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.

May Reading Recap

Proud Beggars – Albert Cossery
Reviewed here, Cossery’s 1955 novel celebrates the three beggars–the former professor Gohar, middling bureaucrat El-Kordi, and the drug dealer Yeghen, who he treats as a sort of intelligentsia of the slums. Much like in The Jokers (published 1964), Cossery takes a dim view of middle class society and praises the virtues of those who refuse to play the same game as the rest of society, refuse to be trapped by the obsessions that plague the rest of us. The plot of Proud Beggars is the investigation into a whorehouse murder that stuns most of the people in their little environment, but further heightens how dissimilar the beggars are from the rest of the citizens of their Egyptian slum. In the end, though, the conceit of the novel is that nobody can actually escape from his or her obsessions.

The War of the End of the World – Mario Vargas Llosa
Reviewed here, The War of the End of the World is a literary retelling of the war of Canudos in 1890s Brazil, where Antonio Consulhiero, an itinerant breacher in Bahia Province gathered an enormous following of dispossessed souls, while the new Republican state brought increasing amounts of firepower to suppress the revolt.

Home Land– Sam Lipsyte
When I was a senior in high school, one of my classmates circulated an open letter to most of the school–pre-Facebook, this meant typing up a letter, copying it, and slipping the copies into people’s lockers. I didn’t keep a copy of the letter, but the gist of it was that a certain cadre of the class would go off to fancy colleges and lead miserable lives and those who remained in town with practical careers should just ignore them and be happy. Flash forward fifteen or twenty years…Sam Lipsytes’ Home Land is a pithier and less relenting version of that letter, albeit without the satisfaction of happiness on the author’s end. “Teabag,” as the author is known, is fed up with the shallow, overly rosy updates his classmates are writing to the alumni newsletter. So he writes his own, in serial that are cynical and vicious enough toward his former classmates and former principal that the editors refuse to publish them, at least to begin with. Teabag’s world is not a happy place, but he pitches it as a cold dose of reality, grounding his classmates who continue to aspire to things the way they did back when they were kids. Home Land is dark and cynical and sadly funny.

Throne of the Crescent Moon – Saladin Ahmed
The first time I heard of this fantasy novel was Ahmed himself talking about his premise. Most fantasy novels share a setting, that of medieval Western Europe, so he set his in a Middle Eastern world; most fantasy characters are young, so his protagonist is old. The Crescent Moon Kingdoms and the enormous city Dhamsawaat are facing a crisis between the brutal Khalif and the thief, the Falcon Prince as the later schemes to overthrow the ruling family and harness the power of the ancient throne from a long-past civilization for good. Dr. Adoulla Makhslood is a ghul-hunter by trade and is looking for the source of a series of murders committed by an unusually large number of ghuls, which gets him trapped between this brewing conflict.

Perhaps because I was in need or something lighter this month, my favorite of these four books was Throne of the Crescent Moon. Others were better written or dealt with higher themes and I was sorely tempted to put Proud Beggars in the top spot, but, as I addressed in my review, there were a few parts of Cossery’s story that chafed at me in that for all it exulted in the freedom and vitality of the unattached poor, it was too flippant about the value of a human life.

Currently, I am reading Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev.