Favorite Sci Fi Novels: Looking Forward by Looking Back
This week, Underwords releases Futuredaze: An Anthology of YA Science Fiction, featuring my short story, “Out of the Silent Sea.” Knowing that editors Erin Underwood and Hannah Strom-Martin undertook this project out of an earnest desire to inspire a new generation of sci fi readers and writers, I decided that this week’s blog would be a smashing place to provide some inspiration of my own: namely, a list of my favorite science fiction novels.
These are not the novels I believe to be the best or the most important ever written in the genre—they’re simply the ones that have made the deepest impression on me and offered endless inspiration. I welcome lively discussion about my choices, as well as recommendations. With any luck, some yet-to-be-quickened reader may stumble across this list in days to come and find their own trajectory altered simply because one of us pointed them toward the book that would change their life…
So, without further ado:
“We earth men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.”
For a self-proclaimed optimist, the late-great Ray Bradbury sure was adept at breaking hearts and exposing ugly truths. I expressed my affection for his horror novel Something Wicked This Way Comes in an earlier blog. Here, I sing the praises of his elegiac science fantasy The Martian Chronicles, wherein a series of short stories paint a panoramic portrait of an inhabited world that is colonized and reborn under new management. It is the American myth played out on an interplanetary scale, and an absolutely gorgeous poem to beauty, loss, frontiers, and transformation. At the best of times, it soars with evocative imagery and stirring (or even humorous) considerations of what first contact and planetary colonization might be like… but ultimately, it breaks your heart, dramatizing the fundamental truth that all things change, everything dies, and that, sometimes, we unwittingly help these processes along, often to our detriment.
Cat’s Cradle (1963) Kurt Vonnegut
“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before.”
Like a George Pal disaster film produced and directed by the Coen Brothers, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle is the funniest book ever written about the end of the world. Herein, a third world dictator comes into possession of a top-secret WMD known as Ice Nine—a single crystal of which is capable of freezing any water it touches solid, regardless of temperature. Zany antics ensue, and civilization as we know it is destroyed—but not before we’ve been treated to a whirlwind of crazy characters, embarrassing incident, and the sort of mordant philosophizing that Kurt Vonnegut was famous for.
Slaughterhouse Five may be Vonnegut’s most well-known book, but I contend that Cat’s Cradle remains his true masterpiece.
Dune (1965) Frank Herbert
“When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way… They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget the precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s to late.”
Dune seems to inspire as much hatred as love, perhaps because—like its fantasy counterpart, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—it’s a big, brash, galumphing book boasting noble heroes, vile villains, wondrous landscapes and (most importantly for science fiction) big ideas, all requiring a Rosetta Stone of glossaries, appendices and meta-documentation to comprehend. Some people, apparently, don’t like fiction that requires a glossaries, appendices and meta-documents to make sense.
To hell with those people, I say. Dune is a great book—and a great work of science fiction—precisely because it is so ambitious and all-encompassing. It has the sweep and complexity of James Michenor, the intellectual rigor of Arthur Clarke, the socio-political insight of Robert Heinlein, the psychological and ecological acumen of Ursula LeGuin, and the whiz-bang thrills of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It is the grandest of space operas and the deepest of ruminations on power, politics, religion, ecology, and empire.
In short—it’s got something for everyone. Dive in!
“My point is that… in terms of morals there is no such thing as ‘state.’ Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts.”
Determined to feature only one book by any given author on this list, I had a devil of a time deciding between Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The Moon won. Each of those books left an indelible mark on me—but if I could only recommend one, it would be Moon. Perhaps it’s because Moon—the story of a lunar colony’s revolution against terrestrial rule—is so funny, insightful, heartbreaking and true. Perhaps it’s because I like all of Moon’s characters, and still think of them as real people somewhere in the dim recesses of my mind. Or perhaps it’s just because I think that Moon has aged the best of those three works. Heinlein, as an author, is timeless, but sometimes his perspective from the mid-20th century shows through like the silk slip under grandma’s wool skirt. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, though, remains a relevant rumination on politics, identity and personal responsibility—perhaps the best political science fiction novel ever written.
The Dispossessed (1974) Ursula K. LeGuin
“No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.”
There is no science fiction author whose work consistently affects me on an emotional level like Ursula LeGuin. Her fiction isn’t short on the cerebral, to be sure, but it’s in the realm of the human—the realms of sociology and psychology—that this Grandmistress of Science Fiction really distinguishes herself.
The Dispossessed remains a towering example of how ‘mere science fiction’ (some literary type might sneer) can stand beside and even surpass the emotional and psychological insights of literary fiction. Along the way, LeGuin posits a means of instantaneous cosmic communication, paints a realistic, believable picture for us of a working anarchist society (and the very realistic forces that hobble such a seemingly-utopian society), and creates in the character of Shevek one of the most admirable and memorable doomed saviors in fiction.
This is the book that I recommend to my friends who say they don’t like science fiction, or don’t think it’s ever about character and feeling.
“Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along―the same person that I am today.”
Yeah, yeah, I know. Everyone who reads sci fi has probably read Ender’s Game, and most of those that do install it in a special, warm-fuzzy place in their reading hearts. How dare I trot out such a chestnut, right? But dammit, the book is good: really good. Its goodness—it’s ability to prick the intellect, stir the heart, and get under the skin—comes from its honest portrayal of the interiority of childhood and the consideration of how childish impulses can be bent to horrifying undertakings.
If you haven’t read it, do so, posthaste. You won’t be disappointed.
The Gap Cycle (1991 – 1996) Steven R. Donaldson
I’ve got to include this entire series, because there is no stand-alone story in this cycle (which begins with 1991’s The Real Story: The Gap Into Conflict). If you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound. And if you’re in, prepare to be assaulted. Donaldson’s penchant for making his protagonists suffer and wringing every ounce of blood, sweat and tears out of their endless distresses is both bracing and punishing. With a sprawling narrative mirroring Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Donaldson builds a vast, roaring space opera like no other, wherein victims, victimizers and saviors change places, people get mutated into aliens, and the only promise is that, even if things turn out well, they will do so bloodily, after much suffering has been endured. Science fiction authors are rarely this visceral, rarely create such fascinating, damaged characters, and rarely manage to make their interstellar fate-of-humanity melodramas as personal or powerful. If you’re in the mood for sci fi with the sweep of Star Wars but the emotional nakedness of James Jones, look no further than the Gap Cycle.
Revelation Space (2000) Alastair Reynolds
“It looked like a biology lesson for gods, or a snapshot of the kind of pornography which might be enjoyed by sentient planets.”
There has always been a rivalry in sci fi between tales of interstellar derring-do, alien conflict, and exploration (space opera) and stories more grounded in real, conceivable science that try to posit a possible future bounded by what we know of astrophysics, chemistry, genetics and engineering (hard sci fi). Some fans embrace both streams wholeheartedly. Others act as if there’s a high concrete wall separating the two, and that no one from one side should venture into the other (or muddle the boundary between them). Alastair Reynolds is that rare sci fi writer whose work embodies the best of both streams, binding them together into a twisty-turny Celtic knot of adventurous interstellar awesomeness.
What I love most about Revelation Space is its very deft employ of fear and wonder in equal measures. By infusing the wide-eyed cosmic ooh-aah of Arthur C. Clarke with the vertiginous cosmic terror of H. P. Lovecraft, Reynolds has managed to tap into our most visceral attraction-repulsion responses where space exploration is concerned, and manages to tell a ripping good yarn chock full of xenoarcheology, space pirates, and star-slaying alien outsiders. In short, Reynolds gives us space opera, but he does it with his foot planted squarely in the camp of scientific possibility, while still managing to make the future seem both wondrous and weird. Surely, no small feat.
And that’s it—the whole enchilada. True, there were a number of sci fi books that I’ve loved that I left off the list for the sake of both brevity and clarity (I couldn’t decide between Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man or The Stars, My Destination; nor could I muster enough love for Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War or John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War to put either on the list—although both are smashing reads), but this is, methinks, a serviceable survey of what I love most in sci fi.
So, what say you all? Shower me with recommendations and argue vociferously for or against my choices. After all—the best thing about a list is debating it.