Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Favorite SF Novels

The following is a list of my fifteen favorite SF novels . All are permanently on my must reread list, even after three or four reads. This is not a list of the fifteen best SF works, although I like to think some of them might be. Time is the ultimate judge, though; those that persist in being read should be at least favorites in any Best List. (Actually, there are sixteen in the list. I came up with another that I just couldn't leave out and I couldn't decide which one to drop. So the list of fifteen of my favorites really has sixteen.)

The list is in alphabetical order, by author, and is in no way an attempt on my part to rank them.

1. Isaac Asimov: The Caves of Steel

Asimov combines two genres here, the SF story and the police procedural. It's centuries in the future and humanity has become, for the most part, agoraphobic. The thought of going outside terrifies most humans. The cities have become huge conglomerates, completely walled over. Most people spend their lives indoors, seldom even glancing out one of the rare windows that still exist. The exceptions are the Spacers, those humans who have left earth and settled on a number of planets. While they come across as being almost god-like, they also have their flaws, as serious as and in some cases more serious than the earthman's agoraphobia.

This novel could be considered an SF police procedural as the main character, Lije Baley, is the New York police officer assigned to solve the murder of one of the Spacers. He is forced to take a partner, one R Daneel Olivaw.
The problem is that the "R" stands for robot. The knowledge that a Spacer robot is loose in the corridors of the City would spark a riot. Baley now has two reasons for solving the crime quickly: his pride won't let him lose out to a robot and he needs to get the robot back to Spacetown before its identity is revealed.


2. Gregory Benford: the "Galactic Center" series.

This is a set of six novels that range in time from the 1990s to some 35,000 years in the future, from Earth to the black hole, the Eater, at the center of our galaxy. It's a grand adventure tale, along with a strong dose of astrophysics. That Benford is an astrophysicist might have had some influence here. He begins with what's known and then lets his imagination roam the galaxy. I have already posted a commentary on each of the six novels in the series: In the Ocean of Night, Across the Sea of Suns, Great Sky River, Tides of Light, Furious Gulf, and Sailing Bright Eternity.


3. Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination

Bester's novel contains one of the most interesting characters I've found in SF--Gully Foyle. At the beginning he's one of the lowest of the low on a spaceship crew--barely human--he can with extreme difficulty manage to speak somewhat coherently. At the end of the novel, he has educated himself to be able to move easily and freely in the highest social and cultural levels. However, inside he's still the brute he was at the beginning, and his one object in life is to revenge himself on those who left him to die in the cold dark reaches of the solar system. It appears to me that there's a slight flavor here of The Count of Monte Cristo here.

Bester postulates a future in which the aristocracy bases itself on its ancestry in various corporations. He has also created a world in which teleportation, moving oneself from place to place by the power of the mind, is commonplace. There are schools that will teach anyone to teleport, and only a few are unable to do this. Consider a world in which most people can transport themselves merely by thinking about it to anyplace they have once been and have studied closely. Knowing this, whom would you let into your home?


4. Alfred Bester: The Demolished Man

Just as his previously mentioned novel explored the effects of teleportation on society, this work postulates telepathy as a real possibility. What happens to a society when some of its members are able to read the minds of others? How does a society deal with that? The focus in this novel is on the legal system. One of the main characters is a police officer and a powerful telepath. What happens to the concept of privacy when some members of society are able to read minds, especially when some of those members are in law enforcement?

The other significant character is a man who wants to commit a murder. How can he do this with mind-reading cops around? How does one even plan a murder under these circumstances?


5. Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451

Books burn at that temperature. In a not too distant future, I fear, fireman will not be those whose job it is to put out fires but will be those who upon learning of a hidden stash of books will immediately rush over there and burn them. This short work was first published in 1951, when memories of pictures of book burning events in Germany were still fresh. Recently I have seen photos of similar events in this country, held at a Christian school. I wonder if this was one of the books so honored.

Guy Montag (if I'm not mistaken, that's German for Monday) is a fireman and perfectly happy burning books and saving society from various evils. It only when he impulsively saves a book from burning and begins to read it, that his attitude begins to change.

As one of the characters in the novel says, books are dangerous and unsettling, for they give people ideas. I think that may be a quotation from Frederick Douglas' autobiography of his life as a slave. It was considered dangerous to teach slaves to read and write, for it gave them unwholesome ideas.


6. Arthur C. Clarke: Rendezvous with Rama

An alien space ship enters our solar system. In a short time, it will have passed through and be gone. A crew of scientists is sent to meet the ship and make contact with its crew. They rendezvous with the ship and are able to enter it, and find it empty, or so it seems anyway. The story follows the efforts of the crew to discover as much as possible about the ship and its mission and its builders.


7. Jack Finney: Time and Again

The best time travel tale I've ever read. I would say the best ever written, but I haven't read all of them.
This is one of those rare stories that, after finishing it, I sat there and wish it could be possible. The main character goes back to late 19th century New York City and solves a mystery and falls in love.

One of the strengths of the work, along with Finney's prose, is the liberal use of photographs from that period.


8. Robert Heinlein: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

I suspect there may be many who think I should have selected Stranger in a Strange Land. But, while Stranger was an enjoyable read and reread, I find that given a choice between them I would choose The Moon more often.

Others have pointed out some similarities between The Moon and the US during the revolutionary period: a far distant and unsympathetic governing body, lack of representation on that body, and the use of both as penal colonies.

It's a great action oriented novel, but still filled with some of Heinlein's ideas on the nature of the evolution of the family, on politics in a superficially democratic (actually it's a republican form of government), and on the potential power of a self-aware AI that can tap into anything even remotely connected to a computer or phone line.


9. Frank Herbert: Dune

Dune is felt by many critics and commentators to be one of the two novels that broke down the walls of the SF ghetto and put made SF legitimate reading material for the general public. The other was Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.

I think Dune was the first SF novel to have a fully developed, a fully realized planet with a culture that clearly was based on the environment. The planetary environment shaped the culture, attitudes, and religion of the Fremen tribes, the humans now indigenous to the planet.

In addition to the Fremen, Herbert has created a number of groups all struggling for control of Arrakis or Dune. As the Wikipedia entry on Dune puts it:

he story explores the complex and multi-layered interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, as the forces of the Empire confront each other for control of Arrakis and its "spice".


1o. Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker

The most unique post-holocaust novel I've ever read. If you love playing with language, you'll love this one.
It's a quest tale, and the quest is Riddley Walker's as he attempts to make sense of a riddle. The language is a character in this novel:

Opening lines for Chapter One. It's a first person narrative and Riddley is speaking:

"On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he weren't all that big plus he lookit poorily. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and make his rush and there we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, 'Your tern now my tern later. . ."

I think it's his matter-of-fact attitude that makes him a favorite character of mine--"Your tern now my tern later." It also suggests a realization and acceptance of the basic equality of all living creatures. It's not a bragging statement denoting his superiority over the boar, but a simple recognition that the boar's "tern" is now and his will come later.


11. Ursula Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness

One I always recommend. I did a brief commentary on it here back in March 2010. Genly Ai, an ambassador from the Ekumen, arrives on Winter to arrange for diplomatic relations between the planet's inhabitants and the Ekumen. The inhabitants are completely human except for one significant difference. They are sexually neuter for about three weeks and then become either male or female for about 3-4 days. Le Guin's point here is to explore the gender behavior patterns to see which are inborn and which are learned. No lectures here, though, just an interesting plot and some good action sequences. See Ai and Estraven's journey over the glacier.


12. Walter M. Miller, Jr.: A Canticle for Leibowitz

This is another of my favorite post-holocaust novels. It is really three novellas, which focus strongly on a religious order of monks who initially were followers of Leibowitz, a scientist. Most of the few survivors of the war turned hostile to intellectuals and scientists, executing them whenever found. Eventually, in some communities, literacy became grounds for execution. Leibowitz gave his followers the task of preserving whatever scientific knowledge they could find. Like the monks of the Middle Ages, they spent their lives copying out whatever written materials they could find. The three novellas take place several hundred years apart, going from a subsistence level of existence in the first part, to a society that is now rich enough to permit some of its members to do something other than bring in food in the second section, to a society that has developed science once again to the point that they now have nuclear weapons.


13. Kim Stanley Robinson: "Three Californias" (aka The Orange County stories)

Imagine a particular place, a real place that is, and then project three different futures on this place. Kim Stanley Robinson does exactly that to a part of California, Orange County to be precise. These are not serials since they all take place at roughly the same time but in alternate universes.

The Wild Shore is a post-holocaust novel. The US has been eliminated as a world power, and isn't even a unified country. The enemy destroyed the communication and transportation systems and now uses satellites to detect and destroy any attempt to develop communities over a few thousand people and to destroy any attempt to rebuild the railway system. Robinson has created a coming-of-age story of a young man in what was once Orange County who finds himself trapped in a society that exists at a subsistence level while the rest of the world remains highly developed, for only the USA was attacked. The USA's allies were grateful they weren't attacked also and quietly accepted the situation.

The Gold Coast is also set in Orange County, but no war has taken place. It seems to be an extension of today, focusing on several young people who are trying to make their way in a world dominated by the military industrial complex, with an ever-expanding population, a California gone mad. The young people's lives seem pointless, in which cars, sex, drugs, and rock music are the main ingredients. Then, in an attempt to fight back, they get involved in industrial terrorism. Now they are going to attract the attention of society.

The Pacific Edge is probably the most unlikely of the three scenarios that Robinson has created. The world has become an ecotopia--or in today's language, it has gone green-green--green. Small is beautiful; the world has completely reversed itself. Now there are rules that prevent any organization from going beyond a certain size. Any construction deemed necessary by the ruling bodies has to be voted on by the population.

The conflict is not between those who favor this development and those opposed to it. Instead the conflict centers around the limits to growth. The conflict is between those accept the limits as reasonable and logical and those who think it's a bit too low. How would hiring one more person for a company be a threat to the world environment? Even though it is unnecessary, how could increasing the water supply to the town be a threat?

I've found three constants throughout the novels. One is that the main characters in all three are mostly young people in their late teens and early twenties. Secondly, the novels open with the young people digging up various items. Thirdly, there is an old man who remembers what it was like 50 years ago.


14. George Stewart: Earth Abides

One of the best post-holocaust novels I've ever read. It's a quiet novel which focuses on the effects on those who survived a war in which over 90% of the human race died. The title comes from Ecclesiastes:

"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities: all is vanity.

What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh;
but the earth abideth for ever. "


15. A. E. van Vogt: The Voyage of the Space Beagle

It was by accident that I discovered that this novel was the middle link in a chain that begins with Charles Darwin and ends with Star Trek. Shortly after Charles Darwin returned home from his journey on a British exploratory vessel, he published a book about his journey. The title of the book is The Voyage of the Beagle, published in 1839. A little over a century later, van Vogt published his novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle. It is actually a fix-up novel, based on several shorter works, the first two actually published in SF magazines in 1939, one hundred years after Darwin. Like Darwin's Beagle, van Vogt's Beagle is an exploratory vessel, exploring the galaxy just as Darwin's Beagle explored the remote oceans and far off lands of earth.

In an interview, Gene Roddenberry said that van Vogt's novel was one of the primary sources for the development of the concept behind Star Trek and the five year mission of the Enterprise. The missions of the two Beagles and the Enterprise were essentially the same--to explore new worlds, etc. Perhaps, as a way of reminding viewers of the program's long and honorable ancestry, in one of the last Star Trek episodes, the Enterprise's mission involves locating a lost exploratory spaceship--the Beagle.


16. Gene Wolfe: "The Book of the New Sun"

This series consists of four books. Sometime later a sequel appeared. And later, a small volume with commentary on the work by Gene Wolfe, as well as a dictionary for some of the more obscure terms also showed up on the shelves.

The work is set on Earth in the very far future and is one of the SF subcategories known as a "dying earth" work. Earth is tired and worn out, her vast mineral treasures have been reduced to rust and dust. It's so far in the future that even the sun is showing its age. It's a quest, of course, and perhaps a brief review of the quest for the Holy Grail might be informative.

The main character is Severian, and he is a member (apprentice at the beginning of the first novel) of the Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, also known as the Guild of Torturers. He is a torturer and an executioner. He violates one of the rules (shows mercy to a prisoner) and is punished by being sent out to be a torturer and executioner in a land as far from the capital as can be found. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? It is at this point his quest begins, and as in the quest for the Holy Grail, his task is to heal the wounded king or autarch.

The four novels in the set are The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch.

Four years later, Wolfe published a sequel to the set The Urth of the New Sun. Wolfe also published a companion work The Castle of the Otter, the title of which comes from a news item about the fourth book in the series. Whoever wrote the article got the name wrong: The Citadel of the Autarch got transformed in the reporter's mind into The Castle of the Otter. Wolfe liked the title so much that he gave it to this little volume which contains background information to the series and a vocabulary, to help the despairing reader translate some of Wolfe's obscure terms.


I have to stop here, or I will never finish. As I started to review and clean up this post, I remembered C. J. Cherryh whose action-oriented novels really do have me gasping for air at the end. How can any list exclude P. K. Dick's numerous novels, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis for the film Blade Runner, which is one of the best SF films I have seen. And Larry Niven's Ringworld or . . .


  1. Well, I see that I have my reading list now. Thanks, Fred! So, with further delay, I am off to the library. Well, actually, the library trip will have to wait until after classes are finished today. The first week of the semester is underway, and I am already wondering, "Perhaps I really should retire (again)!"