You can also download the album here: Second Star to the Right
I have found it really useful to skim through the various top ten and top hundred lists of best sci-fi novels in search for new reading so I thought I’d put up one of my own here. This list appears to me to be in constant flux, but at this moment, my best of the best looks something like this.
1. Alastair Reynolds: House of Suns
I don’t know what it is about this Reynolds piece that really hit it off with me, but for some reason this is the book that has in the recent years stuck with me the most. Maybe it is the fact that it was in some sense something completely new for me, and yet without going to overt depths or difficulties with weird vocabulary or concepts.
The star struck love story of Campion and Purslane touched me to the extend that I wound up making a Lego stop motion animation about it.
2. Frank Herbert: Dune
Frank Herbert’s seminal novel tops the top charts all around the internet, and with good reason. The book is a treasure trove not only of possible futures, but also of deep and inspiring philosophical thought about identity, time, thinking and various other themes.
Being an intuition researcher in my day job, I especially connected with the division between the intuitive Bene Gesserits and the rational mentats – and the fusion of the two in the genius Paul Muad’Dib. As a side note, it is interesting that such fusion seems to have happened with practically all the great thinkers we usually call geniuses like Leonardo or Edison.
3. Arthur C. Clarke: Rendezvous with Rama
It was a tight call whether I would include Rama or Childhood’s End here, what with both being fantastic novels. But there is something that’s so real and gripping about Rendezvous with Rama that it won the draw.
The story about the handful of astronomers who explore the alien spacecraft that has entered our Solar System is a great look at both space travel, alien intelligence and political intrigue. And, like most of Clarke’s other works, it’s a really great read.
4. Dan Simmons: Hyperion
It is an outrageous idea: setting Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in space. And yet the hyper-literate Simmons pulls it off. The story teems with literary references; Simmons certainly wants to let us know he’s read books. But none of this matters, since it all fits like a glove.
And it’s a damn good novel to boot. The backstory, which grew out to be a series of three more independent novels is enchanting and grasping. And the stories-within-stories express a great range of various scifi tropes. Normally when somebody shows off their talent this much, the result falls somehow flat. Not so with Hyperion, one of the best scifi books I’ve ever read (twice).
5. Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space
Revelation Space was the breakthrough book by Reynolds, and with good reason. The book opens up what grew to be a long series of novels and short stories set in Reynolds’ idiosyncratic gothic scifi universe.
In this book, the scope is already reflecting what later grew to be Reynolds’ trademark. And the ending of the book with its quantum paradoxes has my brain still doing somersaults, which is actually quite fun.
6. Orson Scott Card: The Worthing Chronicle
I thought first whether I should include something from the Ender Saga here (the first one, probably), but then again, while they’re all great books (even the Shadow ones), there is something that doesn’t quite strike that last chord.
Whereas the Worthing Chronicle does. I’ve read the book set in an Asimovian universe several times, and just now started thinking I should read it again. More similar in tone to, say, Vernor Vinge or Asimov than typical Card, this is a truly enticing fantasy-meets-scifi tale. It is also supplemented with a number of great short stories wrapped up together with the novel in the book The Worthing Saga.
7. Vernor Vinge: A Fire Upon the Deep
When I first read this book as a kid, I understood maybe one third of it, and was still completely blown away. When I re-read it a couple of years ago, it felt conceptually much easier to grasp, but was still a great read.
Vinge explores themes like AI and swarm intelligence in an intriguing universe where the maximum speed for information dispersal and travel depends on the “zone” you’re located in the universe. The closer we are to the center, the dumber we are, in other words.
8. David Zindell: The Broken God
The story of the Neanderthal-cum-ace-pilot Danlo and the ice city Neverness is one of the more original pieces of scifi I have read. Even though the basic backdrop is typical space opera with space battles and political intrigue, Zindell’s epic spans vast proportions in both dramatic and conceptual scope.
It is also a part of a great trilogy plus a prequel Neverness, all definitely worth reading through. And the space travel trope is somewhat unique, what with the pilots being actually ace mathematicians solving complex equations quickly to navigate through space.
9. Iain M. Banks: The Algebraist
I was thinking that I should include one of Banks’ Culture novels in the list, because at the time I read them I was really blown away with practically every one of them. But the problem is that once I started thinking back to their impact, I could not really remember much of anything that took place in the books! It is weird: I have this meta-knowledge that they were great but no idea why.
The Algebraist is one of Banks’ rare science fiction novels that does not take place in the Culture Universe, and I think one of his best too. The story involves weird gas-giant dwelling creatures and an intricate Banksian plot. It has stayed with me for a long time.
10. Isaac Asimov: Caves of Steel
Perhaps one of the most important of Asimov’s robot novels, this introduces two of his most compelling characters, the detectives Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw. The latter is, of course, a robot, and Asimov succinctly explores the limits of what machine intelligence and robotics mean when the lines become blurred.
In the novel Asimov showed that you can use science fiction as the backdrop for another kind of genre novel, in this case the detective story.
I just finished reading Turquoise Days, which marks for me the last of the stories I’ve read set in Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space Universe published so far. So I thought it proper to say a few words about the journey through this universe.
And what a journey it has been.
The first novel I ever read from Reynolds was House of Suns, which is still my favorite of his work (and pretty much the no. 1 scifi novel of all time for me). But the Revelation Space Universe does certainly compare, even if it is spread out through several novels and short stories. The scope of the world, both in terms of spacetime and imagination is mind-bending. And still, the stories remain interesting and grasping also on the human level from the first page to the last.
I started reading these stories from Revelation Space, Reynolds’ first novel and his breakthrough work. It is an amazing piece in itself. The politicking and the archaeological intrigue on the planet Resurgam, as Dan Sylveste tries to uncover a millennia old mystery is original and suspenseful. The tensions between Sylveste, the space-faring Ilya Volyova and the assassin Ana Khouri are memorable. The convoluted ending of the first RS book is somehow reminiscent of thinking about Schroedinger’s superposition principle, with a twist of 2001 thrown in, although I am still not quite sure what the hell just happened.
Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap tie up the storyline for the characters of the first novel. Redemption Ark introduces us to the conjoiners in more depth. They are a hive mind sort of community that is the most technologically advanced of the human factions in the RS Universe. The obiwankenobish Neville Clavain is sympathetic, whereas the mentally challenged Felka is one of the most intriguing characters in the series. And the zealous Skade makes for an impressive bad guy (girl) here, even though all the while the human characters are fighting for the possession of outlandish scifi weapons, a more sinister enemy is approaching in the background. Absolution Gap flirts a lot with gothic horror. The story of Quaiche has some shakespearish connotations, with a lost love that drives the man insane and creates a bizarre culture from that insanity. I really love the way the trilogy ends, with the looming threat eliminated, but with the hint of a new threat in the form of the greenfly, which are delightfully powerful and definitive to the entire RS Universe and yet are never shown in full light.
Chasm City is another of my favorites, with The Prefect not trailing far behind. They are set in the Yellowstone system that is something like the the Trantor or Coruscant of Reynolds’ universe: the commercial and political hub where it seems everybody passes through eventually. Both Chasm City and The Prefect tie in nicely with the Revelation Space trilogy, the former explaining some of the motivations of an influential character and background figure in the latter two novels of the trilogy, and the latter giving us interesting insight into the fundaments of the world itself, such as the eventual fate of the unfortunate Philip Lascaille. Both Chasm City’s Tanner Mirabel and The Prefect’s Tom Dreyfus are solid and intriguing characters that drive the story forward. The Prefect and Chasm City also give a great before/after comparison of the Yellowstone world in terms of the defining event in the RS Universe: the Melding Plague. The plague is a really cool twist that renders much of the more advanced scifi stuff defunct and gives the whole universe intriguing and gritty overtones.
It’s cool that you can hint at (and actually show in The Prefect) all the cool stuff that there once was, but have the characters actually struggle with some bubble gum and rubber band to get by. It reminds me of the New Hope / Phantom Menace and the Galactica / Caprica contrasts, but unlike these two, Reynolds manages to keep also the shiny chrome and silver version of his world intact, whereas both George Lucas and Ron D. Moore somehow lost the soul of their work with the grit.
Then there’s the collection of short stories Galactic North that gives both prequel-ish glimpses to the RS Universe, as well as ties the whole thing up in the eponymous story that works as a kind of an epilogue to the whole thing, with a cool Reynolds trademark: the thousand years chase sequence. I loved this trope to pieces when I bumped into it in House of Suns. A chase scene that takes 60 000 years and yet maintains the intensity of a 1970’s police flick is quite the stunt to pull. When it was repeated in Redemption Ark, it still stood up, and the same here. Even if the third time around this became already something to expect from Reynolds, it’s still awesome.
And last, and certainly not least the two novellas Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days. I was quite apprehensive about these two, or more particularly the first one. While I was a horror fan as a teenager, I have developed some squeamishness for the more visceral style of horror, and tend to try to avoid it whenever I can. So when I learned that Diamond Dogs draws inspiration from the scifi slasher The Cube, I almost gave this a pass. Thank goodness I didn’t, though. While the first novella is probably the bloodiest work I’ve read from Reynolds to date, for some reason the bloodshed seems warranted.
This is not gornography, but rather quite classic gothic horror, somehow reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft. Yes, good people find themselves in an unfixable mess, and yes, it gets nasty. But there is still something behind the story that keeps it together. Even with its weirdness to the tenth power, and the occasional gory detail, Reynolds’ work has a good heart. Not in a fluffy-happy sort of way, but rather in the way you find in Lovecraft, Shelley or Poe. There are not many happy endings. Many things are inherently skewed. But there is still some deeper notion of purpose, of depth that keeps things going.
And this brings me to Turquoise Days which I just finished. In a sense, it is a fitting end to the Revelation Space journey. While its scope is much smaller than that of many of the other stories, it has a true sense of finality and closure to it – even more so than “Galactic North”. Its bittersweet tones fit the RS Universe perfectly. The short glimpse we get to the life of Naqi manages to convey many of the themes of solitude, outsiderness and simply the weird of the world present throughout the RS books. And while the alien Pattern Jugglers are an obvious nod to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, Reynolds manages to give the strange algae beings a personal character of their own. The very ending is, I feel, a very suitable way to put the full stop to the series.
It has been an amazing journey. I don’t think Reynolds’ work has so much changed my world than given me an entire new world to live in. It is a rare imagination that spins up an entire living universe. And here Reynolds joins in my opinion the pantheon of great worldbuilders such as Isaac Asimov, Iain M. Banks or Dan Simmons.
What a journey indeed.
This album is about books. Books and movies, really, but mostly about books. Books are a world I live in, and out of all the worlds of books, the world of science fiction has stood paragon for me ever since I was twelve years old or so.
I must confess: I have not written the songs to the books they refer to. Rather, I have sought in the endless worlds hidden in my bookshelf for those moods and emotions that best fit the music in my mind. So it’s not like these songs were created as soundtracks for these books. But rather, they have come to be out of the same endless depths of imagination as the books and stories they are named after.
One song reminds me of the oceanic vistas in Léo’s amazing graphic novel, and is dubbed after it: Aldebaran. Another one was written when I was starting to read Hannu Rajaniemi’s outstanding Quantum Thief. It always propels my mind to the plaza in Mars where time beggars try desperately to extend their lives for one more moment of ordinary life. (Insofar as life on a futuristic transhumanist Mars can be called ordinary to begin with.)
Perhaps most significantly for this particular album, two of the songs are linked intricately to two novels by Alastair Reynolds. House of Suns may simply be the best science fiction novel I have ever read. Its outrageous scale and courage left me dumbstruck turning page after page, and the story still has not left me, some two years after reading it. The bizarre galaxy-spanning love story of Campion and Purslane is in many ways completely unique – quite a feat for a fictitious book in the 21st century. The second song, the album finale “Approaching Delta Pavonis,” links to a progression of events in Reynolds’ debut, Revelation Space. When the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity approaches the star Delta Pavonis, things are only beginning to happen. And a beginning, I believe, is as good a place to end as any.
At the end of the day, this music is about imagination. The worlds where my mind has wandered have left their mark, and that mark is stamped on these songs. I hope that these songs go some way to propel you too to new worlds beyond anyone else’s imagination – your own private worlds, with a shared genesis in these stories.
I hope this album gives you the odd chance to launch at the stars – and land at worlds never before seen by anybody else.