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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…


Reading Challenge #8 – The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin is an author who grows as you grow. You can read and admire her at thirteen, and you can read and admire her at forty-three. As I have done. Because I think it must be around thirty years since I last read The Left Hand of Darkness. I’d never really felt the need to reread it because I knew the story. It’s one of those novels whose plot and characters have entered science fiction common knowledge – we all know about it even if we’ve not read it.

Which is a shame. Because it’s definitely worth reading, and certainly stands up to rereading.

The book is set in Le Guin’s Ekumen, a loose mystical/economic interstellar polity of eighty-odd human planets with the world of Hain at its centre. Earth was seeded by the Hainish. The Left Hand of Darkness is set on Gethen, also known as Winter, which has just been invited to join.

The Gethenians have no space travel and, strangely – and uniquely among the humans of the Ekumen – they are hermaphrodites. For three weeks of every month they are effectively neuter, but for a week they are in heat, or “kemmer”. And the gender they take during kemmer depends entirely on those around them.

The Left Hand of Darkness is essentially a character study of a Gethenian called Estraven. He is the royal contact of Genly Ai, the Ekumen’s lone Envoy to the world. And it is through Ai’s, er, eyes that we come to know Estraven and, by extension, the people of Gethen. The novel is essentially world-building, and it’s a fascinating society Le Guin has created – a result of both the Gethenians’ sexuality and the planet’s harsh near-Arctic climate.

The plot of The Left Hand of Darkness is considerably less complex than the world itself. Estraven falls from favour and is banished from Karhide. The king’s new adviser is not interested in joining the Ekumen, only in provoking a war with the neighbouring police state of Orgoreyn. Ai visits Orgoreyn, hoping to have more luck with its “commensals”. He meets the exiled Estraven, who warns him that no one is interested in the Ekumen, only in using the Envoy to improve their own political fortunes. When those machinations fail, Ai is arrested and shipped off to a “Voluntary Farm”, where he is continually drugged and interrogated. There is an ongoing discussion amongst the Gethenians regarding Ai’s true nature – is he what he claims to be, or just the perpetrator of an elaborate hoax? This is purely Gethenian speculation; for the reader, Ai’s nature is never in doubt.

Estraven rescues Ai from the farm, and the two trek across the northern ice shield to return to Karhide. Since the commensals had claimed Ai had died of a virulent fever, his miraculous return should be enough to provoke the king of Karhide into inviting the Ekumen ambassadors to Gethen.

The story is told by Ai, who begins the novel with the line:

I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

Ai’s narrative is interspersed with excerpts from the journal of Estraven. And between the two they cover the entire period between Estraven’s exile from Karhide and the landing of the ship containing the Ekumen ambassadors. The focus remains firmly on the two narrators.

Since the Gethenians are neuter for 75% of the time, and can be either gender when in kemmer, their society is essentially single-gendered. So The Left Hand of Darkness is as much a book about gender-roles as it is an exploration of an alien Other. And, while it was first published in 1969, perhaps in order to better contrast Gethenian society with the reader’s, Le Guin seems every now and again to drop into gender stereotypes – especially for women, since Ai is male and Estraven is neither. But that’s a minor quibble.

The Left Hand of Darkness is Gethen. And Gethen is one of the best-realised worlds in science fiction. I’d last read this book years ago, but had since then reread The Dispossessed… and decided the latter was the better of the two. But having now read The Left Hand of Darkness once again, I find I’m not sure. There’s no doubt they’re the best two of Le Guin’s Hainish novels – which makes them amongst the best the genre has produced – but I suspect I’ll never decide which is best and which is second-best.

Unlike the other books I’ve reread for this year’s challenge, The Left Hand of Darkness did not disappoint. In fact, it did the opposite – I like it even more than I thought I did. I will definitely be reading it again one day. I might even add it to the bottom of my favourite novels list…