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Welcome to a weekly feature on my blog – Ben’s Zone. Written by husband… Ben. A foodie, coffee obsessed, ex-smoking, ex-drinking and Ridgeback loving Dad. Who is also seriously into his fitness. You can find him on the blog (most) Sundays. Enjoy 🙂
10 Books Every Science Fiction Lover Should Read
One of the first things that drew me to my wife was her love of books. It’s something we shared then and we share now long after she mysteriously lost interest in motorcycles and the sort of movies I like. I can’t imagine a day without reading, I positively look forward to long flights as a chance to get a really big session in and I’m never without a book. For a long while now my favourite books to read have been science fiction. I love to dive into a different world and imagine how futures may look. As someone who grew up on a relatively small and crowded island, the notion of a boundless galaxy filled with strange worlds is a seductive concept indeed. Sometimes sci-fi can predict the future, sometimes it comments on the present, it’s always something that can make me think hard while making hours pass like seconds. Here are 10 of my favourite sci-fi books/series. This list isn’t exhaustive and it’s not in order. Science fiction is something I need to learn much more about.
1. The Nights Dawn Trilogy – Peter F Hamilton
This was my first introduction into the world of science fiction and what a start. In a future where mankind is interstellar the dead find a way to possess the bodies of the living and in doing so manipulate their surroundings to their will. It does not get much better than this and this is PFH’s meister work. The worlds are massive and intricately drawn, the action is fast paced and it plays out over a huge, 3 book canvas. The ideas are big but easily digestible and it flows together with aplomb. If I had to draw a criticism I’d say that the characters do lack a bit of depth and complexity, it can all get a bit ‘junior boys own’ but don’t let that divert you from one of the classic trilogies in modern science fiction.
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2. The Robot series – Isaac Asimov
From modern right back to an original golden age classic series. The Robot books from Isaac Asimov put forward 3 basic rules a robot must follow and tests one in each book (it’s a trilogy). In each book Asimov creates a world that describes where humanity may go, from the subterranean cities of a future earth to a far flung planet where each human lives entirely alone. From cover to cover these books are packed with stunning ideas the centrepiece being Asimov’s laws of robotics that are being used now to design artificial intelligences. On a cerebral level these books are peerless. But that’s not why I love these books. I love these books because the unlikely pairing of Robot Daneel Olivaw and robot hating human detective Elijah Bailey forms one of the best ‘buddy cop’ stories you’re going to encounter. These books are hugely easy to read and like all really great stories you will be sorry to finish them.
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3. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
Much like Morrissey, Orson Scott Card is a challenge to me. The dichotomy between loving the art and despising the artist. Much like Morrissey, Orson Scott Card’s loudly espoused politics are pretty despicable but don’t let that put you off Ender’s Game. The book, about a young man trained to be the best human general and to fight an implacable enemy is one of the most touching I have read in this canon. The book would be less moving were it not so so close to the truth in what humanity will do to its own in pursuit of a so called higher cause. I’ve read this book about 3 times now and will do so again pretty soon and yet every time the ending will give me goosebumps. The film is also well worth a watch.
4. The Skinner – Neal Asher
This was a tough choice, whether to include this book, the start of Asher’s Spatterjay series or Gridlinked, the start of his excellent Agent Cormac books. Both are modern classics and set in the same universe. In the end I went with The Skinner as I read it first and so it was my introduction to Asher and his visceral, hyper-violent approach to science fiction. What’s The Skinner about? Is it the story of a plot by sentient hornets to control the galaxy? It is the revenge story of a dead man? Is it a vignette of the most hostile planet that can be imagined? Yes, it’s all of those things and more. Asher wraps his ideas in a violence as inventive as it is depraved and the result is a book I was barely able to put down (which was an issue as a read it on my honeymoon). Read this and then read all his other books, you won’t be sorry.
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5. Altered Carbon – Richard Morgan
One of the reasons I like science fiction is that it’s cool. There’s no limits on how smooth and stylish it can be and the epitome of that is Richard Morgan’s hero, Takashi Kovach. The novel is a murder mystery with a twist, as people are saved to a hard drive in their heads, there’s no death any more. Morgan plays with this concept throughout Altered Carbon and his two semi-sequels, from questions around what murder really is if people can’t die right through to what happens if you copy the information on the hard drive and spawn two instances of the same person? If it sounds mind boggling that’s because it is at times but throughout that Morgan keeps the brain-ache bearable by having Takeshi Kovacs float through the books doing an endless string of cool things with cool dialogue. It’s cool, I want to be Takeshi Kovacsa and you will too.
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6. Accelerando – Charles Stross
From a book which uses a cool lead to soften the blow of tough ideas to one that sets out to blow your mind from the off, Accelerando is an amazing piece of writing. In Accelerando, Stross takes us from a near future through the eyes of a genius right through to a fully spacefaring humanity and at times the ideas are so big it hurts. I’ve read Accelerando twice, probably get about 25% of it and intend to keep trying until I’m nearer 80%. The thing about this book is, it’s not even about the ‘big’ ideas like the consequences of having an intelligence distributed over a solar system, it’s the ones Stross throws out for fun, like cloud seeding nano bots which go rogue and start making clouds like giant penises as a protest against an attempt to turn them off. I’ve read everything Charles Stross has written, I make a point of it and this is his toughest book to read. Later works, like Halting State or Glasshouse, take fewer ideas and weave a more digestible story around them. Accelerando is not like that, it’s an early book and it’s his statement of intent. This is Charles Stross saying to the world ‘This is how far I can see’ and while it’s hard work, the sheer vision is breathtaking. Read it until you understand it, that’s what I am doing.
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7. The Neuromancer Trilogy – William Gibson
Most people know about William Gibson, the man who conceived of the cyber punk, a man who, in the 80s knew that soon we’d be living in a dual world, somewhat in the open, some what in cyberspace and a man who did all of that while writing on a mechanical type writer. So to the Sprawl trilogy, starting with Neuromancer, through it’s sequel Count Zero until finally hitting the sublime conclusion that is Mona Lisa Overdrive, it’s non stop action. The trilogy follows criminals, working in a grimy, corrupt and near broken future as they pull off heists at the behest of mysterious artificial intelligences. That’s not the trick though, Gibson’s trick is that he assumes you live in the world he’s describing and in doing so creates a reading experience that leaves you breathless and future shocked throughout. What’s really interesting right now with these books is, we’re sort of there already. Some things are so very true, the duality of our now online lives, some things are painfully dated, no-one would need an expensive ‘deck’ to jack into the cybersphere, not when we have the equivalent of a super computer in our pocket. But it’s happening, virtual reality, after a long and tortuous labor, has been birthed into the consumer market and what Gibson talked about 30 years ago is coming true right now. Regardless though, some of the concepts here may be more digestible than they were at the time but the style and the speed of the books mean they hit just has hard as they ever did.
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8. The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
There are two schools of sci-fi, those that ignore the inconvenient truth of physics (think light speed) and those who embrace them as a plot device. The Forever War is of the latter grouping. In a war in the future time dilation means that each time two opposing sides meet they are always seeking vengeance. No two peaceable groups can coincide due to the vast number of years it takes to travel between home planets and the battleground. The message of the futility of conflict is writ strong. More personal and more poignant is the experience of the hero. Initially going out to fight to defend what he loves, returning after vast numbers of years to a world he bears little relation to, and slowly realising that the war and the battle has become the only play he feels truly at home. The sadness is palpable and an obvious metaphor for the Vietnam conflict of which Haldeman was a veteran.
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9. The Culture Novels – Iain M Banks
The last few years have seen a lot of famous people die and though this is callous, I’m largely unmoved. I was, however, deeply saddened when Iain M Banks died. The reasons were mainly selfish of course, I felt sad that I would never get to experience more of his exceptional Culture series of novels. There are many Culture novels. Some are only good, some are truly great. In all of them the premise is that a future humanity is ruled be benevolent artificial intelligences (minds). In contrast to most scenarios, where this is the kiss of doom for us soft, floppy humans, here, a truly advanced intelligence knows it is superior and therefore the Culture minds do not feel the need to eradicate humanity, more nurture it as a slightly deranged pet. Thus is set the canvas for a veritable feast of adventures, from the swan song of a dying world to the exposure of artificial hells where people’s minds are tortured for eternity. My favourite is probably ‘Use of Weapons’ which is the story of a reluctant agent in a small and dirty war. Regardless of the story, what permeates the Culture novels is Banks’ wry sense of humour and off beat take on how things might turn out. For a genre based on asking ‘what if’, science fiction can become over fond of its tropes, Iain M Banks is not afraid to turn that on it’s head and the world is a poorer place without him.
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10. Revelation Space – Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds writes science fiction where the science is real, or at least plausible. In doing so he creates something that is largely lacking in most other books of this type, namely the unremitting bleakness of space. The Revelation Space series of books form a vast space opera slowly unfolding to a story of truly epic scale. Within that Reynolds tells tales of technologies risen and fallen, wars fought and forgotten and religions conceived and discarded in the blink of a galactic eye. Throughout all of it the message rings clear, no matter what we build, how big our spaceships are and how far we reach, humanity is a very very small thing in a very very big universe.
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So there you are. Those are some (but not all) of my favourite books. If you have suggestions for what should be on the list that isn’t, or thoughts about any of the books listed, please comment back, I love talking sci-fi.