We range widely, we readers of fiction, but I think we all need a home. Mine is science fiction. It’s my home shelf, my homeland, my home planet, my essential genre. Without science fiction, without the influence these books have had on me over the years, I'm not sure I would care much about reading or writing today. If a great work of literary fiction is Kafka's "ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us," then a great work of science fiction is the boat. A great work of science fiction answers the question, why are we sailing through this godforsaken ice in the first place? Where are we going?
Here are five favorites from my home shelf.
Dune by Frank Herbert.
OK, you don't need me to tell you to read Dune. Except maybe you do! Maybe you're like I was: you know it's a classic, and yet there your copy sits, unread, gathering dust like Arrakis itself. The book just feels so … daunting. So dense. What you don't realize yet—what I didn't realize—is that Dune is an essential document of the environmental movement, as essential as Silent Spring. The sequels stretch on and on, but Dune stands alone: deeply political, still relevant, forever supported by mythopoeic scaffolding as tall and sturdy as Tolkien’s.
Light by M. John Harrison.
This book is a puzzle. On one hand, it's a sly dismantling of the space-opera subgenre; on the other hand, it's a totally tremendous space opera. I enjoyed Light for the near-perfect prose, for the dizzying vision, and—to be honest—I mostly ignored the genre detonations in the background. I might be guilty of a deep and persistent misreading; I'm OK with that. Here's what’s important to me: Harrison is a writer who's clearly working on a whole different level. The critic Christopher Beha imagines a genre called "Holy Crap fiction” reserved for the books, all of them, that make you sit up and say, “Oh, something interesting is happening here.” Light is not just, or even primarily, science fiction. It's Holy Crap fiction. Boom.
The Player of Games by Iain Banks.
When we talk about novels, we don't often talk about imagination. Why not? Does it seem too first grade? In reviews you read about limpid prose, about the faithful reproduction of consciousness, about moral heft, but rarely about the power of pure, unadulterated imagination. Well, Iain Banks, who died recently and far too young, possessed one of the all-time great imaginations. Reading his series of Culture novels, you realize: imagination is a muscle. The Player of Games is widely regarded as the best introduction to the series, which is set in a far-future civilization that's weird, anarchic, and hopeful. All together, it constitutes the imaginative equivalent of lifting a semi truck over your head and twirling it around with one hand.
Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon.
In terms of pure prose, Stapledon's book—a history of mankind looking back from billions of years hence—should rank last on this list. The style is stuffy, the syntax is antique, and the conceit is never really convincing. To tell the truth, I can't bring myself to read the book front to back; I suspect that's true of many modern readers. But even so, I have devoured Last and First Men. And if you rank it a different way, the book comes out ahead of all the rest by light years. The sheer scope of the creation here—the sweep of space and time—rivals anything written by any human being ever. I imagine myself sitting down in 1931, trying to produce a story that ranges smoothly across billions of years of history, and my mind clenches. Impossible. "No book before or since has ever had such an impact upon my imagination," Arthur C. Clarke said. There it is again! Imagination!
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.
Finally, we have the synthesis: imagination matched to prose. Junot Diaz calls Butler "a master for all seasons." With Parable of the Sower, she anticipated our current craze for fictional dystopias, but the future America described in this book—published in 1993—is more plausible and far scarier than anything conjured since. And yet, somehow, Butler fuses it with a vision that's utterly utopian, as optimistic and thrilling as any ever articulated. The fact that these two visions exist in the same novel, dark and light, one inside the other, is Butler's triumph. The hopefulness of it takes my breath away; it makes me cry. Parable of the Sower is capital-I Important. Put it on the literary fiction shelf. Put it on the Holy Crap fiction shelf. Put it on every shelf. This is one of the all-time great American novels.