Iain M- Banks

The Top Ten Science-Fiction Books

Depending how long you've read this blog, known me, or followed me on Twitter, you might have an idea of how much of a sci-fi fan I am. After having read quite a few 'Top Ten Science-Fiction Books,"lists (here, and here for starters), I felt like none of them were quite spot-on and reflected my own interests. Sure, there is some overlap (it seems like almost everyone agrees on a few of the top ones), bu there are also some I haven't read or did read and hated.

So what does it take for a book to make my list? It has to have an epic story, great characters, cool technology and that certain sort of otherworldly weirdness you only get with good sci-fi - the kind that gives you chills and means you can't really explain the story to your friend, they just have to read it, you know?

A lot of the books on my list aren't just books, either - they're series. I'm including these examples because I feel that these need to be read in their entirety to full appreciate their stories. Science-fiction world building doesn't always happen over a few dozen pages.

And without further ado, my list:

1.) The Mars Trilogy - Kim Stanley Robinson

I think I first read this trilogy when I was about 13 years old, and it made me fall in love with the potential for science. The quick plotline is that in the mid 21st century, humans have been able to colonize Mars. The books follow the human drama, politics, relationships and science of some of the original colonists over the span of a few hundred years. Take out the science-fiction setting, and you've still got a great story of politics and drama. The space-age setting, so close to where we are now, adds a sense of optimism to the books and just makes them that much more interesting. I also don't think that you should consider yourself having finished reading the series unless you've also tacked on The Martians, Icehenge, Galileo's Drams and The Memory of Whiteness to the original Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars trilogy (I still cry  every time I finish reading Blue Mars). While they aren't officially once series, they feel like they're part of the same story, taking place thousands of years apart.

2.) House of Suns- Alastair Reynolds

Most of Alastair Reynolds' books are hard to read: the characters are unlikeable. They're frequently in pain. Something terrible has happened to them, and they know something else will soon happen to them. This book is no different, but at least the two main characters have each other. Campion and Purslane are two "shatterlings" who travel the universe, having new experiences, and meeting up with their fellow shatterlings about every 200,000 years to exchange memories. The pair fall in love (a shatterling taboo) and to atone for this they try and bring  Hesperus, a beautiful golden robot who is one of the machine people, to their next meet-up. Not everything goes as planned, and the book throws out some big ideas on a massive, cosmic scale. It's a beautiful story, and I know I'm not the only one that loved it.

3.) Ilium and Olympos - Dan Simmons

While it seems that most lists of the top science-fiction books include one of Dan Simmons' books, more often than not they include Hyperion or Songs of Kali rather than this pair. I think that part of the reason is because this two-part series is just so hard to explain. The basic plot is that the Greek and Trojan armies are re-enacting the Trojan War according to the Illiad. The big thing is that the gods themselves are real here, but rather than supernatural beings, just post-humans powered by advanced nanotechnology. You're never sure what time period this takes place in, or where, but other characters include literature-loving robots that were once sent to explore the solar system, a mysterious Odysseus, naively innocent, yet technologically advanced, future humans, and Caliban. Yes, Caliban, from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Read this pair of books if you have an interest in Greek mythology and classic literature.

4.) Ender's Game (The Ender Quintet) - Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game is the story of one Ender Wiggin, a young boy who is recruited at an early age for 'battle school' in orbit around Earth to learn about space strategy so that Earth can defend itself from the alien 'buggers.' It is definitely a great book of a boy growing up (I think "coming of age tale" is the proper term), but also mixes a sub plot of geopolitics (previously discussed on BlogCampaigning in the post "Peter and Valentine were the original bloggers") and the morality of destroying an alien race.  One of the classics, for sure, and also one of the only books on this series that is part of a larger series, but of which I'm not recommending the rest of the series. Pick this book up for the educator or young adult in your life.

5.) Neuromancer- William Gibson

I bet that a majority of the people reading this blog have read and been influenced by Gibson's Neuromancer - I mean, come on: he's the guy credited with inventing the word 'cyberspace.' I first read it when I was in university, and pretty much couldn't put it down. Despite the fact that it is nearly 30 years old, it still reads like it was written yesterday (though the absence of mobile phones is a bit of a problem) and is a great look at what our future could still become. I see the influences of this book in all sorts of sci-fi and popular culture (The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell, for starters). Follow it up with Count zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, the other two books in Gibson's 'Sprawl Trilogy.' I also think it is probably for the best that no one has been able to get a Neuromancer movie off the ground (try New Rose Hotel with Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe if you're jonesing for some Gibson on the big screen. Johnny Mnemonic is also based on one of Gibson's short stories).

6.) Starship Troopers - Robert Heinlein

As is normally the case, the book is way better than the movie. In this case, they are also totally different. The book Starship Troopers is more about responsibility and what that means to be a man. The gist of the book is that a young Johnny Rico  leaves home after graduation to join the mobile infantry, gets shipped off to boot camp, survives it and grows into his role as the leader of his own squadron of troops.

7.) The Demolished Man - Alfred Bester

According to Wikipedia, The Demolished Man was first published in 1952-53. The story is about an incredibly wealthy and successful businessman, Ben Reich, on a future Earth where telepaths take high-paying roles as consultants and lawyers. Reich's one-minded passion to commit the perfect crime fuels the book, and the book's frantic pace makes it hard to put down and makes it feel like it was written decades after books written by Bester's contemporaries. This is the type of old-school sci-fi that influenced the cyberpunkers of the 80s.

8.) The Han Solo Adventures - Brian Daley

When I first read this book, I was super into Star Wars. It was probably in the mid '90s, pre- remastered remake buzz. I didn't know much about sci-fi beyond the original trilogy of movies and a few comics. This series of books cemented Han Solo as one of my favourite pop culture heroes, and also taught me that science fiction could be way weirder and way better than the original Star Wars universe.

9.) The Culture Series -  Iain Banks

As with some of the others on this list, I didn't think it was fair to pick just one book from Banks' culture series. To fully understand that incredible world of star-faring humans, you have to read the whole series. None of the books are connected enough that you have to read them in a particular order, but reading them all will give you much better idea of the world Banks has constructed. The basic premise is that race of pan-humans has reached almost technological perfection. Rather than subliming into the ether to become something like gods as other races do when they reach a similar level of technology, The Culture spends their time on massive spaceships or orbitals pursuing a hedonistic lifestyle. These orbitals and ships are sentient, as are drones, constant companions to the characters in the books. The action takes places on the fringes of The Culture, with newcomers or outsiders to the society being the main characters. On a side note, Banks' non-sci fi  book The Business is also a pretty good read. For a bit of a background on The Culture, read this post on io9. I also recommend 'A Few Notes On The Culture' by Iain Banks himself.

10.) Anathem- Neal Stephenson

This is definitely another one of those books that falls in the "I can't explain it, you just have to read it" category. The first section of the book tells the story of a planet where the keepers of knowledge and science live spartan, cloistered lives like I imagine the monks of today might, while the rest of their society lives freely and worships a variety of gods and religions. Read the book to see what happens next, and be prepared for a lot of thinking.

Have you read any of these? What are your favourite Science-Fiction books?

A Few Quick Book Reviews

dsc01404 (Note: I originally wrote this post back in March, while I was on vacation, but forgot about it in my drafts and just got around to finishing it now.)

One of the things I like most about vacations is that there is plenty of time to get away from the computer and just sit down and read a few books. In the spirit of Darren Barefoot's Capsule Movie Reviews, I'm giving you a few quick reviews of some books that I've recently read.

Charles Stross — Halting State

One of the reasons I like science fiction so much is because of the prescient way it has of looking at the future. Although Halting State was written in 2007, the main plot involving the theft of some virtual goods in exchange for real world cash is remarkably similar to the recent events that transpired around thousands being stolen from EVE Online. Halting State earns a 7/10 from me. It loses one point on my scale because the Scottish accents of the main characters were written phonetically, and that always frustrates me.

Allen Steele — Coyote

This book was actually terrible for a number of reasons. For one, I had a hard time believing that anyone could plan a colonization expedition so poorly, both in terms of equipment and personnel. I know that it is fiction, and that a perfectly planned mission wouldn't have had the same sense of drama, but you would think that the author would at least ensure his colonists remembered to bring proper shelter on their mission.

For the most part, I found that that this book was trying to be a tale of exploring a new world and founding a new socio-political system, but it came across as entirely too Yankee-centric and derivative of the far-superior Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. I'm rating this one 3/10.

Neal Stephenson — Anathem

Neal Stephenson is a master storyteller and his latest novel, Anathem, is further proof of this. Without revealing too much (just read it!), the book is about a world with a society of monks who live in seclusion from the rest of society and technology in order not to be influenced by what they call the "saecular" world. Like all of his books, it goes a lot deeper than this, and I really don't want to say more for fear of spoiling a beautifully written story. 9/10

Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner —  Freakonomics

This is one of those books that I always felt I should read, so when I found a copy I gave it a shot. I was sorely disappointed, and although I realize that they did some interesting studies and that it was well written, it didn't really teach me anything except that "there is a hidden side of everything". 5/10

Iain M. Banks — Matter and Look To Windward

I'm throwing these books into a double review, because they are both part of Ian M. Banks's series of books set in the "Culture" universe. The Culture is a galactic race of post-humans that live for hundreds of years, live in an utopian society essentially free from worry, and travel the stars in enormous ships or orbital colonies housing hundreds of billions of people. The main characters are the sentient minds of the ships in which the humans live just as often as they are humans, but this isn't one of those "robots are taking over" stories. Rather, the action takes place on the edges of the Culture society where they interact with (and try to direct the development of) societies and alien races less evolved. Despite the enormous scope of these settings, Banks focuses on a few characters. The books are filled with big, huge ideas as well as human-scale drama, and make for a great read. The entire series of Culture books by Banks gets a solid 8/10 from me.

Yeah, I read a lot of sci-fi. Any other good book recommendations for me? Summer is the time to get some reading in.