The 10 SF/F Works That Meant the Most to Me
For no particular reason other than I want to, and because tomorrow marks the 12th anniversary of my very first pro publication in science fiction, here’s a list of the ten science fiction and fantasy works that meant the most to me before I was professionally published as a science fiction writer — with additional Honorable Mentions following.
What does “meant the most to me” mean? Pretty much what it says — that these works are the works I returned to again and again as pieces of writing, as stories, and as experiences. I’m not interested in arguing whether these books and works are the “best”; I couldn’t possibly care about that. I am interested in explaining why they mean as much as they do to me.
The list is arranged alphabetically rather than by rank, because, honestly, I really wouldn’t know how to rank them.
1. Always Coming Home, Ursula Le Guin: From what I can tell, this is not one of Le Guin’s best-regarded books, in part, I would assume, due to its unconventional structure; only about a third of it is tied into a narrative, while the rest of it is basically worldbuilding background and fragments. But it’s these very fragments that made it so hugely important to me as a teenager. I’d always been the sort of kid who could stare at maps for hours, or read books of trivia about ancient civilizations — and fantasy ones too, since in junior high I read the Dungeons & Dragons bestiaries not to run a campaign but simply to enjoy the fiddly details of the D&D world.
Always Coming Home was like that… except that it was written by Le Guin, which meant that there was a true structure behind all the fragments of worldbuilding, and art to the manner in which it was all written. I didn’t read the book in one go, all the way through — I would read a little bit, flip forward to another section, go back further to another part, and so on. There was more there than I could absorb in one sitting, which to me was part of the point of the book. I was always coming back to it, and in doing so, letting the world of the book grow on me organically, until it became as real as I believe Le Guin would hope it would become for her readers.
2. The Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper: By today’s standards the installments of Cooper’s series are laughably slim — all five of its books could fit comfortably within one of the later books of the Harry Potter series, with room left over. But volume isn’t power, and in particular the second book, from which the entire series takes its name, is a masterclass in how to vividly draw characters, setting, and stakes in remarkably few, well-considered words and story choices. I read The Dark is Rising just as I was about to have my eleventh birthday, the same birthday on which series hero Will Stanton learns of his new, mystical powers as well as his calling to save the world. I was as disappointed not to become an Old One as children a generation later would be to discover that an owl was not coming to invite them to Hogwarts.
One other thing that I appreciated about Cooper’s work, even as a child, was that she was canny in understanding how even good people can be thoughtless or even heartless. There’s a genuinely tragic betrayal in the course of The Dark is Rising that’s brought about because one of the ostensibly good characters risks the life of another character in a way that seems almost trivial. Cooper’s writing makes even a child feel the slighted character’s confusion and pain, so when temptation comes to him, you understood why he turned away from the light… and why it wasn’t mere weakness of character (or plot convenience) that he did.
3. Dune, by Frank Herbert: Dune is so well-known in science fiction circles that I feel I can probably be brief about it here and simply note that it’s a highwater mark of massive-scale science fiction worldbuilding for a reason.
Mind you, Dune also absorbs its fair share of potshots as well — the characters are humorlessly heroic, and its plotting and pacing can accurately be described as both epic and turgid. For me, that works here. Dune is very clearly mythology, and mythology has (for me, anyway) its own sort of ridiculous stateliness about it. Indeed, when the Dune series downshifts into more intimate stories (as it does in Children of Dune and Dune Messiah; the additional books in the series are unread by me), it rapidly loses its appeal. For Dune, it really is go big or go home.
4. Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons: This book is the sequel to Hyperion, which won the 1989 Hugo Award for Best Novel in part because Simmons, that rat bastard, showed off how easily he could write in several different styles and off several different discrete stories, and still tie them all together into a single narrative whole. It’s a well-deserved Hugo win.
But for all that Hyperion exists for me largely to set the scene for Fall of Hyperion. Hyperion, for all its immense technical skill, is all origin stories, all the time. In Fall, we don’t have to waste time setting up characters, we just chuck them headlong into the story — and Simmons has got one hell of a story here. It’s propulsive, it’s dramatic, and it’s the end of the world, in more than one sense. And it’s every damn thing happening at once, with Simmons following several different plot lines, keeping them all sorted and switching between them with the sort of fluidity that you usually only get by hiring Thelma Schoonmaker.
Hyperion is the flashier of the two works, but Fall of Hyperion is to me just as technically impressive in its story telling — and even better in paying off the trials of its characters. Hyperion impresses me. Fall of Hyperion speaks to me.
5. Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper: In my mind, Grass is in many substantial ways the worldbuilding equal and counterpoint to Dune — each essay a unique global ecosystem with very specific creatures and cultures that exist only in them, and introduce an outsider (Paul Atriedes in Dune, Marjorie Westriding-Yrarier in Grass) who massively disrupts the equilibrium. And both touch more than a little on religion as a political system.
What Tepper manages that Herbert could never could in the Dune series is to make her characters recognizably examples of humanity — flawed and frustrated people, not always likable, and often in over their heads. This gives Grass the best of both worlds: epic scale and down-to-earth, relatable characters. It also makes Grass in many ways one of the most complete science fiction books I know of, functioning on every scale it works in.
(I’ll also note that in many ways, Raising the Stones, Grass’ very loose sequel, is even better — and more subversive. Honestly, I don’t know why Tepper is not better known and better honored in science fiction than she is.)
6. Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville: As I’ve explained elsewhere, Perdido Street Station gets my vote for the best science fiction/fantasy novel of the 21st Century to date, and, to quote myself, “to be clear, I don’t think the vote is even close”:
Bas-Lag in itself is a monumental achievement in world-building, a place Miéville so cannily describes that I can picture it in my head better than I can imagine some places here on my own planet. I love re-reading Perdido simply to go walking the streets of New Crobuzon once more. The novel’s story is less of a direct narrative than it is following around people too wrapped up into their own concerns to realize just how much they’re pushing their world toward oblivion, but this is a feature, not a bug, in my opinion. And then there’s the fact that as a formal exercise in genre, it’s a bomb lobbed into the intersection of science fiction and fantasy — Perdido is neither, it just is and is enough so that the term “New Weird” was either created or retconned into service to accommodate it.
The way I would explain Perdido, in reference to Old Man’s War, is as follows: Old Man’s War is a thick, juicy steak that when you put it in your mouth you go, “Damn, I forget how much I love steak.” Perdido Street Station, on the other hand, is molecular gastronomy: a whole new way of looking at cooking, which when the results are put in front of you, you go, “Wait. Is that food?” Both are good, and depending on your taste, one may suit you more than the other. But at the end of the day, one is a truly excellent steak, and one is an invention. And that matters.
Yup, that still works for me.
7. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson: There are many reasons to love Snow Crash, among them the fact that Stephenson seems to be pegging the 21st century decline of Western civilization in it rather depressingly accurately. But the reason I love it is that it still has the best first chapter in all of science fiction, one that not only reads like effortlessly cool beat poetry, is funnier than 99.9% of science fiction ever was and has the sort of propulsive rythm to it that dares you to blink, but it also, compactly and elegantly, sets you in the world of novel and makes it make sense without making you aware that it’s doing so.
In short, Snow Crash’s first chapter is a perfect miniature of worldbuilding, so successful that you never doubt anything else that Stephenson tells you about the world he’s built — you just go along for the ride. I would teach that first chapter, people. I would teach a whole class on it.
8. Speaker For the Dead, by Orson Scott Card: Another second book I consider better than its more famous predecessor, in this case Ender’s Game. Why do I like Speaker better than Ender? Well, for one thing, in this book, Ender has agency — he’s not a child manipulated by adults desperate for a solution to their problem and willing to destroy an innocent (actually, many innocents) in order to achieve their goals. Rather, he’s an adult who has chosen to put himself on a path of atonement, despite the loneliness and isolation that path requires of him.
Which is to say that Ender is more relatable and sympathetic here than he is in Ender’s Game, and also more realistic, in the sense that rather than being a preternaturally precocious child, he’s a grown man who has had time to experience life, deal with actual humans and temper his own self. He’s a major science fiction figure with a recognizable second act — that thing that F. Scott Fitzgerald (in an entirely different context, to be sure) denied it was possible to have. For me, it’s the far more interesting act.
9. Time Enough For Love, by Robert Heinlein: Like Always Coming Home, this is a sort of off-brand choice for this particular writer; it’s not the best known or best loved of Heinlein’s books, and indeed it’s problematic in a number of ways, not the least is that it’s recognizably the start of Heinlein’s later phase, in which his urge to tie together all his works in a sexy, polyamorous bow degrades the actual storytelling that’s going on. Not to mention Lazarus Long having sex with his mom, which despite all attempts to normalize it is still pretty damn squicky.
But, eh, I don’t care. I love the character of Lazarus Long, a man who has lived for so long that he’s forgotten how to die, not that anyone around him is interested in helping him remember. He’s cantankerous, sentimental, blustery, full of great dialogue and, for better or worse, the apotheosis of the Heinlein/Campbell “competent man” — someone so many science fiction readers and writers want to be, despite the fact that Heinlein built his universes around Lazarus, an advantage normal humans don’t have, with regard to the universe in which they exist.
I’m pretty sure growing up that I didn’t fall into the trap of wanting to be Lazarus Long, or Jubal Harshaw, or any of the other stock Heinlein wise men one could name, but I did learn to appreciate what they do in science fiction, and when they’re valuable — and what their pitfalls are. To that end, I think Lazarus Long might recognize John Perry as a distant relation: Competent and sentimental, to be sure. Maybe a little less crankily judgmental.
10. Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin: One of the most gorgeously written books in the English language in the last quarter century of the 20th Century. You can argue with me about that if you like. I will just smile and nod politely and ignore you. This is one of the few books of fantasy or science fiction where I literally do not care whether the book pays attention to its plot, because the writing is so lovely that it is its own reward.
This is also a book that I can love unreservedly without any authorial jealousy, because it is so far removed from my own skills and interests as a writer that there’s almost no intersection between its strengths as a book and my own talents as a storyteller. It’s nice to read a book without having an urge to pick it apart to reverse engineer it.
This is also, incidentally, one of those books that some people will tell you is not actually a fantasy book, because Helprin is otherwise known as a literary writer, and the book itself is highly regarded by people who care about serious literature and blah blah blah. My response to this: Whatever. It’s fantasy and anyone who would deny it, either in genre or out of it, is foolish.
Ariel by Steve Boyett and Emergence by David R. Palmer, both of which have the light hand with dialogue and exposition that I love to read and very definitely cribbed from when I became a writer. The Wrinkle in Time series by Madeleine L’Engle because of its lovely characters, including Charles Wallace, still the best-drawn example of the “young genius” archetype. The Sandman by Neil Gaiman and The Watchmen by Alan Moore, which broke me of my (totally unconscious) snobbery regarding visual storytelling. Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart, which hit me sideways with its gentle humor and inspired me to learn more about a culture unknown to me. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, which offered empathy and anger, and showed that single stories could add up to a larger whole. And The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, because it showed humor could happen in science fiction. Which ultimately turned out to be a good thing for me, I would say.