May 25 was, I believed, merely Towel Day, a day for celebrating all things Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Lo and behold, I learn it is also Geek Pride Day, a day for celebrating all things geeky and not just for the Guide. Well, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to write about some of the science fiction novels I’ve read over the years (and trust me, I’ve read a lot). Many of those novels helped to shape me into the person I am today, and others were ones I enjoyed simply because they told a good story. Chances are you’ve already heard of most of these, but maybe there will be a surprise or two for you.
- Dune: Any list I create of favorite science fiction stories will always have Frank Herbert’s immortal classic at the very top. Of Dune, Arthur C. Clarke famously opined, “I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings.” This is perhaps the simplest–and best–explanation to give when someone asks you to describe the plot. The tale of how Paul Atreides becomes Muad’Dib, the Kwisatz Haderach, as well as the leader of the entire Fremen people captivated my imagination from the very first moment I read it. However, its lessons about politics and the nature of power are what really add a third dimension to the story, and at the end you can’t help but feel–or maybe it’s just me–that Paul’s victory seems more than a little hollow.
- A Canticle for Leibowitz: If Dune is always at the top of my list, Walter Miller’s apocalyptic thriller is never far behind it–and not just because of the heavy Catholic content, either. It’s the story of the Monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz and their quest to preserve the world’s knowledge after a nuclear war nearly destroys the planet. Civilization slowly rebuilds itself, and the Order of Leibowitz attempts to guide it onto a path that will ensure a nuclear war will never happen again…but man never learns from his mistakes. Throwing off the monks’ guidance, humanity finds itself on the brink of a disaster worse than the last one, and this time there may be no survivors.
- The Bright Empires Saga (The Skin Map, The Bone House, The Spirit Well, The Shadow Lamp, and The Fatal Tree): Stephen Lawhead’s five-book blend of science fiction and historical fiction weaves the intriguing tale of Kit Livingstone, your average 30-something Londoner whose great-grandfather happens to be a time traveler–and he just so happens to need Kit’s help to retrieve the Skin Map, a map tattooed on human skin that is the only safe, reliable guide to navigating the different time zones of the universe. But the scheming Lord Burleigh is close behind them, and as Kit, his great-grandfather, and their friends all rush to stay ahead of him, they realize that the Skin Map not only tells them how to navigate time–it leads them to a place that will allow them to alter time itself. It sounds cliche, but what really makes this series stand out is Lawhead’s intricate and detailed descriptions of all the different times and civilizations the heroes and villains visit. The vivid details make you feel as if you are visiting these places–be it ancient Egypt or 1800’s England–right alongside the characters.
- Starship Troopers: Robert Heinlein’s futuristic military epic has long been a favorite of mine. On the surface it might just seem like another coming-of-age story wherein the protagonist, Johnnie Rico, changes from boy to man while in the army, but there are so many rich, complex layers beneath the surface. It’s got politics and social commentary and is one of those stories that forces you to think about what you are reading. Even if you don’t agree with everything Heinlein presents, you may still find yourself admiring some aspects of the future he outlines in this story.
- I, Robot: Isaac Asimov is pretty much the science fiction author to end all science fiction authors, so how do you choose just one of his stories? Simple–you pick one of the ones he is best known for writing (although some people may associate him more with Foundation). I, Robot is set in a future where robots have become commonplace, but as a young journalist interviews the legendary roboticist Dr. Susan Calvin, he learns exactly how primitive they used to be and how powerful they have become…and they have the potential to grow even stronger. There are several parallels with how technology develops in the book and how it has developed in the real world, and it can make you wonder what the next step will look like and how it may affect us.
- 20,000 Leagues under the Sea: This classic Jules Verne novel is one of the first science fiction books I read, and it’s still a favorite of mine. The mysterious Captain Nemo, his amazing submarine, and the wild and unpredictable adventures outlined in the book grabbed my attention and got me excited to seek out other science fiction authors and stories to see if they were just as exciting.
- A Swiftly Tilting Planet: Most people know Madeleine L’Engle for A Wrinkle in Time, but I always preferred A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third book in her Time Quintet (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time). Charles Wallace, now 15, teams up with the time-traveling unicorn Gaudior to stop the rise of Madog “Mad Dog” Branzillo, a mad South American dictator who intends to launch his country’s nuclear missiles and plunge the world into World War III. Their mission is to change history so that Branzillo never comes into power–better yet, that he is never even born. But time is not on their side, and they’re not even sure how they can stop Branzillo if they can find him at all.
- Frankenstein: Mary Shelley’s famous tale of the mad scientist who seeks to create life in his own image is considered by many to be the first example of modern science fiction, so I decided to include it here. My particularly favorite parts were always the philosophical debates between Frankenstein and his creation, and I think that some of the points they argue are especially applicable in science today. And here’s a little bit of trivia for you–there really is a Frankenstein Castle in Germany, and at one point it was the home of John Konrad Dippel, a scientist who was rumored to be doing experiments with death in an effort to discover the secret of eternal life.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Hey, it’s still Towel Day, so I couldn’t very well let it go by without giving a shout-out to the Guide. The cover on my copy describes it as “a wildly funny novel about the end of the world and the happy-go-lucky days that follow”, and it’s pretty hard to top that description. Stay hoopy, my friends, and always know where your towel is.
Well, that was an exhausting list. There were others I could have included–FYI, Planet of the Apes is a novel and an amazing one at that–but I think it’s long enough for now. And I think it’s pretty clear that I’m a geek. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.