Top Ten Day: My favorite science fiction books
1. Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut (1969). This is not only one of my favorite science fiction books, but one of my favorite books, period. It's very funny and very tragic, and Vonnegut comes up with pithy phrases that encapsulate so much horror. Vonnegut skips back and forth in time, as his hero, Billy Pilgrim, has become "unstuck" from time and is able to travel to any point in his life. We get the weird period he spends on Tralfamadore with Montana Wildhack, the porn star, and we get the horrific bombing of Dresden, but it never feels disjointed. It's a masterpiece, and I should probably go read some more Vonnegut, shouldn't I?
2. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974). It's been a long time since I read this, but it's still an excellent book, harrowing and tragic and a nice allegory about soldiers fighting wars they don't understand. It's probably not too big a leap to think that Haldeman was thinking a little bit about Vietnam when he wrote this. The main character is fighting a war against an alien species, and despite his tours of duty being relatively short, because of time dilation, he misses decades on Earth and finds that society has changed so much the only thing that keeps him sane is returning to the army. It's an exciting war book, which made my teenaged self happy, but at its core, it's a devastating examination on the effects war has on soldiers. I recently bought it - I really ought to read it again.
3. A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle (1978). A Wrinkle in Time is better-known, but this, written about twenty years later, shows L'Engle's growth as a writer - it's far more mature, subtle, interesting, and powerful. Charles Wallace, the young boy from the first two books of this trilogy (A Wind in the Door is the second book), is now a teenager, and he flies a unicorn through time to avert a nuclear disaster. L'Engle introduces several characters from throughout time, linking everything together very elegantly, and the story becomes one of love through the ages and its power in overcoming evil. It's written for teens, as are most L'Engle books, but it's a book that adults can enjoy as well.
4. The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke (1979). I like a lot of Clarke novels, but this one is spectacular. An engineer conceives of a "space elevator" linking an island in the Pacific (it's called Taprobane in the book, but it's basically Sri Lanka, where Clarke spent most of the latter part of his life) to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit. Vannevar Morgan believes this will allow spaceships to dock without using rockets to get off the ground, which is much more cost-effective. Clarke also tells the story of an ancient king, Kalidasa, whose drive mirrors Morgan's. It's a wonderful book, the kind of science fiction that not only offers a plausible vision of the future but also explores the human condition. Clarke often does this, but rarely with such aplomb. It's magnificent.
5. Job: A Comedy of Justice by Robert Heinlein (1984). This was the first Heinlein book I read, and still remains my favorite. I've never been a big fan of his other stuff, although Time Enough for Love is quite good. Job tells the story of a minister who somehow switches realities, always with his newfound love, Margethe, by his side. He soon learns that it's a build-up to the Rapture, and when that occurs, he has to make a choice between his religion and his love. It's a fairly raunchy book (nothing too hardcore, but quite lewd nonetheless), it's wildly funny and very satirical. At its core, however, it's a nice love story.
6. The Messiah Choice by Jack L. Chalker (1985). This is, I suppose, not quite true "science fiction," in that it deals with demonic possession and a war against, well, Satan, but I consider it science fiction because of the vast telecommunication system that plays such a crucial part of the book, which in 1985 was still in the realm of fantasy. This is an exciting book, one that has a lot of nice Christian touches without being a Christian tract. Satan does indeed attempt to bring about the Apocalypse, but the hero has a more generic kind of faith than a true Christian one. Despite the fact that it's a ripping page-turner, it still manages to explore the problems of technology gone mad and how to stay human in an increasingly mechanized world. (It's also out of print, which kind of sucks.)
7. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams (1987). Dirk is one of my favorite fictional detectives, and this, the first book starring him, is marvelous - a mishmash of genres, with ghosts, aliens, time travelers, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge all playing important roles. It's very funny, in an altogether more mature humor vein than the Hitchhiker books (the first of which would have made this list, except I tried to limit myself to one book per author, and I like this more than the book that made Adams a superstar), and it's also an very interesting mystery. It's convoluted but, unlike the next book with Dirk (The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul), makes perfect sense once it's all explained (the follow-up still puzzles me a little). Adams returned to his cash cow after writing two Dirk Gently books, and of course died prematurely, but I do wish he had been able to write a few more.
8. Liege-Killer by Christopher Hinz (1987). Hinz doesn't seem to be a big name in sci-fi, and that's a shame, because his Paratwa trilogy, which begins with this book, is fantastic. This is the best of the three, because the next two got a bit too esoteric. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, but this book manages to balance strange philosophy with rip-snorting action, and the mystery of the book is compelling as well. The story takes place after Earth's nuclear destruction, when mankind lives on hundreds of satellites orbiting the dead planet. In the frenzy of technology before the end, mankind created the Paratwa, deadly assassins that are two separate bodies governed by one mind. They can function as independent beings or as a single entity, basically a killer with four arms and four eyes, making them very hard to kill. In this first novel, a Paratwa is awakened on the colonies, and two ancient Paratwa-hunters are revived from stasis to find it. Hinz makes trenchant points about genetic engineering and political machinations, as we learn that one of the ruling caste of the Paratwa - an Ash Ock - is living in the colonies and manipulating humankind, but he also makes sure that the book is a thriller. I absolutely love this book.
9. Xenocide by Orson Scott Card (1991). Card is one of my favorite sci-fi authors, despite his rather rightist political leanings. I met him once, in 1986, at the World Trade Center in New York. His Alvin Maker books are my favorite, but I can't think of a single volume that's better than any others, and they stretch the definition of speculative fiction into fantasy fiction anyway. Xenocide is the third book in a quartet that began with Ender's Game, which is probably his best-known novel. Xenocide is a far more mature work, however. It's a book about genocide and how human arrogance leads to destruction and how people need to overcome their basic instincts to co-exist. It's also a fairly interesting mystery, in that Ender must discover how the lifeforms on Lusitania (the planet at the center of the book) live. It's a nice balance, too, between the harder science fiction of Card's earlier work and the wildly esoteric stuff he does later in the final book of the series, Children of the Mind. I may not like Card's politics, but he's a very good writer.
10. Imajica by Clive Barker (1991). Imajica is a massive book, and to attempt to summarize it, even a little, would be pointless. It's the first (and so far, only) Barker book I've read (I own a few others, but haven't read them yet), and it left me breathless. It's a Quest novel, full of magic and sex and violence and ruminations on religion. It's often tough to follow, because Barker packs it with so many characters and worlds, but it's a wonderful experience reading it. If you've never read any Clive Barker, start here.
I see that in recent years I have tended to move away from science fiction a bit. It's not that I don't like it anymore, I just got interested in a lot of other stuff too. It's also hard to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to science fiction (like a lot of pure genre fiction). I mean, have you been to the bookstore recently and checked out the sci-fi section? Holy crap, it's huge! How can I tell what's good and what's not?
Anyway, what's on your list of favorite science fiction novels! Embrace your inner geek and let it out!