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The Best Science Fiction Series

The gauntlet has been laid down, and I’m up for the challenge.

What do I think are the best science fiction series?

For this list, I’ve defined a series as more than a trilogy, or a series of standalone novels set in the same universe and sharing a linked chronology. I actually put together a list of twenty series I like a great deal – not all of which I will happily admit are good – so choosing a top ten was harder than I’d expected. But after much soul-searching, I managed to pick ten I not only like a great deal, but also have a high regard for. And which, I believe, show a reasonable spread across the many different types and styles of heartland science fiction.

So, in time-honoured reverse order:-

10 Dumarest Saga, EC Tubb
Over the course of thirty-three novels, Earl Dumarest travelled the galaxy, trying to find his home world, the mythical planet Earth. In each novel in this series, he landed on a new planet, had an adventure of some sort – which usually involved a) a beautiful woman, and b) a fight to the death – and discovered some clue which moved him one step closer to his home. He eventually reached it in book 32: The Return, which was originally published in French and later republished in English by a small press. The Dumarest saga was never intended as great literature – Tubb himself has said he was happy to churn them out as long as Donald Wollheim was happy to buy them for DAW – but that doesn’t mean they’re badly-written. There are no hamsters in wheels in this series. The Dumarest novels were formative books for me, and helped shape my view of science fiction. See here for the full list of books in the series.

9 Alliance-Union, CJ Cherryh
These books aren’t so much a series as a tapestry. In around thirty books, Cherryh has created a huge future history, stretching across thousands of years. Not every book is especially good, and Cherryh’s brusque prose can be an acquired taste. But there’s no denying the achievement such a future history represents, nor the rigorous internal consistency Cherryh has maintained throughout the books. This is truly immersive stuff, peopled by characters who aren’t cardboard cut-outs, and comprising stories which are not afraid to explore a variety of weighty topics. See here for the full list of books in the series.

8 Jurisdiction universe, Susan R Matthews
Andrej Kosciusko is a torturer for the Bench, a totalitarian interstellar regime. The first of these books, An Exchange of Hostages, appeared in 1997, but sadly all but the last book seem to be out of print now. Matthews created an interesting universe, peopled it with a well-drawn cast, and wasn’t afraid to tackle thorny moral dilemmas in her stories. I thought them very good; it’s a shame so few other people did. Books in the series: An Exchange of Hostages, Prisoner of Conscience, Hour of Judgment, Angel of Destruction, The Devil and Deep Space, Warring States.

7 The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
I reread this last year, and wasn’t as impressed with it as I’d expected to be. But it belongs on this list because it shows that science fiction can be clever and cleverly-written, without having to pretend not to be genre. The five books of this series are not easy reads – you need your wits about you – and there has probably been more words written about it than the Book of the New Sun itself contains. But this is a work likely to remain a classic for a long time. Books in the series: The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch (my review of these four here), The Urth of the New Sun.

6 Eight Worlds, John Varley
The Invaders came and destroyed human civilisation to save the whales. The only survivors were those living off-planet at the time – on the Moon, Mars, the Saturnian and Jovian systems… Over the course of a number of stories and three novels, Varley fleshed out a future history in which humanity struggles to survive – using gifted alien technology – on the various inhospitable worlds of the Solar system. Most of the novels and short stories set in the Eight Worlds were written during the 1970s and 1980s, but they’ve held up pretty well. They were always, first and foremost, about people – yet Varley still managed to build a mostly convincing universe in which to place his characters. Books in the series: The Ophiuchi Hotline (my review here), Steel Beach, The Golden Globe, plus many of the stories collected in The Persistence of Vision, The Barbie Murders and Blue Champagne.

5 Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds
Last year, Gollancz paid Reynolds £1,000,000, and with good reason. Few writers have managed the consistently high level of invention Reynolds has so far in his nine novels (five in the Revelation Space universe) and many short stories. He is, perhaps, the poster boy for New Space Opera, although his works are actually not all that much like New Space Opera as it’s now commonly understood. But the mix of Big Ideas and hard sf – something Stephen Baxter also does very well – is certainly representative of twenty-first science fiction. It’s the sort of sf which shows what the genre is capable of. Books in the series: Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap, The Prefect, plus the novellas Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days, and the stories collected in Galactic North.

4 Dune, Frank Herbert
Well, you knew it was going to appear on this list somewhere… Of the six books – we won’t mention the execrable seventh and eighth books by Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert – I actually think Dune contains the poorest writing. It has the most immediately-immersive story, but I consider the last two that Frank Herbert wrote the better books. God-Emperor of Dune is a bit of an obstacle, a massive tome plonked in the middle of the series, which seems to lecture more than it entertains, but it’s definitely worth reading. Herbert wasn’t the best sf writer of his generation, but he was certainly the most thoughtful. Books on the series: Dune (my review here), Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God-Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, Chapterhouse Dune, and some of the stories collected in Eye and The Road to Dune.

3 Hainish Cycle, Ursula K Le Guin
Some of the genre’s best novels belong to this informal series but, even so, together they form something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The early novels might be a little wobbly, but the later ones more than make up for it. Few sf writers can document cultures as convincingly as Le Guin, and she does it to great effect in each of these novels. These books, and those at #1 and #2 in this list, are very political books – and that’s proper politics: not good interstellar empire battling nasty evil aliens. Sf is as much about the real world as it is the invented world of the story. The best sf writers know this. Books in the series: Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness (my review here), The Dispossessed, The Word for World is Forest, Four Ways to Forgiveness, The Telling, plus a number of short stories.

2 RGB Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
This one is only a little bit of a cheat. Yes, it’s a trilogy… but there’s also the coda volume, The Martians. Besides, it’s simply the best series of books ever written about colonising Mars. But it’s not all hardware and the Right Stuff – the story expands to include the early centuries of the colony, discusses politics, utopianism, history and the future, among many other topics. Few sf novels can make you feel like you’ve been to the real Red Planet – Red Mars does that, and then continues on from there. Books in the series: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, The Martians.

1 The Culture, Iain M Banks
If Banks’ Culture novels occasionally disappoint, it’s only because he has set so high a standard he sometimes fails to meet it himself. But as a body of work the seven Culture novels know no equal. They are the space operas of space operas. They re-invigorated both space opera and sf, and they continue to show how it should be done. They have invention, wit, giant spaceships, shit that gets blown up, and excellent writing. Happily, Banks has not yet finished playing in his Culture universe – a new Culture novel will apparently be published next year.  I can’t wait. Books in the series: Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter (my review here).

Now, let’s see you argue about this list…



Whenever people asked me what were my favorite science fiction novels, I always had a list of ten titles ready to trot out. Some of the books are novels I’ve returned to again and again; others I’ve read only once – but that was enough to deem it a “favourite”. It occurred to me several months ago that this list hasn’t changed in over a decade. It seemed odd that there hasn’t been one novel published in the last ten years I didn’t think good enough to be on the list. So, among the health- and finance-related New Year’s Resolutions for 2007, I decided to reread one of those favourite books each month. And, wonder of wonders, so far I’ve managed to stick to it…

Here’s the list (in order of year of publication):

(Annoyingly, most of these titles are currently out of print. Oh, and the more observant among you will have noticed that there are twelve titles in the list above – that’s so I can read one a month for the entire year.)

So far, I have read…
The Undercover Aliens – I actually read The Mating Cry (see here) – remains a favourite. It’s by no means van Vogt’s best-written novel. Nor does it have the most coherent plot of any of his books. But the mix and match of Otto Preminger-style California noir and Planet Stories-type science fiction appeals immensely. The protagonist is a classic hero; the female lead is an archetypal femme fatale. It has immortals, an alien robot spaceship, Mexican cultists, and masks in it. It is a great deal of fun.

John Varley’s debut novel, The Ophiuchi Hotline, is also fun. In a Solar System in which humanity has been booted off the Earth by gas-giant-dwelling Invaders in order to save the dolphins and whales, Lilo has been sentenced to death for illegal genetic experiments. She is rescued by Boss Tweed, mayor of Luna and head of a secret organisation dedicated to wrestling Earth from the Invaders. Lilo isn’t happy about being indentured to Boss Tweed – she’s a prisoner at a facility aboard an asteroid in the Saturn system – so she decides to escape. Well, a clone of Lilo is. And she’s not the only clone of Lilo loose in the plot. Oh, and she’s also figured out that the eponymous, er, “hotline”, a radio signal narrowcasting scientific and technological knowledge used by humanity to survive off-Earth… Well, the unknown senders have just presented their “bill”…

The plot is little more than an excuse to travel about the Eight Worlds, marvelling at its many strangenesses. And in later novels Varley flatly contradicts some of the background given here. But that’s minor. On this reread, I found the book a much lighter read than I’d remembered – Varley throws out ideas every other sentence, but there’s not much meat to the prose on which he hangs them. Lilo is a bit flat as a character (er, characters); but so are the rest of the cast. The ending had slipped from memory – which was odd, given that it involves probably the most interesting idea of the whole novel. The rest of The Ophiuchi Hotline is mere window-dressing compared to it. Despite all that, the book will remain on the list.

Next up was Stations of the Tide. The previous two novels I’d read and reread many times. This one I’d last read over ten years ago. However, I’d forgotten very little of the plot – so the twist ending wasn’t much of a twist. A bureacrat visits the world of Miranda, shortly before its sole continent is inundated by the Jubilee Tides. He’s hunting Gregorian, allegedly a magician, who has smuggled something proscribed, something apparently given to him by the avatar of post-human Earth, onto the planet’s surface. The quest plot is interspersed with sections set in the Puzzle Palace, a Palace-of-Memory-like virtual reality in which the administrators of a galactic federation live and work. Swanwick never quite categorically presents Gregorian as a “magician” – it’s not plausible in the universe Miranda inhabits; and various characters try and explain Gregorian’s tricks, albeit never entirely convincingly.

One of the remarkable things about Stations of the Tide – and a great deal moreso when it was published – is its referentiality. Its narrative riffs off a host of science fiction works – not all of the references I claim to have spotted. In 1992, this was fresh and exciting. Fifteen years later, it’s been done so often it’s almost humdrum. One thing I hadn’t noticed on previous reads was that the novel is a thinly-disguised Southern Gothic. Even down to the fat bed-ridden matriarch. The sections set in the Puzzle Palace also didn’t work as well as I’d remembered them – I seem to recall the Palace of Memory idea was popular at the time, but Swanwick’s use of it as a metaphor for a VR sensorium is mostly just confusing. For the time-being, the jury’s still out on this book. I have a handful of “also-rans”, and I suspect one of them may take Stations of the Tide place in the top ten.

Where Time Winds Blow was, like Stations of the Tide, a favourite I’d not read for many years. Something about its central premise had struck me powerfully when I’d first read it all those years ago. This one was going to be an interesting reread… And so it proved. It is, like many British science fiction novels of its time, literate, slightly mannered, and very considered in its treatment of its characters. Its central idea is the framework on which the entire plot is hung (compare this with Stations of the Tide above). On the world of Kamelios, winds blow in and out of time, picking up and depositing artefacts, and people, in different eras. Leo Faulcon is a member of team which investigates artefacts left by the time winds. When Kris Dojaan joins the team, it provokes a crisis in Faulcon. Dojaan is hoping to find his brother, who was picked up by a time wind several months before. Faulcon and Dojaan’s brother were close, but he doesn’t admit it to Kris. Faulcon is also in a relationship with the team’s leader, Lena Tanoway.

Where Time Winds Blow is a great novel… for about three-quarters of its length. The central premise is a superb idea – the time winds are strongest along along Kriakta Rift, where mysterious and unfathomable artefacts magically appear and disappear. Holdstock imbues his characters with a depth and breadth not often seen these days in science fiction (or indeed, throughout much of the genre’s history). He also carefully dissects his central cast – with an almost Graham-Greene-like callousness. The writing, however, is occasionally clumsy. And I noticed when reading Eye Among the Blind last year that his characters tend to flip between emotional states with implausible speed. But this is forgivable. What isn’t is… Prior to setting up the novel’s climax, Holdstock explains the mystery of the time winds. It’s a concept he explores in greater depth in Mythago Wood and its sequels. It’s also a disappointment, given what’s been before. Right up to the point where Faulcon discovers the “truth” about Kamelios, Where Time Winds Blow was secure in its position on the top ten. Now, I’m not so sure. It’ll need another read, I think. Perhaps next year.

To be continued when I’ve finished the next four books…