40 for 40: Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels that Changed My Life
This month is my birthday month and since I turned 40 this year, I thought I would take the opportunity to do a self-indulgent post. And since my editors didn’t stop me, I wanted to list out the 40 novels of science fiction and fantasy that had the biggest impact on me, in hopes that you, faithful reader, would find it useful and interesting. I’ve already talked about a number of these before, so I’ll provide links to previous columns where possible. This is not a list about the best novels I’ve read necessarily (though many of them are) but the ones that had the biggest effect on me.
Here, then, is my list, in no particular order.
1. 'The Marvelous Land of Oz' by L. Frank Baum
The Oz books were my earliest literary crack and I can remember going to the library every week to grab the next book in the series. The Wizard of Oz is obviously the first book, but I had seen the movie at that age and so the book, while slightly different, wasn’t that big a revelation. It was The Marvelous Land of Oz, which fleshed out the land of Oz in all its weirdness, that drew me in. From Jack Pumpkinhead to the Gump and T. E. Woggle-bug, including a last minute sex change, it was wondrous stuff. Years later I wrote a horror story about Jack Pumpkinhead that was published in Shadows of the Emerald City.
2. 'The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe' by C. S. Lewis
Another of the early giants of my literary history. The Christian allegory was lost on me when I first read it, though it later became glaringly obvious. The book, and those that follow, have numerous flaws, but the magical land of Narnia will always be the first fantasy land that I wanted to travel to and the standard against which all others are judged.
3. 'The Hobbit' by J. R. R. Tolkien
All of Tolkien’s books were important to me as a burgeoning fantasy reader, but The Hobbit was my first. It holds a special place in my heart. I wrote about how it’s superior to The Lord of the Rings here.
4. 'The Lord of the Rings' by J. R. R. Tolkien
Which is not to say I don’t like The Lord of the Rings. It was always the Prime fantasy series and though, like the Narnia books, it has its flaws, it perhaps casts the biggest shadow of all the fantasy I’ve read over the years.
5. 'Dune' by Frank Herbert
6. 'The Chronicles of Amber' by Roger Zelazny
7. 'Watership Down' by Richard Adams
I never would have believed that a book about rabbits would have such a huge effect on me, but Richard Adam’s book is a masterpiece primarily because it draws you in and makes you care. But it’s not just that — his rabbit culture is inspired, complete with its own mythology, and their struggle rivals the journeys of some of the best post-apocalyptic stories.
8. 'The Dragonbone Chair' by Tad Williams
I read predominantly epic fantasy growing up, but in my teen years I became disillusioned by the genre which seemed full of clones and doppelgangers. On the urging of a friend I read The Dragonbone Chair (and the rest of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn) when I was in college and it restored my faith in the genre. There are many great things about the book, but the thing that sticks out for me (and the thing I mentioned to Tad Williams in my first ever fan letter/email) was that it brought back a sense of wonder to epic fantasy that I found had been lacking. It has many of the usual tropes but it turns them on their side and somehow both honors them and comments on them. The books even inspired George R. R. Martin to take a crack at the genre.
9. 'Dragonflight' by Anne McCaffrey
I haven’t read these novels in years, but the Dragonrider books came at the right time for me. McCaffrey creates such a fascinating world that’s technically science fiction, but has elements of both SF and fantasy. I read these books several times as a teenager and followed them for years. Riders that fly on and have telepathic bonds with fire-breathing dragons? I’m in.
10. 'Dragons of Autumn Twilight' by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
People may scoff at this choice, but a lot of my earliest fantasy reading was based on D&D. Still, the Dragonlance books were the first. I recently went back and read the first book again and it was a lot better than I expected. Its D&D roots are evident, but its epic scope and worldbuilding help elevate it above its counterparts. Also, dragons.
11. 'The Illustrated Man' by Ray Bradbury
I listened to this collection as an audiobook when I was young and I played it over and over again in the years following. But it wasn’t until I was a little older that I started paying attention to the language. Bradbury is a master of storytelling and I learned so much about writing and about stories from listening to his tales. "The Veldt," "There Will Come Soft Rains," and the titular "Illustrated Man" alI left their mark on me like the very tattoos of William Philippus Phelps. I wrote more about Bradbury here.
12. 'Cat’s Cradle' by Kurt Vonnegut
I could have picked any number of books by Kurt Vonnegut, and he’s always been one of my favorites, but Cat’s Cradle was my first and remains one of his best works. Full of his trademark humor and sarcasm, it’s also a great science fiction novel. No one can really do what Vonnegut does.
13. 'The Time Machine' by H. G. Wells
This is another one that I first heard as an audiobook. Time travel has always been a favorite subgenre of mine, but what sticks out the most about this novel (aside from the creepy as hell Morlocks) is when the traveler journeys to the future, where the sun is huge and red and humanity has long died out, and the strange, creepy and surreal landscape, complete with giant alien crabs, comes across as haunting and sad.
14. 'Foundation' by Isaac Asimov
There came a time in my life when I realized that I hadn’t read any Asimov. I am so glad that I decided to pick up Foundation. Though it’s a fix-up of several smaller stories that appeared in magazines, the idea of Hari Seldon’s psychohistory and the Foundation he helps initiate to safeguard civilization is one of the coolest ideas I’ve seen written about. My favorite of Asimov’s works.
15. 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I’ve never been as grateful for a high school reading assignment as I was when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Marquez’s masterful work of magical realism is such a triumph and I never once felt the urge to put it down. The novel covers seven generations of the Buendia family in the town of Macondo and they have forever been one of the most memorable families in all of literature. Puts both the magical and the real in magical realism.
16.' Hamlet' by Shakespeare
So yes, it’s a play, and most people wouldn’t consider it fantasy but it does have a ghost in it. And I needed to have Shakespeare on the list. I could have picked The Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his more overt fantasies, but Hamlet was one of the first Shakespeare plays that I read and it’s one that stuck with me ever since. Hamlet’s plot arc, of killing his uncle in revenge for his father’s death, is one I later lifted for my story, “Card Sharp.”
17. 'The History of the Runestaff' by Michael Moorcock
To be honest, it was hard to pick just one Michael Moorcock book for this list. I could have just as easily chosen The Warlord of the Air, or a Corum book or a Jerry Cornelius book. And some of you will be scratching your head about why I didn’t pick Elric, but Hawkmoon was one of the earliest Moorcock heroes that I read about and one of the most fun. Read more about The History of the Runestaff here.
18. 'Swords and Deviltry' by Fritz Leiber
Around the same time that I started reading Moorcock, I discovered Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar series, despite having heard the name for years. Lankhmar, for me, is THE fantasy city. Full of dark corners and indulgent delights. The adventures of Fahfrd and The Gray Mouser are some of my favorite fantasy stories of all time, and Lankhmar, essentially a character itself, the inspiration for many of my own stories.
19. 'Perdido Street Station' by China Mieville
I still remember opening Perdido Street Station and being taken by the opening paragraphs. The language, the imagery, the strangeness. Mieville’s world of Bas-Lag reinvents the fantasy world by drawing on a variety of different sources other than elves and dwarves and orcs. It’s also an urban fantasy in that it focuses on the city and not the rural countryside. Full of imagination and energy and yet also the dark and grotesque. I wrote a bit more about Bas-Lag here.
20. 'City of Saints and Madmen' by Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer was one of the writers I discovered while learning how to write. I’ve enjoyed many of his novels, but City of Saints and Madmen was the first book of his I read, a treasure chest of stories of darkness and horror, surreal and strange and weird but also incredibly inventive. The book contains a group of independent stories all about a fantastical city called Ambergris, but VanderMeer also experiments with form and with content. Truly a singular book. Read more about Ambergris here.
21. 'To Say Nothing of the Dog' by Connie Willis
It was Tad Williams (mentioned above) who recommended this book many years ago on his message board. I picked it up, but it wasn’t until years later, when I was going to attend the Clarion West workshop with Connie Willis as an instructor that I read it. To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of those rare perfect novels. Like other Willis books it involves time travel, but it is also funny and poignant and draws on many sources both historical and literary. A really outstanding novel.
22. 'Sandman' by Neil Gaiman
So it’s not really a novel, but Sandman was the first long-form comic series I read that had a beginning, middle and end. Read more about Sandman here.
23. 'The Left Hand of Darkness' by Ursula K. LeGuin
24. 'Neuromancer' by William Gibson
Back when I was still reading Piers Anthony, I was once in a Waldenbooks and this older SF fan raved to me about Neuromancer. I looked at it, but it didn't seem that interesting. Years later, I took a class in college about the cyberpunk movement and Neuromancer blew me away. By now cyberpunk elements have become almost old hat, but this was one of the first and one of the best.
25. 'The Road' by Cormac McCarthy
One of the more recent novels on this list, The Road took the post-apocalyptic genre and elevated it. The story of a father and a son after the world has fallen apart, it's bleak and heartbreaking and raw, but also beautifully rendered and told with authority and command. Skip the movie and read the book.
26. 'Assassin’s Apprentice' by Robin Hobb
I came to this one very late, but it was yet another fantasy epiphany. I began reading it on a long bus ride, mostly out of curiosity, but then I couldn’t put it down. I read it all the way through to the end without stopping. Fitz's journey to becoming an assassin is told in such a way that you can't help but be drawn into him and his situation. I've been told that Hobb's later works in the same world lose something, but the first book is very, very strong.
27. 'Use of Weapons' by Iain M. Banks
I’ve read several of Ian Banks’ Culture novels and have really enjoyed them, but Use of Weapons is definitely one of the best. While the Culture novels deal with an extremely advanced spacefaring society, Use of Weapons is still a very personal and human novel. Two separate streams weave together, converging in a powerful ending. I won’t spoil the novel, but this one packs a powerful punch. If you were to only read one Culture novel, I would recommend this one.
28. 'Shadow & Claw' by Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is one of the finest works of science fiction and fantasy (it kinda reads as both) ever. Shadow and Claw actually collects the first two books in the series — Shadow of the Torturer and Claw of the Conciliator. It’s dense stuff — and Wolfe doesn’t hold your hand. You have to keep your eyes open and pay attention to everything to really understand what’s going on, but it also rewards you for careful reading. Simply put, a masterpiece. I wrote more about the book here.
29. 'Steel Beach' by John Varley
My ex-wife recommended this book to me years ago and it’s one of the science fiction novels that has always stuck with me. Set in the far future, it concerns Hildy Johnson, a reporter living on Luna (the moon). Society is run by the Central Computer which keep everything almost utopian, but Hildy uncovers some startling activities below the surface. Still one of my favorite science fiction novels.
30. 'Refugee' by Piers Anthony
I hesitate to admit this, but I read a lot of Piers Anthony as a kid. A lot. I started with the Xanth books and then started reading anything there was of his on the bookstore shelf. I enjoyed many of those series, but the one that stands out for me as a reader was the Bio of a Space Tyrant series. Unlike the Xanth books and the Incarnations of Immortality series, the Bio of a Space Tyrant books were clearly for adults. I don’t know if I would appreciate them now, but for a thirteen year old, it was a book that dealt with taboo subjects, from sex to cannibalism, and I remember being slightly shocked but also challenged by it.
31. 'War for the Oaks' by Emma Bull
One of the first urban fantasy novels and a highly influential part of the subgenre. It concerns Eddi McCandry, a musician in Minneapolis who gets drawn into the struggle between the Seelie and Unseelie courts of Faerie. Also has a phouka (a faerie who changes into a dog) who resembles Prince.
32. 'Feed' by M. T. Anderson
I’ve endeavored to increase my reading of YA in recent years, but of all the Young Adult books that I’ve read, it’s Feed that probably packed the biggest punch for me. Set in the future where teenagers can take trips to the moon and social media and commercialism have run rampant, it details the relationship of Titus, the main character, fully plugged into the feed, and Violet Durn, someone who only got her feed installed later in life. Their relationship is defined by the feed and their relationships to it. There’s much more to the novel, so just pick it up already. You'll thank me.
33. 'Altered Carbon' by Richard K. Morgan
Altered Carbon is another of those novels that is frankly just a great standalone story. Drawing on cyberpunk and noir influences, it’s set in a future where people can transfer their consciousness easily to other bodies or sleeves. Takeshi Kovacs is an envoy, a highly trained and dangerous man who is hired to investigate a murder. The victim? The man who hires him. Only in a different body. Morgan wrote two more novels starring Kovacs, but the first is the best.
34. 'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley
A classic, of course, and one of the first science fiction novels, but it holds up today. Full of depth and pathos, it still provokes discussion in an era where we draw ever closer to the ability to create our own beings.
35. 'A Storm of Swords' by George R. R. Martin
Like The Dragonbone Chair mentioned earlier, this helped renew my love of and interest in the epic fantasy genre. Martin takes a different approach to fantasy, more gritty, more dangerous, but it’s clearly caught on with a larger audience. I wrote some thoughts about this here.
36. 'Grimjack' by John Ostrander, Timothy Truman, and others
This is perhaps the biggest cheat on the list, but it’s also my favorite comic of all time. Grimjack is John Gaunt, part mercenary, part detective, part refugee and wanderer. He lives in the city of Cynosure, through which practically all dimensions meet at one time or another. A wild mix of genres and settings and stories, all rendered expertly by Ostrander and his cast of artists. Many of the comics have been collected by IDW.
37. 'Planetary' by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday
Another comic, but also one with a beginning and an end. Planetary is Warren Ellis pulling on all his influences, from Marvel and DC Comics to pulp heroes to modern science. Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner and The Drummer go against The Four and their nefarious plans to discover the secret history of the earth. Stunningly beautiful in addition to being wonderfully written. Ellis’s best, in my opinion.
38. 'A Wrinkle in Time' by Madeline L’Engle
Another of my childhood favorites and a beloved classic. Meg Murry, her brother Charles Wallace and Calvin O’Keefe go on a fantastic journey to search for Meg and Charles Wallace’s father. Like with the Narnia books I skipped over some of the Christian imagery here, but loved the book for its characters and letting them carry the story.
39. 'The Golden Compass/Northern Lights' by Philip Pullman
Another book for children, this flips the Christian themes of the Narnia books and A Wrinkle in Time by actually having the guts to have its characters essentially trying to kill God. The end of the series stumbles a bit, but the first book is solid and features a brilliant cast of characters, especially Lyra Belacqua.
40. 'The Once and Future King' by T. H. White
I’ve always loved Arthurian stories. I even took a class in Arthurian literature, but T. H. White bears the distinction of writing one of the best versions, making the characters human and relatable, and yet also adding complexity to the myths, bringing them to life.
Those are my picks (at this moment, at least). What science fiction and fantasy novels changed your life? Let me know in the comments.
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