Here's a list of my favorite SF and fantasy books, in alphabetical order by author. Some of the links below go to the Amazon page for the book, others go to my own review of the book, which will itself have a link to Amazon.
Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, © 1987, HC, Simon & Schuster, 247 pp, ISBN #0-671-62582-9
Adams' best novel; while not as knock-down funny as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Dirk Gently's is very tightly plotted, has memorable characters, and rewards re-reading. The eponymous detective believes in the "fundamental connectedness of all things", and an encounter with an old acquaintance leads to a complex adventure far removed - it seems - from his original case. Serendipity and exotic supporting characters add to the fun. Sadly, the sequel was a waste of time.
Lois McMaster Bujold, Mirror Dance, © 1994, PB, Baen Books, 560 pp, ISBN #0-671-87646-5
The best book in the Miles Vorkosigan series, but not the first; if you haven't read the earlier installments, especially Brothers in Arms, you probably won't feel the full impact. Miles' brother returns to try to right wrongs on Jackson's Whole, leading to catastrophic results for Miles. As a result, much of the book is given to Mark's brother coming to grips with who he is, and becoming acquainted with his parents and with Barrayar, both of which he was raised away from. The character material is extremely strong, and the resolution to the plot is gripping and difficult for all concerned. A tour-de-force which makes the whole series worthwhile (not that it isn't already!).
Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End, © 1953, PB, Ballantine, 218 pp, ISBN #0-345-25806-1-175
A powerful novel of humanity evolving to a new level of being. Childhood's End chronicles the generation of mankind leading up to this moment, and the alien race who arrive as it's happening. Being told mostly from the standpoint of normal humans, the tone is often downbeat and foreboding, as endings often are, with much the same feel as the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings. In a sense it's a companion book to Vernor Vinge's two Realtime novels, included below.
Richard Cowper, The Road to Corlay, © 1975, PB, Pocket Books, 239 pp, ISBN #0-671-82917-3
In a far-future England drowned by the rising of the oceans, a boy is martyred in the cause of peace, and in his wake rises a movement dedicated to stopping the tyrants who rule the Seven Kingdoms. Into this mix is thrown a 20th-century man whose mind has been cast into the body of a drowned Kinsman and who is caught up in the machinations of the Kinsmen. The Road to Corlay is an evocative novel about keeping alive the hopes of freedom and peace. It's been years since I've read it; I should do so again, and finally crack its two sequels as well.
Ken Grimwood, Replay, © 1986, HC, SF Book Club (Arbor House), 249 pp
Our hero has a heart attack in his 40s and wakes up back in college in the early 60s, able to live his life over again. With full knowledge of the future, he amasses tremendous wealth and has great personal success... until he has a heart attack and it all starts over again. And just when it starts to get repetitive, Grimwood throws a clever wrench into the formula, sending the book off into a perfectly logical direction. A novel about what is really important to us, Replay succeeds on very personal levels.
James P. Hogan, Inherit The Stars, © 1977, PB, Ballantine/Del Rey, 216 pp, ISBN #0-345-33463-9
Also available combined with its two sequels, The Gentle Giants of Ganymede and Giants Star, as The Giants Novels. This is a straight-up science fiction mystery: A human skeleton is found in an advanced space suit on the moon, and his bones date to before humanity was known to exist. Where did he come from? The characters keep the issues focused on the possible at all times: "Charlie" has to be related to us somehow, but he obviously didn't come from Earth. Hogan's prose is not the most lively, but it's one of the best novels of its kind.
Stephen Leigh, Dark Water's Embrace, © 1998, PB, Avon Books/EOS, 325 pp, ISBN #0-380-79478-0
After a fatal accident, a human colony has to survive and grow on a hostile world from an initial gene pool of only eight people. A hundred years later, the body of an hermaphrodite version of the planet's original, extinct intelligent species is discovered, touching off a struggle for the colony's future, and a secret about the planet's biology. Leigh's evocative novel focuses on the journal of one of the planet's founders, and a few members of its youngest generation. The book is full of emotionally charged situations: Sexual encounters between our heroes, infighting between colonists with different value systems (particularly the younger generation with the elder leaders), and flashbacks to the story of one of the indigenous inhabitants, before their extinction. There are some nice surprises, and a believable storyline. Dark Water's Embrace hasn't gotten the attention it deserves.
Ken MacLeod, The Cassini Division, Tor, HC, © 1998, 240 pp, ISBN #0-312-87044-2
Part of MacLeod's Fall Revolution cycle, each of the four novels can stand on its own, and this is the best of them. In the moderate future, posthumans emerged and disintegrated Ganymede, setting up a colony of sorts around Jupiter, and avoiding contact with humanity except to send out signals which render most electronic devices useless (or worse). As a result, humanity has developed chemical/mechanical technology even better than modern electronic tech - and the world is mostly run under a socialist anarchist system. The Cassini Division is a group dedicated to defending mankind against the posthumans, when and if they emerge, and to do so their leader, Ellen May Ngewthu, plans to travel through the wormhole the posthumans created during their emergence to discover what kind of world the capitalist anarchists on the other side have created. There are a huge number of ideas packed into this relatively short book, and it moves quickly and provocatively. Its immediate predecessor, The Stone Canal, is also excellent.
George R. R. Martin, The Armageddon Rag, Pocket Books, PB, © 1983, 399 pp, ISBN #0-671-53253-7
Years earlier, the hugely popular rock band The Nazgul disbanded in tragedy when their lead singer was assassinated at a concert. Today, journalist/novelist Sandy Blair is assigned to write a story about the Nazgul, since their former manager was apparently recently murdered, and he gets caught up in a strange and subtle web of machinations surrounding the former members of the band. This is a lively dark fantasy romp through 60s and 70s-era rock music and the cults of personality thereof, which worked for me in part because that's my favorite era of music. Full of eerie imagery and intense moral dilemmas, it's successfully overcomes its sometimes weak plotting.
George R. R. Martin, Fevre Dream, © 1982, HC, SF Book Club (Poseidon Press), 350 pp
The best vampire novel you've never heard of, it takes place on a Mississippi riverboat (from whose name comes the title) and dips deep into Martin's bottomless well of imagery. The hero is a strong and gruff riverboat captain who partners with an odd individual who wants to help bring humans and vampires together. Martin creates a unique mythos in which he places his vampires, and he largely stays away from the cliches of those creatures. Fevre Dream is a novel of hope and of heartbreaking loss.
Jack McDevitt, A Talent For War, © 1989, PB, 310 pp, Ace, ISBN #0-441-79553-6
Against hopeless odds, a brave captain leads a small force against an alien invasion... and wins, this changing the course of history and making a legend for himself. Of course, that was two hundred years ago. Talent is about a man investigating the truth of what Christopher Sim accomplished, and it's a rewarding scientifictional mystery, effectively deconstructing the "Captain Kirk"-style mythology while adding to it as well.
H. Beam Piper, Empire (collection), written circa 1950s, collection © 1981, PB, Ace, 242 pp, ISBN #0-441-20558-5
Piper is best known for his "Terro-Human Future History", a set of novels and stories taking place over the next few thousand years of history. Empire is a collection of several later stories in the series (which remains somewhat sketchy due to Piper's tragic suicide in the early 60s), and it suggests (to me, anyway) that had he lived he might rank up there with Asimov among the golden age greats. Told in a clear style, Piper's favorite yarns are moral dilemmas faced by capable and self-reliant men; so they're adventure stories with cleverness and heart. For instance, herein are stories about slavery and how to enliven a moribund empire. Piper mostly worked with the first thousand years of his future history, but this material makes one wish he'd had more time to plough the later end of the timeline.
H. Beam Piper, Paratime (collection), written circa 1950s, collection © 1981, PB, Ace, 295 pp, ISBN #0-441-65171-2
Piper's other major series were the Paratime stories. Not your standard alternate history pieces, these involve a cross-time police force who enforce laws across the timeline, but rather than tackling the usual fairly recent divergences in history (what if the South had won the Civil War?) Piper considers much broader questions, such as what if the caucasians had migrated to America rather than Europe? He then crafts cultures around such questions, and plops his protagonist - Verkan Vall - into a situation where he has to preserve the Paratime Police's laws. Not strong character stuff, but imaginative and clever.
Frederick Pohl, Gateway, © 1976, PB, Del Rey, 313 pp, ISBN #0-345-34690-4
Humanity finds an outpost left by an alien race orbiting the sun, takes it over, and uses the small ships therein to explore the stars. The problem is they only know how to use the ships by trial-and-error, and have no idea how to navigate. So they can set course for a random destination, then come back. Gateway is about the spirit of exploration that must have gripped many men six hundred years ago: Truly going out into the unknown, with no idea whether you're ready for what you'll find. But the rewards are tremendous. Robinette Broadhead, the hero, has his time on Gateway chronicled, along with his missions, and his own experience with the rewards and costs of exploring the unknown. If you're looking for a sense of wonder in your science fiction, it doesn't get any better than this.
Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates, © 1983, TPB, Ace Science Fiction, 387 pp, ISBN #0-441-00401-6
A unique urban fantasy: Professor Brendan Doyle is thrown back in time to 1810 London, where he has to contend with a dog-faced murderer, a psychotic clown, and an infamous poet who may or may not have existed. Not to mention being stranded in time, and apparently having some personal link to some events which took place even earlier, as well as a conspiracy to bring the influence of an Egyptian God into the present day. It's tightly plotted and Powers rarely disappoints as all the threads are expertly woven together into a wonderful adventure yarn.
Kim Stanley Robinson, Icehenge, © 1984, PB, Ace, 262 pp, ISBN #0-441-35854-3
Another SF mystery: In the near future, a band of would-be travellers hijack some asteroid miners to create humanity's first spaceship. One woman on the mining ships narrates their efforts, and returns along with others the starfarers release to Mars - just as a major revolt breaks out there. Some years later, a ring of monoliths made of ice is discovered on Pluto, leading many to wonder who put it there, and why. The remainder of the novel chronicles the efforts of two men centuries later to unearth the truth, from rather different angles. I've probably re-read this novel more than any other in my library.
Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow, © 1986, HC, Villard, 408 pp, ISBN #0-679-45150-1
For me, this was the first book which made me (an atheist) understand why and how someone might have faith in god. In the near future, alien life is discovered in Alpha Centauri, and the Jesuits send a mission there, with several priests and several talented layfolk. Arriving on the planet Rakhat, Father Emilio Sandoz sees communing with and understanding the natives as a task - and a gift - from heaven. Some months later, another expedition to the planet finds Sandoz as the only survivor of the original mission, and he's sent to Earth in shame, an apparent murderer and his hands horribly mangled. Told in two time frames, Sandoz' mission to Rakhat and its ultimate tragedy unfolds, Sandoz gradually heals on Earth after his return and his fellow Jesuits begin to tease out the story of what happens. Russell manages to make both threads reach their climactic moments at the same time, resulting in a narrative triumph.
Dan Simmons, Hyperion, © 1989, HC, SF Book Club (Doubleday), 416 pp
Also available combined with its first sequel, The Fall of Hyperion, as Hyperion Cantos. Hyperion is a scientifictional Canterbury Tales, telling the stories of several individuals travelling to the strange planet of Hyperion, each of whom has had an encounter with the planet or with its peculiar guardian, the Shrike. Simmons proves to be a stylistic chameleon, mixing romance with tragedy, space opera with horror with surrealism. It's a tour-de-force of authorial genius, and the stories are pretty great, too, particularly the story of the woman whose encounter with the Shrike leaves her living her life backwards. All this set against a complex galactic backdrop, with humanity on the brink of war. Hyperion ends abruptly and the story is concluded in the sequel, which is satisfying, but not nearly as good as the set-up.
J. R. R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings, © 1954-55, HC, Houghton Mifflin, 1172 pp, ISBN #0-395-59511-8
I'm not generally a fan of fantasy - especially high fantasy - and it took me over ten years to finally make it all the way through Lord of the Rings, but I was so glad I did. Sometimes called a "travelogue", Tolkein's classic is really about the end of an era, a bell which rings ever louder as the story marches on. It's about personal triumphs, the meaning of friendship and sacrifice, and keeping your eyes fixed firmly on the future, not the past. Lushly written and carefully laid out, LotR deserves all the accolades it's accumulated over the years.
Vernor Vinge, Marooned in Realtime, © 1986, HC, SF Book Club (Bluejay Books), 253 pp
This is actually the sequel to The Peace War, and both are collected as Across Realtime. The Peace War is a clever but unadorned little novel about rebellion against an agency which uses its superior technology to suppress all war on Earth. Marooned, though, is the real deal: Using a one-way form of time travel, small bands of humans find that they've missed out on the "Singularity", in which humanity evolved beyond the form we know them today and disappeared. They band together, resolved to re-create civilization and thus the Singularity, but there's a murderer in their midst, using their time machine against them, and possibly out to destroy everything they're working towards. This is the book where Vinge added strong characterization to his idea-driven repertoire of writing skills, and it's a modern SF classic.
Vernor Vinge, A Fire Upon The Deep, © 1992, PB, Tor Books, 613 pp, ISBN #0-812-51528-5
Fire is Vinge's best novel, and one of the best SF yarns ever written. His posits that the galaxy is divided into "zones of thought": The farther you get from the center, the faster you can travel, the smarter you can be, and the higher your technology becomes. Humanity evolved in "The Slow Zone", but eventually reaches the Transcend, and the Beyond outside the galactic rim, where beautiful and terrifying forces await. A human expedition releases the Blight, which runs amok in the Transcend, while a few stalwart individuals - including a resurrected human named Pham Nuwen - try to find a way to combat it. Meanwhile, two young siblings from the doomed expedition crash on a planet in the Slow Zone populated by strange, intelligent ferret-like creatures with a unique biology and culture.
John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids, © 1951, HC, SF Book Club (Doubleday), 216 pp
Vinge's greatest strength is the force of his ideas, but his world- and galaxy-building here are also top-notch. The array of characters and merry-go-round storytelling is effective and often amusing (especially the analogue to the then-contemporary USENET newsgroups), and best of all, the story's payoff rewards the time spent reading the set-up.
The quintessential SF horror novel: In the near future, something causes 99% of the world's population to go blind. Civilization collapses, and the survivors are left with a myriad of moral dilemmas. At the same time, mobile, meat-eating plants called Triffids escape from their pens and run amok across the Earth. Taking place around England, Day of the Triffids follows its protagonist in the wake of the apocalypse as he encounters people with different ideas of how to deal with the new world, and the shambles they make of it in the face of the relentless Triffids. There's also an excellent BBC mini-series adaptation of this classic.
hits since 26 July 1999.