I was nominated by Ian Whates to post the covers of seven books over seven days on Facebook this week, and it was easy to choose which ones.
These are the books that over the years have either had the top spot of Favourite Book or been in the top three.
Some (Women In Love, Middlemarch) have been there throughout that time; others (Planetfall, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind) are newer.
All of them are books I have pressed into the hands of other people, saying ‘You must read this!’
My reasons operate so deeply I doubt I could fully explain them, but I am a man of words, so will have a brief go.
Gravity’s Rainbow held the top spot for a long time. Pynchon’s facility with language changes the way you think – the opening line alone is one of the best, ever – and his ideas are so many and his learning so extreme that he creates a vision at once seductive and apocalyptic.
Plath is another American author who does things with words that should not work but absolutely do. One of the threads running through my choices is an emotional honesty that seems easy to write about, but is very hard to feel, let alone write; Plath manages this and more; her work is so ferocious and elegiac that it becomes inspiring.
George Eliot is one of the most generous authors I have read. Her wisdom and understanding enables her to depict the failings of even the most seemingly unsympathetic characters in a way that ensures the reader understands that individual, rather than simply judging them. This book made me a better person.
Lawrence’s vision of an amoral world in constant flux, explored through characters of such depth that they, like us, have no real idea what is going on within, is as terrifying as it is beautiful, as lusty as it is tender. People often misunderstand Lawrence, thinking that he is working out his philosophy via stories; in fact, he splices them both so thrillingly that his books will always be current.
Cosmic, yet intimate, Gateway has the bleakness and brilliance of a distant star you cannot take your eyes off. Pohl’s journey through inner and outer space is an uncompromising portrait of humanity as it is thrown into perspective by the unknowably alien. More than any novel until Planetfall, this book felt like the author knew me, saying ‘Look how extraordinary you are, and how terrible’.
This short, big-hearted novel is astonishingly moving, and redefines what science-fiction is, as well as what it can do. Charnock explores stories from three different eras, and the way these tales interact across the centuries stretches the mind as well as the soul. It’s a quieter experience than some of the other books listed, but no less devastating for that.
Planetfall is one of the most significant SF novels of recent years. It combines elements of some of the other books I have listed here, such as Path’s emotional intensity, Lawrence’s honesty, and Pohl’s grasp of the intimate ways SF can reflect our darkest, strangest selves. It’s also absurdly gripping, and, like Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, is a book I’d recommend to people even if they don’t normally read science fiction.