In Part 5 of my Levels of Science Fiction series we look at Level 4, the more involved Science Ficiton and Fantasy Reads. The first three levels I would feel good about suggesting to someone looking to break into the genre, though I may warn them about Level 3 books being an investment. For Level 4 and beyond, these are books I would be thrilled to recommend, but I want the reader to have already decided they are invested in the genre. These are the kind of novels that make you work, but the reward is wonderful. Some of my favorite examples are:
A Fire Upon the Deep- The “Zones of Thought” grouping used by Vinge is an interesting idea that allows for a novel of incredible scope. The prologue is so brilliantly written and immerses you immediately, making you very aware of the incredible stakes. Vinge creates a universe that requires you to work to understand everything, but the story is so fun and exciting. Science fiction of a grand scope at its finest.
Consider Phlebas- Iain M. Banks is my overall favorite author. I love the Culture Series and this is where it starts. Each Culture book is its own story, so you don’t have to start here, but there is something compelling in starting with a story where the main character is hostile to the Culture. The Culture is such a unique idea a post-scarcity society where everyone is equal, and machines are prevalent enough that nobody is forced to work or wants for anything. Banks anticipates that readers may be hostile to parts of this idea, and he voices those hostilities through his main character early in the book when he addresses why he is fighting for the oppressive, religiously driven alien civilization, “”they are on the side of life… boring, old-fashioned, biological life; smell, fallible and short-sighted, God knows, but REAL life.” The ideas of this story are magnificent, but it’s the visual sequences that take it to another level. Few scenes in science fiction have been as engaging as the escape flight through a Giant Orbital. It’s a lot to take in, but if you love science fiction this is a book I would push any reader to dive into.
Perdido Street Station- Mieville offers a completely different type of fantasy novel. I’ve not read any author who brings a city to life quite like Mieville does with New Crobuzon. There are so many compelling, memorable characters and ideas, but New Crobuzon is the star of this book. The prose are high level and beautiful, but not the kind you can take in without careful reading. With his writing you want to focus on every word because he chooses the words so perfectly. The Slake Moths are absolutely terrifying and the introductory ride into New Crobuzon is breathtaking.
The Blade Itself- I love Abercrombie’s writing and enjoyed the First Law Series so much my first time through it. He develops memorable characters and combines it with great action scenes. There are elements of traditional fantasy to this story, but he takes them in a completely different direction. I always debate whether to recommend starting with First Law or his stand alone novels, because while I love The Blade Itself and its two direct sequels, I love Best Served Cold and The Heroes (two stand alone novels in the same universe) even more. Ultimately, I am glad I started with First Law because of the background to the world it gave me that enhances my appreciation for those stand alone novels (and the exception Age of Madness trilogy) and I usually recommend readers go that way. However, I sometimes worry that the other two would draw them in more and I should just be telling them to read Best Served Cold.
The Fifth Season – The Fifth Season is unique in so many ways and utterly magnificent in how it all fits together. The story takes time to adjust to as we follow three different plots, one of which is written in 2nd person point of view, but they fit together beautifully and as you get 1/3 of the way through the book you keep wanting to press on. There is so much to say about this book, but I don’t want to give too much away. Undoubtedly N.K. Jemisin has created one of the best science fiction / fantasy novels of all time. I cannot recommend The Fifth Season enough.
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