gives pause for (dare I say it?) reflection. This book is one of the reasons Andre Norton was nicknamed ‘The Giant’ by her opponents. Recommended.

On a scale of famous magicians ranging from David Blaine to Circe, this book is: the Silver Age Dr. Strange.

Sit down for a spell and read it.

Dunsany was a pioneer. And, like most pioneers, he occasionally wandered off track and led his followers into an inhospitable wilderness where they were forced to eat pemmican and bear grease candles until the spring thaw. The Charwoman’s Shadow is one such wilderness. It completely lacks the airy beauty of his Lordship’s other works, and will have you praying to the Gods of Pegana for a quick and merciful end.

On a scale of shadowy things ranging from Shadoe Stevens to a CIA Black Ops Meeting, this book is: a poorly-lit stairwell.

Lord Dunsany's best? Lord, no!

Australia. In the wake of a nuclear war, a small group of survivours struggle through the challenges of daily life, grimly secure in the inevitability of their  imminent deaths. Together, they form a sad, poignant and inspiring tableau of life at the end of the nuclear age. I’m speaking, of course, about The Road Warrior. I love that movie. I think that’s where Nevil Shute got the idea for this book. A good case for banning the bomb.

On a scale of radiation sickness ranging from mild nausea to immediate death, this book is: sterility and some bleeding.

Shute:The Ayatollah Of Arms Control-a.

Of all of SF’s sub-genres, time travel is one of my favourites. Hawksbill Station (both the book and the station) delivers a steaming helping of chilling time travel in a world where political dissidents are sent to a penal colony a billion years in the past. But with good behavior, they could get out in 500,000,000. Silverberg tempers well-crafted characters with friggin’ cool descriptions of what the Earth looked like long before anything set foot, paw or claw on it. Highly recommended.

On a scale of predatory birds ranging from osprey to raptors, this book is: a wedge-tailed eagle.

"I'm up for parole in the Cretaceous."