Our 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 St. 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
45. 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
35. Silverlock – John Myers Myers
34. The Last Unicorn – Peter S. Beagle
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
24. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
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
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
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
But 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 books 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?
John 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 makes 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, when 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.