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A Top 10 SF Novels
by John Barnes
First of all, as everyone will say, ten is too few. Secondly, my feelings change rapidly from day to day about what work I most admire. For nearly everything on the list there's a substitute or six that on another day I might have put in. Third, this sure as hell isn't ranked; put them all in a tie for first if ranking matters.
Basically, to amuse me, take me to a really 'other' world, and either play very scrupulously and rigorously (like Blackburn, Dick, Barton, or Brunner) or spin me through the wild logic of dreams and make see how far you can get me to go with you (like Boyd, Heinlein, Stephenson, or Vance). Either way, give me a good ride and keep the ride going till I turn the last page; by 'ride' I don't mean physical action so much as just always be doing something interesting, whether it's good old reliable sex and violence, or a thoroughly bogus explanation for some weird bit of rubber science, or flipping my view of the world over on its back and tickling it.
A Scent Of New-Mown Hay by John Blackburn
I love stories about the end of the world. Tell me that practically everybody is dead and what remains of humanity is picking through the rubble, or give me a menace that will end the world, as we know it, and I'm a happy guy. And nobody did end-of-the-world better than the Brits in the 1950s and 1960s. I might have chosen half a dozen other such books, but what I like about this one is the speed and grace with which it jumps from global to individual viewpoints; one second you're at the UN where the Soviet ambassador is breaking down in public, the next you're a woman alone in the house, in the tub, when Something is coming up the stairs... also one of the very few books with a surprise ending that adds anything to the book.
The Rakehells Of Heaven by John Boyd
I love the voice, and the way this one just bounds over the top and keeps going without even glancing back to see if anyone followed. A beautiful rolling farrago of wildly funny dialogue wrapped around a dark bitter satire of human nature and told as a frontier tall tale. And another book with a surprise ending that isn't just a gimmick.
The Faceless Man by Jack Vance
Happened to be the first Jack Vance novel I read - all of a sudden we're not even in a world that could imagine 'Kansas'... a universe that is 'big'.
The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
There had to be a Dick on the list but the whole list could have been Dick. Today this is the one I remember most fondly. A book that fits with my idea of the world - it's being run by a malign cabal that is fortunately completely inept, and all evidence of what is really going on is hopelessly contaminated by everyone's hopes and fears; one of the few SF novels that feels like a real world to me.
Stand On Zanzibar by John Brunner
This is how you get the idea across that a planet, and an era, is 'big'. And somehow the things that are slipshod and goofy just add to the effect.
The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner
Big, though not as big as Stand On Zanzibar, and a beautiful job of throwing the dead cat of ruined humanity against the door of modern civilization and its beneficiaries. And a terrific ending that has the good sense not to be a surprise.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
A proud failure; nothing could be as much fun as the first 25 pages or so promised, but by god Stephenson tried, and nearly succeeded. Wonderful wild goofy explanations out of nowhere are always a plus, too.
Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
I don't believe the world is in any way like what Heinlein always depicted, and wouldn't want to live in Heinlein's world if I could move there. But I wouldn't want to live in Tolkien's world, or Raymond Chandler's either. Heinlein gave us improbable fairy tales and myths set in a world that was sort of a strangely lighted parody of our own. This is one of the best; practically nothing makes any sense if you stop to think, and yet while you're reading it, you believe in that kid's existence and world and approach to it like you believe in city buses and chairs. Plus it has that great fluent Midwestern bantering delivery, part Twain, part Edgar Lee Masters, all hokum, but great hokum.
The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein
Not quite the delivery of Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, but compensated by a plot that leaps from mad non-sequitur to mad non-sequitur like one of those people fleeing a collapsing building in the movies, forever about to be killed and forever getting to the next step. The purest demonstration I know that the only thing a character really has to be is a locus for interesting events. And as one who fled the Midwest myself, I don't think I've ever seen anyone take Parthian shots at it better. Growing up in a small town in Ohio, after I read this one, for about a month I was looking between everyone's shoulder blades. It would explain so much...
When Heaven Fell by William Barton
Strictly by the rules; Barton starts from a few premises, all eminently sensible: every individual is the hero of its self-narrative. If a civilization capable of conquering the Earth ever turns up; it's going to be no more a fair fight than the Europeans gave to Stone Age hunter-gatherers. Aliens will have alien purposes that we may or may not ever understand. When you're really beaten, the only path to success is surrender. And from this proceeds all sorts of bizarre and terrifying results. If hard SF is a flavour, and the flavour is tough (to quote received wisdom), this one's fine old leather.
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