Clark's Favorite Books Part 1: Science Fiction
Patrick has been bugging me recently for my top 10 books list. I'm an anarchist, and I don't kowtow to The Man, maaan, so I refuse to generate a top ten list. On the other hand, I can't resist telling people what cool shit they should be reading, so here's my I'm-not-even-sure-how-large list of books that I really like. Is it my "top" list? I dunno. I'm not the viewpoint character in High Fidelity; I don't spend that much time rank ordering stuff. Make of this list (these lists) what you will.
Lucifer's Hammer – this is, IMO, the single best post apocalyptic / survival book ever written. It's got it all: astronomy, physics, chemistry, economics, individual survival skills, sociology. One mark of a good book is whether you remember scenes from it years later. LH has dozens. It's a little bit dated by now (US / USSR Cold War, post-Vietnam US Army with racial integration problems, etc.), but it's still a great yarn.
The Mote in God's Eye – Niven and Pournelle are off to an early lead. TMiGE is the single best First Contact story ever written, and it deals with aliens that are truly weird, in some ways, and truly familiar in others. It warrants the term "space opera" for working at a grand scale: grand scales of space, time, imaginary physics, and stakes to human life.
Snowcrash – Neal Stephenson has written better books (Cryptonomicon, Anathem), but he's never written a more-Neal-Stephenson-per-page book than Snowcrash. It distilled, parodied, and reified the cyberpunk genre. As with Lucifer's Hammer, it was so good that it basically took all of the air out of the genre. After this, what's left to do? Does it have Big Ideas(tm)? And how. Dropping Big Idea bombs always runs the risk of looking silly, but with out risk there is no art. Shows its age a bit, but still excellent.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Heinlein distilled mid 20th century science fiction. Everything either good or bad in it, he did better or worse than others. Likable characters? And how. Embarrassing authorial excess? Yep. TMiaHM shows him at his best: fast paced, emotionally moving, exciting, full of ideas, and very little of the embarrassing or weird Heinlein. It's a seminal libertarian / anarcho capitalist science fiction novel and created the mold for a half dozen other similar novels that came later. The ending still leaves me a bit melancholy even thirty years after I first read it.
Anathem – Stephenson pulls forward and ties for first place. (I'm reminded of the beginning of the movie Rounders: science fiction isn't a game of luck; it's a game of skill. Do you think that Stephenson and Niven and Pournelle keep writing great novels because they're lucky?). Anathem has it all: deep history, parallel worlds, medieval monasteries, formal logic, quantum uncertainty, cross-polar chase scenes, orbital mechanics, starships. A lot of people say that they thought that Anathem was too wordy or too weird. I feel bad for them – they've admitted something very embarrassing about themselves in public.
A Fire Upon the Deep / A Deepness in the Sky – A lot of my favorite authors write very little…or, rather, they release very few books. Mrs. Clark has a theory that authors accumulate good ideas for stories at a certain fixed rate, and their first books drain the tank half dry. According to her elaboration of this theory, most authors have two or three good books in them. I disagree with this hard-line version, but I think that there's some truth in the idea. Specifically, I think that most authors can write a good novel only once every few years (or, rather, most authors can't write a good novel at all, and those that can write one at all can write one at most every few years). Anyway, Vernor Vinge, computer science professor, does the smart thing: he writes at exactly the rate that he can generate good stories. Sadly, this means he doesn't write might. The two novels referenced here contain a lot: space exploration, vast galactic civilizations, weird physics, thoughts on anarchy, trade, and fascism.
The Star Fraction / The Stone Canal / The Cassini Division / The Sky Road – There are only three important things in life: what is the point of existence and what is The Good? what is worth having or doing?, when those things are scarce, how should they be divided up? Or, in shorter form: religion, politics, and money. You know – the three things that we're not supposed to talk about with people. In the mid 1980s the Scottish Big Three exploded on the American science fiction scene: Ian Banks (RIP), Ken Macleod, and Charlie Stross. Stross flamed out after a few good books (see Mrs. Clark's rule of thumb about most authors having only a few good books). Banks is operatic, utopian, and excellent. Macleod, though…Macleod is something between the sleeper of the group and the tortoise that wins the race. He's not as operatic as Banks – one novel (Newton's Wake) aside, there are no vast mega-structures, few vast spaceships, not much wit in each paragraph…but he does consistently talk about the big three topics: what is the good? what are things worth? who should divide them up? He's not a perfect writer – far too many of his novels have a denouement that boils down to several Scottish (just like him!) reformed Trotskyists (just like him!) discussing politics in a pub (just like him!), but he's good. The four books listed here aren't a series per se – more like riffing on the same subject via different paths (see also: Goldberg Variations, Kim Stanley Robinson's Three California's Trilogy, George Bush and Barrack Obama, etc. They're all worth reading.
Directive 51 – To my mind, the two most underrated science fiction authors of the last 10 or 20 years are Walter Jon Williams and John Barnes. Both have technical mastery of fiction writing, good characterization, amazing plots, complexity, and a dozen other skills down cold. They're not the only authors who are this good – there are a half dozen or so now writing who perform at this level. The amazing thing, though, is that these guys are all but invisible. Their works should be classics, and yet they're outsold by Jim Butcher, John Scalzi, and Stephenie Meyer. So, short version: pick up absolutely anything by either of these two guys (aside from Barne's Jak Jinnaka series, which was sort sort of experiment that didn't work for me). Anyway, on to Directive 51. This is the first book in a trilogy that traces the breakdown of our current world into a post apocalyptic nightmare. In our hyper-connected early 21st century society memes grow and spread like flashmobs, and soon a semiotics researcher named Arnie Yang (John Barne's not-really-a-Mary-Sue-but-sorta-based-on-himself) starts to see dangerous resonances. Deep Greens are talking about crashing the system and returning to nature. Billionaires are talking about crashing the system and returning to monarchy. Techies are talking about crashing the system with nanotech. What the heck is going on? The book is a multi-viewpoint-architected novel like a big technothriller (c.f. The Hunt for Red October, etc.) that investigates this question from a variety of viewpoints. Unfortunately, almost as soon as the authorities detect that something is wrong, the disaster is upon them: nanotech starts destroying modern technology, and the good guys are always two steps behind…or three. One of the hardest things in fiction is creating a true sense of dread and foreboding: most of the time we're watching a TV show or reading a book, we know that everything is going to turn out all right in the end. Luke will blow up the Deathstar. Doctor House will cure the patient. Professor Bernardo de la Plaz will free the Loonies from Earth's fascist grip. Barnes isn't like that. Good people die, and at every step of the way you fear that the good guys could lose entirely…and the scenes stick. More than a decade after reading Kaleidoscope Century I remember the protagonist throwing gold coins into the air to precipitate a riot and years after reading Directive 51 I remember a scene of captives being fast-marched past terrified viewpoint characters who are hiding in a crumbling suburb. After all this time these bits still send chills down my spine. Anyway, read Directive 51…and look out for a group review I've got queued up entitled "Three Post Apocalypses, Left, Right, and Center" that covers John Varley's Slow Apocalypse (left), S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire (right) and Barnes' Directive 51 (center). I've got some thoughts on in
vino post apocalypse veritas.
update: added 23 December 2013:
Tales of the Dying Earth – There's a genre that I don't read or watch, "comedy of manners", which – Wikipedia tells me – satirizes the manners and affectations of a social class or of multiple classes, often represented by stereotypical stock characters. As far as I can tell examples of it mostly occur in mid-century British novels and TV, and a few American books making fun of NYC socialites. Neither is something that I'm particularly interested in, but I've been provided entre to the genre by Jack Vance, who writes utterly hilarious science fantasy that says a lot more about human foibles than it does about what the world will look like 30,000 years from now. In Vance's Dying Earth series the swollen red sun is so tired and ancient that it may go out at any time, and all of the characters in his books (a) realize this, and (b) react to it either with beyond-cinematic arrogance, beyond-Roissy rakishness, or beyong Quentin Crisp flamboyant good cheer. If you picture the characters Thundar the Barbarian as voiced by Jeeves and Wooster you'd not be too far off course (fictional exempli gratia "let me slip out of this wet pit of eternal despond and into a dry martini!"). A decade or more after reading it I still occassionally pause in the middle of the day and laugh thinking about Cugel as an incompetent worminger, or his insoucience in eating from the expensive buffet at the company town associated with a dragon scale mine. Fun, light reading, but really really rewarding.
Revelation Space /
Chasm City /
Redemption Ark /
Absolution Gap /
The Prefect – Wikipedia calls Alastair Reynolds a writer of "dark hard science fiction". I think that's a perfect term. The "Revelation Space" universe he crafts is cold, unforgiving, and vaguely menacing. Not just vaguely menacing in a "Cold Equations" / "there's nothing between my skin and the deadly vacuum but this thin suit" manner, but in a "there are deep and impersonal forces that are none-the-less malevolent and either actively want you dead, or at least won't care a bit if you die" sense. Couple that with rigorous physics, tight plots, and a very intricate back story and a deeply thought out universe, and the books are a mix of wonder at how much mankind might achieve over the next 500 years despite no magic get-out-of-jail-free cards like FTL, and a sense of dread about just how cold and scary the universe is. Picture Iain Banks without the cheerful tone and with more hard physics, and you get something a lot like Alastair Reynolds.
If you liked these reviews, keep your eyes peeled for future installments:
- Clark's Favorite Books Part 2: Fantasy
- Clark's Favorite Books Part 3: Politics
- Clark's Favorite Books Part 4: Miscellaneous