1. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
This is the second Arthur C. Clarke novel I’ve read (the first being Rendezvous With Rama), and I’ve been blown away by both. For some reason I expected Clarke’s books to be a bit drier and more dated, but his is some of the most exciting and mind-expanding science fiction I’ve ever read. I should have expected no less from the mind behind 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps I had that prejudice because in some older sci-fi books, the science and ideas become outdated or the writing style does (or it was never any good to begin with). Especially with hard science fiction, which Clarke is often categorized as, the science is prioritized over the story, craft, and characters, so once the science itself becomes dated, the book does as well. But this is NOT the case with Arthur C. Clarke. Though there is some “hard science” in Childhood’s End, it was also quite weird, speculative, and philosophical (like 2001). Clarke’s ideas remain highly relevant and he is an exquisite composer of prose. This novel particularly features so many brilliant lines of philosophical insight, such as: “There were some things that only time could cure. Evil men could be destroyed, but nothing could be done with good men who were deluded.”
As a side note, I was surprised by some of the similarities between Childhood’s End and my book, Work for Idle Hands, all of which were entirely coincidental as I wrote my book before reading his. Both are science fiction mysteries, and Clarke’s mystery had me utterly captivated, turning pages quickly to uncover the answers.
2. Leave Society by Tao Lin (2021)
This is an “autofiction” novel, which means it’s technically fiction but heavily autobiographical, almost entirely based on the author’s real life. The story follows a writer traveling between his apartment in Manhattan and visiting his parents in Taipei while working on a nonfiction book about psychedelics (Trip) and a novel about his experiences in NY and Taiwan (which is this book, Leave Society). So it is quite meta. What is most striking to me is how much I relate to the author, both “Li” in the novel and Tao in real life. I first discovered Tao Lin around five years ago on a podcast, and it felt like I was listening to an interview of myself. We have uncannily similar personalities, both having struggled with social anxiety and chronic health issues that we overcame with natural treatments, plus we have many of the same interests in esoteric history/science—and of course we are both writers.
This is the type of book that many people might dismiss as boring because “nothing happens,” but I was utterly fascinated throughout. From his comical interactions with his parents and their dog Dudu, to meeting a girlfriend and falling in love, and his randomly brilliant observations in between. It is so well-written and infused with deep insights about life, consciousness, the universe, civilization, and human nature. Though Leave Society is filed under fiction, the novel contains a more brutally honest portrait of the author’s life than you’ll find in most memoirs.
3. To Rouse Leviathan by Matt Cardin (2019)
This is a fantastic collection of weird fiction and cosmic horror in the vein of Thomas Ligotti and H.P. Lovecraft. As I said last year, after reading Cardin’s nonfiction book and one of his horror stories, I was eager to read this fiction collection. I still think “Teeth” is the best of the bunch, but the rest of the stories were great as well. Cardin has carved out his own corner of the Lovecraftian cosmic horror genre, focusing on what could be called “theological horror” or “sacred terror.” He has a background in religious studies and uses that insight to create highly literary and philosophical horror stories involving unique religions and cults. For instance, in the story “The God of Foulness,” a reporter investigates a cult called the Sick Seekers who worship disease and refuse to be treated for any sickness, including cancer—and things get cosmically weirder from there. Other stories focus on Cardin’s other specialty featured in his nonfiction book A Course in Demonic Creativity: artists and their dark muses.
4. Untouched By Human Hands by Robert Sheckley (1953)
I happened to find an old paperback of this collection of short science fiction stories at a used book store for 50 cents. Sheckley writes the type of science fiction that I also like to write: humorous while also mind-expanding with inventive sci-fi concepts and twist endings. It was somewhat surreal reading these stories, several of which are similar to ones I have written myself—yet I had not read those stories before. Most of the influence likely came second-hand from other books, movies, and TV shows written by people who were more directly influenced by Sheckley. He is underrated as he is not always mentioned with the great classic science fiction writers like Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein—but he absolutely should be. I plan to continue through Sheckley’s bibliography until I read it all.
5. Submission by Michel Houellebecq (2015)
A realistic vision of a near-future in which France (and eventually Europe) is overtaken by the Muslim Brotherhood and turns into an Islamic state, told from the perspective of a literature professor who specializes in J.K. Huysmans. The novel is less focused on the political story of France than the personal story of how the narrator’s life changes. Despite touching some politically and religiously charged territory, the book is not polemic. Houellebecq offers a measured take on Islam, pointing out many positive aspects of the religion. The book is actually more of a critique of Western liberalism, which he says is doomed to fail because it is a self-annihilating ideology that promotes individualism, atomization, and birth control. Such people will be out-competed by those following a traditional patriarchal religion like Islam that promotes family, hierarchy, order, and reproduction.
As Houellebecq said, “I can’t say that the book is a provocation — if that means saying things I consider fundamentally untrue just to get on people’s nerves. I condense an evolution that is, in my opinion, realistic.” Houellebecq is a fantastic writer and it is his prose, wit, and wise insights into philosophy, literature, politics, sociology, theology, and human psychology that make this novel truly great. Some consider Houellebecq the greatest living novelist, and after reading my first book of his (other than his biography of H.P. Lovecraft) I can see why. I look forward to reading more of his work.
6. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)
This short novel is about a young man who stays eternally young and beautiful while his portrait ages and becomes more horrific-looking, based on the horrific things he does to other people in his life. The book is full of witty one-liners. It almost feels like the story was just an excuse for Wilde to have a place to insert his aphorisms and witticisms about life, human nature, philosophy, and art. Every page has at least two quotes that are better than the best quote from most entire books. If Wilde were alive today he would be the king of Twitter. It’s often the mark of a bad writer when all their characters sound the same, but not for Wilde. All his characters are brilliant and witty, just like Wilde himself, and the book is all the better for it. I wouldn’t want it any other way. [Side note: I was inspired to read this after listening to the great Art of Darkness podcast episode on Wilde.]
7. The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson (1995)
This is the type of science fiction book I have not seen enough of: a realistic vision of Earth in the next century. Most science fiction on earth is set in the nearer future of this century, which is naturally easier to anticipate and imagine (such as Stephenson’s earlier book Snow Crash). Most far-future science fiction is set off-earth in space and/or on alien planets, which is also easier to imagine because very little realistic prognostication is required—it’s more akin to fantasy. Obviously it is impossible to know what the future will actually be like (near or far) but The Diamond Age seems like a realistic vision of a possible future.
The main innovation is nanotechnology and matter compilers (which are like advanced 3D printers, able to create anything out of anything). It also features a sort of interactive AI-book that could be what ChatGPT will look like in the future. Mostly set in Shanghai, the world is explored through various characters and detailed subcultures and governments. Neal Stephenson is a true master of worldbuilding, which was by far the best aspect of The Diamond Age. The story and characters are not bad, but the book felt overlong at about 500 pages (which is actually short for a Stephenson novel). I would have preferred a more narrowly focused and condensed storyline from the main protagonist Nell’s perspective, rather than the wider scope focusing on various other side characters within the world. But that’s just me.
8. Teatro Grotesco by Thomas Ligotti (2006)
I had sky-high expectations for this collection of short stories after reading Ligotti’s other collections last year. I would rank it below Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe but above My Work is Not Yet Done. Thomas Ligotti is one of those rare literary masters whose lesser work is better than the best of most other writers. There were no-doubt moments of brilliance. I was slightly worried at first because I didn’t enjoy the first few stories, but the latter half of the book was much better. It’s broken into three sections: Derangements, Deformations, and The Damaged and the Diseased. The final section was by far the best. They involve grotesque art and artists, including the titular story.
9. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (2021)
This was on par with Andy Weir’s breakout hit The Martian: a great hard sci-fi thriller, heavy on the “sci.” The Martian is about the world trying to save one astronaut, while Project Hail Mary is about one astronaut trying to save the world. Though this book gets a little more “fi,” as it involves [SPOILER ALERT] aliens. The story opens with humanity being doomed due to global cooling after an infestation of space algae begins to devour the sun. Ryland Grace is sent on a space mission to a distant star system resistant to the algae to seek a solution. Along the way he encounters an alien spaceship on a similar mission, as their star has fallen prey to the same fate. The book then turns into a sort of buddy comedy about Ryland and this alien nicknamed “Rocky” working together to save their respective homeworlds from the same threat. It’s a real page-turner that I enjoyed, though I have a slight issue with the very end. [SPOILER ALERT — Ryland should have returned to Earth.]
10. A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher (2019)
Set in a post-apocalyptic Europe, about 100 years in the future, after some kind of genetic defect causes most of the world to become infertile and the population to drop dramatically (to mere thousands), resulting in the complete collapse of technological civilization. The protagonist, Griz is a young adult living a primitive lifestyle of survival with his family and their dogs on a small island off the coast of what was once Scotland. When one of their beloved dogs is stolen by a sailor, Griz and his other dog embark on a journey across the ruins of the European mainland to get his stolen dog back. It’s a supremely well-told story with twists and turns, and bits of wisdom scattered throughout. The worldbuilding is impressive as Griz learns about our long-gone world from books he finds in the ruins of cities. Another major aspect of the book is the unique and powerful relationship between dogs and humans. [There is one controversial twist that was slightly bothersome and felt like a cheat, but overall I still loved the book.]
Honorable Mentions (alphabetical by author):
Dead Men Can’t Complain and Other Stories by Peter Clines (2017)
A fun collection of short stories in various genres and styles including science fiction, crime, superhero, and horror.
Forward: Stories of Tomorrow by Blake Crouch and others (2019)
A collection of sci-fi short stories set in the future from a team of A-List writers including Crouch, Veronica Roth, N.K. Jemisin, Amor Towles, Paul Tremblay, and Andy Weir. All the stories were at least good, but I think Crouch’s (involving AI and simulations) was my favorite. I listened to the audiobook which also included a team of A-List actors voicing the narration.
Fragnemt by ctrlcreep (2019)
ctrlcreep is like Borges from the future. Not a modern-day Jorge Luis Borges, because the short stories are all set in the future. They are Borges-like in that they take unique forms and feel like true descriptions of a fictional future world. Some of the “stories” are so short, they are tweets (follow @ctrlcreep feed for more).
The Troop by Nick Cutter (2014)
A disturbing horror novel about a group of boy scouts abandoned on an island as an epidemic outbreaks where tiny worm-like creatures eat away your body from the inside.
The Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick (1964)
This was set in an underground bunker after World War III, a similar premise to Hugh Howey’s Wool. The people underground work to create robots called “leadies” to fight in the war, as only they can survive on the wasteland of the surface of the planet. The president gives speeches to inspire the underground workers, but all may not be as it seems. I won’t spoil the plot, but you can read the Wikipedia summary if you want—which might be more worthwhile than reading the novel in full. Like all of Philip K. Dick’s work there were fantastic ideas throughout the book, but like some of PKD’s work, the story felt half-baked and was not especially well-written. The fact that he wrote six novels that year (1964) while consuming high quantities of amphetamines might explain why. (Though many of those novels were not published until years later.)
The afterward by science fiction writer Thomas M. Disch was my favorite part of the book. Disch explains how Dick wrote The Penultimate Truth as a “downhill skier, moving fast, never looking back.” PKD reportedly wrote the entire novel in just two weeks. I’m all for authors making money and doing what they need to do to get by, but imagine if, instead of rushing to write six mediocre novels in 1964, PKD took his time to write two great novels. The result might have been what happened two years later in 1966 when he wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik.
Be Not Afraid by James Ellis (2022)
A short novel by the host of the great philosophy podcast Hermitix, inspired by his personal story of a nihilist becoming a Christian. It is a very philosophical book, mostly told through dialogue between the characters. It reminded me of Albert Camus’s existential novels, though Ellis comes to a different metaphysical conclusion.
The Dark Descent by edited David G. Hartwell with stories by many others (1987)
This is an anthology of some of the best horror fiction in history, featuring 90 short stories from various authors including H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Clive Barker, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, and Edgar Allan Poe. Highlights for me (aside from the aforementioned) were:
- “Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner – a masterful Lovecraftian tale.
- “Seven American Nights” by Gene Wolfe – I was highly impressed by this novella, more post-apocalyptic sci-fi than horror, about an affluent Iranian Muslim visiting the desolate ruins of the former US, which is now a third-world country.
- “Night-Side” by Joyce Carol Oates – About someone in the 1800s investigating a medium who claims to speak to the dead.
- “The Beckoning Fair One” by Oliver Onions – A clear inspiration for many of Stephen King’s stories, about a novelist locked inside his home with writer’s block and driven insane.
- “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood – This is a masterpiece of a horror novella by the man H.P. Lovecraft considered the best writer of weird fiction. It blends horror with science fiction elements, similar to “The Colour Out of Space,” where nature itself provides the terror. In this case, it is willows that seem to be conscious and have malicious intent toward humans. The story follows two men on a river canoe trip deep in the wilderness of Europe, and it is the extreme isolation in nature that causes the horror. It’s not entirely clear if the willows are actually supernatural, or if the extreme isolation in nature caused their insanity. This is the story M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening wishes it was.
The Menace From Earth by Robert A. Heinlein (1959)
A collection of early short stories by Heinlein, including “By His Bootstraps,” which ranks up there with “—all you zombies—” as two of the best time travel stories ever written. There were a couple other good stories in this collection, but the rest were rather forgettable.
Full Throttle by Joe Hill (2019)
A mixed bag of horror/sci-fi/fantasy short stories, some better than others. Hill (the son of Stephen King) is a talented writer, but he can’t help but throw in partisan political potshots (like his father’s Twitter account) that are completely irrelevant to the plot and distracting whether you agree with them or not because they take you out of the story and make you think about current politics. It’s unnecessary and counter-productive because it will either anger/alienate those who disagree or merely be preaching to the choir.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (2020)
A dark but powerful horror novel about modern American Indians being haunted by a half-Elk/half-human monster, culminating with one of the most dramatic one-on-one basketball games in literary history.
Kubrick’s Game by Derek Taylor Kent (2016)
This is like The DaVinci Code for Stanley Kubrick movies. The premise is similar to Ready Player One in that Kubrick secretly left behind a game/puzzle/treasure hunt for his fans to follow using mysteries and clues from his movies. A group of UCLA film students, including the protagonist, a Kubrick-obsessed film geek on the autism spectrum, work together to solve it—but also on the hunt are Freemasons, the mafia, and other nefarious groups. It’s a fast-paced thriller, and if you’re a film geek and Kubrick fan (like me) you will have a ton of fun reading this book.
Harassment Architecture by Mike Ma (2019)
Sort of like a Fight Club for the current times. There isn’t much of a plot, it’s more a series of vignettes where Ma delivers a harsh critique of modern society—but also offers some hope and inspiration.
Short Fiction Omnibus by Arthur Machen (1863-1947)
I had been wanting to read some of Machen’s work since learning he was a major influence on Lovecraft. The collection was highlighted by the short story “The White People” and haunting novella The Great God Pan. Machen’s stories involve the occult and paganism while also blending horror with science fiction in a way Lovecraft and others would emulate.
I Am Legend and Other Stories by Richard Matheson (1954)
This is the classic novella that basically invented the zombie genre—though the “zombies” are actually vampires. Matheson took a unique (at the time) science-fictional approach to vampires by having a virus cause vampirism. He creates plausible scientific explanations for all the vampire lore such as garlic, wooden stakes, daylight, and crosses. The I Am Legend novella itself was good, but the subsequent short stories were merely mediocre. [Read my review of the 2007 I Am Legend movie adaptation starring Will Smith here.]
We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor (2016)
This is a fun “hard science fiction” novel about a man whose brain is frozen, then his consciousness is uploaded decades later in the future. He becomes a “von Neuman probe” who explores and colonizes the galaxy via various copies of himself. It’s a fantastic concept, and overall I enjoyed the book, but it felt a little too comedic at times, given the subject matter, with lots of corny “dad joke” type humor peppered throughout what are supposed to be serious situations.
Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay (2020)
This is about the outbreak of a rabies epidemic with symptoms similar to zombies. They don’t rise from the dead, but act crazy and try to bite you. It’s a realistic take on how a “zombie”-like outbreak might actually happen. The novel was released in the year of the Covid outbreak but was written before that. Tremblay got a lot right about how a pandemic would affect society, though his fictional disease was different. While I loved Tremblay’s previous horror/mystery novels, I did not like this one quite as much. It felt like a generic medical thriller—a well-written one at that, but it’s not a genre I’m particularly interested in.
Girl with Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace (1988)
I did not like this collection of DFW short stories as much as his other collections, Oblivion or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (which I liked the best), but there were a couple of gems. I have a copy of Infinite Jest sitting on my shelf waiting to be read; I just need to find the time to read it (because at over 1,000 pages it might be the only book I get to read that year).
You can see my continually updating Google Photos album of favorite book (and blog) quotes as I read them here (now going on seven years).