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MIND MELD: Challenging SF/F Books That Are Worth The Effort To Read

[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

Recently, Ranker ran a list of the 5 hardest books to read that are totally worth it. That sounded like a good Mind Meld question.

Q: Which challenging SF/F stories are worth the effort to read?

Here’s what they said…

Jeff VanderMeer
World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer grew up in the Fiji Islands and has had books published in over 20 countries. His books, including the bestselling City of Saints & Madmen, have made the year’s best lists of The Wall Street Journal, LA Weekly, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many more. He reviews books for, among others, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as being a regular columnist for the Omnivoracious book blog. Current projects include the short story collection The Third Bear, the UK publication of his noir fantasy novel Finch (Atlantic), The Steampunk Bible (Abrams; with S.J. Chambers) and the forthcoming anthologies, co-edited with his wife Ann, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Fictions (Atlantic) and The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins). He maintains a blog at and serves as assistant director to the teen SF/F writing camp Shared Worlds.

“Challenging” usually is code for “yeah, I’m calling you ‘challenging’ rather than ‘visionary’ or ‘brilliant’ because I really don’t want my mind cross-pollinated with crazy-ass stuff that will change my life forever–just give me some escapist cotton candy.” So here goes…your brain will be transformed. “The Beak Doctor” by Eric Basso, a novella that’s Gothic by way of James Joyce and Proust, rewards more than one read. In fact, you’ll have to read it more than once to get the sense of it and its ruminations on a strange disease. It’s one of those let-it-wash-over-you and come back later for the logic of it. Any of Reza Negarestani’s half-philosophy/essay, half-fiction tales, featured in part in the Starry Wisdom anthology, should be required reading. “Beautiful Mutants” by Deborah Levy, published in book form (but really a long story), is phantasmagorical, haunting, and has all of the hallmarks of fantasy but should trouble your sleep for a long time. Michael Cisco’s short fiction can be challenging, especially “The Genius of Assassins” from Leviathan 3–it’s visceral, deadly, and worth your time. David Bunch’s Moderan stories ought to short-circuit your brain, along with the works of Stepan Chapman. Anything by Cordwainer Smith, especially his mature work. Kathy Acker–go read some Kathy Acker, you bastards. I could go on, but some things are truly secrets that you must earn your way to learning.

Matthew Cheney
Matthew Cheney is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a wide variety of venues, including Locus, Rain Taxi Review of Books, Las Vegas Weekly, One Story, Electric Velocipede, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. He is a regular columnist for Strange Horizons and his weblog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a 2005 World Fantasy Award.

Whether something is challenging or requires effort to read depends as much on the reader as on the text. When pundits talk about “difficult” novels, for instance, they usually refer to things like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, but I know readers who find those books much more fun to read than, say, a Robotech novel. Indeed, for some types of readers, making it through a complete set of any media tie-in would require far more effort than reading the complete works of Gertrude Stein.

So the titles I’m going to mention are all texts that in some way or another I had to expend more-than-usual effort to finish reading, and where I felt, in the end, that that effort was particularly rewarded. Whether you have the same response to any of them will depend on how similar you are to me as a reader. (I should note here that the ne plus ultra of a work that required and rewarded effort for me was not SF, but was William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, a novel that, when I first read it in college, I threw across the room multiple times. And then picked it up and continued on. Once I finished it, I was so overwhelmed I read it all again. And I continue to reread it every few years; no other book has affected me as fully.)

My immediate response when I read the question for this Mind Meld was “The Heat Death of the Universe” by Pamela Zoline. I would happily stand on a streetcorner and proclaim it one of the greatest short stories of the 20th century, and thus also one of the greatest science fiction stories of the 20th century, but SF readers in particular sometimes have a tough time with it because it is not obviously science fictional. When I first read it many years ago in an anthology of SF stories, I thought it was boring. I kept waiting for the aliens to land, for a time traveler to enter, for nuclear apocalypse to ruin the day. But no. And yes. “The Heat Death of the Universe” is about many things, but one of those things is what it feels like to be an alien. It explodes the ordinary by telling a tale of the everyday as if it were a science fiction story. And it is a science fiction story. That’s the thing, the brilliant paradox at the heart of this most clever, complex, and absolutely devasting tale.

Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren is probably the definitive “difficult” SF text, and while I certainly struggled at times to finish it when I first tried (and tried and tried), what I’ve discovered about it is that many readers’ experiences are similar to mine: if you try to read Dhalgren when your life is relatively stable, it can be tough, but if you try to read it when your life is in the midst of transition or is feeling particularly rocky, the book all but reads itself. It’s one of the great reading experiences of my life, but because of the nature of that reading experience, it doesn’t quite qualify for this Mind Meld for me.

Instead, I’d offer Delany’s magnum opus, the Return to Nevèrÿon series (consisting of eleven pieces collected in the books Tales of Nevèrÿon, Neveryóna, Flight from Nevèrÿon, and Return to Nevèrÿon [aka The Bridge of Lost Desire]). The series is everything — a sword & sorcery epic that deconstructs the whole idea of sword & sorcery epics, a fascinating philosophical journey, a meditation on time and society and economics and sex, a — well, everything. All constructed from sentences that are bursting and balanced and beautiful. These are stories that again and again caused me to say, “What is this?” while I read and reread them over the years, and I love them for that. Challenge and effort? Absolutely. Repaid infinitely.

(I suppose I could also offer Delany’s Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand, which on certain days I’d say is my favorite science fiction novel, but I actually never found it difficult going, though I know some other readers have.)

Finally, I’ll mention a novel I’m in the midst of teaching right now, and which I actually said to the students would require some real effort, but would reward that effort:

Shadow Man by Melissa Scott has recently been reprinted by Lethe Press, and the Lethe folks deserve an award for doing so, because this is one of the great science fiction novels of the past 25 years.

What can make its first half challenging on a first read is also what makes the book so great: the detail of its worlds. We are presented with two societies that are significantly different from each other and also contain differences within themselves — a detail forgotten by many more careless SF extrapolators, who create bizarrely monocultural worlds without realizing that monoculture is bizarre. The differences in Shadow Man are ones of language and politics, but also, and perhaps most challengingly for a first-time reader, of gender. The novel was partly inspired by Ann Fausto-Sterling’s 1993 Science article “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough”, and posits a future where interstellar travel requires a treatment that significantly increases intersex conditions in humans. This leads to many changes of language and culture, and since part of the story Shadow Man tells is of the struggle that one world fights to maintain a belief in only two genders, these changes of language and culture can be disconcerting and nonsensical to readers raised in a culture that thinks two genders are a fact and not a belief. A strength of the book is that the two-gender-believing culture is not just us-on-another-planet, but is itself full of social ideas (and words) that are at least vaguely unfamiliar to us. Scott plunges us right into this world and its characters, and the effect is disorienting, despite glossaries and occasional infodumps. But the disorientation is completely worth the effort, because by the end of the book, the reader’s entire perception of normality is shifted. The conclusion is complex and moving, and the book as a whole offers much to think about regarding gender, certainly, but also economics and politics. It’s a book that will do things to your brain.

Farah Mendlesohn
Farah Mendlesohn used to edit Foundation, and is now Immediate Past President of the IAFA. She won the Hugo for The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, and nominations for Rhetorics of Fantasy, The Inter-Galactic Playground, and On Joanna Russ. She is currently writing The Cambridge Introduction to Children’s Fantasy Literature.

It is purely coincidence that Joanna Russ has just died when you asked this question, for The Female Man is the book I most often find myself persuading people to make the effort to read. The book is narratively complex, non-linear, and with a story that is a bare trellis over which an argument is trained. The argument is designed to irritate pretty much everyone, even people who might think of themselves as instinctive or even educated feminists. This book attacks not just oppressors but victims (with a fairly stern injunction to get off our arses and start doing something). It questions our choice of allies and whether its even worth having allies. It asks us to subject our own interactions to Mao-ist self criticism.It has a narrator and three characters who may all be the same people, who may be from different worlds and different times, and none of whom are particularly likeable in any conventional way. It tells a story of sex wars and it tells a story of love across generations. Both are challenging to our sensibilities. It is also very dated. Much of what it fights with has gone underground, and this, as much as anything, can have people looking at you in puzzlement. But The Female Man is a book which challenges you to push at possibilities and to question superficial change. It says constantly, do not be fooled by friendly words, by the status of honorary male, whenever someone cedes an inch, don;t merely demand a mile, but ask “what did they get out of that?” Question everyone’s intentions. Perhaps most challenging to our sensibilities is that this is a book which does not demand immortality. It demands instead that you go out there and do the things that will make this book irrelevant.

Mike Brotherton
Mike Brotherton is the author of the hard science fiction novels Spider Star (2008) and Star Dragon (2003), the latter being a finalist for the Campbell award. He’s also a professor of astronomy at the University of Wyoming, Clarion West graduate, and founder of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers ( He blogs at

In no particular order:

The Fifth Head of Cerebus by Gene Wolfe. This “novel” is a set of three novellas that can be read in a different order than packaged, with different insights each time. It’s a novel of identity, of the alien, and of perspective, coupled with Wolfe’s sophisticated skills in mood and style. It’s a challenging read, with great depth.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, this novel jumps about in space and time. It isn’t the easiest thing to keep track of, but the net effect builds to an emotional climax worth the work.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Deep ideas join the invention of language. It’s easy to be distracted by the extreme violence, but this is an amazing and complex novel.

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. A novel of the future with multiple points of view that can be read at different levels, this novel was billed as a “non Novel” in its day. Complicated, complex, inventive, but worth the effort.

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson writes long, complicated books, and has a tendency to include long technical passages about Babylonian gods and cryptology. In this novel, it’s computing. Combining aspects of cyberpunk, steampunk, and old-fashioned hard sf, The Diamond Age deserved its awards, but isn’t the easiest read out there.

Very honorable mentions: Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi (burdened by graphic rape scenes and challenging cultural/language jumps), Quarantine by Greg Egan (full of quantum weirdness), Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany (reminiscent of The Fifth Head of Cerebus but perhaps more accessible), The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin (complex structure coupled with issues of the Cold War and theoretical physics).

Alan Beatts
Alan Beatts is the owner of Borderlands Books in San Francisco. He’s been a fan of SF and Fantasy ever since he discovered Michael Moorcock, Robert Heinlein, and Andre Norton one very exciting but academically unproductive school year.

I should preface my list with a qualification. As a general rule, I don’t like books that are hard to get through and so I usually don’t finish them. Working booksellers always have more books than time. Very early in their career, they lose any resistance they might have to just stopping mid-paragraph, putting the book down, and never coming back to it because there is always the next book to read. Whenever possible, I read for pleasure and reading fills a place in my life that is occupied by television for many people. I read to relax, to get away from the world, to be entertained, and perhaps to discover a new idea or way of looking at things. But I certainly do not read to be “challenged”. The rest of my life does enough of that, thank you very much.

Therefore, the list of books that I could possibly call “hard to read, but worth it” with any sort of authority is pretty short since most of the books that I’ve run into that were hard to read, didn’t get read.

1) Anathem by Neal Stephenson

It’s hard — chock full of made-up words that sound like real words but don’t mean the same thing, science and logic that makes your brain hurt

It’s worth it — great story, science and logic that make your brain hurt

At the outset I thought that Stephenson’s use of words near to their English equivalents (i.e. concents for convent, fraa for friar, saunt for saint) was irritating and twee, so much so I almost didn’t get past the first 50 pages. Then a lightbulb went on and I realized that he was doing something very clever in his use of those words by making me address my own assumptions about rationality and religion. After that it was just a matter of working through quite a long novel filled with Stephenson’s typical “big ideas”, this time mostly regarding the relationship between religion and philosophy as well as the layered nature of reality with a short detour into the physics / chemistry of human life-sciences.

2) The Ash-Tree by M.R. James

It’s hard — complex and dated language, obscure classical and historical references, archaic storytelling conventions

It’s worth it — some of the best ghost stories in the English language

James was an English mediaeval scholar and provost of King’s College, Cambridge and later of Eton College. All his stories were written in the first quarter of the 20th century and were written with an audience of his peers in mind. The product is bears little resemblance to contemporary, colloquial English. It’s also filled with references to English history that are not familiar to most modern readers, especially Americans. Despite that, his stories are wonderful and terribly chilling. I’ve picked my own favorite, The Ash-Tree, for this article, but all his work is well worth reading. But, if you can, get one of the annotated editions.

3) The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (Lord Foul’s Bane, The Illearth War, The Power That Preserves) by Stephen Donaldson

It’s hard — you hate and despise the protagonist

It’s worth it — great finale, fascinating response to The Lord of the Rings

The theoretical “hero” of these novels, Thomas Covenant, commits rape in the first part of the first novel. If that doesn’t sufficiently endear him to the reader, he proceeds to make his way through all three books complaining, whining, and refusing to believe that anything happening to him is even real. I found that I constantly wanted to reach right into the book, shake him until his teeth chipped and make him stop being such an ass. But, if you make it all the way through the books, he is redeemed in a surprising way and the conclusion to the trilogy is truly a thing of brilliance. The Chronicles is also engrossing as a modern, post-Viet Nam era rebuttal to The Lord of the Rings. There are equivalents to Elves (Woodhelvennin), Dwarves (Stonedownors), the Ringwraiths (the Ravers), Orcs (Cavewights) and even Sauron (Lord Foul – who is seeking the Thomas Covenant’s ring) but the ethics and conflict of the story is framed in terms of the questions of the 1970s, not the 1940s. For example, the essential conflict is hope vs. despair, not good vs. evil, and Covenant’s major characteristic is self-loathing rather than Frodo’s shyness and self-effacing nature. This was the first trilogy that answered and built upon Tolkien, rather than imitating him.

4) Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson.

It’s hard — dense prose, hugely complex plot, setting & characters

It’s worth it — the beginning one of the finest fantasy series ever written, plot twists and turns like a bowl of spaghetti that all resolve in the end, brilliant characters

The first novel in Erikson’s recently completed fantasy epic, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, took me three tries to finish. For modern fantasy, the prose is dense but the real challenge for me was the way that Erickson throws the reader into the story at the end of a catastrophic battle without an explanation of who the parties to the war are, who the characters are or what their relationship to each other is. You have to pickup all that information (along with a lot more) as you go. The feeling that I had was almost as if I’d started reading a trilogy with the second book. On top of all that, the cast of characters is very large and the plot is complicated enough that I was still trying to figure out what side all the players were on right up to the ending. But all that work was worth it. The characters are fully dimensional, believable and as complex as real people. The story is good shading into great and it leads into the other books in the series, which just get better and better.

5) The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allen Poe.

It’s hard — awkwardly written, bizarre and inexplicable ending

It’s worth it — the basis for several other classic works and ideas within and without SF&F

The plot and structure of Arthur Gordon Pym is unbalanced in a bunch of ways and the overwhelming sense is that the author doesn’t really know where the story is going. Given that it was one of Poe’s earlier works and is his only novel, I think that feeling is probably accurate. The ending is completely consistent with the rest of the novel in that it doesn’t really have any clear connection with what proceeds it. But, it is one of the first American novels of the fantastic as well as being an inspiration for both Herman Melville and Jules Verne. Melville’s treatment of society aboard ship and the sense of an apocalyptic voyage from which there will be no return both show direct influences from Pym. Verne was so influenced by Poe in general and Arthur Gordon Pym in specific that he wrote a sequel, An Antarctic Mystery, as well as a study of Poe’s work. Just for the way that it puts later, better works in context, it’s worth reading.

John C. Wright
John C. Wright is the author of The Golden Age Trilogy, The War of the Dreaming, Chronicles of Chaos and the upcoming Null-A Continuum, the authorized sequel of A.E. van Vogt’s World of Null-A books. His short fiction has appeared in Year’s Best SF 3, The Night Lands, Best Short Novels 2004, The Year’s Best Science Fiction #21, Breach The Hull, and No Longer Dreams.

The question is which challenging science fiction & fantasy books are worth the effort. I assume challenging, does not merely mean long, but means difficult or opaque to read, that is, requiring diligent study, but which reward that study with insights that touch more than one area of life. Which science fiction books are hard but worth the hardship?

Let me begin by saying the number of books in this category is, of necessity, very small. Necessarily, if a writer is good, he is clear. If a writer is not good, usually the ideas he explores are trivial rather than profound. Most writers who are good are good at both. So the number of writers who are good enough to be profound, but not good enough to be clear, is small.

That said, there do exist, from time to time, men of unusual genius whose ideas are so profound that they cannot be made clear to any reader not willing to study the work in depth. While we expect such men to rise in the field of classical literature, Homer, Milton, Shakespeare and the like, science fiction is a recent and popular type of genre writing with its roots in pulp fiction and boy’s adventure stories, and rarely attempts to achieve classic stature. Those that make this attempt self-consciously–I am thinking of certain New Wave writers, or, rather ‘artistes’– usually blunder, mistaking obscurity for profundity, obscenity for bravery, or mere defiance of convention as innovation, and they end up being, not a poet like Milton, but a poseur like James Joyce.

The difference between the impostor and the true is that the true genius rewards endless rereading. All the sweat of digging the deep well is answered with a fountain of living water that endlessly refreshes the weary and turns even in fields far away to green. A great book is one that touches even remote topics, or that will strike you with a new thought or insight even years later. The impostor has you dig and dig, and at the bottom, the same old dank mudhole of thought that says nothing and means nothing.

The question therefore is which books demand study and amply reward it? First and foremost is Gene Wolfe. I say without fear of being contradicted (at least by sober men) that Mr. Wolfe is not merely the finest science fiction writer at large today, he is the finest writer today of any genre. He is the Jorge Luis Borges of North America.

I could name any of his works as fitting the pattern of rewarding obscurity, but let me mention merely his Short Sun Trilogy: On Blue’s Waters, In Green’s Jungles, and Return to the Whorl. The plot on the surface concerns the odyssey of a paper mill owner named Horn across the haunted oceans of the newly-colonized planet Blue, where man has no roots and is not welcome, seeking his old master Silk, who is the sole hope for the dying colony to survive. Over his mast hangs the vampire-infested sister planet Green; under his keel are mermaids and monstrous sea-goddesses; before him is the invisible town where the one remaining landing craft still in operation rests, glamorous with the promise of return to the multigeneration colony-vessel that still hangs like some morningstar dying in heaven; behind him are memories; with him, seen, is the creature who is not his pet and the woman who is not his wife, and perhaps not human, and the boy who is not his son, and definitely not human; and with him, unseen, are the ghosts of the vanished race, more advanced than man, who once walked this world.

The difficulty for the reader is that the main character is not only not who he seems to be, he is not even who he thinks he is, and even though written in first person, the reader must be alert to when the narrator, unbeknownst even to himself, is possessed by or evolves into one of the other characters in the tale or another tale. That it is also told not in chorological order, and that what is being sought and saved is much more important than a mere world, does not make the reading any easier for the neophyte.

Gene Wolfe delights in that difficult technique, so often abused by clumsier hands, of unreliable narration, where the character writing the story does not tell the whole truth, and the reader must see through the deceptions and omissions, deliberate or otherwise, with which the narrator disguises events. That this is done against a science fiction background, where the reader is expected to deduce (with no explicit explanation from the author) what is normal for the strange new world of the author’s invention, makes the camouflage all the more difficult to penetrate, because the reader must know what is normal for the world to spot the abnormalities which form the chain of hints the author plants. Gene Wolfe writes as a detective story, but one where the detective never solves the crime: but the clues are all in place, hidden or open, to allow the reader to do so.

Those of you unwilling to plunge headlong into so difficult a trilogy may instead read the famed, and deservedly famed, short story ‘Fifth Head of Cerberus’ by the same author. Because more brief, it is, if anything, more obscure yet also more worthy of deep rereading. It is a tale of a young man growing up alone all by himself in a high class bordello with his family, killing himself and becoming himself, or, rather, becoming trapped as himself. Some day they will need him.

Second, let me list Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay as a book demanding study. This obscure work is like a fever dream of the imagination, so rich in invention as to beggar parallels, ornamented with symbolism so occult and profound as to read like a work of apocalyptic literature, easier to behold in awe than to hold in one’s understanding.

The surface tale is straightforward, if baroque. An Englishman named Maskull, together with his companion Nightspore, is invited (or lured, or commanded) to depart the foggy streets of London for the giant planet Tormance circling the double-star Arcturus, whose twin suns, Alppain and Branchspell, infuse the life of that world with opposite physical and spiritual influences, always at war. Maskull is sent to follow Surtur.

He wakes alone to find his body strangely mutated. The story, such as it is, consists of his wandering, surrounded by omens of his impending death, across the face of this variegated world, meeting (and usually murdering) the vivid yet singular man or woman (or phaen) who either befriends or bewitches, or follows or betrays him as he passes through his or her (or aer) the singular yet vivid one-man realm each inhabits, each realm representing a different world-view. Maskull encounters such oddities as the two primary colors, jale and ulfire, that do not occur on Earth; or a human of the third sex, nether male nor female, unknown to our sphere; or he hears music so wild that it cuts and kills the bodies of the audience, and it is played on a lake of liquid metal by sheer force of thought; or he sees, through additional sense impressions unknown here the inner nature, the moral force, or the usefulness to his unbridled will of objects in his environment, oceans whose waters support human weight, mountains rectilinear as skyscrapers shaken by continuous landslips and rises, forests of leaves of glass whose shadows are brightness, lakes which reveal visions of the future, underground worlds without color, or mountains emerald-bright with the warm green snow of living waters whose passes no living man can recross. Maskull seeks the creator of this world, a god called Surtur, or Shaping, or Crystalman, but it soon becomes clear the world is false, and life itself a snare and a delusion, and the world-maker is the enemy and impersonator of the true god, and Crystalman is the enemy of Surtur. And when he dies, or wakes, he become his companion Nightspore, or was him all along.

The difficulty for the reader is that the tale is a Gnostic allegory, and anyone unfamiliar with the doctrines of this heresy will have no frame of reference to understand the events or their significance; also , the author is making allusions, or, rather allegorical reflections, to matter of post-Kantian philosophy, and readers not familiar with Hegel and Nietzsche will not grasp the author’s didactic purpose: David Lindsay is presenting, in terms of lush and vivid imagery, an argument to reject various modern philosophers; or, if not an argument, a vision of rejection.

I strongly recommend this book to any reader who wants to see what depths and heights of strangeness science fiction can reach when unshackled from conventional form, but I also warn the unwary that the ultimate message of the book is so repellant and blasphemous that the book is not without spiritual danger. Readers possessed by the typical dazed minds and hungry hearts produced by the wreckage of our modern educational system, and the boglands of our modern popular culture should avoid this book until they are older, wiser, warier, and stronger in the spirit. Reader whose eyes go blank or whose lips curl in a sneer at the mere mention of the word ‘spirit’ (as I was when first I read this book) are too shallow to be harmed, and may read without fear, enjoying the imagery (as I did when first I read this book).

Third, and as an anodyne to David Lindsay, let me list That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis. You might be surprised that I list this book, written in clear and undemanding prose, as difficult or demanding study. It seems, at first glance, to be a straightforward story concerning a young and ambitious professor Mark, and his unhappy wife, Jane, the ghastly modernization of their charming college town, Edgestow, by a world-conspiracy of evil scientists, the N.I.C.E., who serve and obey the severed head of a Saracen, Al Cassan, speaking prophecies from dark beings older than Earth, Thulcandra; and concerning the resurrection of Merlin, the descent of the gods, the fall of the Tower of Babel, and a bear named Mister Bultitude.

This story I consider the masterpiece of C. S. Lewis’s writing, and hold it in deeper esteem than his far more celebrated children’s books. Mr. Lewis wrote a profound essay called the Abolition of Man, warning of the dangers of, well, the wreckage of our modern educational system, and the boglands of our modern popular culture, long before the phrase “moral relativism” or “culture of death” passed into common parlance. Strength is a tale, speaking to the imagination, of the same matter that Abolition speaks to the reason; and in its pages, the author touches on nearly every aspect and ramification of the modern world view, or, rather lack of world view, involved in the modern rejection of reason and right reason. The nature of the estate of marriage, of the role of the magistrates to punish lawbreakers rather than to educate them, the role of the news media in shaping the national debate, the role of kingship, of science, of logic, of faith, of archetypes and legends in our lives, and more are touched on. Whole books could be written just on the implications involved (and have been: I will recommend but one: C. S. Lewis In Context by Doris T Meyers). This is a book that seems straightforward but is actually profound.

Fourth, I list The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison. This book I call difficult only because of its prose, which is gorgeous, orotund, rich, poetical, ironic, majestic, and link nothing else found in the science fiction field. Unless the reader is immersed in Elizabethan poets, or has a dictionary close at his elbow, the prose will advance upon him like legionnaires bedecked in dazzling plumes that peacocks or birds of paradise might bear, or feathers from the wings of mythic hippogriffs, atop helms crusted with the tusks of boars aflame with hammered gold, or breastplates of dark adamantine beset with the jacinth, the emerald, the sard, the sardonyx, the tourmaline, and opals freaked with jet adorning gauntlets steel forged in breath of captive dragons, whilst greaves of orichalcum with panes of jade inset tramp the bloody field of war and furious combat, and the reader will fall, dazed and dazzled. For such is the prose of Eddison.

The story concerns the Iliad of Mercury, where men of war like demigods for strength and beauty are beset by the warlock-king Gorice XII, whose darkest grammarye is that he cannot die. There are sword fights and sea fights, sieges and betrayals, and armies that wander lost through wastelands thick with glamour and devilry; and prophecies; and mystic mountains unclimbed, till then, by mortal men; and when one of the four princes is carried off alive to the land of the dead, his three brethren voyage to the world’s end and beyond it to recover him. Whether villain or hero, the characters of the drama loom memorable and magnificent. These are not small men, but grand both in their nobility and in their treasons.

This book is not for everyone: this sauce will be too rich to your tongue and too overseeped in heady and delirious spices of Arabic lands of legend-golden Cathay, if your palate is conditioned to the thin and meatless broth of Hemmingway-type prose, journalistic prose, that just passes data efficiently and quickly to the reader’s lax brain, trying to avoid memorable turns of phrase that might jar from his half-sleep the data-absorbing subject (for he is not really a reader).

Fifth and finally, let me list World of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt. This is perhaps the easiest and most accessible to read of the works listed here, but the author is a master of the unexpected Hitchcockian plot-twist, shift of meaning and identity, and paradox. In this book, added to the confusion of the authors preferred plot of ever-deeper paradigm shifts, is the rather abstract philosophy of Non-Aristotelian logic, or ‘Null-A’, which is depicted in action but never actually described: the reader is merely expected to grasp the intricacies of this theory of semantics, psychology, ontology and nominalist metaphysics while in the midst of a tale of an amnesiac superhuman defending a scientific utopia from a conspiracy of human traitors and inhuman agents of a ruthless extraterrestrial empire.

This book, even though written years ago, and its author’s first novel-length foray into science fiction, nonetheless contains some of the tightest plot-weaving and most bewildering plot reversals in any SF yarn. Even until the last word of the last line, the reader is kept guessing as to the true identities of the characters involved, and the Null-A theory as to the nature of identity must be grasped for the ending to make itself clear to the reader–which it will do after the last word is read, and the book is closed, and the reader is pondering on the meaning of the events: and the book merits to be pondered.

World of Null-A was savaged by science fiction’s earliest and best known professional critic of the genre, Damon Knight, who pushed the work into undeserved obscurity, perhaps because he preferred the type of works written, or, rather, committed, by poseurs and artistes such as I mention with scorn above. Mr. Knight dismissed the paradigm-shifting technique of plot-weaving as mere sleight of hand. But perhaps it not as easy as it looks to juggle all the pieces of a jigsaw in midair, forming one picture to the reader, and then, by flipping one more bit of the puzzle into view, to both change the whole picture of what has gone before, and have the picture make sense; and then to do it again. The scientific process itself is nothing other than this juggling of jigsawwork to create successively more elegant and accurate pictures of the cosmos: to dismiss it in art is to overlook it’s significance in life. Others have attempted the Vanvogtian style of paradigm-shifting, either successfully, as with The Paradox Men by Charles L. Harness, or unsuccessfully, as with Mr. Knight’s own deservedly forgotten Beyond the Barrier, a work that serves as a living reminder that those who cannot perform a tricky technique of art at even an apprentice level should not mock it as a mere trick.

The book and its sequel, Players of Null-A may not be in print, but they are worth seeking out, if for no other reason than to undo an injustice perpetrated by Mr. Knight. I have heard a rumor that some obscure midlist author wrote an authorized sequel to the work, but I doubt that author’s skill is equal in general to the masterful work of A.E. van Vogt, or specifically to this, his masterwork.

About JP Frantz (2323 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

26 Comments on MIND MELD: Challenging SF/F Books That Are Worth The Effort To Read

  1. Fantastic link. Will try to get through them.

  2. Man, I hated Slaughterhouse Five.  Easily the most difficult short book to read.  Though, in my opinion it wasn’t worth it.  Obviously, many disagree with me.


  3. Scott Cupp // May 11, 2011 at 8:37 am //

    Love the various titles here and I have to echo Alan Beatts’ hoices.  To that I would add THE NIGHT LAND by William Hope Hodgson.  Within an Elizabethan prose styled that is turgid at best, rhere lies a great horror novel.  For those unable to manage it, THE DREAM OF X is a slimmed down version of the same story and it is somewhat more accessible.

  4. Uh-huh, John Wright calling James Joyce a poseur. There aren’t enough eyerolls in the multiverse…

  5. Dennis Sorensen // May 11, 2011 at 10:26 am //

    Haven’t read more than a few of the novels mentioned here, but great mind meld. Thanks!

  6. The richer irony is JCW singling out Gene Wolfe for praise, then launching a postmortem savaging of Damon Knight. (Unlike Damon, Van Vogt was around to defend himself when Knight did his savaging, which did no more lasting damage to Van Vogt’s reputation than Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” did to Cooper’s.) Wolfe gives Knight singular credit for discovering him (“grew me from a seed,” I believe is how he put it), and there are issues of Knight’s Orbit containing multiple Wolfe stories.  Wolfe is precisely the sort of “poseur or artiste” Damon Knight championed.

  7. Lots of great stuff here, particularly the Delany, Eddison, Lewis, Russ, and Cordwainer Smith – that’s stuff I come back to over and over. I’m also a refugee from an English PhD program, so I love the stuff like Burgess, Vonnegut, and Joyce and would add Djuna Barnes, Eliot and Nabakov.

    I’d also include Calvino and Lem, along with Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (and here I will confess I skip over a good chunk of the book just to read the sections with Behemoth). Other books: John Crowley’s Little Big as well as anything by Gene Wolfe. The Sparrow and its sequel by Maria Doria Russell are tough but edifying reads. I love Carol Emshwiller’s work which I think is the very definition of lucid sometimes, but have had students decry it as “too literary”. Some of LeGuin’s most wonderful stuff is dense, as is Justina Robson’s fabulous writing or Peter Watt’s Blindsight.

    What makes a book “difficult” is something I’d ask as well — I’ve referred someone to Tolkein only to have them reject his style as too wordy. Some people hate anything with a whiff of the literary. 

  8. I find this post challenging to read.


  9. What is a difficult book?  


    There are three classes of difficult SF books in my opinion:

    Literary SF: Books that are difficult because they use unusual, baroque literary techniques or language.

    Difficult Ideas SF: These books might be written in a straightforward manner, but the topics, themes and ideas presented are not easy to grasp, or are disturbing to fully envision. 

    Overwhelming SF: Books that beat you down with lots of characters, viewpoints and jargon. The Brothers Karamazov approach to SF. 


    So, with that in mind, to answer the questionL:


    Literary SF: Book of the New Sun, Wolfe

    Difficult Ideas SF: I have to go with Joanna Russ’ The Female Man. Provocative and challenging even today.

    Overwhelming SF: The Space Opera of Peter F Hamilton.

  10. For recent books, I thought The Quantum Thief was difficult for its level of immersion and unwillingness to put in long periods of exposition to explain the concepts.  I also think most of Ellison’s stories are challenging thematically, especially his collections Deathbird Stories and Hard Candy, even more especially his stories of the New Gods (which predates American Gods by decades).

  11. @Paul: I would put The Female Man in the Literary SF catagory:



  12. Paul Connelly // May 11, 2011 at 8:48 pm //

    Obviously, brilliantly: Moonwise by Greer Ilene Gilman.

    Challenging in more subtle ways:

    Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock.

    Little, Big by John Crowley.

    Almost anything by Robert Aickman or Thomas Ligotti.

  13. John C. Wright // May 11, 2011 at 9:56 pm //

    I’m always a little surprised that my humble and gentle words provoke controversy, but something about my approach — I am not sure what it is — seems to provoke hostile answers. Let me stoke the hostility by explaining myself, because I doubt the explanations will assuage.

    And my comment about Damon Knight hardly counts as “savaging” the man or dishonoring the dead — unless we define it as savage to say someone was savaging someone else. Mr. Knight dwelt for many pages on the shortcomings of Mr. Van Vogt, and expended not a little effort to squeeze him out of the field. On the other hand, what I said was — don’t call it easy if you try it and find it too hard for you. I made no personal comments — I did not call him a pigmy with a giant typewriter (the sneer he leveled against Van Vogt) nor did I call his plots a cosmic jury rig — and I made no comment about the main body of his work aside from his one Van Vogt pastiche. I made no comment about his merits as an editor, in which capacity he aided Mr. Wolfe in starting his career. Allow me to rectify: Mr. Knight merits all praise and honors for having helped the early Mr. Wolfe.

    I doubt if anyone can call me a poseur, not in an article where I refer to myself as an obscure midlist author of middling talent — unless, of course, you believe my skills as a writer of light space opera falls so far short of “middling talent” that this is a pose? If so, I accept your judgment as stern but fair.

    James Joyce, one the other hand, is a poseur, in that he is a humbug and a sham: he poses as one who addresses great themes, but he dwells on the quotidian, the common, the low, and the disgusting. The whole point of his ULYSSES is precisely to show how unheroic and un-Homeric middle class Dublin life was.

    The pretense that he is too deep to understand will not work on those of us comfortable in the deeps. And if Joyce was not writing for the literati, for those of us seeped in great literature, we who can read Homer in Greek, for whom does he write? Absent that pretense, what is the argument for his fame? What great ideas do his works address? What, aside from merely stylistic pyrotechnics, is there to him? And something that pretends to be a great book but which is barren of great ideas is a pose.


  14. I have been reading and challenged by Ian McDonald’s Brasyl, which is so dense in culture and switches between three plotlines each in a different era, that I have been reading it for months but remain captiavated. I also agree about Bacigalupi’s WindUp Girl. Powerful, especially in examining cultures of the other. I also agree about the Thomas Covenant series, one of the first fantasy series I read besides “Lord Of The Rings” and one that took a while to embrace but hooked me so much I have read it again since. Truly complex and fascinating with a protagonist one cannot connect with easily. I think 60s and 70s Robert Silverberg has a lot to offer as well. Dying Inside and The Book Of Skulls are examples. Very powerful, unique stuff from an amazing writer.

  15. Dhalgren and Gravity’s Rainbow have always been my literary bugaboos.  Someday I’ll get through them.


  16. I love this stuff. I must add: ERIC BASSO! JOANNA RUSS! GENE WOLFE! I was surprised to not see Peace here. I had not thought of Cordwainer Smith in this way, but yeah, so worth engaging.

    As to what “challenging” means, I think the responses here demonstrate that it another one of those terms that becomes personal quickly, and that can have multiple meanings. But it’s enjoyable to see people tackle the question, and educational, particularly Farah Mendlesohn’s description of the necessity of reading Joanna Russ.

  17. Most Challenging – Has to be Stephen Erikson and Gardens of the Moon series, in fact this got so challenging that I gave up reading the series as each book was released because the headache of getting my mind into the place it needed to be in order to read his books was too exhausting, now he has apparently finnished the series I will be digging out my copies and see if I can manage them as a series… I did love his first couple of novels but then the novelty of not having a clue what was going on or how the books related to each other wore off.

    China Miéville is an other author who I consider a constantly difficult author to read but also one of the most rewarding, not every novel is perfect there are a couple I am in no hurry to re-read but the rest of his novels… I absolutely adore. China’s use of prose his ideas and world building are superb and his talent for mismatching different genres to make something both derivivative and unique leaves me in awe.

    Harry Turtledove – I have read every novel this hugely prolific author has published that I can find, however given his prodigious out put and fondness for pen-names keeping track of his works is chore… even with the aid of the internet and Amazon. Many people complain about his huge open ended sagas that feature hundreds of characters each telling a tiny peice of the ‘global’ stories that he is telling, but I love them. Yes its difficult fitting all the peices together at the start of each novel and returning to a series (as he often does) can be a manic headache as I try to figure out/remember who everyone is again and their individual stories are… I suppose I could check the internet but I like to consider myself a bit of a purist and think thats cheating…. the simple size of the canvas’ that Turtledove repeatedly uses leaves just about every other author look like they are writing on the back of postage stamps…. Even Peter Hamilton and his massive sagas (which have been mentioned) tend to pale into insignificance.


  18. John C. Wright says, I’m always a little surprised that my humble and gentle words provoke controversy…

    I suppose it’s because you’re such a lousy writer. You say that you value clarity in writing, and yet in your response here you issue forth paragraph after paragraph of cloudy nonsense in order to express what could have taken three sentences. Your original post is full of windy, meaningless, repetitive verbal tics like “let me list” (you were asked for a list, you’re pre-allowed to list) and de facto contradictions like “the surface tale is straightforward, if baroque,” which exist for no other reason than for you to show off what you fondly imagine to be your superior vocabulary and syntax. Why not just say “the plot is simple?” No reason, except your own stance as one of the “literati.” That’s why people think you’re a poseur; you keep posing.

    “The number of writers who are good enough to be profound, but not good enough to be clear, is small,” and you’re not one of them; you’re neither profound, nor clear. Your ideas are generic and vapid, and so you hide them in a burst of clumsy language, like a squid in its ink cloud. And not a very interesting squid.

  19. Pierce O. // May 13, 2011 at 1:24 pm //

    “which exist for no other reason than for you to show off what you fondly imagine to be your superior vocabulary and syntax. Why not just say “the plot is simple?””

    Because it’s fun to make use of the wealth of words in the English language. Hebetudinous prose will simply inflict somnolence on your audience. We didn’t invent these words for them to be cast aside as the tools of a poseur; fancy words only indicate poseur-ness when the poseur attempts to substitute them for depth in writing. Mr. Wright isn’t claiming to be deep, he just likes having fun with English. I, on the other hand, was totally posing as an erudite scholar in my second sentence 😉


    “and you’re not one of them; you’re neither profound, nor clear. Your ideas are generic and vapid, and so you hide them in a burst of clumsy language, like a squid in its ink cloud. And not a very interesting squid.”

    He never claimed to be one, he claimed to be “an obscure midlist author of middling talent”.

  20. Uh oh.  Mr. Wright has attacked one of the English Department’s sacred cows, so here’s an art professor to give him what-for.  But if “let me list” and “straightforward, if baroque” are Wright’s worst stylistic sins . . . in a blog post . . . I’m inclined to say he’s not doing too shabbily.

    This is a description of one of Seth E.’s projects, taken from his website:

    The basic text was generated from randomly selected items from various 12-step programs, and a series of unrelated images. The results were then collaged together, along with a fairy tale about a bunny.”

    Mm hmm.  He who lives in a glass house should not throw stones.

  21. D. G. D. Davidson, are you calling my rabbit baroque? Why I oughta.

    What sacred cow do you think I’m defending? Good writing? Clarity? As for stoning glass houses, well, I’m not making similar claims to Wright, so I’m not too upset at the thought of not living up to them. I can be as obscure as I like, so there. If Wright, on the other hand, is going to make absolute value judgements about what constitutes good writing, he ought to make some kind of effort to live up to them.

  22. But I will cop to using “live up to them” twice in a single paragraph. Egad.

  23. Children, stop this or you will be sent to bed with no tea! 😉

    Seriously there is no need for this swipping, its petty and for me its spoiling a thread I am enjoying. I like to set myself difficult challenges as a reader and I am eager to hear what series people find both challenging and rewarding…. becuase it gives me more books to add to my going to read list (which is already at epic proportions, but….. I read prodigiously….)

  24. John C. Wright’s description of Knight’s criticism is, of course, inaccurate in every significant respect. Anyone who has read Knight’s IN SEARCH OF WONDER will remember the long chapters of passionate praise for writers from the glory days of Campbell’s ASTOUNDING, particularly Heinlein, Kuttner and Moore, as well as others who blossomed later, like Jack Vance. I doubt these are the type of writers JCW would class as “poseurs and artistes” although they are of course popular artists far superior to Van Vogt, JCW, or most people who have written sf or fantasy.  Also, Van Vogt himself explicitly acknowledged the validity of Knight’s criticism by changes he made in the novel for its book publication and the fairly generous introduction he wrote for that.

    Either Mr. Wright is posing, one might say, as someone who knows Knight’s criticism, or he doesn’t care about fairness or accuracy. It only remains to say that  WORLD OF NULL-A is an awful dumb book that is of merely historical interest for sf. Many of Van Vogt’s short stories are worth reading and rereading, though–as Knight acknowledged (see his 1960s anthology BEYOND TOMORROW).

  25. Mark McSherry // May 14, 2011 at 10:05 pm //

    Damon Knight’s extreme loathing for the 1945 ASF serialization of THE WORLD OF NULL-A is inexplicable. His disgust extends well beyond that title; while the spittle from Knight’s typewriter is spewed on van Vogt’s other writings, much is directed at the man himself, A. E. van Vogt. With a few flecks saved for those moronic fans who (somehow) enjoy reading van Vogt.  Knight’s essay, “Cosmic Jerrybuilder: A. E. van Vogt”, probably says more about the personal (and intellectual) failings of the “young” Knight than it does about the writings of A. E. van Vogt. The methods employed by Knight in his hit-piece would make Saul Alinsky proud.

    For a different perspective on his works and life, please read SFRevu’s tribute to A. E. van Vogt posted by Ernest Lilley. To quote Mr Lilley—

    I’ve asked some of today’s SF writers to share their thoughts about him with SFRevu and thank them all for their contributions. Here they are, starting with a tremendous piece that Harlan Ellison wrote for the introduction to Futures Past: The Best Short Fiction of A.E. van Vogt:

    Van is Here, But Van is Gone by Harlan Ellison


    And Robert J. Sawyer’s remembrance is especially moving…

  26. robert1014 // May 21, 2011 at 1:50 pm //

    I’m surprised to see anyone list SLAUGHTER-HOUSE FIVE as difficult, and also A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. While the latter works seems difficult at first, this misperception is dispelled swiftly: one rapidly comes to understand the invented slang Burgess employs in writing the book, and the inherent musicality of the prose becomes intoxicating. I first read it in high school and I loved it. I’ve read it several times since, each time getting more and different things from it. Perhaps the challenge is in seeing beyond the sensational aspects of the story to grasp what Burgess intended with the book.

    I do recommend finding an edition of it that contains the actual final chapter, truncated from American editions (and Kubrick’s film adaptation), as it is really necessary to understand Burgess’ meaning.

    Vonnegut’s book I also read in high school and I found it immediately charming and captivating…the prose is simple and the shifts back and forth in time and place are not in the least difficult to follow.

    I’m glad A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS was listed. Again, I didn’t find it difficult to read at all, but it’s meaning is obscure and mysterious. Because of its obscurity, I have bought numerous copies of it in different editions as I have found them here and there. I will read it again.

    I’m a bit surprised no one mentioned Ballard’s CRASH. I tried to read it back in the 80s and just could not get through it, despite its relative brevity. The prose is clear and free of experimental technique, yet there is something so…base and depraved about it that I felt it almost contaminating to read. Perhaps it is the dispassionate description of extreme events and behavior, the non-judgemental and almost drably matter-of-fact telling of the tale that makes it so unsettling. I set it aside.  I took it up again 16 years later when Cronenberg’s film adaptation was near its release. As a fan of Cronenberg, I intended to see the film, but I felt an obligation to read the book first. I did still find it difficult going, but I stuck with it to the end and found, having taken it all in, that it was a powerful and great novel. (I had a similar experience in reading Heller’s CATCH-22: though mostly quite entertaining, I found it a challenge and almost too much; on finishing its last page I knew I had read one of the great modern novels. It was truly cathartic as few books are.) CRASH is a masterpiece of perversity.

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