courtesy of kenn brown

Science Fiction I've Known And Loved

I've been reading SF for over thirty years now. Here are some books I'd recommend:

Metropolitan and City On Fire by Walter Jon Williams. In the far future, the Ascended have left the rest of humanity and surrounded the Earth with an impenetrable Shield. Thousands of years later, the planet's surface is wall-to-wall city with a staggeringly huge population, and skilled Mages use a geomantic power source called Plasm to create, change, and destroy. I enjoyed City On Fire, the sequel, even more than Metropolitan.

Marooned In Realtime by Vernor Vinge. From the author of True Names, a sequel to The Peace War, which introduced "bobbles": indestructable, spherical stasis fields that can be constructed to last for nanoseconds or millions of years. It's a murder mystery set 50 million years in the future, among a gathering of refugees who were accidentally or maliciously bobbled out of their home eras. Full of fun, cool techno toys (polka-dot paint?), this is easily his best book. Other Vinge worth reading includes A Fire Upon The Deep (features an interstellar USENET) and Tatja Grimm's World.

Stations Of The Tide by Michael Swanwick. "The bureaucrat fell from the sky." A wry, spare, beautiful novel of magic and hard technology that gets better each time I read it.

Kaleidoscope Century by John Barnes. The main character is not a nice guy, but maybe that's how he survives the "interesting times" of the next hundred years. Extremely violent in places, but a fascinating speculative look at the future from an unconventional viewpoint.

Rendevous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke. A massive alien spacecraft enters the solar system, and the only human spacecraft that can manage an intercept is ill-prepared and has little time to explore. Perhaps Clarke's best novel, with a killer ending. Read this and just try to forget that any sequels were ever written.

Permutation City, Axiomatic, and Diaspora by Greg Egan. Egan is the hardest SF writer out there today. Axiomatic is an amazing collection of short stories spanning genetics, mathematics, computer science, physics, and horror. Permutation City is a remarkable book about a near future where sentient Copies of people, afraid of losing their "life", look for a way out. And find it. Just when you think this book can't get any more fantastic, it does -- although I suspect a background in computer science may be required to fully enjoy it. Even more so with Diaspora, which takes the notion of Copies living inside of a computer even further, beginning in a time when machine life has almost completely replaced organic life on Earth, and now they're beginning to explore space. Contains some totally new concepts of first contact with alien races. The end is a bit unsatisfying, but the journey makes up for it.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Satan's child is sent to Earth to bring on Armageddon, while a demon and an angel collaborate to prevent the big event because, well, they like it here. A hilarious and heart-warming send-up of The Omen.

Grunts by Mary Gentle. Blackly humorous fantasy about an army of Orcs that stumbles across a large cache of American military equipment and are magicked into US Marines. Gruesome and most definitely not for everyone; some people may find it offensive.

Starrigger, Red Limit Freeway, and Paradox Alley by John DeChancie. The "Starrigger Trilogy", a light, fun adventure in a galaxy where travel and commerce moves between planets on an ancient system of roads left by an unknown race. But nobody has a map, and it's easy to get lost . . .

The Reality Dysfunction and The Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F. Hamilton. The first two (massive) volumes of a trilogy. 700 years in the future, in a galaxy full of humans, aliens, and artificial intelligences, the dead find a way to return to life by possessing live human bodies. It's space opera with a touch of Stephen King. A huge cast of characters and lots of intricate plot twists. And everyone speaks British.

When Gravity Fails, A Fire In The Sun, and The Exile Kiss by George Alec Effinger. The adventures of Marid Audran, low-class hustler who is unwillingly made over into the right-hand man for a local crime lord. Sorta like Raymond Chandler, but set in Islam a century from now.

The Last Stand Of The DNA Cowboys, Their Master's War, and Necrom by Mick Farren. Farren is a colorful, nihilistic writer with a great imagination. I think a number of his books would make great movies. DNA Cowboys follows the infamous threesome through adventures in the Fractured World left when conventional reality simply fell apart. In TMW, humans are enslaved by aliens to fight in an endless, meaningless war. And in Necrom, a washed up rock'n'roll star gets involved in an intrigue of demons, multiple universes, elder gods, and Aztecs with high technology.

When Heaven Fell and Dark Sky Legion by William Barton. Despite the repellent nature of their main characters, both of these books are highly memorable. WHF concerns a mercenary employed by the Master Race that has enslaved humanity. This is not your typical "humans versus alien invaders" novel. DSL describes a future in which the human race reigns supreme . . . but humans aren't very nice. The teleportation mechanism they matter-of-factly accept and use is fascinatingly macabre.

Ubik, A Maze Of Death, and A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick. Everyone has their favorite Dick novels; these are mine. The first two are in what I think of as his "light" style. AMD has an especially killer ending. ASD is semi-autobiographical and is written in more of a "standard" prose style. To try to describe these books further would be to give away most of the fun.

The Player Of Games, Use Of Weapons, and Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. These books deal with a utopian human and machine civilization called the Culture, which has no money or laws -- yet everyone lives like a king. Extremely well-written, and they have a certain dark humor about them. UOW, in particular, is one of the best SF novels I've read in the past 10 years.

Tuf Voyaging by George R. R. Martin. Originally a series of short stories, the book follows one Haviland Tuf, Ecological Engineer, as he makes his way around the galaxy in his 30 kilometer long starship solving various and sundry eco-problems -- but his "solutions" are often not what his clients asked for . . . Martin has always been at his best in the short story (he also wrote "Sandkings"), and these were written when he was in his prime.

Hyperion and The Fall Of Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Hyperion won a Hugo, TFOH won a nomination the next year. Hyperion follows seven pilgrims to the world of Hyperion, as each relates their story ala Canterbury Tales in styles ranging from Bradbury to Cyberpunk to "classic spacewar". Amazingly good and difficult to put down. The more conventional straight prose style of TFOH is a bit less enthralling, but you'll definitely want a copy of TFOH on hand when you finish Hyperion.

Spares by Michael Marshall Smith. Dark, sad, disturbing, creepy, and funny, sometimes all at once. A ruined cop attempts to save a group of "spares", people who have been grown for the express purpose of providing spare parts for those rich enough to afford it. Word is that Disney has optioned this for a movie; I'll believe it when I see it.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. "Tonight, we're going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man" reads the first line. The "companion" book to Heinlein's Starship Troopers, Haldeman's Vietnam experiences have fueled an interesting look at future space warfare.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. A child military prodigy goes through training as Earth battles an alien threat. I'm not a big fan of Card's, but this is a really good book (but avoid Speaker For The Dead and Xenocide, the sequels). The zero-gee military training sequences are awesome fun. Word has it that Card will actually be involved in the production of a movie version Real Soon Now. I'm not convinced that SFX technology is quite good enough yet...but hey, go ahead and prove me wrong!

Blood Music by Greg Bear. I believe this won a Hugo and a Nebula. A genetic engineer accidentally splices up some intelligent blood cells. Madcap antics ensue.

The Forge Of God and Anvil Of Stars, also by Greg Bear. In TFOG, the Earth is assaulted by hostile alien Von Neumann automata. In AOS, humanity gets to do some payback. AOS has some really interesting / kinky science stuff in it.

Eon and Eternity, yet again by Greg Bear. In Eon, an artifact from an advanced future civilization takes up orbit around the Earth; inside the artifact is one end of an infinitely long cylinder. And it's inhabited... Eternity, the sequel, is best enjoyed by those who really enjoyed Eon.

Redshift Rendezvous by John E. Stith. If you want really hard SF, this book is for you. It's about a starship on which the speed of light is 30 meters/second. A fun read, but probably difficult to find.

Contact by Carl Sagan. When I first heard of this, I thought "oh, yeah, right, ya got this Big Name science guy who decides to write an SF novel and yer mainstream audience gets real excited, but it's full of cliches and stuff that's been done a thousand times before and bores the hell out of us Professional SF Readers." Boy was I wrong: seems Sagan was a bigtime SF fan himself. He pulled it off and wrote a really excellent novel. If you've seen the movie, you owe it to yourself to read the book, which contains so much more.

Doorways In The Sand by Roger Zelazny. An alien artifact on loan to humanity disappears, and everyone thinks the protagonist knows where it is. Zelazny's wit and sense of humor make this book simply lots of fun.

Lord Of Light also by Roger Zelazny. A Hugo (and Nebula?) winner. Mahasamatman (he prefers just "Sam") fights the Powers That Be, who've set themselves up as the Hindu pantheon of gods on a distant planet. Larger-than-life heros and villains, infused with Zelazny's droll wit.

Software by Rudy Rucker. Sorta like Neuromancer-lite: not so "technical", but some interesting speculations on consciousness and machines. And the anarchist lunar machine civilization is just plain fun. Rucker has written a number of sequels (including Wetware and Freeware) which are definitely not for everyone.

Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. A science fiction writer goes to hell. A wonderful rewrite of the most interesting portion of Dante's Divine Comedy.

Job: A Comedy Of Justice by Robert Heinlein. More fantasy than SF, but personally I think it's one of the best things he ever wrote. Hard to put down once you start it, and even though it was written only a few years before he died, it manages to stay away from that annoying nudism/free sex obsession stuff that showed up in so many of his later works. Borrows freely and easily from James Branch Cabell's Jurgen: A Comedy Of Justice and Twain's "An Excerpt From Captain Stormfeld's Visit To Heaven", plus it has one of Heinlein's better endings.

-- Craig Becker

mechanical DNA image courtesy of kenn brown / mondolithic studios /