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, 30-21

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

30. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
The story of Holden Caulfield, a teenager who runs away from prep school and has to confront all the awkwardness that comes along with being a sort of melancholy, angry, loner. This is one of the few holdovers from high school that I have not reread. Unlike the other books on the list that I read in high school, I am unsure if I will return to this story because I think that it is most appropriately a story for that particular time of life.

29. The City and the Mountains, Jose M. Eca de Queiroz
Reviewed here, this is the story of Jacinto, the scion of a wealthy family from Portugal and epitome of a modern man (c. 1900) living with all the amenities of civilization in Paris. Society is strangling him, though, and he returns for the idyllic country life of his estates and begins to encourage the uplifting of the peasantry when he gets there.

28. The Stranger, Albert Camus
Life is pretty good for Mersault. His mother just died and he doesn’t seem to grieve, but he has a job, works hard, is seeing a woman who he may marry, and he gets to swim often. But he also testifies on behalf of his neighbor who has beaten his arab girlfriend. When Mersault kills the brother of that girlfriend in a chance encounter on the beach, he is arrested and put on trial. Camus was a moralist, and the book denies the importance on most expressions of emotion and god. What makes life good for Mersault is the pleasure of working hard, making a good living, and getting to do what he wants in his spare time. The universe he claims, is indifferent to humans.

27. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell
Dorothy Hare is the eponymous clergyman’s daughter. She is diligent and depressed, until one day she suffers a bout of amnesia and wakes up in London. From there, she takes a tour of the underworld of southern England, including scraping a living in London, teaching, and hop picking in the fields, before getting a chance to return home.

26. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis
A young Greek intellectual is encouraged to learn about life and people with the aid of a Zorba, a loud, eccentric Greek born in Romania who he employs as a foreman.

25. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh
There is a war going on in Africa and the newspaper the Daily Beast is going to cover it because John Courtney Boot, an author of some note, has called in a favor with important people in an effort to escape a woman. Except, the newspaper only knows that they are supposed to get “Boot,” and accidentally conscript William Boot, a nature contributor to the newspaper, to go cover the war. Boot is no more prepared to cover the war than the newspaper was prepared to send him initially and his ineptitude drives both the comedy and his success in this satirical take on journalism.

24. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon
When the unnamed human narrator gets in an argument with his significant other he goes on a walk and gets transported into higher levels of awareness. He becomes increasingly aware of more varieties of civilized life forms and higher levels of consciousness in the universe. See a full review here.

23. Burmese Days, George Orwell
In Orwell’s words, this is a novel about the dark side of the British Raj. In this rural outpost, there is a clear segregation between the native population and the white colonial officials, though the pressure to incorporate a native official into the European club is increasing, the main question is who will be inducted.

22. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon, Terry Pratchett
The anti-Christ has been born and the end of times are upon us. But Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, a demon have come to like living on Earth and are determined to stop the end. My single favorite passage in the story involves a meeting between Crowley and two superior demons where they recount the corruption they caused that day. Each of the superior demons has caused a supreme act of corruption (such corrupting a priest), while Crowley caused a small inconvenience for thousands of people in London; the other two just don’t get how his (Crowley’s) action created more evil in the world than theirs did.

21. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse
Another book I liked in high school (I got to pick it from a long list), this is another Hesse story about enlightenment. Siddhartha is an Indian Brahmin during the time of the Buddha who leaves home and passes through a series of stages of life en route to enlightenment.

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.