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.

August Reading Recap

When there is time to do so, it is interesting to look at the cadence of life, particularly for those people whose lives are governed by regular and seemingly immutable deadlines that overlap with months of hectic regular activities, followed by periods of empty schedules. I had a dissertation chapter due the week before the semester began and then, nearly two weeks ago, class came back (punctuated by one of my least happily-timed holidays, Labor Day). I like what I do, but but the academic calendar is foolishly constructed for a society where children don’t need to go help on the farm anymore.

Anyway, I’ve been going through this week under the impression that it is somewhere between September 12 and October 15, depending on the day. So here is a somewhat belated account of last month’s reading.

The Towers of Trebizond, Rose MaCaulay

One of the books I picked up because I wanted to read more fiction written by women, the Towers of Trebizond is a novel written in the form of a travelogue. Laurie, the narrator, recounts an ill-fated expedition in the early 1950s led by Aunt Dot and an older Anglican minister, Father Chantry-Pigg. Oh, and Aunt Dot’s camel, who, most people are convinced, is probably deranged. As is the current fad, Aunt Dot is going to Turkey to write a book, but hers is going to focus on the plight of Turkish women (who she will liberate), Laurie is her artist, and Father Pigg has plans to convert the heathens. Along the way, they meet American evangelicals, a BBC television crew, and other authors. As one might expect, the expedition goes awry.

The story was funny and Macaulay erudite when it came to making references to religious and historical contexts and contemporary goings-on. For instance, two of the other adventurers who are supposed to have been in the area were Patrick and Freya, and it is an easy leap to identify those two given names with Patrick Leigh Fermor and Freya Stark. Laurie is a sympathetic character, although, like a lot of travel writing, seems to pass through the environments as a way of experiencing them without really seeming to develop. That you are inside her head for the duration of the story may also account for this impression.

The Towers of Trebizond is a funny and clever book and, as the Amazon blurb describes it, it does investigate “modern” spirituality, but when I read the introduction about MacCaulay, much of the sarcasm and wit became sardonic, overlaid with sadness from her own experiences.

A Sport and a Pastime– James Salter
The story of Phillip Dean, a Yale dropout, and Anne-Marie, his French lover in a town in the south of France, told through the lens of Phillip’s male American friend with whom he is staying. The affair burns while the narrator watches, the young couple seemingly untouched by the problems and responsibilities of adulthood, only preoccupied with themselves.

The book-blurb describes Salter as a master of writing and A Sport and a Pasttime is good (certainly in the Hemingway school of writing), but the most prescient thing mentioned in the introduction is that Salter tells a story that, within that self-contained universe, weaves between truth and fiction, with the line blurred. The narrator is self-described as unreliable, but whether that is because he wishes he were Phillip or with Phillip, or because he is writer spinning a yarn, or because Phillip is imaginary wish-fulfillment or he actually is Phillip, just telling the story in third person, is unclear. I favor wish-fulfillment or that he is Phillip Dean, but it is clear that the idyllic, almost prelapsarian, love-affair is impossible to maintain as the rest of the world tugs away at the couple. I was glad to have read the book, but, honestly, it did not stick with me in the same concrete way other tales of love and obsession have. It did not seem to be dated, which is a complaint I read before picking it up, but rather I didn’t particularly care for any of the main characters. Admittedly, I went in almost more interested in the “town in S. France” part than in the story itself.

The Naive and Sentimental Novelist -Orhan Pamuk

This book is the published version of Pamuk’s Norton Lecture series, where he takes the audience through his experience of reading and writing books (he really loves Anna Karenina). He argues that the thing that holds all novels together and sets them apart from other forms of literature is a “secret center,” that is, the core idea of a novel that makes it work as a complete story and the unspoken message (or moral without necessarily being “moralistic”) of the novel. In fact, one of his critiques of genre literature (sci-fi, fantasy, romance, and you could even add YA literature here) is that the bulk of them are so relentlessly reliant on common tropes that they share a secret center with all the others. There is no need to bristle at Pamuk calling genre literature out as dreck; he acknowledges that the great examples of those genres transcend the tropes and thereby have a unique center and (to me) satisfactorily explains why genre literature may be boring.

Pamuk also goes to great lengths to explore how and why people have such a personal relationship with literature, particularly in that novels require an active give-and-take between what the author put down and the reader–and, if there is no ongoing series, the author is the passive participant once the book is published. The essays are theoretical without being filled with jargon and while much of it would be familiar to people familiar, particularly, with a bit of post-modernism, Pamuk is worth reading. I believe this also works toward explaining my aversion to movies and tv shows based on books I like.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane– Neil Gaimon
Talked about here. Gaimon’s short novel was my favorite book of the month. I don’t know how to say more than I’ve said without giving spoilers, so go read it.

I picked up Don Quixote for the first time at the end of the month and then got busy, so I am slowly making my way through that behemoth (I have the complete an unabridged one). The story opens with the eponymous character drying up his brains and going crazy because he reads the “trash” novels of his day. Between video games and the proliferation of certain genres, cultural critics don’t change a whole lot. It would not surprise me if this is the only book I read this month, though I am looking forward to reading either Old Man and the Sea or The Lives of Tao after this doorstop.

What’s making me happy: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

In an homage to NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, I’ve wanted for some time to start at least a semi-regular feature here about what is making me happy. The reason for this is simple: my favorite thing about the podcast is that it is upbeat. They close every show with a roundtable discussion of what is making them happy, sometimes in the form of a recommendation, sometimes something more abstract. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety and like the reminder not so much to take pleasure in things as remember that I do take pleasure in things. So this is borne of both a reminder to myself and a desire to share things I enjoy with others. (Future posts will likely include a shorter introduction.)

What is making me happy: Neil Gaimon’s Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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.

That’s the entire summary that I’m giving. Things happen, he had forgotten, but now remembers. I had heard good things about this novel, but really only picked it up on a whim and then read it over the course of the next twenty-four hours. Like the rest of Gaimon’s oeuvre that I’ve read, The Ocean at the End of the Lane bends truth and reality, as well as manipulating folk tales and traditions. 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.

Gaimon’s prose is beautiful and sent me on a nostalgia trip of my own, complete with sweet sadness. I also enjoyed the brief interview with the author published at the end of the copy I had, as well as a set of reading group guide questions that pointed to particular features of the story that were fairly evident, but perhaps not articulated by the reader, and also prodded one to think just a little bit more deeply about what was just read.

I’ve been fortunate to have read some really, really good books this year so far and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is up there with the best of them.