Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Stonekettle Station's Top Ten Sci-Fi Novels of All Time

I'm sick of politics and I don't have any funny cat stories today.

A while back I asked if there was anything you wanted me to talk about, and the overwhelming response (OK, two people) was: Books, talk to us about books, Jim.

And it's been a while since I published a "Top Ten List" and as you know, the unwritten blogohedron bylaws require a Top Ten at least once a month.

Additionally, I've been a science fiction fan since I was old enough to read and over the years I've amassed a seriously large library of speculative fiction (really, that's the real reason I had to get out of the Navy, I couldn't afford to move all of those books again). I tend to reread my favorites on a fairly regular basis, and some I've read dozens of times.

It's almost as if you can see the lines of destiny converging on this one blog post, can't you?

In order to make my top ten list, novels have to meet certain personal criteria. First they have to grab me right from the very first line, and they have to rivet my attention throughout no matter how many times I've read them. I tend to love space opera and tales that paint the smallness of mankind against a vast and terrible backdrop. In order to make my top ten list, the story must contain characters who I can connect to, who I can believe in, even if they don't do what I would have done in similar circumstance. I want my sci-fi to contain all the things that were the hallmarks of John W. Campbell's' Golden Age, i.e. spaceships, aliens, ray guns, manly men and fair lasses - and I want my aliens to be alien, not the author's cat dressed up in a funny costume. The book must combine style and story, both are equally important to me. The following list contains old and dear friends, novels that I cannot live without, books that I own multiple copies of and when I find a dog eared copy in a version I don't own in a used book store somewhere I happily buy yet another copy of.

In order:

1) Nova, Samuel Delany: Love, hatred, incest, betrayal, friendship, honor, cyborg studs and exploding stars. Space Opera at its very finest. For me Nova is the perfect melding of style and substance. Delany's tersely unique and intense style paints a vivid and distant future where politics, economics, and culture are locked in struggle between powerful families. Star travel is ancient and easy, cyborgs are ubiquitous - indeed those without direct neural interface to the machines are pariahs and unemployable, and the book mentions the persecution of gypsies who eschew such technology for exactly that reason - political power rests in the hands of ancient and formidable families and the book's plot is based on the struggle between the scions of two of the most powerful, Lorq Von Ray and Prince Red, and their race to acquire the most valuable substance in the universe from the heart of an exploding star. The book centers around an unlikely anti-hero, Mouse, a gypsy, musician, and wandering cyborg-stud starship crewman, but it tells the ultimately tragic tale of Lorq Von Ray, a man old before his time, driven by the ultimate quest, and by a woman - the sister of his sworn enemy - that he will never, ever, have.

2) Ringworld, Larry Niven: The classic enormous big thing novel. The story is simple, a small mixed group of explorers crash on an ancient, unknowably vast artificial world - a ring that completely encircles a star at the distance of 1Au. They search for help and finally rescue themselves through their own ingenuity and resourcefulness. Along the way they discover many strange and wondrous things beneath the light of the world spanning arch. Niven does a masterful job of easing the reader into the shear vastness of his vision, stepping the reader bit by bit into a larger and larger framework - and yet still surprises you with the enormity of the Ringworld at every turn of the page. As I said, on surface the story itself is a simple tale of survival in an alien environment, but the real story is in the sub plots that weave together the various mysteries of Niven's Know Space series. The book stands on its own, but for fans of Know Space, it is the cornerstone the ties twenty years of Niven's work together.

3) Orphans of the Sky (Universe), Robert Heinlein: I'll admit right up front that I am a huge RAH fan. I don't care much for his more famous adult novels, e.g. Stranger in a Strange Land, but by God I love his Young Adult stuff. The guy could tell a story. For me, he was a hell of a raconteur and his "juveniles" spoke directly to my teenaged brain. You may be surprised that I would list Orphans over Starship Troopers, but for me this novel is the epitome of everything I love about Heinlein's writing and golden age science fiction in particular. Again the story is simple, long after a failed mutiny, the descendents of a starship's crew have forgotten Earth and their origins. They live within the giant steel confines of their ship, believing it to the be the entire universe. The protagonist, Hugh Hoyland, discovers the truth and tries to change the fate of his people. He is only marginally successful.

4) The Forever War, Joe Haldeman: Starship Troopers told through the eyes of a Vietnam combat veteran. SST's may have been first, and may have inspired Haldeman, but TFW is for me the ultimate science fiction war novel. SST is often condemned, and TFW is often praised - because, I suspect, that Heinlein's character, Johnny Rico came to love the military and found honor, glory, and a home. Haldeman's character, William Mandela, purely hates the army, though ultimately he reluctantly chooses to make it his life. The two are very, very different novels, though most seem to miss this. SST is a book of honor, courage, and coming of age. TFW speaks only slightly of honor and courage, and speaks far more eloquently of the horrors of combat and the toll it takes from the men who fight it.

5) A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge: A truly horrifying story. Intelligent spiders. The ultimate pitiless form of rape and enslavement. Betrayal on a scale so vast that it nearly defies description. Lifespans measured across time so large that entire civilizations rise and fall and disappear from the universe. Ramscoops and flying worlds. And the ultimate battle for survival between the forces of evil and a reluctant good. Vinge is a guy that gave us some of the very best novels and sort stories of the genre - The Peace War, Marooned in Realtime, Apartness, Just Peace, A Fire Upon the Deep, and The Blabber to name but a few - and Deepness is the best of the bunch.

6) The City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke: The shear, incredible poetry of Clarke's writing never ceases to astound me, and nowhere is it better than in this novel. The story is a tale told over billions of years on a scale so vast that you have to marvel at Clarke's ability. This is the ultimate coming of age story. Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? These are the questions any coming of age story asks, and they are the questions we each ask ourselves, but for Alvin, the story's protagonist, these questions are far more than passing curiosity - and asking them is the very reasons he exists at all. These questions drive him from the safety of Diaspar, the last, greatest, and ultimate expression of man's technology, across the galaxy. Alvin was made to discover the answers to these questions - and to ensure that the billionth generation descendents of man remember their history and realize their ultimate destiny.

7) The Mote in God's Eye, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: The ultimate first-contact novel. This book is the very, very best of two absolute masters of the genre and I don't say that lightly. The Niven and Pournelle collaboration has produced some of my very favorite books, and I could have easily just listed their bibliography instead of going through the effort of compiling my own list. And frankly for me it is a toss up between Mote and the Legacy of the Herot, which I simply can't read enough times and because I probably identify with Legacy's Cadman Weyland more than any other character in any novel, of any genre, I've ever read. I finally settled on Mote though, because it is one of the very few, if not the only, science fiction novel that portrays a truly believable space navy, both the force structure and the technology - and that, of course, shapes everything else. Both the moties, the alien civilization, and the human Empire are incredibly complex and richly believable constructs.

8) The Dying of the Light, George R. R. Martin. No other author, of any genre, evokes in me the shear shivering sense of the implacably vast and ancient alien strangeness of the universe. Light is the story of death, both large and small. The death of star spanning empires, the death of worlds - and one, Worlon, in particular - the death of civilizations, the death of relationships, the death of honor and glory and an ancient way of life, and the personal death of men. But it is also, and always, about rebirth, and life, and how we live it. In Martin's tale, space is vast and unknown and ancient. The aliens are alien and they do things for their own inscrutable alien reasons and you may never, never, understand them. But men are still men, even after ten thousand years of travel, even after Earth has become a legend, even after a war that has lasted a thousand years and scattered the children of men across the stars and turned them into things barely recognizable. Light is filled with legend and mystery and history so thick you keep looking over your shoulder.

9) Starhammer, Christopher Rowley. No, you've never heard of this novel and you may never have heard of Chris Rowley - and that's a shame. Rowley wrote only three books set in this universe, the universe of the terrifying parasitic Vang, and that too is a shame. I love Starhammer for almost exactly the same reasons I love George Martin's work - it tells the tale of a vast and terrible universe, a universe where man is a tiny, insignificant - and in this case, enslaved - species in a much, much larger tapestry. This is a brutal novel, with some truly horrifying paragraphs, but in the end honor, courage, and perseverance win the day.

10) The Stars Are Ours! (Ad Astra), Andre Norton. What can you say about Norton? You can close your eyes and pick one of her books at random, and be instantly transported into a strange and mysterious world and always unfailingly be entertained. Norton is like a mind expanding drug without the side affects. This is one of her few straight science fiction novels without any touches fantasy. It's a coming of age novel, a quest novel, and a novel of exploration.

Honorable Mentions:

Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank. Long dated, but still one of the very best tales of average people struggling to survive in a post holocaust world.

Casca the Eternal Warrior, Barry Sadler. Fantasy, to be sure, but how can you not be fascinated by the story of the eternally damned Roman Legionnaire who stabbed Christ to death on the cross?

Logan's Run, William Nolan. Seriously, if you saw the piece of shit 70's movie and think you've seen Nolan's vision, you're wrong. Read the book, it's incredible.

Well, there you have it, Stonekettle Station's top ten best science-fiction novels of all time.

And you? What novels would you list, and why?


  1. Starship Troopers by RAH. I think we've discussed this here before, but this book changed my life.

    The Vorkosigan Books by Lois McMaster Bujold. I love Miles. And he drives me crazy. I alternate between cheering him on and wanting to throw the book across the room. But I read and reread these books over and over and over.

    Armor by John Steakley. I admire and pity Felix, and I find the military snafu that screws him over to be eminently believable. Plus it has one of the best quotes in the universe - "You are what you do when it counts."

    I think that's enough for now...

  2. What, no love for Dune? Nevermind how quickly the rest of the series slid downhill from there. Intrigue, deceit; a complicated, lived-in universe that drips with future history from every pore. Frank Herbert's kid may be screwing his daddy's corpse to death, but the original is the epic novel so many other SF authors have tried to write. (Tried and failed? Tried and died. Hey, you knew it was coming.)

    Very few writers wrote about ordinary losers in a science fiction world with as much empathy as Philip K. Dick. Choosing one is nigh-impossible, but I'll nominate Ubik for an alternate list because Joe Chip is a classically phildickian schlub and Ubik is a classically phildickian mindfuck with its temporal inversions, treacherous femme fatales, and decaying coin-operated universe (a scene where Chip doesn't have the spare change to work the door of his own apartment is an example of one of those brilliantly absurd moments of satire that make SF grown-up lit despite critics' caricatures).

    Keeping with Janeice's implied "Rule Of Threes"; I could suggest anything, but I'll suggest Neuromancer because: man with typewriter who knows nothing about computers writes book in which he gets almost absolutely everything about the future of computers wrong--and in doing so becomes one of the most influential figures in the next three decades of technological innovation. That, friends, is what science fiction is all about. William Gibson didn't predict the future so much as he inspired people to invent it. That he had no idea what he was talking about (and freely confesses as much) is completely and truly irrelevant.

    Besides which, it's a damn good read.

  3. There are so many that I like that this is hard. But here's three at the top:

    The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by RAH. My all-time favorite, and the novel that has most influenced my life and my way of thinking. I'm a huge RAH fan, and got hooked on him when in high school. I love almost everything he wrote, even when I don't agree with it (see Job: A Comedy - still a favorite of mine). But this is THE novel.

    Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith. If you have never read anything by Cordwainer Smith (pen name of Paul Linebarger, Godson of Sun Yat-sen, confidant of Chiang Kai-shek, helped organize the Army's first psychological warfare section) you don't know what you're missing. He died too young (in 1966), but his stories are unlike anything you will ever read. An immortality drug called stroon, underpeople - animals modified genetically into human form but treated worse than slaves ever were and with names that reflect their animal background (a cat-derived underperson might be named C'mell, a dog-derived underperson D'joan), The Instrumentality of Mankind - the human government that controls everything, machines with the brains of animals, space2 and space3, ships flown using just the brains of the pilots. And his stories - "The Dead Lady of Clown Town", "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard", "Think Blue, Count Two", "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell". Read him. His future history is like no other.

    The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. Simple plot: the novel revolves around a hero named Gulliver Foyle, who teleports himself out of a tight spot and creates a great deal of consternation in the process. The novel portrays a divided society where the rich are the real masters of the universe, and is full of action, betrayal, revenge, social commentary, and more action. One of the best SF novels ever written.

  4. Hmmm... I think I need my own blog post on the topic. You may have started a meme here. :)

    But it's a great list, there's probably a little crossover with my own, at least on authors if not on books. :)

    And Eric, I agree with you on Brian Herbert. He should be shot for what he's done.

  5. Much to my shame, I've only read one book on your list, (the Vinge).

    I'm a big fan of Bujold in general and Vorkosigan in particular. She's one of the few authors I re-read more than once.

    BTW, out of curiosity, did you pick up "Into the Storm". If you did, email me when your done. I'm pretty sure there's a mistake/contradiction in there and I'll be curious to see if it bugs you the way it did me. (Overall, I really liked it and I'm looking forward to more.)

  6. Great Selections all, I'm suddenly feeling the huge to paw through my library again.

    As to Dune, I'd include it in my top twenty - but the style is a little dry for me and while I find the story fascinating, I'd love to see some filler, i.e. the history of the Empire and the Great Houses. Unlike many, I love digression, which is one of the things I absolutely love about George R.R. Martin. Those details are the thing that makes a 'verse come alive for me.

    Also in my top twenty, probably at number 11, is A Canticle for Lebowitz. I have a thing for post-apocalyptic scifi.

    Alpha Ralpha Boulevard is one of my favorite novellas, big Smith fan, whatever pen name he was writing under. And yes, very familiar with his psych ops work, I used to be in information warfare myself.

    Bester, I love Stars and The Demolished Man.

    Neuromancer, and all the rest of Gibson's cyberpunk. Big, huge fan.

    Nathan, I haven't gotten to Storm yet, but I will email you as soon as I do - or just call you, because talking you is such a gas.

  7. I wrote my own list on my blog. And I'm such a packrat - of books and blog posts - that I couldn't pare it down to ten and did fifteen instead.

    I think I need to read Bester - I've seen the title many times but I don't think I've actually read any of his stuff.

  8. I feel like such a loser. I've only been able to read and enjoy a handful of SF books.

    Ender's Game, Becoming Human by Valerie J. Freireich, The Hitchhiker's Guide, and Spider Robinson's Callahan's Crosstime Saloon series.

    Oh, and the Garak Star Trek book written by Andrew Robinson.

    I've got a Sarah Zettel to try though and am also trying Capacity by Tony Ballentine.

  9. Michelle, I would *love* to see your top ten list of fantasy books. I thought about doing a second list of that but I've read so few, especially of the current authors, that my list would be very incomplete.

  10. Actually, that was already a plan. However limiting to ten may be a problem. :)

  11. New reader here, catching up on old posts of yours. How fantastic to discover this one in particular! My 14 yr old just read his first Heinlein novel and is eager for more. I've already requested several of these from our library. Thank you for posting this!

  12. S, glad you found this post useful, note not all of these books are appropriate for the average 14-year.

    Any Clarke is outstanding for teens (and adults!).

    And all the Heinlein Juvies - I'd recommend "Farmer in the Sky" and "Tunnel in the Sky" in particular. Star Ship Troopers comes highly recommended by all of us here. I'd probably hold off on the Heinlein adult novels for a couple of years, if I were you though.

    Scott Westerfield has some great juveniles as well.

    Anything by Niven, anything.

    Andre Norton, if his tastes run to good fantasy and soft SciFi.

    Oh, and welcome aboard.

  13. A bit late to the party, but still.

    Any list that omits Dan Simmon's Hyperion and its sequel The Fall of Hyperion lacks credibility. Period.

    Also you need to read a lot of Iain M. Banks. A lot. Start with The Use of Weapons and then The Player of Games and go from there.

    Do not neglect Catherine Asaro's stories of the Skolian Imperialate's battles against the Eubian Concord either.

    After those exercises, you will then redo this list, with significant deltas from the Mk0 version.

    In my opinion.


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