Many people have dated a new era in their lives from the reading of just the right book. For this special issue, Book World asked some eminent writers, critics and editors to choose a favorite work of fantasy or science fiction, then explain in a few words a little of its personal importance or particular artistic achievement.

MICHAEL CHABON

The most important short story in my life as a writer is Ray Bradbury's "The Rocket Man." I read it for the first time when I was 10. I was making my way, with pleasure, through a collection of Bradbury's stories called R Is for Rocket. I had been an avid reader for about five years, and at first the pleasure I felt was the familiar pleasure I derived from the flights of an author's fancy, and from the anticipation and surprise of plot. Then I came to "The Rocket Man." It's the narrative of the young son of a rocket pilot whose father is to him at once an ordinary, ordinarily absent father, puttering around the house on his days off, and a terrible, mysterious demigod whose kingdom is the stars. The danger of the father's profession, the imminence and immanence of death, lie upon the family like the dust of stars that the narrator lovingly collects from his father's flightsuit every time the Rocket Man comes home. During one of the father's leaves, the family travels to Mexico by car. One evening they stop along a rural road to rest, and in the last light of the day the son notices bright butterflies, dozens of them, trapped and dying in the grille of the car.

I think it was when I got to the butterflies -- in that brief, beautiful image comprising life, death and technology -- that the hair on the back of my neck began to stand on end. All at once, the pleasure I took in reading was altered irrevocably. Before then I had never noticed, somehow, that stories were made not of ideas or exciting twists of plot but of language. And not merely of pretty words and neat turns of phrase, but of systems of imagery, strategies of metaphor. "The Rocket Man" unfolds to its melancholy conclusion in a series of haunting images of light and darkness, of machinery and biology interlocked, of splendor and fragility. The sense of foreboding is powerful; the imagery becomes a kind of plot of its own, a shadow plot. The end, when it comes, is at once an awful surprise and as inevitable as any Rocket Man, or those who mourn him, could expect. I have never since looked quite the same way at fathers, butterflies, science fiction, language, short stories or the sun.

(Michael Chabon's books include a collection of stories, "Werewolves in Their Youth," and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.")

THOMAS M. DISCH

If Lord Byron had been untitled, Irish, not especially good-looking, of modest means and without a Midas touch for lyric poetry -- that is, if he had been only a flaming, extravagant Romantic genius of the Regency era -- he would have been Charles Robert Maturin and written one classic novel that nobody reads, Melmoth the Wanderer, the greatest of the Gothic novels. For those who relish what is nowadays known as transgressivity in literature -- and that was once just glorious excess -- there is nothing to equal Melmoth. Poe, "Monk" Lewis, Stephen King and Anne Rice all have their gross-out moments, but Maturin offers more of them and gorier: true heirs imprisoned in madhouses and convents and the dungeons of the Inquisition; innocent Indian maidens seduced by world-weary grandees; infant immolations, shipwrecks, diabolic torture, loving families dying of starvation, and visionary tours of hell -- all laced together in a Celtic knot of a plot so convoluted that by the time you reach the end you won't have any idea how you got there. Maturin died one day shy of Halloween in 1824 from "an accidental dose of poison," and a few months later the publisher that was to have brought out his collected works went bankrupt. Read it at your peril.

(Thomas M. Disch is a novelist, poet and critic. His books include the science-fiction novels "334" and "The Brave Little Toaster" and such fantasy novels as "The M.D." and "The Priest.")

NEIL GAIMAN

R.A. Lafferty, who died at 87 on March 18, was undoubtedly the finest writer of whatever it was that he did that ever there was. He was a genius, an oddball, a madman. His stories (his short stories were, in the main, more powerful than his novels) are without precedent: If he can be compared to anyone it might be to a more whimsical Flann O'Brien, but comparisons are pointless. The world only got one Lafferty. Nine Hundred Grandmothers was the first collection of Lafferty's shorter fiction. It is currently in print -- the small presses work to keep Lafferty in print -- and is a fine place to start. It contains a number of points of view you may never have encountered, embodied in stories such as "Narrow Valley," the tale of a huge valley in a tiny ditch, or "Primary Education of the Camiroi," a short story that is mostly syllabus, or "Slow Tuesday Night," which tells of a world running at Internet speed. Funny, wise and odd, his tales are unique. One sentence in and you know who you're reading. Lafferty never fit as an sf writer, as a fabulist or as a horror writer, although his work was sold as such and he won the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award. He was a genre in himself, and a Lafferty story is unlike any story by anybody else: tall tales from the Irish by way of Heaven, the far stars and Tulsa, Okla.

(Neil Gaiman's books include the Sandman graphic novels, "American Gods" and the forthcoming miscellany "Adventures in the Dream Trade.")

ELLEN DATLOW

To choose one volume of stories (and it was always the stories) that influenced me most to become a genre editor is an almost impossible task. As soon as I discovered the collections of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Guy de Maupassant, with their weird and horrific and often ironic tales, I was hooked. But I joined the Science Fiction Book Club as a teenager and that's probably when fantastic fiction really took root in my soul. The one science-fiction anthology that made the most impression on me was Harlan Ellison's landmark Dangerous Visions. In that volume I discovered worlds I'd never dreamed of -- shocking and indeed visionary stories that were thought-provoking, upsetting, eye-opening. "Aye, and Gomorrah" by Samuel R. Delany, "If All Men Were Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" by Theodore Sturgeon, "A Toy for Juliette" by Robert Bloch, "Gonna Roll the Bones" by Fritz Leiber: Those are the stories that introduced me to the idea that science fiction could and should deal with sexuality, that horror was an important part of fantastic fiction, and that sf and fantasy could be literature. Ellison's wonderful introductions made me feel a part of the whole field by telling me about the authors, by giving context to each story.

The anthology that introduced me to horror was The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural, and I still own the dog-eared copy of that paperback. In it are names I'm now very familiar with but before I got into the field I just remembered the stories: "Sardonicus" by Ray Russell, Ray Bradbury's "Heavy Set," Gahan Wilson's "The Sea Was Wet as Wet Can Be" -- stories that scared me and delighted me and made me realize that I enjoyed the frisson of terror of a well-told tale.

(Ellen Datlow is fiction editor for SCIFI.COM and co-editor of "The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror" series.)

JAMES HYNES

The 40-year-old short stories of J.G. Ballard's Chronopolis and Other Stories represent diamond-hard distillations of the author's characteristic obsessions. The stories are full of empty buildings, dried-up lake beds, vast stretches of abandoned technology -- simply put, they're full of images of numb apocalypses, dispassionately described. In "The Voices of Time," the universe is simply running down like a wind-up clock, while in "The Terminal Beach," a semi-deranged scientist encounters ghosts among the ruins of a nuclear test site. These stories are highly psychological, even though their emotionless protagonists -- men with blunt names like Traven and Powers -- seem to have no psychological depth at all; rather, the entire architecture of each story, down to the last detail, represents a map of the author's and perhaps the reader's consciousness, as he, and we, grapple with technological excess and informational overload. But in the best of these stories -- the masterpieces "The Drowned Giant" and "The Watchtower" -- even the science-fiction elements are boiled away, to reveal a timeless and universal surrealism reminiscent of the most haunting, and terrifying, visions of Kafka and Borges, as well as a recognition that loneliness and fear are existential conditions, and not unique to any one century.

(James Hynes is the author, most recently, of "The Lecturer's Tale.")

SHEILA WILLIAMS

I found Fredric Brown's What Mad Universe at a used bookstore in Queens over two decades ago. (I'd recently moved to New York City in search of a job at a science-fiction magazine.) Written in 1949, the novel is a hilarious send-up of many of the field's early mistakes and excesses. The main character, a hapless sf magazine editor, has unwittingly slipped into a universe dreamed up by one of his most obsessive slush-pile writers. In that universe, a scientist discovered the space-warp drive by tinkering with a sewing machine. Humanity's handsome young savior, who bears a resemblance to the aspiring writer, is the most brilliant person in the universe. He's a terrific pilot and a dazzling inventor, and he's well-liked, too. Bug-Eyed Monsters and space girls wearing only bras, underpants and boots abound. At one point, our editor finds himself in a bar with a retired space girl. Nearing 50, she retains the respect and honor (and the right to squeeze into her uniform) that her years of service have awarded her. I realized when I read this book that a field able to examine itself with humor, that knew when not to take itself too seriously, when it understood it was time to toss out the old ideas and move on to the new, was one that could offer me a joyful and surprising career. I haven't been disappointed.

(Sheila Williams is the executive editor of Asimov's Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact magazines. Her most recent anthology, co-edited with Connie Willis, is "A Woman's Liberation.")

DANIEL HANDLER (a k a LEMONY SNICKET)

When I was a mere slip of a lad, an older neighbor passed along some tattered science-fiction magazines and anthologies, which sat unread on a distant shelf. I thought I had no interest in science fiction, preferring to enact my own outer-space stories with small plastic figurines, but one dull day I picked one of them up and spent the rest of the day under my bed. The story was called "The Wait," and it told the story of a young woman and her mother journeying to a strange town where unmarried girls had to sit in a field, for days on end, until a man came to retrieve them. Like "The Lottery" or "The Minister's Black Veil," the story was a perfect allegorical gem, with creepy, visceral specifics keeping the thing from straying into a morality tale. I sat for days, thinking of all the waits I had endured -- dentists' offices, mostly -- and trying to imagine how I'd feel if I didn't know quite what I was waiting for but had a feeling that it wasn't good. The anthologies disappeared but I always remembered the story, so when 15 years passed, and in eerie sci-fi coincidence my writing prof and mentor Kit Reed gave me a copy of her collected stories, Weird Women, Wired Women, and I opened the book and found "The Wait" waiting for me, I had to get back under the bed.

(Daniel Handler is the author of two novels, "The Basic Eight" and "Watch Your Mouth," and, as Lemony Snicket, of books for children entitled "A Series of Unfortunate Events.")

PETER STRAUB

When my son, Ben, was a child, I read to him for about an hour almost every night. Alone among 19th-century writers, Robert Louis Stevenson permitted us to fall into a harmonious common groove. In fact, Stevenson was perfect: My son loved the action, and I, who had not read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde since my own childhood, found that I had inadvertently given myself the opportunity to test my old responses against the standards of adulthood. Stevenson proved to be by far an even greater writer than I remembered. Here we have the Doppelga{dier}nger theme in its rawest form, the usually metaphoric duality literalized within a single malleable body. All Doppelga{dier}nger stories imply this condition anyhow, and Stevenson's method drives the point home with brutal economy. The monster you have always feared and hated stares out from the bathroom mirror, and -- whoops, what do you know? -- he is irresistible. The prose, astonishingly lyrical, precise, limpid and accurate, flows through the narrative like a cold mountain stream, cleansing everything it touches. Simply at the level of cadence and word choices, Stevenson was one of the most purely gifted writers ever born.

(Peter Straub is the author of "Ghost Story," "Koko" and many other books, most recently, with Stephen King, "Black House.")

TERRY PRATCHETT

I first read The Evolution Man by Roy Lewis (in and out of print all the time -- a Web search is advised!) in 1960. It contains no starships, no robots, no computers, none of the things that some mainstream critics think sf is about -- but it is the hardest of hard-core science fiction, the very essence. It's also the funniest book I have ever read, and it showed me what could be done. It concerns a few hectic years in the life of a family of Pleistocene humanoids. They've learned to walk upright and now they're ready for the big stuff -- fire, cookery, music, arts and the remarkable discovery that you shouldn't mate with your sister. Because it's too easy, says Father, the visionary horde leader. You can't get a head of water without damming the stream. In order to progress humanity must create inhibitions, frustrations and complexes, and drive itself out of an animal Eden. To rise, we must screw ourselves up. Nonsense, says his apelike brother Uncle Vanya. Get back to the trees, it'll all end in tears! And so the debate rages under the prehistoric sky until, one day, someone invents the bow and arrow. . . . And we know what happened next. The debate continues. But never has it been put so well as in this insightful book.

(Terry Pratchett is the author of the Discworld novels, including "Mort," "Thief of Time" and the recent children's book "The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents.")

NANCY KRESS

When I first read Ursula K. Le Guin's 1974 novel The Dispossessed, I thought of its protagonist, "But Shevek is real!" It was the first time I had ever thought this about a science-fiction character: that he was as solid, as multifaceted, as contradictory and admirable and perverse as the characters in "mainstream" literature. It was a revelation. Science-fiction characters didn't all have to be lantern-jawed heroes or family-less adventurers or single-minded scientists. Real people, with slack jaws and families and hopelessly tangled loyalties, could inhabit the wondrously invented worlds of the future. And then I discovered Le Guin had actually pulled off this feat before: in her amazing The Left Hand of Darkness.

In the quarter-century since, I have reread The Dispossessed several times. And he's still there: Shevek, a real person worth knowing, and (like most real people) impossible to know completely. He's as large and varied as his planet. And (added riches) so are Takver and Rulag and Bedap and the unfortunate Tirin. Le Guin's novel is frequently praised for its idealistic political insight and its beautiful prose. Those things are there, but to me they cannot compare with her achievement in deepening characterization in science fiction. And then I discovered that Le Guin had pulled off this feat before: in her amazing The Left Hand of Darkness. Real people -- how basic, how cataclysmic, how overdue.

(Nancy Kress is the author of 18 books, most notably "Beggars in Spain." She is also the monthly fiction columnist for Writer's Digest magazine.)

JOHN CLUTE

It is the same with science fiction as it is with opera. It is seriously stupid. At the same time, it is a storytelling frame -- a contraption for the enabling of stories not otherwise tellable -- that has been used by a number of writers of wit and intelligence and passion and craft who might not have otherwise created significant fictions. The list of those whom sf has enabled surely includes H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, George Orwell, Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.G. Ballard and quite a few others whose names ring a bell for those who think of sf, if they think of sf at all, as a form as seriously idiotic as verismo opera.

But these writers have all managed to lift their heads above the walls of ghetto; there are others whose "luck" has been bad; or (more interestingly) whose works interact so intimately with the templates and the tintypes and the iconographies and the gaucheries of sf that they seem simply indecipherable to anyone not already versed in the genre. But these writers -- I mention two only, Gene Wolfe, maybe the most sustainedly good American writer of the second half of the last century, and James Tiptree Jr., a woman who hid inside her pseudonym inside sf, as inside two suits of armor -- are the special pleasure, the joy, the grail of readers and critics (like myself) whose long immersion in the field gives them a chance to sneak through the briar patch, where they may find themselves gazing upon the heart of greatness.

Tiptree was at her dark incandescent best in the short story, almost all of them fables whose protagonists wrestle with the Dark Twin Thanatos and never win, but while losing illuminate the kinds of worlds the sf frame makes it possible to describe: worlds women can leave (as in her most famous story, "The Women Men Don't See"), alien worlds that break the hearts of vulnerable humans, universes whose plan is Death.

Unfortunately, these great stories remained for a long time deeply obscure. The four volumes that contained most of them were paperback originals with unseemly covers and got trashed fast. When in one go I read her collected works -- in order to write an introduction to Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990), a posthumous hardback collection edited by James Turner -- I felt as though I had stumbled, through the briars, into some unbearable drama. The stories themselves engaged me at every level I was capable of responding to; but more than that, their profound obscurity seemed itself a kind of willed death that I (that any reader) had to violate. Despite their brave gaiety, the visible genius of their telling, it felt that simply to read a Tiptree story was to yank it bleeding from its dark home.

But now she (her real name was Alice Sheldon and she lived in D.C.) has been dead 15 years; and it is high time to cut to the chase. No critic of American literature who does not know James Tiptree Jr. can claim to be well-read. Yes, there is a briar patch, that tangle of insight and dross known as science fiction. But it can be penetrated. And there are rewards for trying. Within are to be found the gifts of a great writer.

(John Clute's books include "The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction" and "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy," as well as the recent novel "Appleseed.")

GORDON VAN GELDER

In The Monster Show, David Skal says it's no coincidence that Bobby "Boris" Pickett's song "The Monster Mash" topped the charts right after the Cuban Missile Crisis. I've been struck by the fact that the two most popular movies in America since Sept. 11 are fantasies with deep British roots, both assaying the question of good vs. evil. We live in times when fantasy helps us see more clearly. While there are scores of Americans doing top-flight work right now -- Jack Womack, Jonathan Carroll, Elizabeth Hand and Jay Russell come to mind right off -- but one British writer with a dark view of his homeland hits me hardest: M. John Harrison. In Signs of Life, Course of the Heart and in his recent short fiction, Harrison gets into his characters hearts and holds up their deepest dreams and fantasies. "To write about people's fantasies is to write about desire," says Harrison in a recent interview. "We live in a fantasy culture, a culture of comfort." His stories are not comforting; they show what happens to those dreams in the light of day (in "Signs of Life," one woman longs to fly so badly she undergoes an experimental procedure to give her wings; it doesn't end well), but the tales are harrowing and they've lodged inside my chest like little else I've read in adulthood.

(Gordon Van Gelder edits the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He has also worked as an editor for St. Martin's Press and for the New York Review of Science Fiction.)

DANIEL PINKWATER

In an attempt to motivate me, or encourage me or just get me to give a sign of life, a college teacher assigned me Mount Analogue, the unfinished (in mid-sentence, in chapter five) philosophical novel by Rene{acute} Daumal. The assignment was to read the fragment and then write an ending for it. The book excited me. Pierre Sogol, the old mountaineering guru whose apartment had to be accessed by climbing the rooftops of Paris, the strange group of adventurers who came together to attempt to climb a mystical mountain, the interplay of their personalities, the curious mountain lore -- it was all there, and before he could put it in motion, Daumal went and died. I have since learned that Mount Analogue is a favorite text of the Theosophists, the Gurdjieffians and assorted mystical woo-woos. I was spared the full force of such influences, focused as I was on trying to come up with a suitable ending. Of course I was incapable of doing anything of the kind, and I took a D in the course. I felt I could have come up with an ending if I'd had more time. This notion preyed on my mind. And it was the first time I had ever considered a work of fiction as something somebody writes.

(Daniel Pinkwater's many books include "The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death" and "The Worms of Kukumlima"; they can be found in the omnibus volumes "Five Novels" and "Four Fantasy Novels.")

DIANA WYNNE JONES

A favorite book means to me one you reread frequently and know you will enjoy even with flu. Out of a shelf-full of such, the one my hand goes to most unerringly is Tanya Huff's Sing the Four Quarters. It is about a kingdom where bards can sing up the spirits of earth, air, fire and water, and become the main link between outlying parts of the country. The setup is convincing and consistent. One bard is the king's sister, who is forbidden to have children by royal decree, and she carelessly gets herself pregnant by an imperious Duc accused of being a traitor. When the Duc is condemned to execution, Annice feels bound to rescue him, even though she and he do not like one another much. Vastly pregnant and arguing every step of the way, she travels with him to establish his innocence. I love this book for being both very funny -- for instance, another bard refuses to commit treason in a potato bin, but does anyway -- and wholly serious about the elemental spirits and about justice, mercy, love, kindness and honor. Above all I love it for its accurate portrayal of exactly how it feels to be pregnant. I don't think this has been done in a fantasy before.

(Diana Wynne Jones has written 36 books, among them "Howl's Moving Castle," "Hexwood" and "The Tough Guide to Fantasy.")

POPPY Z. BRITE

I always wanted it to be about more than the rocket ship, more than the monster, more than the gimmick. Harlan Ellison helped me realize that there are no boundaries to genre. The common point of the stories in Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled is that -- when it comes to trying to share ourselves with another human being -- we're all aliens, each inhabiting our own terribly lonely planet. I was 15 when I first read this book, and I knew very little about love or sex, so it provided many glimpses at a world that seemed frightening and mysterious but very exotic. In fact, it made me feel rather like the title character of the story "Mona at Her Windows," an ugly girl who experiences life vicariously from the corner of Seventh Avenue and Twenty-Third Street. There's work in here that still intimidates me (an idea for a Hollywood story keeps haunting me, but I won't write it until I believe it can be a tenth as good as "The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie") and work that still infuriates me (I think Harlan himself once said that the more you agree with a piece of writing, the less good it's likely to do you), but mostly these stories have made me want to illustrate my own bitter, tender, Technicolor views on sex and love.

(Poppy Z. Brite has published four novels, "Lost Souls," "Drawing Blood," "Exquisite Corpse," and "The Lazarus Heart"; two short-story collections, "Wormwood" and "Are You Loathsome Tonight?"; and a collection of nonfiction, "Guilty but Insane.")

KELLY LINK

My father read me Tolkien, my mother read C.S. Lewis. That was how it started. The first book I found for myself, once I could read on my own and was sick of rereading Tolkien, was Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. This was plain geographical luck. I had a library card, and was starting at the beginning with As. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase probably wasn't the very first book, but it had wolves in the title. (And the cover was eye-catching: blood red and, yes, it featured wolves.) The fantasy element is slight: an alternate England where the Stuarts have kept the throne (and their heads), and the Hanoverians still lie over the sea. We begin with an orphan; a stalled train; wolves; worst of all, a governess. (I was enthralled.) The heroines are plucky and practical, and there are adventures with a gooseboy, secret passages, sinister plots that must be thwarted and a happy ending. Even better, there are sequels. Lots of them. (Lemony Snicket has nothing on Joan Aiken.) And other Aiken books -- ghost-story collections, gothic mysteries, Jane Austen pastiches. Music is usually important in her fiction, and household items (cereal boxes, for example) are often enchanted or haunted. She's the best kind of writer, strange and spooky and surprising, never sentimental or whimsical. Her characters are the sort of people you'd be lucky to meet on a long sea voyage. I still go back and reread Tolkien and other YA novelists: Tove Jannson, E. Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones. Books change every time you read them. You have to go back. But Joan Aiken is my comfort fiction, and her books are the books that I give to my friends, and her stories are a kind of map for me when I'm writing.

(Kelly Link's collection, "Stranger Things Happen" -- a Salon Book of the Year and a Village Voice Favorite -- was published last year. She won the World Fantasy Award for her ghost story "The Specialist's Hat." She is co-editor of the occasional zine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet.)

JOHN CROWLEY

Forget the past. In the new millennium, publishers and readers alike will transcend the now-universal constraints of genre publishing, and simply publish books; maybe they'll be called "novels" or maybe "stories," but they'll be of all kinds, and readers will have to look into them -- maybe even read them -- to find out what kind they are, just as they had to do once upon a time. Reviewers can help, but they'll no longer label books either; instead, they'll do the work of characterizing them one by one, possibly grappling with those of a sort unfamiliar to them. Readers will no longer suck up the one kind of book they like in unlimited indistinguishable quantities, but be forced to read many books to find their kind, and maybe alter their kind in the reading. Then a savage satire like Thomas M. Disch's The Priest will appear in mufti, not as horror, and be found to be (horribly) relevant to our moment, instead of never finding its way into paperback at all as too genre-bending and confusing. And Jim Crace's wonderful "mainstream" novel Being Dead will be perceived as a delicate, otherworldly fantasy, taking place in a world not exactly ours. This moment of Utopian Romance brought to you, or to those of you who like that sort of thing, by the F/SF division of World Media Inc.

(John Crowley's books include "Little, Big," "Aegypt" and, most recently, "The Translator.") *