Books I Could Not Put Down

I wrote a curmudgeonly post on books I could not finish, and it is only fair I write a non-curmudgeonly post on what books are the opposite, that is, books I could not not-finish.

This is a harder question for me to answer. My reading tastes were developed in my youth, when I had an abundance of time to read: so my practice was to read certain books five or ten times over and over again.

But asking what books I could not put down is different from asking which ones I read and re-read, and which are enshrined in my memory in a fane of gold.

So let me answer the question backwards. Instead of saying which books I loved (and anyone familiar with the field can tell from whom I am stealing my ideas and themes) let me list only the books I loved despite their obvious flaws.

I am not going to mention Jack Vance or Gene Wolfe or C.S. Lewis or Ursula K LeGuin or any other author that I can read with undiminished pleasure as an adult whom I first loved as a twelve-year-old.

I am not going to talk about books I could not put down because they hypnotized me, as did VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, or books I could not put down because I was sure I would never read anything remotely like it again, like THE WORM OROBOROS.

I am only talking about page-turners. These are books which, if I had the taste and good sense of a man of letters, I would be ashamed to like, but, like Belle being attracted to the Beast, I am still swept off my feet despite that my Beau eats venison raw.

THE SHADOW by Maxwell Grant

My favorites are DEATH TOWER, GREY FIST, THE ROMANOV JEWELLS, THE SHADOW’S SHADOW, or anything with Shiwan Khan in it.

These are pulp, pure pulp. The sentences are short. The writing is quick. It moves. The writing moves the reader quickly from point to point. No time is wasted! Even descriptions are short. Character development? Hah! The Shadow does not need character development! The Shadow needs to shoot! Villains quail at the sight of his steely eyes. His hands are firm and steady on his trusty .45’s. With a sharp report of sound, those grim, twin messengers of leaden death speed from the smoking barrels! No one has seen the face of the Shadow and lived! The Shadow knows!

Not really science fiction, although one does meet the occasional murder-robot, hypnotist, or super-scientific weapon gadget. Unlike the movie version, this Shadow could not cloud men’s minds: he was a stealthy operator who used black clothing or disguises to blend into the background. Since Grant was interested in stage magic, seeing him describe how The Shadow gets around can be fascinating. For example, the writing can keep you on the edge of your seat just by having The Shadow trying to escape one section of town while the armies of gangland are gunning for him.

He is not a character like one you will meet in real life, unless you are in the Marine Corps. The Shadow is as smart and bold and fearless and tough as any Gray Lensman.

One word of Caution! Not for the faint of heart! Old Maids of the time they were written would disapprove the violence. Nowadays, the level of violence is quite tame. But our Old Maids object to calling Men from China “Chinamen” (even though, for some reason, they do not object to calling Men from France, “Frenchmen” Go figure.) These books were written to the common-man sensibilities of the 1930’s, and the past is another country.


These books are also pulp; Space Opera at its best. I would say that there is almost no literary quality of any kind whatsoever in these books, and thank God, because attempts to be pretentious and literary (see, for example, Jerry Cornelius by Mike Moorcock) are like the seed that falleth on stony ground, which hath no roots, and is gone in one season.

On the other hand, Space Opera lasts forever. Doc Smith’s writing is the culmination and sublimation of a gadget story, crime story, wonder tale, planetary adventure, pirate yarn, Apocalypse-squared, war story, ax, maul, mace, can-opener, and lumberman’s picaroon.

The writing style is lurid with the starkly inconceivable, utterly unutterable, astronomically ether-wrenching torrent of adjectives of such refractory power, scope, penetration, and fulsomeness, that no material body of any kind can withstand its titanic energy for even a tiniest microsecond of time, but must, at the inconceivable speeds of interialess verbiage, cease utterly to exist forthwith and in fee simple!

Very easy to turn the pages in this book. The forces of Boskone are gunning for the never-to-be-sufficiently-damned superpolicemen of the Galactic Patrol.

If you read and like this story, please write to Rare Earth Books, and tell them that the introduction by John Clute is an insult to the memory of Doc EE Smith.

FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov

For a book where nothing happens, this is a fascinating read. Asimov has a light-handed, easy, journalistic style that makes it easy to go to the next paragraph, and easy to turn the page. There is no real plot and no characterization to speak of. What there is, as there is in all good Science Fiction, is an idea. In this case, the idea is this: what if the laws of History could be deduced by science? What there is, as there is in all good Science Fiction, is a memorable setting: the Roman Empire in Space, and its downfall is vast beyond imagining. Who can forget Trantor, the world covered entirely by a city?

Only the original trilogy is worth reading.

A PRINCESS OF MARS by Eagar Rice Burroughs

Say what you will about Burroughs, he knew how to keep a reader hooked. This book is not written in a modern style—indeed, it is the last of the Victorian “Lost Race” romances, as much as it is the first of the Space Operas. But it is easy for the reader’s eye to travel down the page. The first line of the first book is a line of haunting mystery: John Carter does not know how old he is: he is, perhaps, immortal. And yet nothing is made of this: it is merely there for atmosphere. The Mars described is ridiculous, even by the scientific knowledge of the day. Characterization there is little or none: but plot! Plot he has got, quite a lot! You cannot swing a nine-legged cat on Mars without hitting another lost race of green or red or white or black or purple men, smiting a beautiful half-naked princess kidnapped by ruthless villains, or smacking an air-boat shot down by the radium guns of Green Martians crash-landing in a deserted city.


This author is not likely to be remembered for his prose styling. His characters are the stock characters of pulp and adventure tales: Lensmen-grade supermen. Nonetheless he is my favorite author of all time. Why? He is the master of pacing, of breathless prose.

All science fiction boils down to one thing: the ability to make the reader feel he has just taken a perfectly logical step, and stepped into a land of wonder or horror. Science fiction, in its simplest essence, is that feeling of disorientation. In real life, when Einstein announced there was no Newtonian absolutes of time and space, the world felt like it stepped off the edge of an intellectual cliff. When the Manhattan Project split the atom, history felt like it stepped off the edge of a cliff.

A.E. van Vogt is simply the master of that off-the-cliff sensation. Practically every sentence requires a leap of the imagination on the part of the reader. Like a Chinese puzzle box whose puzzle changes when you move a single painted panel, one sentence in a Van Vogt story can change the whole structure of everything you thought you knew.

Some complain that his notions lack scientific plausibility. Let them complain. Science fiction is bigger than merely a literature for engineers. Science fiction is about how the human spirit adapts to changing conditions. It is about how men do not go mad or blow up their world merely because they find no Newtonian absolutes, and have the hellfire of the atom at their beck and call. Science fiction, ultimately, is about intelligence, about competence at problem-solving. There are many writers better on many levels than A.E. van Vogt. But his man is my idol: because he could imagine what ultimate intelligence might be like, infinite competence.

It is very easy to keep turning the pages in a Van Vogt novel, because whatever happens next will leave the reader astonished. This author is also the master of the plot-hook: within the first page, usually within the first line, the starter’s gun has gone off, and the plot is moving along as a blinding sprint. The reader had better keeps his legs under him, if he expects to keep up.

DINOSAUR BEACH by Keith Laumer

Laumer is a writer who is, in terms of voice and characterization, stronger than the other writers I list here.

He is only on the list of ‘Books I could Not Put Down’ because his mastery of the fast-paced staccato prose style would make it unfair to leave him off. He has none of the weaknesses I mention in the other writers here. His prose is not purple like Doc Smith’s, nor delirious like A.E. van Vogt’s, nor are his characters stiff and bloodless like Isaac Asimov’s, nor does he write undisguised propaganda like Bob Heinlein.

He is not as well known or well remembered as these other writers. I have no explanation for this: I can only assume Fame is Deaf as well as blind

His strongest point is his clean, witty, masculine, direct, muscular prose style. He has the poetic grace of a Raymond Chandler, the dry wit of a Dashiell Hammett, and the action simply gallops along.

The best fight scenes in SF appear in the books of Keith Laumer, and he also has the most battered, most severely wounded heroes in scientifictiondom, men who will never give up, cracking jokes even as they pass out.

I list DINOSAUR BEACH because it is the first, last and only time travel or time paradox story you need ever read. It sums up all the previous time travel stories, and overshadows all the time travel stories that come after.


This book is hateful on almost every level. The story is about a Man from Mars who comes to Earth, and, understanding nothing of how real human beings act, proceeds to lecture us on How To Be Good. (Because he is from a superior culture to ours, doncha know.) Boy, I just love being talked down to, don’t you?

Being good consists of doing those things we earthlings call evil: killing men in jail without a trial, because you believe in reincarnation, and it is Wrong to lock up men (they should be free! Free like Elsa the Lioness!); killing television evangelists, because perhaps they are hypocrites; whoring around with a bunch of playboy bunnies, because monogamy is Wrong, but perversion is Wholesome and Good; strutting around calling yourself God is Good, because monotheism is Wrong, but being a smug self-satisfied asshole is Righteousness. Being an arrogant Rich Bastard is Good and being an ordinary working-class Joe is contemptible: Right is Wrong and Wrong is Right. You are a Chump.

And, by the way, religion is a cheap Barnum and Bailey con-game for morons. Er, even though there actually are angels who wear halos in this universe. Angels, but no God, because God is our lovely self-actualized self-seeking, yummy self. Yes! It actually is all about me! Yesss, my preciousss.

“Well, Mr. Heinlein! I am interested in your product. Tell me more! How do I become a God, so that I can be rich and copulate with three playboy bunnies not my wife?”

“Sure, John. It is easy to be God! You do not need to do any act of love or charity to awaken to your True Godliness!”

“What a bargain!”

“Nope: all you need to do to be God, is be a loudmouthed, selfish asshole!”

“Gee Whiz, Mr. Heinlein, I got that one in the bag! (and here I thought there would be a written test or something).”

“And as the only self-aware God on the planet, you are immune from ordinary rules of morality, so you too can go about killing people at random and copulating with playboy bunnies!”

“Wow! What a theologically unassailable position! Gee, thanks, Mr. Heinlein! I’ll drop my trousers right away!”

“And you get to eat human flesh!”

“Do I get to kill anyone other than television evangelists and prisoners in jail?”

“Sure! You get to murder policemen! Kill the dirty pigs! They don’t leave widows!”

Think I am exaggerating? Go back and reread the book. These themes appear in nearly every scene, but I will select merely one as an example: there is a scene where working class Joe, an electrician who works for the Rich Curmudgeon expresses an objection to eating at the same table with a cannibal. Arrogant Rich Bastard fires him on the spot, dons his miter and surplice of Holier-Than-Thou Sanctimony and bitch-slaps the working class Joe for daring, for DARING, to have any sort of moral values that disapprove of cannibalism. Working Class Joe not only has to apologize, he has to suffer a Two Minute Sensitivity Training before he is ideologically pure enough to be admitted back into work. You see, eating human flesh is not wrong—oh no, only the chumps and bourgeoisie prigs would judge cannibalism to be a diminution of the dignity of the human species—but disapproving of eating human flesh is so culturally insensitive, so non-relativistic, so darn judgmental, that we must browbeat, scorn, and take away the livelihood of anyone who runs afoul of that commandment.

And we cannot hire anyone who disagrees with us. No; we are Ideologically Pure. The Elect shall not mingle with the Damned.

So much for the theme. The characterization is the same characters we have met again and again in every Heinlein book: crusty old curmudgeon, eager young man, bed-hopping pleasure girls, Babbitt, Tartuffe, crooked cop, crooked politician. None of them are well drawn, none of them have any growth or character arc: they are merely caricatures. The closest thing to a character arc is the Jill Boardman and Ben Caxton, who start out as middle-class prudes, and end up as orgy-digging swingers: but even this is not character-driven, it is like watching the stupid housewife on a commercial for floorwax learn how smart housewife can keep her floors Gleamkwik Clean! with Gleamkwik! It is an ad.

So much for characterization. The plot wanders and veers like a drunken sailor on shore leave: first it is a cops-and-robbers sort of thing, with the Martian being saved from the Big Bad Government; then it is a Gulliver’s Traveler sort of thing, except with Earth being the strange island being visited; then it is a satire against religion; then it is the Gospel of Mark, except that we are, for some reason, supposed to feel sorry for Mike the Martian when he get stoned to death (let us pause for a moment to savor that sheer story-telling hubris of that. How many people do you know personally who have died by stoning?), even though, in this theology, there is no atoning sacrifice, because there is no original sin.

As a plot wrap-up, even as a satire, this ending makes no sense. It is simply out of character. Mike is not only NOT suffering and dying for the sake of those who kill him, as his literary and theological archetype did, he is actually troubled by the idea that the Chumps and Working Class Joes (that is you and me, folks) might survive and reproduce.

If you recall, the last bit of dialog between Mike the Martian and Wise Old Man Jubal is when Mike is worried that Darwin’s glorious Plan for culling the under-people might be thwarted if Mike starts a Church that teaches the Chumps how to be Nietzsche-style supermen. Jubal tells him not to worry! The Chumps cannot be admitted to the Church of Me, because (ah ha!) we are too stupid! Chumps can never be Supermen! Darwin’s glorious plan for the emergence of the Superman will be complete because all the Squares and Monotheists and Stupid People will die off! The rich and powerful will inherit the earth! What an uplifting, enlightened vision that is! I picture a boot trampling a human face forever.

The only problem is that Mike’s martyrdom at the end of the book cannot be reconciled with his withering contempt for the Yahoos. A writer cannot tack the ending of the Gospel of Mark onto the tail of Gulliver’s Travels. As a work of art (not to mention a work of propaganda) it simply makes no sense.

Oh, and Mike dies while uttering adoring prayers to a worm. Gee, this guy is practically the Buddha. All life is beautiful! All that groks is God! Wow, man, that’s like sooooo deep. Heavy, man. Groovy.

So, I hated this book. I hated it with a hatred so complete, that, compared to my hate, the hatred you earthmen can muster is merely a tepid dislike. There is not even the vaguest attempt to show life from more than one angle: it is straight agit-prop for the author’s Party-line. There is no balance, no depth, no humanity. Even Howard Alan Treesong, the Demon Prince, is portrayed with more three-dimensionality and sympathy than any Heinlein bad guy here: because the bad guys are all yammerheads. Then why am I listing STRANGER on my list of books I could not put down?

Because it is witty. Because the characters (such as they are) are easy to like, and the dialog is easy to read, and the whole thing goes down smooth without anything to chew over, nothing to jar the suspension of disbelief, no distractions to bump you out of the story. The book is funny, and it strokes the ego of the readers like an owner’s hand petting a purring Persian cat.

Were it not for the wit of the dialog, the dry humor, the Swiftian satire, there would be no book. Despite all my complaints about the theme, plot, character, and moral, this book is expertly crafted on the page-by-page level. You cannot put it down.

I have more page-turning books that I could not put down, but that is enough for now.