Inspired by David Pringle's landmark 1985 work Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, this volume supplements the earlier selection with the present authors' choices for the best English-language science fiction novels during the past quarter century. Employing a critical slant, the book provides a discussion of the novels and the writers in the context of popular literature. Moreover, each entry features a cover image of the novel, a plot synopsis, and a mini review, making it an ideal go-to guide for anyone wanting to become reacquainted with an old favorite or to discover a previously unknown treasure. With a foreword by David Pringle, this invaluable reference is sure to provoke conversation and debates among sci-fi fans and devotees.
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About the Author
Damien Broderick is a writer whose works include the novel The Judas Mandala and critical studies Ferocious Minds and X, Y, Z, T: Dimensions of Science Fiction. He is a five-time recipient of the Australian SF Ditmar Award and a runner-up for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. He lives in San Antonio, Texas. Paul Di Filippo is a two-time Nebula Award finalist and a Philip K. Dick finalist. He is the author of Creature from the Black Lagoon, Ribofunk, The Steampunk Trilogy, and Top Ten: Beyond the Farthest Precinct and the editor of Freaks in a Box: The Myths of Media. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island. David Pringle is a writer and editor. He is the author of several guides, including Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels, Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, and The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction. He served as the editor of Foundation, an academic journal, and founded the English science magazine Interzone.
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The 101 Best Novels 1985 â" 2010
By Damien Broderick, Paul Di Filippo
Nonstop PressCopyright © 2012 Damien Broderick & Paul Di Filippo
All rights reserved.
The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
IN 1949, GEORGE ORWELL (the English writer Eric Blair) published Nineteen Eighty-Four, his devastating, technologically managed and stratified dystopia. That novel, bleak and terrible, remains a watchword for totalitarian futures, even though more than a fourth of a century has passed since the date of its imagined terror. The year after the real 1984, distinguished Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood published her own scarifying dystopia. While Orwell's Orwellian prospect seems less likely today, long after the fall of the Soviet Union, Atwood's woman-hating Republic of Gilead is all too visible in nations such as Iran and Afghanistan (where she spent some time). Sequestered, cloaked women suffer repression by the Taliban and other theocratic regimes. In the USA, where Atwood's imaginary Gilead springs from a harsh Christian fundamentalist conspiracy and coup d'état, political extremists really do join with science-deniers in aspirations scarily akin to Atwood's cautionary tale.
The novel is set around the end of the 20th century; like Orwell's, its date has already passed. Does this mean it's no longer science fiction? (Some prefer to see it as fable, and Atwood declared it "speculative fiction," famously dismissing sf as "talking squids in outer space" but relenting more recently.) No. Like a number of other fine sf novels discussed below, The Handmaid's Tale is best read as alternative history — allohistory, uchronia — a record of a past that might have occurred had key events taken a slightly different course. Atwood does not appeal to sf's toolkit of quantum superposed realities or Many Worlds theory to justify her fantastika, nor did Philip Roth (Entry 76), Michael Chabon (Entry 88) or several others among our 101. But it's no accident that, as well as being shortlisted for the mainstream, Booker Prize, it won the Arthur C. Clarke, Locus, and James Tiptree, Jr. Awards for best sf novel, while selling more than a million copies to readers who always supposed they disliked sf.
What motivates Atwood's narrative is the same fateful dynamo ("The purpose of power is power," wrote Orwell) driving Nineteen Eighty-Four: "The book is an examination of character under certain circumstances, among other things ... it's a study of power, and how it operates and how it deforms or shapes the people who are living within that kind of regime."
Offred ("of Fred") is 33 years old, conscripted into the Handmaid caste to bear children to powerful Commanders and their barren Wives in a nation polluted by reactor catastrophes, toxic molecules, viruses, environmental desecration. Her monthly and highly orchestrated rape is justified by phrases from the Old Testament. While her true name is never revealed, it is probably June — perhaps significantly, as an underground rebellion against this fascist state is known as Mayday, and Offred exemplifies the future of that day. The novel is her often despairing and superbly written meditations on a bitterly constrained life, torn away from her husband and child, denied identity, work, access to any materials she might use to harm her betters or kill herself.
Marthas do the scut work, Econowives tend house for the working men. Aunts at the Red Center, using drugs and harsh discipline, shape younger women like June/Offred into cowed, cowled, scarlet-clad nuns of fertility. Young men with machine guns, Angels and Guardians, patrol the Republic and monitor checkpoints. Former abortion doctors and priests are still being hunted down and hanged in public; a rapist Guardian is literally torn apart by maddened Handmaids in a ceremony recalling the Greek myth of Pentheus dismembered by Maenads.
Against this suffocating background Offred is drawn into illicit liaisons with her Commander — at first to play Scrabble, of all things, and read old forbidden magazines, but finally dolled up in whorish garb for a night in the inevitable "men's club" where she is displayed as an "evening rental," then set up with chauffer Nick by Wife Serena Joy, a former TV evangelist in the mold of Tammy Faye Bakker, who hopes fresh young semen will get the Handmaid pregnant and secure their social position. But these new crimes only wind the chains more tightly, bring Offred closer to ruin even as it seems she might escape to Canada via the Underground Femaleroad.
If it is a future not quite as terrible as the crazed utopia of Cambodia under Pol Pot, nor even of the Gulag, still it is unbearably, soul-crushingly bleak. In the much modified film script by Harold Pinter, Offred knifes the Commander to death and escapes with her lover Nick. Atwood's novel is less explicit, while leaving that plot door ajar. An afterword records an academic discourse in 2195; the book we've just read proves to be a reconstruction from 30 old cassette tapes dictated by the Handmaid, perhaps to her daughter or the new child, following her presumptive escape to freedom. As Atwood comments, "Her little message in a bottle has gotten through to someone — which is about all we can hope, isn't it?"
But the novel is not just a redemptive "little message," either; it is a beautifully wrought poem of a book, filled with acute observations. Consider the irises:
bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they'd not long since been rooted out. There is something subversive about this garden of Serena's, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently. A Tennyson garden, heavy with scent, languid; the return of the word swoon. Light pours down upon it from the sun, true, but also heat rises, from the flowers themselves, you can feel it: like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder. It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in. (161)
As does this novel, in all its brutality and longing.CHAPTER 2
Ender's Game (1985)
WHAT IS IT about a science fiction novel that has remained more or less continuously in print for more than a quarter century, inspired legions of passionate fans and equally passionate detractors, spun off an entire universe of sequels, prequels and lateral reworkings, and became a standard part of many high-school curricula? Perhaps only by voyaging deep into its origins can a 21st century reader gain some perspective on Orson Scott Card and his Ender's Game.
It is instructive to pick up the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979), attributed then only to founding editor Peter Nicholls, and note that there is no entry for Orson Scott Card. True, Card had already sold his first story in 1977 to Analog, but the Encyclopedia's general policy was to focus on authors with book credits — although they did make exceptions for such luminaries as Robert Abernathy and Vance Aandahl.
By the second edition, from 1993, when John Clute had come onboard as co-editor, Card merits two full pages.
Plainly something had happened to boost his stature. That kickstart was, of course, Ender's Game, which this later edition of the Encyclopedia revealed, in fact, to have as its seed Card's very first story sale of the same name that had been ignored in 1979. In his substantial 1990 short story collection, Maps in a Mirror, Card records that
The novel Ender's Game is the only work of mine ... that was truly expanded from a short work that I had not intended to expand. Indeed, I had never expected to do anything with Ender Wiggin again. ... I was beginning to work with a novel idea with the working title Speaker of Death. ... [S]uddenly it dawned on me that the Speaker should be Ender as an adult. ... [A]ll the problems would be solved if I went back and rewrote "Ender's Game" as a novel, incorporating into it all the changes that were needed to properly set up Speaker.
The explosive effect of the novelized version of that Analog tale cannot be underestimated, on Card's career or the genre in general. As Clute observes: prior to 1985, after some initial promise, "OSC's career then seemed to drift." If not for Ender and his much elaborated exploits, Card today might very well be regarded in the same ranks as Abernathy or Aandahl: a minor, respectable, forgotten craftsman.
And in the sf field at large, Card's book contributed to the growing popularity of military sf, a subgenre with a relatively small profile circa mid-1980s; to the popularization of teen protagonists driving much of the current YA boom; to the co-opting of videogames into the sf mythos (a process also abetted by the uncannily co-emergent 1984 film The Last Starfighter); and to the genesis of a million fannish flame wars over perceived sexism, racism, homophobism, elitism and hyper-religiosity in Card's works.
What stroke of genius propelled this book to such influential heights? It's simple, in retrospect. Whereas most excitingly controversial novels include one or two hot-button topics at most, Card's novel is composed of nothing but a half-dozen hot-button issues wrapped in a bildungsroman. In more or less descending order, these include:
An existential threat to the entire human race.
The nature of alien intelligence and person-hood, or, the role of "the other."
Means versus ends.
The "great man" theory of history.
The limits of government and the proper role of the citizen.
The limits and nature of the educational system.
The military ethos.
The nature of sociopaths and power.
Not even Robert Heinlein in Starship Troopers, James Blish in A Case of Conscience or Philip José Farmer in The Lovers, perhaps not even Joanna Russ in The Female Man had packed so much argument-provoking philosophical dynamite into one novel.
Andrew "Ender" Wiggin — bearing a surname indicative perhaps of braininess under one's "wig" — is the youngest child of three, a mere seven years old at tale's start, with brother Peter the oldest and sister Valentine the middle one. They are all "odd johns," quasi-mutant geniuses. Peter, the sociopath, will become a political powerhouse, the Hegemon. Valentine will shape society by her essays. But to Ender falls the greatest burden and glory. He will undergo years of brutal training at the interplanetary military outposts known as Battle School and Command School, all to elicit and mold his unique strategic genius. That genius will ultimately be arrayed against the Buggers, mankind's implacable alien enemy who almost destroyed our species twice before.
In very sturdy, engaging and transparent prose, Card delivers a kind of Tom Brown's Schooldays mated with The Prisoner TV show and From Here to Eternity. He captures with precision the eternal cruelties of schoolboy interactions, the rigors of boot camp, and the sophistications of war college. At the same time, he dissects the power-tripping that occupies nations and their governments. Ender is both innocent child and hopeful monster, the hothouse hybrid bloom of a harsh climate.
Card's tale is remarkably proleptic in several areas, including the use of child soldiers, virtual reality, tablet computing, internet communications, and social networking sock-puppetry, as well as foretelling the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Besides the controversies outlined above, Card manages to rub other raw areas. There's a nebulous sense of incest among the Wiggin kids — Valentine exiles herself to a colony world with beloved Ender; Peter plainly wants to dominate his sister in every physical sense. "Girls" don't do well in Battle School since evolution is against them, and the Bugger warriors are all females under a Queen, yet also paradoxically evoke male homosexuality by their racial nickname. But perhaps most provocative of all is the assertion in Chapter 14 that love and compassion are the essential underpinnings for slaughter. This yoking of two realms generally perceived as polar opposites recalls some of the deliberate contrarian "Martian" thinking of Michael Valentine (a coincidental naming by Card?) Smith in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.
In three sequels — Speaker for the Dead (arguably a better novel), Xenocide and Children of the Mind — Ender would inhabit the post-genocidal, human supremacist universe he and his siblings had helped to create, following an expiational hegira through large tracts of time and space. But those sequels, and subsequent parallel retellings, could never deliver the raw jolt of Ender's original cannon-propelled arc and shellburst lighting up of the heavens.CHAPTER 3
Radio Free Albemuth (1985)
THE DEATH OF PHILIP K. DICK in 1982 deprived readers of one of the seminal figures of twentieth-century sf, and of possible major works left unborn. Yet his impact on the field during the period of our survey, and on the wider culture, continued to grow and resonate immensely, with numerous film adaptations of his stories, canonization of several of his novels in the Library of America series, multiple editions and distillations of his Collected Short Stories, the adaptation of his themes and tropes as metaphorical touchstones for essayists and commentators, and the posthumous publication of several works.
The majority of the Dick books that appeared post-1982 constituted his trunk-consigned mainstream works, from his stymied early career as a mimetic writer — insofar as he could ever masquerade as such. Yet one book, the first to see print after Dick's death, was pure science fiction, and forms a very respectable initial contribution to his active afterlife in the field.
Radio Free Albemuth, as we know it, is a reworked version of a novel that Dick wrote to make sense of his famed mystical experiences circa 1974. When the original text was rejected by publishers, he streamlined the book to the form we know, and left a copy of the manuscript with his friend, the writer Tim Powers, who preserved it for eventual publication. But the intimate and important material would not lie fallow, and Dick rejiggered it all much more extensively to form VALIS, his late period masterpiece that was published during his lifetime. So in some complicated sense, Albemuth was the trial run for VALIS.
Excerpted from Science Fiction by Damien Broderick, Paul Di Filippo. Copyright © 2012 Damien Broderick & Paul Di Filippo. Excerpted by permission of Nonstop Press.
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Table of Contents
The Handmaid's Tale (1985),
Ender's Game (1985),
Radio Free Albemuth (1985),
Always Coming Home (1985),
This Is the Way the World Ends (1985),
The Falling Woman (1986),
The Shore of Women (1986),
A Door Into Ocean (1986),
Soldiers of Paradise (1987),
Life During Wartime (1987),
The Sea and Summer (1987),
The Steerswoman (1989),
Use of Weapons (1990),
Queen of Angels (1990),
Sarah Canary (1991),
White Queen (1991),
Eternal Light (1991),
Stations of the Tide (1991),
Timelike Infinity (1992),
Dead Girls (1992),
China Mountain Zhang (1992),
Red Mars (1992),
A Fire Upon the Deep (1992),
Doomsday Book (1992),
Parable of the Sower (1993),
Nightside the Long Sun (1993),
Brittle Innings (1994),
Permutation City (1994),
Mother of Storms (1995),
Sailing Bright Eternity (1995),
Galatea 2.2 (1995),
The Diamond Age (1995),
The Transmigration of Souls (1996),
The Fortunate Fall (1996),
The Sparrow/Children of God (1996/1998),
Holy Fire (1996),
Night Lamp (1996),
In the Garden of Iden (1997),
Forever Peace (1997),
As She Climbed Across the Table (1997),
The Cassini Division (1998),
The Golden Globe (1998),
Cave of Stars (1999),
Under the Skin (2000),
Perdido Street Station (2000),
Distance Haze (2000),
Revelation Space trilogy (2000),
The Cassandra Complex (2001),
Altered Carbon (2002),
The Separation (2002),
The Golden Age (2002),
The Time Traveler's Wife (2003),
Natural History (2003),
The Labyrinth Key / Spears of God,
River of Gods (2004),
The Plot Against America (2004),
Never Let Me Go (2005),
The House of Storms (2005),
Counting Heads (2005),
Air (Or, Have Not Have) (2005),
My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time (2006),
The Road (2006),
Temeraire /His Majesty's Dragon (2006),
The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007),
The Secret City (2007),
In War Times (2007),
Shadow of the Scorpion (2008),
The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010),
Little Brother (2008),
The Alchemy of Stone (2008),
The Windup Girl (2009),
Steal Across the Sky(2009),
Zoo City (2010),
Zero History (2010),
The Quantum Thief (2010),