1997 drew to a close and I seemed as busy as ever (information about why I’ve been busy to come in future), but the end of the year does bring some amount of reflection, so presented for your enjoyment and sniping (if that pleases you) are my Top 10 novels. Note that these are not your Top 10, nor are they presented as the Top 10. They are simply my favorite 10 at this moment in time. We’ll revisit this in a couple of years and see if it changes. The novels, in alphabetical order by title, are:
Bones of the Moon, Jonathan Carroll
I think you like the first Carroll you read best, and this was my first. The initial third of the book (before the fantasy kicks in) is the single best love story I’ve ever read. And then things get weird. This has got all of the best of Carroll–great characters, intriguing details (I never knew they played basketball in Italy), and magic that threatens everything.
Bridge of Birds, Barry Hughart
The first novel of an ancient China that never was. It is so refreshing to read fantasy that isn’t based in Medieval European culture. This book is also very funny, to boot, and has a nicely built mystery to it. The two sequels are almost as good.
Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (Lord Foul’s Bane, The Illearth War, The Power That Preserves), Stephen R. Donaldson
First read when I was an impressionable teenager, and so the impact on me was magnified. This was the first novel (the three books were actually written together and sent to the publisher as a bundle) that I read with an anti-hero, and I admired the way Donaldson wasn’t afraid to make fantasy a little dirty. Although this will probably be the first book to fall off my list, I still recommend it.
The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
I read this before The Stars My Destination, and that’s probably the only reason it beats it out to make it on this list. Pyrotechnic prose from the early 1950s that still wouldn’t look too out of place if published today.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
I quote this book. Actually, I probably quote the radio show, but since the book was based on the show, you could say the book is quoting the show itself. The best sustained humorous work in SF, with nothing else even coming close. “Fun. There must be some strange usage of the word fun that I was previously unaware of.”
The Last Coin, James P. Blaylock
I came across this book when I started realizing that fantasy could be well written as well as entertaining. Blaylock certainly fills that bill. With the quirkiest characters this side of Philip K. Dick, and the most ornate prose without becoming dense, The Last Coin is a descriptive masterpiece.
On Stranger Tides, Tim Powers
What Blaylock is to description, Powers is to plot. I skipped three classes to read this book because I simply could not put it down. A fantasy about pirates and sunken treasure, the fountain of youth and puppeteers. What a ride!
Possession, A.S. Byatt
The most recent addition to this list is Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning novel about two Victorian poets and the modern researchers determined to ferret out their secrets. This is difficult reading, but extremely rewarding. Like William Ashbless (the fictional Victorian poet created by Blaylock and Powers and used as a character in their novels), Ash and LaMotte live in my memory as much as Byron or Keats.
Replay, Ken Grimwood
What if you could relive your entire life? What would you do? What would you do if you could relive it again. And again? This book is one of the cleverest and powerful books in the fantasy genre, and is probably my favorite of my favorites. A book about living.
Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
Like Bester, I probably would have picked Brunner’s other great novel, The Sheep Look Up, if I had read it first instead of this one. Both of them are excellent examples of “If This Goes On…” In the case of Stand on Zanzibar, it’s overpopulation, whereas The Sheep Look Up is about pollution. Generously mix John Dos Passos with Alfred Bester and Rachel Carson, and Brunner’s your man. (Honorable Mention: Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider for best book based on Alvin Toffler [Newt Gingrich didn’t even place].)
That’s my ten. I’d be interested in hearing what your Top 10 are. And, while you’re at it, why don’t you let me know where you are writing from (City, State, Country). I’m doing an informal survey of First Impression readers and, to be frank, I’m just curious.
Here’s to 1998–may you read many books!
[Finished 30 December 1997]