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Not too many years ago a young monastic aspirant went to Mount Athos. In talking with the venerable abbot of the monastery where he wished to stay, he told him, “Holy Father! My heart burns for the spiritual life, for asceticism, for unceasing communion with God, for obedience to an Elder. Instruct me, please, holy Father, that I may attain to spiritual advancement.”
Going to the bookshelf, the Abbot pulled down a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. “Read this, son,” he said.
“But Father!” objected the disturbed aspirant. “This is heterodox Victorian sentimentality, a product of the Western captivity! This isn’t spiritual; it’s not even Orthodox! I need writings which will teach me spirituality!”
The Abbot smiled, saying, “Unless you first develop normal, human, Christian feelings and learn to view life as little Davey did – with simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness – then all the Orthodox ‘spirituality’ and Patristic writings will not only be of no help to you-they will turn you into a ‘spiritual’ monster and destroy your soul.”
A while back, blogger with similar interests to mine posted that Christians ought not, and Orthodox Christians most definitely should not, read fantasy literature:
Fantasy… is a pure expression of the passions. Basically it’s whatever the mind imagines ends up on paper. So then we end up with werewolves and vampires and a celebration of evil that in the modern genre completely lacks what the original characters were intended to portray. In this way, a genre that was meant to lead someone toward Christ now pulls them in the opposite direction by tantalizing every wicked fantasy and passion imaginable, and infusing it with a lustful voyeurism so that people constantly want more and more perverse and graphic fantasies.
On the surface, I have to say that I agree with her. “Man’s imaginations are wicked from his youth”, Genesis says. I made an offhand comment about fifteen years ago to a friend on the ‘darkening’ of the fantasy genre; most of the material that was coming out at that time seemed to be concerned with the demonic, and with the infernal side of occultic powers. There didn’t seem to be any celestial counterweight and a lot of fantasy material seemed to be moving from the Tolkienesque to the “gritty”, “realistic” outlook. The best of it was pagan/stoic and the worst of it was flatly demonic. Once the pornification of Western society got underway in earnest, wrought in great part by the Internet, fantasy literature followed suit, and now you can’t turn a page without some sexual practice that would have shocked a jury forty years ago described in painstaking detail between orcs and elves.
It is not fantasy material exclusively that as fallen prey to this; romances are saucier and kinkier; simple murder no longer suffices to carry a detective novel, you need cannibalism or torture. The problem is that there is no longer any intermediary between the head, the eyes, and the loins. Lewis’ Men Without Chests have arrived, and they are worse than any glittering vampire or werewolf out of the latest potboiler. There is in Tibetan Buddhism the concept of the Hungry Ghost (ཡི་དྭགས), an entity with overdeveloped mouth and stomach, but with a neck and chest too thin to allow for the passage of food. This parcel of decayed human energy lives in constant torment as its enormous stomach demands input from its hypertrophied mouth, but there is nothing in between that can mediate the transfer. We have starved the sentiments for so long that we may be said to exist in a state of spiritual diabetes. We devour and devour all manner of stories; fantasies, romances, novels, but we seem incapable to extract even the minutest nutrition from any on them, We are like those who lack a vital digestive enzyme.
Forty years ago, Father Seraphim Rose also noticed this strange deficiency in young pilgrims coming to his California monastery for spiritual guidance:
[There is a] problem [which] lies in the poverty of our modern soul, which has not been prepared or trained to receive the depths of true Christian experience. There is a cultural as well as a psychological aspect to this poverty of ours: The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music, as a result of which young people are formed haphazardly under the influence of television, rock music, and other manifestations of today’s culture (or rather, anti-culture); and, both as a cause and as a result of this–but most of all because of the absence on the part of parents and teachers of any conscious idea of what Christian Life is and how a young person should be brought up in it–the soul of a person who has survived the years of youth is often an emotional wasteland, and at best reveals deficiencies in the basic attitudes towards life that were once considered normal and indispensable
Father Seraphim went on to say that what was needed in this situation was a “Dushevni diet”, one that would nourish the middle soul, the Chest, in Lewis’ vocabulary. The idea of the “Dushevni diet” is to allow the soul to learn those responses to an object which those objects ought naturally to invoke, or which a well-trained soul should naturally feel. Lewis himself, in The Abolition Of Man, uses the example of Samuel Johnson’s observation that
That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force
upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the
ruins of Iona.
with the caveat that the man whose patriotism does not swell at Marathon or whose piety is not warmed at Iona will inevitably complain that because his [lack of] patriotism and his [lack of] piety are neither strengthened nor fortified at either Marathon or Iona, it must follow the idea of these places doing either is a subjective fantasy, and that his feelings of tedium and his desire to find an inn where he can grab a beer and watch the soccer matches are just as valid as all that sentimental nonsense about brave ancient Athenian citizen-warriors or Celtic monks standing waist deep in freezing water chanting the Psalms. I’m sorry, but those thoughts are the grandfathers to the complaints of overweight women that they are equally as desirable to as wide an array of men as their slender sisters. That just is not so. Value is as objective as anything measured by the positive sciences. It is just that the instrument used to measure it is not a scale, or a measuring stick, or a pipette, but rather the human soul itself. If that soul is faulty or unbalanced, it will perforce register a different value for the object than will the purer soul.
Until this point, I have said nothing that Fr. Seraphim and Dr. Lewis have not said before me, and much more eloquently. However, as far as an Orthodox Christian who enjoys and appreciates the fantasy genre as I do, I would like to make the following observations:
First of all, salvation is offered to us through What Is, not through what we would like it to be. The very first time I saw an Orthodox icon of Christ, I was struck by the Greek legend Ὁ ὮΝ, “That Which IS”, in the nimbus of his halo. In itself, this would appear to be reason enough to exclude anything of a fantastic nature from Fr. Seraphim’s “dushevni diet”, and with the vast majority of modern fantasy, I would be in complete agreement with myself. There is a lot of brutality, a lot of anxiety, a lot of lasciviousness, and a complete lack of transcendence in most fantasy material these days, both Western and Eastern. I include Eastern fantastic literature because Japanese and Korean manga (comics) and anime (cartoons) are occupy the same literary niche for young people of my son’s generation that The Lord Of The Rings and the Narnia books occupied for me when I was younger.
But there is an important point I would like to make: For all the popularity of the ‘gritty’, ‘realistic’ fantasies of Joe Abercrombie, George R. R. Martin, and China Mieville, we would do well to remember that they are considered ‘realistic’ because of one important point; their narratives unwind in created worlds that resemble our own in one essential way; they are closed worlds where even magic is technological in nature. It obeys ‘rules’ that cannot be broken, which can be observed and mastered, and using techniques which can be perfected through experimentation and practice. There is no help coming from beyond the circle of the invented world. Self-interest rules all things, and the struggle of omnes contra omnes continues apace. In the hands of the aforementioned authors, this “realistic” approach to fantasy has produced some engaging yarns. They are gifted writers, and, interestingly, Mr. Mieville has produced a story which points beyond itself in a way I’m not certain the author didn’t intend.
In The City And The City, Mr. Mieville has created two separate cities, Beszel and Ul Quoma. The two cities occupy the same physical space, and may even share buildings and streets. Each ‘city’ has its own airport and port district. Citizens of each city can dimly glimpse, at times, residents of the other city or the outlines of buildings. However, to admit to this is to commit Breach, risking arrest and incarceration. Citizens of both cities have been strictly trained since earliest childhood to disregard all evidence of the other city. The narrative of Mr. Mieville’s book unwinds as a policeman in the less wealthy city, Beszel, is investigating a murder of a young woman which implicates a well-connected functionary in the corresponding, wealthier city of Ul Quoma. His distress increases as he realizes that the world in which he grew up believing does not correspond to the world as it actually is.
In the same way, there is something fantastic about the life we live in our sanitized, corporatized, modern world. We fly across the landscape like Djinn in metal boxes. We know the thoughts of others at multiplied hundreds of leagues. We hear no animals bawl out their agonies when their time comes to keep us nourished. In addition, a constant barrage of intellectual static that attempts to convince us that This Truncated World Is The Real World, that nothing exists outside of what can be measured, monetarized, and manipulated. If you want to maintain little fantasy religious worlds or little counter-cultural worlds within strict boundaries of a “religious” or “intentional” community, you are by all means free to do so (We are not tyrants, after all, is another song that is sung constantly). If you try to smuggle anything out from behind those well-guarded frontiers, though, you will find yourself committing Breach and arousing the ire of the Gatekeepers. In this way, something like The Lord Of The Rings, or even Spirited Away, can serve to cast doubt on the Official Narrative. Spiritual forces and proper human sentiment can be experienced as liberating and empowering, and in this way, the Real World, The Only One That Truly Is, that which is signalled by the Greek letters in the halo, can be made more real than this dreary official fantasy in which we find ourselves.
100 Books I Want To Read Before I Die – Part One
1. Ulysses by James Joyce.
My son wants to read this, and has prepared himself by reading the Odyssey first, although I told him he would be better off reading Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. This novel is kind of the Modernist Tai-Shan, more venerated than assayed, and I think I’d like to accompany my son in his ascent.
2. Ægypt by John Crowley
I could have cheated and made this four books. Crowley has teased away a portion of the post-modern DNA better than any other writer. He needs to be better known. In a way, he appears to be continuing the work begun by Charles Williams 75 years ago in his novels, incorporating hermetic themes into the literary conversation but without promoting the diabolical element.
Another of my son’s suggestions. I’ve started this book. It is as cold, as bright, and as spare as an icicle on a cold, sunny day. It is supposed to be the centerpiece of Japanese literature. A novel written as haiku, and as descrete as the food in a bento box.
4. Book Of The New Sun by Gene Wolfe
Another cheat. I have actually read the first volume of this, The Shadow Of The Torturer, and it deserves another read, in concert with its companions.
5. November 1916 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
I will forgo the dubious pleasures of reading Proust. If I have to read a book of over 1000 pages in which nothing actually happens, I would prefer it to be this one which would help me understand the twilight of the Christian Empire and the Russian Revolution.
6. Blindness by Jose Saramago
Portuguese is a language to get drunk on. I believe there is some sort of Celtic substrate obtaining in Portuguese that isn’t so apparent in Castilian that accounts for the sheer enchantment of this language. Having puzzled my way through Os Fidalgos da Casa Mourisca by Júlio Dinis, and enjoying it thoroughly, maybe I could tackle it in the original.
7. 2666 - by Roberto Bolaños
Yet another suggestion from my son. Bolaños is everything a South American writer should be; subversive, transgressive, political, tongue-in-cheek, and eclectic in his epistemology. This is his magnum opus. It also about the deeply disturbing ongoing holocaust of young women in Ciudad Juarez, an incident that draws several modern fault lines together; feminism, oligarchic capitalism, Free Trade, machismo vs marianismo.
8. The Fourth Ecumenical Council – All of the literature leading up to and culminating in it; the Letter of St Cyril to John of Antioch, the Condemnation of Dioscorus, the Acts of the Council, The Tome of St. Leo. The Chalcedonian Definition answers more questions than we have yet put to it.
9. English People - by Owen Barfield
10. Poetic Diction – by Owen Barfield
11. Saving The Appearances – by Owen Barfield
I am ashamed to say I haven’t read that much Barfield. His books are not available in libraries that are accessible to me, and I have little money with which to purchase them. I so badly need to find out just what he is saying.
12. The Magic Mountain – by Thomas Mann
The period between 1912 and 1925 has a particular fascination for me. maybe this is the reason I enjoy Boardwalk Empire so much on HBO. The Great War of 1914-1918 as the beginning of the Great European Self-Immolation and the period of deep disillusionment immediately following are approaching their centenaries, so even more urgent to understand this period of intellectual history.
The few tastes I have had hitherto have only awakened my appetite for this world-class poet.
14. The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
Indianapolis moves from agrarian polis to outpost of Empire.
15. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
I love Southern literature, and I’ve read Walker Percy, Flannery O’ Connor, and Robert Penn Warren. I need at least one Faulkner. I’m told this is the one.
16. Jurgen by James Branch Cabell
I don’t want to read the entire Biography of Manuel, but somewhere in my future I hope there is a wood-fire-warmed, stuffy, bookcase-lined room with great bay windows overlooking a snowy street where I can devour this book. I’ve read about 1/4 of it already.
17. A Critique Of Pure Reason along with “What Is The Enlightenment?” by Immanuel Kant
I need to be awakened from my dogmatic slumbers.
18. Personal Knowledge and
19. The Tacit Dimension by Michael Polanyi
After invoking Polanyi for 12 years to buttress my arguments on the Internet, it’s high time I actually read something by him.
The struggle between the Revolution and the Reaction is fascinating to me. The Crimean War was Phase Two as Napoleon’s nephew embroiled France and Britain in an international imbroglio over the Holy Places in the Middle East.
21. The parts of the Bible I haven’t read yet.
When I became Orthodox, my Bible got bigger. I haven’t kept up with it. I need to read Ecclesiasticus, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Maccabees, Judit, Tobit, 2nd 3rd and 4th Esdras, the additions to Esther, Daniel, and the Prayer Of Manasseh
22. Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
Sigh, the world I am leaving to my children… I figure if I read this,maybe I won’t have to read anything by David Foster Wallace, who probably says the exact same thing, just in a far less entertaining way. Anyway, any woman who admits that if you live by the Wonderbra, you will die by the Wonderbra deserves a little of my attention.
23. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
I have heard that this novel contains the DNA of the United States of America in all of its batshit-crazy, Manichean glory. I hope this is true. I have also heard that it is, if not unreadable, at least unfinishable. I hope this is not true.
24. The Long Day Wanes – by Anthony Burgess
I loved Clockwork Orange, Honey For The Bears, The Wanting Seed, and Earthly Powers. If I have to give too much attention to any one writer, it may as well be Burgess.
25. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers.
The literary legacy of Charles Williams lept forward 40 years and settled in John Crowley and Tim Powers.
It is depressing how quickly writers, even very good ones, can be forgotten once the public eye moves off of them. I am now in my seventh decade, and I remember reading very good, very engaging books in my adolescence by authors who are seldom mentioned these days. Equally amazing to me are the authors who endure, and whose popularity continues. For example, I read JD Salinger’s Frannie And Zooey early in my high school days, but I thought the works of his near-contemporaries John Hershey (Too Far To Walk) and William Goldman (Boys And Girls Together) superior as studies of alienation. I haven’t met anyone under 55 who has even heard of those two writers.
Thomas Pynchon will be with us forever, as will Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Other writers who seem to have legs are Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike, but Peter De Vries, Mary McCarthy, Louis Auchincloss, and even Ray Bradbury are disappearing from the catalogue. Gore Vidal preens himself and offers frequent fussy comment on the social scene, but who remembers Alfred Chester? It is though there is only one niche in the literary ecology for a particular kind of author, and Vidal grabbed it to Chester’s despite, as did Updike to De Vries, Vonnegut to Bradbury, and Walker Percy to Richard Yates.
Moving from canonical, mainstream literature to imaginative literature, no one can call Jack Vance a forgotten writer. For one thing, he is still alive, and for another, he is enjoying something of a boomlet in popularity due to his being lionized by popular genre authors like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. I was fortunate to find his Lyonesse trilogy on audio book. Having already been introduced to Jack Vance in my extreme boyhood through The Languages of Pao and The Dragon Masters, the Arthurian-tinged trilogy, composed of Suldrun’s Garden, published in 1983, The Green Pearl, in 1987, and Madouc , in 1991, was a delight to stumble upon.
It won’t change your life, but as entertainment and as an exercise in that kind of fantasy set in our own world, it is highly recommended. The central conceit is somewhat similar to Robert E Howard’s, but set in late antiquity, about the time of the waning of the Western Empire and the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of Rome. Nevertheless, the martial technology is late Middle Ages, with trebuchets and plate armor. Vance follows in hallowed footsteps here. All the Arthurian writers followed the same convention, until recently when Mary Stewart and Stephen Lawhead created more chronistically appropriate Arthur stories.
The Arthurian connection is tenuous. Vance imagines a large Ireland-sized island in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, Hybras, with a cluster of smaller islands around it. The idea is that these islands have since disappeared, Atlantis-like, under the waves, leaving behind only a smattering of irreconcilable legends and a few place names; Hy-Brasil, Avallone, Lyonesse, and Ys. There are petty kings; beautiful, sad princesses; wizards benign and malicious; knights noble and dastardly. There is also a lot of Realpolitik and spycraft, which fortunately seldom gets in the way of the rollicking adventures.
The Lyonesse trilogy is kind of sad. As another reader/reviewer points out, all of the adventures and intrigues of the characters are pointless, since the Elder Isles are doomed to disappear eventually under the waves. For some reason, I thought it would add a touch of poignancy to the narrative, but it didn’t. For all of the playfulness and light-heartedness of Vance’s prose, something just didn’t quite click. The magic (and there are a number of wizards fair and fell in this series, not to mention fairies, ogres and boggarts), struck me as being very prosaic. Vance is, alas, a modernist in a postmodern world.
All in all all, it read like a copy of a greater original. It wasn’t at all like Tales Of The Dying Earth, by the same writer.
As I said, no one can accuse Jack Vance of being a forgotten writer, but just under the surface of his prose lurks one of the most unfairly forgotten writers of the 20th century. Working from a stray comment about the Lyonesse books on GoodReads, I was able to uncover the original of which they were the copy. The writer was James Branch Cabell, an American writer of fantastic literature from Richmond Virginia, who enjoyed a period of great popularity in the immediate postwar period. To my surprise, I was able to find a copy of his complete works at a nearby college library. They certainly appeared to be the works of a prominent and successful writer; gilt-spined and lavishly illustrated.
I took one book down and opened it, Jurgen; A Comedy Of Justice, reputed to be Cabell’s masterpiece. Three hours later I shut it, enthralled with where Cabell was able to transport me.
Cabell will never be one of my favorite writers. He is snarky, something I deeply dislike. Cabell shares this trait with other writers such as Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, and even Thomas Pynchon, all whom are good writers (Pynchon is great, like Sopohocles-great) but just not personally my cup of tea. Alan Dean Foster, who wrote The Last Starfighter and most of the original Star Wars trilogy as well, wrote a forgettable but very sexy little romance called Glory Lane, that gets snark just about right.
Cabell, in what I read of Jurgen, takes snark to realms of high art. The protagonist, a middle-aged pawnbroker, has his youth restored and, of course, sets out to do what any right-thinking man in his postion would do; seduce all the beautiful young women he can. On the way, he encounters a number of creatures magical, infernal, celestial, or any combination thereof. Since Jurgen, the protagonist, is irreverent and quite superficial, there is a lot of snark, but somehow, Cabell uses it to break your heart. It looks as though Jurgen is going be schooled by his second youth in the lasting virtues. I will have to finish this book, at least.
Reading what I have of Cabell’s writing career, I am surprised that he is almost completely unheard of by the legions of Tolkien, Rowling, and Gaiman fans. He continued writing in the same vein until his death in the 1950′s, in increasing obscurity. Serendipitously and coincidentally, the critical examination of Cabell’s work which I also found in the same section in the university library, was written by another once-popular writer; Hugh Walpole, who is also almost entirely forgotten today.
“It is submerged now, and as irrecoverable as Lyonesse” - Evelyn Waugh referring to Oxford in Brideshead Revisited
The National Public Radio folks have decided to ask their listener base to help them select the greatest works of imaginative fiction. Their list contains a lot of surprises, but the finalists were selected by the ubiquitous expert panel, and they are inviting fantasy and science fiction fans to vote on which of these 200 or so works are their favorites.
Here is the list. My choices are in bold:
The Acts Of Caine Series, by Matthew Woodring Stover
The Algebraist, by Iain M. Banks
Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers
Armor, by John Steakley
The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson
Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard
Beggars In Spain, by Nancy Kress
The Belgariad, by David Eddings
The Black Company Series, by Glen Cook
The Black Jewels Series, by Anne Bishop
The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Bridge Of Birds, by Barry Hughart
The Callahan’s Series, by Spider Robinson
A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, by Robert Heinlein
Cat’s Cradle , by Kurt Vonnegut
The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
The Change Series, by S.M. Stirling
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
Children Of God, by Mary Doria Russell
The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny
The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson
The City And The City, by China Mieville
City And The Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
The Coldfire Trilogy, by C.S. Friedman
The Commonwealth Saga, by Peter F. Hamilton
The Company Wars, by C.J. Cherryh
The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard
Contact, by Carl Sagan
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks
The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King
The Day of Triffids, by John Wyndham
Deathbird Stories, by Harlan Ellison
The Deed of Paksennarion Trilogy, by Elizabeth Moon
The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester
The Deverry Cycle, by Katharine Kerr
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
Don’t Bite The Sun, by Tanith Lee
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre
The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert
Earth, by David Brin
Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart
The Eisenhorn Omnibus, by Dan Abnett
The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Eon, by Greg Bear
The Eyes Of The Dragon, by Stephen King
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
The Faded Sun Trilogy, by C.J. Cherryh
Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser Series, by Fritz Leiber
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
The Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy, by Guy Gavriel Kay
A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie
Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys
The Foreigner Series, by C.J. Cherryh
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
The Gaea Trilogy, by John Varley
The Gap Series, by Stephen R. Donaldson
The Gate To Women’s Country, by Sheri S. Tepper
Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway
The Gormenghast Triology, by Mervyn Peake
Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End of The World, by Haruki Murakami
The Heechee Saga, by Frederik Pohl
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The Hollows Series, by Kim Harrison
House Of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski
The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson
The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
The Incarnations Of Immortality Series, by Piers Anthony
The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne
Kindred, by Octavia Butler
The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
Kraken, by China Mieville
The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
Last Call, by Tim Powers
The Last Coin, by James P. Blaylock
The Last Herald Mage Trilogy, by Mercedes Lackey
The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
The Lathe Of Heaven, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore
The Lensman Series, by E.E. Smith
The Liaden Universe Series, by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
The Lies Of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
Lilith’s Brood, by Octavia Butler
Little, Big, by John Crowley
The Liveship Traders Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
Lord Of Light, by Roger Zelazny
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Lord Valentine’s Castle, by Robert Silverberg
Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
The Man In The High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
The Manifold Trilogy, by Stephen Baxter
The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
Memory And Dream, by Charles de Lint
Memory, Sorrow, And Thorn Trilogy, by Tad Williams
Mindkiller, by Spider Robinson
The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
Mordant’s Need, by Stephen Donaldson
More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon
The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov
The Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy, by Robert J. Sawyer
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
The Newsflesh Triology, by Mira Grant
The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, by Peter F. Hamilton
Novels Of The Company, by Kage Baker
Norstrilia, by Cordwainer Smith
The Number Of The Beast, by Robert Heinlein
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
On Basilisk Station, by David Weber
The Once And Future King, by T.H. White
Oryx And Crake, by Margaret Atwood
The Otherland Tetralogy, by Tad Williams
The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
Parable Of The Sower, by Octavia Butler
The Passage, by Justin Cronin
Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson
Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
The Prestige, by Christopher Priest
The Pride Of Chanur, by C.J. Cherryh
The Prince Of Nothing Trilogy, by R. Scott Bakker
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge
Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
Replay, by Ken Grimwood
Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds
Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban
The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist
Ringworld, by Larry Niven
The Riverworld Series, by Philip Jose Farmer
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Saga Of Pliocene Exile, by Julian May
The Saga Of Recluce, by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
The Sarantine Mosaic Series, by Guy Gavriel Kay
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick
The Scar, by China Mieville
The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
The Shattered Chain Trilogy, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Sirens Of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
The Snow Queen, by Joan D. Vinge
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
Song for the Basilisk, by Patricia McKillip
A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin
The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
The Stainless Steel Rat Books, by Harry Harrison
Stand On Zanzibar, by John Brunner
The Stand, by Stephen King
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
Stations Of The Tide, by Michael Swanwick
Steel Beach, by John Varley
Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
The Swordspoint Trilogy, by Ellen Kushner
The Tales of Alvin Maker, by Orson Scott Card
The Temeraire Series, by Naomi Novik
The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
Tigana , by Guy Gavriel Kay
Time Enough For Love, by Robert Heinlein
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
To Say Nothing Of The Dog, by Connie Willis
The Troy Trilogy, by David Gemmell
Ubik, by Philip K. Dick
The Uplift Saga, by David Brin
The Valdemar Series, by Mercedes Lackey
VALIS, by Philip K. Dick
Venus On The Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout/Philip Jose Farmer
The Vlad Taltos Series, by Steven Brust
The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Vurt Trilogy, by Jeff Noon
The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells
Watchmen, by Alan Moore
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak
We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin
The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger
Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
World War Z, by Max Brooks
The Worm Ouroboros, by E.R. Edison
The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon
1632, by Eric Flint
1984, by George Orwell
2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne
I was glad to see both Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen and Gaiman’s Sandman series in such august company. Both Earth Abides (Stewart) and Lord of Light (Zelazny) are close to perfect works of science-fiction. Unfortunately, Stewart never wrote another book, and Zelazny fell off precipitously after LOL. Amber wasn’t nearly as good.
I am not surprised that A Voyage To Arcturus didn’t make it onto this list. It is very poorly written and hard to parse, but it does have a sticking power that many better works lack. I was surprised to see that nothing by Lord Dunsany made the cut, nor was James Cabell represented, nor George Macdonald, nor Jack Vance. In the mean time, you can amuse yourselves identifying the pictures off to the right.
Marija Gimbutas (1921 – 1994) is a name all of you should know. Fleeing the Nazi occupation of her native Lithuania in 1944, she settled in Southern California, eventually becoming a full professor of anthropology at UCLA.
Dr. Gimbutas first attained prominence in the field of Indo-European studies by identifying a Neolithic culture of the Russian steppes, the Kurgan culture of appr. 4000 BC, as the speakers of Proto-Indo-European, the ancestral language of the majority of European and Indian languages spoken today. The Kurgans were a militaristic, patriarchal, and technologically obsessed society which, in various waves, dominated and submerged what she called “Old Europe”, a uniform (!?!?) Neolthic culture which was pacific, aesthetic, matriarchal, and meticulous about ecological relations to the natural world.
Dr. Gimbutas’ theory of Indo-European procedence is not entirely accepted by scholars in archeology or linguistics. It remains a “fruitful” hypothesis, meaning, I suppose, one that can still be invoked to apply for grants and to lend legitimacy to articles published in scholarly journals. The jury is still out as to whether the Kurgans were indeed the linguistic great-grandfathers of Homer, the writers of the Vedas, Virgil, and the bards of the Cattle Raid on Cooley.
Nevertheless, outside the more rigorous climes of official academe, her ideas took fruit in a series of novels written by one of her ex-students, Jean Auel, who had a good run of success with her “Earth’s Children” series, beginning with “The Clan of the Cave Bear”, which was made into a decent film starring Darryl Hannah.
The Earth’s Children series degenerated swiftly from the original book, which was quite good from both a literary and imaginative perspective, into a predictable set of romances between the protaganist Ayla and a series of broad-chested, long-haired, sensitive Neolithic swains who followed her across Old Europe in obedience to the Great Goddess, whom they worshipped and who Ayla symbolized.
I never finished the second book, although I have been meaning to. Whatever made the first book special is definitely lacking in the second. At any rate, Ms. Auel made Dr. Gimbutas’ speculations plausible to a host of moderns looking for a reason why their lives weren’t working so well.
Gimbutean fiction is quite a lively sub-genre these days, with plucky, Goddess-honoring heroines standing shoulder to shoulder with brave, shining-eyed, long-locked heroes against the awful Horse People and their ferocious, oppressive Sky-God (Guess Who?).
The mythology is quite potent, which is why its not going to go away because it doesn’t have any basis in verifiable history. Christians, as usual, had their seismic triggers posted elsewhere and didn’t see Dr. Gimbutas coming up behind them.
The title is from DH Lawrence – oh, the things you find on the Internet:
Some considerable time ago, I commented on something that I had gleaned from a reading of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods; that is, that America was a poor place for mythology, that we lacked the deep psychic topsoil that nourished our European forebears. I remember reading somewhere about a Finnish poet who lived in a house where his family had lived and farmed for the past 900 years. I can only the imagine the poetry that would emerge from such an intimate congress between soil and DNA.
America has poets, quite good ones, but the American story has yet to be told, really. Some works have come damned close: The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, The Magnificent Ambersons, On The Road, these spring to mind immediately as coming close to American mythopoeia. But DH Lawrence seems to intimate that we still have to atone for our sins:
When you are actually in America, America hurts, because it has a powerful disintegrative influence upon the white psyche. It is full of grinning, unappeased aboriginal demons, too, ghosts, and it persecutes the white men, like some Eumenides, until the white men give up their absolute whiteness. America is tense with latent violence and resistance. The very common sense of white Americans has a tinge of helplessness in it, and deep fear of what might be if they were not common-sensical.
[W]hen one comes to America, one finds that there is always a certain slightly devilish resistance in the American landscape, and a certain slightly bitter resistance in the white man’s heart. Hawthorne gives this. But Cooper glosses it over. The American landscape has never been at one with the white man. Never. And white men have probably never felt so bitter anywhere, as here in America, where the very landscape, in its very beauty, seems a bit devilish and grinning, opposed to us.
Moralists have always wondered helplessly why Poe’s ‘morbid’ tales need have been written. They need to be written because old things need to die and disintegrate, because the old white psyche has to be gradually broken down before anything else can come to pass.
So there you have it; the strength of the hills is not in us because they are not yet our hills, except by legal fiction [I use this term consciously]. America bestrides the earth like a colossus, and appears immeasurably strong – the last superpower and all of that, but the strength is the waning strength of modernism and abstraction. I fear this strength will fail in the crucible, that it will be a brittle strength.
I wonder how this strength compares with the imaginative fecundity of Latin American letters, where the fantastic and the real rub cheek to jowl (and not only imaginative fecundity – it doesn’t take any prescience to predict what are the comparative futures of two societies where the average age of one is 38 and increasing, and the average age of the other is 22 and dropping). The dominant myth of Iberian America is one of mixture and synthesis, whereas the predominant myth north of the Rio Grande is replacement and surveying.
Note – My knowledge of South African history is next to nil. I have been informed that when the first European settlers, the ancestors of the Voortrekkers, arrived in the Cape Colony, the land was empty. The Bantu had not yet arrived. Nobody took South Africa away from anybody. Everybody just collided, sort of. Steve, if you can add anything to this, I would be extremely grateful.
I have finally worked my way through the first volume of Gene Wolfe’s series The Book Of The New Sun, The Shadow Of The Torturer, and I have to say that I am thoroughly intimidated. His prose is as tightly packed with information as a DNA strand, and it took me about twice as long to finish as I thought it
would. I had to reference backwards and forwards in the book continually, and read several passages multiple times before I felt as though I had a handle on what Wolfe was trying to say.
The plot was unusually thin considering the considerable wordcraft that went into the book; others have commented at length about Wolfe’s portmanteaus, so I won’t go into them here. It is sufficient to say that anyone who knows a smattering of Latin and Greek, and a little medieval French as well, will not be baffled by any of Wolfe’s idiosyncratic vocabulary. My favorite by far was Wolfe’s elegant euphemism for ‘executioner`, “carnifex”, that is, someone who turns a living body into just so much meat.
The novel is a bildungsroman, the story of a young man growing up and making his way in the world. If I have any criticism of this work, it is that Severian appears to mature too quickly in the two days between when he is exiled from the Torturers’ Guild and when he arrives at the city wall with Dorcas in tow.
Of course, Wolfe packs a lot into those two days; the discovery of sex, a duel to the death, a lecture on light and relativity, and a visit to the distant past (our own era?). Still, this isn’t enough to explain the change in Severian from an uncertain and hesitant boy to the confident man he becomes by the end of the novel.
I have heard, on the other hand, that Severian, the novel’s protagonist, is not a trustworthy narrator, that he is propagandizing, relating a self-aggrandizing version of the story of his rise from obscurity to Autarch.
Somebody said somewhere, I don’t remember who or where, that all writers should have ceased to write after Finnegan’s Wake, or Light In August, or Gravity’s Rainbow. The same sort of thing is said about Gene Wolfe. Now, I haven’t read anything yet by Joyce, Faulkner, or Pynchon (they are on my to-get-to list), but it is obvious that there has been plenty of writing since the publication of those masterworks.
But I understand the sentiment. Anybody writing in the urban fantasy/science fiction is going to find that Gene Wolfe has set the bar very high indeed.