Sunday, September 07, 2014

Top 10 Science Fiction Books

I am not really sure what is my most favorite genre in fiction.  But if my book collection is any indication (sans non-fiction and comics), in which a majority are made up of science fiction books, then I probably lean on science fiction more. 

There are tons of brilliant science fiction stories out there, but since there is only room for ten, I definitely missed out a lot of notable and/or classic science fiction books.  In fact, I’ll inform you now: there are no works of distinguished science fiction authors Robert A. Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, and Harry Turtledove that made this list.  It’s not that I didn’t like their works.  I did.  I’ve enjoyed them and they were actually considered for this list (especially Harry Turtledove’s).  It’s just that I find the ten books that made the list more enjoyable than them. 

It is also worth mentioning that only those I have actually read are considered for this list, and, certainly, there is a lot of great science fiction out there that I haven’t encountered yet.  For example, though I liked the movie, I haven’t read the “Ender’s Game” book yet.  Also, I understand that “Dune” is an important science fiction series but I haven’t read a single book yet.  Moreover, I haven’t read much present science fiction books, and when I mean “present”, I mean published recently in this 21st century.  Most of my science fiction readings are mostly published in the 20th century. 

Again, there is room for only ten.  And these ten, not only did they deliver very entertaining tales, but also did an excellent job utilizing the scientific technologies, innovations, or concepts that they have established in their respective narratives, stirring my imagination greatly. 

10.) “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes

This Hugo award-winning story was originally a short story that has been expanded into a novel (I read both).  It has also been adapted into the movie, Charly, and the Broadway musical, Charlie and Algernon.  

It’s about a mentally-retarded man named Charlie Gordon who underwent an operation that gradually increased his intelligence, which eventually transformed him into a genius.  However, in the end (SPOILERS!), the effect of the operation wore off, returning Charlie to his initial mental capacity.  What makes the narrative of this science fiction awesome is that it’s told in first-person, through Charlie’s journal.  Hence, we were able to really see Charlie’s story unfold from his point of view as we get to really understand, feel, and be immersed in his mental development (and eventual decline) through the way he writes his daily entries. 

Oh, by the way, Algernon was the mouse in which the operation has been tested on before it was done on Charlie. 

9.) “Crosstime Traffic” by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Not to be mistaken with Harry Turtledove’s “Crosstime Traffic” books (which are also good reads by the way), this book of Lawrence Watt-Evans is a collection of his short stories.  Half of these are alternate reality/parallel universe-themed, while half are other science fiction and fantasy short stories that are merely there to pad the volume.  This collection of short stories made this list because of three very memorable short stories that deal with alternate realities or parallel worlds: “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers”, “An Infinity of Karen”, and “The Drifter.”   

The Hugo-Award winning “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” tells the story of a young man’s experience when he was working the night shift of a hamburger joint where travelers from different alternate realities are fond to go to.  It’s a quirky story with a surprising profound message in the end. 

“An Infinity of Karen” is a story of a widower hopping around different worlds to search for a widowed version of his wife.  I easily saw how the ending of this story was going, but it’s still a delightful read nonetheless.

Lastly, “The Drifter” is the greatest alternate reality/parallel universe story I’ve ever encountered in fiction.  Ever.  No exaggeration.  It’s really that fantastic.  The story tells of a man named Danny Royce who volunteered to try a machine that will send him to a parallel world.  At first, he thought that the machine didn’t work, for the parallel world he was sent to was just the same as the one he was from, with that universe’s version of himself having just left when he arrived.  Then later, he observed tiny differences in the details around him.  He would learn that as time passes by, he was continually and gradually travelling sideward across parallel worlds!  The differences he observed of the realities were tiny and trivial at first, but since he’s unable to stop his cross-reality travel, after some time, the differences became significant that until after months and then years, he found the realities he was in are completely unknown to him already.  The twist in the conclusion of the story was so deliciously appropriate.      

8.) “The War of the Worlds” by H. G. Wells

With “The War of the Worlds”, “The Time Machine”, and “The Invisible Man”, it can be argued that Wells is the greatest science fiction writer of Victorian literature.  Among his works, “The War of the Worlds” is what fascinated me the most. 

The classic novel tells of Martians traveling to Earth in order to invade it.  These aliens, far more superior in intellect and technology, had no trouble in destroying any form of military counter-attack that humans mobilized.  There was no stopping the Martian’s path of destruction and humanity’s total annihilation.  But in a fantastic plot twist, these advanced creatures fell victim to the simplest of earthly creatures: bacteria!  Microorganisms, whose extent of harm to human beings is that of a mere common cold, proved lethal to the Martians who had no natural immunity against them.  It’s one of the most brilliant twists I’ve ever encountered in fiction (I think that this tale is so well-known already that there’s no need for any spoiler warning for that twist). 

Moreover, this related anecdote is so remarkable and legendary that it’s worth mentioning here.  Back in 1938, “The War of the Worlds” had a radio adaptation in the U.S.A. which was so dramatically narrated that it incited thousands of listeners to panic, believing that what they were hearing in the radio was actually real.  Awesome.   

7.) “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson

“I Am Legend” is a unique vampire story, in which the vampires’ origin is scientific in nature and not supernatural.  The hero of the story is Robert Neville, the last living human on Earth, as he lives in an apocalyptic world wherein every human has become a vampire.  During the day, he hunts the vampires.  But when dusk comes, he barricades himself in his home, looking forward for dawn to arrive.  

It’s a very engaging and unique story – a thrilling reinvention of the premise in style of “Robinson Crusoe.”  The story’s ending, especially, was very powerful and exemplary.  In fact, its recent movie adaptation (starring Will Smith) would have rocked if it stuck with its originally planned ending, which was closer to the book’s own.  The people behind the movie decided to revise the ending after it didn’t do well with their test audience (this alternate ending for the movie can be watched in Youtube.  Last time I checked, it’s still there).  Hence, the official ending for the I Am Legend movie was safe but underwhelming and didn’t make sense at all, wasting the solid and enjoyable movie that had been leading to that final part.   
6.) “Brain Wave” by Poul Anderson

This book is almost perfect.  Its only flaw is being too short and rushed.  It has a very fascinating and smart premise, and there was still a lot of room for Anderson to expand the story more.

In “Brain Wave”, Earth, in its cosmological travel, escapes from a force field that had been hindering electromagnetic and electrochemical processes.  The result of this is the tremendous increase of the brainpower of all living creatures – both humans and animals – in the world.  Morons gain average intelligence, those with average intelligence become geniuses, and geniuses become uber-geniuses.  Those that can’t handle the massive leap in intelligence went mad.  Some humans even gain mental powers. 

Because of the increased intelligence, mankind was able to answer all the questions and solve all the problems that they had struggled with throughout history.  However, with the world’s problems all taken care of, what is left for mankind to do?  Now, isn’t that an awesome science fiction premise?           
5.) “The Dragonriders of Pern” Series by Anne McCaffrey

This series is my most favorite work of Anne McCaffrey, who has written many enjoyable science fiction stories.  There are a lot of books in this series and I haven’t read most of them, but with the few that I’ve got to read, I easily grew fond of its fascinating premise and world. 

At first glance, one would presume that “The Dragonriders of Pern” is fantasy.  The series is, after all, about teleporting dragons and their human riders, who are emphatically and telepathically bounded to them.  These dragons and dragonriders protect the Medieval-esque world of Pern (or, at least, the parts occupied by humans) from “Thread”, mychorrhizoid spores that fall from the Red Star (Pern’s step-sister planet that has an erratic orbit) to Pern, which burrow into the ground upon landfall and devour any organic material they touch. 

In the first two books, every indication points out that Pern was a fantasy world of dragons.  But in a delightful twist in its third book, “The White Dragon” (SPOILER! You will really enjoy this twist if you aren’t aware of it), and was explained further in later books, it was revealed, that in the past, Pern had been colonized by space-travelling humans.  For two generations, the humans flourished in the planet.  Then the Red Star’s orbit finally fell parallel to Pern, which led to the humans’ first encounter with Thread.  The destruction that it brought about was staggering that it even completely broke Pern’s already weak contact with the home planet.  To combat these, the humans of Pern bred creatures that resemble the dragons of mythical legends of ancient Earth, on which humans can mount to meet the Thread in the sky and scorch them before they can reach the ground.   But through the years of alternating “Intervals” (200 years of no Thread since the Red Star is on its opposite orbit) and “Passes” (50 years of Thread, which occurs between two Intervals), their origin, history, and advanced technology were lost among the inhabitants of Pern as the world succumbed into a Medieval-esque setting and society. 

4.) “Lightning” by Dean Koontz

Besides his “Odd Thomas” books, “Lightning” is my most favorite book of Dean Koontz.  It’s not exactly brilliant, but it’s still very entertaining and wonderful.  It’s such a great, unknown book that I won’t reveal much what it’s all about.  I won’t deny you the pleasure of discovering it for yourself.  Really, it’s one of those books that work best when you have no real idea on what will go on.  You only need to know two things about it: a.) for me, it’s one of the best and most underrated stories that features time-travelling, and b.) it’s titled “Lightning” because lightning strikes whenever time-travelling is activated on the area (it’s corny, I know.  But aside from this, the other details of the story are really enjoyable). 

3.) Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton has the talent for writing smart fiction, and all of his books are stimulating, technical reads.   But though “Jurassic Park” isn’t my most favorite Crichton book, I think it’s the best among his most “science fiction-y” works.  It’s also probably his most popular work, too, since a classic movie was based upon it.  The concept of bringing dinosaurs back to life by means of genetic engineering excited me greatly.  It was also in this book in which I first encounter Chaos Theory (through the character Ian Malcolm), which I find very,very fascinating.           
2.) “Robot” Series by Isaac Asimov

There are other Asimov tales – particularly the short stories in I, Robot – that make use of the concept of “The Three Laws of Robotics” (1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws), and they may or may not be part of the universe of the “Robot” series of novels, but what I am pertaining to as the “Robot series” are those that involve the delightful duo of Elijah Bailey (one of my most favorite detectives in fiction) and R. Daneel Olivaw (my most favorite android in fiction), namely “The Caves of Steel”, “The Naked Sun”, “The Robots of Dawn”, and “Robots and Empire” (which featured an ancestor of Bailey alongside Daneel).  The stories essentially involve mysteries, but it also has a lot of thoughtful science fiction themes.  The “Robot” novels are all extremely clever, well-written, and engaging.  It’s definitely, for me, Asimov’s greatest work next to…

1.) “Foundation” Series by Isaac Asimov

This epic is arguably Asimov’s magnum opus.  The science of Psychohistory, which is an integral aspect to the series’ premise, is one of the most thought provoking ideas I’ve ever encountered despite of it being fictional.   For Asimov to thought out something like it proves how masterful and brilliant he is as a storyteller.    

The original Foundation Trilogy – “Foundation”, “Foundation and Empire”, and “Second Foundation” – really blew me away (I’m thankful that I was able to get the opportunity to read that in a chronological order, since I was able to enjoy its story properly).  The trilogy tells a narrative that spans hundreds of years.  It begins with the introduction of Psychohistory, a combination of applications of history, sociology, and statistics that makes the prediction of future events of human civilization possible.  For it to work, it relies on two presuppositions: a) “The population whose behavior was modeled should be sufficiently large”; and b) “The population should remain in ignorance of the results of the application of psychohistorical analyses.”  Its creator, Hari Seldon, through Psychohistory, predicted the fall of the Galactic Empire, which would propel the galaxy into 30,000 years of barbaric “Dark Age.”  He then developed a “Seldon Plan” that would cushion the blow of the Galactic Empire’s fall and reduce the period of “Dark Age” into just a millennium.  The “Seldon Plan” involved the establishment of two Foundations which would preserve human knowledge and competencies, and would guarantee a “Golden Age” after the thousand-year Dark Age.  The rest of the trilogy detailed how Seldon’s “Seldon Plan” was carried out by the Foundations through the years.               

Asimov’s exciting follow-up books, “Foundation’s Edge” and “Foundation and Earth”, expanded the already rich mythology and upped the ante.  The two books revealed that the Foundation and Second Foundation weren’t the only factions in the picture.  Then, it was established the detail that Asimov’s “Robot” and “Galactic Empire” novels took place earlier in the same universe where the “Foundation” novels are set.  It also increased the stakes as it introduced a third presupposition for Psychohistory to work: “human beings are the only sentient intelligence in the galaxy.” 

The potential that this third presupposition presented thrilled me much.   Seldon assumed that only Homo sapiens are in the picture, so what would happen if non-Homo sapiens show up?  Seldon didn’t set up contingencies against aliens (as what he had done with significant anomalies caused by an individual; that was one of the purposes of why he established a Second Foundation).  Or didn’t he?  It’s a really exciting matter to ponder on.  But, unfortunately, I won’t ever know how it will turn out since, instead of elaborating about that, Asimov opted on writing two prequels – “Prelude to Foundation” and “Forward the Foundation” – before his death.  The prequels provided interesting back stories, but I would rather have a sequel for “Foundation and Earth.”          

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