Since the early 2010s, we’ve been enamored with the output of Paradise of Bachelors.
Founded by Brendan Greaves and Christopher Smith, the label’s aim of “documenting, curating, and releasing under-recognized musics of the American vernacular, historical and contemporary alike” has led to releases by modern acts like AD favorites Michael Chapman, Hiss Golden Messenger, Weather Station, Steve Gunn, Itasca, Nathan Bowles, and more, as well as illuminating reissue projects by Terry Allen, Mike Cooper, Lavender Country, and more.
Greaves and Smith are not only connoisseurs of sound; they similarly invested in art, cooking, and chiefly, reading. After a few fascinating conversations with them, we asked them to assemble something of a “Paradise of Bachelors Reader,” focused on the fields of science and fantasy fiction. The boys did not disappoint, assembling a list as deeply considered as their discography. – j woodbury
“Learn the true topography: the monstrous and wonderful archetypes are not inside you, not inside your consciousness; you are inside them, trapped and howling to get out.”
— R.A. Lafferty, The Devil Is Dead (1971)
As a record label comprised of old friends with largely aligned, often weirdly telepathic, curatorial interests–decidedly not the same thing as taste, which is a bourgeois ruse, but don’t get me started on that–Paradise of Bachelors has long nurtured a vexed relationship with genre. It fulfills certain pragmatic needs, of course, to discuss expressive culture, and music in particular, by classifying and categorizing it. But it’s such a sloppy, politicized business, often more related to the identity of the listener, and the perceived identity of the artist–race, class, geography, faith, etc.–than to actual emic cultural values, auditory information, or slippery musicological signifiers like “style,” that we tend to avoid it when possible, at least amongst ourselves. We live in a fractious, fearful world that requires no further divisions, aesthetic or otherwise. (“World music” and “folk music” are perhaps the most egregious and noxious examples of the diluted meaninglessness of musical genres, but they all collapse upon close inspection.)
For years, I refused on principle to organize my record collection by genre, preferring an overall alphabetical scheme, but I finally relented when my wife Samantha reasonably pointed out that we could never find what we were looking for, and that as a result, we were only listening to a tiny fraction of the collection, mostly recent acquisitions already in rotation. (It’s improved our listening habits, for sure, despite my grumbling reluctance.) I similarly struggle when people ask what kind of music PoB traffics, because I’d prefer to describe it in terms of the affective, make-believe genres that Chris and I laugh about during late-night sessions (boot cut, quittin’ time, shrimp plate, sneaky jamz) than the equally ridiculous, contingent, and ambiguous genres (folk, country, rock and roll) you see attached to record store bins or on Spotify playlists. But usually I sigh and venture something like, “new music and archival reissues with a relationship to Southern vernacular traditions”… or sometimes, just “songs with guitars.” Plain but (mostly) true.
So perhaps it’s apt that Chris and I spend so much time reading and discussing what’s sometimes known as “genre fiction”–it’s interesting that no one really talks about “genre music” in the same way–and in particular, science fiction and fantasy (SF). Some insiders, in a desperate plea for legitimacy, laughably call SF “speculative fiction,” as if that’s somehow less ghettoizing, or more accurate (uh, isn’t all fiction by its very nature speculative?) Anyway, the genre handicaps for fiction are comparable in many ways to those in music. SF is important as a distinct genre only insofar as that’s how certain topical content and selected authors have been marketed, disseminated, and received by critics and the publishing industry for the past 100 years. Otherwise, it’s an empty designation, a shorthand to fulfill our fussy need to classify and clarify narratives. And yet, there is a lot of great work, and entire imaginative worlds, that remain largely unknown without delving into those marginalized corners of dusty used bookstores.
Whenever I discuss my love for these books with folks dubious about SF as “real” or “serious” literature, one thing I mention is the fact that “realism” in fiction (and the arts in general) is a relatively recent invention and preoccupation, a hierarchical construct of modernity and a byproduct of the Enlightenment. Fantasy has saturated our stories for far longer than realism or documentary approaches. From the great early works of world literature, whether we consider them fictive or otherwise–the Bible, The Odyssey, the Mahabharata, the Quran, Beowulf, The Tale of Genji, the Prose Edda, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and so on–and arguably well into the eighteenth century, no one was particularly concerned about our stories adhering strictly to bloodless dichotomous modern notions of “reality” vs. “fantasy.” Or rather, the way we perceived reality was once more expansive, porous, and open to wonder, embracing the spiritual, the supernatural, and the visionary as vital to our lived experience, existing naturally as currents in the liminal slipstream of consciousness and belief, as coordinates that animated an experiential continuum alongside the banalities of work, lunch, and changing diapers.
In these troubled and anxious times, we need that interpenetration of reality and fantasy–not for the sake of escapism, but for the prophetic power of prognostication and the parallel of imaginative realms critical of our own. I’d argue that the uncanny, the magical, and the extraordinary are still relevant, and necessary, in our lives and cultures, perhaps now more than ever, whether they manifest as science, religion, or just metaphor. Fear is healthy; wonder is healthy. So it often feels arbitrary to me why some writers–Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcîa Mî¡rquez, Haruki Murakami–are welcomed into the camp of international modernism, while other, in my mind, equally brilliant writers–Jack Vance, R.A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, John Crowley–are relegated to the SF gutter. (Some intrepid souls, like John Crowley and M. John Harrison, somehow manage to straddle the two worlds.) Yes, there is a lot of corny, poorly written SF cluttering shelves out there, but that’s true of normative fiction as well.
The SF reading list that follows is unapologetically subjective, with no claim whatsoever to be definitive, even to us; these are just the books that came to mind in a few weeks of thinking about how fantasy functions in fiction, and how wonder transcends genre. Some of these books arguably might not seem like they belong among a list of SF recommendations, which I suppose is the point. Though we’ve intentionally left off a lot of canonical choices, hopefully the list surprises with both familiar and unfamiliar names. If there’s a connective tissue among the writers on the following list of favorites, it’s their rarefied use of language, their strength or singularity as both prose stylists and storytellers. That’s a quality we value in all writing. In many cases, these works do question the arbitrary boundaries of genre, but in other cases, not so much.
Of all the authors here, the ones that have challenged and thrilled me most as a reader in recent years, and that I’d recommend to readers looking to explore SF beyond the more famous names like Borges, Dick, Lovecraft, etc., are probably Jack Vance, R.A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, and John Crowley. Jack Vance is the most traditional of that crew, I suppose, having started his career earliest, and his far-future and far-past tales will ring familiar by virtue of their vast influence on generations of writers. But with Vance, it’s all about the characters and the fatalistic sarcasm with which they navigate their worlds, the arcane language, and the obsessive description of food and clothing, and less about the actual stories told.
When it comes to defining the aesthetic of the work we do in the world of music, Gene Wolfe ranks as high in the pantheon as Terry Allen (I read from Gene Wolfe at Chris and Constance’s wedding–along with the poet Robert Lax and a Shaker hymn, a perfect trifecta.) Ursula Le Guin calls him “our Melville,” and that feels right, given the sheer scale and scope of his unforgettable work, which manages to embrace brutality and humanity within the deep ambiguities of unreliable narrators and the elliptical narratives shaped by their imperfect memories. The Book of the New Sun (a post-apocalyptic picaresque starring a professional torturer with eidetic memory) is a masterpiece, as is the Soldier series (a Classical picaresque starring an ancient Roman mercenary with retrograde and anterograde amnesia).
The surrealistic tall-tale folk satire of R.A. Lafferty skewers religions, politics, and even Choctaw history with absurd hilarity and aw-shucks, curmudgeonly wisdom. It’s difficult to understand why he’s not better known, since in its modest way, Lafferty’s work is as virtuosic and transgressive as a SF-writing Bob Dylan, deceptively simple and utterly singular in its unrecognizable and often grotesque transformation of folk idioms. He has no peers, because no one else could possibly inhabit or channel that freaky grandpa-ghost voice.
John Crowley exists more comfortably than many of his peers in the realm of normative literature, and he is able to insinuate the faerie realm, and the crystal scrying, into postmodern mimetic fiction in dazzling ways. Harold Bloom claims Little, Big is “the best book of its kind since Alice in Wonderland,” praising the way it “naturalizes and renders domestic the marvelous.” It’s as close to a life-changing read as anything I’ve encountered in the last ten years. Likewise, Bloom’s description is as good a measure of the transformative power of fantasy as anything I’ve encountered.
That’s enough from me. I’ll leave it to you to explore the true topography. (I still haven’t organized my bookshelves by genre.)
Brendan Greaves – Chapel Hill, NC – November 2016
J.G. Ballard — The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)
A classic of the SF New Wave by a brilliant and innovative writer unfortunately known primarily for the flawed film adaptations of his somewhat atypical works Crash and Empire of the Sun, this oblique collection of interwoven, pop-diseased narratives or “condensed novels” arguably represents that moment most articulately and magnificently, influencing everything from post-punk icons Joy Division to rapper Danny Brown. Impossible to describe but necessary to read, it notably includes a section called “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.”
Donald Barthelme — Snow White (1967)
In a sense, almost any fiction by Barthelme would qualify; his work weds surrealistic content to formal experimentation in a meltdown of meaning–masturbatory postmodernity manifest, yet undeniably great–but Snow White is notable for its harrowing and ridiculous transmogrification of the classic fairy tale, maintaining a sustained fever pitch of filth and fury.
Jorge Luis Borges — The Collected Fictions (1999)
“The earth we inhabit is an error, an incompetent parody. Mirrors and paternity are abominable because they multiply and affirm it.” Master challenger of modern language and narrative, Borges heroically evokes our core human need to follow a trail and find identity and companionship with the self and the world (and otherworld) around us. Labyrinths, mirrors, doppelgî¤ngers, artifacts: these poetic dreamstates are full of intricate twists and tumbles.
Octavia Butler — Lilith’s Brood series (1987-2000)
One of a few titles herein depicting the sexual congress of human and alien species–a terrifying prospect that strikes at the heart of both our biological imperative and our moral prudishness–Butler’s series, like her best work, also addresses issues of race and gender in visceral, allegorical terms. After the U.S.-Russia nuclear apocalypse, the remains of the human species is saved by the Oankali, a highly adaptive colonialist race who interbreed eugenically with their subjects in order to preserve their valuable genetic qualities while extinguishing their less appealing tendencies.
Italo Calvino — Cosmicomics (1965)
Scientific “fact” (ahem) as a framework for these tales of Universal ramble. Qfwfq guides us and manifests through a cast of mathematical equations, chemical compounds, mollusks, and more as the Universe expands, contracts, and mutates. See also Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker.
Adolfo Bioy Casares — The Invention of Morel (1940)
This brief, haunting, diaristic work by Casares, a close lifelong friend of Borges (who described this as “a perfect novel”), was inspired by the end of the acting career of Louise Brooks and in turn inspired both the 1961 Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad and the TV series Lost (2004—2010). On an unnamed Polynesian island, a confused fugitive spies upon, and mingles with, freshly arrived tourists, including his beloved Faustine, only to discover that he may be the only flesh and blood human being amidst a complex simulation of spectral projections, or possibly resurrections.
Julio Cortazar — Cronopios y Famas (1962)
Cortazar is a genius, like Borges one of the greatest artists of Argentina, whose masterpiece is the proto-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel Hopscotch (1963). (His short story “Blow-Up” was also the basis for both the eponymous 1966 Antonioni film and Blow Out, the 1981 Brian de Palma version starring John Travolta’s capers in Philadelphia.) This slim volume playfully examines the titular symbolic creatures, who taxonomically typify, or mirror, or predict, human characteristics and personality types while creeping along the slippery borders between our worlds.
John Crowley — Little, Big (1981); The î†gypt Tetralogy (1987-2009)
See also the above essay. Elliptical, subtle, and sublime, Little, Big ranks among my favorite novels of all time–my mother read a passage at my wedding. It concerns the introduction of Smokey Barnable to the fairy world through his marriage to Alice Drinkwater and her extraordinary family. However, the magical elements of the story are largely subsumed within the context of an ahistorical generational family drama known as the Tale.
The Aegypt series manages to combine the self-lacerating psychology of a college English professor with the Hermetic magic of Elizabethan scientist John Dee, and shades of sad sado-masochism, as if Philip Roth, Lou Reed, and the Incredible String Band collaborated on fiction. It’s worth reading anything by Crowley, who veers between naturalism and fantasy, preferring the liminal realms in-between. There is perhaps no greater prose stylist on this list; his voice, his diction, the poetic tang and rhythm to his sentences, is a gorgeous, an impeccably structured commingling of sweet and sour, the textual equivalent to an Eric Dolphy solo.
Robertson Davies — The Deptford Trilogy (1970-75)
Canadian magic realism is apparently real thing, found herein, in this strange trio of novels about magic, coincidence, fate, and their expression in our banal everyday existence. The prose and the characterizations are breathtaking.
Samuel Delany — Dahlgren (1975); Triton (1976)
Where to start with Delany? Anywhere, really. Circular and self-reflective, Dahlgren is his most widely praised, and rightfully so. Bellona and The Kid embody the beautifully fractured themes of race, sex, gender, and identity that lace through most of the author’s work. Triton provides multiple, conflicting accounts of a Utopia in which the body can be modified to change race, gender, sexual orientation, and more while a massive interplanetary war brews up.
Philip K. Dick — VALIS (1981)
“A question we had to learn to deal with during the dope decade was, how do you break the news to someone that his brains are fried?” One of PKD’s masterpieces. Information revealed through a beam of pink light leading to a quest for or reckoning of a Gnostic God. A beautiful allegoric autobiography of the author’s psyche.
Thomas Disch — On Wings of Song (1979)
Thomas Disch, a theatrical critic and novelist, wrote several excellent science fiction novels (Camp Concentration  is another masterpiece) over the course of his tragically truncated career (he committed suicide in 2008), but this is the most wondrous, a perfect, deeply humane satire about faith, queerness, artistry, and identity. Young Daniel escapes the Christian-controlled “undergoder” orthodoxy of a future Iowa to discover the supposedly sinful, dangerously decadent, highly aestheticized, pansexual world of “flying” and “fairies,” a subculture of technologically-enhanced, musically-triggered astral projection adherents and their lovers. Moving, masterful, essential.
Tonke Dragt — The Letter For The King (1962)
Only recently translated to English, this is an absolute classic. A book for children, however adults will equally come under the spell of this quest tale of self discovery set in a fictional Medieval world. Sounds pretty typical, but far from it; completely mesmerizing.
E.R. Eddison — The Worm Ouroboros (1922)
This is one of the weirdest and most challenging books on this list, a glimpse at the dawn of modern fantasy as it crawls out of the realm of primeval medieval (and Victorian) horror into the harsh light of modernity. It’s primarily about a war between Witchland and Demonland, but that makes it sound simpler and sillier than it actually feels. It’s like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) if that series was written from the perspective of the White Walkers in the arcane language of Icelandic saga chronicler Snorri Sturluson. By turns utterly boring and revelatory.
Philip José Farmer — The Riverworld series (1971-83)
A bizarre series from a weird author. Folks are resurrected in a river valley somewhere way in the future. They have a “grail” attached to them that provides basic needs and drugs. Mozart, Samuel Clemens, Sir Richard Burton, Hermann Goring, and plenty more historical figures show up, too. All of these people try to figure out what the hell is going on.
M. John Harrison — Viriconium series (1971-1985); the Kefahuchi Tract series (2002-2012)
The Pastel City shifts and mutates, both in landscape and inhabitants, over the course of several novels; narrative and characters are constantly in flux. Harrison is a fascinating and often confusing writer; his prose breathes in a strange cadence, often feeling akin to Elliot’s The Wasteland via a psychedelic, vaudevillian Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign played by analytical philosophists.
The Kefahuchi Tract takes a similarly slippery, destabilizing approach, melding particle physics, computational science, hardboiled detective and crime fiction, fetishistic body and brain modification predictions, and time and space-folding spaceships in a febrile, brilliantly rendered vision of a future forever altered by the titular cosmic rift–“a singularity without an event horizon”–and the ancient alien technological artifacts and “code” disturbances and distortions it has belched into our universe. Here not just identity and narrative, and our minds and bodies, but likewise even time and space, are porous, provisional, perverted. It feels less like cyberpunk and more like science fiction for actual scientists.
Kazuo Ishiguro — The Buried Giant (2015)
Odd, since Ishiguro is the more widely known and respected writer, but this lovely and modest novel strikes me as a masterful pastiche of Gene Wolfe, with all the hallmarks: characters with memory damage navigating an out-of-time world rendered alien and obscure.
Along with Cowper Powys’ Porius and Kingsnorth’s The Wake, it inverts our understandings of tribal, post-Roman, Arthurian Britain by effectively adopting an emic perspective from within the worldviews and languages of those cultures and their common people, naturalizing their complex belief systems.
Denis Johnson — Fiskadoro (1985)
Post-nuclear Key West via Johnson’s hallucinogenic travelogue pen. A beautiful, harsh story of survivors building a new reality on the fragmented remnants of a bombed-out culture. Jah, Voodoo cults, Mr. Cheung’s Miami Symphony Orchestra, and Jimi Hendrix over a radio orbit around a Mad Max-like, destroyed concrete tropics full of spiritual searchers.
Paul Kingsnorth — The Wake (2014)
A story about the 1066 Norman invasion of England written in what the author calls “A Shadow Tongue,” this is one is just flat out fun to read. The invented language is perfect, and the narrator Buccmaster a hilarious mental man for the ages.
“upon a hyll stands a treow but this treow it has no stics no leafs. its stocc is gold on it is writhan lines of blud red it reacces to the heofon its roots is deop deop in the eorth. abuf the hyll all the heofon is hwit and below all the ground is deorc. the treow is scinan and from all places folcs is walcan to it walcan to the scinan treow locan for sum thing from it. abuf the tree flies a raefn below it walcs a wulf and deop in the eorth where no man sees around the roots of the treow sleeps a great wyrm and this wyrm what has slept since before all time this wyrm now slow slow slow this wyrm begins to mof …
“the crist has cut thy fuccan beallucs off and the bastard will haf them ofer the fyr thu cunt scut thy mouth and get out thy fuccan sweord”
R.A. Lafferty — The Devil Is Dead (1971); Fourth Mansions (1969); Strange Doings (1972); Arrive at Easterwine: The Autobiography of a Ktistec Machine (1973)
The singular achievement of the undersung Lafferty–a writer’s writer who only began writing in his forties after a career as an electrical engineer–is his odd amalgam of SF and fantasy with the casual cadence, vocabulary, and syntax of North American (and American Indian) folklore: tall tales, legends, badman narratives, animal tales, trickster stories, folk histories and origin stories, etc. Perhaps best known for his short stories, his hilarious, bizarre, and absurd novels are excellent as well, if you’re able to set aside all expectations about conventional plotting, pacing, character development, and narrative causality. His work is immediately identifiable; no writer in any genre approaches his unique voice. Some folks hate it. Their loss.
Ursula K. Le Guin — A Wizard of Earthsea (1968); The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
Another canon of children’s fantasy, set on an archipelago world. Le Guin has described many of the themes in the Earthsea series as anti-Christian, unique from the obvious influences setting the tone for her contemporaries. Classic hero journey, with particularly great magic systems and dragons.
Stanislaw Lem — Solaris (1961)
Lem’s heavy-hitter of alien-human communication (or failure thereof) hits deep in the zone of a trance-inducing psychological thriller. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film version is every bit its equal, and if anything, perhaps even a greater masterpiece (this isn’t a list of films, but also check out Stalker , his extraordinary other classic SF film; both contain some of the most stunning visual imagery ever captured on celluloid.)
H.P. Lovecraft — In the Mountains of Madness (1936)
Despite (and perhaps because of) his racism and ugly politics, Lovecraft was a pioneer of the genre; something about his disgust with humanity in general–and the exoticized, non-white, non-male other in particular–translated into truly terrifying tales of the non-human Ancient Ones and associated monsters.
Harry Mathews — The Human Country: New and Collected Stories (2002)
The first American member of the French experimental group the Oulipo, husband to artist Niki de St. Phalle, pal and collaborator of fellow Harvard poets John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, rumored to be a CIA agent (the subject of his great, possibly fictionalized “memoir” My Life in CIA ) Mathews is an outlier to nearly every recognizable and viable strain of contemporary American letters. But he is a genius of deconstructive, polyphonic genre fiction that reads like translated ritual scripts, or arcane secret codes/codices. Read it all, but start here; these singular, lapidary stories contain everything, and I defy you to parse them (though attempting to do so is a great pleasure.) Also, he’s damn funny … and horny.
Vladimir Nabokov — Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969)
Many might not characterize Nabokov as a fantasy writer, but this sumptuous long novel concerns an imaginary, historically dislocated, and geographically elided Amerussian continent (and nation) and the familial and emotional havoc wrought by an initially innocent (but only initially) incestuous relationship between a brother and a sister. Certainly his most ambitious work, if not his greatest, I was so astonished and devastated after reading it many years ago that I have been too nervous to disturb my memories of its ravishing beauty by revisiting it.
Flann O’Brien — The Third Policeman (1967)
A satirical piss-take on our prescribed notions of the afterlife… or perhaps something much more, this is a masterpiece of modernist comedy, a classic. Imagine if Kafka was an Irishman.
Paul Park — Celestis (1993)
Paul Park has written a number of interesting novels, and is probably best known for the (nominally) YA series A Princess of Roumania. But Celestis is his greatest achievement, a disturbing and challenging plunge into the psychology and politics of race, genetic engineering, and sexuality in the context of human-alien colonialism and miscegenation.
Mervyn Peake — The Ghormenghast series (1946-59)
Written in the 1940s and 50s, but utterly out of time, these novels–Peake’s life’s work–feel like they could have been written at any time in the last hundred years, or the next. They concern the everyday life, landscape, and political machinations of ancient Castle Gormenghast, an enormous, endless, unmapped architectural world unto itself, populated by a grotesque royal family, the House of Groan, and their freaky subjects. Mannerist and unmatched in detail, but rarely overtly “fantastical,” the world Peake conjures in unforgettable and absorbing, among the great achievements of 20th century imaginative fiction.
John Cowper Powys — Porius: A Romance of the Dark Ages (1951)
A forbiddingly ambitious and dense historical romance that takes place in Wales over the course of a week in the great year of 499 AD, Powys’ indulgent and fascinating magnum opus draws from Welsh legend and Arthurian narratives, featuring the great poet Taliessin and Myrddin (Merlin) among its crazy cast of seemingly hundreds of obscure characters coexisting in a tribal, post-Roman, multiracial society in which Christianity is overtaking various strains of paganism, nature worship, and Druidism. It is virtuosic, maddening, at times impenetrable, and unlike any other book of the twentieth century. Also, the eponymous character fucks a giant.
Raymond Roussel — Locus Solus (1914)
John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Harry Mathews loved Roussel so much they named their experimental journal after this small surrealist masterpiece. Ashbery summarizes Locus Solus best in his introduction to Michel Foucault’s Death and the Labyrinth:
“A prominent scientist and inventor, Martial Canterel, has invited a group of colleagues to visit the park of his country estate, Locus Solus. As the group tours the estate, Canterel shows them inventions of ever-increasing complexity and strangeness. Again, exposition is invariably followed by explanation, the cold hysteria of the former giving way to the innumerable ramifications of the latter. After an aerial pile driver which is constructing a mosaic of teeth and a huge glass diamond filled with water in which float a dancing girl, a hairless cat named Khî³ng-dek-lî¨n, and the preserved head of Danton, we come to the central and longest passage: a description of eight curious tableaux vivants taking place inside an enormous glass cage. We learn that the actors are actually dead people whom Canterel has revived with ‘resurrectine,’ a fluid of his invention which if injected into a fresh corpse causes it continually to act out the most important incident of its life.” How can you resist?
Mary Doria Russell — The Sparrow (1996)
A lot of SF aspires to the spiritual, or dabbles in religious commentary, but this is the only novel I know in which a Jesuit missionary to an alien planet is literally raped by its monstrous inhabitants.
George Saunders — Tenth of December: Stories (2013)
Saunders’ stories of our near-future feel so precise in what’s likely to come, or has even arrived. The writing, his uniquely conjured mode of English, is so beautiful and strange, propelling these melancholy pieces with a graceful anxiety so powerful and consuming.
Dan Simmons — The Hyperion Cantos (1989-97)
Late to the game on Simmons, and for some reason or other predisposed to not like this series. Wrong! Space Opera by way of The Canterbury Tales and traditional detective/procedural writing, as well as an earlier reckoning of how the “The Internet” might end up taking form, these are a fun read.
Olaf Stapledon — Star Maker (1937)
Nothing less than a history of life in the universe, narrated by a human able to astrally project, or remote view, out of his body, flying through the cosmos and describing the various beings and habitats he encounters. Awkwardly but compellingly straddling allegory, philosophy, physics, and fantasy, it’s an important and highly influential piece of twentieth-century fiction.
Jack Vance — The Dying Earth series (1950-84); Lyonesse series (1983-89); the Demon Princes series (1964-81)
Vance is a foremost hero and inspiration to us. He lived a great life, wrote a ton of books, and generally just did the entire existence thing right. He’s such a strange writer, often beautiful and brilliant, but equally confusing and aimless plenty of times. These are the places to begin and they are among the greatest American novels written. He shares a similar “vibe” to Charles Willeford.
Harold Waldrop — Them Bones (1984)
This fast-paced and fun time-travel and alternative history novel, which lost the 1984 Philip K. Dick Award to William Gibson’s Neuromancer, is unique for the clever centrality of pre-Columbian Native American cultures to its tripartite narrative.
Claire Vaye Watkins — Gold Fame Citrus (2015)
Near-future dystopia of a California destroyed by drought is both setting and main character in Watkins’ first novel. Ray and Luz escape from LA into the encroaching desert, riddled with blistered psyches and clamoring chaos, in search of a mystic dowser and his band of followers.
Gene Wolfe — The Solar Cycle (1980-2002); The Soldier series (1986-2006)
When it comes to defining the aesthetic of the work we do in the world of music, Gene Wolfe ranks as high in the pantheon as Terry Allen (I read from Gene Wolfe at Chris and Constance’s wedding–along with the poet Robert Lax and a Shaker hymn, a perfect trifecta.) Ursula Le Guin calls him “our Melville,” and that feels right, given the sheer scale and scope of his unforgettable work, which manages to embrace brutality and humanity within the deep ambiguities of unreliable narrators and elliptical narratives. The Book of the New Sun (a post-apocalyptic picaresque starring a professional torturer with eidetic memory) is a masterpiece that encompasses just the first third of the excellent twelve-book Solar Cycle, as is the Soldier series (a Classical picaresque starring an ancient Roman mercenary with retrograde and anterograde amnesia).
Rudolf Wurlitzer — Nog (1968)
Thomas Pynchon claimed Nog as evidence that “the Novel of Bullshit is dead.” Wurlitzer’s hypnotic psychedelic sci-fi classic is as much a surreal tale of undulating American Space as it is an annihilation of plot and character. Nog (or perhaps a guy Nog tells us about?) and his plaster octopus in a bathysphere wander a cataclysmic West and meet other folks who also might be Nog.
Yevgeny Zamyatin — We (1921)
The progenitor of futuristic science fiction dystopias from Huxley to Orwell to Dick, this sharp novel satirizes Soviet systems of social control with a narrative revolving around the One State and its attempts to conquer extraterrestrial planets.
The Book of Fantasy (1937) (edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo, and Adolfo Bioy Casares)
A keen, broad-minded, historically and geographically diverse compilation edited by some of its foremost South American practitioners.
One important caveat: we realize that female writers and writers of color are lacking on this list. That’s largely a function of how these genres have been defined, occasionally in unpleasantly conservative ways, as white boys’ clubs–genre literature cultures tend to police themselves in nasty ways to exclude certain people, just as they themselves feel excluded from the world of normative fiction. It probably also speaks to our limitations as white male readers. But we are always looking for different voices in science fiction and fantasy, and always pleased to find them.
List and descriptions by Brendan Greaves and Christopher Smith; visit Paradise of Bachelors for more information.