RECOMMENDED WORKS OF SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY
THIS LIST is entirely capricious, and will, no doubt, omit your favorite page-turners. Despite this, it represents a list of my favorite escapes from musicology and composition. ISBN numbers are included for the graphic novels, which can be tougher to find. Try a comics specialty shop if all else fails; they don't bite. To keep it manageable, I've followed a few capricious rules. I did not consult anyone, which annoyed my friends no end. No author appears more than once, and I've included no adaptations from other mediums, such as films (though the novelization of Star Trek II is, believe it or don't, a great read). Hope this gives you an excuse to spend a few quiet days under a tree!
Adams, Douglas, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This rather bends the "no adaptations" rule, as it was written after Adams had scripted the radio series. Never-the-less, it is a cheerfully mad romp, tongue firmly-in-cheek. The "Hitchhiker's Trilogy" now contains five books, which ought to tell you something.
Asimov, Isaac, Foundation and Empire. Admittedly, though his Foundation trilogy is widely regarded as a seminal work of Sci-fi, the first book is pretty tough slogging. I recommend trying this, the second book in the series. The introduction nicely sets up the universe he has created, and has more through-line narrative. Foundation tells the story of a mighty Galactic Empire nearing the period where it will inevitably collapse. One man, Harry Seldon, is an expert in "psycho-history, the quintessence of sociology: it was the science of human behavior reduced to mathematical equations." (from the prologue). This is the ultimate extension of the tables that insurance agents use to determine human risk factors. The point of this is that it is impossible to consistently predict the actions of an individual with any accuracy- but if you work with a larger group of people, especially in their societal context, human actions become more and more consistent. He mathematically determines a way to save the galaxy from years of poverty and ruin which will follow the fall of the Empire.
Bradbury, Ray, The Martian Chronicles. More a work of social commentary than strictly sci-fi, the work follows our early attempts at colonizing Mars. Bradbury is an easy read, and worth it.
Chadwick, Paul, Concrete: Complete Short Stories 1986-1989. The difficulties of having a body that lumbers with the breadth and density of I-95 are greatly enhanced if you have a sensitive, intelligent personality. These stories are extremely well-crafted and disturbingly touching. It is unabashedly bittersweet, refreshingly mature- and written in comic-book form. Do not let the medium dissuade you. ISBN 1-878574-17-5.
Clarke, Arthur C., 2069: Odyssey Three. Childhood's End was a landmark novel. "2001: a space odyssey" was indisputably a landmark film based on it. Clarke even novelized the film and wrote a sequel, 2010. That novel was made into a good film as well. This third book is less pretentious than its predecessors, and a decent place to start. All three (four, really) deal with the notion of a civilization- perhaps an entity- predating the human race. They periodically reveal themselves as enigmatic monoliths, nudging us toward a destiny we cannot fathom. Clarke, like Heinlein, writes "hard" sci-fi, i.e., one that is technologically quite specific. This may be why such authors often predict our future with disturbing accuracy.
Cole, Jason and Kevin Swan, The Apotheosis Saga. Actually, this is a radio drama series. Its pace is blistering and its wit is sharp. Having listened to hundreds of hours of radio drama, old and new, this is easily the funniest I've heard. Computer programmer Bill Wright, Jr. is suspiciously turned into a Hazard class deity. He must contend with other deities (Loki, Arihman, etc.) and seek out the reason for his power- but is quickly arrested by the Reality Police for creation without a license. Not to be missed. Available from Cephalopod Productions or the LodeStone Catalog (1-800-411-MIND).
Gaiman, Neil, Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes. Neil Gaiman has utterly changed the face of comic books. We aren't even allowed to call them comics anymore- this is a Graphic Novel, and utterly inappropriate for kids. The writing weaves together a host of mythologies and creates the Endless, a race preceding the gods: Dream, Death, Destiny, Delirium, Despair and Destruction. It is literate, intelligent, brilliantly told- everything that good fiction should be. It has also been critically received as a work of legitimate fiction, which is unprecedented. This first volume reprints the first story arc, the first eight issues- in full color, though without and advertisements. When you're hooked, take these collections in order. But be warned: the first, good as it is, is the weakest in the series. And Gaiman does have a complete, 75 chapter story to tell... ISBN 1-56389-011-9. Available through Dreamhaven Books.
Goldman, William, The Princess Bride. Ever miss the page-turning glee of a rollicking fantasy, replete with pirates, princesses, magic, giants, castles and six-fingered villains? Too old for a swashbuckler to work a spell on you? Nope. Goldman's book is witty and well-paced: so much so that it is the only book I've found myself utterly unable to set down. It is far better than the film, which in turn was a gem. Be prepared to stay up late. In here is also found the best swordplay ever set down in a novel- and yes, I've read Scaramouche.
Heinlein, Robert A., Stranger in a Strange Land. It's nearly impossible to whittle down Heinlein's output to a single recommendation, but Stranger is the novel that defined his following. It's part rampant Americo-centricism, part free love manifest, all unparalleled storytelling. Michael Valentine Smith, the first man brought back from Mars to Earth, finds his strange destiny... in forming a religious cult. If you come to like Heinlein, and he is my favorite, too, try Time Enough For Love next. Most all of his characters wander through more than one novel. Time Enough for Love features the story of Heinlein's pivotal character, Lazarus Long, the man who seems to live forever.
Lewis, C.S., The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Book one from the Chronicles of Narnia introduces its main players and the magical land itself. Lewis was a devout Christian and the seven books are thickly layered with biblical imagery. If you don't want to worry about the allegorical, however, it is a real page turner.
Miller, Walter M., Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz. A complicated, post-apocalyptic work, the book parallels our Dark Ages. In a world where nuclear war has obliterated most of our body of knowledge, it is once again up to the monasteries to preserve the fragile bits of scientific writing which remain. A landmark.
Moon, Elizabeth, The Deed of Paksenarrion. Moon has been hailed as Tolkein's true heir. "Paks" is a warrior, living in the continuum of The Lord of the Rings. It's realistic and earthy, though. When her troop is on the move, they have to dig latrines like the rest of us. Moon should know- she's a retired Marine herself. This volume collects all three books in the trilogy. Best to do it this way; book 2 is currently out of print.
Moore, Alan, Miracle Man: a Dream of Flying is the wonderful idea of taking a Neitzschan superman- an actual costumed hero- and throwing him into our modern, politically charged world. The graphic novel takes it to a natural extreme, though later stories, authored by Neil Gaiman, go even further. Like Gaiman, Moore helped reshape comics into a "legitimate" storytelling medium for adults. Moore, however, came first, with his reinvention of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. ISBN 0-913035-61-0
Pratchett, Terry, Moving Pictures. This is a very silly book fueled by terrible puns. It's from Pratchett's Discworld series. This excerpt summarizes it: "Victor let his gaze slide downwards. There was nothing there but the little dog, industriously scratching itself. It looked up slowly, and said 'Woof?' Victor poked an exploratory finger in his ear. It must have been a trick of an echo, or something. It wasn't that the dog had gone 'woof!', although that was practically unique in itself; most dogs in the universe never went 'woof!', they had complicated barks like 'whuuugh' and 'hwhoouf!'. No, it was that it hadn't in fact barked at all. It had said 'woof!'. One of the last things Victor remembered was a voice beside his knee saying, 'Could have bin worse, mister. I could have said 'miaow.'"
Rice, Anne, Interview With the Vampire. Yes, I realize that this is actually a horror novel, but I had to stress its importance somewhere. The novel, like most, is better than the film adaptation, though the film was faithful to its spirit. Interview reinvents the mythology of Vampires, happily omitting the bloodshot contacts and Transylvanian accent. It achieves its eroticism through the Vampiric blood-feeding, not through sexuality. Though many authors have tried, including Rice herself, its tone has never yet been duplicated: it is entirely unique.
Stephenson, Neil, Snow Crash. A brilliant, defining book in the post-cyberpunk genre, where we look at the near future, a civilization that interacts more in cyberspace than the mundane world. It has a great sense of humor and pacing, which cyberpunk fiction often lacks. The idea of the World Wide Web as an interactive space where people can meet and talk came out of this book. It's focus, however, is the notion that language itself is a virus: the words we create affect the way we think. The movie- if "they" ever adapt it into one- will not be able to capture it.
Suskind, Patrick, Perfume. You caught me; it's another work of fiction closer to horror than any other genre. Never-the-less, it is unique. Suskind's central villain has a remarkable sense of smell. Where most literature describes settings by sight or sound, Perfume leads you around by your nose through 18th century France. It is disturbing, repellent, and utterly captivating. You will not read another book remotely like it.
Tolkein, J.R.R., Fellowship of the Ring. Sure, you read The Hobbit in high school. Fellowship is simply.. better. It is the first book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy- and just enough to get you hooked. Tolkein's brilliance is that he writes on three levels. The surface is the brand of fiction that has influenced most every novel written since, with a cohesive idea of its world and complex characters of many well-defined species. The second level is thickly veiled socio-political commentary. The third- Tolkein's ace- is that the man was a linguist. Characters of separate races- humans, elves, dwarves et all- though written in English, speak in words of different linguistic origins. (e.g., the German-borne "walk" v. the Latin-derived "perambulate.") You may want to read it three times before it starts feeling too familiar.
Enjoy! And do share your favorites, too!