Top 10 Fictional Geniuses

‘Genius’ is a term for which no precise qualifications have been set. It is a largely subjective term which seems to marry both great intelligence and imagination. Genius may never be perfectly defined – you just know one when you see one. Fiction has long made use of such characters – from the hackneyed nerd stereotype to the wizard of boundless wisdom, from gods and oracles to comic relief. Below follows a list of largely modern fictional geniuses.

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Egon is the brains behind the Ghostbusters, a quartet of spirit hunters operating out of an abandoned firehouse in New York City. Although his precise education is never revealed, it is understood that he is a scientist of multiple disciplines – not limited to parapsychology, quantum physics, and nuclear engineering. With associate Ray, Egon was responsible for the Ghostbusters’ marvelous array of equipment, including proton packs and the containment unit they keep in their basement. Spengler’s brilliance does not come without a certain intrinsic awkwardness – he has a highly technical method of speaking and has communication issues with the fairer sex.


MacGyver is portrayed as something of a secret agent in the employ of a covert government agency in the Mission:Impossible template. Shunning the use of firearms, he instead makes use of his omnipresent Swiss Army knife and various items laying about. He often freed himself from seemingly impossible and lethal situations with his encyclopedic scientific knowledge. In the first episode of the show for instance, he uses a chocolate bar to plug a sulfuric acid leak. To avoid people trying to replicate MacGyver’s dangerous experiments, some integral element was usually left out. His training was in physics and chemistry, along with experience in the military during the Vietnam War.


The Chief of Diagnostic Medicine at a fictional hospital in Princeton, NJ, House is modeled on Sherlock Holmes (note the House/Holmes wordplay), and exhibits many of the same behaviors. Having exceedingly little bedside manner, he is a cranky, curmudgeonly man who nonetheless possesses a keen perception. He speaks multiple languages and has a dry, incisive wit. House is portrayed as masterful in the understanding of nearly every medical pursuit, although his genius is often moderated by a narcissism so crippling that he generally doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about him.


The Iron Man of Marvel comics fame, Stark is an industrialist playboy who inherited his father’s company, Stark Industries – a defense contractor along the lines of Lockheed Martin. He was a child prodigy who attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of 15. When he is captured by enemy forces, he designs a robotic suit of armor to escape. Over the years, he uses his genius to create increasingly more fantastic suits, going so far as to rewire his own biology, making heretofore unheralded advances in various fields including physics, quantum mechanics, and even artificial intelligence.


The eponymous star of Good Will Hunting, Will (Matt Damon) is a poor kid from the south side of Boston who works jobs in construction and as a janitor at MIT. While mopping one day, he sees a difficult algebra problem written on a blackboard by a professor as a challenge to his students. Will solves it easily. After getting into a fight, he is forced by the court to both see a therapist and work with the professor. He is revealed to have some deep psychological scars from his youth, and in the end to be more brilliant by far than even the award-winning professor that first recognizes his talent. Will’s strengths seem to be mathematically inclined, but he is also extraordinarily well-read, recalling authors and topics from obscure economics tomes at will.


Emmet “Doc” Brown is the stereotypical mad scientist, taking shades of his unkempt, wild-eyed appearance from Albert Einstein. Doc’s greatest achievement of course is the invention of the time machine which sends Michael J Fox’s Marty McFly character into the past. Built from a DeLorean DMC-12 sports car, the time machine uses various forms of energy on its journeys, including electricity, nuclear power, and cold fusion. Although somewhat absent-minded, Doc is an inventor of unparalleled imagination, even somehow managing to tack together a new time machine from a steam locomotive when he gets stuck in the past.


To some degree the very archetype of the ‘evil genius’, Dr. Lecter’s character is introduced in the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, but his most notorious turn was in the film The Silence of the Lambs as potrayed by Anthony Hopkins. A psychiatrist of staggering genius, Lecter is incarcerated for a series of savage cannibalistic murders. He acts as a consultant to a pair of different FBI agents hunting at-large serial killers. Unlike many of the personalities on this list, Hannibal is described as having impeccable, almost aristocratic manners. Above all, he despises any form of rudeness. He has a well defined, classic appreciation of the fine arts, at one point during the series taking a job as a museum curator under an assumed name. His knowledge of physiology is at least sufficient enough to allow him to perform exacting brain surgery on an enemy. His greatest skill, however, is in reading people, drawing from thousands of psychological inferences a flawless portrait of human motive.


Victor Frankenstein, the novel’s namesake (the monster never receives a name), is a chemistry student at the University of Ingolstadt traumatized by the recent death of his mother. He believes science capable of anything, even clinging to antiquated principles of alchemy. Using the discovery of galvanism (passing electricity through a corpse’s nervous system to make it move), he learns to restore life to the dead. His genius is fully realized when he creates his monster from a horribly vivisected combination of cadavers and slaughterhouse remnants. Unlike the later films, which portray the monster as a vast, shambling dullard, in the book the creature seems to inherit his “father’s” vast intellect, becoming well-read and articulate.

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Hailing from the graphic novel Watchmen, Adrian Veidt was once the superhero Ozymandias. Referred to as ‘the smartest man on the planet’, Veidt helms a multi-billion dollar empire, which includes genetic engineering and a line of toys amongst other things. Fearing that the end of mankind is imminent (Watchmen takes place in a dystopian Cold War era where nuclear antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union has reached a critical juncture), he hatches a sinister plot to unite the nations against a common enemy. Unfortunately, his scheme comes at the cost of millions of innocent lives.

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Nearly every character on this list owes some debt of gratitude to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, master of deduction. Holmes is the consummate detective, drawing his conclusions from all manner of trivial details that escape the attention of lesser minds. He is often brought to the aid of police when they have already failed at solving a case with the available evidence. The Holmes stories are always narrated by his friend and colleague Watson, who marvels at Sherlock’s intellect but does not hesitate to level certain criticisms towards him either. Like the others, he is portrayed as eccentric, eschewing the conventions of fashion and comportment typical to his Victorian era. He uses both cocaine and morphine in his stories, though both drugs were legal at the time. Deep literary analysis of the character has suggested that aspects of his personality indicate mental illness, specifically Asperger’s syndrome, which would explain his intense, single-minded attention to detail and his introversion. A sensationalized version of the character appeared in the 2009 Robert Downey Jr. film, Sherlock Holmes.

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Top 10 Fictional Detectives

Whenever I’m bored I like to read a good detective story. I always make a list of suspects with their motives and alibis, and try to unmask the culprit at least four chapters before the end. Sometimes I’m right; sometimes I’m way off. These stories are two things in one: they are puzzles – like a crossword or a sudoku – but they are also literature, with interesting characters, a certain psychological depth and a vision of society in a given time and place. Making this top ten wasn’t easy, and I don’t expect everybody to agree. There’s the dilemma between quantity and quality, and the contrast between the British cosy mystery and American hardboiled fiction. Certain classics had to be included, but for the more recent ones it was a tougher choice. In the end I just followed my own taste. These are all detectives who gave me a lot of reading pleasure.

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Inspector Linley is a British detective created by the American author Elizabeth George. He’s the eighth Earl of Asherton. He solves crimes with his Scotland Yard colleague Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, who has a working class background. In the third Linley novel, “Well-Schooled in Murder”, Linley and Havers solve a homicide case in an elite British public school, which is remarkably well depicted for a non-British author. George always prepares her novels by studying real locations in England, which makes her stories more realistic than those of many other crime writers. Linley himself is a round character with weaknesses. His relationship with Lady Helen Clyde evolves through the novels. Linley and Havers are portrayed by Nathaniel Parker and Sharon Small (photo) in the BBC series “The Inspector Linley Mysteries”.


Private detective Kinsey Millhone was created by American author Sue Grafton. She appears in the alphabet series: “A Is for Alibi”, “B Is for Burglar” etc. She lives in an apartment in Santa Teresa, California. This fictional town based on Santa Barbara was invented by another writer, Ross MacDonald. Kinsey is a bachelorette who runs a lot to stay in shape, and has an affair from time to time. I like these novels because they are entertaining and have a fast pace and strong plot. There’s always a certain amount of action involved too. There hasn’t been a film or TV adaption of these stories yet – maybe an idea for the future.


Philip Marlowe is a private investigator created by American author Raymond Chandler. He appeared for the first time in “The Big Sleep”, in 1939. Other well-known titles are “The Lady in the Lake” and “The Long Goodbye”. Marlowe belongs to the hardboiled direction, influenced by Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He smokes and drinks a lot. He lives in Hollywood, Los Angeles. The stories are set in the more dangerous neighbourhoods in and around this city. Violence, drugs and tough language occur frequently. Marlowe has been played by a lot of actors, including Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep” and Powers Boothe (photo) in the ITV series “Philip Marlowe, Private Eye”.

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Private detective Sam Spade was invented by Dashiell Hammett. He only appears in one novel and three short stories, but remains important as the first example of a detective in the hard-boiled genre. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, among others, was inspired by Sam Spade. Spade is the main character in “The Maltese Falcon” (1930). He runs a detective agency in San Francisco with his partner Miles Archer, who gets killed early in the novel. He’s not afraid of a fist fight or firearms. He appears to be cynical, but still has a sense of duty. The story also involves a typical femme fatale. He was played by several actors, of which the most famous remains Humphrey Bogart (photo) in the movie adaption of 1941.


Detective Chief-Inspector Roderick Alleyn (pronounced “Allen”) is a British detective who appears in thirty-two novels by New Zealand writer Ngaio Marsh. It started with “A Man Lay Dead” in 1934, when a murder game ends with a real murder. Other examples are “Vintage Murder”, “Artists in Crime”, and “Overture to Death” – where the murder method is especially interesting. As the younger brother of a baronet Alleyn is another example of a gentleman detective. He works for Scotland Yard, where he eventually reaches the rank of Chief Superintendent. Society journalist Nigel Bathgate often helps him during his investigations. Initially a bachelor, Alleyn later marries painter Agatha Troy. Of the three actors who have played him in TV adaptions the best known is Patrick Malahide (photo).


Commissaire Jules Maigret is the only one in this top ten whose stories were not written in English, but in French. Although his author, Georges Simenon, was Belgian, Maigret himself is French and works in Paris. He holds a quantity record by appearing in seventy-five novels and twenty-nine short stories. Maigret usually smokes a pipe, drinks a lot and wears a heavy overcoat. He’s a more realistic character than most of his colleagues in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. His method of investigation comes close to the way a real policeman would work. His successes are based on team work, routine research and tenacity, rather than individual brilliancy. Maigret has been played by several TV actors, of which Jean Gabin was the first, and Bruno Cremer (photo) the most famous.


Lord Peter Wimsey was created by British author Dorothy L. Sayers. He’s the archetypal gentleman detective. Solving crimes is a hobby for him. In the second novel “Clouds of Witness” (1926), he has to take action because his brother is suspected of murder. He’s a round character with a past. After getting injured during World War I he was rescued by his later manservant Bunter, who also helps him with his investigations. Wimsey falls in love with Harriet Vine, and marries her. He likes to cooperate with Chief Inspector Charles Parker from Scotland Yard. These novels are still worth reading, because they are simply good literature with a broad perspective on British society in that era. Wimsey himself may be a gentleman, but he meets people from the lower classes, like the farmer in “Clouds of Witness” who suspects Wimsey of having an affair with his wife. Several actors have played Lord Peter Wimsey, including Ian Carmichael (photo) in a BBC series.

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Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple appeared first in a series of short stories in a magazine, later collected as “The Thirteen Problems”. This elderly spinster with a remarkable talent for amateur sleuthing can be followed in twelve crime novels, including “The Murder at the Vicarage” (1930) and “The Body in the Library” (1943). She lives in the small village of St Mary Mead, where she finds the opportunity to study human nature. She sees analogies with people and events she knows from village life, which helps her to solve many mysteries. Intuition and psychology are quite important to her. She can annoy the police investigators, who initially see her as an old busybody, until they have to admit she was right. I have to admit I used to be prejudiced against “the old bat” myself, but after reading her stories I became gradually convinced that she belongs to The Big Three of fictional detectives. She was played in movies by Margaret Rutherford and Angela Lansbury, and on TV by Helen Hayes, Joan Hickson (photo) and Geraldine McEwan.


Hercule Poirot appears for the first time in Agatha Christie’s “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”, published in 1920. He is a retired Belgian police officer who came to England during World War I as a refugee. Poirot solves mysteries with his “little grey cells”, occasionally without even leaving his room. With his strong preference for symmetry, order and method, he has something of a comic book character. Captain Arthur Hastings is his best friend, who relies too much on his intuition to solve a mystery by himself, but often helps Poirot with his observations and accidental remarks. Poirot’s secretary, Miss Lemon, is very efficient, but in contrast to Hastings she doesn’t have any imagination. Chief Inspector Japp from Scotland Yard isn’t too bright, but Poirot often sends him in the right direction. Detective writer Ariadne Oliver, who is partly based on Agatha Christie herself, believes in female intuition. Poirot is surely one of the greatest fictional detectives, because he was involved in so many unforgettable crime novels, including “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile”. Poirot was brought to life in movies by actors Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov, and by David Suchet (photo) in the ITV series.


Sherlock Holmes, a creation by Arthur Conan Doyle, remains the archetypal detective who solves mysteries by logical reasoning. He appears in only four novels, of which “A Study in Scarlet” (1887) was the first, and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1902) the most famous. At least as important are the fifty-six short stories. Two of my personal favorites are “The Red-Headed League” and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”. Holmes believes in the science of deduction: the principle that any problem can be solved if the necessary information is given. He is surrounded by people who are less bright than him. Dr Watson is a good observer, and can relate the cases in detail as first person narrator, but he never comes to the correct conclusion by himself. Inspector Lestrade is the not too clever police investigator with a lot of tenacity once he’s on the right track. His archenemy Professor Moriarty only appears in two stories. As a private person Holmes is quite eccentric. He uses cocaine, and never gets romantically involved, although he does have feelings for Irene Adler from “A Scandal in Bohemia”. Of the many actors who have played Sherlock Holmes I’ll just mention Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett (photo).

Honorable mention: Auguste Dupin (E. A. Poe), Father Brown (G. K. Chesterton), Adam Dalgliesh (P. D. James), Chief Inspector Wexford (Ruth Rendell), Chief Inspector Barnaby (Caroline Graham).

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Everything Is About to Change (for Real This Time)

The year I graduated high school, the media was overrun with speculation about a new technology set to shake the foundation of the world. What was it? We weren’t told, exactly. All we knew was that code name “IT” was so revolutionary that we would have to rebuild our cities from scratch. Techie god Steve Jobs declared it “as big a deal as the PC.”

At the end of the year, the product that was about to blow our minds to the future was revealed: the Segway.

A dorky scooter.

Instead of forcing us to rebuild our major metropolises, the Segway managed to be a prop for blowhards on TV sitcoms. I think I’ve seen one twice in real life.

I was thinking about the Segway again as I’ve fallen into a hole of reading about Amazon versus Hachette, e-books, self-publishing, and Kindle Unlimited. Most articles and nearly every comment thread are filled with declarations that e-book dominance is already here. The publishers are “dinosaurs” who don’t see the “paradigm-shifting” “sea change” and aren’t creating “proactive” new “business models” in the wake of this “disruptive” “revolution.” Anyone who reads print is a “luddite” propping up a “dying industry.” If they don’t get on board soon, they’re doomed!

Strangely, you can read those same comments in articles from last year. Or five years ago. Or 10.

It’s been over 15 years since the first dedicated e-readers were released, and over seven since the first Kindle. Today, about 15% of consumer spending on books is electronic and about 30% of books sold are e-books. The majority of book readers still only read in print, and only 6% of readers read e-books exclusively. It’s clear that e-books are here to stay, but it’s less clear that the complete dismantling of the publishing industry is around the corner.

Technology Is Only a Straight Line in Retrospect

I’m the online editor for Electric Literature, an organization dedicated to new literary models and technologies. I’m active on social media, I’ve crowdfunded a book, and I’ve published e-only works. I’m hardly a luddite who hates the internet, and indeed I get excited about the new possibilities for reading and literature out there.

Still, I roll my eyes at the constant declarations that the future is here all over again. Every new product is a revolution, every app will completely change how we communicate. A pair of “smart boxers” that monitors your farts per day is the future of underwear. An e-toothpick that tweets your gum health is a paradigm shift in dentistry. It’s true that there are always people who resist change, and industries that collapse because of it. It is also true that new “revolutions” fail to occur on a monthly basis. Even the most forward-thinking writers get their predications way off.

Technological progression always looks like a straight line in retrospect, but only because we ignore the supposed sea changes that fail. Movies were black and white without sound, then black and white with sound, then color with sound. But what happened to Smell-O-Vision? And five years after Avatar, why hasn’t 3D completely taken over the way we watch movies instead of being a declining sideshow? On the one hand, it’s easy to see the progress from early cell phones to modern smartphones. And yet, the fact that it was phones that progressed that quickly instead of, say, consumer vehicles (still no flying cars?) would shock time travelers from as recently as 1994.

The Future of Books Is Hypertext! No. It’s POD! No. It’s Enhanced E-Books! Apps! Netflix for Books! None of Those? Wait. It’s Cloud Storage!

In Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky recently declared that the Amazon-Hachette dispute is silly because both companies “fail to recognize is that in the world of digital literature, book ownership will soon be an anachronism.” The actual future of books, according to Bershidsky, is “an enormous digital library in the cloud, where any book could be borrowed.”

I could see a cloud service working, but it’s another amusingly confident prediction that contradicts previous confident predictions. Is the future cloud borrowing instead of Netflix model? Is it “an interactive novel read on a Google Glass”? Is it apps? Social writing networks like Wattpad? Print on demand (POD) machines on every corner? Nano-narrative book bots plugged directly into your eyeball?

Likely all of those things will have some role, however small, in 10 years’ time. But one thing that all of these predictions miss is that people actually like physical books. They like holding them. They like putting them on bookshelves and coffee tables. Hotels and retail stores buy bulk used books for decoration. Many people who buy exclusively e-books still like to browse in physical bookstores and look at physical books.

The printed book is far from dead.

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Books Are Not Music

The favorite comparison for print doomsayers is the music industry. Although Bershidsky rightly points out that financially the publishing industry is adapting to the digital world much better than the music industry did, he still falls back into the default comparison:

[…] the book market is following the music market’s technological development path. It progressed from hardcover and paperback books — analogous to vinyl LPs and CDs — to Amazon’s Kindle, which could be used to purchase books from Amazon the way Apple Inc. sold songs to iPod users through its iTunes store.

Since this comparison is made ad nauseam, I’d like to take a detour and list some reasons why I’ve always thought it was off:

  • New music formats were improvements while new print formats were variety. New music formats had more functions (fast-forwarding, skipping around, etc.), were smaller, and held larger amounts of information. Trade paperbacks were cheaper, less sturdy version of hardcovers, and mass market paperbacks were cheaper and flimsier still. Book formats were meant to capture different parts of the market; music formats were meant to replace previous formats.
  • In a 20-year period, consumers were asked to move from vinyl to cassette tapes to CDs to MP3s —and to buy new devices to play them with each time. You read paperback and hardcover with the same set of hands and eyes.
  • There are numerous industry differences too, but in the interest of keeping this relatively short I’ll stick to one: the music industry was built around using singles to sell albums. Customers often felt forced into paying full album price just to access the one or two songs they wanted. Readers, however, do not buy novels to read the one chapter they like over and over.

Dinosaurs Don’t Always Die

Even if you believe that the publishing industry is just another bunch of “dinosaurs” like the music and movie industries, it doesn’t follow that the big publishers are dying. Last time I checked, the rise of Netflix and YouTube haven’t stopped the box office from being dominated by the same movie studios rebooting the same franchises with the same famous actors. While a few superstars have risen from self-publishing, it still remains the usual pack of Big 5 Kings and Rowlings topping the best-seller lists.

As a fan of independent music, small presses, and weirdo films, I’m not cheering this on. I wish that the early ’00s vision of the internet allowing the passionate indies to topple the giant corporations had panned out. At best, though, we’ve traded a handful of old corporations for new, larger ones (Amazon, Apple, Google, etc.) and actually made it harder for artists to survive.

The internet has made people expect “content” (a gross term for art) to be very cheap or free…even when that content is advertising for rich corporations. While everyone can produce and spread art, it’s becoming increasingly hard to actually make any kind of living off of it. The people in position to capitalize are always the rich, and so the big movie studios are able to leverage the global markets and the established music industry players have been able to leverage music licenses to car commercials. While a lot of self-publishers have this idea the Big 5 hate and fear them, the truth is closer to the opposite: The Big 5 have started to look at the typo-ridden Wild West of self-publishing as a kind of digital slush pile from which they can snatch up the works that build an audience. (Publishers are even trying to re-create this dynamic under their umbrellas.)

The dinosaurs, it would seem, are much better at adapting than we think.

The Future of Books Tomorrow…Today!

Since I’ve taken some jabs at other people’s overconfident predictions, here’s where I post my own predictions for future bloggers to mock.

It’s possible that in the distant future we will “read” by injecting word venom into our bloodstream, but I don’t think printed books are going away anytime soon. (Predictions beyond a decade are pretty pointless in conversations about contract negotiations or what way to publish your work today.) E-books will continue to grow, but print will remain a large portion and probably capture a majority of dollars spent for the near future. If there’s a reason to be bearish on print, it’s the shuttering of physical bookstores (although indie bookstores are experiencing a bit of a comeback). If there is any reason to be bearish on e-books, it is that dedicated e-readers are already nearly obsolete.

The reason that neither e-books nor print will die is that both have separate advantages. Print books are easier to flip through, easier to write in, look nicer on your shelf, and — as recent studies have indicated — the human brain processes information on them better. (That’s before getting into questions of DRM, poor formatting, the inability to loan or resell your e-books, and so on.) E-books obviously have advantages too. You can bring one slim device on a long trip instead of a half-dozen books. If you are connected to the internet, you can purchase instantly, look up words, and share bits with friends. Etc.

The film industry seems like a good comparison in how the mediums don’t compete as much as capture different markets. Diehard fans go to the theater and buy Blu-rays, regular fans go to theater now and then and maybe rent from iTunes, and casual fans just watch whatever happens to come to Netflix or Redbox. It’s easy to imagine diehard readers buying special editions or hardcovers, while regular readers get the paperback or e-book, and readers who don’t care as much about specific authors will buy whatever e-books go on sale.

And what about these “Netflix for books” services? People have been predicting their ascendance for some time, but I’m still skeptical. A big part of how Netflix works is by having a ton of crappy films and shows that casual viewers would never pay movie ticket prices for but will watch for no additional charge. My guess is that there are fewer readers like that, and people who do read that way can fill that need with extremely cheap used books or self-published e-books (thousands of which can be gotten for between $0.00 and $2.99). Unless these services figure out how to offer something new — exclusive content à la Netflix? — they won’t be a major force.

The ease of e-book publication combined opens up a lot of possibility for companies and organizations to become their own publishers. We have already seen magazines and newspapers start to publish e-books. Not only will this trend increase, but it will expand to other areas. TV shows and movie franchises publishing additional e-book material for diehard fans perhaps?

What about self-publishing versus print generally? I tend to think that framing them as opposing forces obscures the fact that they are, to a large degree, different worlds. Self-publishing has opened up new markets — some that big publishers overlooked, some that they didn’t want to be involved in — more than it has eaten away at traditional publishing sales. (If Amazon succeeds in drastically lowering e-book prices, the reverse may happen though.) Rather than self-publishing or traditional publishing, authors in genres like romance, fantasy, and sci-fi will increasingly go “hybrid.”

Despite the regular hyping of enhanced e-books/hypertext/apps/interactive books, I don’t see those going anywhere outside of a few specific markets like children’s books and textbooks. The problem is that we already have a whole industry devoted to interactive narratives: video games. Art forms survive by figuring out what makes them unique, not by trying to emulate other mediums.

What Can Books Do Better

Currently, publishers just convert their paperback books to e-book and self-publishers POD the same books they sell digitally. Just as art forms need to push their unique advantages, I think the future of books is pushing the unique advantages of different formats.

In print, you will see more focus on design. In the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in special editions, beautifully designed and smartly curated series, and books that really have to be read on paper due to unique layouts or interior art.

In e-book land, I can see a lot of ways to exploit the advantage of digital files. A lot of self-published authors “bundle” short novels or stories together to let readers sample different authors. There is no reason that traditionally published authors couldn’t do that too. Maybe presses will sell cheap “samplers” of the writers on their catalog like music labels used to do. An e-book file can be as long as you want, so why not include bonus materials that would muck up a print book? (Here’s a more dystopian e-book vision: e-book apps that are free to download and start, but require in-app purchases to finish the entire narrative or get bonus material.)

And what about using POD technology to allow customers to create their own anthologies from a publisher’s catalog? Publishers need to find ways to use the different advantages of each type of book, and figure out what kind of work can be done on e-book but not print, or POD but not hardcover.

You will also, I think, increasingly see e-books used to supplement the print edition. From J.K. Rowling writing new Harry Potter stories on her Pottermore website to Adele Waldman writing an e-single story from the POV of a minor character in her novel, writers are starting to figure out how to use digital distribution to provide additional material to readers.

In short, the various formats will cohabitate peacefully…at least until the next dinosaur-killing, paradigm-shifting, sea-changing, revolutionary technology appears.


Lincoln Michel’s fiction appears in Tin House, Electric Literature, Unstuck, NOON, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic magazine and Gigantic Worlds, a forthcoming anthology of science flash fiction. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. He tweets at @thelincoln.

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Sturgeon’s Law states that “90% of science fiction is shit — 90% of everything is shit” but, even though literally tons of crappy SF gets published every year, sometimes the absolute best gets shuffled into obscurity. Here, then, are ten novels that should have been elevated far above the stink of the heap… but somehow never got the buzz they deserve. Selections move from “should have sold much better” to “should be considered a true classic” as the list counts down. [Competition: Whoever makes the 100th comment on this list will receive their choice of any one of these books. Be sure to register.]

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Original title: You Sane Men, easier to find as Bloodworld. The problem with Janifer is that he was, well, a hack. He wrote professionally for fifty years. Pick up any given Janifer book and you will probably be disappointed. Although, he did garner a Hugo nomination in 1960 as the co-author (under the pseudonym Mark Phillips) with Randall Garrett for Brain Twister, a novel that thankfully did not win. However, in the blind-pig-finds-an-acorn model, Janifer knocked the ball out of the park with Bloodworld (to mix a couple of metaphors). Essentially, the fine ruling menfolk on a colonized planet remain “sane” and capable of fulfilling their social obligations by torturing underclass women as a recreational activity. For its time, it was definitely provocative and probably an intentional attempt to write a “shocking” novel. Still, the torture scenes are painted with a nicely consistent “this-is-normal-and-right” tone… until the protagonist develops feelings for one of his whipping-lasses, and the morality play starts. Gene Wolfe fans are especially encouraged to check this one out.

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While I admit to a personal preference for so-called “Golden Age” science fiction, works can’t be “lost” to the back shelves of used bookstores and the ferret-warrens of Internet traders while they’re available on the shelves of Borders or Barnes & Noble. Skinner, as a 1985 title, might be cutting it a little close, but that’s still almost a quarter-century. And with no reviews or descriptions found on Amazon, it’s at least overlooked somewhat.

Anyway, our down-and-out anti-hero protagonist finds himself shipped off to a desert world and deeply in debt. The planet is owned and managed by a “family company” for the production of their one great monopoly… dragonhides. The critters, not real dragons but might as well be, are big nasty reptiles living in the desert sands, and their skins are nearly indestructible. A skinner goes out (with his gear and supplies brought from the company store and increasing his debt, of course) and does his best to kill these beasties without getting killed himself so he can haul the skins back. The company even has a nursery where they hatch and raise baby dragons, and that work is deadly, too. Throw in rival factions within the family controlling the company, and you have a fairly-straightforward adventure that could well have been set in a 1890s coal town. But it isn’t, and the dragon-work is interesting to read. It’ll never be a classic, but Skinner is satisfying genre-stuff.

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Another hack, but a true pulp-fiction hack. Will Jenkins wrote thousands of short pieces under a variety of pseudonyms for such genres as westerns, romances, jungle adventure, horror, radio scripts, etc plus what he is best-known for — science fiction under the nom Murray Leinster. His short story “First Contact” is in the Hall of Fame anthology, as it should be. If it is remembered long enough, it may well be exactly how our ships and those of the aliens manage not to fight when first encountering one another in the depths of interstellar space.

But the vast majority of Leinster stuff is uninspired, and that is being kind. The Greks Bring Gifts is an exception. The title (sic; one e not two in Greks) is a play on the Trojan Horse myth. What we have is this large spaceship with aloof, somewhat creepy Greks in it coming to earth. They are a schoolship for spaceworkers, and they have a class of likable, furry Aldarians aboard. Might be a good learning experience for them to make contact with a new race, the humans. Oh yes, the Greks will give us what technology they can that might help us, free of charge. Just the neighborly thing to do. And almost unlimited broadcast energy is the biggie to us humans. Why build more internal combustion cars when pretty soon everyone will have a broadcast-powered car? So sorry, the Greks must be on their way now, but things will work out, you’ll see, all of these current economic difficulties notwithstanding. And about the Aldarians….

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William Sleator is a name unfamiliar to many adult science fiction fans, yet he has made a living for 30+ years writing fiction that is mostly of a sci-fi nature. However, it is young adult science fiction. Not Spaceship Under The Apple Tree style “kiddie sf” — more along the lines of Heinlein juveniles, though with far less science. Podkayne of Mars rather than Rocketship Gallileo. But stylistically completely different, as Sleator specializes in weird moods and bizarre situations. House of Stairs, written in 1974, is truly weird and definitely a bizarre situation. While I haven’t read the entirety of Sleator’s science fiction output, this novel is — pardon me — light years beyond the other works of his I have read. It’s really hard to provide a synopsis that isn’t a spoiler for the new reader’s freakazoid reaction to what transpires, but I’ll try. Understand that the following is as bare-bones as possible, on purpose. A group of adolescents who don’t know one another awake to find themselves in a strange place. Stairways and landings ramble everywhere in three dimensions, and that is all they see. It’s chilly, and there is no food or water. Then, on occassion, they get fed some nutrient bars by machinery. That’s all I’m saying about the plot. The book really makes you realize that you’re pretty normal, because you would have to consider whether this book is appropriate for other people’s precious little snowflakes to read and because of a concept I can’t mention without spoiling. But apparently no one has a problem with this book.

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Hal Clement was the quintessential old-school “hard” science fiction author. In fact, most of his novels are probably unreadable to the majority of today’s science fiction readers because of voluminous passages coming across as graduate-level lectures in physics and exobiology. Even fans of the new revival of science in science fiction, as typified by the justly popular works of Robert J. Sawyer, may find Clement books to be a perfect cure for insomnia. But, as befitting a longtime professor of chemistry and astonomy, the science is as genuine as possible for its time periods, meticulously worked out, and free from errors. Clement garnered fame and critical acclaim for 1954′s Mission of Gravity, a novel about humans directing intelligent centipede explorers on a high-grav world (where a fall from three feet near the poles is certain death) to retrieve readings from a crashed probe near the equator where the gravity is much less extreme. So much for the classics…. Iceworld features far less science than his other works — though there is no escaping science in a Clement book. We see the alien viewpoint even more than the human one in this tale of intergalactic drug smuggling. The drug is tobacco, the only drug the aliens have ever found which results in full-blown do-anything addiction from a single dose. The “Iceworld” is Earth — to the aliens, anywhere water can be a liquid is unbelievably cold. Excellent character portayals of both humans and aliens, and altogether an absorbing read. Note: none of the above is much of a spoiler — it’s the set-up.

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Ballroom-Of-The-Skies Small

Creator of the famed Travis McGee series, McDonald is considered by the world to be a mystery writer. As a Grand Master award winner, he certainly is that. But McDonald was a first-rate science fiction author as well. His numerous SF short stories, sold to magazines, consistently show fine craftsmanship and an understanding of the genre… they never disappoint. One could do worse than to pick up his seminal collection, Other Times, Other Worlds. Of his three longer science fiction works, Ballroom Of The Skies is probably the best. Heavy on sometimes stilted dialogue in the beginning, and using more exposition in the latter stages as the characters become involved with greater events, the novel essentially explores the fundamental question of why humans seem driven towards war and self-imposed disaster, even as their other activities strive towards bettering living standards and the human condition. Of course, there is a sinister explanation….

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I hesitated to place this book on the list, because Foster fans are legion. Thus, lots of people have probably at least heard of this book, even if they haven’t read it. It garners its place largely because many other works by Foster are so well-known it seems that this one has been largely ignored except for a minority of people like me who have accorded it cult status. It might well be the best alien biosphere ever described. The planet is all jungle, towering to dizzying heights of chlorophyll fecundity with a hellish swampy twilight at the surface. Human descendents of a long-ago spaceship crash live in the “mid” levels of the world, hence the title. At first glance they are primitive savages, but their ability to survive in a truly inimical environment has made them far more intimately familar with their surroundings than any Native American culture ever was. Then, a corporation illegally arrives on the planet to exploit its lush plant life for medicinal purposes. Our hero (considered rash and a weird-thinker by his tribe) along with his furcot — a native companion who can speak and has a much closer relationship to man than our dogs — agrees to guide two stranded scientists back to their treetop base. Spectacular depictions of alien lifeforms. A “live with the rainforest, don’t exploit it motif,” which succeeds without pissing off political conservatives like me (no mean feat, that). And a revealed secret that makes the otherwise worthwhile pure gold.

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Spinrad is quite well-known, especially for his 1969 novel Bug Jack Barron, which was a precursor to cyberpunk. Agent Of Chaos (1967) is his second novel. I hope too many eyes don’t roll to the back of too many heads when it is stated that this can only be described as political science fiction. Those who detest politics can still enjoy it, as the backdrop is Heinleinien space opera at its finest. But politics do take center stage, and one could even say that meta-politics is the theme here. So we have a totalitarian government (the Hegemony) and an underground rebel conspiracy (the Democratic Movement). The latter professes to work for individual liberty. But as these factions struggle, the Agents of Chaos — known to the public as the Brotherhood of Assassins — often intervene with random acts of violence that could favor the Hegemony on Tuesday and the Movement on Thursday. Just what is their agenda? The reader learns early on that their agenda truly is Chaos, but for definable political reasons which are slowly revealed. Central to the book is the concept of entropy, even in political systems. The Hegemony strives for Order and elimination of randomness, so of course a reaction occurs (the Movement) to challenge that move towards order. But the Agents have other ideas. Wait till you learn what the Agents consider to be the Ultimate Chaotic Act!

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William Tenn was the pseudonym of Penn State professor Philip Klass. In the 50s and 60s, he wrote tons of science fiction short stories for Galaxy and Astounding. Almost universally, those stories were humorous and/or satirical, written in a breezy, fast-reading style. The majority have been reprinted countless times in various collections over the years. Yet, he wrote only one true science fiction novel: Of Men And Monsters. And even that one is somewhat short and easily read in a single sitting. But it is excellent and quite original, even though its premise sounds like standard fare. Gigantic mantis-like aliens have conquered earth and set up living quarters in equally gigantic houses. But scattered remnants of humanity survive, literally living like mice in the walls of the alien homes. And like mice, they must brave death in order to steal food. The true grace of the book is its development of the tribal culture(s) mankind adopts under these trying conditions. And of course, there is a rebellious spirit in our protagonist… leading him to upset the human social order.

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Russell himself is under-appreciated by today’s science fiction community. But he was, in fact, the favorite writer of both legendary editor John W. Campbell and author Alan Dean Foster (source: conversation between the two, as described by Foster in his introduction to The Best of Eric Frank Russell). Some of Russell’s short stories are held in high regard — “Allamagoosa” and others have been reprinted over and over, and in hall of fame or other “greatest of all time” anthologies. His novels… not so much.

Wikipedia reports that a recent blip in interest has been seen over Wasp as a result of a reprinting in 2000, and the subsequent events of September 11, 2001. Because, you see, our protagonist employs effective terrorist tactics… which are depicted in the book with dark humor combined with more than tacit approval. Government approval, in fact. Spoiler alert: Wiki’s plot synopsis is essentially a complete outline of the book in paragraph form!

Anyway, Wasp, written in 1957, is short and just outright fun to read. The title refers to the fact that the seemingly inconsequential can have disproportionate results — an example is given of a wasp which distracts a driver to cause a multi-car crash, thus tying up lots of manpower and money to deal with the aftermath. James Mowry becomes a government-trained wasp, dropped alone in disguise on an enemy planet during a fierce war with earth. Actually, this is somewhat similar to the Allies dropping solo paratroopers behind German lines in WWII, with instructions to sever communications, work with the underground, and generally make pesky nuisances of themselves. Which in the book Mowry does with derring-do, close calls, a contempt for authority, and witty if dark humor. The tricks and tactics he employs really make the book sing (a few simple stickers are amazing in their effect). Combine that with a character who detests the authority of his own government but figures that of the totalitarian enemy to be worse, and it should be a classic rather than a barely-known.

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Contributor: grubthrower

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