Delenda Est Carthago

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Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


Top Ten Day: My favorite science fiction books

In the wake of Arthur C. Clarke's death, I thought I'd list my favorite science fiction books. Yes, I started this post last week, but his death is still recent enough to make this relevant. So here they are, in chronological order!

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!

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Anonymous Jon H said...

Iain M. Banks is good, especially his 'Culture' novels, like Player of Games, or Excession.

27/3/08 6:33 PM  
Anonymous beta ray steve said...

No Isaac Asimov?
No Ursul LeGuin?
No Philip K. Dick?
No Ray Bradbury?
I read Job too, & it got me into Heinlein long enough to realize that that was easily his best.
I'll have to check out Hinz and Haldeman.

27/3/08 7:01 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

I've heard Banks is very good. Sigh. Another author I have to check out.

Yeah, I'm a bad "classic" sci-fi reader. I have never read Asimov, LeGuin, and Dick, although my wife has been bugging me for years to read The Left Hand of Darkness, because she loves it. Fahrenheit 451 just missed this list. And yes, no Dune books. I could barely get through the first 100 pages of the original before abandoning it.

The only other Heinlein book that comes close to Job is Time Enough For Love, but the other few I've read by him didn't impress me.

27/3/08 8:26 PM  
Blogger Roger Green said...

I'll admit it: I couldn't read science fiction or fantasy when I was in my teens or twenties, and haven't even tried much since. Tried Guinn, Heinlein, and a couple others; never got to Chapter 3.

28/3/08 7:30 AM  
Blogger Tom the Dog said...

As you know (probably), I spent most of last year rereading all of Vonnegut (though that project kind of petered out toward the end, what with the move to Austin and all). And it was time well spent. Cat's Cradle is still and always will be my favorite Vonnegut, and one of my fave books period, but Slaughterhouse is a close second. Of his others, if you haven't yet, you really need to read Breakfast of Champions, Sirens of Titan, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

I read Forever War in college, about 29 years ago, and don't remember much about it, other than I really liked it.

Never read any L'Engle. Never read any Clarke except 2001. Read a lot of Heinlein, but if I were going to pick a fave, I'd go with the obvious Stranger in a Strange Land.

Seems like I've read something by Chalker, but I can't recall what. Dirk Gently is an interesting choice, not one I would've picked, but very cool nonetheless. Never even heard of Hinz.

Used to be a huge Card fan; read his books voraciously. Kind of got tired of him after college, and then really started to hate him once he started being more open about his extreme homophobia and other hateful right-wing beliefs. I'd agree that Xenocide is the best of his sci-fi, but the Alvin Maker fantasy series is my favorite of all his books (with Alvin Journeyman probably being my fave of those).

Never really enjoyed Barker. I tried, I really did. Doesn't work for me.

I was always more into fantasy than sci-fi (I'd like to see your fantasy top ten), but here's some of my other favorite sci-fi you didn't mention:

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles & F. 451

Asimov, I, Robot

Piers Anthony, Bio of a Space Tyrant (which was five books long when I read it in high school, but which I see on Wikipedia added a 6th book in 2001; maybe I should reread that series); also, Apprentice Adept

most any Robert Sheckley

George R. R. Martin, Tuf Voyaging

Dan Simmons, Hyperion (kind of horror/sci-fi)

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (and Cryptonomicon, depending on if you define it as sci-fi or not)

Stanislaw Lem, Return from the Stars

Jonathan Lethem, Amnesia Moon

I'd have to think to come up with more, but that's a good selection, I think.

28/3/08 5:54 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Yeah, it was tough trying to separate the fantasy from the sci-fi. The Alvin Maker series is my favorite stuff by Card; I would definitely put that on a list of fantasy books (and now I might have to). Similarly, I didn't define Cryptonomicon as sci-fi, because although it's kind of science-y, nothing about it seems like it's all that far-fetched. I'm dying to read that trilogy thing he did (the one you slogged though), and I have to find the paperbacks.

Your suggestions are appreciated. I'd really like to read some more Vonnegut, especially because I doubt if it would take me that long, as he doesn't write long books. Krys will kill me if I buy any more books, but that's my crippling obsession, after all, so I must give in to it!

28/3/08 6:40 PM  
Blogger Tom the Dog said...

P.S. Freshman year of college was 20 years ago (19, really, but I was rounding), not 29. That's a typo. I'm old, but not that old.

28/3/08 6:54 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

I figured you were just exaggerating for comedic effect, Tom!

28/3/08 7:47 PM  

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