Pre-Web Books: The Christmas Edition

The festive season is almost upon us. Ho Ho Ho. The world will soon be awash with book tokens, accumulating in great drifts like so much cardboardy snow. Maybe there are even one or two poor souls still scrabbling about for a gift for some bookish relative. So, I thought, why not pay a brief return visit to the land of Books that Preceded the Web (previously sampled here and here). Think of it as a vain (in both senses of the word) attempt to divert a minuscule fraction of the seasonal bounty towards books I like, and which happened to come out before the internet and its multiplicity of best-of-the-year lists had become ubiquitous.

This edition has an all-star cast: nothing obscure here, just good stuff that has long been recognised as such but which inexplicably still hasn’t been read by 100% of the human race. If you’ve heard of it, but not yet tried it, can I push you over the edge?

Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Depending on my mood, sometimes this is my favourite sf book of all. So widely lauded that I can’t really add much to the chorus of praise. But I re-read it this year – not for the first time – and, also not for the first time, thought ‘Wow. I really like that book.’ So here it is. Mind-stretching sf with a structure based on Canterbury Tales. Far too much going on in it for me to try and summarise what it’s about. Clever – it’s got far more good ideas in it than seems fair for any one book – and very well-written. Plus, it’s got the Shrike, and the Shrike is just … cool.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller. A classic that fully deserves its status IMHO. Thoughtful post-apocalyptic sf that covers the entire, slow recovery of civilization. It’s about religion, but also about science and humanity as a whole. It was first published in the 1950s, but personally I think it still reads as a remarkably fresh and imaginative take on the whole end-of-the-world thing. Which suggests either that it’s a very fine book, or that I’m hopelessly out of touch.

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. That rarest of beasts when it was written (and still not exactly common nowadays): a stand-alone fantasy novel. Not just that, but a very good stand-alone fantasy novel. I’ve always thought that its publication was one of the key moments in the development of the secondary world fantasy genre; by which I probably just mean that me reading it was a key moment in the shaping of my attitudes towards the genre … The magic is relatively subtle, the violence is – by today’s standards – moderately restrained, but the whole package is just beautifully put together: well-written, evocative, deceptively simple in some ways.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Murders in a medieval monastery. No, it’s not speculative fiction. But I’ve always thought (and I realise I’m probably in a minority of one here) that it’s got a distinctly spec fic vibe to it. It’s a novel of ideas (and indeed a celebration of ideas and reason and learning) cast as a murder mystery, with sinister (albeit human) forces and conspiracies in the shadows, set in a historical and cultural context that’s alien enough to most of us (and vividly enough realised in the book) to be as engaging and immersive as any imagined fantasy world. Reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s work – indeed I sort of think of it as literary historical cyberpunk, with books and ideas instead of computers and virtual realities, monks instead of hackers. Top quality stuff.

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