- This Top 20 of SF and fantasy avoids the too-recent 1990s. As famous critic Cyril Connolly said, the first test of a successful novel is the ability to survive a decade. Also, it eliminates all those wretched X-Files novelizations ...
- Many thuddingly familiar classics are deported to a box of their own.
- Being hugely influential can sometimes outweigh just being good.
- The fallible list compiler's indecision is final.
- Assorted Stuff in Boxes
- 20) Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards! (1989)
- 19) Frederik Pohl: Gateway (1977)
- 18) Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas (1987)
- 17) C.J. Cherryh, Cyteen (1988)
- 16) Barry Hughart: Bridge of Birds (1984)
- 15) Christopher Priest, The Affirmation (1981)
- 14) Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light (1967)
- 13) Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965)
- 12) Alan Garner, The Owl Service (1967)
- 11) Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (1956, alias Tiger! Tiger!)
- 10) Algis Budrys: Rogue Moon (1960)
- 9) Greg Bear, Blood Music (1985)
- 8) Frank Herbert: Dune (1965)
- 7) Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast (1946-59)
- 6) Ursula Le Guin: Earthsea (1968-72)
- 5) Keith Roberts, Pavane (1968)
- 4) J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)
- 3) Arthur C. Clarke: The City and the Stars (1956)
- 2) John Crowley: Little, Big (1981)
- 1) Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)
20) Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards! (1989)
Besides being frenetically funny in its own right, Guards! Guards! marks a significant point in the perpetually best-selling Discworld fantasy sequence. By taking aboard the completely different genre of police-procedural thrillers – with a dollop of private-eye toughness – Pratchett showed that Discworld wasn't confined to fantasy but could assimilate and have fun with just about anything.
This begins the popular "City Watch" subseries, starring the tough cop Sam Vimes who loves and loathes his city Ankh-Morpork, and has only three variously inept Watchmen (corpulent coward Colon, naive Carrot, and Nobby the almost human) to assist when the problem is to put the cuffs on a gigantic killer dragon.
Other notable comic creations are those seedy, resentful dragon-summoners the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night, with their labyrinthine Masonic rituals and countersigns; and Lady Sybil Ramkin, that very large breeder of very small dragons which realistically tend to puke, belch and explode rather a lot.
Ankh-Morpork city itself (established in book 1) comes into better, funnier focus, solid enough to withstand what Pratchett has waiting for it in later Watch novels: an industrial revolution. Guards! Guards! is one of Discworld's high points.
19) Frederik Pohl: Gateway (1977)
Frederik Pohl has been publishing SF forever: The Space Merchants, his classic advertising satire co-written with Cyril Kornbluth, appeared in 1953. The solo Gateway won Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell awards.
Pohl's alien "Heechee" once filled the galaxy with their exploration bases, now long abandoned – no one knows why. Gateway is our solar system's richest Heechee treasure-trove, an asteroid crammed with starships preprogrammed for round trips to unknown destinations. Volunteers may return with technology worth billions, with nothing, or often not at all.
So the human base on Gateway has a tense, manic atmosphere – half gold-rush fever, half suicide club. Sidebars show its community rules, scientific guesses, mission reports, small ads, details that make the place grittily, sweatily real.
An alternating double storyline features unheroic hero Broadhead before and after his life changes. Young Broadhead is poor, ambitious, deathly afraid of a Gateway trip's Russian-roulette gamble. Older Broadhead is rich but undergoing endless psychotherapy for obsessive guilt at what happened on his last voyage to a fatal star.
The action moves forward and the suppressed memories backward, meeting at last in a strong, satisfying payoff. A seriously grown-up SF novel.
18) Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas (1987)
When Iain Banks retooled for space opera under this impenetrable pseudonym, snobs muttered "traitor!" but SF fans loved the shameless exuberance of his widescreen science-fiction debut.
Indeed Consider Phlebas helped make slam-bang galactic adventure respectable again, by doing it with style, flair and irony. We first meet the shapeshifter protagonist being executed by drowning in a rising tide of lavatory flushings from a banquet celebrating his death. Of course he's rescued, and careers at speed across a war-torn galaxy, via battles, breathtaking escapades and huge excesses of engineering and destruction, en route to a smashing train-wreck climax deep underground on a forbidden world. And so on.
All the while, Banks slyly turns around the conventions of space opera. If our hero is so great, how come he keeps lurching from one disastrous outcome to another? He serves the fearless, indomitable, devout Idirans – the kind of galactic empire-builders SF has always loved – because he hates their godless commie opponents the Culture. Gradually we realize the Culture is a better society, and deserves to win ...
Besides leading to further tasty, thoughtful Culture novels, Consider Phlebas rescued its unfashionable subgenre.
17) C.J. Cherryh, Cyteen (1988)
C.J. Cherryh is much admired for her immense, loose-knit "Union/Alliance" galactic SF sequence, which sprawls over so much space and time as to accommodate all kinds of stories. This hefty volume is the first to be set on Cyteen, capital planet of Union, the bad guys – at least, the most ruthless and manipulative ones. Antiheroine Ari Emory, boss of the powerful genetic engineering outfit Reseune, can out-manipulate any of them. Opening up people's minds and rearranging their contents is routine for her.
Ari dies (Cyteen is a murder mystery too), but her Machiavellian contingency plans cover even that. Enter Ari II, a genetic replica now being raised in a controlled environment that's planned to force-grow her into a replacement for Ari I – whose guiding personality also lingers in the Reseune computers.
There are many telling twists and ironies as innocent Ari II copes with her overwhelming inheritance, including a male lead who as a result of what Ari I did to him is terrified at the sight of her. Slowly the new Ari grows into someone both like and unlike what was intended. A complex, satisfying, Hugo-winning SF novel.
16) Barry Hughart: Bridge of Birds (1984)
Subtitled "A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was", Bridge of Birds recreates mythic China as romantically imagined in the West, and makes it the setting for a damn fine story. Drunken sage Master Li and muscular narrator Number Ten Ox, a Holmes and Watson duo, tackle a sordid poisoning case that escalates into comic and cosmic adventures across all China.
Master Li confesses to "a slight flaw in my character," and is a dab hand at grandiose swindles and murders. Together, he and Ox solve ancient puzzles, escape from impossible labryrinths, defeat invincible guardians, raid drowned treasure-houses, hear pathetic pleas from ghosts, and even tackle that fearsome, murderous immortal the Duke of Ch'in.
All along, it's the right quest for the wrong reason. The real crime happened long, long ago, a terrible injustice in Heaven which Li gradually realizes the gods expect him to put right.
When he unravels the last puzzle, the results are spectacular. Hughart's story shifts gear from a high-spirited romp to a genuinely moving panorama of all China filled with wonder by events in the sky. This deservedly won a World Fantasy Award.
15) Christopher Priest, The Affirmation (1981)
Beginning as a straightforward real-world story, this tricky, devious novel proceeds to deliver carefully timed shocks. Its slightly wimpish narrator Peter Sinclair is writing his autobiography, which is The Affirmation, and which seems plausible enough until comments from other characters make it clear that Sinclair is improving on reality, lying to his own diary.
Vertigo increases as our man tells himself he can reach a better metaphorical truth about his life by beginning it again as fiction – as the story of another Peter Sinclair in the tranquil, mildly surreal world of the Dream Archipelago, the setting for other memorable SF by Priest.
Sinclair 2 is preparing to undergo the "athanasia" treatment which will make him physically immortal but wipe out his memories. To preserve these for later restoration he must write his autobiography, but decides to fictionalize it. Instead of his home town Jethra, he describes a Sinclair born in the imaginary city London ...
Exactly who's writing about whom, which reality is more real, and whether there's a manuscript at all, are questions that twine into an intricate Mobius knot. The Affirmation may even be a sequel to The Affirmation. A cunning, subversive tale.
14) Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light (1967)
This Hugo-winner presents a richly colourful world where old Hindu gods rule – or so it seems. When the colony ship from Earth landed, its crew had to develop special weapons and talents to subdue the planet's variety of demon-like natives.
Now, many lifetimes after, they play the roles of gods, speak with lusciously old-fashioned if not always convincing dignity, and lord it over mere colonists. Mind-transfer equipment makes the great wheel of Hindu reincarnation a working proposition, and those who annoy Heaven may become dogs or apes.
But the trickster god Mahasamatman or Sam, Lord of Light, rebels against Heaven's rule. He makes forbidden pacts with "demons", founds his own version of Buddhism as a rival faith, fights back with armies, politics, and poison, and gets exiled to a literal Nirvana. You can't keep even a fake god down, though, and the novel begins with Sam being hauled back from eternity by advanced technology that "offered many kilowatts of prayer." It's time to renew the unholy war.
Slow-moving, satisfyingly exotic, full of memorably mythic scenes, and sometimes outrageously funny, Lord of Light is Zelazny's best single novel.
13) Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965)
In Dick's fiction, reality is slippery underfoot and heavily booby-trapped, lurching between metaphysical terror and comic pratfalls. Drugs and their effects on perception are a recurring theme, thanks to too much personal experience. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch may be the ultimate SF drug story.
Here, space colonies are no fun. Colonists' miserable, tedious lives are cheered only by "Perky Pat and Walt" dolls and accessories (think Barbie and Ken), plus the illicit drug Can-D which gives users the illusion of being that happy Earth-suburban couple Walt and Pat.
So much for soft drugs. Now Palmer Eldritch offers harder stuff from deep space: Chew-Z, which needs no accessories, produces totally convincing hallucinations, and doesn't wear off. One unwelcome side-effect is the controlling, godlike presence of Eldritch himself in Chew-Z dreams. Also, users may acquire Eldritch's physical peculiarities of artificial, slotted eyes, an artificial arm, and steel teeth – the three stigmata.
The plot writhes and turns back on itself in grotesque convolutions of nightmare and farce, as it becomes ever harder to establish what reality is any more. Very hallucinatory, very Dick.
12) Alan Garner, The Owl Service (1967)
A slim but complex and allusive story standing at the cusp between Garner's acclaimed children's fantasies and his dense, cryptic adult work. It revolves around three teenagers in a Welsh valley with a long history – the setting for a tragic myth recorded in the Mabinogion:
The girl Blodeuedd was magically made from flowers for the hero Llew, but treacherously helped her lover Gronw kill him. Llew was restored to life, though, and returned Gronw's spear-throw, killing him right through the boulder he hid behind. Blodeuedd was punished by transformation to an owl. Thus the old days.
This tale still haunts the valley, as local lad Gwyn discovers. Alison, one of the English outsiders, finds the title's mysterious dinner-plates and compulsively traces their floral design, which can be rearranged into owls. Poltergeist activity shakes the household. Tensions between Gwyn, Alison and her brother-by-marriage Roger subtly echo the old tale ...
All the Welsh locals know the pattern. It happens in generation after generation. She's coming back. She wants to be flowers, but again they've made her owls. She will go hunting.
Intense, creepy, and powerful, The Owl Service won the Carnegie Medal.
11) Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (1956, alias Tiger! Tiger!)
A classic tale of vengeance played out on corrupt, freakish 25th-century Earth, transformed by the widespread ability to "jaunte" – teleport by power of mind alone.
Gully Foyle is a dull spacehand marooned on a drifting derelict: "He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead." When the sister ship that should rescue Foyle deliberately passes by, he's transformed by rage and plans a monstrous revenge ... just like Alexandre Dumas's obsessed Count of Monte Cristo, acknowledged by Bester as a model.
The action never flags. Foyle impossibly rescues himself, is disfigured by the barbaric "Scientific People", does time in a lightless underground prison, gets educated, wins free to hijack a fortune, is rewired as a killing machine, buys a peerage and a circus, takes decadent Earth society by storm, makes love during a saturation nuclear attack, is haunted by a Burning Man, and much more.
A pyrotechnic climax leaves Foyle with his senses wrongly crosswired, unveils the Burning Man's secret in a dazzle of typographic effects, and flickers across space towards ultimate transcendence. Bester's insistent, compelling prose rhythms rush you along whether you like it or not.
10) Algis Budrys: Rogue Moon (1960)
Six years before Star Trek and its transporters reached the small screen, Budrys explored some grim consequences of matter transmission in this suspenseful, multi-layered SF novel.
Matter-transmitter exploration of the Moon has uncovered an alien artifact, or maze, or abandoned spare part. Everyone who enters it sends radiophone reports of a different, hallucinatory landscape; until, sooner or later, in arbitrary and terrifying ways, it kills them. This is the Death Machine – which was Budrys's preferred title for the book. But fanatical scientist Hawks's matter transmitter is also a death machine.
This device records and in the process destroys the atomic structure of its passenger. When the transmitted recording is played back, a "perfect" copy emerges on the Moon. Soon Hawks starts producing two copies, one to explore that artifact further and die, and an identical, telepathically linked one to stay safe and report. Unfortunately the psychic shock of death drives the Earth copies of his volunteers mad – until he hires flamboyant professional risk-taker Barker, whose own suicidal tendencies protect him. So Barker dies again and again, mapping the safe path through alien territory that's increasingly littered with his own bodies ...
Meanwhile Hawks's and Barker's opposed insanities collide in a ding-dong psychological battle, egged on by Barker's predatory girlfriend, until the incomprehensible artifact seems ready to yield its last secret. For the first time, Hawks tags along and we see that delirious labyrinth through his eyes. There's nothing quite like it in SF. The Star Gate trip in 2001 was still eight years away.
Finally, Rogue Moon delivers a terrific double punchline. "You thought then you'd already felt the surest death of all. You hadn't. I have to do it once more." The technology is dated but the impact is timeless.
9) Greg Bear, Blood Music (1985)
The 1983 novella version of this biological nightmare received both Hugo and Nebula awards. Expanding it to novel length, Greg Bear went further and boldly challenged Arthur C. Clarke on his own territory – specifically the mystic, cataclysmic finale of Childhood's End. He got away with it, too.
Blood Music opens in a near future where Silicon Valley has given way to Enzyme Valley as genetic engineering takes off. Hubristic researcher Ulam carries out unauthorized experiments to "uplift" white cells taken from his own blood, eventually making them bright enough to outdo mice in maze-solving tests. Fired by his horrified bosses and ordered to shut down this research, Ulam saves some of his darlings by injecting these "noocytes" back into his bloodstream.
Evolving fast, they colonize him. At first his body is their whole world, and Ulam is bemused by improved health and sexual performance as the noocytes tinker with their environment. Then they discover other worlds beyond Ulam, other bodies, and they send out explorers. The result is an intelligent plague that eventually melts down virtually the whole US population and biosphere into a single blobby super-organism.
Bear argues that this is utopian perfection. Nothing was lost. The noocytes revere their human creators, and take care to preserve them in the virtual reality of that vast biological computer net. But the rest of the world is terrified, and Russian nuclear strikes are ordered ... at which point things get seriously weird. Quantum physics, it seems, goes all pear-shaped when there are countless billions of trillions of noocyte "observers" to affect reality. And that's just the start.
This was the novel in which Greg Bear's career took a sharp upward turn. He continues to be one of the most ambitious SF writers working today.
8) Frank Herbert: Dune (1965)
Forget the butchered plot of the movie, try to ignore the endless string of sequels, tune out the whirring noise of Frank Herbert rotating in his grave from horror at the prequels perpetrated by his son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson. Overhyped it may have been, but there are reasons why Dune shared the Hugo award and won the first-ever Nebula for best novel.
First and foremost, Dune was the novel that highlighted the SF possibilities of ecology – with the weirdly complex and fascinating desert ecology of planet Arrakis as the example. This entwines with themes of psychic prophecy, religious and political manipulation, and boy hero Paul Atreides' reluctant progress towards his fated role of messiah. He may hope to wriggle out, but readers know from the devout chapter-head quotations that he'll become the stuff of legend.
Meanwhile there's enjoyably complex interplay between characters and power groups: Paul's family and friends, their sworn foes the wicked and hissable Harkonnens, desert-hardened Fremen who spend water as though it were money, Mentat mind-masters, interfering Bene Gesserit witches, deadly Sardaukar troops from the hellish prison planet, and a galactic empire that's half feudal, half megacorporation. An immense implied back-story, in text and appendices, makes the Dune universe big enough (like Tolkien's) to get enjoyably lost in.
Above all, the lovingly described world of Arrakis steals the show, with its deserts, spice harvest and kilometres-long sandworms. The best parts of Dune are the intensely imagined segments in which inexperienced Paul learns or guesses how to survive the desert, and how to win acceptance from the fiercely tribal Fremen when one serious social clanger means instant death. It's a hard life growing up to be a messiah – but it makes for an absorbing read.
7) Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast (1946-59)
The omnibus edition comprises all three volumes of Peake's masterwork: Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone. The BBC adaptation was a highly compressed version of the first two; the third is rather different.
Gormenghast Castle is so notorious that it's become an adjective. Vast, labyrinthine, sprawling, rotting stone edifices are gormenghastly. Peake built up this grim – though sometimes awesome or beautiful – setting in ponderously evocative prose, applied in layers like oil paint. It needs to be taken at its own inexorable pace.
The castle is crowded with freakish, comic-sinister characters whose daily orbits are controlled by the Masters of Ritual and their ancient texts. Nothing new is allowed, but new things still happen. Titus Groan, heir of Gormenghast, is born. Rebel kitchen-boy Steerpike escapes the appalling chef Swelter, and plans to better himself. Both are agents of change.
Everyone else seems trapped in the amber of tradition. Titus's moody sister Fuschia is helplessly rebellious. Their father Sepulchrave is gloomy and fey; his massive wife and his manservant Flay would kill and die to preserve the old ways. Fantastical Dr Prunesquallor makes subversive jokes, but ineffectually. Steerpike breaks all the rules, though, leaving a trail of corpses on his path to power. Meanwhile Titus grows up as a different kind of rebel ...
Many lurid set-pieces follow, some darkly comic, and there's a reign of terror and a great flood before the issue is settled at the close of book 2. Fine Gothic melodrama against the unique, unforgettable background of Gormenghast itself.
Titus Alone takes Titus away from home into a differently bizarre outside world. It was written while Peake was dying, and despite nifty passages and patient editorial repairs by Langdon Jones it doesn't quite hang together. You are allowed to stop with book 2.
6) Ursula Le Guin: Earthsea (1968-72)
This three-novel omnibus novels records the beginning, middle and end of hero Ged's life as a wizard. Le Guin's world is refreshingly unusual, described in fine, lyrical prose. Earthsea is a vast archipelago and has no true gods. Its magic depends on Taoist notions of yin-yang balance between light and dark, life and death. "For a word to be spoken, there must be silence. Before, and after."
Ged discovers his talent in A Wizard of Earthsea, and goes seeking power and glory at Roke Island's fascinating and definitive school for wizards. Magic, he learns, requires knowing the hidden True Name of whatever you enchant. Despite warnings he pridefully shows off with a flamboyant spell that goes badly awry. Something terrible has entered the world, a shadow which pursues Ged by land and sea until at last he understands it.
The slighter The Tombs of Atuan shows him seeking a lost rune in a labyrinth ruled by old, life-hating powers of earth and darkness. His triumph is secondary to the redemption of the nameless girl dedicated to these powers by Atuan's horrible, stifling religion – a sad priestess ruling over the silence and the dark.
The Farthest Shore is the grimmest adventure of all, as Ged traces a blight on Earthsea to the evil bargain offered by a wizard who thinks he's conquered death. Let him take away your true name, your soul, and after dying you can return to a horrid parody of life. Wizards, craftsmen, even the subtle dragons are corrupted: "There is a hole in the world, and the light is running out." To seal that hole, Ged must cross the grim, dusty shadowland of Earthsea's equivalent of Hades. There's no coming back. It's an achingly moving journey.
5) Keith Roberts, Pavane (1968)
Although it sadly never won any awards, the mosaic novel Pavane has grown in stature over the years to become the alternative-history tale by which others are judged. The brief prologue shows what happens when an assassin takes out Queen Elizabeth I in 1588, and Britain comes under the sway of Spain and Holy Mother Church. High technology is feared as blasphemy, steam engines are at the cutting edge, and the action begins in a still very mediaeval 1968 England.
In fact the English landscape is the real hero of Pavane, the lovingly evoked backdrop against which great traction locomotives haul their cargoes between southern towns, the Guild of Signallers keeps close guard of the codes used by its complex Internet of semaphore towers, and the old forests are still believed to harbour "bears and catamounts, dire-wolves and Fairies."
We meet a dour engine-master, unlucky in love, but no soft touch for highwaymen; an apprentice signaller undergoing harsh training, hands bleeding at the semaphore levers; a woman hopelessly haunted by the White Boat that smuggles forbidden components from overseas; artistic monk Brother John, driven mad by sketching the trials and tortures of the Inquisition; and finally the indomitable Lady Eleanor of Corfe Castle, a focus for the flame of rebellion that's burnt a little hotter with each episode.
Most of their stories are tragedies in the short term, but the flame burns on, England endures, and the stately dance of history turns slowly against the tyrannical Church. The descriptions are brilliant, the style evocative, the landscape glows with poetic realism. Keith Roberts was a gifted illustrator as well as a writer, and had the artist's eye for detail; he drew his own jacket for the first edition of Pavane.
4) J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)
Of course the complete The Lord of the Rings is the most influential fantasy novel ever written. It created the template for the heroic quest epic, with the Fellowship of the Ring setting off on their impossible mission to save the world with one wizard, two noble warriors, an elf, a dwarf, and four hobbits. This is so much the stereotyped D&D adventure party that you have to remind yourself forcibly that Tolkien did it first, and was shamelessly pillaged by later authors and gamers.
Apart from his skill with invented languages and landscapes, Tolkien was rather good at avoiding too-easy plotting. Seeking the powerful magical McGuffin has become a hoary cliche of genre fantasy ... but Tolkien's fellowship plans to destroy the Ring because its power is too great not to be corrupting. Gandalf is a specially popular and useful character – the fellowship's all-purpose Swiss Army knife – so Tolkien dropped him down a hole in Moria and left the rest to fend for themselves.
Above all, genre fantasy is mocked for its easy division, often racial, between the forces of absolute good and absolute evil ... but although the orcs with their lowlife accents can be embarrassing, Tolkien gave us more subtle characterizations like the wizard Saruman (snared by love of knowledge), Denethor of Minas Tirith (overweening pride warped into madness), his son Boromir (corrupted by envy and hunger for power) and the loathsome but pitiable Gollum.
Heroic Frodo receives the lion's share of praise when the quest is over, but it's easy to forget that right at the final brink he fails. The Ring nobbles him, and it's only Gollum's pathetic craving that saves Middle-Earth. This kind of irony lifts LOTR far above its imitators.
3) Arthur C. Clarke: The City and the Stars (1956)
It's The City and the Stars rather than the overpublicized 2001 that's the truly quintessential Clarke novel – a little unpolished in places but showcasing all the things he does best. The story was expanded from a 1948 novella called Against the Fall of Night, and much improved in the process.
Diaspar, more than a billion years old, is the last remaining city on an Earth mostly gone to desert. Super-advanced technology makes Diaspar self-repairing – not just its glorious buildings but its people, who when they weary of incredibly long lives are computer-stored to be recreated in some future era.
Young hero Alvin is that rare thing, a newborn human without past lives. Even rarer, he wants out. Everyone else in the sealed city has galloping agoraphobia, but Alvin is determined to explore the universe out there, even if it means smashing the long dream of Diaspar into tiny fragments. Which he more or less does.
The narrative taps that powerful source of "sense of wonder" which the SF Encyclopedia calls conceptual breakthrough, as Alvin escapes from Diaspar, from Earth's other surviving community, and eventually from Earth itself, discovering bigger and bigger truths about the stars, the mysteriously run-down galaxy, the universe and its fated end ... One revelation seems almost to poke fun at SF's obsession with high-tech warfare, when Shalmirane, the greatest weapons system ever built, turns out to have had an entirely peaceful purpose.
Always fond of dying falls and plangent phrases, Clarke got this right in The City and the Stars more than anywhere else. He only does three human emotions well, and they're all at full stretch here: intellectual hunger, nostalgia for past glories, and awe in the face of the infinite. Memorable stuff.
2) John Crowley: Little, Big (1981)
Surely the finest pure fantasy of the 1980s, Little, Big combines an American multi-generation family saga with the very elusive and English concept of fairies. At its heart is the remarkable house Edgewood, built by an architect as a demo catalogue with each of its many fronts in different style. Like the book's nested worlds within worlds, "the further in you go, the bigger it gets."
Families living in and around Edgewood know in a vague way that they're different from other folk because they're part of a Story that's been unfolding since the 19th century and whose unknown end may be wonderful or terrible. Meanwhile, Little, Big is steeped in references to Lewis Carroll; the main female character is called Alice, and Sylvie, Bruno and the White Knight all appear. What about those fairies? Just like Carroll, one family member likes to photograph small unclothed girls – but stranger things turn up in his negatives, puzzling evidence like the Cottingley fairy photos that bewildered Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In slow luxurious narration with hauntingly fragrant descriptions, Crowley mixes family affairs with matter-of-fact glimpses of another world interpenetrating his decayed near-future America. Tarot cards called the Least Trumps foretell what's coming, but only in small matters. There are changelings, transformations, fulfilled prophecies, imaginary companions who are real, magical flights, glimpses of Father Time and Father Christmas, a returned Emperor Barbarossa who becomes US President, a sorceress who hides her soul in a bird, and a perpetual motion machine.
All this is told with such restraint and discretion that it doesn't feel anything like genre fantasy – more a strange and beautiful dream. Full of charm, sometimes sexy or comic, it leaves you filled with nostalgia for things that never were.
1) Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)
This superb long novel appeared as four volumes, The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor and The Citadel of the Autarch. Book 1 won the World Fantasy Award and book 2 the Nebula.
In brief, it's the story of the young torturer Severian who's cast out from the Seekers for Truth and Penitence – the ancient torturers' guild – for showing mercy to an attractive female "client". Exiled, he wanders from his home city to the farthest war zone of the besieged Commonwealth, encountering many marvels en route, and at last returns as the ruling Autarch.
You can read it as simply a rich, picaresque sword-and-sorcery adventure set in the South America of an unimaginably distant future whose Sun is red and dimming, whose dark-blue sky shows the stars at noon, and whose mountains have long been sculpted into colossal figures of former Autarchs. The sequence of adventures has an overarching purpose, though, and very often seeming fantasy is underpinned by SF.
For example, it's casually mentioned that the antique metal tower which houses the Guild has bulkheads and a propulsion chamber. Firearms with archaic names like fusil and jezail are advanced energy weapons. Careful reading shows the physics behind the vision of a blazing cathedral in the sky, or Severian's "magic" sword that writhes in the hand as though alive. The Autarch's palace is invisible, but not through magic.
In his travels Severian meets mysteries, lovers, implacable foes and strange creatures: masked aliens, a very human machine, a dead woman who becomes a secret sharer within him, a self-made monster, homunculi, nonhuman predators, giant female water-dwellers, a blazing salamander, an angel. There's a wonderful range of vocabulary and literary allusion, from Dickens to Kafka to Borges to Kipling (whose Mowgli tales have here crosslinked with older myths over the millennia) to a sneaky reworking of Frankenstein.
Stories are told within the main story, including a tour-de-force narration by a outlander who speaks only in political slogans. Severian's perfect memory captures everything, though there's much that he doesn't tell us. The narrative features little detective treats, mindboggling philosophical asides, and puzzles that explain themselves when you make the connection with a later scene. What uncanny force saved Severian from certain drowning in chapter 2? See next volume ...
Eventually our hero must undergo the appalling initiation into Autarchy, learn what the New Sun actually is (both hard physics and hard theology), and choose to risk more than his life for its sake. It's a powerful, resonant saga that gains with re-reading. Some people find it "difficult", but they're just wimps.
Those Damned Boxes
Imagine these as scattered distractingly through the above mini-reviews (which you should imagine as having been randomly cut and reparagraphed), except for those which have been dropped altogether (I forget which).
Ten nifty novels that would have been included at a different phase of the moon or state of the compiler's digestion:
- Brian Aldiss, Helliconia Spring (1982)
- John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider (1975)
- Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman (1972)
- G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)
- Susan Cooper, The Dark Is Rising (1973)
- Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17 (1966)
- Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood (1984)
- Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock (1984)
- Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven (1971)
- Bob Shaw, A Wreath of Stars (1976)
Six of the Worst
[There are actually ten because the editor demanded four more, so Rafcam and those that follow were added in frantic haste; the phrase about the wizard's name is a blatant steal from Nick Lowe.]
- Hugo Gernsback, Ralph 124C41+ (1911-12; book version 1925) – clunky "educational" SF full of dire technical lectures, by the pioneering editor who gave his name to the Hugo award.
- Mark Clifton and Frank Riley – They'd Rather Be Right (1954) – the worst SF novel ever to win the Hugo.
- Lionel Fanthorpe writing as Leo Brett, March of the Robots (1961) – speed-written and shamelessly padded, so bad it's almost good; a favourite at SF convention "turkey readings".
- Robert Heinlein, "The Number of the Beast" (1980) – most disappointingly self-indulgent novel by a major SF author.
- L. Ron Hubbard, Battlefield Earth (1982) – overlong, windy, slow-moving pulp adventure; at least the Travolta movie was shorter.
- Paul Theroux, O-Zone (1986) – mainstream author with no feeling for SF makes a horrible mess of it.
- Nal Rafcam, The Troglodytes (1960?) – mindblowing SF awfulness by a man who used a thesaurus instead of a dictionary. "Death had supined."
- Jim Theis, The Eye of Argon (1970?) – amateur fantasy long cherished by SF fans and professionals for its stark ineptitude. A web search will find it.
- Lin Carter, The Black Star (1973) – a veritable handbook of bad fantasy plotting, featuring the wizard with the silliest name in all prehistory: Nephog Thoon.
- V-a-n-n-a B-o-n-t-a, Flight (1995) – a novel of "quantum fiction", which is pretty much like science fiction but contains more crimes against the English language.
Ninety-Nine Novels (1984) by Anthony Burgess of A Clockwork Orange fame was his personal list of the best since 1939. A dozen SF/fantasy selections crept in:
- Aldous Huxley, After Many a Summer (1939)
- Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (1946)
- Aldous Huxley, Ape and Essence (1948)
- George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
- T.H. White, The Once and Future King (1958)
- L.P. Hartley, Facial Justice (1960)
- John Barth, Giles Goat-Boy (1966)
- Keith Roberts, Pavane (1968)
- Michael Frayn, Sweet Dreams (1973)
- J.G. Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company (1979)
- Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980)
- Alasdair Gray, Lanark (1981)
If we'd allowed books of short stories into the Top 20, these would have been strong contenders:
- Ernest Bramah, The Wallet of Kai Lung (1900) – ironic cod-Chinese fantasies: Barry Hughart's inspiration?
- Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles (1950, alias The Silver Locusts) – a magic-realist Mars with a touch of the small-town US Midwest.
- Maurice Richardson, The Exploits of Engelbrecht (1950) – unique comic surrealism.
- Jack Vance, The Dying Earth (1950) – the classic end-of-time fantasy setting that inspired Gene Wolfe.
- J.G. Ballard, The Terminal Beach (1964) – still the most famous author to emerge from 1960s "New Wave" SF.
- Italo Calvino, Cosmicomics (1965, translated 1968) – far-out fables of life, the universe, and everything.
- Larry Niven, Neutron Star (1968) – his first and best "Known Space" collection.
- R.A. Lafferty, Nine Hundred Grandmothers (1970) – strange tall tales from an Irish-American eccentric.
- Harlan Ellison, Deathbird Stories (1975) – his most brutally intense collection.
- Cordwainer Smith, The Rediscovery of Man (1993) – complete stories of the strange, offbeat, poetic author who died in 1966.
Golden Oldies: A Dozen Classics
- Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (1726) – classic fantastic journeys.
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) – classic monster.
- Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) – classic submarine adventure.
- Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) – classic split personality.
- Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897) – classic fangs.
- H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898) – classic alien invasion.
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World (1912) – classic dinosaur hunt.
- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932) – classic poisoned utopia.
- George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – classic totalitarian nightmare.
- John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (1951) – classic British dislike of vegetables.
- T.H. White, The Once and Future King (1958) – classic Arthurian fantasy.
- David Langford, The Space Eater (1982) – classic remainder.
Comedy doesn't often make it into Best Of lists, but here are some notable SF/fantasy specimens:
- P.G. Wodehouse, Laughing Gas (1936)
- Eric Frank Russell, Next of Kin (1959)
- Roy Lewis, The Evolution Man (1960)
- Harry Harrison, Bill, the Galactic Hero (1965)
- Robert Sheckley, Mindswap (1966)
- John Sladek, The Müller-Fokker Effect (1970)
- Bob Shaw, Who Goes Here? (1977)
- Robert Rankin, The Brentford Trilogy (1981-84)
- Tom Holt, Who's Afraid of Beowulf? (1988)
- Tony Blair and others, New Labour Manifesto (1997)
The Reference Shelf
- Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell (1960)
- Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder (1967 edition)
- Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree (1986)
- John Clute and Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of SF (1993)
- Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996)
- John Clute and John Grant, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Popular SF/fantasy series that kept on sprouting new sequels, graded by the number of volumes before (at least according to your mean-souled compiler) the quality fell off. Free passes to writers whose series improved with time, like Mr Discworld and Lois McMaster Bujold, whose "Miles Vorkosigan" sequence is still going strong at umpteen volumes.
- (4 ½) Fritz Leiber, "Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser", internal chronology beginning with Swords and Deviltry (1970) – featuring the only straight fantasy story to win the SF Hugo and Nebula awards.
- (3) Isaac Asimov, "Foundation", beginning with Foundation (1951). 1966 Hugo winner for best all-time series, when it was still a trilogy.
- (3) E.E. Smith, "Lensmen", beginning with Galactic Patrol (1950) ... the spoiler-filled prequels Triplanetary and First Lensman were tacked on later.
- (2 ½) Anne McCaffrey, "Dragonriders of Pern", beginning with Dragonflight (1968)
- (2) Douglas Adams, "Hitch-Hiker", beginning with The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
- (2) Piers Anthony, "Xanth", beginning with A Spell for Chameleon (1977)
- (1 ½) Harry Harrison, "The Stainless Steel Rat", beginning with The Stainless Steel Rat (1961)
- (1) Stephen Donaldson, "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever", beginning with Lord Foul's Bane (1977)
- (0) John Norman, "Gor", beginning with Tarnsman of Gor (1966)
Good Stuff Since 1990
- 1990: Dan Simmons, Hyperion Cantos
- 1991: Pat Cadigan, Synners
- 1992: Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars
- 1993: Michael Swanwick, The Iron Dragon's Daughter
- 1994: Greg Egan, Permutation City
- 1995: Stephen Baxter, The Time Ships
- 1996: Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow
- 1997: Tim Powers, Earthquake Weather
- 1998: Avram Davidson and Grania Davis, The Boss in the Wall
- 1999: Vernor Vinge, A Deepness In the Sky
- 2000: China Miéville, Perdido Street Station