Key classics of fantasy and science fiction

Once upon a time, no-one was considered truly educated unless they knew Shakespeare’s plays. More recently, but still not recently, an influential critic published a really big list of books which he thought were necessary for an understanding of western culture – sorry: Western Culture.

My ambitions are much smaller. All I claim is that anyone who doesn’t know the books on my list has missed key works of fantasy and science fiction, so they have missed some great books and will miss innumerable cultural references.

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Big Questions reading list

This short list recommends a few books that may be of value to those interested in religion (particularly Buddhism) and philosophy. It’s just a personal list, not a systematic set of references, so use it for what it’s worth.

1. Nonfiction

Books which are primarily about people and society but throw light on Buddhism as practised in Tibet and China.

Bones of the Master by George Crane (1996)
George Crane, American poet, meets Tsung Tsai, a Chinese Ch’an (Zen) monk who escaped from the disastrous Great Leap Forward in 1959-60. The two of them travel to Inner Mongolia to re-establish the monastery.

Namma by Kate Karko (2001)
An English girl marries a Tibetan and goes to Tibet to live with his still-nomadic family for a year.

2. Fiction

…with a religious and/or environmentalist slant and a sense of humour. A fun way of exploring serious ideas.

Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson
The President of the USA doesn’t want to know about global warming but an odd coalition of American scientists and Tibetan diplomats is about to do something about that. It is the first book of a trilogy but can stand alone.
The other two books are very good as well but don’t really make sense without their partners. In Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting we get disastrous climate changes, a presidential election which puts an activist in the White House, and the beginnings of wholesale changes to the way the USA operates; also a bunch of sub-plots which any other author would spin off into a whole new book. More: http://www.sfsite.com/lists/ksr.htm

The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson (2007)
Science fiction about ecological collapse and much more. My review is here.

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
Gods really do exist on Discworld, but only so long as people believe in them. Their power is proportional to the number of worshippers they have, which makes for some fairly desperate deific competition.

Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett
Golems are made to serve. Does that mean they should have no rights?

If you’re hooked on Discworld after these two, read Thief of Time or Reaper Man next. If you’re not, you probably never will be.

My introduction to Discworld is here. For a tiny sample of Pratchett’s work, visit http://www.au.lspace.org/books/dawcn/dawcn-english.html

American Gods by Neil Gaiman is ‘serious’ (and very, very good) fantasy which brings immigrant Americans’ gods to modern USA. The book (2001) is now quite old; the TV series (2017 onwards) has been updated and adapted by the author and it is also very good but it is rather different.

3. The serious stuff – books about religion

The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh
A short, very clear, no-nonsense introduction to mindfulness meditation, which is all about giving full, calm attention to the present moment. It is very practical – lots of exercises and very little religious theory although it’s very firmly grounded in Vietnamese Buddhism. As such, it’s a great introduction to something that more and more of us need in these stressful times.

Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana
Buddhist meditation explained from a Theravada perspective. Very readable at any stage of the path but profound enough to reward re-reading when one has practised for a while longer.

Tao Te Ching
The classic of Taoism. The thoughtful, poetic and beautifully-presented edition from Element translated by Man-Ho Kwok, Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay is my favourite, but there are many others.

God – the Interview by Terry Lane
Against Religion by Tamas Pataki
Two attacks on Christianity with occasional swipes at Judaism and Islam. Both make some very good points, though neither plays quite fair. Links take you to my reviews of them.

Created April 2008,
updated and published here February 2021

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McDonald: River of Gods

book coverRiver of Gods begins memorably with a flashy small-time crook dumping a woman’s body in the Ganges to let it drift downstream amongst remains from the funeral pyres of Varanasi.

The Ganges, India’s River of Gods, is as sacred as it has been for centuries and the ancient purification rituals are unchanged. Politically, however, India in 2047 is once again a cluster of feuding nation states and the ancient holy city of Varanasi is now the capital of Bharat.

It would be true to say this is a science-fiction novel about artificial intelligence, but that would leave out a lot. This is a big book in every way, with a dozen interweaving stories in settings ranging from Mughal mansions to the poorest slums. We have two pairs of star-crossed lovers, remote-controlled robot surgery, computer-generated soapie actors, an industrialist who gives his company away to become a temple-dwelling ascetic, a new human gender, an alien device concealed in an asteroid older than the solar system, gratuitous violence, a war between Bharat and its upstream neighbour over water resources, wild sex, zero-point energy, and much more.

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