The Reading List of the Adlerverse (Part III) - Fantasy and Science-Fiction
Updated: Mar 20, 2018
Big door-stop novels full of aliens, space battles, wizards, monsters and lady-barbarians in chainmail bikinis? Those were the days. I was a proud geek before it was cool, dammit - a childhood of Gary Gygax, polyhedral dice, badly-painted orc miniatures and tea-stained character sheets. I could make a very long list of all the fantasy and SF I've loved, but these end up on top of my magical tome pile.
Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock
It's easy to be hyperbolic about Michael Moorcock, Britain's undisputed Grand Druid of speculative fiction, the psychedelic bard of Ladbroke Grove. However, the hyperbole is richly deserved, as few have enjoyed such an influential and fruitful career. I chose Elric due to the character's enduring popularity - being the adventures of a sickly, drug-dependent aristocrat who is gifted an evil black sword that drinks souls (we've all had relationships like that, haven't we?). Cue lots of epic swords & sorcery mayhem, written in Moorcock's dry grimdark style. His stuff is all linked - I could easily have waxed lyrical about Hawkmoon (set in a devastated future Europe threatened by the evil Granbretan) or Corum (gentle elf-type prince mutilated by humans who becomes avenging slayer). Or, in fact, any of the other characters that make up 'The Eternal Champion' sequence. I re-read the lot a couple of years ago - they easily stand the test of time.
The Blade Itself (First Law trilogy) by Joe Abercrombie
Imagine epic fantasy clichés are like Trotsky, hiding out in a Mexican hotel. Abercrombie is the NKVD man with an icepick. Berserker barbarian? Check. But Logen Nine-Fingers is thoughtful, ashamed of his violent past and a font of homespun dad-wisdom. Powerful wizard? Check. But Bayaz is more Peter Mandelson than Gandalf, trading on fear and manipulation rather than spells. Then there's Glokta, a hideously maimed inquisitor. He's also strangely sympathetic, making us squirm as we root for his campaign of murder and torture across the regime he serves. Yes, this is what Abercrombie does, and does masterfully. His standalone books, set in the same world, are just as good and a new trilogy is due next year. A Day One buy for me. To so skilfully beat up a genre like this you have to love it dearly, be able to field-strip it blindfolded. Joe does and can.
Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins
Ever read a book that makes you run into the street, grab a random stranger and shout 'why haven't you read this yet?' This, my friends, is one of those books. Higgins is what happens when you put John le Carre and Mervyn Peake in a blender. He writes about a fantastic Russia-that-isn't-Russia called The Vlast - a place where giant, malevolent angels crash in sentient forests, while the regime augments its power by harvesting their flesh. Meanwhile, a Stalin-like character goes from terrorist bank-robber to Supreme Leader, conflating his monstrous ego with the common good. Yet, to tell the story, Higgins (who writes with beguiling, understated beauty) opts for a quasi-thriller approach about a policeman chasing a world-changing maguffin. And it works, as the trilogy (along with Truth and Fear and Radiant State) is one of the most refreshing and gripping things I've read for years.
Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Jorg Ancrath is only thirteen, child of a broken aristocracy in a Broken Empire. Nonetheless, he leads a bunch of marauders, the 'Road Brothers', maiming and murdering everything in their path for the lulz. A psychopath, Jorg is surprisingly enjoyable company for the reader as we follow his ascendancy (via the other books in the series) to King, and finally Emperor, of Thorns. Jorg uses any and every tactic in the book to get his own way - threats, cajolery, charm and of course a little bit of the old ultra-violence (Lawrence admits Jorg is influenced by Alex the Droog from 'A Clockwork Orange'). The stories (told in the first-person for the first two books) are also spiced with cruel, barbed wit. Like most great fantasy stories, Lawrence embeds his cast of characters into a compelling and original world... I won't spoil you, but it's bloody clever.
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson has AT LEAST six brains, and never apologises that his writing is dense and tackles some Seriously Deep Shit. His readers sink or swim... I doggy-paddled at first but it was worth the effort. The usual Stephenson themes are here - hacking, secrecy, freedom, the nexus between human progress and technology. The Da Vinci Code it ain't. In Cryptonomicon, a group of geeks try to establish a data-haven in the Pacific, free from government interference (written in 1999, Stephenson is his usual sage-like self on where technology will take us). Throw in a mystery about hidden gold, sunken Nazi submarines, code-breaking and a parallel story set in WW2 (about commandos tasked with protecting ENIGMA intelligence by parallel-sourcing it) and you've got a typically Neal Stephenson gumbo of brainy, intriguing fun.
World War Z by Max Brooks
Forget the so-so movie, this is a seriously clever book. Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, so there's already genius in his DNA) presents us with a series of interviews between a UN investigator and the survivors of global Zombie Apocalypse. Cue a series of interlinked short stories, tracing the origins of the Zombie infestation through to humanity's ingenious victory. The cleverness, though, is 'World War Z' isn't really about zombies at all (although it works on that level too). It's about governments and hierarchy and complacency, and how we turn a blind eye to problems until it's too late. A favourite part is when people are assigned to wartime work according to their practical skills... and the Hollywood elite end up cleaning toilets and digging holes, until they offer to make propaganda movies, of course.
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
Another novel doomed to be forever associated with a movie (although Verhoeven's film is an amusingly kitsch piss-take, ignoring the book's central premise of mech-wearing soldiers dominating the battlefield). Heinlein, writing in 1959, is effectively the grand-daddy of the now familiar 'space-marine' trope - one of high-tech intergalatic militaries slaying aliens across the universe. However, the book itself is more of a quasi-philosophical screed on citizenship, civil obligation and military service (Heinlein's future society allows only people with 'skin in the game' via service to vote), which explains Starship Troopers controversial status down the years. Why do I love it? Johnny Rico's journey from civilian to super-armoured mobile infantryman is a skilful character arc. Heinlein also comes from a conservative point of view, which is rare in genre fiction nowadays. So remember - there are NO safe spaces in the Mobile Infantry! Would you like to know more?