What would your choices be if someone asked you to pick your ten favourite science fiction and fantasy books of the last fifty years? Pretty hard to decide, right? Let’s narrow it down to just a single publisher then, and make it nice and simple. Take Gollancz, the longest-running publisher in the UK to specialise in sci-fi and fantasy. A quick look at the list of authors on their books returns names such as Terry Pratchett, Ray Bradbury, Stephen Donaldson, George R. R. Martin…the list goes on. And on. Many, many truly great books have come to us, the readers hungry for more, through this one publisher. So how about now, could you pick ten from their roster of authors? Still no? Me neither.
Well luckily for us, help is on hand. Back in 2011 (I know, I’m a little late. Bear with me…) Gollancz wanted to celebrate their 50th year as a publishing imprint (they’re part of Orion, if you’re interested), so re-released ten books from their catalogue as chosen by the public from a longlist of fifty. Harking back to classic covers of the 60s, each of these was released in a striking bright yellow hardback (see picture above), and though this isn’t to everyone’s taste I’ve got to say I think they look great! Now, while this particular top ten is never going to find total agreement from everyone, what it does do is offer a snapshot of some of the most popular, and hopefully the best, books from Gollancz’s long and distinguished publishing career to date. It’s a checklist for the serious sci-fi and fantasy fan and a shopping list for anyone looking to top up their collection of masterpieces. Ultimately it’s a list of some seriously good books.
I’ll come to which books are on the list in a moment, but first…why am I writing about this now? Well, the reason it came to mind is that I’ve started a re-read of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss which, you’ve guessed it, is on the list. This is an absolute stone-cold modern classic as far as I’m concerned, and in a happy coincidence the rest of the Gollancz-reading public agrees with me. Having said that, it was only released in 2007, so it’s pretty incredible that a book only four years old was chosen as one of the ten best from the last fifty years, with such a vast range of incredible books to choose from. It’s not the only modern book on the list, but I suspect Mr. Rothfuss is even now still pretty pleased with himself for getting onto this top ten list. If you’re interested in how the publisher first came across the book, have a quick look at this little blog post from Gollancz’s Publishing Director.
When the list was published I popped into my local Waterstones to see what the fuss was all about, and was reasonably pleased to see that I had read six out of the ten books (cue much smugness). I’d actually started a seventh, but shamefully hadn’t got very far with it. Tempted by the inevitable 3 for 2 offer in the store, I picked up three of the four that I hadn’t yet read, with a resolution to get through those in short order and then come back for the final title to give it another go and finish it this time. I can happily say that I went straight home and read…something else. I did (eventually) get round to reading two of the three, but I’ve still got one still unread on the shelf, and that last, unfinished book is still haunting me. Re-reading The Name of the Wind has got me thinking about the list again though, and this time I’m determined to get to the end of it. In light of that, I thought I would offer a quick run down of the list, with brief comments about each of the books. So here you go…
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – Philip K. Dick
I’d better get it out of the way – this is the one that I didn’t finish. In actual fact, I’m being a bit disingenuous by saying ‘didn’t finish’ because I actually only got about three pages in before giving up. Oh the shame. In my defence I was at the time trying to read it on my lunch break, sat in the busy, noisy staff kitchen of the bookshop in which I was working, so that wasn’t exactly the best environment in which to be attempting my first Philip K. Dick novel. I will pick it back up again, and this time I will finish it. Honestly.
Dune – Frank Herbert
A true classic, and absolutely deserving of its place on the list. I read this years ago as a teenager, and it’s definitely due for a re-read fairly soon. A mental image of Arrakis is permanently seared onto my brain, despite the length of time since I last read the book, and the sandworms are still genuinely scary. Not sure I ever bothered with the many sequels; maybe one day. If I’ve really not got anything better to do.
Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
I read this a couple of years ago. From the outset I had a horrible feeling that it wasn’t going to end ‘happily’; I actually finished it on a Sunday, sat in my empty office so that I wouldn’t have to sit on the train home in the inevitable floods of tears. Not enough superlatives for this novel, it’s just a wonderful book regardless of genre. Also a great example of a science fiction book that doesn’t involve aliens, robots, lasers, rockets or any such thing, yet remains undoubtedly science fiction.
The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch
One of the joys of working in a bookshop is picking up new, unknown books at random and finding little gems. Subsequently recommended to friends and family countless times over, this was one such find. Re-read not so long ago to refresh my memory before the release of the third in the series, this is a magical novel with characters that I suspect will stay with me for an awful long time.
I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
Don’t be put off by the dull Will Smith film and its generic predictability; this book is scary. Much more psychological than the average vampire story, it’s wonderfully bleak and apocalyptic but at the same time really rather believable. Excellent choice, and goes to show that even Hollywood can’t completely ruin a good book.
Eric – Terry Pratchett
Very much the odd choice among the list. Personally I wouldn’t put it in my top ten Pratchett books, never mind pick it over so many classics, but that’s not to say it isn’t a good book. Weirder than most of the Discworld series, it’s short and sweet and features a typically baffled Rincewind mistakenly summoned in place of a demon by a teenage boy. That pretty much says all you need to know.
The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss
In case my earlier rhapsodising hadn’t been clear enough, I love this book. It’s great. It’s more than great, it’s wonderful. If you haven’t read it, go buy a copy now. Just don’t blame me when you get the end of the second book and scream because you’re going to have to wait to find out what happens next. Review to come anon (EDIT : find it here), plus one for the forthcoming novella.
Hyperion – Dan Simmons
I only read this one last year. Kicked myself (hard) for not having read it earlier, as it’s amazing. Each character tells their own story to build a picture of what’s happening and why, piece by piece; one particular arc made me cry even more than Flowers for Algernon. Don’t let that put you off though, this is powerful, fascinating stuff.
The Time Machine – H. G. Wells
Classic doesn’t even do it justice; if there hadn’t been a Wells on the list then something would have been wrong with the world. One of the all-time great stories, could sit happily on any top ten list, science fiction or otherwise. Been a long time since I read this one too, and a re-read might be on the cards.
The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe
As the list starts, so it finishes; haven’t yet read this one. Or in fact, these two, as it’s actually the first two books in the Book of the New Sun series – The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator. They sound like heavy metal song titles, which seems fitting given that they follow an exiled torturer armed with an ancient executioner’s sword. None more metal? I’ll find out when I finally get round to reading them.
Anyway, that’s the Gollancz Top Ten. Eight I can vouch for, two that I’ll get round to reading eventually, and several more that I’ll read again and again. If there are any of these that you haven’t read, then you know what to do…