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 Frank Herbert’s seminal Dune trilogy. Hailed by many as the definitive piece of science fiction, the Lord of the Rings of sci fi, the trilogy certainly has its merits. The first book, Dune, is indeed one of the most amazing science fiction books I’ve ever read.
Dune is also, I think, one of the smartest books I’ve ever read, and that, I guess, is a lot to say, considering I have read through quite a few smart books before. Dune is also easily the most underlined fictitious book I have ever read. I simply cannot read non-fiction without a pen in my hand, but with fiction I usually only pick up a quote or two. With Dune, I underlined and marked the book like it would have been a cutting-edge study on the philosophy of the mind, or something.
The first book is laden with a depth of ideas and history that is quite impressive. Like in any great book, what is not been said here is as important as what has been. The reader is baffled about this world tens of thousands of years in the future, powered with middle-ageish intrigue and a strange substance called the spice melange. It is, as great sci fi should, outright alien – and yet hauntingly familiar. The first book offers a deep, philosophical and pondering story arc that is without a doubt one of the most significant pieces of science fiction ever written.
Then the story goes on.
And what made Dune so intriguing and compelling is, all of a sudden, violently laid explicit right in front of your eyes. While with the first book, the nature of such concepts as the Guild Navigators or the Butlerian Jihad are only hinted at in the subtext, the subsequent two spare no punches. And here, I think, the Dune series pales in comparison to the Lord of the Rings. Reading the two sequels, I felt more like reading the Silmarillion than the Two Towers or the Return of the King: a mind-numbing exposition of a vast stunt of imagination, but with no human dimension to keep things interesting.
In Dune Messiah, the main character is given a hauntingly accurate prescient capability, to the extent of rendering any and all plot events completely vacant. If your main character knows already what is about to happen, what is there for the reader to get excited about? It’s like watching a film with a friend going “I told you so” every five or so minutes. Add to this the stony exposition and the wooden dialogue of the second book, it makes for a really heavy reading recommendable only to such people whose own imaginations fail to fill in the delicious blanks in the first book. As a cherry on top, while Herbert certainly had great vision, he is no Shakespeare. To this end, it is occasionally painful to see how much this second installment of the series aspires to be something like a classical Shakespearean king play.
The last book of the trilogy, Children of the Dune, certainly has its moments. The main characters, Leto II and Ghanima – little children with the history of the human kind in their heads – are quite interesting, and fortunately enough Herbert understood to steer clear of most of the prescience here. At moments, the third book does hold the promise of returning to the same kind of amazement as the first one. Certainly, here too there was much worth underlining. But here also, about half of the text could have easily been cut away.
Ernest Hemingway said that a great writer can leave much of what he wants to say unsaid. The magnificence of a great text is like an iceberg, where nine parts out of ten are submerged under water. In the first installment of the Dune series, the iceberg sails magnificently. In the second two, while still impressive, it has been lifted on deck to dry.
I think books are about imagination. And I think they are as much about the imagination of the reader as they are of the writer. If everything is laid down in plain sight, there is no much work left for the reader. In this sense, it is too bad that in his two sequels, Herbert failed to deliver what was one of the repeating motifs in his books: the feint within a feint within a feint. The first Dune was like a ballet or an elaborate fencing match, with hidden layers behind hidden layers. The two others were like a punch in the face.
But it is an interesting universe, nonetheless, what with all the intriguing aspects of technology being shunned in a space-faring culture; the logical mentats and the intuitive Bene Gesserits; the Shakespearean intrigue of the royal houses; the space-faring mercenaries who remained delightfully neutral to all the intrigue and the events that took place; and Dune itself: a hugely imaginative Saharan culture blown to planet-wide proportions where massive worms rule the sands and produce what is a combination of oil and cocaine for the future.
In terms of world-building, Herbert certainly compares to the likes of Tolkien or Asimov. In terms of story, it was a bumpy ride.
That being said, Dune itself was still one of the most amazing science fiction books I’ve ever read.