From the author: In which the author recommends some books that you may or may not have heard of.
Just in time for the holidays, here are my gift suggestions for your science fiction loving pals who have already read everything written in this century. Some of these are out of print, but you can find all of them online if you're willing to look around a bit. In order from best to extra-best:
10. The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
Is Vonnegut really a science fiction writer? I do not care. This book has a guy named Malachi Constant, a really stupid interplanetary war, a faithful dog, an infundibulum, and an alien who looks like a toilet plunger. What more could you possibly ask?
9. Spaceling, by Doris Piserchia
This is more YA than adult sci-fi, but it’s the book that first pulled me into the genre, so it makes the list. Spaceling provides exactly the mix of funny and heart-wrenching that I try to achieve in my own work. I read it for the first time when I was twelve, and it's stuck with me ever since.
8. Shakespeare’s Planet, by Clifford D. Simak
This book has a lot of plot points that you could pick apart if you had the inclination, but it also has a sort of eerie wistfulness to it that I find irresistible. The heroes, if you can call them that, are a tentacled, fanged monster named Carnivore and a bumbling, block-headed robot. It also, like many of the books on this list, has the great virtue of being short enough to read in one long afternoon.
7. Dying of the Light, by George R. R. Martin
Long before he got into writing the interminable Song of Ice and Fire, Mr. Martin put out a series of short novels and long stories set in a future universe on the far side of a devastating interstellar war between humanity and a mostly unseen alien race. This book is the best of the bunch.
6. Up the Walls of the World, by James Tiptree Junior
Tiptree, whose real name was Alice B. Sheldon, was an acknowledged master of the genre, and this is one of her finest books. Up the Walls of the World addresses gender roles, the ethics of self-preservation vs. avoiding harm to others, and female genital mutilation, all while telling a gut-clinchingly heartbreaking story.
5. The Forge of God, by Greg Bear
I’m throwing this one on the list because (1) it’s a truly great book; (2) I’m extremely partial to end-of-the-world scenarios; and (3) most importantly, one of the final scenes is set at Taft Point in Yosemite National Park, which is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. That scene was most likely the subconscious genesis of my Hikepocalypse series of short stories, which continues to spawn new entries to this day.
4. City, by Clifford D. Simak
Hate to double up on Simak, but this is another of those books that grabbed me when I was very young and never really let go. It includes talking dogs, which is good, the extinction of humanity, which is okay, and some really obviously stupid Lysenkoism, which is bad. Mix them all together, though, and you wind up with something very special.
3. The Uplift War, by David Brin
This is the third book in Brin’s Uplift series (the first two being Sundiver and Startide Rising) but the way these books are written, you really don’t need to read them in order if you don't care to. The Uplift War includes some fantastic galaxy-spanning world building, talking chimps and dolphins, a hopeless battle against insurmountable odds, and super scary praying mantis dudes. What’s not to like?
2. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
I don’t hate doubling up on Vonnegut at all, because he’s without question my all-time favorite writer. Cat’s Cradle is an incredibly dark but also hilarious examination of free will, religion, and man’s inevitable urge to self-destruction. It also contains one of the most haunting sentences I’ve ever read: “She laughed, and touched her finger to her lips, and died.” Can’t beat that.
1. Definitely not Foundation, Dune, Starship Troopers, or The Man who Fell to Earth
I read all of those books at one time, and ugh, I hated them all. Classics? Meh.
I guess I have to pick an actual number one, though, huh? Okay. Let’s go with… A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge. Possibly not old enough to be a classic, but it’s got spaceships, some interesting stellar physics, and a whole planet full of extremely sympathetic giant spiders. Tough to pull that one off. Well done, Mr. Vinge.