Aug 8 2007

Sci-Fi and Fantasy Favorites

Posted in 11, Books § 0 Comments

You know the drill: the roll call of 11 sci-fi / fantasy stories (could be a book, a trilogy, a series) that I would select for that clichéd desert island stranding.

Speaking of clichés, some of the entries enumerated below would fit that bill in the context of "best of..." or favorites listings. And I sure that many would be aghast at the egregious omissions: no Harry Potter, Star Wars, or Wheel of Time; no Heinlien, Asimov, or Douglas Adams.

"Heretic!" you exclaim.

Well, sorry, you'll just have to make your own list. Or maybe just leave one in a comment.

I'm sure that as I continue to read, this list will surely change. I find it hard to imagine the top 3 ever being bumped off, but that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, now would it?

As a point of clarification, I have not included representitives of any (sub) genres here that many folk would deem as belonging to my classification of sci-fi / fantasy. For instance, you will not find Stephen King or Anne Rice on this list - I classify them as horror. Perhaps its a splitting of hairs. I don't know... perhaps its akin to the age-old question of whether golf or NASCAR should be considered "sports". I say no.

So without further adieu, I give you my somewhat sorted list of 11 all time favorite sci-fi / fantasy "stories":

  1. A Song of Fire and Ice

    George R. R. Martin

    Until I encountered Martin's thouroughly intoxicating saga of politics, intrigue, history, warfare, horror, and sex, I never imagined that any fantasy novel could captivate me in the way that The Lord of the Rings had for so many years. The third book of the series, A Storm of Swords, is quite simply the single best sci-fi/fantasy novel I've ever read, and easily in my top 5 books of all time.

    What I like so much about these books are the characters. They are more like real people than you'll likely find in most novels, each with their own flaws and strengths. This saga is not one of the traditional good versus evil yarns, where the "good guys" and "bad guys" are so clearly polarized and behave in predictable fashion. Instead, Martin has populated the world of Westros with characters of varying shades of gray - moral ambiguity abounds. Often the notion of who is "good" and who is "bad" shifts, depending upon from whose perspective you are viewing a particular character.

    But there is a catch: of the (currently) planned 7 books, only 4 are complete. It is a bit painful waiting for the next entry into the series, so if you're put off by that - get over it! These books are just too good to wait.

  2. The Lord of the Rings

    J. R. R. Tolkien

    Since my introduction to The Hobbit in 5th grade, I have revisited Middle Earth more times than I can count. For those who have only seen Peter Jackson's movies - who, all things considered, did a reasonably good job of bring these stories to the big screen - you owe yourself the favor of discovering why these books are considered the quientessential fantasy novels of all time.

    One complaint I hear frequently is the slow start of the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring. Having read the whole series end-to-end at least a half a dozen times, I've come to savor that languid pace, of how it evokes a wistfulness of bucolic naiveté of life in the Shire.

  3. The Saga of the Pliocene Exile

    Julian May

    This 4-book series could be considered sci-fi or fantasy, perhaps both. Along with LOTR and ASOFAI, a member of my all-time top 3 sci-fi / fantasy stories.

    As an added bonus, May also gives us The Galactic Milieu, which picks up rought 6 million years into the future after the Pliocene Exile. Originally, I had intended to feature the Milieau on this list as an independent entry but opted instead to include it together with the Exile books since there are so many tightly bound story lines.

    Actually, you'll also want to transition from the Exile to the Milieua with [The Intervention][4a], a "short" 2-book prequel.

  4. The Elric Sage

    Michael Moorcock

    Moorcock seems to have been eclipsed by many of the newer generation of (dark) fantasy writers, but he certainly deserves a bit more pub than seems to be in evidence lately.

    I could have easily gone with the one of the other Eternal Champion series incarnations such as Hawkmoon or Corum, but give the nod to Elric for the purposes of this list.

  5. Lord Valentine's Castle

    Robert Silverberg

    Another nice weave of sci-fi with fantasy, this time taking us across a vast, sprawling planet of nearly unimaginable size. The two follow-up books involving Valentine are also enjoyable, but skip the remaining Majipoor Cycle entries devoted to Prestimion.

  6. Dune

    Frank Herbert

    Before all the sequels - Children of Dune, Cash Cow of Dune - there was just Dune, and along with LOTR, this gem is ubiquitous across most "Best of..." sci-fi lists. And for good reason!

    One of the first politically oriented sci-fi novels that I ever read, it took a re-reading as an adult to really appreciate the complexities involved in the story. Like The Fellowship of the Ring, the storey here moves slowly at first, setting the stage carefully and meticulously. Again, this is not a negative in my estimation.

    When I recommend this book to others, I also recommend that they skip the sequels, but I have actually met a few people who enjoyed the follow-ups as well.

  7. The Hyperion Cantos

    Dan Simmons

    These books take a bit of effort, but are well worth it. The concepts and ideas are incredible, particulary in the second half of the series (Endymion's tale).

    To date, these are the only books that I have not read multiple times. Not that I won't - I look forward to the day when time has conspired to provide a renewed "freshness" to the story to warrant a re-reading.

  8. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever

    Stephen R. Donaldson

    Thomas Covenant is the eptimoe of anti-heroism, a man of such self-loathing that at times one can only feel a sense of perverse satisfaction with all the travails and suffering he must endure.

    Not sounding like a ringing endorsement so far? Forget Covenant: the real story here is in the people, place and things that make up the Land, the alternate reality in which Covenant finds himself repeatedly "visiting" (my favorites being the haruchai).

    There are actually 3 trilogies involving the Land and Covenant (to a greater or lesser degree). The Second Chronicles may be just as good as the first. The Last Chronicles is currently underway, with only the first book being published at this time, but things are looking good so far.

  9. Saga of the Well World

    Jack L. Chalker

    I'm sure we all have a movie, a TV show, or a book we first encountered at a young, impressionable age that doesn't quite, perhaps, hold up to our expectations upon later consideration. The animated movie Wizards is one such example for me: at the time (I was 13-ish) I thought it was quite simply the one of the greatest viewing experiences of my life. Many years later, I realized that the adult me didn't necessarily share the same enthusiastic adulation that the teenaged me extolled upon the movie.

    To a lesser degree, Chalker's Well World novels represent a somewhat similar theme. The first three books (or "originals" as I think of them), Midnight at / Exiles at / Quest for / the Well of Souls, are my guilty pleasure books belonging on this list. Not that they're bad, but rather that I doubt that I would have included them here had I read them for the first time as an adult.

  10. The Silmarillion

    J. R. R. Tolkien

    True, I lumped two other series' together due to their tightly bound story lines. But we're talking The Silmarillion here. The stories contained herein I think are even more poignant and compelling than LOTR. The tale of Hurin and his descendents, for instance. And darker... much darker.

    Be forwarned that if you found it difficult to make it through LOTR, you will not enjoy this book. I did. But then, I'm just geeky that way.

  11. A Wizard of Earthsea

    Ursula K. Le Guin

    Like the Well World books, this one makes it onto the list as more of a throwback to my younger days. Even though I read this book as part of a trilogy, each book is a stand-alone tale. The second book, The Tomb of Atuan was boring at best, and The Farthest Shore was merely an also-ran.

    Still, this is one of the few books I recommended to young readers, so therefore it passes muster as #11.