Warning: this post has what you might call a thematic spoiler for Jack Vance’s The Book of Dreams, though nothing that would be likely to diminish your enjoyment of that book.
A few days ago, SF Signal had a discussion on the best and worst endings of books. This got me thinking about the subject, because endings are often the aspect of fiction that I find the most interesting. They’re the biggest determinant of a story’s “aftertaste,” for lack of a better term. My own preferences are towards the grim or melancholy side of things, though not exclusively. Some of my own personal favorites:
Poul Anderson, The Night Face- Great buildup, and at the end…
Glen Cook, Soldiers Live- Very poignant for me after spending so much time with the Black Company. Like Croaker, I’ll always have the memories.
David Drake, Rolling Hot- The first Drake novel I read, and the one that made me a devoted fan. I can’t recommend this one enough. (It’s included in the Drake collection The Tank Lords.) It was especially effective for me because, atypically for one of Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers stories, one of the principal viewpoint characters isn’t a soldier, but a civilian who gets dragooned into joining the conflict. The whole book is a series of savage muay thai kicks to the emotional groin, and the very end is just devastating.
Jack Vance, The Book of Dreams- The culmination of the five-novel Demon Princes series. Anticlimactic, but that’s the point, and it works wonderfully. You’ve won what you’ve dedicated your life to- leaving you with nothing.
Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man- The climax of the story sort of comes out of nowhere, but the very end manages to be blackly humorous and straightforwardly horrifying and disturbing at the same time.
John C. Wright, The Golden Transcendence- I’m not all death and gloom. This is the last book of the Golden Age trilogy, one of my favorite science fiction series ever. Like The Night Face, but with a very different set of emotions at the end, it has a truly perfect final sentence. With the conclusion of his trilogy, Wright leaves the reader feeling- as he should- exultant.
If novellas count, Neal Asher, The Engineer- Creepy. As. Hell.
While I’m at it, I’ll throw in a movie:
Colossus: The Forbin Project- Great science fiction movie that sees its own grim logic through to the bitter end. (It’s also quite fun, the second time you watch it, to imagine that the movie chronicles the birth of Neal Asher’s Human Polity.)
Those are the ones that first come to mind and have really stuck with me. Anyone else have a list of favorites?