10. The Shadow of the Torturer

The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure’s helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

Gene Wolfe’s highly regarded fantasy/science fiction epic is full of tantalising, vague descriptions hinting at the scope of his created world, Urth, which is actually our own Earth hundreds of thousands of years in the future, after civilisations have risen and fallen like tides on a shoreline. (The segment above, though it’s easy to miss it, is a description of an astronaut on the moon .) I found this tiresome by the second or third book in the series, but the first volume is fresh with creative wonder.

9. Earth Abides

Men go and come, but earth abides.

Earth Abides bridges the gap between apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, beginning with university student Isherwood Williams surviving the plague that decimates mankind, and forging a group of survivors in the slowly decaying ruins of San Francisco. Eventually, as he grows older and tries but fails to teach his children about their lost heritage, he sinks into dementia knowing that he is the relic of a vanished civilisation, the final link between the wonders of the past and the new hunter-gatherers of the future. Earth Abides is a strongly written science fiction classic intercut with surprisingly beautiful vignettes of mankind’s domain returning to nature.

8. River of Gods

“By the way. In case you ever wonder what the Americans are decoding. They have found something in space and they have no idea what it is.”

A sprawling cyberpunk tale set in a balkanised India in 2047, River of Gods is one of those sci-fi epics that manages to cram in everything: artificial intelligence, first contact, genetic engineering, robotics, climate change, political change, and whatever else you could imagine the future will hold. It’s a coherent and believable vision of a future India, and if it’s a little rambling and unfocused, you can forgive that, because McDonald’s imagination is so grand it’s fun to go along for the ride.

7. Dark Eden

Nothing had changed. All we still had was Eden and each other, five hundred of us in the whole world, huddled up with our blackglass spears and our log boats and our bark shelters.

More than a hundred years ago astronauts Tommy and Angela were stranded on Eden, a rogue planet of eternal night, where green-blooded alien creatures skitter in the glowing light of geothermal trees in tiny valleys surrounded by freezing darkness. Now, with Tommy and Angela long dead, their five hundred descendants are approaching a Malthusian catastrophe as their inbred numbers grow ever more and and the game grows ever less. Chris Beckett’s most impressive achievement, to my eye, was Dark Eden’s overpowering sense of claustrophobia – not just the eternal gloom and the valley only a few miles wide, but the claustrophobia of living in a religious, authoritarian tribe, never able to go anywhere else or do anything different, writhing in the impossible knowledge that you and your people are trapped and alone in the darkest depths of space.

6. The Yellow Birds

Murph called to me once, in the small hours before daybreak, and asked me if I thought we’d be OK. I kept looking out the window, even though the night had covered it over completely with a small layering of ice. A streetlamp glowed with pale orange through the opacity. The air was cool and crisp in the room and I pulled my rough wool blanket tight around me. “Yeah, Murph. We’ll be OK,” I said. But I didn’t believe it.

The Yellow Birds initially appears to be a fairly autobiographical first novel by former soldier Kevin Powers, full of the heartache and anguish and trauma one would expect. As it goes on a mystery begins to develop and we realise that the protagonist, Bartle, has secrets he is hiding about his time in Iraq – secrets that have the military’s criminal investigation division sniffing around. The book is ultimately more about the pain of returning from war than being at war, and Bartle’s mid-book page-long breakdown rant is one of the best pieces of prose I’ve read in a long time.

5. As I Please

By shooting at your enemy you are not in the deepest sense wronging him. But by hating him, by inventing lies about him and bringing children up to believe them, by clamouring for unjust peace terms which make further wars inevitable, you are striking not at one perishable generation but at humanity itself.

Probably the best of the four books that comprise Orwell’s collected essays, letters and reviews, because most of As I Please consists of the column he wrote which bore the same name – short weekly pieces which cover topics as broad as international politics, the joys of gardening, the ideal pub, memories of his time in Burma, American comics, etc. Orwell was not just a great writer but a fascinating man, the kind interested in anything and everything, who enjoyed everything life had to offer and served up an opinion on all of it.

4. Jack Maggs

The entire Haymarket was like a grand ball. Not just the gas, the music, the dense, tight crowds. A man from the last century would not have recognised it; a man from even fifteen years before would have been confused. Dram shops had become gin palaces with their high great plate-glass windows, their engraved messages: ‘Gin at Threepence – Generous Wines – Hot Spiced.’ This one here – it was like a temple, damned if it was not, the door surrounded by stained panes of rich dye: rosettes, bunches of grapes. The big man pushed his way up to the bar and got himself a dram of brandy which he drank in a gulp. When he turned, his face revealed a momentary confusion.

Peter Carey’s twisted take on Dickens’ Great Expectations, one doesn’t need to have read the original novel to enjoy this tale of of a misunderstood convict returning home to London from the penal colonies of New South Wales. As an Australian reader, I was most struck by how my home appears as a strange and exotic place in the eyes of Maggs’ London acquaintances – a country of parrots and pelicans, with names like Parramatta and Taree, mentioned only through Maggs’ words and memories, standing in stark contrast to the familiar Dickensian landscape in which the novel actually takes place – sooty London and green and pleasant Gloucestershire. Peter Carey seems incapable of writing a dull paragraph, and while he does a brilliant job of imitating Dickens’ style, this is unmistakeably a book of his own magical prose.

3. The Dog Stars

Bangley, tell me what the fuck you want me to do? What should I do?

Breathe, I want you to breathe. They are stalking you Hig. They have all day. The way they see it. No rush. You are moving slow, they will close the distance. Little by little. Then they will charge you. They have done it before. They move like they have done this before. Copy?

The Dog Stars brings nothing new to the post-apocalyptic genre, but everything it does, it does brilliantly. Peter Heller’s first-person train-of-thought writing style is difficult to get into at first but soon becomes lyrical, painting a beautifully haunting picture of a derelict Colorado. The main character’s escape from a group of pursuers on his way back to his fortified airfield, aided only by his ex-military partner over the radio, is one of the most suspenseful set pieces I read all year.

2. Lord of the Flies

“-Or else,” said the Lord of the Flies, “We shall do you. See? Jack and Roger and Maurice and Robert and Bill and Piggy and Ralph. Do you. See?”

Anyone who can still remember the cruelty of children – the schoolyard politics, the bullying, the falling into line, the dominance of strong personalities whether they’re good or bad – will find Lord of the Flies to be disturbingly plausible. I’d seen the 1990 film version, but knowing how the story unfolds does nothing to alter the brutal impact of this bloodthirsty novel. Although it can sometimes read like it was designed to have essay questions for the class at the back, it’s nevertheless a brilliant and gut-wrenching book that deserves its literary reputation.

1. Oscar & Lucinda

This was in Devon, near Torquay. To pretend – as Theophilus did – that this was almost tropical, is like referring to a certain part of Melbourne as “the Paris end of Collins Street.” It is quite reasonable if you have never been to Paris, but once you have been there you can see the description as nothing more than wishful thinking. When I visit Devon I see nothing tropical. I am surprised, rather, that so small a county can contain such a vast and indifferent a sky. Devon seems cruel and cold. I look at the queer arrangement of rocks up on the moor and think of ignorance and poverty and cold, always the cold.

While there were moments in Oscar and Lucinda where I might fairly say I was bored, this is one of those books that grows so strong in retrospect, and leaves so many little moments glinting in your memory. Lucinda arriving in Circular Quay on a barge smelling of cabbages; Oscar’s father’s heart-wrenching farewell gift on the docks at Southampton; Oscar washing out inkpots in a Sydney laneway;a sudden burst of cockatoos flying behind a bushranger’s shoulder as he levels his pistol at Wardley-Fish. Most of all – beyond Carey’s endlessly entertaining, half-funny half-tragic prose – I was amazed by this novel because after 450 pages of mostly whimsical romantic comedy, it suddenly plunges into a dark and brutal nightmare, coming to a horrifying conclusion on the Bellinger River as flying foxes flap and flutter in the dusk above the sound of screams. One of the finest Australian novels I’ve ever read.