As a follow on to my general Recommended Book List, I wanted to dive in on why the first six books are favorites.
To recap, here’s the first six books on my all-time “recommend to others” list.
- Myth Adventures by Robert Asprin
- The Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison
- Callahan’s Lady, by Spider Robinson
- Retief, by Keith Laumer
- Phule’s Company by Robert Asprin
These books are also what my mom would call “old friends”. They are some of the few media items that I could pick up at any time and just read. Many of them I could flip to any page in any of them, and just start reading from there.
Why are these books so re-readable?
A Good Laugh
All of these books are funny. They are all in what some have called the “humorous sci-fi/fantasy” genre.
Given even a year away from the book, the jokes and humor in these stories wraps you up and cuddles you, and it’s humor that doesn’t need to put someone else down, or gross you out, or make you cringe. It just makes you smirk, grin, and feel good about the world.
The Difference is Readability
Unlike the “poster children” for this genre, like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, or Discworld by Terry Pratchett, the books on my list are also highly readable….and not English. I enjoyed Adams and Pratchett, but I’ve not real desire go back and read them over and over.
Every one of the books on my list is written with (for the time they were published, at least), smooth, flowing prose, with just enough humor to keep a near-perpetual smile on your face, but without so much political commentary, farce or forced jocularity that it distracts from the narrative or the characters.
Characters You Want to Spend Time With
And it’s the characters that really make the stories work, and make these books “friends” rather than just “fun reads”.
Every book is filled with people that you want to spend time with. Characters with problems that seem funny on the surface, but end up reminding you not to take your own problems so seriously.
These stories may be set in alternate or fantastic or future realities, but they all use that setting to make their tales of human interactions more timeless. They distill human interactions to their core, and set them against a tale of adventure to give those interactions motion.
Robert Asprin makes the list twice with two different books, both of which spawned series. Let’s start with him.
Farcical Reality with Robert Asprin
While the humor is never far away with Robert Asprin, neither are a plethora of other emotions. He regularly sets up characters to be one thing (a funny stereotype, typically), and then carefully deconstructs that funny assumption for the rest of the story.
Aahz is the big scary demon, who turns out to be a lot more supportive and nurturing than evil and devouring. Asprin carefully nuances Aahz’s personality throughout the series, and eventually, despite a narriative landscape of the absurd, you feel like he could be any of the tough-on-the outside, squishy on the inside guys you know.
The Myth series’s main protagonist Skeeveo starts out young and naieve, and although he’s not clearly a Mary Sue character at the outset, he becomes one more and more as the series progresses, holding up a harsh light to Asprin’s own struggle with alcoholism.
The parade of supporting characters, Tanada, Chumley, Gleep, Massha, Ajax, Markie – they all follow the pattern of setting up a funny stereotype (Tanada is a Trollop), and then deconstucting that stereotype by making that character a ‘real’ person.
In his Phule’s Company world, the characters are as about as farcical on the surface as can be. You have the rich Captain Jester, who’s attempts to try and save the world are confounded by the fact that he just tries too hard. Mother, the communications expert who can’t talk in the physical presence of anyone else. Chocolate Harry, the tough rocket-biker who constantly cuts black market deals to get supplies.
Like Myth Adventures, the characters in Phule’s Company are not only carefully fleshed out into real people beneath their stereotypes, but the way that Phule works with each of them to take advantage of their talents, and to make them work as a team to overcome their “disabilities” is both funny and deeply heartwarming.
Especially for those of us who manage people or are put into leader roles, it’s like a romantic comedy of leadership. A little silly, not real in the way an instruction book would be, but real in that you can feel how the relationship Jester has with his people connects with the relationships of people you work with.
Plus the plot has good old fashioned mystery, capers, and that delight when a dozen loose ends all tie up together in the end in a hilarious way.
Linguistic Capers with Harry Harrison
Next on the list is Harry Harrison, an author who has a pretty diverse set of works – his West of Eden series makes my “Recommended with Reservations” list. His short story Make Room! Make Room! was the basis for the Charlton Heston classic Solyent Green. However, he is primarily known for the Stainless Steel Rat series, which is considerably lighter and funnier than his other works.
Like the other authors on this list, Harrison manages to expertly balance humor and darkness. For example, “Slippery Jim” diGriz, the eponymous Rat, falls in love with a psychopath, and only after capturing her is she reformed with sci-fi technology so that they can be together.
While later works in the series feel a lot like a sci-fi combination of Leverage, Ocean’s 11 and The A-Team, the early stories paint a vivid picture of what it takes to be a criminal in the future, where technology has rendered crime obsolete. Like anime hero “Lupin III”, Slippery Jim is a lovable thief, who uses his talents, willingly or not, for the betterment of the galaxy.
His family, including wife Angelina, and sons James and Bolivar, are solid characters, and although they never get expanded into really deep characters, they are fond friends to readers especially upon repeated readings.
The relationships, capers, and the humor stand up well to repeated readings, and that’s is quite a feat.
Finally, Harrison inspired me in my college years to learn Esperanto, which is used heavily throughout the SSR books. Learning Esperanto, like all the linguistic things I did in college, expanded my appreciation of language and communication, and set me up to be able to learn both real and computer languages in a way that learning “traditional” languages would not have.
Spider Robinson’s Utopian Drunks and Whores
If you are sensing a theme here, it’s that these are all sci-fantasy books that concentrate more on what people are like in the future or an alternate reality than what technology or the world is like. Spider Robinson is no exception.
Following in the footsteps of Heinlein, Robinson wonders what kind of world it would take to really let people get along. His answer is twofold – a bar, and a brothel. His main Callahan’s series focuses on the bar, while his side works, Callahan’s Lady and Lady Slings the Booze focus on the brothel.
The conceit of the stories is that Mike Callahan and his wife Lady Sally are aliens, who chose to spend their time on earth running a bar and brothel, respectively. It sounds a bit cheesy, and it is, but in the end, it just feels sweet.
It’s hard to argue with the idea that those two places might be the settings for a pair of fantastic urban utopia – they are certainly the places that many people go to seek out happiness. While the bar stories are good, and a little closer perhaps to “hard” sci-fi, it’s the brothel stories that really captured my imagination, and keep me reading them over and over.
They are sweetly sexy, sure, but they also create a world where needs get met, and not just sexual ones. And the characters are delightful. The working girls, the boy-maid, and Lady Sally herself are people you know in prostitute form. You want to hang out in Lady Sally’s parlor, even just to swap puns with the priest. Ah, that’s a good point – Robinson is a master punster, so if such things offend, best read elsewhere. 🙂
The books are both collections of short tales; but they read more like a season of a TV show rather than a short story collection. The stories build and influence each other, and allow a greater variety of interactions than a time-boxed narrative would.
I think Lady Slings the Booze is the better book, but you really need to read Callahan’s Lady to get the background (and it’s also very good).
Laumer’s Satirical Knight
Keith Laumer was a U.S. Ambassador before he was a sci-fi novelist, and he doesn’t shy away from telling his “horror” stories of the diplomatic corps thinly disguised as fantastic tales.
While all the Retief novels and stories are good, his “origin story” Diplomat-At-Arms, which was published in Issac Asimov’s Cosmic Knights collection is one of those stories that just makes you giggle and dance and read it over and over.
Jaime Retief is a superhero; a diplomat who has no problem scrapping with the bad guys all over the galaxy. And while his larger-than-lifeness could get silly after a while, the fact that he has to deal with his meddling and incompetent boss constantly balances him nicely.
He feels like the Indiana Jones of diplomacy; equally at home at the negotiation table as well as leading revolutionaries to conduct a coup – especially while his boss is trying to negotiate a peace between the government and revolutionaries.
Laumer is a master, like all the authors on this list, of telling a simple human story, set in a fantastic world with heroes that struggle to do the simplest things; but manage the impossible with ease. As some of the older works on this list, the Retief novels age a bit roughly from their early 70’s-80’s perspective, but any student of history finds this more spice than anything else.
So there you go! Six books (actually a lot more than that, since all of these are series as well) that you should get to know! May they become your friends too!