“This is pitiful. A thousand people freezing their butts off waiting to worship a rat. What a hype. Groundhog Day used to mean something in this town. They used to pull the hog out, and they used to eat it. You're hypocrites, all of you!”
It got me to thinking: if I were caught in a time loop, what novels would I – could I – read numerous times without losing interest? It’s a surprisingly difficult question for me. Although I’ve worked as a book reviewer for most of my adult life, I’ve rarely read a book more than once. For me to even consider picking up a novel or an anthology a second or third time, it’s got to be extraordinary – with multiple narrative layers or some kind of profoundly moving theme – and after looking through my library (ie: my house), I did find a few books that I have read more than once.
So in honor of Groundhog Day (the movie, not the holiday), here are a handful of classic novels that can – and should – be read multiple times. So, if you ever find yourself caught in a time loop, seek out these books asap!
In the introduction of this visually stunning reissue of Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s 1959 post-apocalyptic classic, Mary Doria Russell classifies the Hugo Award-winning A Canticle for Leibowitz as Literature with a capital L: a novel that will change all those who read it. She couldn’t be more correct – this bitingly cynical and disturbingly prophetic look at the future of humankind will chill readers to the bone.
Set in a Utah monastery centuries after a nuclear war devastated the Earth, Brother Francis Gerard of Leibowitz Abbey is on a Lenten fast in the desert when he uncovers an ancient fallout survival shelter containing puzzling clues into pre-Flame Deluge culture. Some of the findings may even have belonged to martyred “booklegger” Isaac Edward Leibowitz himself, a priest who dedicated his life to saving knowledge for future generations. But will Brother Gerard’s discovery help humankind avoid another self-inflicted catastrophe?
Almost a half century after it was first published, A Canticle for Leibowitz hasn’t lost any of its megaton punch: if anything, Miller’s words relating to humankind’s propensity for self-destruction have taken on a kind of eerie aura of prophecy: “Is the species congenitally insane, Brother? … Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? … Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing?” A fascinating and paradoxical novel by an equally paradoxical man, A Canticle for Leibowitz is undeniably one of the best science fiction novels of all time. Russell sums it up perfectly: “you’ll be different when you finish it.” -Paul Goat Allen
Science Fiction’s Supreme Masterpiece. The first novel to win both the Hugo and Nebula Award. To science fiction what Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. The beginning of a saga that has sold more copies than any other science fiction series in history. Originally published in novel form in 1965, Dune is arguably the most famous science fiction novel ever written. Over the last four decades, the grandest epic in the genre has ingrained itself into the human consciousness – the mere mention of spice or sandworms or the desert planet of Arrakis elicits instant recognition in most people, even ones who have never read the novels.
It’s hard to categorize Dune and the subsequent novels as simply science fiction because the story has so many thematic threads – environmentalism, mysticism, politics, psychology, linguistics and human evolution, to name a few. If there are any science fiction fans out there who haven’t read this classic yet, by all means, add a little spice to your life right now! -Paul Goat Allen
Kim Stanley Robinson, author of award-winning novels like the Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars), Icehenge, and The Wild Shore, has written his most ambitious work to date. (And in this reviewer’s humble opinion, one of the most ambitious novels in decades.) The Years of Rice and Salt is a book that is breathtaking in scope, chillingly timely, and profoundly powerful. Although it’s billed as an alternate history of mankind’s last 700 years, it’s so much more than that. It’s about religion, fate, and the human spirit. It’s about the meaning of life. Why are we here? Is there a god? Is the soul eternal? Does it all really matter?
The story begins in the 14th century, as the Black Death is spreading throughout Europe. But instead of killing approximately one-third of the population, this time the plaque destroys almost everyone: ninety-nine percent. Civilization is wiped out and Europe becomes a forgotten wasteland. There is no Renaissance, no Industrial Revolution, and no colonization of the New World by the British and French. Christianity and Judaism are all but forgotten. Buddhism and Islam become the world’s two major religions.
Bold Bardash is a Mongol horseman who has witnessed the plaque firsthand. Utterly alone and barely able to find enough food to keep himself alive, Bold wanders aimlessly until he is captured by Turkish Muslims and eventually sold as a slave to Chinese traders. While sailing back to China in the largest ship Bold has ever seen he meets a black slave boy named Kyu. During the trip, the boy is made a eunuch and only Bold comforts the boy as he struggles to survive the horrific ordeal. Once in China, the two fatefully work together in a busy restaurant where Bold learns more about local culture and Kyu plots revenge against the entire Chinese Empire.
After Bold and Kyu experience life to the fullest and eventually die, their souls go back to the bardo where they await reincarnation. The deeds of their past lives help decide who (or what) they return as. In each incarnation, the two try to improve themselves and the world around them - with varying levels of success. Chinese revolutionaries, an elderly widow and a poor monk, a Native American Indian chief and a clan matriarch, a tiger and a pilgrim, a Chinese naval captain and a young island girl from the other side of the world….
As the stories progress, the characters slowly begin to understand it all. Khalid is an intense Muslim alchemist who lied about being able to turn lead into gold and was punished by the khan. Now without a right hand and permanently disgraced, he discovers life isn’t about wealth or social standing. “…If you try to understand things, if you look at the world and say, why does that happen, why do things fall, why does the sun come up every morning and shine on us, and warm the air and fill the leaves with green – how does all this happen? What rules has Allah used to make this beautiful world? – Then it is all transformed. God sees that you appreciate it.”
The Years of Rice and Salt (a term coined by Chinese women in wealthy households signifying the busiest times of a women’s life: raising children, taking care of elderly family members, managing servants, etc.) is a truly visionary work that is being released just when the world needs it most. Kim Stanley Robinson shows us what could’ve been, and what could still be. Will humankind ever get it right? Or are we destined to make the same mistakes over and over again? -Paul Goat Allen
This definitive edition of H.P. Lovecraft’s 1931 masterwork At the Mountains of Madness – published for the first time ever in paperback – includes the novel that has been called one of the greatest horror stories in the English language as well as Lovecraft’s groundbreaking essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” and an illuminating introduction by China Mieville.
When a group of scholars from Miskatonic University travel to the Antarctic on a geological expedition, they stumble across the discovery of the century: hidden by a towering mountain range and buried beneath the icy wasteland are the remains of a vast, alien city hundreds of millions of years old. After unearthing strange bodies that appear to be both plant and animal, most of the men and sledge dogs are brutally and mysteriously eviscerated. The two remaining researchers decide to forge ahead and explore the subterranean city before departing. What they find deep in the worming catacombs will change forever how they view humankind’s place in the cosmos…
Lovecraft writes in his essay on horror in literature: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” That all-paralyzing, insanity-inducing fear of the unfamiliar is no better exemplified than in his classic story about the ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic. At the Mountains of Madness is a “must read” if there ever was one by an author whose work Clive Barker describes as “one of the cornerstones of modern horror.” -Paul Goat Allen
If you’ve ever had a problem with internal organs erupting from your body, had an irrational craving for scrap metal or ever wondered about what to do with your vestigial tail, The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases is for you. Featuring some of the biggest names in science fiction – Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Paul Di Filippo, Cory Doctorow and Steve Aylett, to name a few – this collection of rare and fantastical diseases is as hilarious as it is demented!
Of the almost 100 diseases included within, noteworthy maladies include Uxoria Oculitis (commonly referred to as Wife Blindness), Ballistitis (Ballistic Organ Syndrome) and Pyrexia Poetica (Poetic Lassitude). The symptoms of someone suffering from Uxoria Oculitis include failure to observe significant dates (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.), TV transfixia, and persistent inattention to spousal discourse. Those afflicted with Ballistitis must deal with “a sudden, explosive discharge of one or more bodily organs at high velocity,” usually from the throat or anus. Victims in the thralls of Pyrexia Poetica are often found wandering the countryside staring at flowers or gazing into still pools. Also included are words of wisdom from Dr. Lambshead himself, such as: “Never run from a python if you’ve suffered from diarrhea the night before.”
This truly unique book (which has been nominated for the Hugo, World Fantasy and International Horror Guild Awards) is a must-have for science fiction/fantasy fans and hypochondriacs alike. Featuring brilliantly bizarre illustrations by English artist John Coulthart, this “important journey into the diseased future” as Editor Jeff VanderMeer so aptly describes it, is just what the doctor ordered. -Paul Goat Allen
Orson Scott Card’s 1978 classic, A Planet Called Treason – about a remote world populated by the offspring of political exiles and rebels – is once again in print, this time in an extensively revised and expanded novel entitled Treason.
On a planet whose one immense landmass is divided into realms ruled by Families, Lanik Mueller is the heir to one of Treason’s most powerful states. But when he is diagnosed as being a radical regenerative – a person whose body is forever growing random body parts –he is saved from death by his father and sent halfway around the globe on a treacherous mission. On a world lacking any hard metals, the only way to acquire iron is to trade something of value with mechanical liaisons left behind on the planet by the Republic, the government that stranded their forefathers centuries earlier. The Family Mueller, whose offspring can heal practically any wound and re-grow lost flesh, trade extra body parts for the precious metal. But another Family is suddenly iron rich and when Lanik sets off to find out how, he unknowingly embarks on a journey of self-discovery that will transform him from a monster into a god…
Although A Planet Called Treason was only Card’s second novel to be published – and he has gone on to write dozens of award-winning science fiction and fantasy novels like Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, the Alvin Maker saga, etc. – it still remains to this day one of his most memorable and moving works. This revised and expanded edition is so much more than a classic unearthed – it’s a literary godsend. To not read this reworked science fiction masterpiece would be, well, treasonous. -Paul Goat Allen
If you were caught in a time loop, what novels would you seek out to read again and again?
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.