Wednesday, February 4, 2015

30 Days of Genre - What Is Your Favorite Genre Novel of All Time?

So this is the final post in this series. Nearly four years after I started, this thirty day project is finally complete. I'd like to say this is unusual for me, but it isn't. I often take a long time to get projects done, because I get to the middle, start some new project, and leave the old one until later. But in my defense, I always do come back and finish the original project. It just might take me a couple of years to do that.

The question of what one's favorite book is has always struck me as a difficult and possibly for many people, an unanswerable question. I love genre fiction, so I could give the very flip answer of "all of them", but that wouldn't be true. Although there are not many, there are a few genre novels that I have read and simply did not like. A couple were even offensively bad. One or two were simply offensive. The more salient point is that saying "all of them" is not merely false, it is simply not interesting. Anyone who reads this blog for any amount of time knows that I love genre fiction, so saying that all (or even most) such novels are my "favorite" doesn't actually tell anyone anything of note.

I have done this before, so I will do it again: I'm going to cheat a little bit and pick two novels as my favorite: One science fiction novel, and one fantasy novel. This is because although the two genres have some overlap in places, and traditionally many authors such as Andre Norton and Poul Anderson happily flitted  back and forth between them, the two genres are by and large so different that it is simply impossible to compare the best of the one with the best of the other.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

Really, this selection is for the entire Earthsea trilogy, but to be perfectly honest, the best of all of them is A Wizard of Earthsea, the opening book in the series. Tolkien was my first real introduction to fantasy fiction, and I consider The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to be the cornerstones of modern fantasy, but as great as they are and as influential as they have been upon me as a genre fiction fan, they are incredibly Eurocentric in nature, which is a common thread that runs through much of modern fantasy.

But while books like The Lord of the Rings, The Book of Three, and Elric of Melnibone transformed me into a fantasy fiction fan, it was A Wizard of Earthsea that showed me that fantasy could involve something other than pseudo-Arthurian knights running from castle to castle while they fought the onrushing tide of evil humanoids. Or undead. Or (in the case of the Elric of Melnibone series) were a direct counter reaction against those sorts of fantasy depictions. The world presented in the Earthsea books was entirely different in tone - the most obvious being that non-white characters dominated the stories, while the white characters were all dangerous and bloodthirsty barbarians from the north. But the differences were more profound than mere changes to the skin coloration of the protagonists. The stories were focused on study and learning rather than swords and heroism. In A Wizard of Earthsea, the primary antagonist is created in a moment of thoughtless hubris, and to defeat his foe the book's main character has to think his way through the problem rather than acquiring martial or even arcane prowess. Understanding, not force of arms, is the key to victory in Earthsea. In the book, Sparrowhawk defeats the dragon Yevaud, by talking to it. In short, Le Guin created a fantasy that was more interesting and more thoughtful than any other that I have ever read, and that is why it is my favorite of the genre.

Nova by Samuel R. Delany

Just like A Wizard of Earthsea, Nova was a book that transformed my view of a genre, in this case, the genre of science fiction. I was already a confirmed science fiction fan before I read Nova, having consumed works such as Asimov's Foundation trilogy and Dune before I picked up the story of Lorq von Ray's quest for commercial dominance of the galaxy. But none of those books presented as simultaneously human and alien future as Delany did in Nova. Although Dune gave us a world in which computers were outlawed and personal shields rendered missile weaponry obsolete, it also gave us a standard Space Opera style world with a galactic emperor and an internecine conflict between noble houses. A space opera story written when space opera was going out of fashion, and a cyberpunk story written before the term cyberpunk had been invented, Nova showed what science fiction was, what it could be, and laid the groundwork for what it would become over the next few years. Like other Delany books such as Triton and Dhalgren, Nova is a complex, multilayered story as concerned with cultural change, societal decay, and how humans interact with an increasingly mechanized world as it is with the actual characters or plot, but unlike those somewhat slow-moving stories, it also has an adventure story that at times moves at almost breakneck speed. There is simply so much going on in this book that one might think it would be unfocused or confusing, but somehow Delany manages to pack everything into a very tight, very readable, and simply brilliant novel. And that is why Nova is my favorite science fiction novel.


  1. Just ONE?! That is the impossible question. I have trouble narrowing it down to ten. Of recent years: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. Of vintage times: Man in the High Castle & Radio Free Albemuth by PK Dick. But it breaks my heart to have to leave some many others out.

    1. @click clack gorilla: Well, to be fair, I did pick two.