Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965)
Where to start with this, the king of epic science fiction novels? Well, frankly, I avoided it for years. The 1984 film adaptation flat-out didn’t work for me in all the ways Star Wars did. It was messy, weird, and not much fun. The idea of wading through a doorstop novel stuffed with that kind of incoherent nonsense was about as appealing as sharing a sauna with Baron Harkonnen. But when someone bought me a great-looking hardback edition as a present – the giant sandworm artwork on the cover really fired my imagination – I’d just read a string of classic SF books from the same collection (Orion’s SF Masterworks) and found them to be some of the best books I’d ever read, in any genre. Besides, all those legendary SF writers extolling the genius of Herbert’s mammoth opus must know something, right?
I discovered pretty early on that Dune plays by its own tune. The worldbuilding is dense but fascinating, and oh-so expansive. Arthur C. Clarke likened it to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and it really is that layered, that detailed. The amount of head-hopping (switching from one character’s POV to another) could have been confusing, but I found I could follow it perfectly well. One of my least favourite genre tropes is the prophesied messiah, but Herbert made young Paul Atreides complex enough that I was rooting for him and his mother, Lady Jessica, a Bene Gesserit witch and concubine of Duke Leto Atreides (newly appointed sovereign of the crucial spice world, Arrakis), the whole way through.
Despicable villains, huge action scenes, mysticism, interstellar politics, espionage, romance, rebellions, and a classic coming-of-age odyssey: it could have been an incoherent mess like Lynch’s movie, but Herbert is a superb storyteller. You have to get in tune with his offbeat rhythms and his sometimes stiff, retro prose, and it’s certainly not a book you can casually dip in and out of. You have to delve into it, let the depth of world-building draw you in, and the scale of the meta-universe enwrap you. But the rewards are breathtaking. I loved everything about it. Strangely enough, I’ve never read the sequels, but I’ve re-read Dune three times.
I’m curious to see what Denis Villeneuve’s new film adaptation does with it. His Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 are sublime sci-fi movies, so who knows? He might finally be the one who cracks it.
The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester, 1956)
I’d heard of Bester by reputation—a titanic reputation—and of his two most revered works (the other being The Demolished Man), I chose this one first because I loved the title. It smacks of the grandiosity and mystery Star Trek purports to pursue but rarely does: exploring the unknown regions of the universe, etc. Well, as it turns out, neither does The Stars My Destination. Bester’s anti-hero, Gully Foyle, begins the story marooned in the wreckage of his spaceship. After subsisting for weeks on his own, he sees another ship approach. But rather than stop to help, the vessel speeds away and leaves him for dead. From that moment on, Gully is a man driven by revenge—an insane, unquenchable revenge that transforms him from an illiterate janitor to a sophisticated criminal and phenomenal “jaunter”.
Jaunting is the most ingenious use of teleportation I’ve ever come across. It’s a part of human evolution in Bester’s future. Some can do it and some can’t, but the idea of mass teleportation, entire populations migrating across the world by the power of thought, frankly blows my mind. Gully’s such a single-minded anti-hero, his quest is so dangerous and nuts, you can’t help but root for him. I love the unpredictable story. The prose takes huge creative risks and becomes more and more mesmerizing. The story, too, follows through on all its early promise and keeps going. By the end, I was ready for anything. Bester scored a knockout.
And the second time I read it, I was floored by the sheer audacity of the unhinged narrative leaps it takes. If I could write something half as original as this, I’d die a happy author.
War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells, 1898)
H.G. Wells’ classic needs no introduction. Written when the European colonial powers were ramping up the mechanisation of their armed forces and sabre-rattling on the brink of war, his alien invasion horror was very much a product of its time. Interestingly, Orson Welles’s legendary radio dramatisation in 1938, and the two most successful screen adaptations, Byron Haskin’s seminal film in 1953 and Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster in 2005, all channelled the political angst of their respective eras into Wells’ science fiction premise. In 1938, it was the threat of another global conflict that caused jittery Americans to freak out when they thought Welles’ broadcast was actually reporting the arrival of hostile Martians. In the 50s it was the threat of a communist invasion, the onset of the Cold War. In post-millennial America, the trauma of 9/11 raised public fear of terrorism to a febrile level. War of the Worlds is applicable to any age because its main theme, fear of aggression by a hostile superior force, strikes deep into the human psyche. Indeed, it can be said to have politically shaped much of the twentieth century, with famously tragic results.
I’ve heard people grumble about the ending, saying it’s anticlimactic. But to my mind it’s one of the most profound endings in all of fiction. Wells was a biologist, a philosopher, and a humanist. The genius of that final twist is that it incorporates all three of those, and much more, revealing, from the microscopic to the global, the fundamental interconnectedness of life on Earth. The alien colonists would have succeeded if their hubris hadn’t blinded them to the hidden weapons in Nature’s biosphere.
It’s scary, thrilling – when the Navy’s ironclad rammer, HMS Thunder Child, takes down a tripod, oh boy! – and takes humanity to the brink of the abyss. But when Wells finally turns the tables on the invaders, a great story becomes one for the ages.
Rendezvous With Rama (Arthur C. Clarke, 1973)
The set-up of this one is incredibly simple. A mysterious object of vast proportions is found drifting through our solar system, and only one ship has time to rendezvous before the object reaches perihelion. It turns out to be a massive, artificial cylinder, and better still…it’s hollow. The international investigating crew decides to venture inside…and one of my all-time favourite SF adventures begins.
I’d started another of Clarke’s books a few years before and found it too dry. But Rama fascinated me from start to finish. There’s an addictive anticipation from chapter to chapter, and I find myself floating, climbing, even cycling alongside the crew every inch of the way. It would be unfair to spoil any of the revelations. Nothing compares to a truly alien mystery, and the secrets of Rama amount to a very special SF read indeed. I revisit it often and am never disappointed.
Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton, 1990)
Crichton has such a straightforward prose style I can usually zip through his books in record time. They’re not always great, but they tend to have fascinating thematic dichotomies at their cores. Nature vs technology. Man vs Nature. Man vs Technology. He’s one of the best at exploring these conflicts in contemporary settings. His speculative premise for Jurassic Park is sheer brilliance. Dinosaurs brought back to life through genetic engineering. And he foreshadows the dire ethical and practical implications early on in his cautionary novel. He smartly uses Isla Nublar, the site of John Hammond’s crazy prehistoric theme park, as a kind of diorama for illustrating Ian Malcolm’s “chaos theory”, a mathematical Murphy’s Law governing complex systems. We experience firsthand the exciting possibilities and inevitable pitfalls of reintroducing predators from another time and attempting to control them.
Like most young teenagers in 1993, I queued up to see the movie on opening night (for 2 hours) and went back several more times that summer. I didn’t buy the novel until years later, after learning that Crichton had written and directed the fantastic 1974 sci-fi film, Westworld, which had a similar plot (robots that populate a themed holiday resort go berserk). Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is actually smarter than it’s given credit for. It doesn’t explore the science like the novel does, but it has a strong handle on all of Crichton’s themes. The book is a ripping adventure yarn and a well-thought-out sci-fi disaster thriller. Easy to read. Hard to put down. There’s a prescience running through most of this late writer’s work that keeps him relevant. Science does need to be carefully monitored, the ramifications of its discoveries do need to be better understood before we take one blind leap too many.
The sequel novel is pretty good as well, but I prefer the original.
The Forever War (Joe Haldeman, 1974)
The Forever War had languished on my shelf for a couple of years, and I don’t know what I was expecting. An author friend of mine cited it as one of the three best SF books ever written.
It’s certainly up there, I have to say. It’s no Starship Troopers clone; instead, Haldeman really nails the insulation/isolation of a soldier’s tour of duty across light-years of space. Over the course of the story, the time dilation he experiences from constantly travelling at near the speed of light means that while he’s aged only several years, Earth has advanced many thousands of years. He returns to civilisation periodically, but things have changed beyond all recognition. He and Marygay, his fellow trooper and the love his life, develop a lasting bond I find extremely moving.
Haldeman’s unfussy prose works so well because there’s so much going on between the words. It’s also full of black humour, which I’m always partial to. His world-building is rich and the protagonist, Private Mandella, displays deep humanity underneath what Audie Murphy referred to as “a weary indifference” to war. This is a great book. I’ve read it four times.
Ready Player One (Ernest Cline, 2011)
Pure geek fantasy. This is a sci-fi novel every gamer or film nerd who grew up in the 80s or 90s should read. The Oasis is basically a VR parallel world in cyberspace, in which users can be anyone or do anything their dreams desire, provided they have enough “coin”, or virtual credits (which they can win from other users). The inventor of the Oasis, James Halliday, initiated an infuriatingly difficult treasure hunt contest when he died. The eventual winner, though, will get full financial and operational control of his entire cyber universe! Despite years of searching, the legion of “gunters” – short for ‘egg hunters’ – has found squat. That is, until teenage slum-dweller Wade Watts (aka Parzival) one day uses his geek intuition to find and win the first key.
Then it’s a frenzy, everyone wanting to know who he is and where they can get hold of the fabled first key. Ruthless corporate overlord Nolan Serrento sends his army of “sixers” to swarm in and try to rig the rest of the contest for his own nefarious ends. An imaginative, prescient cyber adventure ensues, with Wade falling in love with equally nerdy warrior babe Artemis, and friends and enemies alike constantly vying for the prize. Author Ernest Cline stirs the rich pop culture brew to a wonderfully nostalgic lather. Ready Player One is magical at times, and always exciting. As a big fan of VR, I can absolutely see something like the Oasis coming into being one day. It’s addictive as a gaming platform, so I can only imagine how compelling it would be as a fully immersive cyber living experience.
Spielberg’s film adaptation is a lot fun as well, especially in 3D. But the book is more addictive.
Star Maker (Olaf Stapledon, 1937)
Be warned, this one’s a bit of an oddity. It’s a dense, first person account of an extraordinary out-of-body odyssey that spans the entire life of the cosmos and beyond. We meet myriad worlds, alien life-forms ranging from crustaceans to conscious galaxies, and even the Star Maker himself, the great Creator. I don’t know what Mr Stapledon was smogged on when he wrote this but I’ve never seen this many SF ideas packed into one novel. He penned it in 1937, which is kind of staggering because it means he probably coined more SF concepts in Star Maker than anyone else has in a full career.
It’s tough going in places due to the relentless bombardment of ideas without a proper narrative. The author also drifts outside SF throughout; he’s spiritually/philosophically inclined. But he’s also a poet, and I really lap up the eloquence of his prose. My imagination reels for days whenever I finish it. As trailblazing SF, it’s a one of a kind.
Under the Dome (Stephen King, 2009)
Stephen King’s massive Twilight Zone-type speculative drama has been called derivative by some. It might not be a wholly original idea (check out oddball 3D movie The Bubble from 1966, for one), but it’s easily the most fully-realized version of this particular premise. A giant, impenetrable, transparent dome appears one day over the small US town of Chester’s Mill. No one can leave, no one else can enter, and no one knows what the hell caused it. The expansive cast of characters includes a drifter just passing through (or so he thought), a tenacious reporter, various teenage meddlers, a pot-smoking farmer, and a deranged used car businessman who uses his position as Head Selectman of the town council to leverage a series of appalling power grabs.
The mystery of the dome deepens in unpredictable ways, and King is on superb storytelling form here. He attacks his premise from as many angles as he can, using it as a microcosm for social collapse, politics and power, global warming (pollution can’t leave the dome either), and various other thematic concerns. His characters are, as ever, rich and deeply flawed. Good and evil do rise in opposition among the survivors, but the roads to both take many winding turns. It’s a complex story, and the body count is high. I wouldn’t call it a horror, but it does have horrific moments. And some beautiful ones as well. As he did in The Mist and The Stand, among others, King shows us how disasters bring out the best and the worst in ordinary people.
I’ve read it twice, and it was just as absorbing the second time around.
Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card, 1985)
I read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game in two sittings (normally it takes me about a week to get through a novel). I’d caught snippets of controversy over the years, heard bits and pieces about the plot, and I even recall one of my favourite film directors, Wolfgang Petersen, was attached to make a Hollywood version at some point (in the end, Gavin Hood’s 2013 film was decent enough).
Six-year-old child prodigy Ender Wiggin is the youngest of three siblings with unlimited potential. They’ve all been monitored by the military authorities, and Colonel Graff, charged with selecting a child to be groomed for eventual leadership in a pending war against the alien “buggers”, picks Ender. His brother Peter is cruel and heartless, while his sister Valentine is too nice to ever hurt anyone. Ender, meanwhile, possesses the best attributes of both, from a military point of view. He is compassionate enough to make friends and inspire loyalty, but he also has a single-minded survival instinct that is cold and calculating. Graff reckons that with sufficient training, he can coax Ender into becoming a military tactician to rival Alexander the Great or Napoleon.
Did I mention Ender is only six?
Throughout his time in Command School, a top secret orbital station, the best and the worst of Ender are brought out—his will to succeed, to become master of the battleroom, sees him progress up the ranks with astonishing speed. He makes friends and enemies along the way, and is deeply haunted by memories of his cruel brother and the sister he loves. Graff is ever present behind the scenes, pulling the strings, manipulating the young genius into becoming the best he can be. The stunning third act is full of twists and turns as Ender must struggle to realize his true, frightening potential.
Wow, talk about a provocative novel! I’ve seen it listed as Young Adult, but there’s no end to the moral, ethical, political, social, and futuristic themes raked up here. Card doesn’t dwell on any of them, doesn’t preach; he tells his story the simplest way he can and lets the reader do most of the heavy lifting—if they want it. Because it also works as an exciting science fiction tale, a coming-of-age story, with a memorable climax.
Ender might be very young but he thinks and behaves with an ever-increasing maturity almost immediately. There’s nothing condescending here. He’s also prone to nightmares, and is shaped not just by Graff and the endless battleroom games, but by those around him. He has to contend with bullies, rivals, abusive teachers, personal demons: all of us have something in common with Ender Wiggin. Card’s triumph here is the complexity he gives these boys and girls struggling to become men and women before their time. At their age, it might all be about winning games and points, but they’re constantly aware there’ll be a time when those games and points will end lives. We feel that responsibility weighing Ender down, and his will to overcome it becomes ours, vicariously. We don’t want these children to ever graduate from the battleroom. But if they must, let it be under the leadership of someone with compassion and not just a killer instinct. Humanity must graduate intact.
Everyone needs a Valentine to temper their Peter.
I can’t begin to say how much I enjoy Ender’s Game – I’ve read it at least four times. It’s a one-of-a-kind children’s SF war story that isn’t really for children at all. If you haven’t yet given it a whirl, do so right away. The sequel, Speaker for the Dead, is pretty intriguing too.
So that’s the ten. My personal list of re-readable SF keepers and all-timers. Others that almost sneaked in include Andy Weir’s The Martian and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s amazing Barsoom series. It truly is a wondrous genre.
Which SF books have you read more than once?