After being nominated to compile my top ten books on Facebook, I had to think. One problem of always having at least one book on the go and getting through a book every few days is that I have read a lot, and a lot of those books are books I've fallen in love with for one reason or another. Ask me my favourite book and I can give you a shortlist of three or four; ask me for my top ten and expect to be besieged by a list of somewhere between thirty and forty.
This list isn't perfect. I reckon I'll be back to edit it at various points, and I feel I should probably include some honourable mentions at some point. Enough books have entertained me and changed me and made me think that I should at least mention a handful of them beyond the 'top ten'. But, for now, this is my top ten (subject to my ever-changing opinion).
10. Perdido Street Station (China Miéville)
There are a few books by the master of the New Weird which I could have mentioned. The City and the City was a Philip K. Dick-esque journey through the seen and the unseen in the course of a murder investigation, and Embassytown is probably the best SF novel of the last 5 years, to name but two. But I've plumped for Perdido Street Station, the 900-page steampunk brick, which introduces the grotesque world of Bas-Lag in all its raucous glory. It's fantasy, but it's not typical fantasy, and it marks itself as separate from the mainstream JRR Tolkien knock-offs from the word go. That it's supremely entertaining and engaging also helps matters.
9. All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque)
When I read this I stayed up until 2am to finish it - a mark of quality if ever there was one. It's a touching war story that makes you re-evaluate war and its consequences from a human perspective. That I haven't re-read it yet it something of a travesty. As a human being you owe it to yourself to read certain types of book, and this falls into that category.
8. Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew...
Hamlet's first soliloquy is actually better than his most-celebrated lines, in my view, at least. Some people don't like Shakespeare because it was forced on them at school. There are some Shakespeare plays which aren't the most fun and don't make sense (see: The Tempest), but when Shakespeare is at his best his plays are brilliant storytelling, with humanity encapsulated beautifully. This is apparent throughout my favourite play - which I've never had the chance to see performed live.
7. The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham)
Man-eating plants that can walk, possible Soviet conspiracies, and humanity being rendered blind overnight in massive numbers by an improbable meteor shower leaving it vulnerable to the aforementioned plants combine in an orgy of pure silliness. All it really needs to improve it is someone saying that dogs can't look up (Big Al said so). Just don't try to take it seriously.
6. Hyperion/The Fall of Hyperion (Dan Simmons)
OK, so I'm cheating a bit by getting both of these in at once, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. You can't have one without the other, and both are absolutely magnificent, despite differences in structure. Space opera sometimes struggles to balance characters with events, but on this occasion Simmons creates a touching story set amidst great events which don't lose their impact. And there are added literary references to enjoy.
5. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell)
Prophetic, essential, misguided, overrated, magnificent... I can't add anything to what has already been said a million times over about Orwell's magnum opus, certainly not in one paragraph. Its dissemination of totalitarianism is essential for understanding the psychology of the world in its post-WWII state.
4. A Game of Thrones (George RR Martin)
I agonised over this one. I wondered whether to pick one of Robin Hobb's Assassin books, or whether to select The Lies of Locke Lamora. When done well, traditional fantasy can be wonderfully entertaining and still be challenging, as those two books show. But A Game of Thrones won out, if only for one reason: Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion probably comes into his own more in the later volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, but the first volume in the series has yet to be surpassed in terms of quality.
3. The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy series (Douglas Adams)
42. There. I've said the obvious joke. The problem of HHGTTG and the rest of the series is that it suffers from over-exposure. The jokes are so well-known that they're part of the British canon, like the Spanish Inquisition or Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. The whole series (well, maybe not Mostly Harmless) is brilliantly funny and provides a great pick-me-up on a regular basis after long, mirthless days.
2. Dune (Frank Herbert)
I think I've read Dune at least six times, and every time it's offered me something new. Its sequels provide raw, unadulterated philosophy, but the original provides adventure as well as politics. The true vision of Frank Herbert may be in later volumes, but it's the first which is the masterpiece (despite its admittedly clunky prose and occasionally flat characterisation).
1. Use of Weapons (Iain M. Banks)
'Tell me, what is happiness?'
Iain M. Banks wrote some stonking books. Most of these were set in or around the penumbra of his ultimate utopia, the Culture. Use of Weapons was the third of these, and it was his best. He never topped it, either in his SF writings or his mainstream output. Use of Weapons was - is - as close to perfect as SF gets. Ideas, characters, settings, politics, set-pieces... It had them all in a perfect blend of beautifully-controlled prose. It was funny, it was touching, it was violent, it was sexy. And it's a book I fully intend to take to the grave with me.