[N.B. I’m incredibly tired from thesis writing at the moment: 9-5 everyday I’m sat in front of my computer, hacking away at my statistics and shaping up my prose ready to hand in a final draft for comments on Friday. So, although I keep setting out to write about Fahrenheit 451 and The Master and Margarita, I always end up drooping halfway through the first sentence. Hence this non-demanding post that I’ve been tinkling with for the last few weeks…]
Way back down on my meme post Danielle showed a fleeting interest in speculative fiction (more commonly known as SF/fantasy) and suggested I post a short list of good books for “beginners”. This was equivalent to flashing a red flag at a bull, since there is nothing I like better than proselytising my favourite genre to unbelievers.
But first, the necessary caveats:
i/ Go to any speculative fiction forum and you will find a dozen posts giving alternate lists to mine. My list is short and in no way definitive. Indeed, it couldn’t be, since I haven’t read anywhere near the full extent of what the genre has to offer. I’m woefully behind in some respects: my list is full of lacuna and shows my own preferences. But that’s ok: it’s my list. ;-)
ii/ It’s fair to say that I’m a pretty demanding reader and so this list is not a who’s who of popular SF or fantasy. You won’t find me recommending the likes of David Eddings or Terry Brooks or Terry Goodkind, all of whom regularly appear on lists of sf for beginners. This is a Bad Thing since these authors are enough to put anyone off for life: they’re easy reading because they’re crap. When critics say derogatory things about fantasy fiction - that it’s poorly written stereotypical tripe, for example - they’re thinking of exactly these authors.
iii/ This is not some feeble attempt at a speculative Canon. By that I mean that my list doesn’t include things like The Lord of the Rings or Gormenghast since I assume that both Tolkien and Peake are moot points. Nor have I included The Book of the New Sun (by Gene Wolfe) because I don’t think it’s right for the curious genre-hopping traveller.
iv/ I invite my genre-reading friends to add to my list with wilful abandon. Like I said, there is no way I could cover everything and I expect disagreement.
And so, in a sort-of-order:
1/ Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock – I think this is a nice place to start since Holdstock sits comfortably in a number of traditions and this, the first in his cycle of books set in ancient British woodland, is a complete story in itself. It’s also nicely representative of fantasy themes that go back to medieval Romance: the supernatural grandeur of nature/landscape; spatial politics; the trials of the hero; the power and endurance of myth. It’s all here. And it’s short (ish), ergo a good place to dip in a toe.
2/ The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – I’m scared of Space - the “big black” – mostly because it has no “up” or “down” (which makes me dizzy), and for many years in my teens it put me off reading “science fiction”; I happily stuck with fantasy. (Of course, I didn’t realise then that most science fiction isn’t about Space at all. ‘Twas a folly of youth.) But Le Guin’s gender-bending anthropological masterpiece was just the thing to help me cross the boundary. Set on Gethen, a newly discovered semi-artic planet whose inhabitants are of a neuter, or rather hermaphroditic, sex (their organs only polarise during “kemmer” (sexual arousal) or for procreaton), it’s the story of Genly Ai, an emissary from the Ekumenical Council of Hain. Laying aside the strange names though and the background of planets and councils and what not, this is really an anthropological study of gender, and a very moving story of love and belonging. ‘Tis also a feminist classic.
3/ Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson – A fantastical literary meditation on time, space, gender and the nature of being human. Played out partly in 17th century London and partly in the present, it is the story of Dog Woman, a gargantuan hound keeper and her adopted son, Jordan as they come to terms with reality and dream. I’m not sure Winterson would thank me for calling placing her work in a “genre” category, but she’s a rampant fantasist at heart – Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a particular inspiration here - and this is her best novel.
4/ Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – I almost feel it’s cheating to put this on here, since I only read it recently myself but I found it such a deeply moving and disturbing experience. Guy Montag is a fireman, except his job is to start fires not put them out; he is a book-burner, helping to repress and censor the detailed “seeing” of the written word.
5/ The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay – Hah! Bet you thought I was going to say The Summer Tree, but as it is I don’t think that’s the best introduction to Kay’s work. This on the other hand is a very accomplished and representative sample. It takes an alternate medieval Iberian peninsula (Spain/Portugal) and plays out the conflicts and confluences of three religious groups – recognisable as Christians, Muslims and Jews – as they struggle to maintain co-existence while justifying their own faith’s supremacy. It is both very good and very, very beautiful. If you like that I suggest you try his Sarantine Mosaic (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors), which in my opinion is his best work. Then you can read everything he’s ever written.
6/ A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin – There are several things I don’t like about this book (which I reviewed some time ago here): it’s politically right-wing and ideologically Christological. But it’s also quite brilliant.
7/ Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke – A startling and superior debut about two delightfully egotistical magicians in the early 19th century. If you haven’t read it you should, and if you have read it and liked it but still think you don’t like sf, you’re wrong.
7/ Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners by Ellen Kushner – Another historical-feeling stand-alone, Kushner’s novel is set in theRenaissance-esque city of Riverside and takes as its protagonists a bellicose swordsman and his reckless, indiscreet male lover. Nic liked it muchly too.
8/ Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle – This isn’t really for the faint-hearted, it being a) 1120 pages long, b) extremely bloody and c) pretty mind-boggling. But it is relatively accessible because, again, it stands alone and because it has a lot of contact points with historical fiction. In an alternate late medieval world – wherein Carthage was never destroyed by Rome and became a stronghold of the Visigoths; Christianity became a quasi-nature religion; and Burgundy is one of the most powerful forces in Europe - Ash is the (female) Captain of a band of sharply honed mercenaries who’re about to come up against a force of darkness (quite literally).
9/ Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link – is a wonderfully offbeat short story collection that has recently been picked up by mainstream publishers. Link writes like a fiend and her imagination is a scary but brilliant labyrinth of a place. Think: sf, horror, fantasy, fairytale, myth. The first story in this volume (about a dead man whose post-mortem mind is slowly disintegrating) continues to haunt and intrigue me. You should read it before it gets popular and then you can feel all prescient. I reviewed it here.
10/ Kushiel’s Dart by Jaqueline Carey – It seems about time to ease in to some series now, fantasy and sf being infamous for its trilogies and quartets and quintets and so on. So what better place to start than with a little S&M and a female protagonist? This first book pretty much stands alone, although there are two sequels in print as I type and another very nearly available. Why choose this rather than something with a gentle first-timer quality, like Robin Hobb or Grey Keyes? Because I think Carey is a much more provocative and interesting storyteller, and because I don’t mean to list the usual suspects. Although…
11/ A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin – If you went to any forum in the sf community and you asked: What fantasy should I read? A dozen people would come back recommending the venerable George R. R. Martin, whose Song of Ice and Fire has become a kind of heroic, epic fantasy Bible over the last decade. There is a simple reason for this as far as I’m concerned: Martin is the best, the absolute best, pure fantasy writer of my reading acquaintance. (Although you have to realise I say that without experience of either Steve Erikson or R. Scott Bakker, who’re also very highly respected and who I must make time for.) And I wholeheartedly believe that you could read Martin’s books without liking fantasy at all – they’re compelling, emotionally complex reads quite aside from being genre. They’re also very long (4000+ pages already and we’re only on Book 4), and the series is unfinished with no foreseeable end in sight. Nevertheless, excellent and unmissable.
12&13/ Perdido Street Station and The Scar by China Mieville – Now we’re getting quite hardcore… Mieville is a highly imaginative and verbose Socialist, and these are his first two novels set in Bas-Lag. The first is centred on the sprawling, dystopian city of New Crobuzon, the second on Armada, a renegade flotilla of ships turned into an ocean-city. Both are very well written and brilliantly conceived, although I think The Scar is tighter and I favour it for that reason.
14/ The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World) by Neal Stephenson – It’s really more historical fiction (17th and early 18th century with a cast that takes in Kings, vagabonds and great scientists) but there are sf elements and Stephenson writes like he’s writing sf (he’s identified the trilogy as genre himself). I loved all the books; I couldn’t get enough. Here and here for my thoughts on the first two books.
The above are undoubtedly some of the reasons I continue to read sf fiction…if after reading about them you’d like to see some lists to keep you going a lifetime, by readers who really knows what they’re talking about, I’d take a look at Jay’s 101 Best List, and his later extension to 200, and Jeff Vandermeer’s list.