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.
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.
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?