Five Massive SFF Books to Read While You’re Social-Distancing

Imagine for the moment one had to spend some period—maybe fourteen days, to pick a random example—in isolation. How on Earth could one fill all that time? Yes, yes: cat videos. Of course. But let us pretend that we might want to crack open a book or two. Let us further imagine (just to make this more difficult) that we cannot go online and grab ebooks hither and yon. If we were stockpiling physical copies of books, what books might we stockpile that would keep us amused for a long, long time?

There are so many choices. Here are five suggestions, to start:


The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

The book, weighing in at a petite 560 pages, might have been much longer (and less effective) had it not been for the intervention of one Robert Heinlein, who provided authors Niven and Pournelle with editorial guidance. Perhaps this Heinlein fellow should consider writing SF himself!

The Empire of Man rose after not one but two human civilizations nuked themselves into dust. Its ruling classes place priority on unity and security, to the point that they will obliterate rebellious worlds rather than permit enemies to survive. When they learn that there is an alien race to be found at a star dubbed the Mote in God’s Eye, the empire is alarmed. Could the alien Moties be a potential enemy? A mission is dispatched posthaste to investigate. The mission soon learns that the Moties are in most respects technologically superior to the Empire of Man. What is it to be? Trade or war?

Things go well at first and then…


Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright

Legal scholar Austin Tappan Wright died without having finished his epic novel to his satisfaction. With the assistance of Mark Saxon, Wright’s widow Margaret set out to polish the 2300-page manuscript. She died in 1937, before the project could be finished. The couple’s daughter Sylvia finished the project and the book was published in 1942, distilled down to a sleek 1014 pages.

This cult classic tells the tale of American John Lang, consul to the nation of Islandia. His mission: open Islandia to American trade, as Perry did in Japan and Captain Page attempted to do in Korea. He sets out to learn Islandian language and culture, in the process losing his belief that trade would be good for the small nation.

Out of print for many years, the book is now available in paperback. If you want the original 1942 hardback, you’ll have to pay big bucks.


Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

Clocking in at a streamlined 1120 pages, Ash tells the tale of 15th century mercenary Ash, a woman whose Europe is both very much like and very much different from our own. A natural soldier, she is drawn into the effort to defend a disunited Europe from the Visigoth army that threatens the continent. Visigoth-ruled Carthage has numbers and a seemingly magical technology the Europeans cannot match. Key to the invader’s success: the Faris, a woman guided by mysterious Voices…a woman who could be Ash’s twin.


Crossroads by Kate Elliott

At 2233 pages, the Crossroads omnibus is almost as long as the unedited Islandia and significantly longer than the published version of Wright’s work. Given the author’s detailed worldbuilding and the three empires that clash in this book—the Qin, the Hundred, and the Sirnakian Empire—it needs to be that long.

The semidivine Guardians once ruled the land known as the Hundred, but of late they appear to take little interest in their former charges. An alarming absence, given the menaces slowly nibbling away at the Hundred. As the impressively large cast learns to their cost, there are much worse dangers than negligent demigods…such as supposed protectors who appear to have chosen to join Team Evil.


The Complete Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

Erikson’s epic fantasy is what might happen if you dabble in the arcane world of roleplaying games. Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont, both trained as archaeologists, were drafting a background for a GURPS campaign and the background morphed into something…publishable: a series of ten dead-tree books and finally an e-omnibus (as well as novellas, prequels, and Esslemont’s separate novels set in the same universe).

In the Malazan setting, the history of the last hundred thousand years or more plays an active role in current affairs. The first half of this omnibus contains five books that work as standalones. In the last five books, the plot threads—and there are so very many threads—come together in a single tapestry. Just listing the characters would exceed my word count limits. It’s an impressive display of worldbuilding, as well as an epic adventure.

Now, booksellers will try to claim this is a ten-book series and then attempt to sell you ten separate volumes. Don’t be fooled! If you want the largest possible option, demand the one, true complete edition: the 11,927-page ebook!



Not doubt you have your own favourite massive, weighty tomes. Feel free to mention them in the comments below.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He was a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, is one of four candidates for the 2020 Down Under Fan Fund, and is surprisingly flammable.


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