As a sort of follow up to my anti scifi snobbery rant, I’m just going to list my ten favourite speculative genre books and tell you why I love them and hopefully, if any of my readers are not into the genre, will see something that catches their eye enough to give it a try.
1. His Dark Materials: I treat it as one book despite being a trilogy because no one book could stand on its own. For me, nothing beats the immense story that Pullman has created. Thoroughly absorbing with great depth of character who are rarely entirely good or entirely bad, bringing a realistic moral ambiguity to characterisation. Essentially a reversal of Milton’s Paradise Lost, HDM presents a world ruled by a coldhearted and tyrannical church who will stop at nothing to tighten their iron grip. The only hope is 12 year old Lyra who travels north to rescue her friend from “The Gobblers”. Ultimately uplifting it is a celebration of free will and a critique of the oppression of organised religion. At a much deeper level, it is arguably a parable about creating heaven on this earth because there isn’t one to go to after we die.
2. Dune: The effort that went into creating such an extensive universe and managing to portray this universe in such a short book (it isn’t short but for the depth that is contained in it, it always seems slimline) was a remarkable achievement for Frank Herbert. The planet Arrakis feels very much alive and almost upstages the characters. It is a coming of age drama but to refer to it merely as such would be like calling A Christmas Carol a ghost story. Paul Atreides is the son of a Duke who is charged with leaving their watery homeworld of Caladan to go to Arrakis to mine the mysterious spice melange that civilsation cannot survive without. Paul soon finds his family betrayed and is taken in by the Fremen – people of the desert. These people have a prophey that a boy will come who will lead their liberation.
3. American Gods: I have discussed this before but this offering from Neil Gaiman is about a battle between tradition (the old gods represented by Wotan, Anubis, Czernobog, Anansi and countless others) and progress (represented by the new gods of internet, highways, communication etc) in North America. It is a wonderful tale that leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling and the fact that the author, a Brit, chose to set this in North America shouldn’t be lost on the reader. Gaiman states what should be blindingly obvious but to do it with such style that will make you smile regardless of your political views or ideas about tradition or progress.
4. Century Rain: Arguably Alastair Reynolds greatest book. Set in what at first seems to be an alternate 1950s where Hitler failed in his invasion of France, it follows an American ex-pat in Paris who moonlights as a Private Detective investigating a murder. In a separate thread, an archaeologist is digging in an ice-age Paris when she is screwed over by her employers and offered the chance to travel to Mars to step through an artifact that seems to be a portal… I’m not giving anything away but this is a cracking story which is blended well with high concept science. Easily the most approachable of his work, I recommend it to Reynolds virgins before tackling the Revelation Space series.
5. Small Gods: Terry Pratchett’s tale that introduces the idea that the power of gods is all dependent on those (and specifically the quantity and level of faith) that believe in that god. Another critique on the corrupting power of religion and how it is manifested through attempting to control people’s thoughts – or at least public expression of doubt.
6. Fahrenheit 451: Ray Bradbury, the master of the social commentary approach to science fiction writing, created easily the best example of the 20th century dystopia novel. It is an apt choice for discussion on World Book Day. It is a world in which books are burnt for the dangerous ideas they possess and the imagination they inspire. Guy Montag is a fireman, employed to burn books wherever he finds them. A critique of McCarthyism at the time of writing, the book resonates today in a different way when the government man tells Montag that books are burnt not because the government fears ideas, but because people do not like to be challenged any more so they burn ideas they do not want to be confronted with, that people want to be spoonfed nonsense and to be told what to think. Had it been written today, I imagine that premise would have been at the core of the book and the government man would be telling the truth.
7. Red Mars: Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic trilogy begins as both a science heavy and philosophy heavy work that you just know will have profound meaning to the people that live in the universe he has imagined. As the first colonists arrive, their main focus is on exploring and then surviving the harsh existence and making it habitable for vast numbers of humans. Robinson puts big social ideals at the core of his work, often hand in hand, sometimes superceding the hard science as the important concept to colonisation of the planet.
8. Engines of God: Jack McDevitt really loves archaeology and he loves high concept science fiction. He also seems to have a fascination for the decline of complex civilisations and this novel is one big adventure mystery about how several galaxy spanning empires came to a sudden and cataclysmic end. There is a sense of wonder to this novel and its semi-sequel Deepsix (and a couple more I’ve not yet read) that has tended in recent years to be limited to airport thrillers writter by the likes of Dan Brown and his clones. This novel fills you with so much detail about the civilisations that you it is sometimes easy to forget what it is the archaeologists are trying to find out.
9. The Well of Lost Plots: Jasper Fforde’s third novel in the Thursday Next series is a humorous look at all aspects of fiction writing. But buried within the nods to cliches, how not to write, unrealised characters and plots that are waiting to be born, there is a serious message. It is a critique of a loss of fiction writing as an art form that is being replaced by a generic moneyspinning commercial venture devoid of passion, art and everything that has made books so popular and inspiring throughout history.
10. Day of the Triffids: Wyndham’s greatest work, it ought to need no introduction. The world has been crippled by widespread blindness following a meteor shower. The Triffids, giant man eating plants that humans had cultivated for their oil, go on the rampage. Despite being the title creatures, the Triffids are used sparingly, more often than not used to throw a spanner in the works at a most inopportune moment. It mainly deals with themes of human existence and how only a handful of survivors who can see are supposed to cope in a planet full of blind people. How do we cope with the vast number of blind people and produce enough to feed them when they themselves are limited? How will we grow the food? Who learns what? How do we put society back together and most importantly, how should it be organised? Aside from Bill Masen, who as a hero is simply swept along by the people he comes into contact with, most of the characters are shown as flawed. Despite its cosy approach to apocalypse, it is a realistic portrayal bearing in mind the nature of the calamity.
Other strong contenders for this top 10 are (in no particular order): Lord of the Flies, A Christmas Carol, The Rats, Dracula, The Years of Rice and Salt, Stranger in a Strange Land, Rendezvous with Rama, The Alien Years.
So there we are, I’ll try to be better next year. In future editions I hope to list my favourite 10 classics, non-fiction, historical novels, least favourite books and any other groups I care to write about.