MIND MELD: Speculative Fiction Books Worth Reading Twice
Writer John Morley once said:
“Books worth reading once are worth reading twice; and what is most important of all, the masterpieces of literature are worth reading a thousand times.”
I’m not sure I have the time to read anything a thousand times, but twice I can handle. But which ones? We asked this week’s panel:
Read on to see the diverse responses we received…
- A Canticle for Leibowitz is a book that startled me when I read it some years ago. Scenes from it still haunt me, and the scope of the plot foreshadow many developments that were to come in speculative fiction. It’s the first book I would choose to revisit.
- I’m glad you’ve specified speculative fiction, which is such a perfect inclusive term. Stephen King’s Carrie is another novel that’s worth a second look. Some may be surprised at this choice, but I find that the novel captured youthful angst as well as any book I’ve read, and its explosive denouement is all the more impressive in these post-Columbine days. I often recommend it to my young adult writers’ workshops as an outstanding example of storytelling and character development.
- And since one of my favorite areas is fiction for young people, and since I haven’t named a fantasy, I recommend the children’s novel Half Magic, by Edward Eager, to anyone. It’s old now, but still delightful. Last year it reappeared in a lovely anniversary edition which I had to have for my own shelves, and I always keep a few paperback copies around to give to kids I meet. It’s a charming story that works, as the best books do, on several levels. A group of children find a magic coin that grants their wishes–but only halfway! It’s a great illustration of the cost and difficulties of magic, and its characters have real world problems as well as magical ones.
I have to confess that I am not much of a re-reader of books. In her recent novel, The Bell at Sealey Head, Patricia McKillip makes the following observation:
The odd thing about people who had many books was how they always wanted more.
That’s me all over. I have too many books. Probably more books that I will be able to read in the rest of my allotted span as a living human (though I entertain hopes of being uploaded in some way or another). In order to read a book for a second time, therefore, I have to make a conscious decision not to read a book that I haven’t yet read. That’s a hard thing to do. Nevertheless, there are books that I do read more than once, for a variety of reasons, or at least want to read more than once. I shall attempt to explain here.
One of the names that I suspect will crop up in many of the contributions here is Gene Wolfe. He is definitely an author whose books I would like to re-read. That is because Wolfe’s books are very complex, and much of the fun of reading them is working out what is going on. You never get everything the first time, so there is always plenty to be gained from a second reading. The same could be said for Kim Newman in a slightly different way. In his case you read the books for all of the references he hides away in them.
A slightly different argument can be made for Nick Harkaway’s excellent novel, The Gone-Away World. In this case it is not that you have to work out what is going on, but that you can’t, until Harkaway explains things. Towards the end of the book Harkaway reveals an aspect of the plot which is so breathtakingly audacious that re-reading the book will give you a totally different experience to reading it the first time.
Classic books often bear re-reading because they are very good, but I end up re-reading them for rather different reasons. Science fiction is in constant conversation with itself. Every new book can, in some way, be seen as a response to books that have gone before. If you are interested in the academic study of science fiction (which I am) then you often find yourself re-reading a classic novel to see how the new book that you have just read relates to it. Or not even a book – having seen Mars Attacks, one of the first things I did was go back and read War of the Worlds to confirm just closely how the movie followed Wells’ book.
Academic study provides other reasons for re-reading. If you are writing a paper on a particular aspect of science fiction then you need to cite books that illuminate your argument, and to do that properly you have to read the books. I’m due to present a paper at ICFA next year, and I’ll be re-reading quite a few books in preparation for that. As it happens, that includes re-reading feminist classics such as The Female Man by Joanna Russ and The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter. The fact that these are very good books means that I’m happy to have an excuse to re-read them.
There are, of course, people who re-read books because they are comfortable and familiar. I know people who regularly re-read books by David Eddings, Anne McCaffrey and Harry Turtledove. My grandmother saw The Sound of Music more than 20 times. I tend not to do that sort of thing, but I’m always very happy to re-read a Tintin graphic novel. It doesn’t take long, and the jokes are always funny no matter how many times I read them.
So that’s me. I am a chronic book addict, and dragging me away from the pile of shiny, new books waiting expectantly for my eye tracks is hard, but it can be done.
I’d respond that “reading twice” applies to any book, but particularly the SF book, that one read and loved in childhood. Does it still retain its magic? Does it get you in touch with your inner child? Or have you moved beyond it: “when I was a child I spake as a child….” It’s a check not only on the book but on the reader. What kind of reader are you?
Don’t have time to get into “why?”, except that I liked them, but I’ll play minimally by saying that genre books that I’ve read more than once include Davy, by Edgar Pangborn, The Left Hand of Darkness and A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Star King, Emphyrio, and The Blue World by Jack Vance, The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester, The Incomplete Enchanter, by L. Sprague De Camp and Fletcher Pratt, The Big Time, by Fritz Leiber, and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Stranger In A Strange Land, and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, by Robert Heinlein. If short-story collections count as “books,” then I’ve read the original The Adventures of Doctor Eszterhazy, by Avram Davidson, several times, as well as the stories in Davidson’s Jack Limekiller book. In spite of its very real flaws as a novel, have read The Fellowship of The Ring (my favorite part of the trilogy by far) several times, and enjoyed it each time.
Haven’t read them twice, but I suspect that Kage Baker’s novels would stand up to the test.
I think 100 Years of Solitude is worth reading 100 times. First, it’s beautifully written, smart, and imaginative. Second, it’s about the rise and fall of a family, town, and empire, that I think speaks to the American perspective.
Also worth rereading: anything by Philip K. Dick, particularly Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. Dick was under-appreciated in his time, and still doesn’t get the credit he deserves. His prose is tight and restrained, his stories brilliant, heartbreaking, and more infuriating than Catch 22.
In my high school years, I read The Mists of Avalon three times, which either makes me crazy, or the book fantastic. Both, maybe. In addition to a smart rewriting of the Arthurian myth, it also holds as an argument for feminism, and the possibility that women and man tell different truths.
Rereading, I think, is a young person’s game. Or possibly an unemployed person’s. As a teenager and later a student, I had ample time to return to a favorite book (and less money with which to build up my to-be-read stack with unread books), but nowadays when I do have the time and energy to read I prefer to spend them on something unfamiliar. I think that in a decade or so I’ll probably start revisiting my favorite books of the last few years, the ones that turned me from a young, avid reader into a voracious adult one, but this very moment is a bad time for rereading and me. The books I’m going to list, therefore, are the ones I reread as a teenager and in my early twenties.
Probably the book that I’ve reread more times than any other is William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. There was a period in my teens when I returned to this book whenever I felt in need of a comfort read or a mental palate cleanser. Funny, plotty, adventurous and romantic, Goldman’s ‘hot fairy tale’ is more than equal to these tasks. Coming a close second is The Lord of the Rings, a book I still return to every few years, usually in the winter, curling up with my battered paperbacks to follow Frodo from the Shire to Mordor and back again. In the third place, though not in the speculative fiction category, are Jane Austen’s novels, which seem to grow and change with me – from romances to political commentaries to wry meditations on life.
In the category of books I’ve read twice you’ll find big, meaty novels with enough substance in them to satisfy a reader the second time around. Books like Cryptonomicon, Perdido Street Station, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Bag of Bones, and the Sandman series. There are less and less of these every year – the last book I reread was Hal Ducan’s Vellum, the first volume in his Book of All Hours duology, which I returned to after reading its sequel, Ink, in order to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the sequence. The book I’d really like to reread is John Crowley’s Little, Big, one of the novels that opened my eyes to the possibilities of non-Tolkienian fantasy and still one of the finest examples of it I know, not to mention a beautiful, lyrical, heartbreaking novel. But then, there are all these new books calling out to me, so it may be some time before I manage this trip back to the bookshelves.
Topping my annual to-reread list is Starfish by Peter Watts, which I think is woefully underappreciated by the world. Excellent use of language? Check. Interesting plot? Check. Fascinating characters? Check. But beyond all that, Starfish has a magnificent sense of tension and pacing, keeping the reader on edge throughout the book. (I know I certainly bite my fingernails down to stubs while reading… even on reread!)
My very favorite speculative fiction book to read over and over again is A Paradigm of Earth by Candas Jane Dorsey. I read it at least twice a year, and have since I was given a bound galley of it years ago. The writing is almost austere (which I snuggle to my bosom in a world where so often authors never use three words if they can use fifteen), and yet almost poetry. The alien is often more human than the human, and it’s so well done, one can easily forget the trope is practically a cliché. What I like most about this book, though, is the way the speculative elements are carefully woven into everyday life, so they seem mundane, even as they’re almost overwhelming.
The newest addition to my list is Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. I had the pleasure of reading it for the first time a few years ago, and I’ve reread it several since then. It only gets better-it’s easily his best work to date. The voice of the narrator is fantastic, and never breaks, and by the end of the book, every single time, I am convinced that the world he creates is our inevitable future.
This is an interesting question, because as an editorial director of a book line, I read all original manuscripts at least twice, and as an editorial director of a book line, I hardly have time to read anything else once. Historically (i.e., growing-up) the only books I read twice were The Hobbit, Dune, A Princess of Mars, and the non-speculative The World According to Garp. I suspect that I will read at least two of them again for myself, and one at some point to my child. Of the books that we have published at Pyr, I long for the day I can reread John Meaney’s brilliant Nulaperion Sequence of Paradox, Context, and Resolution, because it’s such a wonderfully conceived jewel of a trilogy that I know knowing the ending will inform a rereading from the start. And I’m looking forward to rereading James Enge’s Blood of Ambrose (out in February) to my child at some point too, and may actually listen to it on audiobook when that edition is available, so that I can “reread” it much sooner without cutting into work time. I suspect there’s some Heinlein and some Moorcock I will want to reread, but there’s plenty by both I haven’t read the first time and need to. And therein lies the problem – with so many classics and “instant classics” out and forthcoming, who has time to reread anything? I could spend the rest of my life just reading the unread books in my own collection and never get through them all. I need a whole other life to read them again!
There are many speculative novels worth reading twice, but it’s been decades since I’ve taken the time to do so.
As a child, I would reread L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. In my teens, I did the same with Bester’s The Demolished Man, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Zelazny’s Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness, Herbert’s Dune and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. And in my thirties, I reread Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler and Crowley’s Little, Big. But in my forties, I found no time for rereading novels, and now that my fifties have begun, I doubt that I’m likely to again.
Short stories, on the other hand … those are my true love. And there are a number of them which I reread almost every year. Chief among these are Frederik Pohl’s “Day Million” and Thomas M. Disch’s “The Squirrel Cage.” By now I’ve read them at least several dozen times each, sometimes aloud.
I find that “Day Million” packs a novel’s worth of speculation into a few pages, at the same time addressing the difficulties of ever being able to understand or depict an advanced culture. As for “The Squirrel Cage,” which I first read in 1967 in Terry Carr’s 1967 Ace Books anthology New Worlds of Fantasy, and have read every year or so since, it fills me with both joy and existential despair at the same time, a Disch specialty.
I’m not claiming that these are the two best speculative stories ever written, only that they touched me deeply and moved me greatly, and in some way made me realize the sort of writer I wanted to try to be. (I also often return to Raymond Carvers “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and while there’s nothing speculative there, I figured I should provide the complete troika of tales which most captivate me.)
Other speculative short stories I return to again and again include “Buffalo” by John Kessel, “Jeffty is Five” by Harlan Ellison, “Understanding Entropy” by Barry Malzberg, “Dead Like Me” by Adam-Troy Castro, “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, “Time-Slit Through a Rice Paper Window” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, and “Picasso Fever” by Ray Bradbury. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I was the editor who published two of those, one at Last Wave, the other at Science Fiction Age, but their power over me is not because of that, but because of what they are.) I know that there are others I’m likely leaving out, but these are the ones which first come to mind.
Each of these stories gives me gooseflesh, not the kind you get from fear, but that which rises from a sense of spiritual connection, from the way their speculative metaphors allow for a heightened sense of what it means to be human. All are worth rereading, and I’ll continue to be doing so as long as I can still make out words on the page.
One book I’ve read over and over is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon. While it’s been twenty five years since my first time through, I always find something new, something I hadn’t noticed before that speaks to me in a new way. That, to me, is one of the hallmarks of fiction that lasts. This last time I was focused on Lancelot, who hadn’t been one of my favorite characters at first, but this time I came away thinking that there was a lot of nuance to him that I suppose I hadn’t appreciated when I was younger.
People who have a mystical experience once in their lives will often go to great lengths – even pharmaceutical ones – to recreate it. But I don’t need drugs. All I need is the single paragraph in Return of the King which goes:
…as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.
Now, before you start, I don’t get a stiffy or see Jesus or anything when I read this passage. A friend has a yoga position which he uses to give himself an adrenalin high. I have The Siege of Gondor. I don’t know why it does this to me, and I know it isn’t real. But it doesn’t matter. Try explaining to a guy on acid that flowers aren’t really growing out of the ends of his fingers. He knows this. He just doesn’t care.
Solzhenitsyn says the following in The Gulag Archipelago:
Nikolai Aleksandrovich Kozyrev, whose brilliant career in astronomy was interrupted by his arrest, saved himself only by thinking of the eternal and infinite: of the order of the Universe…And the scientist prayed: “Please, God! I have done everything I could. Please help me. Please help me continue!”…At this time he was entitled to receive one book every ten days…Half an hour passed after his prayer; they came to exchange his book; and as usual, without asking anything at all, they pushed a book at him. It was entitled A Course In Astrophysics!…Aware of the brief duration of this coincidence, Kozyrev threw himself on it and began to memorize everything he needed immediately.
Religion might well be an opiate for some; my life has been made bearable by books. (The Bible, of course, is also a book, although one with a terribly unhappy ending. Without wishing to spoil it for you all, he dies, you know.) I would probably prefer hard labour in Siberia to a course in astrophysics myself, and I read fiction for preference, but I can understand Mr. Kozyrev’s sentiment. We exist – or at least, book readers exist – as nervous systems that can be willingly fooled into thinking they are elsewhere. We don’t hate to be in the real world – we have friends, husbands, wives, and lives just like normal people. But once in a while, we’ll pay good money to be in Narnia.
Oddly, despite the massive amounts spent on special effects in the very latest Hollywood movies, they still usually leave me cold. In today’s movies, I can see demons rising from hell, I can see vampires fighting werewolves (and, bizarrely, I can see car chases through the streets of Venice. What was that all about?). But no matter how many millions seem to be spent on special effects, the actual story is as appetizing a thing to have in my head as a pissed-up neurosurgeon with a mallet. Not in every case, it’s true – but for every Matrix, there are one hundred Matrix Reloadeds.
ANSWER THE QUESTION, MR. GREEN
OK, OK, I’m getting to it. The finest SF books in the whole world are as follows:
- The Demon Princes novels, by Jack Vance (with special mentions for The Face, The Killing Machine, and Star King). An unorthodox choice, perhaps. Vance’s setting will never, could never exist. Oh, and neither could any other fictional setting you’ve ever heard of. You find a set of twenty-six habitable planets orbiting Rigel utterly ridiculous? Consider the plot of any work of fiction and imagine it actually happening. Books are built on bizarre sets of coincidences, whether they happen on Tatooine or the Isle of Wight ferry. I have a grandmother who will not watch anything ‘far fetched’, yet spends her entire day watching soap operas in which, in the same small communities, enough murders, HIV infections, and tragic deaths from cancer happen annually to significantly push up the national death rate. For anyone who has loved and lost, or loved impossibly, the ending of The Face is exquisite, so exquisite that I couldn’t possibly reveal it to you. But I can tell you that it’s terribly sad, and everyone dies.
- War of the Worlds, by H G Wells. The seminal alien invasion story, which has never been bettered (though Footfall comes close). As a citizen of the most powerful nation on Earth, Wells was nevertheless able to imagine that nation falling beneath creatures so inhumanly powerful that they brush aside human armies without a second (certainly without a human) thought. Subsequent writers have managed the ‘oh gosh, oh gosh, they’re so big and scary’ side of alien invasion, without being able to manage the ‘but somehow we manage to defeat them credibly anyway’ side. John W Campbell manages it in “Who Goes There” – a truly pants-wetting piece of SF horror – but cheats by isolating the alien. Wells, meanwhile, humiliates humanity further by having his Martians defeated, not by humanity, but by unregarded residents of Earth who turn out to be its secret weapon.
- Dune, by Frank Herbert. Herbert’s awesomely complex and intricate world setting, requiring hundreds of pages to manoeuvre it gently into place, is on detailed analysis nothing more than an excuse for folk to run around simultaneously hitting each other with swords and travelling in spaceships. So. What. So f*****g wot. I like people hitting each other with swords, and I also like spaceships. Great big ones with fins and flames coming out the back, for preference. So, swords and spaceships. Strawberry jam and Marmite. Try it. You’ll like it.
(The management would like to point out at this juncture that Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Chapterhouse Dune, and Zoltan, Hound of the Bride of Dune’s Living Corpse do not, and never have existed. Nor do Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, or Robocop 2. Jaws 4: The Revenge does exist, however, for sheer comedy value)
- Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. Oh my god. The first chapter. I believe I actually could have sex with the first chapter. I have fearsomely wrong thoughts about it. I read the entire book because a friend read the first chapter to me over the phone. And I’m afraid it has to be said – Neal Stephenson is head and shoulders above the average cyberpunk author (including the sainted Gibson) in actually understanding something about computers. This book manages to be simultaneously intelligent, socially responsible, horrific, and so cool it superconducts. So what if Raven and Hiro would have to be way too old if their fathers were actually imprisoned at Nagasaki? Only a churl would point that out.
- 1984, by George Orwell. This is genuinely a book that changed the world. Of all the books above, only War of the Worlds can claim anything of the sort, and only by obsessing Ronald Reagan with lasers. 1984 was written at a time when Stalin, lest we forget, was Time magazine’s Man of the Year (1940 rather than 1948, but who’s quibbling). The Soviets were our friends. Hadn’t they just helped us against Hitler? Only Orwell (who was unable to publish Animal Farm during World War Two for fear of upsetting our Soviet allies) dared to buck the trend. How many phrases entered the language via this book? Doublethink? Unperson? Big Brother? Doubleplusgood. And today I learned via the BBC website that Stalin is still on a Russian TV list of the 20 greatest Russians of all time. If you want to imagine the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.
(If any cretins have wandered in at this point, I’d like to point out that I’m not talking about that Big Brother. See, a copy of Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth! See the luridly painted picture of the man with the impossible muscles and the big gun! Go fetch!)
- Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut. An incredibly short book, and arguably not Science Fiction, though you’d probably get away with calling it Speculative Fiction. Do Billy Pilgrim’s Tralfamadorians exist, or has he made them up to make his agonized life more bearable? Like 1984, one of Slaughterhouse 5‘s most impressive features is its honesty, and Pilgrim, one of the most deliberately unheroic literary heroes of all time, nevertheless becomes one of its greatest avenging angels when he utters the simple words I was there. I re-read Slaughterhouse 5 recently after the death of someone very close to me. Surprisingly, despite being essentially a first-hand description of one of the most ruthless and unnecessary bombing offensives of World War Two, it cheered me up. Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.
- A Clockwork Orange. Not the movie version, which sucked as it swept as it beat as it cleaned despite the presence of Malcolm McDowell, but the novel, which includes the final chapter, which makes the whole story make f*****g sense. This book is not about violence, but about choice between good and evil. Is a human being who has had his mind altered therapeutically, as was all the rage in the 1960’s, still responsible for his actions? Does he still have something describable as a soul? A Clockwork Orange is, in fact, Zen And The Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance from a different perspective, and with far better dialogue. Hier kommt Alex – Vorhang auf, für ein kleines bißchen Horrorshow.
- Watchmen, by Alan Moore. So it’s got pictures, some of them of a big blue man with none too many clothes on. You got a problem with that?
I wasted months of my final year at college, when I really should have been studying for my finals, reading and re-reading Watchmen. I subsequently got very poor grades, and Alan Moore ruined my life (or, alternatively, saved me from wasting my life on what Cambridge University considers to be English literature). Watchmen is very like the complex movements of the watches one of its minor characters repairs – intricately plotted, intertwining lives all leading to a beautifully constructed dénouement which I cannot reveal, except for the fact that it’s terribly sad and everyone dies. Nobody is quite evil; nobody is quite good. But somehow you’re left in no doubt whatsoever as to who the good and bad guys are. Moore is excellent at whatever he lays his hands on, but this is his magnum opus de résistance, the cherry on the top of the icing on his cake. There’s going to be a movie version of it next year. It’ll probably be shite.
- And finally – the sadly missed, dearly departed Roger Zelazny’s Roadmarks and The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth, the latter being an anthology. The works Zelazny has gone down in SF history for – Amber, Lord of Light, and so forth – are not what sticks in my mind. Instead, I remember the final line of “This Moment of the Storm”, poignant as a long departed love:
It is cold and quiet outside, and the horizon is infinity. There is no sense of movement. There is no moon, and the stars are very bright, like broken diamonds, all.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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