My transition from adventure and action books to speculative fiction happened through fantasy. To the teenage girl I was back then, magic had more appeal than technology-heavy books. Even though I enjoyed science fiction movies, some recommended books discouraged me from diving into the genre (back then, in Poland, prevailed socially involved hard scifi, and the teenage me didn’t find them appealing). It wasn’t until a few years later, when my library was running out of fantasy books I wanted to read, I started picking up science fiction books. I discovered that science fiction could be fun too, and my imagination as well as the understanding of possible future technologies broadened, so I wasn’t bogged down by technical details anymore.
I still tend to read more fantasy than science fiction, but if you ask me about my favorite speculative books… the science fiction ones always first come to mind.
Hyperion CANTOS by Dan Simmons
What drew me to Hyperion was the blurb (slightly different to the one offered in the English edition). Seven pilgrims? A wish to be granted to one of them while the others will die? What’s not to like? I didn’t know I got more that I bargained for.
At first, I thought I wouldn’t finish the book. The first of the tales belongs to the Priest, and it was too slow-paced for the teenage me. This was when I made one of the best readerly decisions of my life: I skipped that story and moved on. The stories that followed were much more enticing, and once I was done, I returned to the Priest’s tale as well. I loved how their stories interacted in that subtle way, showing that everything was connected, one way or the other. And one by one, I fell in love with the characters and with their stories, full of depth and emotions… and beautifully written, too.
I thoroughly enjoyed both Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, and even though the two following sequels, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion aren’t considered as good as the first books, but I appreciated that extra piece of the universe and the story, and at the end, it got out a tear or two out of my eye. And even if you’re familiar with Hyperion Cantos, you might not know there’s a short story set in the same universe, Orphans of the Helix that could serve as a bit of an epilogue to the series, and a glimpse to what happened with one of the pivotal characters.
At the moment, I own two editions of Hyperion Cantos. One is the first Polish edition was already out of print when I first read those books (libraries are that kind of awesome), and it took a small miracle and a devotion of a dear friend for me two complete it. It waits patiently back at home in Poland. The second edition I own is in Polish as well: beautiful hardbacks with mesmerizing cover. And I have a confession to make: I’d love to buy an edition in English too. As much as I enjoyed Polish translations, I’d like to, at some point, read those books in its original language.
A Miracle of Rare Design by Mike Resnick
When I was in my teens, Poland had been a democracy for less than a decade. With the iron curtain falling, many Western books made it into translation, but it was more of a flood of whatever was available (or on cheap licensing) than a conscious selection to introduce readers to the best works.
Only beginning to learn English and with a limited access to the Internet, I had no idea who Mike Resnick was. But I enjoyed the Penelope Bailey series my friend had lend me, so when I saw another book by this author on the discounted books shelf, I didn’t hesitate long. Not to mention that the Polish title (”Misty Horizon”) spoke to my fantasy side.
A Miracle of Rare Design had moved me in the ways I hadn’t expected. Chapter by chapter, I sunk into the story of a man who—despite his success as an anthropologist—doesn’t feel like he belongs anywhere and who realizes that no matter how in-depth his studies of alien cultures can be, he’ll never fully grasp their mindset and understanding.
It’s been at least 20 years since I first read the book, but it’s still in my top three favorite books. Even though I still own the copy I bought back then (and falling apart due to age), recently I also purchased an e-book to have a chance of experiencing the book in its original language, English. Even though the writing can be considered dated, it’s been still the same delightful read as I remember. I’m sure I’ll keep coming back to it.
If you’d like to read about my impressions of other Mike Resnick’s books, check out Remembering Mike Resnick’s Books post.
Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson was another lucky library find. I can’t recall what convinced me to pick these books up (it might have been the sheer fact I haven’t read them yet and they looked pleasantly bulky), but I remember what drew me in: the near-future setting that felt much like our own, contemporary world. The technology in the books might have been slightly more advanced than when I’ve read it back in mid-2000’s, but it was close enough for easy and total immersion.
To me, the biggest strength of this trilogy is the realistic colonization and terraforming of Mars. A few technological advancement aside, it’s all gritty, difficult, and ridden with mistakes and obstacles. There are no miracle solutions to make Mars habitable within an eyeblink.
Another aspect of those books which I loved was that they didn’t ignore all the inclinations and consequences of putting people on Mars: from different visions of how the directions the new society should take to frictions with Earth which added the economic, political and sociological layer to the colonization.
I’ve heard of complaints that these books lack in terms of characters, but with the story spanning long decades and with the scope of a whole planet, it’s hard to expect a character-focused or driven story, and I didn’t read the Mars Trilogy to get into characters’ heads.
This is the only series from my favorites which I don’t own. I got the first two books from the library, and hunted down the third one, already out of print, at a resale website. It cost more than a poor student like me could afford, but I was desperate to know the fate of Mars. But, funny enough, I can’t recall if I ever finished reading Blue Mars, since I got hold of it shortly before I set out to live in Ireland.
Perhaps it’s time then to get an English edition of those books and give them a long overdue reread?
These are my top three series, but there are many other scifi books I love. It’s hard not to mention excellent collections by Ted Chiang, awesome Song of Time by Ian R. McLeod, Peter Watts’ Blindsight, and many other wonderful books, but this post is already much longer than I thought it’d be.
So how about you? Do you have firm scifi favorites?