My Ten Favorite Sci-Fi/Fantasy Novels
Although some of my favorite novels are what we usually think of as “literature,” over-all my favorite genres are science fiction and fantasy. I think this is for two reasons. The first is that sci-fi/fantasy is the most philosophical of all genres. The freedom from so-called “realism” allows the greatest freedom in exploring questions about the nature of reality and the nature of human being and action. The second, I think, is that they relieve my boredom with modern human civilization.
I thought it would be fun to put together a list of my favorites, so here it is. I have made no effort to suggest books I think I can get points on because other people haven’t heard of or read them — nor have I made an effort to score in other ways by putting books here because they were written by BIPOC, cisgendered female, or LGBTQ authors, as much as I agree that diversity is inherently valuable. These are just the books I’ve enjoyed the most deeply.
This has been a favorite book of mine since I was 14, and I’ve read it four times. It is the most philosophical of a philosophical genre. It manages to be an insightful meditation on ecology, religion, politics, time and space, free will, destiny, the paranormal, technology, yogic disciplines, human psychology, combat strategies, economy, parenting, sexual love, and marriage. Incredible.
The Lathe of Heaven and The Left-Hand of Darkness
Ursula K LeGuin is the only author with two books on this list. The Lathe of Heaven explores what happens when a young man whose dreams remake the fabric of reality throughout both the past and future is discovered by a psychiatrist who wants to save the world and feeds him auto-suggestions of what to dream.
The Left-Hand of Darkness is a stunningly successful creation of a truly alien world which combines fascinating subversions of binaried gender thinking with Daoist philosophy, all in a riveting and haunting story.
Stranger In A Strange Land
This book is so good, and yet some may find it unpalatable for reasons I totally “grok.” The good is that it a funny, vivid, and whipsmart novel that manages both to thoroughly parody human civilization while also playfully exploring notions about the nature of ethics, culture, humanity, religion and reality through the character of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised by Martians who comes to earth for the first time as an adult.
Smith has yogic-meditative-intellectual abilities far in excess of what humans have thus far figured out and a radically different way of looking at reality, one that Heinlein succeeds in taking us into in order to thoroughly shake us out of our assumptions about life while suggesting other possibilities. These possibilities happen to resonate with several different mystical traditions, particularly nondual Tantra, Daoism, Buddhism, and even Spinozism, so this book is a delight for me. That said, it is also permeated by 1960s era gender stereotypes in a very in-your-face, Madmen kind of way, which may turn some people off too much to get through it.
The Ocean At The End of The Lane
This is a brilliant little novel, and my favorite of Neil Gaiman’s. A man visiting the small English town where he grew up is drawn into the memory of a suppressed adventure from his childhood involving a little girl who was for a time his closest and most dangerous friend. A mysterious female trinity, multiple dimensions, a meditation on the nature of consciousness and being, real suspense and horror, a visceral evocation of what it’s like to be a child, and elements of faerie- short and powerful.
The Wind-Up Girl
This may be my only obscure contribution. By Paolo Bacigalupi, it is set in 23rd century Thailand in a world struggling with ecological collapse, climate crisis, and technological chaos. The most Sci-Fi-ish of anything on this list, I loved it for its setting (I have personal connections to Thai culture) and its exploration of selfhood, our relations to other, and that hallmark of good sci-fi- its realistic portrayal of possible futures rooted in the follies of the now.
The Magician’s Nephew
Read when I was 10 or 11, again when I was an adult, and twice at the request of my son. This is a great story, my favorite by CS Lewis, which manages to pack a few powerful moral punches at various targets while makes interesting suggestions about the nature and limits of human belief and perception and containing some scenes of real beauty and pathos.
Sirens of Titan
By Kurt Vonnegut. See my piece on it here.
The Lord of The Rings
The Dark Tower Series
This may be cheating, since it’s actually a nine book series. It definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, especially the grim first book The Gunslinger, but if you have every enjoyed a Stephen King book and you like epic, mind-bending dark fantasy, then you should read through to the second book and then make up your mind whether to continue.
The basic plot is that Roland, a stoic fusion of samurai, gunslinger and Arthurian knight, is on a quest in an alternate universe to find the Dark Tower, which is the center of all worlds. Along the way he draws three companions to himself from earth and an epic, often violent, and playfully post-modern journey through the worlds begins. Along the way King references or folds in characters and plotlines from various of his novels, like The Stand (about which I wrote here) and Salem’s Lot, as well as from other fantasy universes and pop culture, before towards the end arriving in the books as a character himself. The series is rich, multi-layered, haunting, and frequently moving as well.