My list of very important books

Here's the list of the books I can bring to mind without effort, all of which have had a major effect on my thinking or which were just thoroughly enjoyable. Hopefully, there are still a few more out there.

As most of them are sf (science or speculative fiction), I've divided those out separately. The ones I've listed are what I consider great sf: a great read and/or a great example of what the genre is capable of at its best.

SF

First, the ones I'd recommend to someone looking for really great, entertaining, approachable, but still interesting and/or challenging, SF novels:

  1. Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke. The first science fiction book I remember reading. Filled me with an amazing sense of awe. Changed my life. Probably my favourite "hard" science fiction book.
  2. The Genocides by Thomas Disch. Very downbeat depiction of a humdrum invasion of the earth.
  3. Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock. The life of Jesus re-told as a taboo-breaking time travel narrative. One of my earliest introductions to subversive thinking.
  4. Beyond Apollo by Barry Malzberg. Stylistically relentless; thematically nihilistic and misanthropic. The story of an astronaut returning from a space mission, unable to cope with ordinary life.
  5. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders. Absolutely hilarious; possibly the funniest book I've read. A brilliant satirical fable.
  6. A Perfect Vacuum by Stanislaw Lem. Some of the funniest, most intelligent, most biting short fictions I've read.
  7. The Affirmation by Christopher Priest. A masterly example of how to write a narrative whose whole meaning switches back and forth, from sentence to sentence. Literally.
  8. Tiger, Tiger! by Alfred Bester. Bursting at the seams with ideas of utter lunancy, riding on a startling tide of narrative bravado.
  9. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Only read this recently (August 2009), thus proving my thesis incorrect (that there are no more great books to discover). Absolutely brilliant, gripping, engrossing, post-apocalypse novel.
  10. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It's been a long time since I read this, but I remember the narrative style in particular: charts the course of intelligence enhancement treatment on a person with mental difficulties, followed by their inevitable decline; all the while, the narrative style matches the patient's mental capacity.
  11. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. Short fictions with absolutely brilliant conceits, e.g. a man who can never forget; a man who tries to write Don Quixote without ever reading the original.
  12. Pavane by Keith Roberts. One of the seminal alternative history novels, about a world where the Roman Catholic Church still holds sway after Queen Elizabeth was assassinated. Very detailed and believable.
  13. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. A story with a fantastic idea at its core: soldiers taking part in a war light years from Earth; travelling to and from the war causes time to pass more slowly for the soldiers than for those they left behind on Earth, so that they gradually become dislocated from their origin. Some read it as a powerful anti-Vietnam war parable, but it's a great story however you read it.
  14. A Feast Unknown by Philip Jose Farmer. Here are some of the Google books keywords: "penis, orgasm, testicles, elixir, savanna, Kenyan army, Greystoke, Agikuyu, crossbow, Tarzan, hard-on, Aston-Martin". Basically a fantasy about a homosexual relationship between Tarzan and Doc Savage. Which is pretty extraordinary.
  15. Viriconium by M. John Harrison. The Lamia and Lord Cromis is probably my single favourite story by M. John Harrison: it's a downbeat deconstruction of the typical "knight battles dragon" myth; sad, deflated.
  16. Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg. A marvellous character study of a telepath losing his powers.
  17. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. Thoughtful stories about the famous three laws of robotics Asimov invented.
  18. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. While at times a little mawkish, there are pages and pages of brilliant internal monologue from the main character, trying to determine the best way to survive and remain "civilised" after a plague wipes out most of humankind.
  19. The Dark Light Years by Brian Aldiss. First contact with a coprophiliac alien race. Funny sf at its most satirical.
  20. Hello Summer, Goodbye by Michael Coney. Coney isn't well known, but he is a fine British sf writer. This novel is his best of the ones I've read, and is a brilliantly-detailed, beautiful, nostalgic portrait of a family holiday on an alien world.
  21. Emphyrio by Jack Vance. The best space opera I've ever read; a rollicking, riotous, baroque read.
  22. The Voice of Our Shadow by Jonathan Carroll. I was very impressed when I read this: it's not like any book by any other person, and he has a very individual style. However, I find his books a bit samey after a while. But the impression this one made still holds.

Next, ones I like, but which are a bit less mainstream and more heavy going (in terms of style or content):

  1. Crash by J.G. Ballard. Made me think about pornography a lot. Not sure if that's a good thing.
  2. The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard. Hilarious, terrifying, ground-breaking.
  3. Nova Express by William Burroughs. Actually virtually unreadable, but made me examine the idea of interpretation in depth.
  4. The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus. Astonishing experimental fables.
  5. Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss. Mind numbing but fascinating.
  6. The Knights of the Limits by Barrington Bayley. This one is available on Google Books, so you can read it right now! Mind-bending short stories with a mathematical bent.

Finally, some others I hold dear but which are flawed or I can't remember properly, but which stay with me:

  1. The Knight of the Swords by Michael Moorcock. A great fantasy novel, though it feels a bit rushed at times. Novels 4-6 of the Corum sequence are actually my favourites (The Bull and the Spear, The Oak and the Ram, The Sword and the Stallion), but don't make much sense unless you read books 1-3 first (starting with this one).
  2. The Black Corridor by Michael Moorcock. I'm not even sure I've read this properly. But the central image, a man alone, lost in space, dwelling on his past failures, has stuck with me always.
  3. Ubik by Philip K. Dick. I can't remember the plot much, but the central idea of a spray which affects reality is brilliantly mind-blowing.

Non-SF

  1. Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre. Perfectly captures how I felt when I first got to University.
  2. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. I stayed up all night to read it. Some of the best characterisation of any book I've ever read.
  3. Hiroshima by John Hershey. Harrowing but level-headed documentary account of Hiroshima, from the perspective of survivors.
  4. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks. Fascinating neurological case studies.
  5. Selected Poems by Paul Celan (Penguin). Unfortunately, I can't read French very well, so I only get the English translations. Celan's poetry is calm, tragic, plain and beautiful.
  6. Surrealist Poetry in English (Penguin anthology). This is a great, great anthology. Very varied, covering most of the 20th century, and containing some extraordinary, outlandish, thoroughly imaginative writing (as well as quite a bit of rubbish). Also has an introduction which outlines a critical approach to Surrealist poetry, and has this as its central tenet: "it is absolutely necessary to take the poem literally".
  7. Maus by Art Spiegelman. Brilliant and moving.
  8. Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs. I cried like a baby at the end. Absolutely heart-breaking.

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