And now for Part 2 : The Exciting Conclusion. Thanks to guest writer Mark for his excellent review!
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#6 – Anathem by Neal Stevenson (2008)
In an alternate universe, scientists, mathematicians and philosophers have been cloistered in monastery-like communities called “concents.” These “avout” are allowed only limited contact with the outside world, except for in times of crisis when they can be called forth to assist the “saecular” government.
No one deals with really big concepts better than Stevenson. A key plot point, for instance, involves the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Anathem is not, however, an easy read. It’s more than nine hundred pages long and contains lengthy discussion of philosophy, math and physics that requires some study on the part of the reader. But it’s more than worth the effort. What makes Anathem doubly rewarding is Stevenson’s creation of a fully realized world populated by compelling characters. You like and root for them and wish they really existed.
#5 – The Great Book of Amber – The Complete Amber Chronicles by Roger Zelazny (1999)
OK, maybe this is fantasy rather than science fiction, but these ten books – originally published from 1970 to 1991 — are well written, wildly entertaining and staggeringly imaginative. There is no exploration of serious themes here, just serious fun. Sit back, pour a drink, and enjoy the adventures and machinations of the Princes and Princesses of Amber, “the one true world of which all others are just Shadows.”
//I love these books! They are seriously fun. Every few years I make a point of re-reading them. Non-Tolkien-derivative high fantasy. And if you subscribe to the infinite multiverse-type theories, then there is a tad bit of sci-fi crossover. A bit.//
#4 –- Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
One of the greats of science fiction at the top of his game. Childhood’s End involves nothing less than the peaceful takeover of Earth by benevolent aliens, a resulting “Golden Age” of mankind and the next step in human evolution. The big reveal of Supervisor Karellen’s appearance at the end of the first section of the novel remains one of my favorite moments in all of science fiction.
While a case can be made for Songs of Distant Earth and Rendezvous with Rama, I consider Childhood’s End, with its overarching theme of the nature of the universe and man’s place in it, to be Clarke’s finest and most thought-provoking work.
//This book was my introduction to science fiction literature. It was part of my middle-school curriculum (6th or 7th grade, can’t remember which) and I enjoyed it. Thought provoking for all ages, but give it to your kid–might just blow their mind.//
#3 – A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller (1961)
My favorite post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. Miller traces the fall of civilization from a nuclear holocaust through a dark age, during which the last remnants of learning are safeguarded by the monkish “Order of St. Leibowitz,” to a new Renaissance and ultimately to a future where civilization is once again threatened by the development of nuclear weapons. Alternately funny and tragic, Miller’s masterpiece is a stunning tour de force.
#2 — Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1959)
A mentally challenged man undergoes an experiment through which he gains and then loses genius level intelligence. Both beautiful and heart breaking, this is the novel that taught me that a really good book can make you cry. Its last line is one of the saddest, most moving ever written – in any book, in any genre, ever.
//This book was part of my 8th grade curriculum, and it was my introduction to books that make you cry. It does indeed have one of the saddest, most moving last lines ever (bawled my eyes out). But don’t let that deter you, it is an excellent and important book.//
#1 — The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)
This short but powerful novel simultaneously explores the inhumanity of war and the practical and psychological impact of the time dilation of relativistic space travel on a soldier conscripted into an interstellar conflict. For me, the Vietnam era anti-war message, while effective, is secondary to the novel’s contemplation of the effect of a thousand-year war on one of its “boots on the ground” participants. A haunting story; I’ve read it many times, and have always come away with something new to ponder.
**A note about some things that are not on my list. I admit that when I finished the list I was surprised that it does not include anything by Phillip K. Dick. I consider Dick to be the most important writer in science fiction history; his body of work is extraordinary. My favorite is the mind-bending The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which would probably be on the list except for the fact that, even after several readings, I’m still not quite sure I understand it.
//A great book (to damn it with faint and brief praise), and now I’m tempted to go dig out my copy…and grab my copy of Amber…//
Another omission is the absence of cyberpunk. This is just a matter of personal preference; I’ve never been a big fan of the genre. But I acknowledge its importance in the history of science fiction, and if I were to expand the list either William Gibson’s visionary Neuromancer or Neil Stevenson’s Snow Crash would probably ring in at #11.**