"A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight." - Roberston Davies
Here is a list of my top 10 Science Fiction Novels. It's purely subjective, based on what I have enjoyed most over the years. These are the ones that stand out for me as all time classics, that are worth reading and re-reading. In fact each time I read them, I discover something new.
Good SF, I believe, requires 3 factors to be present:
Ideas - SF is primarily the literature of ideas. They don't have to be completely original (though it helps), but they must be well thought through.
Characters - no different from any other fiction, strong characterisation is a pre-requisite for readable fiction, in my book (as it were!)
Good writing - again, just like in any other form of fiction, decent prose is essential, to hold the interest of an intelligent, literate readership (such as you good people reading this!)
You've got to have all 3. If you've just got No. 2 and 3 without 1 it's just not SF. If you've got No. 1 without 2 and 3 you've just got crap SF - the kind that gives the whole genre a bad name (and there's plenty of it out there, I'm afraid).
The following books do satisfy all of these conditions and in spades. I make no claims that this list is exhaustive or that it offers a representative sample of the genre. They're just great books that I happen to like at this moment in time, early in the 21st century. Next century I may feel differently.
In no particular order then, here they are:
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Space Opera on a grand scale. Herbert mixes politics, religion and ecology of the far future with great aplomb. Set in a feudally run universe, where the balance of power between emperor, nobles and other factions is all important. Technology is strictly constrained and thinking machines are anathema, as a result of an ancient abortive takeover bid by the computers. To compensate, human beings are trained to maximise their potential in various way by the different factions and power groups ( e.g. the all-female Bene Gesserit, The Spacing Guild, The Tleilaxu genetic engineers etc.)
On the desert planet of Arrakis, a duke's son, is forced to flee and take refuge with the tribal Fremen. The novel describes how he rises to their leadership and launches a holy war or jihad, on the established powers of the imperium. This campaign is greatly assisted by their control of the one substance upon which space travel (and therefore the cohesion of the human empire) depends - known as Spice.
The novel is full of great original ideas, for example:
- Giant sandworms, which can be ridden by those bold and skilled enough to dare;
- Personal shield generators which protect the wearer against projectile weapons but allow slower objects to penetrate, thereby reintroducing the arts of sword and knife play as essential skills for the up and coming survival oriented aristocrat.
- Mentats, or human computers, people trained from birth to perform calculations and analyses at speeds approaching those of computers, aided by drugs. Every Duke should have one (and does!).
None of this would be worth a hill of sandworm poo, of course, if there wasn't a decent plot. But there is. The writing is mature, fluent and complex. He gets you hooked from page one and won't let you go until hundreds of pages later.
There were several sequels which Herbert continued writing up to the end of his life (Dune Messiah, Children Of Dune etc.) of which the earlier ones were very strong, but to my mind none of them matched the stunning achievement of Dune itself.
If some of the ideas in Dune seem familiar these days, it is because huge chunks of them were lifted and recycled into the Star Wars films (Space Empire, desert planets, Imperial Stormtroopers etc.)
Also, writing back in the early 1960s, Herbert anticipated the modern day rise of Islam. The Fremen ("Zensunni wanderers", persecuted religious fundamentalists) wage a jihad (not a word as widely known then as it is now) against the Empire (= The West), aided by their control over a vital commodity Spice (=Oil). The Fremen language is heavily influenced by Arabic (while the imperialists speak an Anglo-Slavic derivative). And of course Herbert also pioneered the concept of Ecology in his fiction. A man ahead of his time.
The depth of the universe he created is virtually unparalleled, in terms of its history, languages and religions - you get a sense of a huge amount of background existing only in the author's mind. The only similar example I can think of, though totally different in origin and feel, is Tolkien's self created "Mythology For the English".
I like this book, as you might have gathered by now! Essential reading for anyone who considers themselves a Science Fiction enthusiast.
The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
This story is set on the planet Gethen, aka Winter, during an ice age. An envoy from Earth is the narrator and he describes the people and societies he meets.
The people are more or less human, distant cousins of ours, but with one important exception. Instead of being either male and female as we are, they are neuter for most of the time, except for a short period each 'month' when they go into 'kemmer' and differentiate into sexes on an arbitrary basis, for procreation and/or fun. The arbitrary nature of the change means that one person can be the father of some children and the mother of others.
Naturally, this means that their societies are organized on a totally different basis than ours, and the resulting implications are what Le Guin explores.
Le Guin herself is the daughter of two eminent anthropologists, and her work often seems to have a strong anthropological feel to it. Another of her recurring themes is Taoism – the tension and mutual dependence of opposites, again very strongly represented here ("Light is the left hand of darkness").
Of course, it's much more than an essay about what if …. This is a well crafted and moving story of a person on a strange world trying to come to terms with its ways, and about all the adventures, hardships and dangers he experiences. Rich characterisation, fully imagined cultures and some profound thinking about what it is to be human, make this book special for me.
Helliconia Spring, by Brian Aldiss
Again, the first book in a series (the other two being Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter – what happened to autumn? I don’t know).
British author Aldiss, creates a planet where, due to its orbital periods round a multiple star system, the seasons last for hundreds of years.
There are two dominant species – humans and phagors (or ancipitals). Humans dominate the planet in the summer centuries, Phagors in the winter. Unfortunately for the humans, the civilisations they painstakingly build up every spring and summer, collapse during the harsh era of winter, allowing the less technologically advanced but physically tougher phagors to take over.
The books are essentially the story of the planet itself, very much influenced by the Gaia theory. It’s history, geography, flora, fauna and over all ecology are what gives rise to the events which unfold. This is SF in which the Science is very much to the fore. Which is not to say that it’s not a great and highly entertaining story, full of wit and invention.
Tschai, by Jack Vance
Jack Vance is one of my favourite writers of all time. It's very difficult to select just one of his works, but I'll go his Tschai series. It was originally published as four separate books, under the appallingly banal heading "Planet Of Adventure" (his publishers neither knew nor cared about the true quality of his work).
A shipwrecked earthman lands on the planet Tschai, where he encounters four rival alien races: The ape-like Chasch, the amphibian Wankh (rather unfortunately named, but then Vance is American and wouldn't know any better!), the cheetah-like Dirdir and the insectoid Pnume. There are also humans present, but the alien races are vastly technologically superior and lord it over them.
The earthman Reith, teams up with a pair of disparate characters, the nomad boy Traz Onmale and Ankhe at Afram Anacho, a Dirdirman (each of he alien races maintains its own client race of modified humans), and sets off to find some way of building or acquiring a spaceship to take him back to earth.
As with much of Vance's work, a rambling picaresque series of adventures follows, where the dialogue and the descriptions of the many weird and wonderful societies encountered along the way, are entertaining as the story itself, or possibly more so. A wry and subtle humour pervades what is essentially a series of travellers' tales, with almost an eighteenth century feel to them. The language is erudite and expansive, and no-one can approach Vance for the sheer exuberance and creativity of his imagination when it comes to inventing bizarre yet internally self consistent human and/or alien cultures. On the surface they can appear totally absurd, yet you come away feeling that our own world would probably appear just as arbitrary and ritualised to an offplanet visitor.
Vance is a true magician with words, he make you laugh, makes you think and entertains you at the same time. Future generations, less hidebound by the literary conventions of mainstream vs genre fiction, will recognise him for the true genius that he is.
Side note: Jack Vance was a good friend of Dune author Frank Herbert. They once built a houseboat together, which promptly sank!
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
Bill Gibson invented the whole “Cyberpunk” subgenre with this book, first published in the mid eighties.
Set in a seedy near future, with morally ambiguous characters more anti-hero than hero, Neuromancer tells the story of a computer hacker involved in crime against faceless mega-corporations in a world of globalised capitalism running out of control (so not too different to today’s world then!).
The ideas of cyberspace and the internet are anticipated here, rather strangely as Gibson is far from a techie, though he does appear to have an uncanny grasp of cultural trends and a talented SF writer’s gift for extrapolation.
In many ways, the book has the feel of Film Noir, and of Raymond Chandler detective novels from the 1940s. You could almost imagine Humphrey Bogart playing one of his characters – cynical, world weary, beaten down but still wisecracking.
In terms of the visuals, the film Blade Runner has got about right. Except that was a film of a completely different book – P.K.Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, strangely enough!
Gibson has gone on to write sequels and many other excellent stories of near future free market dystopias, but this one is the original and the best.
Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Robinson’s Mars trilogy consists of Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. It describes the colonisation of the planet by humans and their efforts to terraform it over a period of some centuries.
It’s pretty much pure “Hard” SF, in that it’s very firmly based on the scientific knowledge we have at present (no FTL, no aliens, no as yet undiscovered laws of physics). On the other hand, his characters are well developed and he has a feel for alien landscapes combined with a sense of the sheer awe and wonder of actually being on another world.
Robinson interestingly bypasses the story of the first man on Mars, deciding instead to devote a long section at the start of Red Mars to describing the months long voyage of the first 100 explorers and settlers, sent there on a one way trip.
The story continues to describe how the initial camps then settlements are established, how air and water are imported over time via asteroids, how settlement from earth increases and new communities are established, how anti terraforming eco-terrorist resistance movements emerge, how a space elevator to Phobos is built, how conflict with the home planet Earth develops, and much more.
Excellent storytelling, firmly grounded in real science and real ideas. Groups throughout the world are already planning a lot of these ideas for potential Mars missions. Robinson researched a lot of this work by spending time in research stations in Antarctica, and it clearly paid off, resulting in the sense of realism he achieved here.
The Man In The High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick was by and large totally underrated as a writer during his lifetime, his work treated by his publishers as cheap pulp trash. Nowadays, though, his work is much respected and several of his books have been made into films (Blade Runner, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly etc.)
This book is not really typical of his work (if any of it could be described as typical) but it’s my personal favourite.
It’s an alternative history novel, set in a world in which the Nazis and the Japanese won World War II. It is the 1960s and America is divided into three parts – the West Coast ruled by the Japanese, the East ruled by the Germans, and the Rocky Mountain states as a neutral buffer zone between the two.
The Nazis have reintroduced slavery, are practising genocide on a huge scale in Africa and have landed men on Mars. However consumer commodities are rare and most households do not possess a TV. The Japanese are slightly more restrained but practice their own caste system in their territories.
Frank Frink, the protagonist is a humble working man, of Jewish origins, pushed along by forces much larger than himself.
But there is a book within the book. A writer called Abendsen has written an illegal and subversive alternative history called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” in which the Allies win the war. A clever touch. But when we see glimpses of that imaginary volume, the events there are quite different from our own version of the Allied victory. Even more subtle!
Dick also makes a lot of use of the I Ching in this story, the ancient Chinese method of divination through hexagrams. Why I don’t know, but it just fits the reflective mood of the piece perfectly.
A very subtle book, there’s something I can’t quite grasp about it, but I keep returning to it time and time again.
The Book of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
I'm cheating here again, just slightly, by including a series of 4 novels. But you can't really separate them - it's all or nothing, I'm afraid!
The 4 component novels are:
- The Shadow Of The Torturer
- The Claw Of The Conciliator
- The Sword Of The Lictor
- The Citadel Of The Autarch (once mistakenly listed by the publishers as "Castle Of The Otter"!)
This is Wolfe's masterwork, epic and monumental, his Lord Of The Rings, his Dune.
Wolfe is supremely clever and a born trickster. The titles, covers, subject matter and style of these books fool you into thinking they are works of fantasy. (Perhaps there was more of a market for fantasy when they were published and it was a cynical ploy - but, no I'm sure it was much more than that!). They are not. It is pure SF. There is nothing magical or supernatural in them, everything has a rational, if speculative explanation.
It takes place on Urth in the far far distant future, when our sun is about to kick the bucket. Humanity clings on, having reverted to a more feudal and stratified society, in the last 'civilised' region known as The Commonwealth (thought to be located roughly where South America now lies).
The books follow the progress of a young apprentice of the Torturer's Guild as he learns and then loses his trade. We follow him from the sprawling and ancient city of Nessus out into the countryside and the mountains, where eventually, after many adventures, he becomes involved in the never ending war against the communistic hordes of the Ascians.
The book reads as if it was written in an earlier century, with rich, dense, evocative prose. Wolfe heightens this effect by his use of archaic and obsolete words from the English language, instead of inventing new terms, to describe 'posthistoric' phenomena. For example - peltasts, armigers, exultants, optimates, autocthones, eclectics, pandours, cacogens, destriers and pelerines.
None of it is spelt out for you, you have to work it out as you go along. Or perhaps on a second or third reading, If ever a book demanded an intelligent readership this was it.
So I'm sure you good folks can handle it! If you haven't yet visited Urth, I urge you to do so. I guarantee it will be like nowhere else you have ever been and you will emerge a changed person.
Pavane, by Keith Roberts
Pavane is another work of alternate history. It is set in a version of England in the 20th century, but one in which the Spanish Armada succeeded in invading the country and restoring Catholicism as the state religion, both here and throughout Europe.
Roberts' premise is that as a result, the growth of science and technology was stifled by the Church, and that the advances of the industrial revolution happened incredibly slowly, if at all. Thus the most advanced form of transport is the land train - pulled by steam powered traction engines. And state of the art communications are provided by semaphore towers, manually controlled mechanical devices on hill tops.
But gradually things are starting to change and "Rebellion was once more in the air".
Marvellously atmospheric, the book captures the almost nostalgic feel of a lost age that never actually happened. It is set in the deep rural south of England, with much of the action around Corfe Castle in Dorset .
Roberts was one of the great writers of English science fiction, by which I mean the country itself plays an important part in his work. He was also one of the most underrated ones, in my opinion. His books are well worth seeking out.
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
To a certain extent inspired by Haldeman's experience of the Vietnam War, this is the story of a future space war of humanity vs aliens. The effects of time dilation due to travelling at relativistic speeds come very much into play here.
Each side does not know what technological advances will have been made by the other when they next meet, it will depend on how far each unit has travelled from its home world and at what speeds. Even returning to earth on leave can cause severe future shocks, as the conscripts find the world has changed drastically since they left.
I can't say too much more about the plot without including spoilers. Suffice it to say that it's beautifully written, well paced, filled with believable characters, plus a wealth of original and well thought out ideas. Exactly what decent science fiction should be like, in my opinion.