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.

July Reading Recap

Last month, despite a whirlwind trip, work on my dissertation, and preparations to move, I managed to read four books, which I am both pleased with and frustrated by.

My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk
Reviewed here. This is the fourth book (third novel) of Pamuk’s I’ve read and I rank it alongside Snow in terms of quality, though it is a very different book. The three-headed tale–the completion of a magnificent illuminated manuscript that blends Western and Eastern style, Black’s courtship of Shekure, and a murder investigation–explores the nature of art and reality, love and lust, perfection and value, violence and sacrilege.

The Raw and the Cooked – Jim Harrison
A collection of essays by screenwriter, poet, and food/travel writer Jim Harrison. They essays themselves were hit and miss, some better, some worse and, particularly, the mixture of the high prose and low, gross words (e.g. weenie) were unsuccessful in this context (great writers do this well, here it struck me more as immature or added for shock value). What I enjoyed most was the consistent message of “a life well fed is a life well led,” as well as a joy in good food and good ingredients. Harrison laments the quality of food in American truck-stops and muses on how many Americans eat and enjoy crummy food because they do not know good food. Compare: Orwell in one of his pieces (Road to Wigan Pier, I think) shares an anecdote wherein lower classes preferred tinned milk to real milk because that is all they knew. Overall, I was glad to have read these essays, but came away with a achievable goal of drinking more wine and an impossible one of eating and drinking my way across Europe.

Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon

Even more overwhelming was the discovery, borne in on them in the course of research, that the past had been not only brilliant but crazy.

Reviews of Stapledon’s works often complain that there are no characters. In a sense, this is true for Last and First Men since there are no named characters, rather an unnamed narrator from the distant future spinning a tale through an unnamed narrator in the contemporary period (perhaps Stapledon himself). I disagree, though. Humanity itself is a character. Stapledon weaves a tale about ten million years of human existence into the far future, through multiple collapses, eight distinctive types of “humans,” further subhuman species (one of which gets enslaved by monkeys), emigration to multiple planets in the solar system, and an invasion from Martians. He has a penchant for explaining and evaluating civilizations and natures, and has a clear vision of humanity: self-destructive and resilient, fragile and limited, but aspiring. The core of that humanity, in this vision, is the part that rises above base and bestial natures (expanded upon slightly here).

On a more academic level, a host of ideas in the atmosphere during the 1920s collide in this book. Stapledon is critical of capitalism, picks up on a long-view of history, accepts to a degree geographical determinism, concern (and uncertainty about) nuclear energy, racial characters, etc, etc. I preferred Starmaker, but loved Last and First Men, too.

Mort – Terry Pratchett

Mort is an ungainly fellow who doesn’t fit at the farm and isn’t selected for apprenticeship at the annual fair. That is, until Death arrives looking to bring him on. So Mort takes up the trade of making sure that people die when they are supposed to, which allows Death a chance to relax, take some time off, and try to learn why humans enjoy particular activities and have hobbies (his favorite is cooking, which he is quite good at). Hijinks ensue, and it becomes evident as to why anthropomorphic personifications do personification things and why humans do human things–and why mixing the two is a particularly bad idea.

It has been more than a decade since I was told I should read Terry Pratchett’s books. I picked one or two of the Discworld books up at points, but never made it more than a few pages in. Since then I read and adored Good Omens, but Mort is my first return to Discworld. I laughed and enjoyed the book overall, but very little about it made me think that I should go read more Terry Pratchett novels. The writing is clever–relentlessly so–but cleverness as its own end is something I prefer in conversation rather than in books. It would be fine, too, if the world itself drew me in, but it does not, perhaps because it also strikes me as a relentlessly clever mashup of earth ideas that distracts more than amuses me. Death as a character was the main attraction of this story.

In short: Amused, entertained, have plenty of books I’m looking forward to reading more than another Discworld book, but now it cannot be held over my head that I haven’t read any.

I had hoped to finish James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, but didn’t have a chance to read much the past week or so (for reasons noted above) and thus am only about halfway through it. I also just got a new batch of books in and am looking forward to reading either Orhan Pamuk’s The Naive and Sentimental Novelist or Rose MacCaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond next. Later this weekend or early next week I will also be posting a piece on why the relentless and random collateral damage in James Bond films bothers me less than in most random Hollywood hero films.

A Sunday Evening Thought: Humanity

Apropos of everything or nothing, depending on your inclination.

I admire Olaf Stapledon’s vision of humanity in Last and First Men (1930): relentlessly self-destructive but irrepressibly resilient, brimming with potential but fundamentally and permanently limited. In this vision, humanity maintains a precarious existence and is usually too individualistic and preoccupied to realize just how fragile it is.

He repeats the sentiment more succinctly in the opening chapter of Starmaker (1937):

From this high look-out the Earth would have appeared no different before the dawn of man. No visiting angel, or explorer from another planet, could have guessed that this bland orb teemed with vermin, with world-mastering, self-torturing, incipiently angelic beasts.

Unhelpfully trite though it might be, a particularly notable line about the better angels of our nature comes to mind.

Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon

“From this high look-out the Earth would have appeared no different before the dawn of man. No visiting angel, or explorer from another planet, could have guessed that this bland orb teemed with vermin, with world-mastering, self-torturing, incipiently angelic beasts.”

Star Maker, published in 1937, was Olaf Stapledon’s fourth fiction work [1]. The unnamed narrator (revealed to be the same narrator as in his first book, Last and First Man) goes out into a hill after a fight with his wife. On this walk he undergoes a psychic transformation that allows him to fly up into space. First he looks upon the earth, but soon he begins to explore the galaxy, searching for other inhabited worlds and intelligent life forms. As the psychic powers of the narrator expand he identifies his “self” with an ever expanding network of beings that strives for perfect harmony and perfect unity, often with catastrophic consequences. Stapledon lays out an imaginative account of civilizations, the galaxy, and divinity. The story unfolds in ever expanding layers, each building on the themes in the earlier layers.

Stapledon has a particularly negative opinion of machinery and civilization. It is clear that some of his pessimism comes from rise of fascism in Europe, as there are a number of undisguised allusions to his contemporary world. But the novel is not simplistic worrying over the potential dangers of fascism. Rather, Stapledon spins out an extended allegory for civilization, potential civilizations, and existence, of which fascism is just a small part.

The eponymous character in the novel is a divine creator equated with God, whose perfect existence is the ultimate goal for nearly every being in the novel. The narrator focuses on the Star Maker during the climax of the novel and it is in this section that Stapledon’s training as a philosopher is most evident [2]. The editor of the edition I have notes allusions and parallels to Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Bible, and ”Piers Plowman, but it is clear that Stapledon was also steeped in the work of a plethora of other medieval and late antique philosophers and theologians.

Star Maker is not a typical novel. For instance, there is only one named character [3] and the narrator is an unnamed Englishman married to an unnamed woman. Too, the novel has an ascending, repetitive narrative pattern reminiscent of meditative literature, rather than a traditional arc. Individual characters are unimportant, replaced by races and collectives. But Stapledon demonstrates a remarkable imagination in populating his universe so that, even as there seems to be an inevitability about how civilizations behave, each race has its own particular character [4]. Star Maker is atypical, but it is a masterpiece of science and utopian (as well as hints of dystopian) fiction.

I’ve added Star Maker to my honorable mentions section of my list of favorite novels. Next up is The City and the Mountains, a novel by Portuguese writer José Maria de Eça de Queiroz.


[1] Quite by accident, this is the first of his books I have read. It was just the first of his books I managed to get my hands on.
[2] Stapledon earned a PhD in philosophy from the University of Liverpool.
[3] Bvalltu, an alien from Other Earth, the first stop on the galactic tour.
[4] The variety of races were my favorite part of the novel and many of his creations seem to preempt the creations of science fiction and fantasy stories of later generations.