Summer Books: Sci-Fi/Fantasy!

star axeOur books today are yet another steady go-to choice for “summer books”: science fiction and fantasy novels, most of which I tend to read during the lazier summer months. Is there any point in concealing the fact that this is because the books themselves are often lazier? Most of them – even the best of them – ultimately fail at one of the hallmark tasks of the genre (considering them as one genre here, a genre in which there’s some version of a recognizably mundane world – even a future world, provided light and electricity and gravity all still work normally – over which is laid some kind of alternate layer of operant reality, be it faeries or faster-than-light travel): creating entirely convincing new worlds in which their action can take place. This is actually the task of any kind of fiction, but the failure of its authors to do it convincingly is more noticeable in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, because the worlds look so little like the day-to-day reality that obtains in Boston. Probably authors in other genres fail just as badly – there’s not much like normal human reality in the novels of Ian McEwan, for instance, or Andre Aciman, or Jonathan Franzen, all three of whom have been praised at one point or other by critics as “masters of realism” (book critics don’t get out much) – but when you’ve incompletely imagined the route your main character takes from W. 130th thrice upon a timeSt. to the nearest faux hipster diner, you’re less likely to be called out by irate readers than if you incompletely imagine a world in which giant griffins regularly prey on humans – because we’ve all walked down the wrong New York street at some point or other, whereas when it comes to griffins, we can all agree with the not-so-great Jacobean poet Sam Daniel, who said, “I never saw scarce one in all my life.”

So we get a genre that’s lazy from top to bottom (the ordinary people in The Lord of the Rings hear of wizards, orcs, balrogs, and a Dark Lord but have not the smallest trace of religion, because their author didn’t think to supply the want)(the clones in Steve Kent’s “Clone Saga” are imagined much closer to androids than clones)(aliens are so, so, SO often reptilian), but that’s hardly reason to dismiss it, as literature snobs always do: as mentioned, it’s something of a widespread failing. And the best of the sci-fi/fantasy genre makes up for the lapses in comprehensiveness with narrative verve and sweep of imagination – two things very often missing from mainstream “literary” fiction. Scenes like the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring or the banquet scene at the beginning of Dune amply demonstrate that Tolkien or Herbert could have written fine parallel scenes in mainstream fiction – but how much grander are the stakes, how much more exciting the background, when worlds are in peril instead of Newark mortgages?

I mentioned “top to bottom,” and every summer I revisit both localities. Years ago I posted a “Best Of” list here at Stevereads, and looking over my plans for a summer of sci-fi/fantasy re-reading, I thought I’d like to update it. After all, when sci-fi snobs ask for such a list, it’s always good to have a up-to-date version they can ignore, and the old 2007 list necessarily has a few lacunae. So here’s a new, updated list for 2014 of the best science fiction and fantasy novels ever published:

50. Norstrilia – Cordwainer Smith

49. The Pastel City – M. John Harrison

48. The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury

47. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein

46. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

on wings of song45. Fire Upon the Deep – Vernor Vinge

44. Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg

43. The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester

42. Gormenghast – Merwyn Peake

41. The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wels

40. The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula LeGuin

39. Up the Walls of the World – James Tiptree

38. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne

37. Dune – Frank Herbert

36. Dracula – Bram Stoker

35. Silverlock – John Myers Myers

34. The Last Unicorn – Peter S. Beagle

lucy reads the king of elfland's daughter33. The King of Elfland’s Daughter – Lord Dunsany

32. Neuromancer – William Gibson

31. Shadow of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

30. The Worm Ouroboros – E. R. Eddison

29. Elric of Melnibone – Michael Moorcock

28. A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin

27. Dhalgren – Samuel Delaney

26. The Once and Future King (and the Book of Merlyn) – T. H. White

25. Anno Dracula – Kim Newman

24. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

23. The Mabinogion Quartet – Evangeline Walton

22. Dr Jeykll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

21. Slan – A. E. Van Vogt

20. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville

19. On Wings of Song – Thomas Disch

18. A Million Open Doors – John Barnes

17. Glory – Alfred Coppel

16, The Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbonswatchmen

15. Doorways in the Sand – Roger Zelazney

14. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm

13. The Winter Queen – Joan Vinge

12. World War Z – Max Brooks

11. Hyperion – Dan Simmons

10. Damiano – R. A. MacAvoy

9. The Dragon Waiting – Robert Ford

8. Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter Miller

7. 2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson

6. Startide Rising – David Brin

5. Domesday Book – Connie Willis

4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

3. Dragonflight – Anne McCaffrey

2. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke

1. The Lord of the Rings – J. R. R. Tolkien

price-of-the-phoenix-176x300But summertime doesn’t usually call for “Best Of” lists – as the heat and humidity worsen, my mind tends to crave the curious cooling effect of crap-genrework. And when that happens, I turn to, shall we say, off-brand sci-fi/fantasy, books that, while being no rivals to Tolstoy or Balzac, have just the same given me enormous amounts of pleasure over the years. Theres’ a peculiar mongrel joy to some crappy books, and whatever that joy is, it’s enormously enhanced when the genre is sci-fi/fantasy; the genre was founded, after all, on the cheeseball sincerity of the Victorian era and carried irresistibly forward by the lurid looniness of the pulp era. It’s true that things have moved on from the stamp of that lowly origin (though for the snob, it’s always a high noon of ray guns and bug-eyed monsters), but there are certain moods – certain seasons – that still crave cheeseball above all else. For me, summer is that season, and here are a few of the books I find myself enjoying despite themselves year after year:

The Price of the Phoenix and The Fate of the Phoenix by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath – I’ve gushed before about these two hugely corny, hugely thrilling Star Trek novels, written at the very dawn of Star Trek fiction, in which the stalwart captain and crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise square off against Omne, the towering rebel who’s figured out a way to use Federation transporter and replicator technology to create the Phoenix Device – a way to defeat death – and now wants to sell it to the highest bidder in an attempt to sow universal chaos. I love everything about these books, from the spot-on dialogue to the ripping action to the best-ever novel portrayal of the sultry Romulan Commander from “The Enterprise Incident.” I know every word of these two booksthe last ranger cover by heart, and yet I keep reading them!

The Last Ranger by “Craig Sargent” – when you talk about ‘bottom,’ you can’t go much lower than this series (of which this is but the first volume) unless you start trafficking in quasi-porn like the Gor novels: these books tell the fervid, hyper-sexed story of a gorgeous, muscular young man, his savage pit bull, his motorcycle, and his endless supply of big guns as they all make their way across a post-apocalyptic America positively littered with power-mad warlords and slithering, deformed mutants. Stone, our young man, is always on some kind of quest or other, and he’s often captured and strapped to various tables by various sadistic madmen, and he always manages to both escape and find the one non-mutant buxom blonde within a hundred miles with which to “ease his burden.” Every line of these books is so hilariously over-the-top that I can never resist one each summer. Which shall it be this time? “The Madman’s Mansion”? “The Rabid Brigadier”? “The Vile Village”? Who can decide?

retief of the cdtJohn Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs – in my more enthusiastic moments, I’ve sometimes moved the first of ERB’s “John Carter” novels, A Princess of Mars, up to the other end of the spectrum, to the list of greats! Then I calm down, take a step back, and actually look at these books I love so much: the giant green Martian warriors, the radium pistols and antiquated Virginian dueling codes of honor, the leaping, adolescent narration, the gawd-awful plotting and pacing, the hysterical overwriting … and while all of that just stirs me to love these books a little bit more, it also serves to remind me how delusional it is to think of them as good science fantasy, let alone great. Because Burroughs was just making stuff up as he went along, very little in these books megmakes any actual sense even by the lights of the books themselves – but it doesn’t matter! When heroic Earthman John Carter unsheaths his sword and leaps into the fray to defend the honor of his beloved Dejah Thoris, I’m swept away again to the arid plains of Barsoom. Just as I am every summer.

Conan of Cimmeria by Robert E. Howard – and when I’m not being swept away to Barsoom, these dodgy sword-and-sorcery adventures of Howard’s towering barbarian warrior sweep me away to a mythical pre-history where fugitive surviving dinosaurs can be found in impenetrable swamps, where giant spiders and slugs from the stars prowl unnamed canyons, and where bloodthirsty warlords always manage to underestimate our taciturn hero. And just like Sherlock Holmes yesterday, Jason-Momoa-Conanwhen it comes to Conan, I’ll often supplement my re-reading of Howard’s original tales with any of the dozens of pastiche novels the character has inspired, many of which are good clean brainless fun.

Meg by Steve Alten - and speaking of good clean mindless fun! Books don’t get any more mindless than these giant-prehistoric-shark novels by the amiable Alten, starting with this one and continuing through several sequels, culminating (so far!) in that modern-day classic Hell’s Aquarium. Our summers for the last forty years have been largely re-defined by one certain book about a giant killer shark, so the season would feel undressed without an example of the breed.

There are other choice crapola candidates – far too many to list, of course. But these gems – and their more worthy brethren on the big list – will tide me over just fine until the cooler weather returns in late October.

lucy reading the last ranger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments to Summer Books: Sci-Fi/Fantasy!

  1. Robert's Gravatar Robert
    June 3, 2014 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    Basically, I live for the occasions when you talk about speculative fiction, my favorite genre.

    Have you read China Mieville? What a stupid question. Of course you have. But what did you think?

    Keep up the awesomeness Steve!

  2. Chuck Darwin's Gravatar Chuck Darwin
    June 3, 2014 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    “Hyperion” is actually by Dan Simmons. It’s terrific. The sequel – “The Fall of Hyperion” – is even better.

  3. J's Gravatar J
    August 8, 2014 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    God, J.R.R. Tolkien and Susanna Clarke are the last artists in the world whom I’d qualify as “lazy.” Surely the absence of religion in Tolkien–the devoted Catholic–has more to do with Tolkien’s ideas of the nature, origin and use of true fantasy (or fairy-stories) than with cutting corners. And Clarke! My God. I would put these two in a tradition closer to Alice, Grimm and A Midsummer Night’s Dream than Star Trek. It’s like saying historical fiction is fundamentally gimmicky, and then putting Ford Maddox Ford and Patrick O’Brian on a list with Suzannah Dunn.

  4. Vengas Bong's Gravatar Vengas Bong
    September 25, 2014 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    Come on. This can sound cruel, however I strongly advise you to reconsider the things you just mentioned. This is so messed up. Let’s continue over email: vengasbong@gmail.com

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