From time to time, we'll feature book recommendation lists here in our blog. Many thanks to Catherine Butzen for providing this awesome list! Take it away, Catherine. . . .
The Thinklings brain trust asked me to weigh in on the topic of book recommendations. This was a problem. Like most writers, I’m a voracious reader who will talk you to death if you give me half a chance!
However, if I talk my publishers to death, Shades of Immortality will never get its next installment. So once I’d calmed down, I managed to get a list together of a few favorites.
My literary adventures started with, among other things, my family’s enormous collection of sci-fi paperbacks. I remember curling up with a Ray Bradbury collection or a battered copy of a Niven-Pournelle yarn. While fantasy is my genre of choice, I still love science fiction, and I hope to read (and write) more of it in the future.
Here are seven of my favorites, both old and newish. Enjoy!
The High Crusade by Poul Anderson
The High Crusade is a novel about what happens when a sci-fi society is so far advanced that they never even imagined someone would hit them with a pointy stick.
In the year 1345, Sir Roger de Tourneville is mustering English forces for a distant campaign when an alien craft descends upon their town. The aliens are armed with advanced energy weapons but have no defenses against being hit very hard, as their society moved past such things thousands of years ago. Now a group of battle-hungry medieval Englishmen have an alien spaceship and a whole empire of alien conquerors baying for their blood. Hilarity ensues.
I adore The High Crusade because it’s almost a love letter to simple human ingenuity. So many sci-fi universes depict humans as weaker and less consequential than aliens; by contrast, The High Crusade gives us low-tech, low-education humans who are able to win through crafty thinking, clever use of tools, and sheer guts.
Phule’s Company by Robert Asprin
In the far future, the Space Legion is the galaxy’s French Foreign Legion with lower standards: it takes anyone who’s desperate enough to sign up. The lowest of the Space Legion is Omega Company, where the worthless and the despised get sent.
Assigned to Omega Company after a little mix-up over strafing a peace delegation, Captain Willard Phule decides to make the best of a difficult situation and turn his losers into winners. Through trickery, fast talk, generous application of funds, and simply treating them like human beings, Phule begins transforming his rejects into soldiers you can be proud of. Unfortunately, some members of the higher echelons find Phule annoying and think that his soldiers ought to know their place. . . .
Phule’s Company is lighthearted fun. The stakes never get very high and the characters aren’t exactly nuanced. But at its heart, it has a strikingly simple and meaningful message: treat others how you would like to be treated. When Phule does right by his Omega Company, these supposed losers step up to do right by him and kick butt in the process.
The October Country by Ray Bradbury
Short stories of the weird, the wonderful, and the wicked—sometimes all three at once.
A man and his family stumble on a strange legacy in a deserted farmhouse. A crowd gathers around an automobile accident—but is it the same crowd as before? A curious little boy spots something odd about the new lodger, who only eats with wooden cutlery. An eyeless, deformed specimen floats in a jar in a carnival sideshow. A man pained with aches in his bones fights a war against his own skeleton.
For atmosphere and creative madness, there’s rarely been anyone like Ray Bradbury. All of the stories in The October Country share a peculiar tone: dustiness, worn-ness, a world gone ragged at the edges. I first read this collection in middle school and was absolutely blown away (and had a few sleepless nights).
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The beginning of Burroughs’ Barsoom series, A Princess of Mars is old, old, old-school sci-fi. This book may not be comfortable for many readers, especially with its frank discussions of skin color and prejudice. But as science fiction, it inspired millions and still deserves to be known.
John Carter, Civil War veteran, is searching for treasure when he finds himself transported to Mars! Here, he discovers a dying planet and societies at war: the ferocious, proud green men against the advanced but frightened and quarreling red men. Coming from Earth’s higher gravity, John is much stronger than the native Martians, and the demand for his skills is high. How will he get back to Earth? And does he even want to go back, once he’s caught a glimpse of the red princess, Dejah Thoris?
Burroughs had a fondness for writing heroes who were a little too honorable to function. Like Tarzan, John Carter isn’t the sort of character to backstab or betray, and he’s utterly confused when other people screw him over. I think the internet today would call him a himbo. But if you like sword fights, beautiful princesses, honorable warriors, dastardly villains, and good triumphant, you can’t go wrong with A Princess of Mars.
The Maker of Universes by Philip Jose Farmer
What would you do if you could create your own private universe? What would happen if your friends and family could all do the same thing too? Well, as it turns out, you might all lose your minds.
The Maker of Universes is the first in Philip Jose Farmer’s World of Tiers series. The premise centers on an ancient race of aliens called the Lords, whose technology grew so advanced that they could create their own private universes and install themselves as gods over the inhabitants they made. Growing jealous and suspicious of each other and seeking to conquer each other’s universes, the Lords almost destroyed themselves. Now our characters are left dealing with the fallout.
This first book centers on Robert Wolff, an amnesiac man who stumbles through a mysterious gate to the layered World of Tiers. He finds a fantastical world full of centaurs, winged harpies, and humans from all historical eras—but the world is an unhappy one, and the balance of power is out of whack. What is the aim of the world’s Lord, Jadawin? And how is Wolff connected to him?
Grittier than Burroughs but still with plenty of pulp flare, Farmer’s Tiers series scratches that sci-fi itch. Highly recommended.
For the Emperor by Sandy Mitchell
The world of Warhammer 40,000 is not an easy one to get into. The lore is decades old, complicated, and relentlessly—sometimes hilariously—depressing. But a grimdark world can make for a surprisingly good time, in the hands of the right author.
Commissar Ciaphas Cain is a coward. He’d much rather drink tea (or booze) safely behind the front lines than do his actual job, which is inspiring and disciplining the men and women of the Imperial Guard. But an accident in battle left him looking like a hero, and now he has to live up to that reputation or risk getting shot by the people he’s supposed to be inspiring. Trailed by his malodorous personal aide and desperately trying to hide his whimpers of fear, Cain must play the hero and face traitors, heretics, mutants, aliens, and soulless machine abominations from beyond the stars.
This is the beginning of Mitchell’s Ciaphas Cain series, now numbering some ten books. It’s a wonderful introduction to the world and the lore of Warhammer 40,000, but it’s also a funny and surprisingly poignant portrait of a deeply flawed character. Adventure, mystery, peril, horror, and a stellar supporting cast.
Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn
I’ve made no secret of it: the Star Wars sequels did nothing for me. That’s chiefly because I grew up with Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, the granddaddy of the Star Wars Expanded Universe books. You can’t go wrong with these stories, and Heir to the Empire kicks things off in style.
A few years after the end of Return of the Jedi, the Galactic Empire is splintered but still dangerous. The New Republic has established its seat of government on Coruscant and is working to make alliances and reunite shattered worlds. Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi, finds himself running from pillar to post to help his sister prop up the struggling Republic. But while the Empire is down, it isn’t yet out, and a master tactician is about to make his move. . . .
Strong female characters? We got ’em: this is the book that introduced Mara Jade, smuggler and former Imperial assassin, who struggles with her Force abilities and is haunted by dreams of the Emperor’s last command. Awesome villains? Yes, please: Grand Admiral Thrawn, a sly genius, who favors psychological warfare and keeps his enemies constantly off balance. A complex world? No problem: the New Republic’s struggles, the nature of clone armies within the Force, the Emperor’s secret rat’s nest of technology, and the black market of smugglers and spice runners. Absolutely fantastic fun.