A New Year's list: Five great sci-fi novels to make you forget 'Star Wars'

A New Year's list: Five great sci-fi novels to make you forget 'Star Wars'
Big Brother looms over society in the1984 film adaptation of Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four." (MGM/UA)

With "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" taking the movie box office by storm, the debate is on about whether the picture is good, middling, or bad; serves its fans or takes them for granted; is it cinematic craftsmanship at its finest or merely a commercial front? (We delved into this debate ourselves this week.)

One thing is inarguable: Star Wars taken as a whole is an assiduous reworking of adventure stories and classic science fiction. But does it do justice to the paths blazed--and still being blazed--by the greatest writers of speculative fiction of the past and present? We think not. Here, as a window into the possibilities that the imagination can offer, we offer five classic works that expand their readers' consciousness to an extent you wouldn't believe.

There's no better time than the new year to turn one's back on the old and explore something entirely new.

This is a personal list of five great works. It's also necessarily finite. If you're irked because "Fahrenheit 451" isn't on the list, or "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," or "A Clockwork Orange," or "Lord of the Rings," or "A Canticle for Leibowitz," all we can say is, we're irked too, but one has to draw the line somewhere. A month from now, or a year, we might make different choices ourselves.

If you would choose a different quintet, then: let's hear them. Feel free to offer your own choices via the email, Facebook, or Twitter links below.

Alfred Bester, "The Stars My Destination"

"Star Wars" fans who think George Lucas was a pioneer in setting a space opera in a gritty, grimy world--and I've heard from many of them in the last few days--haven't reckoned with Alfred Bester's brilliant 1956 epic about Gulliver ("Gully") Foyle, an uneducated mechanic bent on avenging his abandonment on a derelict freighter in deep space.

Bester is a science fiction master unappreciated by the general reader but known as an important influence on Stephen King and the "cyberpunk" movement; "The Stars My Destination" frequently turns up on aficionados' lists of the greatest science fiction works of all time. We endorse the view, and can also recommend Bester's novel "The Demolished Man" and his short stories published by Vintage in a collection entitled "Virtual Unrealities.")

What does the book offer? What doesn't it offer? There's Foyle and his transformation from interplanetary nobody to corporate plutocrat, all in the name of his vengeful quest. A telepathically-activated explosive so powerful that a pinch can destroy a city. Corporate intrigue, a blind albino beauty, a detective so radioactive he can meet with his clients only for minutes at a time, low-lifes and galactic robber barons. And "jaunting," a form of teleportation that has destroyed transportation industries across the solar system. All this packed into an adventure yarn based, some say, on Dumas' "Count of Monte Cristo."

"The Stars My Destination" was originally brought out in the U.S. under the title "Tiger! Tiger!" for a reason you'll have to read the book to learn. But it's worth reading for much more than that.

[UPDATE: Goaded by our good friend David Streitfeld, we've further investigated the publication history of "The Stars My Destination." The book was originally published in the U.S. science fiction magazine Galaxy in four monthly installments (October 1956-January 1957) under that title, and around the same time as "Tiger! Tiger!" in Britain, where publishers might have believed the reading public would cotton to the reference to William Blake. It was then brought out in book form in the U.S. under the original title.]

Russell Hoban, "Riddley Walker"

The genre of post-apocalyptic dystopia runs wide and deep, but no novel in the field--none--is profound, moving, or richly imagined as "Riddley Walker," Russell Hoban's 1980 masterpiece.

The American-born Hoban was best known as an illustrator and writer of children's books when he published "Riddley Walker." No one could have expected it. Part coming-of-age story, part cautionary tale of technological folly, the book is set 2,300 years after the nuclear holocaust. It's narrated by its title character, a 12-year-old boy who gradually gets drawn into a quest for the sort of weaponry that ultimately brought about the end of civilization, in a phonetic dialect based partially on the English of Kent, where the novel is set, but is rightly dubbed by one critic "survivor English."

The language is the book's marvel, immeasurably enriching the story. Glossaries have sprung up online, but deciphering the language is part of the immersive pleasure of reading this book.

This is a world in which the time when men had "boats in the ayr & picters on the win" (boats in the air and pictures on the wind) is part of a shared mythology, and the oral history passed down is of the ancients who stepped too close to "the Littl Shynin Man the Addom," and perished in the "1 Big 1." There are few moments in post-apocalyptic literature as stunning as the moment when Riddley has a vision of how low mankind has fallen since the 1 Big 1, two millennia gone: "It come to me what it wer wed los," he says. "It come to me what it were as made them peopl time back way back bettern us."

A uniquely imagined world, and a unique reading experience.

George Orwell, "Nineteen Eighty-Four"

George Orwell, the most important writer on this list (let's face it), did not conceive "Nineteen Eighty-Four" or its predecessor, "Animal Farm," as exemplars of literary fantasy or science fiction. Those were simply the modes he chose to sound a warning about what would happen if the careerists and toadies he knew from English socialism ("Ingsoc" in "Nineteen Eighty-Four") ever got their hands on power, and in the earlier book to satirize the Soviet Revolution.

In both cases Orwell saw the outcome as an attack on the sovereignty of the individual indistinguishable from the totalitarian impulses of capitalism; John Banville described him as "a convinced socialist who in "Animal Farm" and "Nineteen Eighty-Four" wrote two of the most horrible warnings on what society would be like if it were to be run along Marxist/ Leninist lines."

It just happened that in his skilled hands what began as polemics turned into literary classics.

"Nineteen Eighty-Four" is surely the most effective depiction of a totalitarian dystopia ever consigned to paper. Its features long ago took on a life of their own as signposts of technocratic dictatorship: Big Brother, the Ministry of Truth, the Two Minutes Hate, the ubiquitous telescreens, the memory hole, newspeak (the principles of which Orwell elucidated in an appendix to the novel).  Of course there's the optimism of Winston Smith's quest throughout the novel for individualism, and the pessimism of its final lines: "But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother." 

Kurt Vonnegut, "Cat's Cradle"

"Cat's Cradle" (1963) was one of the last novels Kurt Vonnegut produced in his period of obscurity before roaring into the first rank of famous authors with "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1969).

It's his most fully-realized book of that era, bearing markers of his mature style--its pitch-black humor and mordant sarcasm, its rat-a-tat prose and repetition of motivic phrases, a protagonist trapped in a world only he seems to know is insane, its undercurrent of cynicism and dread: "When I was a much younger man," says its narrator on the first page, "I began to collect material for a book to be called The Day the World Ended. The book was to be factual."

The narrator's book, which he never finishes, was to be an account of the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; mischievously, Vonnegut ends "Cat's Cradle" with...well, you'll see.

Vonnegut went beyond merely creating an imagined world, but created a religion built out of "bittersweet lies" like, Vonnegut implies, all religions (though he didn't make himself its subject, unlike another author we could name). The religion of "Cat's Cradle" is Bokononism, and Vonnegut equips it with a guru named Bokonon and a mess of ritual concepts--"karass" for a group of people connected to each other in a cosmically subtle way, even if they don't know it; "foma" for the "harmless untruths" that serve as emollients to human relationships; and more.

And of course there's ice-nine. Which will finish the job the Hiroshima bomb left undone. 

David Mitchell, "The Bone Clocks"

Readers of David Mitchell's 2004 "Cloud Atlas" encountered a master storyteller with a gift for genre mimicry--period adventure, modern thriller, techno-dystopia, quasi-"Riddley Walker" post-apocalypse.

With "The Bone Clocks" (2014) Mitchell is again displaying his virtuosity with narrative technique. But this time all six sections of the book are devoted to the multifaceted story of Holly Sykes, who is first introduced as a teenaged runaway in 1984, and by the end, in 2043, has been revealed as the fulcrum in a war between two cosmic armies. 

Mitchell plainly has more on his mind than toying with modes of storytelling. The battle between the Horologists and Anchorites is emerging as an overarching theme of Mitchell's fiction--it's an even stronger thread in his latest book, the deeply creepy "Slade House" (which we also recommend). Close readers will recognize that some of this story line has been threading through many of his books through intersecting characters, incident, and references. 

Critics and some readers have been disappointed by Mitchell's turn toward the fantastic in his last two books. We're not; David Mitchell is so skilled a novelist that we're dying to see what's next.   

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10:06 p.m., Jan. 4: This post was updated with the publication history of "The Stars My Destination."