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.

All Art is Propaganda

One of the most attractive concepts of the base-superstructure dichotomy in Marxism is that some things hold traction and permanence, while others are constructions (rather than everything being a construct). Of course, this is a simplified version of Marxism, of which I am by no means an expert, but I find the distinction revealing. Propaganda, the art of a crafted message, is one of those most malleable things, , but while the most obvious propaganda is political, most propaganda flows implicitly from the individual–everything from clothing to food, to what beer or liquor you drink. I called this implicit propaganda because, often, the choices are not deliberate messages. I choose my beer by some combination of taste and cost, but in the beer summit hosted by President Obama, the brands were more traditionally politicized. Likewise with clothing–there is a message in each outfit–even if that message is “I don’t care” or “I want you to know that I don’t care.”

Orwell singled out art alone as propaganda because the audience for art is larger than the audience is for each clothing choice. Likewise, art is much more likely to be explicitly propaganda as the result of deliberate choices by the artist, while in personal propaganda there are more likely to be ulterior motives for the choices and some people will be more deliberate in crafting their message than others.

In the internet age, there is even a service, Reputation dot com, that promises to help protect your reputation online. The need for this service stems from the issues of permanence, legitimacy, and the speed of change online. The first two are what the sites advertises on, stressing how hard it is to remove malicious rumors online, and also that, online, anyone can post anything, which makes it difficult for users to determine truth from fiction (though the site does not seem to care about the truth of the matter so much as creating a positive image for the client). I have added the speed because news, information, and communication is happening at such rapid speeds that it is difficult to keep up–and easy for people to write a review in a fit of (any) emotion. Sometimes, it is easier to post online than it is to remember what you have said. But Reputation dot Com is correct that the internet has a lengthy memory.

Thus, there is a curious mix of new ideas, thoughts, and arguments, with many crackpot ideas still floating around and popping up. And all this has only limited policing or oversight. This means that publishing is much easier (note the self-publishing boom and the proliferation of blogs, particularly on websites of traditional news outlets). So, yes, the internet is a wonderful way of spreading thoughts and opinions because there is almost always an audience (for me: you!), but there is also a lack of authority to much of it (sorry, I’m just a graduate student who feels compelled to write from time to time–I am author, (sometimes) editor, and publisher). At the risk of sounding hypocritical and offending self-publishers everywhere, I often feel that self-publishing, while it serves to get some authors published who are truly excellent and find audiences, is more about a culture more interested in self-promotion and their own egos than about quality. Sure, crowd-sourcing novels can sometimes result in excellent books, but my gut instinct is that the amount of rubbish has increased out of all proportion.

In this, I am a snob. I have my own reasons for writing and publishing online, and some of it is that I feel that I have things worth being said and also that a self-published blog on my own site is different than publishing a book or working for a news outlet. I will stop here as I do not control the other actions of other people and people certainly have the right to publish online, but I fear that they are doing so at the expense of the authority of traditional publishing and print publishing (sometimes for very good reasons), and has helped bring about some of the journalism issues that have come about in the last few months.

I prefer writing on paper because edits and changes have permanence. I just crossed out four lines , something that would not appear on a typed file (though the paragraph and a half I added in the actual post do), but here and now I see where I had an issue with my though and/or writing. On paper there are necessarily drafts and edits; typed, everything and nothing is in a final form. Perhaps this is fitting for a generation that often seems to have an innate understanding of postmodernism.

One of my concerns here is that the internet enables this uncertainty and enables one or more shell personae (in my younger years I went online and engaged people under a variety of aliases, particularly for some online games). It has not yet reached anything like Neal Stephenson’s digital world in Snowcrash, but while the internet is transparent to tech people, for most people it is easy to put up that shell and to be someone who they are not offline. Everything is propaganda, and nowhere more so than the internet.