by Robert I. Katz
First of all, I’ve been reading science fiction (I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction) since 1960. I very well remember the first thing that I picked up and read, other than a school assignment, just because I wanted to. I was about seven years old. It was comic book, something with a World War II submarine crew getting involved with dinosaurs. I loved it. The first actual book that I read, again, just because I wanted to read it, was At the Earth’s Core, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It had one of those wildly romantic Frank Frazetta covers. I saw it in the paperback rack at a local candy store and I wanted it. I was there with a cousin of my Father’s, who was nice enough to buy it for me, and I was hooked from that day. I was soon reading everything I could find by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and then Otis Adelbert Kline, Robert A. Heinlein, E. E. “Doc” Smith, John W. Campbell and a bunch of others. My tastes have perhaps grown more sophisticated as I’ve grown older but I still love all the books I read as a kid. Here now, my ten all time favorites:
- Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury: A nominee for the Hugo and the winner of the Compton Crook award, to me, this is the best science fiction novel I have ever read. The books concerns a lost civilization on the planet Geta, brought to their world in the distant past by a ship that is still in orbit, and is considered a “god” by Geta’s inhabitants. The people of Geta have pulled themselves up out of barbarism (mostly) but their world is lacking in resources and the local fauna and flora are largely poisonous. The book refers to the “sacred eight,” which are the eight foods surviving from Earth that can be eaten by the local populace. Among these are okra, wheat and bees. Since edible food is so scarce, the populace by necessity are cannibals. It is stated that those societies that rejected cannibalism have, in the end, starved to death. The specific plot concerns three brothers, their two wives and their search for a third wife to round out their family. They are challenged by their city’s leader to court one very famous, brilliant and rebellious woman, though they really desire a different and equally brilliant woman. Two different conspiracies to conquer the world are encountered and dealt with. The book is concerned with environmental principles and the needs of survival in a hostile world. It’s fantastic.
- Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch: The United States is involved in a war. The book’s protagonist, Louis Sachetti, has been imprisoned in a government run prison called Camp Archimedes, for reasons that are not made exactly clear but which seem to involve either draft resistance or just general resistance to the government. Camp Archimedes is a secret research facility where a mutated form of syphilis gives its victims unmatched intelligence and ultimately, inevitably kills them. A testament to the human spirit and the lengths to which dictatorial governments will go to have their way.
- Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks: The third in Banks’ celebrated Culture novels, and in my opinion the best. The Culture is a galaxy spanning civilization that possesses technology sufficient to satisfy every member’s material needs. They don’t use money because everything that they can possibly desire is at their fingertips. The protagonist is Cheradenine Zakalwe, an agent of the Culture who is employed by “Special Circumstances” to violently deal with wars and rebellions on backward planets in order to nudge them into more peaceful and less dictatorial ways, which works only part of the time. The book has two alternating plots, one going forward in time, the other backward, until they meet at the end of the novel, revealing a secret that puts Zakalwe’s life in an entirely different perspective. I loved it.
- Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny: Zelazny, along with Samuel R. Delany, John Brunner, Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison and a few others, was a giant of the “New Wave” during the 1960’s and 1970’s. In this incomparable novel, a far-off colony of Earth is ruled by what appear to be the gods of the Hindu pantheon. In reality, the original colony ship’s passengers were mostly from India and the crew of the ship has assumed the aspect of the Hindu gods, with powers that seem to be partly innate but are largely machine enhanced. The protagonist is Mahasamatman, who prefers to be called Sam, a member of the crew who rebels against the other gods in an effort to bring freedom to the world. The plot of the book outlines Sam’s rebellion, success, failure and ultimate resolution. Fantastic, engrossing and absolutely brilliant.
- Dune by Frank Herbert: I hardly need to spend much time on this one, as it’s become increasingly famous over the years. The Atreides family has been given ownership of the planet Arrakis, or Dune, which produces “spice,” a substance that gives long life and enables navigators to guide interstellar ships. Paul Atreides must gain vengeance after his father, Leto, is betrayed and killed by the combined forces of the Emperor and the evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. An enormously entertaining pot-boiler that’s beloved by many generations of science fiction readers.
- The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien: I was on a panel at a convention a few years ago when Jo Walton stated that Cyteen, by C. J. Cherryh, was the second best book ever written. I asked her what the best book was and she said, “The Lord of the Rings.” I won’t argue. I know that scholars and members of University English Departments despair over this book’s popularity, but I say, ignore them. Again, I don’t need to say much about the plot, since the book is almost universally beloved. Suffice it to say that the evil Sauron has fashioned a ring of power designed to bring other rings of power under it’s sway, and our heroes, primarily the hobbit, Frodo Baggins and Aragorn, son of Arathorn, descended from the kings of old, have to deliver the ring to Mount Doom and destroy it, or Sauron will rule the world.
- A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay: Guy Gavriel Kay at one point worked for Christopher Tolkien and assisted in editing The Silmarilion. He was also a fervent admirer of Dorothy Dunnett, the celebrated author of the Lymond Chronicles and the House of Niccolo series. Kay’s style is reminiscent of Dunnett’s, being florid, lyrical and erudite. In my opinion, A Song for Arbonne is his best book. It’s set in an alternate history world based on medieval Provence, where musicians and poets are prized as much as warriors. The protagonist is Blaise de Garsenc, a Northern mercenary, who becomes involved in a war between Arbonne’s two principal Dukedoms, and incidentally finds himself embroiled in a plot to claim the throne of his own distant nation.
- The Riddlemaster Triology by Patrical McKillip: Patricia McKillip writes lyrical, gem like prose and her books are often considered young adult, but this is a fantasy that belongs among the greats. The protagonist is Morgan, the Prince of Hed, a small and unimportant island, who is destined to return wizardry to the world and must confront “The High One,” who has usurped the other wizards’ powers. It’s a wonderful story with fully rounded characters that ends up just where the reader figures it should, but the journey is worth it.
- A Billion Days of Earth by Doris Piserchia: Doris Piserchia published perhaps a dozen novels in the 1970’s. I thought she was fantastic but somehow, her work never became very popular. A Billion Days of Earth is delightfully wacky. Set approximately three million years from today, humanity has evolved to become “gods” and rats have gained intelligence and call themselves “human.” The plot revolves around an amorphous being called Sheen that telepathically preys on other sentient beings and the efforts of a “human” named Rik to defeat it.
In Conquest Born by C. S. Friedman: The tenth was a tough one. I was tempted to go with Jerusalem Fire by R. M. Meluch, but I recently re-read it and noted some plot inconsistencies that I had not remembered. I might have included Isle of the Dead, by Roger Zelazny, but I already have a Zelazny book and I know that some other authors do not share my fondness for this one. In the end, I’ll go with In Conquest Born, by C. S. Friedman. In this book, humanity is divided into two warring races, the Azeans and the Braxi. Azeans prize uniformity and peace. The Braxi are almost insanely aggressive and warlike. Over the centuries, there have been long intervals of peace but sooner or later, the Braxi always renew the war. The plot has two protagonists: Anzha, General of the Azeans and Zatar, General of the Braxi. The book revolves around numerous interconnecting plots, stratagems and counterplots, as these two come to be obsessed by the war and by each other. Both are outcasts from their own culture and it is part of the tragedy that, in the end, each is best understood by their most dedicated enemy. An immense, galaxy spanning space opera, it deserves its place among my favorite books of all time.