Some Achieve Greatness

By John Hertz:  It occurred to me, after mailing this thought in a letter of comment to another fanzine, that you might be interested also.

People talk – and quarrel – about what might be, or be candidates for, the great American novel.

Now and then some speculative fiction is proposed.

What about these (of course neither complete nor conclusive)?

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (Miller, 1960)
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Twain, 1889; you can see a note by me via a set of links on the sidebar)
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Baum, 1900)
  • Alas, Babylon (Frank, 1959)
  • The End of Eternity (Asimov, 1955 – see my note on it too)
  • Space Cadet (Heinlein, 1948)

You might like to bear in mind a criterion I’ve used in another context.

A classic is an artwork that survives its time; after the currents which might have sustained it have changed, it remains, and is seen as worthwhile in itself.

Over a door at the central branch of the Pasadena Public Library is (adapted from Mary Carolyn Davies, in The Skyline Trail, 1924)

Be made whole by books as by great spaces and the stars.


“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em”, says Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Act II, sc. 5); others learn that, though he is ridiculous, they should not be harsh

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18 thoughts on “Some Achieve Greatness

  1. I’d like to see that note, because I don’t see End of Eternity as belonging on that list.

  2. End of Eternity is a personal favourite of mine. Not sure if it belongs on a list of “the great American novels”, but then I’m doubtful about several of the others as well.

  3. Well, if one were to emphasize “American,” I don’t think many SF novels would qualify – although I can think of one that would: Earth Abides (Stewart, 1949).

    As for The End of Eternity, I liked it better than any other Asimov novel I’ve read, but nonetheless, for 30 years I’ve never felt the urge to reread it.

  4. Something This Way Wicked Comes is quintessential Americana at its very best. I’d certainly put it on a list of great American novels.

  5. Wicked at least has the advantage of being an intrusive fantasy set when it was written, so any debatable attitudes/socialstructures/… can be ascribed to its milieu, as for (e.g.) Huckleberry Finn and we can look at it rather as we look at Austen. SF, OTOH, has the disadvantage of post-publication readers’ expectations that the societies won’t be obviously archaic (at least not unreasonably — some post-crash books can justify this, although most of them make debatable assumptions about less-developed societies).

    @OGH: I think @Orange Mike was asking about the note for The End of Eternity; I’d also like to see what John says about that. ISTM that he’s mostly recommending works he grew fond of when young, and has no evidence that they are lasting as he requires; will they still be read when people our age are dead? The Twain, maybe, because Twain — although ISTM that none of his other fiction is competence porn, where Yankee would be called such if anyone tried it today (or even 3-4 decades ago, as Frankowski found out). It would be interesting to see what Nicoll’s crew would make of these books, if they could stand to finish any of them.

    I also disagree with @gottacook about Earth Abides — I found it heavyhanded even when I was ~20, and massively implausible later on. IIRC it has the advantage of having been published in the mainstream; I suspect it would be forgotten now if it had been published as genre — or at least we’d be wondering what the people who gave it an International Fantasy Award were thinking, rather as we do about They’d Rather Be Right.

  6. Space Cadet is perfectly fine for what it is — a kid’s SF adventure story. It certainly influenced Tom Corbett, but it really didn’t make any waves beyond that, or have any lasting influence. I never hear about people re-reading it for any reason other than re-examination of Heinlein’s juveniles as a group (and it is probably in the middle of that pack — I’d place Citizen of the Galaxy, or Have Spacesuit — Will Travel substantially ahead of it.) It’s a decent midcentury YA novel from one of our better writers, but by no means a great American novel.

  7. @ Hampus – good call.

    I read End Of Eternity a long time ago. I think I enjoyed it at the time, but can’t remember anything about it now.

    Another candidate would be Gravity’s Rainbow, which has many genre elements.

  8. My list of Grear American Novels in the SF/Fantasy field would be very different.
    The only one of the above that I would include would be “A Canticle for Leibowitz”.
    Try these for a Brit’s views.

    John Crowley “Little, Big”, or “Aegypt” quartet.

    Gene Wolfe “Book of the New Sun” or “Fifth Head of Cerberus”

    Thomas M Disch “334”

    Tim Powers “The Anubis Gates” or “The Last Call”

    Philip K Dick “Ubik” or “Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”

    R A Lafferty “Past Master”

    Michael Bishop “Brittle Innings”

    I find that all of these can be re-read time and again, with extra appreciation each time.

  9. I agree that anything by Mark Twain is a classic. Alas Babylon certainly is.

  10. Again, tastes differ; I reread Ubik just recently and regretted the time spent — Dick’s mental bent doesn’t seem to have aged well. (See Hertz’s definition of a classic as one outlasting its time.) Brittle Innings and The Anubis Gates, like SWTWC, are sorts of period intrusive fantasy, which at least means it won’t date badly; I wouldn’t argue with them as either GANs or classics, but I wouldn’t assume they’ll last. Wolfe and Crowley I can’t argue one way or the other, as I haven’t had the bent of mind to finish them.

  11. I admit that Earth Abides comes across as heavy-handed; it’s an example of conscious myth-making (the use of Hebrew, for example: Ish = man, Em = ema = mother, Ezra = helper, etc.). But it’s at least as much a novel about the landscape ecology of northern California, especially in its first sections. And I found the last section “The Last American” quite moving. So I am more forgiving of its faults as seen through today’s lens.

    I love Slaughterhouse-Five but I think it’s too inventive, too specifically Vonnegutesque, to be a “great American novel” (or even a great Tralfamadorian novel).

  12. John Hertz replies by carrier pigeon:

    Indeed I’ve re-read each of the books I named above, and suggest them on that ground.

    Calling Connecticut Yankee “competence porn” – well, that may be what the narrator thinks. I respectfully urge that, to misuse a Thurber joke (James Thurber 1894-1961), it’s taking the Container for the Thing Contained. See my note.

    I agree The Anubis Gates (T. Powers, 1983), Last Call (Powers, 1992), and Past Master (R. Lafferty, 1968) are first-rate. See my note on Past Master. I haven’t done a note on Anubis or Call, but there’s one on Three Days to Never (Powers, 2006).

  13. Moby Dick (Melville, 1851). There is no doubt of its greatness. But is it genre? I say yes. It is fiction that is intensely obsessed with science and technology.

  14. Vonnegut’s a unique and I would say a great American writer. Whether he fits within the genre is debatable, but he had a knowledgeable relationship with it and referenced it in his fiction. I recently reread “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater” and greatly enjoyed it. I was both surprised by how well I remembered. it, and also pleased to discover that it was better than I remembered. I must read/reread more Vonnegut.

    I agree with Tom Becker’s characterization of Moby Dick. It’s certainly very like science fiction, whether you place it in the genre or not.

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