Fantasy booklist: getting started

This is the main genre not to fear – fantasy, with the et al. including science fiction (s.f.), speculative and fabulist fiction, magical realism, fairytales, and young adult (YA) and children’s fantasy-type fiction. There are a lot of names because there are so many ‘unrealistic’ stories told. For commentary on how the literary establishment, and many readers, regards these kinds of stories, and alternate ways to look at them ‘critically’ (as in, ‘thoughtfully’), try Ursula Le Guin’s essays in The Language of the Night, especially the chapter called “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” (This essay is from 1979, so it’s the state of the art pre-Harry Potter; things have changed somewhat since then, at least insofar as money-making, but fantasy and its et al. is still looked down on as frivolous escapism. For Le Guin’s other literary criticism, see Dancing on the Edge of the World, and The Wave in the Mind.)

This list was compiled over the years for friends who had not tried fantasy or science fiction and were curious. I’ve marked my own favorites with an *. All books with an * have been read so often they are held together with tape and rubber bands.

*The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is so obvious it needs no explanation, but it was the first adult fantasy I read, and, like the Beatles’ song “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, it changed my life. In this case it opened up my reading universe.

*The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. Banned in the Soviet Union for decades, the story of what happens when the devil comes to Moscow in the 1930s – and the only people who know who he is are a man who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate (and been reviled by the literary establishment, and driven crazy, because of it), and his mistress Margarita.

*Ursula Le Guin wrote a book about a young wizard named Ged and his schooling called *A Wizard of Earthsea, the first fantasy I was able to go into completely post-Tolkien. It was followed by *The Tombs of Atuan, which brought Tenar into the story, a young woman who had been taken as a child to be priestess of the tombs that Ged has come to rob. The last book is called The Farthest Shore, about death and what happens to those who try to avoid it.

OtherWindA decade or so later, Le Guin went back to Earthsea and wrote three more books about it, following up on the story of Tenar and Ged in Tehanu. Le Guin  re-tells Earthsea’s history (and develops it) in The Other Wind and Tales from Earthsea, taking the point of view of the conquered and the hidden, to give a different version of what began as a boys-only club.

Some of her science fiction:

*The Lathe of Heaven, about a man in an overcrowded ‘future’ whose dreams come true and change reality, and the unscrupulous shrink who is trying to ‘cure’ him. A good intro to science fiction and Le Guin.

*The Dispossessed is about a temporal physicist named Shevek (who comes up with the theory behind the ‘ansible’, a future artifact that many other s.f. writers simply adopted once Le Guin’s character figured out instantaneous transmission between two spots vastly distant in space). Shevek lives on a planet where there is no money, and everyone is taken care of, and there are still power plays (!); to share his theory he has to travel to the corrupt and iniquitous planet that is more like ours (except in better shape).

The Left Hand of Darkness, about a world in an ice age, where everyone is neuter except for a week each ‘month’, when they become either male or female, so everyone can be either sex (the father of one child can be the mother of another). A planetary ambassador who is a man from a sort of interstellar UN, is at risk (his mission and his life) when political factions use him for their own ends, but the story is really about his friendship with a native wo/man, the difficulties they have in communicating across different cultures, what it means to trust and befriend ‘the other’.

*The Orsinian Tales, linked short stories about a parallel universe/Eastern European country.

Always Coming Home, an anthropological look at northern California in the far future.

And more…these are just a quick sample.

Imagining hope, the books

imagesBoth Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones have said that “writers of the imagination” can inspire hope as they imagine alternatives to destruction and despair…Marina Warner said something similar in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, and probably so have plenty of other people. In honor of the sun moving into Sagittarius, the sign of optimism, what follows is a short, random list of hope-inspiring books and/or worlds, that offer alternative solutions to a number of things:

Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, Always Coming Home, The Telling, Tehanu, Dancing on the Edge of the World, etc. (science fiction and literary criticism)

Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock, Black Maria, The Dalemark Quartet, long story short, pretty much everything (fantasy)

Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (essays about the classic romantic comedies — mostly starring Cary Grant, often with Katharine Hepburn.)

Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (using anthropology, literary criticism, fairytales, and the kitchen sink, Hyde looks at what it means to be an artist, healer, teacher, or anyone else whose work is based on the gift, living in a money economy.)

Isabel Allende, Eva Luna (magical realism, the story of a girl who is born a servant and becomes a writer)

Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid (written in 1902, a scientist’s alternative to social Darwinism)

Emma Goldman, Living My Life (“If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution.”)(autobiography of an anarchist)

Terry Pratchett, Nation, Going Postal, A Monstrous Regiment, Witches Abroad, A Hat Full of Sky, etc., etc. (fantasy)

Matthew Fox, The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time (essays about work with heart)

Carolyn See, The Handyman, Golden Days, There Will Never Be Another You (fiction: in which many of her protagonists fight despair with hoping outside the box)

Marion Milner, A Life of One’s Own (the journal of a pioneer of lucid dreaming in 1920s London)

Kim Stanley Robinson, Lucky Strike (science fiction novella; alternate history of Hiroshima and the atom bomb)

Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark (essays) and The Fifth Sacred Thing (fantasy, a future California where San Francisco is run by little old ladies and Wiccans; L.A. is the evil empire where those who own the water run everything)

Nancy Farmer, A Girl Named Disaster, The House of the Scorpion (fantasy and science fiction: an 11-year old girl in Mozambique runs away from an arranged marriage, survives with the help of animals and spirits; the early life of the boy who is a clone of a 140-year old drug lord in a land called Opium, in what is now Arizona)

Francisco X. Stork, Marcelo and the Real World (fiction: Marcelo lives in a treehouse behind his family’s home; he hears inner music and is happiest working with the Haflinger ponies at his special school; what happens when his father puts him to work at his corporate law office for the summer so he can get some experience in the real world.)

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (fiction: a Japanese-American girl named Nao is the time being; so is the woman named Ruth who reads Nao’s diary when she finds it on a beach in Vancouver; so is Nao’s great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun)

Robertson Davies, Fifth Business, World of Wonders (fiction: see earlier post)

Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night (mystery featuring Lord Peter Wimsey: set in a fictional women’s college at Oxford in 1935, the theme is women’s education, equality between sexes, and the course of true love)

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (fiction, or a very strange roman a clef: the Devil comes to 1920s Moscow — where no one believes in him — except a woman named Margarita and a nameless writer who was driven crazy when his novel about Pontius Pilate was ridiculed by the powers that be. This book was banned in the USSR for 30 years, censored for even longer, and Bulgakov officially known as “a slanderer of Soviet reality”.)

Doris Lessing, The Four-gated City, particularly the appendix, where she veers into an s.f. future (fiction, the fifth novel in her Martha Quest series, roman a clef)

Sheri Tepper, The Margarets, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, The Fresco, The Family Tree, Beauty etc. etc. (science fiction and fantasy, focused on gender and environmental issues, funny and sometimes sad)

Eleanor Arnason, Changing Women (science fiction: a group of anthropologists from a reclaimed earth land on a planet inhabited by matriarchal ‘fur-people’)