Standalone sci-if and fantasy – Recommendations

Last week I published a list of fantasy and sci-fi series that I recommend. This post follows that one up with set of recommendations of standalone (or near-standalone) books.

First and Last Men, Olaf Stapledon

Both this and the next recommendation are the work of a British professor of Medieval Philosophy writing in the 1920s and 1930s, who decided to eschew academic publications and instead write books designed to bring these philosophies to a wider audience. First and Last Men is the ultimate longue durée history of the human race, covering ten thousand years. Humans advance from their present form and adapt until they are wholly unrecognizable, with societies developing in conjunction with the available resources and environmental needs.

Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon

Stapledon’s other novel is an interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Visions of Piers Plowman, where a man, on a walk after fighting with his significant other, has a out of body experience that takes him to a series of alien civilizations and to ever higher planes of consciousness until reaching divine revelation. Reviewed here.

Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson

One of my favorite near-future dystopian novels. The United States has been broken down into a landscape where every corporation, church, and gated neighborhood functions as its own country, there is an digital universe built with megachurch money that can be tapped into, and there is a conspiracy that wants to use an archeological find to enslave humans. Hyperinflation is rampant and pizza delivery is operated by the mafia, and if your pizza doesn’t arrive in 20 minutes, you are allowed to kill the driver and take his stuff. Law and order are enforced at the point of a sword. Enter our hero, Hiro Protagonist, delivery driver, elite hacker, and expert swordsman…who lives in a storage unit. The world is a mess and he must save it, all the while trying to protect the teenage girl Y.T. and to stop Raven, a nuclear-armed Aleutian harpooner with a grudge against the United States.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon

In his middle years the narrator returns to his childhood home for a funeral and finds himself drawn to the Hempstock farm, where, in a flash, he remembers something that happened there when he was seven. This particular story tugs at the nostalgia strings about how one remembers childhood and about things that children know that adults don’t, begs the question of not whether, but how people change as they age, and how worth is adjudged. There is whimsy, there is sadness, and there is pettiness.

Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon

The Antichrist has been born and the end is nigh! But the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley [formerly Crawley] have come to quite like their lives on earth in a way that their otherworldly brethren just can’t appreciate. Crowley, for instance, can’t make them understand that jamming the London freeway or killing the phone lines causes greater mayhem in the world than the corruption of a single priest. As a result they agree to keep an eye on the little guy and prevent him from choosing between good and evil. However, a mixup in the birthing ward means that the real Antichrist is on the lam. All of this has been foreseen by Agnes Nutter, but her prophecies are of little use. Bedlam and hilarity ensue.

American Gods, Neil Gaimon

America is multi-cultural. A place where cultures from around the world–and their deities–have come and made a home. A not-so-chance encounter upon his release from prison after the death of his wife launches Shadow into this world as the bodyguard to Mr. Wednesday. Once there he discovers that there is a war brewing between the old gods and the new gods of television and pop culture, but it is unclear whether the old gods will form a common front to preserve their way of life.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed

The hero is supposed to be young, fit, and still learning about himself. Ahmed inverts this, so our protagonist is Dr. Adoulla Makhslood, a retired ghoul hunter who likes drinking cardamum tea. Along with some old friends and young assistants Adoulla tries to combat the increasingly frequent ghoul outbreaks and thus is drawn into a political revolution brewing in the palace over control of the Throne of the Crescent Moon–or its earlier association with serpents. Some of the tropes are familiar, but the setting is not just flavor, as the story is much more influenced by Middle Eastern stories known to Western Audiences from, for instance, Arabian Knights, rather than the knightly tales of Western Europe.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

Reviewed here, this is a fantasy constructed along the lines of traditional Chinese epic. It is beautifully formal and weaves a conservative culture and style with a progressive narrative to create something that is new in a genre that is so steeped in tropes. The result was a breath of fresh air. Technically, The Grace of Kings is the first in a series, but it can absolutely be read as a standalone work.

The Redemption of Althalus, David and Leigh Eddings

Unlike the last two on this list, Redemption is in a lot of ways old-school fantasy, an epic showdown between sibling deities, one of whom upholds life and one that seeks to consume it. Each side has its champions and paragons who square off against their opposite number. Neither the story nor the characters are particularly brilliant, but the book is fun and riddled with clever or entertaining set pieces and has the grace to condense the equivalent of an entire epic fantasy series in a single thick book.

The Postmortal, Drew Magary

Another near-future dystopian novel, Magary asks what would happen if there was a cure found that stops the aging process at the point it is received. Diseases still happen and a violent death is possible, but aging stops. What happens to marriages if “til death do you part” starts to look like an eternity? Will the cure be legal? Will it be regulated? Will it be given to children? Will there be a violent backlash? Will the social contracts that keeps society together stay in place? Probably not.

Top novel summaries, 20-11

Here are summaries for 20-11 of my top novels. See the introduction and list in its entirety here and summaries for 30-21 here.

20. American Gods, Neil Gaimon
Gods exist because people believe in them, which can also mean that there are multiple versions of each god at any given time, and there is currently a war going on between the old gods and the new gods. Caught in this conflict is Shadow, an ex-con recently released from prison, whereupon he learned that his wife and best friend died in a car accident under less than ideal circumstances. He is set adrift and must eventually choose sides in this conflict between gods.

19. Catch 22, Joseph Heller
This is the story of John Yossarian, a bombardier in Italy during World War Two, whose discharge from the army continues to be kept just out of reach. This novel follows the efforts of Yossarian and the other men in his unit to stay sane and alive so that they can go home.

18. Creation, Gore Vidal
I should admit up front that I am an unabashed fan of Vidal’s, even while I recognize his faults and. Certainly, this novel would not hold up to historical fact-checking. The story picks up in Athens where the grandson of Zoroaster, friend to King Xerxes, and exceptionally old man, and ambassador for the Persian king has just heard a reading by Herodotus, purporting to tell the story of the Persian wars. He is invited to set the story straight and launches into the story of his life where he reveals to the Greeks that they are not the center of the civilized world as his work takes him into India and China.

17. Snow, Orhan Pamuk
There has been a rash of suicides by the “head-scarf” girls in Kars, a town in the far northeastern corner of Turkey. Ka, a poet who had been in exile in Germany for more than a decade, has returned, ostensibly as a journalist to cover the suicides, but also to court Ipek, a former classmate of his and the sister of the leader of the headscarf girls. He arrives just ahead of a snowstorm that cuts off the city and that a group of secular extremists use to stage a coup. Pamuk explores the tensions between the different elements of Turkish identity, particularly between the muslim groups, turks, and secular nationalists.

16. Coming Up For Air, George Orwell
George Bowling is heading off to get a new set of false teeth before work and is sent down memory lane. He used to be able to go fishing in peace, but the world has changed. Progress and industry have destroyed the fishing holes and rivers and even the people he knew growing up.

15. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (15)
Hemingway’s story about the Spanish Civil War. Robert Jordan is an American fighting against the Franco’s fascist forces and, as a demolitions expert, he has gone behind enemy lines to blow up a bridge. He has also fallen for a young Spanish woman named Maria, who he is determined to take care of

14. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Once called “the only convincing love story of the century,” Lolita, is more accurately a story about obsession. Humbert Humbert knows that his attraction to his twelve year old stepdaughter Dolores is wrong, but he persists for at least five years as he keeps them on the move, trying to make a life with her.

13. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
While anchored in the Thames, Charles Marlow recalls a story of an earlier venture in the Belgian Congo when he had to steam into the interior of the country in search of Mr. Kurtz who is reported to be ill. Conrad provides vivid descriptions of the horrors of European colonialism and exploitation in Africa.

12. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth
Young Lt. Trotta saved the life of the young Emperor Franz Joseph and the emperor elevates Trotta and protects his family, but Trotta forces his son to join government service instead of the military. By the third generation of the family, the youngest Trotta re-enters the military, just in time to serve in World War I. But the Trotta family is most notable for their mediocrity, protected from themselves by the patronage of the emperor, long since he has forgotten why he protects this family. The fate of the family, particularly that of the youngest generation, parallels the decline of Franz Joseph and of his empire.

11. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann
Mann updated the story of Faust in the twentieth century. Set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany, Leverkühn has made a pact with a devil for twenty-four years of creative and artistic genius (in this case music genius), which the narrator Zeitblom describes as an allegory for the German nation giving in to the Nazi party.