Friday, July 6, 2007

Novels: A reading guide by quality

I rank the novels reviewed here according to their quality. Note I classify novellas of Hugo Awards as either short story or novel depending on whim, but usually as short! A complimentary listing of short stories by quality is also available.

All novels by Arthur Clarke are listed elsewhere for historical reasons.

Entries marked with "*" have full story text available online for free download. Link will be found here, as well as in my review of the story.

Story quality drops as you go down the list.

  1. Eric Frank Russell's "Wasp" (A): Humor. Adventures of a spy saboteur. When short on resources, press the right lever for disproportionate leverage. I've collected some quotes from the book.
  2. Theodore Sturgeon's "More Than Human" (A); science fiction: Humans take the next step in their evolution - to "Homo Gestalt". A kind of hive entity of many apparently individual humans telepathically connected to each other, behaving like a single organism, & controlled from one of these component "humans".
  3. Eric Frank Russell's "Next of Kin" (A): Humor. A prisoner of war executes a jail break with wardens happily escorting him off!
  4. Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park" (A); science fiction: While generally the same plot as movie, many details are different. And there are scenes in the novel that will only be seen in movie's sequels. I have collected some quotes from the book.
  5. Fred Hoyle's "The Black Cloud" (A); 1957; first contact: Sol gets an unusual visitor.
  6. E E "doc" Smith's "Galactic Patrol" (A); space opera: This must have been the story that created the almost fanatic following of author's Lensman series - first half of it anyway. I wasn't very impressed with first two books of the series, but first half of this one made up for that.
  7. Pierre Boulle's "Planet of the Apes" (A); science fiction: Highly dramatized & somewhat satirized look at what it means to be human.
  8. Hal Clement's "Mission of Gravity" (A); science fiction: Imagining a massive fast spinning planet, & how life on it will be like. It's a book for the technically inclined; you might want to skip it if you are from literary side.
  9. Isaac Asimov's "Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain" (A); self ref; science fiction: An educational story about the biology of human body. A submarine will be reduced to microscopic size, along with its occupants, & injected into the bloodstream of a man in coma! And they are going to have an adventure - meet various kinds of cells in the blood stream, cross blood/brain barrier, go exploring inside a single neuron in the brain, etc!
  10. Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game" (A); 1985; science fiction: Dramatization of leadership & winning attitude.
  11. * Eric Frank Russell's "... And Then There Were None" (A), download: Humor. A hilarious story where imperialists are frustrated by eccentric natives.
  12. Robert Heinlein's "Moon is a Harsh Mistress" (A): Revolutionaries overthrow an externally imposed imperial rule.
  13. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's "Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus" (A); download; 1818: A young man has created an artificial being, & abandoned it before it opened its eyes because it looks ugly! Baby, left to fend for itself in a hostile world, is learning its lessons the harder way - in later parts, in ways disastrous to its creator.
  14. Hal Clement's "Half-Life" (A); adventure: Looking for clues to pre-life chemistry on Titan, in the backdrop of an impending apocalypse for all life on earth.
  15. Hal Clement's "Close to Critical" (A); science fiction: Examining a world with extremely dense atmosphere, ample water, & where surface temperature varies only in a very very narrow band, just below the critical temperature of water.
  16. James Schmitz's "The Witches of Karres" (A); space opera: High action space opera with one difference - those from the world of Karres have special mental abilities like teleporting, moving through time, conversing with sentients from a different dimension, tapping energy from another dimension, & more. Story is the adventures of a an ordinary human who becomes a hero after being thrown in with 3 kids of Karres, & who will slowly develop his own mental abilities to become a "Witch" himself.
  17. Walter M Miller, Jr's "A Canticle For Leibowitz" (A); alternate history: Demise of human society to dark ages following a nuclear war, its slow rise back to civilization over two millennia, & then another nuclear war... And heroic efforts of a group of Catholic monks to preserve bits of knowledge through dark ages. Extremely tedious read if you are not from a Biblical faith. And generally a very dark book.
  18. * H G Wells' "The Time Machine" (A); download text, audiobook; 1895; science fiction: Speculations on the twilight of humanity & of earth. Two things about the novel really touched me: first 2 chapters of preparations is among the best time travel stories I've seen; & when looking at humanity's twilight, he uses as model the current social divisions of society - haves & have nots, taken to their extreme conclusion. I've also collected some quotes from this novel.
  19. Hal Clement's "Iceworld" (A); science fiction: Exploring a planet so cold the very air you breath is solid there. Note that Clement is not for everyone; Look at this note before picking up one of his books.
  20. Robert Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" (A); science fiction: Life of a military cadet, & later soldier - in a future where interstellar travel is not uncommon. Substantially different from Hollywood movie of the same name.
  21. Alan Dean Foster's "Midworld" (A); 1975; science fiction: Adventures in a primordial jungle.
  22. Eric Frank Russell's "The Great Explosion" (A); humor: An expanded version of "... And Then There Were None".
  23. Robert A Heinlein's "Have Space Suit - Will Travel" (A); as a 3-part serial in F&SF, August/September/October 1958; space opera: Two teenagers defending earth in a multi-galaxy courtroom!
  24. Murray Leinster's "The Pirates of Zan" aka "The Pirates of Ersatz" (A); download from Webscription/Project Gutenberg/Manybooks/Feedbooks; as a 3-part serial in Astounding, February/March/April 1959; space opera: A young man's struggle to up his social station.
  25. Murray Leinster's "The Duplicators" aka "Lord of the Uffts" (A); 1964; download; humor: Social implications of material replication technology.
  26. Eric Frank Russell's "With a Strange Device" aka "The Mindwarpers" (A); 1965: A Cold War spy thriller. Slow & mundane first half; quick & great second half.
  27. Frank A Munsey's "Under Fire: A Tale of New England Village Life" (B); download from Project Gutenberg, or Manybooks; 1897; non-genre, juvenile: Preaching "good conduct" to teenagers.

    There is only one reason for inclusion of this non-genre story - the author. He's the inventor of "pulp" magazines, & the founder of Argosy. Argosy published Edgar Rice Burroughs, Murray Leinster, & P G Wodehouse, apart from a lot of forgotten ones.
  28. Frederik Pohl's "Gateway" (A); science fiction: A reluctant hero is feeling survivor's guilt.
  29. Hal Clement's "Needle" (B); science fiction: Ostensibly, a detective story, but it's mostly about life on an idyll corral island in tropical Pacific.
  30. Stanislaw Lem's "Solaris" (B); first contact: Communicating with aliens can be really hard, if at all possible.

    Note the original book is in Polish. Version I've read in English is a double translation: Polish to French to English. Original might read better than translation.
  31. E E "Doc" Smith's "First Lensman" (B); space opera: Chronologically, the second book of the famous Lensman series. Two major themes in the story are: chasing a galactic scale drug cartel, & formation of "Galactic Patrol" - a kind of galactic scale non-democratic by-appointment multi-species government of the elite.
  32. Murray Leinster's "Long Ago, Far Away" (A); download; Amazing Science Fiction Stories, September 1959; time travel: Few survivors of an ancient apocalypse are trying to find refuge in our time.
  33. Alfred Bester's "The Stars My Destination" aka "Tiger, Tiger!" (B); revenge: Extreme situation turns an ordinary man into a heartless superman who will eventually transform into a sort of god.

    This another of those classics that didn't work for me. Probably different value syetems compared to an earlier generation. Or more likely, it's best read at age 13 & I touched it when well past that point!
  34. Murray Leinster "The Forgotten Planet" (B); download; adventure: Fix-up novel that combines tha 3 novella-series beginning with "The Mad Planet".

    Descendents of stranded humans gone non-sentients on a half-terraformed world rediscover sentience & readmission to galactic society.
  35. E E "Doc" Smith's "Triplanetary" (B); space opera: Chronologically, the first book of the famous Lensman series. Grand scale space opera with many themes.
  36. Roger Zelazny's "Lord of Light" (B); self-ref; fantasy: Human colony on an extra-Sol world - built according to Indian mythology. Caution: If you are a devout Hindu, you will very likely find it blasphemous. If you are from South Asia or Indo China, don't be surprised it you find a certain disconnect - apart from a few spelling mistakes, familiar mythological characters behave partly in familiar way & then suddenly in completely unfamiliar way. If you are from elsewhere, extensive references to unfamiliar imagery might make a somewhat tedious reading.
  37. Larry Niven's "Ringworld" (B); science fiction: A very interesting type of space habitat is described. This would have been a great story, but for innumerable tangents & plot complexity.
  38. Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" (B): A superman explores religious cults.
  39. Robert Heinlein's "Beyond This Horizon" (B); science fiction: A society of supermen - because you choose the best egg/sperm combination of the couple. Sometimes chilling, & fraught with moral issues. Last third could have been dropped from the story.
  40. Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" (B): A cocktail of a story about an extreme censorship regime, description of a hedonistic society, & the familiar "grandmother's rant" against the "bad" effects of TV.

    I'm not sure I get the rationale for its classification as a classic. Or may be I don't share some values with an earlier generation.
  41. Murray Leinster's "Gateway To Elsewhere" aka "Journey to Barkut" (B); download; Startling magazine, January 1952 as "Journey to Barkut"; adventure, parallel universe: What if djinns actually existed!
  42. Harry Harrison's "Deathworld" (B); download text from Project Gutenberg, Manybooks, or Feedbooks, or audio from LibriVox or Internet Archive; Astounding, January-March 1960; survival: Love begets love, hate begets hate.
  43. David Brin's "Startide Rising" (B); space opera: On the surface, a colorful adventure where humans have uplifted dolphins & chimpanzees to their own level of intelligence, though at a certain level, they remain inferior creatures. The first mostly dolphin spaceship has discovered an ancient relic that has a lot of aliens hunting this dolphin ship. Story is of stranded earthly adventurers on a waterworld & their escape from perusing aliens.

    Underneath, it appears to be about very earthy politics - big powers domination games, & rather condescending attitudes towards the technologically inferior.
  44. Philip K Dick "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" (B); science fiction: Bounty hunters are after run-away android slaves.
  45. Fred Hoyle & Geoffery Hoyle's "Rockets in Ursa Major" (B); space opera: Humanity with its long lost cousins fights off alien raiders.
  46. * Michael Flynn's "Eifelheim" (B); download: When aliens visited a German village - in fourteenth century!
  47. Alastair Reynolds' "Turquoise Days" (B); science fiction: A water world with planet scale hive intelligence, & its interactions with humans.
  48. Eric Frank Russell's "Sinister Barrier" (B); science fiction: One of those "conspiracy" stories - humans & earth are property of higher beings. First third is fast moving murder mystery; rest is dull.
  49. Michael Crichton's "Next" (B); science fiction: A bunch of untitled stories on genetic engineering, presented as a novel.
  50. * Vernor Vinge's "Rainbows End" (B), download; science fiction: Three quarters a computer/internet utopia description; rest is mostly a cheap spy thriller.
  51. William Gibson's "Neuromancer" (C); science fiction: Could not finish more than 20% of this obviously very influential novel about cyborgs & AIs - going by the number of stories that have copied its plot elements. I found it utterly unreadable.
  52. * Peter Watts' "Blindsight" (C), download; science fiction: How do you handle first contact with aliens? You hit them, because they may be hostile!
Some partially read ones, in no particular order; because of this, my summaries may be different from someone who's read the whole book. I might have skipped because I was bored; more likely, because I just didn't have patience to finish the long story.
  1. James A Michener's "Space": Story of US space travel. Begins with WWII & US loot of German missile assets - machinary, documents, personnel - after the Allies' win. I've read only first few chapters - till the founding of NASA.
  2. Edwin A Abbot's "Flatland"; download: Literally, it's about the world from the perspective of 2-dimensional beings. It's also a satire about English society of a few centuries ago.
  3. Kim Stanley Robinson's "Red Mars"; download: Colonizing Mars.
  4. Olaf Stapledon's "Star Maker": A man is traveling to alien worlds & through time by magic, discovering & spending time with the many kinds of aliens.