Thursday, October 20, 2011

Top 10 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Novels

If I may make a bold statement entire life is pretty much defined by fantasy and science fiction. It’s what I read, what I write, what I watch, and what I aspire to do for a living (“aspire” being the key word). It gets very little respect and that’s too bad, because it can be absolutely breathtaking. Granted, a lot of fantasy and sci-fi is utter shit -- glorified fan-fiction by smug retards who can barely string two words together. But a list of my least-favorite genre work would probably take up a few GBs, so here are my top ten all-time favorite novels of fantasy and science fiction, ranked tenuously in order of preference. Try these out; I promise you the real world will vanish.


10. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke, 2004)
Two words that are incredibly useful to the genres are “What if?” Sci-fi speculates about the future and fantasy imagines other worlds completely, but both take delight in revising the past. I love alternate histories and Susanna Clarke’s meaty debut novel is a doozy. In a version of 19th-century Britain where magic is commonplace, the two titular magicians -- one dry and paranoid, one daring and charismatic -- come to blows, symbolizing the era’s rough transition between modes of thought. History and myth collide, and sparks fly. Clarke’s writing mimics the period but adds a delicious pinch of wit; her long, exhaustive footnotes are as much fun as the novel itself. This magic-haunted world feels real. I put this at number ten because it’s been ages since I read it; otherwise, it might rank higher.

9. Embassytown (China Miéville, 2011)
China Miéville is a writer who takes joy in knocking down expectations. I love most all his work, but was blown away by his first hard sci-fi novel, which gets sci-fi so right that it’s dizzying. On a distant planetary outpost, humans live as nervous guests to the Ariekei, a race of aliens so strange and inscrutable that every scene quivers with fascination. You see, these aliens’ thoughts are tightly linked to their dual-voiced language; they cannot lie, and we can only communicate with them through specially-grown empathic clones. All hell breaks loose when the Ariekei become physically addicted to a human voice. This book is packed with good ideas. Aliens should not be British-accented dudes with Silly Putty on their foreheads. Aliens should be alien, dammit, and Miéville’s are off the deep end of bizarre wondrousness.

8. The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell, 1996)
How can a story about a diplomatic team voyaging to a distant planet seem so unlike science fiction? By being intelligent, wise, and deeply humanistic. Russell’s tale has everything you’d expect, but sticks to hard realism: the voyagers are Jesuits, the spaceship is a refurbished asteroid, and decades pass on Earth during their journey. As for the aliens, well...let’s just say that they don’t disappoint. We learn at the start of the book that the Jesuits’ mission went hideously wrong; gradually we discover why, and it’s both heartbreaking and all too plausible. The Sparrow is simply about people, human and otherwise, and the ways in which they can come to understand, or misunderstand, each other. It is also about the breaking and painful rebuilding of faith. It is powerful and tragic and it left me gasping.
(The story begun in The Sparrow concludes in its sequel, Children of God.)

7. Mattimeo (Brian Jacques, 1989)
The late Brian Jacques’ Redwall series hasn’t aged too well for me; his exploits of sword-wielding woodland creatures got progressively dumber, and these days I find them morally simplistic and kind of racist. However, they are a beloved facet of my childhood, and my favorite is and will always be Mattimeo. It’s got everything! Long-distance questing, noble heroes and quirky sidekicks, vile villains, riddles, feasts, and many, many swashes to buckle. As the warrior mouse Matthias and his friends chase after their enslaved children, their home, Redwall Abbey, is threatened by a band of evil birds. The pace is breakneck. The climax, set in a creepy underground kingdom, is all kinds of awesome. And Jacques created a knockout villain in Slagar the Cruel, a mutilated mercenary fox with a harlequin mask and one hell of a vendetta. Pure fantasy escapism, bless its furry little heart.
(Mattimeo is a direct sequel to Jacques’ debut novel, Redwall. It helps to read the first one.)

6. Ilium (Dan Simmons, 2003)
No novel should have this much stuff in it and still work. Okay, here we go: The Greek gods of Olympus are staging the Trojan War, only it’s actually the far future and the gods are super-evolved humans, and back on Earth everyone is fat and stupid and parties all day, and the worldwide data network has gained sentience and taken on the persona of Prospero from Shakespeare’s Tempest, and meanwhile some sentient robots from Jupiter’s moons are flying in to investigate, and...SEE?! And I’ve only lightly brushed the surface of Simmons’ crazy, glorious sci-fi extravaganza. It might not be as epic or beloved as his earlier Hyperion series, but I still like it better, because...well, it’s the kind of book I dream of writing. A story that dazzles the senses and engages the gray matter, that weaves together a thousand elements into one beautiful tapestry.
(The story begun in Ilium concludes in its sequel, Olympos.)

5. Chaga (Ian McDonald, 1995)
Everything Ian McDonald writes is awesome. EVERYTHING. It’s hard to pick a fave. I’m giving the edge to Chaga (published as Evolution’s Shore in the US), in which a mysterious, vegetative alien entity crashes on Mt. Kilimanjaro and begins to slowly engulf the continent of Africa. In an inspired move, the heroes are media hounds, riding on the dizzy high of the Ultimate Scoop. McDonald goes on to juggle an expansive cast of mercenaries, scientists, gangsters, politicians, militia, and average joes as the world reels with the knowledge that we are being invaded -- and, possibly scarier, that the invasion is not necessarily malevolent. Is the Chaga alien at all, or is it merely the next stage in human evolution? Do we flee from it, or flee toward it? Absolutely nothing is simple in this blistering and ultimately optimistic look at what wonders our future might hold.
(The story begun in Chaga concludes in its sequel, Kirinya.)

4. Bridge of Birds (Barry Hughart, 1984)
It’s hard to balance elaborate mythology and black comedy. Barry Hughart struck gold with Bridge of Birds, an absolutely insane (in a good way) adventure set in a fantastical version of ancient China. It is...what is it? Detective story, quest for magical macguffins, affront to good manners, loving parody, all of the above. The protagonist, sweetly naive peasant hunk Number Ten Ox, finds himself sidekick to Master Li, a withered old sage with a “slight flaw in his character” who specializes in murder and mayhem -- all in the name of good, of course. Between the evil immortal duke and the sexy ghosts and the invisible monsters and whatnot, the plot never pauses for breath -- and I should mention that it’s all hilarious, setting up comedic punchlines with great care and maintaining more running gags than Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a delightful antidote to all that somber, earnest bullshit you find in fantasies these days.
(Bridge of Birds has two sequels, The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen. Each one is self-contained and they’re not quite as good...but still worthwhile.)

3. American Gods (Neil Gaiman, 2001)
No contemporary author does gods better than Neil Gaiman -- and if said gods are flesh-and-blood, living in modern America, you’ve got a recipe for a masterpiece. This book has won a zillion awards, and deserved every one. It’s a road trip through myth and legend, Americana and tall tale. It is about nothing less than the future of human faith, as the gods of old, kept alive by belief, do battle with the new breed of deity: sparkling gods of media, technology, sex, greed. The hero is an ordinary man gifted with extraordinary duties, and his odyssey reaches into every corner of the strange, ramshackle nation of America. Perhaps only a Brit like Gaiman could peer so unflinchingly into the cobwebby depths of whatever makes this country tick. The result is profound and poignant. I’m a raging Gaiman fanboy, but Everyone should be a fan of this book. It escapes from the fantasy ghetto and is just one of the best books of its decade, period.
(American Gods has a follow-up novella, Monarch of the Glen, and a sort-of spinoff novel, Anansi Boys. Both quite good!)

2. Otherland (Tad Williams, 1996-2001)
I cannot adequately describe Otherland in this small space. Let’s just say that its own author once suggested it might be the most epic story ever written, and I thought that maybe he wasn’t just being an egomaniac. It’s set in a future where virtual reality is commonplace and concerns a ragtag group of folks who infiltrate a top-secret network run by the world’s most powerful people. It’s four books long, and each has at least 700 pages. There are dozens of characters and subplots. If you’ve ever tackled Game of Thrones, this is the cyberpunk version. And it is SO FUCKING COOL. Williams gives us one crazy VR world after another, and while parts of the narrative do seem like padding, it never gets boring. Never. So many mysteries to untangle, and unlike certain other myth-heavy stories I like (Hi, Lost!), there’s a satisfying answer for every single one. Otherland flat out blows my mind, and it’s another type of saga that I want to write day.
(The four novels in the Otherland saga are City of Golden Shadow, River of Blue Fire, Mountain of Black Glass, and Sea of Silver Light. It didn’t make sense to select just one, as they are all part of a single story and can’t really be taken separately.)

1. The Halloween Tree (Ray Bradbury, 1972)
Here it is: My favorite fantasy novel of all time. A slim little story that could be read to a child. I rave about this book to people, and they react with polite incomprehension. I don’t really know why I adore The Halloween Tree so much. It has something to do with Ray Bradbury’s wry, poetic prose. Something to do with his amazing images, from the kite made out of old Circus posters to the titular pumpkin-garlanded tree. Something to do with Autumn, my favorite season, and with the cider-scented wave of nostalgia he conjures. What’s the book about? Well, it’s about a group of chums floating through history to save their Tom Sawyer-esque friend, accompanied by a very strange character named Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud who may or may not be Death Himself. It’s about the history of Halloween, presented not as a fearful thing but as a giddy, delightful rush of arcana. It’s about losing your childhood but discovering that you never lose it completely. It’s an adventure told in metaphor. It’s everything I love about the written word. It snaps and crackles like burning sparks on a fire. I read it aloud to myself sometimes, savoring every sentence. I have the Tree tattooed on my arm...because when I’m an old man, I know I’ll still look at it and smile. Read this book, if you haven’t already. Maybe you won’t get as much out of it as I do, but I guarantee you’ll feel the frisson of a beautiful story running up your spine.

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