Thursday, January 28, 2010

speculative fiction: fifty best novels

That list on The Awl the other day was so vexing that I found myself unable to sleep, or maybe that was because I had too much coffee. In any case, instead of sleeping I composed the following list of best SF/F or speculative novels, or whatever you like to call those. Each author is represented only once, for the sake of brevity. Perhaps you'd like to nominate some that I have forgotten?

1. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace. The movie that is so good you'll never stop watching. Also, the book you’ll never stop reading.

2. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. Try this if you haven't read it; the author was not an Oxford don for nothing.

3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman. Sole contender so far for the mantle of Tolkien; beautiful, rich, heart-stopping, will convince you that your cat can hear your thoughts.

4. Gormenghast trilogy, Mervyn Peake, Like taking acid, without the hassle. The BBC adaptation wasn’t too bad but the book is a revelation.

5. Dune, Frank Herbert. Orders of magnitude better than the movie; perfectly realized, so absorbing; still (absurdly) like to imagine self as Bene Gesserit nun.

6. Solaris, Stanislaw Lem. Impossible to choose just one. He is a bit like Tom Stoppard; hilarious, but then comes back to sting pretty hard.

7. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess. Cruel, brutal, funny, absolutely crucial. Makes me a malenky bit poogly to think how realistic it is.

8. A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. Completely absurd, hilarious, you'd have to be made of stone not to love it.

9. Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut. Ice-nine! Bokononism! Plus satire that could peel paint off a wall; did you know that this was Vonnegut's Master’s thesis?

10. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley. Bleak as hell but so good, still can't believe there is an actual pill called Soma, but it is just a sleeping pill.

11. Kai Lung's Golden Hours, Ernest Bramah. Comic chinoiserie confection from England of the 1920s; funny, so exotic, so crazy, so lovely. Wodehouse fans will enjoy this very much.

12. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson. A little testosterone-poisoned but great all the same and super prescient; he invented our use of the word ‘avatar,’ foresaw so much of what would happen online.

13. Foundation trilogy, Isaac Asimov. Difficult to overstate how influential this book is; stately, absorbing, still has a ton of vintage charm.

14. Vathek, William Beckford. Deranged and bewitching Arabian fantasies of a brilliant 18th-c. gazillionaire (heir to tea fortune.)

15. Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole. Giant helmet falls out of the sky and squashes the heir to the castle on his wedding day. That’s just the first few pages.

16. Islandia, Austen Tappan Wright. Utopia for vegans and knitters, but also strangely beautiful and thoughtful; read it when you are a bundle of nerves and it will calm you down better than a Xanax.

17. Bridge of Birds, Barry Hughart. Master Li has a slight flaw in his character, but this elaborate, dreamlike, comical Chinese hallucination is without stain.

18. The Phantom Tollboth, Norton Juster. Still hoping for a genuine Turnpike Tollbooth to show up in my bedroom some morning.

19. Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban. Stone genius, utterly original, terribly moving post-apocalyptic story will make you feel like your brains and your heart have been scoured raw.

20. The Red Lion, Maria Szepes. Sex, lies and alchemy, so so strange and good; a story of the philosopher’s stone that grants eternal life, at a price.
21. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein. Excellent alien story, despite catastrophic politics of author (and cringe-making attitude re: sexual matters.)

22. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson. Gorgeous, very short, read it in an afternoon and meditate sadly on vampires and loneliness.

23. The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis A whole world to disappear into, don't fret about the Christian stuff, just enjoy the ride which is lovely.

24. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card. Goes to eleven in all ways, inevitable, thrilling as hell. Read it to kids.

25. The Giver, Lois Lowry. Will make you bawl. Has a few little defects but is overwhelmingly satisfying like a tidal wave that washes over its few inconsistencies.

26. Star of the Unborn, Franz Werfel. Came to him in a dream; complex, fascinating, astral traveling through cosmos, then a terrible danger emerges. Dogs can talk.

27. Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Has a magical library of all the forgotten books in the world, wild and lovely, even “serious” readers who ordinarily don’t care for fantasy are liable to love it.

28. Neuromancer, William Gibson. His writing has a strange elegance, even in this early book; ridiculously influential, and still echoing. He is @GreatDismal on Twitter, and very entertaining.

29. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle. Charles Wallace and Meg’s battle against IT! Read it and then give this to any nerdish young girl, it will make her feel like a queen..

30. The Last Western, Thomas Klise. Deceptively simple story about grace, redemption, baseball, Catholicism, the end of the world; will blow your wiglet clean off your head. Criminally neglected work of genius.

31. Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy. Will probably turn you into a socialist, as it did a lot of Brits, long ago.

32. 1984, George Orwell. Truer every day. Well, maybe truest during the Bush years, at which point it sounded exactly like the newspaper.
33. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler A great-souled post-apocalyptic story, pages turn themselves, wise, beautiful. Miss her.

34. Lost Horizon, James Hilton. A lovely antique; seductions of the remote lamasery at Shangri-La. Movie (dir. Frank Capra) is not bad, but not as good as book.

35. Naked Lunch, William Burroughs. The great junkie manifesto of addiction and 20th-c. disaffection, pitch-black humor, thoroughly wacky, maybe a little weak qua novel, but hugely entertaining.

36. Crash, J.G. Ballard. He remade the genre of “science fiction” with this distasteful but totally mesmerizing book.

37. The Weapon-Shops of Isher, A.E. Van Vogt. Golden-age SF meditation on weaponry and aggression, thought-provoking, fun. The NRA uses it for sloganeering, seriously.

38. The Alteration, Kingsley Amis. Very creepy, gorgeously written; a hint, the alteration in question refers to a surgical procedure.

39. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley. Arthurian legend reimagined, a big, absorbing, dreamy novel to take on the plane .

40. Winter's Tale, Mark Helprin. Yes, his politics are a disaster, but this imaginary New York is enchanting. It has a hot gin cocktail he appears to have invented called Antwerp Flinders, and flying horses.

41. She, Rider Haggard. Henry Miller loved this one, too, a story that glories in its own implausibility, and the source of the phrase, “she who must be obeyed.”

42. The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood. Even if you can’t stand feminism you will probably love this very densely imagined, scary, crazy dystopia.

43. The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem. Some found this heavy going, and thought that the magic ring part didn’t really work, but I loved every bit. It’s a book you can vanish right into and not come out for days.

44. The Once and Future King, T.H. White. Haven’t read for a long while but have loved it always. Even more successful than The Mists of Avalon in making the reader feel he is really there.

45. The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, George Saunders. Black comedy for children. Given the circumstances, they can’t start too soon.

46. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury. Another Libertarian! He became a terrible crank, didn’t he, but this book is a delight, as is the gorgeous movie (dir. Truffaut.)

47. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin. Old-fashioned but good story of hermaphroditic alien culture, politics, religion; must have seemed so threatening in 1969.

48. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick. Alternate-history in which the Germans won WWII, Hitler has syphilis etc. Tons better than The Plot Against America, but not as good as

49. Fatherland, Robert Harris. Smashing, every which way. A great, great thriller, one of the best ever, will practically give you a heart attack, plus a splendid fantasy and a romance.

50. Dancers at the End of Time, Michael Moorcock. Frivolous, Firbankian books. The universe is about to collapse but hardly anybody cares because they’re all decadent, and whatnot. They can change the landscape according to their fancy.


Daniel said...

Nancy Farmer, House of the Scorpion - creepy YA. Even better than William Sleator.

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station - he was steampunk before steampunk was cool.

Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren - the antidote to Heinlein's sexual politics.

Also, just sayin', I met my college girlfriend (now married) because we both had copies of The Phantom Tollbooth in our dorm rooms.

Marco said...

Pretty darn good list. I would've picked Cryptonomicon over Snow Crash, although the former's status as speculative fiction is more in question, even though Stephenson uses that precise term himself for it.

The one choice I can't abide by is A Wrinkle in Time. Perhaps it's because I first read it as an adult, but I found the book offensively bad.

Anonymous said...

Splendid list. Top notch. I actually agree with the choice of Snow Crash over Cyptonomicon, and love the inclusion of Infinite Jest and of The Handmaid's Tale.
I see Marco's point about Wrinkle in Time, because when I reread it as an adult I winced my way through. But I read it as a preteen girl and fell in love with science. Ditto Dune.
Watership Down? Not quite SF/F enough, perhaps. And Weiland by Charles Brockden Brown. Too gothic to be considered speculative?

dorkismo said...

I am thrilled to say that I know nothing of Weiland!!!!!

dorkismo said...

Nor Miéville!!!

And I LOVE the story of the Phantom-Tollboth romance. I guess i can see how A Wrinkle in Time has not aged so well, alas.

But Marco, I have not yet read Cryptonomicon. I'm on The Diamond Age just now (audiobook) it is quite good. I always do stuff in the wrong order.

Dan said...

Well, this is the nudge I need to read the Gormenghast triology when I'm done with 2666.

Anonymous said...

I have ordered myself to read Gormenghast many, many times and have gotten absolutely nowhere. After plowing through the first 50 pages, I can never quite bring myself to pick it back up.(However I did see the BBC adaptation on PBS and quite enjoyed it.)
Dune was the opposite - didn't fancy it, but nothing else to read, and then got sucked in.
T.H.White wrote some really wonderful short stories.
Great List. (Still no Iain M Banks though.)

Anonymous said...

#40 Mark Helprin != Mark Halperin, so don't worry about his politics.

dorkismo said...

But you know, Mark Helprin writes conservative muck for The Wall Street Journal, for srs.

dorkismo said...

(incl. speeches for Bob Dole if you can believe!!!)