Monday, August 17, 2009

Overlooked Books

I just got back from a trip to Armadillocon in Austin and I realized I've been heading down for that con (off and on) for over 20 years! Armadillocon has always been a fun little SF convention with an emphasis on books and reading (which is why I like it so much).

I got to thinking about all the great books I've read in the past few decades and decided to put together a list of genre books that have been either overlooked or forgotten over the years. These are books that I consider top-quality science fiction. Most of them are out of print (but can readily be found online or at local used bookstores--I think I've seen most of these titles at my local Half-Price Books within the last year).

I have a few comments about each book but, to be honest, it's been so long since I read some of them that I can't remember a lot of plot specifics. I do know that each of these books was vastly entertaining. I know also that each provided a thorough sense of wonder, either by introducing me to some new concept or by providing such a well-built plot or setting that I couldn't help but react with awe. So, with further ado . . . .

Memoirs of an Invisible Man by H. F. Saint (1987). Forget the movie and check out the best invisibility story ever written. Nick Halloway is made invisible after a science experiment goes wrong. Even though he can't be seen, Nick learns that when the government is after you, it's pretty hard to stay hidden. This one is a real page-turner. I've always wondered why Saint never wrote another book. Was the name H. F. Saint really a pseudonym for another, better-known writer? I mean, the name seems awfully suspicious. (Does anyone else think of H. G. Wells when they see it?) Oh well. H. F. Saint--whoever you are, wherever you are--I love your one and only book.

Terraplane by Jack Womack (1988). This came out after the big "cyberpunk" boom when fans of that subgenre were looking for something new and original. Along comes Womack with a book that featured savvy tech agents from a corporate-dominant future travelling back in time to an alternate past where FDR was assassinated and slavery didn't end until the beginning of the 20th century. Add to that a wonderful jargon that demands a careful reading and you've got the first "post-cyberpunk" cyberpunk novel. Excellent.

Voyage to The Red Planet by Terry Bisson (1990). There's a heck of a lot of good Mars books out there but few critics mention this minor classic from Bisson. The book is a lighthearted look at a corporate sponsored trip to Mars. (Actually Disney has bought NASA and now wants to make a film on Mars. So of course they send cast and crew on location!) The book has great humor but also really good SF. And it has a wonderful ending. This one really belongs next to Robinson, Bear and Benford in the SF Mars library.

Evolution's Darling by Scott Westerfeld (2000). The closest thing to an Iain M. Banks "Culture" book not written by Iain M. Banks! Evolution's Darling is a sweeping space opera about an AI ("Darling," of the title) that gains sentience and becomes involved (in more ways than one) with Mira, an assassin whose job it is to kill an artist who works (possibly illegally) with AI's. Westerfeld has made quite a name for himself as an author of teen and young adult books (the Uglies and Midnighters series) but this book is explicitly "adult" (emphasis on explicit). But it is also a mature book, one that deals deftly with the themes of sentience and identity. This is high-quality SF.

On by Adam Roberts (2001). This is a book that has really stayed with me. The premise of the story is that, once-upon-a-time, gravity on Earth turned sideways. (I know, sounds weird, but Roberts includes a whole appendix that spells out the possible science behind the idea.) Anyway, the flat ground suddenly became a world-size vertical plane. (The book's opening line perfectly establishes this dangerous setting: "On Tighe's eighth birthday one of the family goats fell off the world.") The story echoes the books of Gene Wolfe in that it features a young male protagonist who finds himself on a journey of discovery, soon learning that the world is far more interesting, dangerous, and technological than he ever expected. The book's concept is quite unsettling. What if the world did turn sideways? Friends and family who live but a few miles from you would suddenly become inaccessible (if they even survived the initial disaster). This is one of those books you keep thinking about long after you've finished it.

OK, so that's five books. I see I have ten-year gap in my list. Not to worry, I've got more overlooked books to talk about. But they'll have to wait for another post.

No comments:

Post a Comment