We all fondly remember favorite books from our youths, the books that good us hooked on reading. We all have new favorites. And everyone has a story about that one author they’d never heard of until a random library discovery, or when a friend thrust a book into their hands and said “you must read this!” and the rest was history. With that in mind, I gave our panelists the following book recommendation prompt:
Something old, something new, something borrowed. . .
Recommend three books to our readers out of your list of favorites: An older title, a newer title, and title you discovered because you borrowed it from a friend or a library.
Something old is something classic: Dracula, that dark twisting path of a novel that wends between solemn and hysteric, glutted appetite and frightful hunger, with a most modern and fragmented voice: no narrator, just a jumble of diary entries, newspaper clippings, telegrams, and shorthand notes, as the characters, some central and some peripheral, tell us both the story and their stories, and let us piece it together as we go.
Something new is so new it’s not yet published: Maryse Meijer’s passionate, astringent, sui generis novel The Architect, which I’m reading in ms—there’s no voice like Maryse’s, ever. Her amazing short fiction collection Heartbreaker comes out next year from FSG Originals.
And the borrowed is Champagne Supernovas, Maureen Callahan’s tripartite bio of fashion icons Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs, and Kate Moss, a book I would not have found had I not been researching (and devouring) all I could find regarding the genius McQueen. It’s a cliché to say fashion is an ugly business but the relentless pace at which the designers are driven to produce would grind any sane person to sausage.
When someone asks me to recommend a book, I do the same thing as when I walk into a pub to find twenty or thirty beers on tap: I get so excited by all the possibilities that I freeze up and mumble something stupid like, “Mmm, beer,” or worse, “Mmm, books.” The criteria of “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed” does narrow things down a bit, though, so I think I can manage to be a bit more articulate with these recs.
When I think old, I think pulp era SF/F, and Edgar Rice Burroughs is my favorite of that era. I discovered his books when I was a kid and absolutely devoured them. He’s most well known for his Tarzan and John Carter of Mars novels, but equally fantastic are his Pellucidar novels, and that’s what I’d recommend to readers. The series is lost world pulp at its best, with scantily clad heroes, dinosaurs, and saber-toothed tigers—you’ve likely seen some of the great Frank Frazetta cover art from the paperback releases.
One of the byproducts of being a writer and a teacher is that I don’t get the opportunity to read much for fun. Because of this, I’m horribly behind the times when it comes to new SF/F, but I am managing to carve out time to read the Hieroglyph anthology, and Vandana Singh’s novella “Entanglement” is one of the best pieces of short fiction I’ve read in recent memory. The anthology is pretty solid in general, but most of the pieces work largely on a cerebral level. Singh’s is the exception. Her piece resonates not only with your intellect, but with your heart and guts, too.
This is a hard one. Most of my friends, like me, are highly protective of their books and don’t like to lend them out. The first book someone lent to me was a leather-bound edition of the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy (although it was my college roommate Ben who lent it to me, and I wasn’t allowed to leave our dorm room with it). I’d had a subscription to MAD Magazine growing up, but it never occurred to until reading Douglas Adams that humor and spec-fiction could be combined. I can’t in good conscious recommend Hitchhiker’s, though. It’s like recommending that you breathe—most any SF/F fan has already read it. So that leaves with Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash as my recommendation. My friend, author Ahimsa Kerp, lent his copy to me a decade or more ago, and I still have it (this is why we don’t lend out books!). It was my first exposure to cyberpunk and the first time reading a book written in present tense. I remember thinking to myself, “What the hell?” when I started the first page, and I probably thought the same thing a hundred more times as a tore through the book in a weekend. That’s the sort of book it is, and why people should read it.
Older Title: You may see a common theme here. Superman vs. the Klu Klux Klan by Richard Bowers is a fascinating account of investigative journalism. Bowers, a journalist in 1946, infiltrated the Klan. The organization was planning a widespread surge of membership drives and violence and Bowers tried telling The Justice Department. No one took him seriously and he had a great deal of secret information on the Klan. So, he contacted the producers of the Superman radio show. They would take his leaked information and create a villainous organization just like the KKK that Superman would battle. The comparisons were thin, so public opinion turned against the Klan and they retreated back in the shadows for a few more years.
Newer Title: I have been completely enthralled with The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. As a super-hero fanatic this was right up my alley with a scholarly look at the life of William Moulton Marsten and his involvement in the feminist movement of the early 1930s and 40s, his penchant to be dominated sexually and his work in psychology (he invented the lie detector). An amazing history about an amazing lady.
Borrowed Title: I finally gave it back, but I borrowed The Alienist by Caleb Carr. The other part of my life, as a forensic psychologist, is equally as fascinating to me and this book is a fictionalized hunt for a serial killer in late 1800s America. The Alienist of the title is a psychiatrist trying to use that pursuit (in it’s infancy) to stop the crazed maniac. Historically accurate and quite exhilarating!
Old Favorite: What a hard choice. There were so many authors whose great stories kept me on the speculative path through my formative years. While I’ve read much more of Andre Norton’s spacers than A. L. Merritt, I’m going to choose his The Moon Pool though it’s more fantasy than science fiction. Not only did it have hovercraft in the 1920s, it was the first adult speculative fiction piece I read. I do remember that at the time I disagreed with the way he treated females’ roles in adventures.
Have to mention my close runners-up, Issac Asimov’s Robot series since its concept of artificial intelligence intrigued me. It made me question whether impervious, one-focus people could intentionally create something that was wise. Of course, my adolescent mind used the classification “stupid” people. Then, there’s A. E. van Vogt’s Slan. It gave me the courage to be true to my cantankerous self. While Merritt is the lesser writer, he keeps a warm spot in my heart for introducing me into the world of speculative fiction.
Current Favorite: While I’m a fan of George R. R. Martin, I’m going to throw a dark space ship into the mentions, Stephen A. Benjamin’s Galactic Veterinary Service. The book takes hard vet science and applies it to biologically sound alternative intelligent species with humor. Benjamin is a new author [who I must say is in my critique group], but his humor shines. Good laughs are so infrequent in science fiction, I have to go with Galactic Veterinary Service rather than Hitchhiker in the Galaxy. Benjamin takes the “givens” of fantasy and gives them a scientific basis rather than repeating space opera cliches.
Borrowed Favorite: I can only remember borrowing one book in recent history, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Pure fantasy, you say? Well, I keep thinking about it in terms of how the mind deals with reality when I listen to all the political yapping on the news. So if you consider the ways in which people organize their minds science, I’ll call Gaiman’s book science fiction. It’s a book that sticks in my mind, any way .
Tastes – literary and otherwise – get established young. Be that nature or nurture, it doesn’t particularly matter, as far as the individual is concerned: we like what we like. Hopefully that envelope expands as we age, but the core structure remains. Shape, texture, tone: we like what we like.
Growing up in Oxford in the ’60s and ’70s, with encouraging parents, an excellent public library and the best bookshops in Britain, I was always going to be a reader; meeting Tolkien when I was twelve probably doomed me, genre-wise. As far as I remember, I spent my entire teenage reading nothing but SF and fantasy. In those days, it was still just about possible to read it all, if you had a three-book-a-day habit; certainly I did my very best. That’s what has defined my notion of the golden age of SF ever since, what was in print in the UK or imported from the US forty-odd years ago. For an old favourite, I could easily pick LoTR or Dune or The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, these are all books I’ve reread again and again; or a Harlan Ellison collection, or almost anything by Robert Silverberg, or Theodore Sturgeon, or Roger Zelazny, or or or.
But that’s all obvious, and easy. Instead, let me advocate for a book less widely known and not talked about half enough, A Different Light by Elizabeth A Lynn. First published in 1978, it was a revelation to me. It’s SF, it’s charming and challenging by degrees, romantic and robust and delightful in a dozen different ways. It treats with art and identity – two of the great themes of any literature – and for me it was revelatory. It may have been the first book of any genre, it was certainly the first SF novel I read that treated gay relationships as purely normal, absolutely inherent to the human experience. For me that was a life-changer, and this has become one of those books that I have three separate copies, one to keep and one to lend and one to replace the loaner when it doesn’t come back.
Something new, that’s also a favourite? That’s harder, simply because “favourite” carries that implication of time, of regular rereading. I’m tolerably confident that Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves will be a favourite – but that’s so new it isn’t even out yet. I could advocate for either of this year’s Hugo nominees, Ancillary Sword or The Goblin Emperor, I loved them both and blurbed one (which allowed me to invent “buildingsroman” as a category, for which you will all learn to thank me later) – but instead I’m going to cheat marginally and name The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks, as a way of sneaking in the whole slew of Culture novels – some of which date back over twenty years – under the guise of praising the last of them. Iain was a friend as well as a colleague, and I miss him dreadfully, and if you offered me the chance to swap his work for my own – well, I’m not sure I’d take you up on it, but I’d give it serious consideration. I love his books that much, and the Culture series in particular. For the AIs and the ship-names and the massive reach of its imagined universe; and for its sheer humanity and its sense of hope within that sense of scale, the conviction that the future could be a really cool place to be. Iain had the sense to set most of his novels in the margins where the Culture rubs up against other civilisations, because that’s where story happens, fiction is friction; but there is no disguising the fact that the Culture itself is pretty much his dream of a utopian society. Mine too, mate, mine too.
Something borrowed: well, again, I am a child of my time. I did spend my pocket money mostly on books, and I still buy more books than anything else (when I moved to the US, 96% of what I shipped over was books, and I’d left two-thirds of my collection behind me) – but all my life, the bulk of my reading has come from libraries, or else from friends. Most of my favourites were borrowed, before I bought them. I thought I’d go for Stephenson here – I really thought I’d go for him somewhere! – because I still remember finding Snow Crash in the paperback spinner at Fenham Library; but if you set the libraries aside, the other formative influence on my early SF reading was a household of Oxford friends just that handy eight or ten years older than me, adults with incomes that allowed for the buying of books. A lot of books. If I’d heard of it, one or another of them probably had it; and they lent me plenty that I’d never heard of, that they thought I ought to read. One of those – “Here, Chaz, you’ll love this; take the first volume now, and you’ll be back for the others tomorrow” – was The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia McKillip. They were right, I loved the trilogy then; thirty-some years later, I love it still. And I give it to teenagers myself these days, as a gateway drug. It has wizards in hiding and princes magically tied to their land, music and treachery and shapeshifting and love, bewildering remnants of ancient times, riddles – of course! – and secrets and a cat. And language to die for, and great changes springing from seemingly small seeds; and all in three slim volumes or one handy omnibus, exemplary craftsmanship with not a wasted word. And now I want to read it again, again…
Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers: Scarred, seventeen year-old Ismae escapes an abusive forced marriage by joining a convent that worships St. Mortain, the patron saint of death. She is trained to be Death’s handmaiden – an assassin. A dark tale? Indeed. But there are moments of lightness: falling in love (albeit with her target) and coming to terms with who and what she is. Perhaps it’s no surprise that I was fascinated by a protagonist who metes out death with honor and even kindness.
The Shattered Court by M.J. Scott: Almost twenty-one year-old Lady Sophia Kendall waits to see if she will manifest power and magic on her next birthday. If so, she’ll be bound to a royal lord to seal his loyalty to the crown. The binding will then limit her magic to its tamer aspects: bewitching the weather, blessing harvests, and ensuring her husband’s health. But Lady Sophia’s birthday doesn’t turn out the way anyone anticipates. Her magic, her binding, even her intended are all birthday surprises. Although readers only get an intro to the world’s magic with this first book, I thought the “four arts” – air, earth, blood, and water sounded intriguing, especially since the darkest, demonic type is water, not blood. Full disclosure: I bought this book and only after reading the acknowledgements did I find out it was edited by my Noon Onyx editor. I took it as proof that we continue to like the same type of stories. 🙂
Rook by Sharon Cameron: The Scarlet Pimpernel reimagined as a futuristic dystopian novel with an eighteen year-old girl as the rescuer. I loved so much about this book: the heroine (Sophie Bellamy: headstrong, adventurous, righteous, resourceful), the world (the Sunken City: a collapsed Paris 800 years or so after the Great Death), the interesting catastrophe (earth’s magnetic poles shifted, causing mass loss of life & technology due to solar radiation), the social/legal system (sons can’t inherit unless and until they prove their self-reliance, a concept rooted in the world’s backstory, which was then harshly applied resulting in irrational discrimination of disabled persons), the theme (history repeats itself, further underscored by the fact that the story itself was a retelling), and the rook/feather motifs (feathers are treated like flowers in the world of the story: they are collected in vases, put on graves, and even become a symbol of free will: “Fate against feathers”).
Something Old: Again, for something old I wondered how far back I had to go until I could be sure no one would shout “That’s not old!” I figured if I went to the 90’s, I wouldn’t get too much of a hassle. Fatherland by Robert Harris was published in 1992, which means it came out close to 25 years ago. Not old, but no spring chicken. I was introduced to the story originally through the HBO movie of the same name starring Rutger Hauer. Seriously, it was Rutger Hauer, so I had to watch. The movie was good, but the book is so much better. It;s an alternate history where Germany won World War II, but at its core, it’s a detective story; part Law & Order, part CSI, and a great mystery. The Nazis winning the war is a popular one in alternative history, but Harris never lets the story get dry, or formulaic.
Something New: So, if my something old isn’t that old, then it’s safe to say my something new isn’t technically “new.” 2009 is new-ish, isn’t it? I was hooked on Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker long before it even came out. The ads with that amazing cover started showing up on several of my favorite websites in the months leading up to its release and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Once I got my hands on a copy, it didn’t disappoint. It had action, adventure, horror, a great story, and terrific characters. The world she created was not only a vivid alternate history of the United States, it also served as an amazing introduction to steampunk for me.
Something Borrowed: I got The Zombie Survival Guide on a whim. It was fun and as a fan of zombie stories I enjoyed it. When I saw that the author was following that up with World War Z, I had no interest in getting it. I was curious what direction Max Brooks would take with it, but I wasn’t going to buy it. Besides, the author was Mel Brooks’ son. What could he know about horror? I decided to borrow it from the library. You know, just to see how a he would sustain a narrative based on what he did in the Survival Guide. Turns out, the book was much more ambitious and unusual than I expected. I understand his technique of interconnected short stories/testimonies may have turned some readers off, but it was a welcome change for me. Yes, this is my something borrowed, but I ended up buying myself a copy once the original went back to the library.
I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic stories. This is embarrassing to admit because post-apocalyptic SF is, hands-down, the most over-worked and clichéd of the major subgenres. It’s been that way for more than a century — today’s obsession with the zombie apocalypse parallels the wave of future war catastrophes penned in the decades before World War I. Despite the sometimes hackneyed plots and characters, we, as readers and writers, keep coming back to these stories, because even the most unoriginal ones have the power to strip away our society’s surfaces and reveal our hidden hopes, fears, and pathologies.
Perhaps because post-apocalyptic stories are about the opening up of radical new possibilities, the subgenre has spawned some incredibly weird post-catastrophe visions. Among these are some of the best post-apocalyptic novels, ones that push the limits of what this very old science fiction formula can do. Here are three of the best: an old classic; a new and wonderfully strange vision for our new millennium; and a baffling but fierce New Wave masterpiece introduced to me by a friend.
William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912): This bizarre epic of a dying earth, written by a quirky British poet, is one of science fiction’s grand failures — an unreadable book that is hard to put down. The Night Land is set in the far future when the sun is fading. What’s left of human civilization lives in a deep crevice, warmed by subterranean fires. Why is this book a failure? The plot is standard: a young man sets out from home on a dangerous journey to find his true love. Even worse than the plot is the turgid prose. Hodgson attempts a bold trick, a faux archaic style, and he crashes and burns. What’s not a failure is Hodgson’s realization of a dimly-lit, nightmare world: rather than a journey to the center of the earth, this is a journey deep into our primeval psyches. The Night Land channels a time when science had newly revealed a distant future when the sun would fail; at the same time, technological breakthroughs suggested that our species might just survive long enough to see it.
Ryan Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife (2012): If Philip Dick came back from the dead in our post-9-11 world and wrote an episode of The Simpsons, the result would be something like Blueprints of the Afterlife. Coming a century after The Night Land, Blueprints packs all of our post-apocalyptic clichés into a funny, moving and penetrating story about the world as it just might become — after global warming, after the War on Terror, and after absolutely everything, including ourselves, is finally connected to the internet. Boudinot has Phillip Dick’s gift for weird and but utterly revealing characters, such as the minimum-wage earning world-champion dishwasher, and an elderly couple who do what every middle-class retired couple now does post-global warming: shrink wrap their Arizona home for the lethally hot summer and head north in their RV. Ranging from the 1980’s to the 22nd century, Blueprints wrestles with that classic post-apocalyptic question: just where did we go wrong?
Samuel Delany, Dhalgren (1974): My understanding of what science fiction can be was changed forever after my friend, a professor of comparative literature and the smartest reader I know, loaned me his copy of Dhalgren — science fiction’s answer to Finnegan’s Wake or Gravity’s Rainbow. Delany’s hypnotic language lured me in; I was kept there — through all 879 pages — by his fierce vision of the possibilities for social reconfiguration presented by the apocalypse. It’s a story that’s impossible to summarize. It takes place in a decaying city where the landscape and the rules are always shifting, but as they do so they create space for the main character, known as Kid, to discover and attempt to complete his creative vision. Dhalgren is one of the supreme realizations of the ambitions of New Wave SF, and a compelling demonstration of just how effectively post-apocalyptic fiction can diagnose an era’s anxieties.