- I'm one of those people that needs to see a little bit of complexity to make it all the way through a book, regardless of genre. Don't get me wrong, I've got my guilty pleasures, but they pretty much come in the form of bad TV and video games these days. When I read for pleasure I just need it to be worthwhile, because...well, it takes a while, doesn't it?
I'm an unapologetic Sci-Fi/Fantasy addict, and if you're looking for examples of the genre that go beyond the accepted formula and introduce strong themes, well-developed characters, and (gasp) sublety, I humbly recommend the following novels. As a reward for reading all the way through my list, at the end, I will quote Keanu Reeves with a straight face and you can laugh at me.
Perdido Street Station The Scar - China Mieville is that rare animal of an author that has been heavily hyped and manages to earn every scrap of critical praise that gets heaped on him. His imagery is gloriously visceral, and his prose borders on the (darkly) poetic. Mieville's grasp of the English language is humbling, but he rarely makes you feel ignorant by whacking you over the head with obscure verbage. The world-building architecture is immediately impressive - Bas Lag (the world in which these novels are set) is a dense gumbo of interwoven cultures and social mores, where human characters rub shouldes with a number of other exotic races and magical entities that are wholly original. Even the vampires here are freshly imagined, if you can believe that. The magic system is also very interesting, often combining with machinery for a sort of arcane-steampunk flavor.
Despite the alien nature of this world, the socially-charged thematic elements are instantly recognizable and very much relevant to our own world. Expect Mieville to take you to some uncomfortable places.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War -Don't pick this up if you're only looking for zombie-shredding massacres. I mean, they're in there, but you may be disappointed by the over-abundance of humanity you'll be forced to wade through.
The story is revealed through various testimonials from the survivors of a GZC (Global Zombie Conflict. Yeah...I made that up). The tales are alternatively harrowing, uplifting, amusing, and gut-wrenching. Brooks does an excellent job of bringing the horror and misery of war directly to your doorstep; the human element is wielded very precisely here. Despite the fact that a zombie apocalypse is probably not a real-world concern, World War Z rings some alarm bells by painting a vivid picture of normal people forced into the role of scavengers, soldiers, and survivors.
The Gone-Away World (Vintage Contemporaries) -Nick Haraway's voice is reminiscent of the sardonic gallows-humor we've long enjoyed from Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut. Harkaway is only about half as clever as those two, which, if you do the math, still ranks Harkaway safely among the extraordinarily clever.
The story has enough heart to distance it from the rank-and-file of post-apocalyptic tours of duty, the dialogue induces genuine belly-laughs, and there's a plot twist that will have you back-tracking through the pages, sure that you'll find a passage somewhere that eighty-sixes the continuity. I'll also add this: Harkaway's ability to write cinematic-quality kung fu fight scenes is incredible. I've never seen anything like it on a printed page. The final fight scene actually made me pump my fist at it's insanely satisfying conclusion. True story.
Stephenson weaves an elaborate tale of shifting paradigms, showing how a decline in European monarchies and religious influence set the stage for massive political change. The story ends, and you understand why events like the American and French revolutions are right around the corner. Citing early hints of globalization, a significant uptick in academic and technological advancement, and a changing economic rulebook, Stephenson gives you an overall feeling that it was all connected in some meaningful way.
It isn't all a history lesson, though. There is a lot of genuine entertainment value to be had. The characters are finely crafted, completely flawed and believable. Many historical figures make appearances, like a young Ben Franklin and the almost godlike Louis XIV. Unlike the treatment they all-too-often receive at the hands of other authors (looking at you, Turtledove), they are all given a spark of humanity and unique personality. Isaac Newton is a central character, and Stephenson had the guts to portray him as an actual human being with all the complexity that you would expect.
The story defies genre classification. There isn't anything that would lead you to believe this is sci-fi or fantasy, except for this one character that's, well, immortal.
Altered Carbon: A Takeshi Kovacs Novel (Takeshi Kovacs Novels) -Dashiell Hammett meets the post-cyberpunk movement. I particularly enjoyed the all-encompassing presence of technology in this society, and the fundamental alteration to concepts of existence and morality that are suggested. This reads as a classic, hard-boiled private eye tale/murder mystery, and wouldn't be out of place as a bit of light beach reading. Morgan won't bludgeon you with the themes that are at work here, but this book raises plenty of questions about technology and the ever-expanding schism between those who have access to it and those who don't. If you're an American, for example, living without affordable health insurance in a country that can clone a sheep, it isn't hard to see your reflection.
A word of caution to the squeamish, though. There is some explicit brutality which may come off as gratuitous, although I maintain that scene (you'll know which one I'm talking about) adds to the story in that it illuminates an uncomfortable corner of the room concerning unchecked advancement of technology and the value of human life being so drastically recalculated.
The Years of Rice and Salt -I've always felt like this is an unsung hero of the alternate history sub-genre. Their story diverges from ours when the initial outbreak of the black plague claims 99% of Europe as opposed to only a third, and the subsequent years are dominated by Chinese and Islamic culture. We follow the progress of a few simple souls, reincarnated over and over again through history, and gradually we get an idea of what the world would be like today.
Mr. Robinson seems to make a statement that people are people, behaving the way they due as a reaction to their own experiences regardless of culture (the souls, identifiable by the first letter of their names, occupy various cultures and social roles through their lives). The divergent history follows familiar patterns, mirroring our own. The writing style is utilitarian, but the author's speculation is incredibly detailed and it's undeniably cool to see character development across multiple lifetimes.
There's a great deal of originality that plays out as the Book of Revelations gets underway, despite some familiar tropes being sent up in familiar ways. I particularly liked the idea of a demon designing the layout of a British motorway as a means to create as much strife among man as possible. Little scraps like that prove the intelligence behind the satire. The authors are constantly jabbing at you with hysterical footnotes, and at no time does either one of them climb behind a podium to pontificate or scold. This is really just about the laughs, and making you hope for an honest-to-God Catholic style heaven where Douglass Adams and Graham Chapman have optioned the film rights.
The Last Wish: Introducing The Witcher -Call me a snob or elitist if you want to, but if a book contains elves and dwarves, and wasn't written by Tolkien, I'm not likely to put it on my shelf. I'm glad I made an exception for this one. A collection of short stories really, it follows the exploits of a Witcher named Geralt. The stories are based on classic fairy tales, approached with the pragmatism of a professional monster hunter. Stories like Snow White and Beauty and the Beast get the treatment, and the result is a very imaginative bit of fantasy.
Geralt is a very strong protagonist, that rare anti-hero who dabbles in altruism. His character is nuanced and delightfully violent, and as he infiltrates the twisted versions of Disney classics you even begin to feel some genuine affection for him.
Translated from Polish, by the way.
The Mists of Avalon -I hesitated to include this one. Undoubtedly a masterpiece, I didn't really want to include any books that were obvious classics. Still, I'm putting it on the list to appeal to the people (read: dudes) who have possibly been frightened off from reading a "chick book." If you're a fan of fantasy or even historical fiction I'd advise you give this a shot. It doesn't pull punches and it isn't at all a soap opera version of King Arthur.
The story focuses on the women of the Arthurian mythos, but the big picture is a gorgeously detailed and innovative re-imagining of the story.
The presence of magic is a subtle thing, potent but certainly understated. You never discern where the line between true mysticism and faith/superstion really lies (and this actually gets explored as a theme). This is a character driven story, and you won't find a Green Man or a fire-brathing dragon, and the Lady of the Lake is an honorific rather than a woman literally living at the bottom of a lake. There are dozens of knights, but not a single one ever says "Ni."
What you will find are massively complex characters, lives playing out against the backdrop of a society that is struggling to re-evaluate itself a generation after the withdrawal of Rome from the British Isles. Cultural components are powerfully involved with the character development, to the point that you feel truly immersed in the world they inhabit. The writing itself is lyrical, potent, and well-paced. Emotion comes across as genuine, reaches you in ways that fantasy novels so rarely do. Bradley had a true gift for storycraft, taking these well-known characters to new, complicated levels.
All Tomorrow's Parties -Rather than tell you why Neuromancer is an awesome book (you've read this far into my list, so you probably don't need to be told Neuromancer is an awesome book), I'll tell you why Gibson's modern stuff is as mind-altering and relevant as his classic work. I have to admit I was nervous about not liking Gibson's vision of the 21st century as much now that he's writing about it in the 21st century. I didn't need to worry
While the flippant, synthetic-leather glare of the 80's seems to have been replaced with a more textured, ecologically over-populated appeal, Gibson still knows how to show you the Sprawl. It's just taken on another twenty-year layer. The vision of the smooth, razor-edge, elite mega-corporation merc for hire has become a wage-slave to a corporate three ring binder. Which is more chilling?
The important thing is that Gibson can still put his talent to task. He can still be incredibly expansive in only a sentence or two. He can still do high-energy, frenetic exhanges of dialogue that feel like shootouts. He still doesn't shy away from an honest self-realization coming through on the page. Everything I loved about his work in the eighties remains intact. I'm looking forward to starting Pattern Recognition next.
I hope that you find at least one book here that butters your bread. If I've led your tastes astray, I apologize profusely. If I've pointed you in the direction of something you love and otherwise wouldn't have picked up, I accept tips.