Science Fiction Book Review: personal recomendations|
Bruce Sterling's Island in the Net is my favorite book by that author, and one of my favorite science fiction books. Sterling supposedly belongs in the science fiction category called "cyberpunk", but this book lacks the love of violence and the erotic fetishism of technology that other cyberpunk writers (hello William Gibson!) have. Usually, cyberpunk is light on human interaction, heavy on action and seductive adjectives are thrown about with wild abandon. Island in the Net
follows the story of a woman, who is married and has a child, in a near-future world where corporations (and their varied corporate philosophies) are taking over the world. Her company is committed to economic democracy: a kind of star-trek organization where no-one is paid for their work but does it to contribute to the whole, and to enjoy their lives. The tension in the plot is between these new world business, with all their rules, ethics and privacy requirements, and the outlaws of the world:government/corporations who act as data havens, and a third, unstable element: the displaced military-is-might people of the old world. Book finder's note: the old hard-cover version (the picture above, on the left) is easily found through used book web sites (such as A.B.E.) and I strongly recommend it over the small-printed and sexist book cover of the mass paperback edition (pictured above, on the right).
While the Dune series of books were being written, Frank Herbert also wrote a set of books as sequels to his short book (novella?) Destination Void, of which I have read the first sequel: The Jesus Incident. I enjoyed Destination Void a great deal, though it is a demanding novel: the plot is that a spaceship full of cloned humans are flying out to a far galaxy, but in reality, they are an experiment in creating an artificial intelligence. That one time this was done on earth, the entire island that was the exploratory stage was destroyed by the intelligence (and it is presumed, disappeared somehow, as no remains are found). Since creating an artificial intelligence is so dangerous, current efforts are conducted far from Earth, to minimize the potential damage. Cloned people are used to minimize differences between experimental sessions. The story line follows the ship crew going about building this artificial intelligence. Eventually, as expected, they succeed, and the first book ends. The 2nd book, The Jesus Incident is set on the planet where Ship has landed them, where they attempt to survive in a harsh realm. I enjoyed this second book less, as it is less intellectually demanding and much lighter on ideas. I will probably read the next book in the series, and then make my mind up about reading the entire sequence.
I greatly enjoyed Marion Zimmer Bradley's huge The Mists of Avalon. At first, I thought it would be a simple-minded, doctrinaire (ie: Feminism as Doctrine) retelling of a known story (King Arthur's tails). Instead, I found myself captivated by the characters, and the focus on the older generation of the "witches" of Avalon being replaced by the crude, life-negating Christian religion.
Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 is not normally associated with science fiction, but rather with fine literature, but since the plot is classic sci-fi, I am including it here. Reading this book after reading Robert Anton Wilson's many books (including his Illuminatus trilogy) I realize just how influencial this book was. While I enjoyed the story, and much like Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, it is genre-creating: I cannot say that this book will stay with me forever. The writing is solid, competent, but (at least to me) does not show the quality of genius that Pynchon is adored for. I enjoyed Gravity's Rainbow more.
One of the great classics of science fiction literature, Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz is possibly my favorite science fiction book. Ironically, it was assigned to me as a "summer reading assignment" before commencing a college-freshman course on English literature. The fact that I was the only one in the class who read the summer reading assignments (everyone else had ignored them), the only one who loved this book (and told my teacher) yet still failed the first day test on it was one of the major reasons I abandoned English as a possible college major. The (after 30 years) sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman bears little resemblance to the original book. As I understand it, the sequel was released after Miller's death, and subsequently edited by a hired editor. I did enjoy the story, though it dragged at times: it felt like a better-than-average science fiction story, but definitely not in the same class as the original. I'd recommend it for people who want to experience some of the old flavor of A Canticle for Liebowitz.
These two compendiums, edited by Ben Nova, of the Science Fiction Writers of America, are absolute gems. They collect the best science fiction novellas from the time before the Hugo awards existed (about 1880-1960). This was the golden age of SciFi, with ideas being explored for the first time. There is a disproportionate share plot devices involving nuclear energy, but that's to be expected for the time when it was written.
A collection of the greatest old science fiction short stories, similar to the collection of Novellas above, which were voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America as the best of old SciFi.Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.
I greatly enjoyed James Halperin's two novels The Truth Machine and The First Immortal. Halperin's ideas for possibilties in the future, and follow through of the effects of those ideas is masterful. The best science fiction seems to be where you change just one thing, and then watch that one thing play out and ripple through events, changing everything in their wake. Unfortunately, Halperin's writing skills are amateurish. His dialogues and characterizations are both clichéd and shallow, making his books at times painful to read. Perserve though, and you will be rewarded with a mind full of things to think about.
Carl Sagan's Contact is the only science fiction novel he wrote, and it is a fun, easy-to-read, entertaining book. Great literature, it is not -- it merits being included among the great books of science fiction because of the power of its ideas, but be forewarned, that this is very light reading (perhaps two evenings to finish).
Robert Anton Wilson's Schrodinger's Cat, like his Illuminatis Trilogy is a fun, romp of a science fiction novel. Lovers of paranoia stories and world conspiracies will be especially charmed. Think of Thomas Pynchon writing consumer-pleasing simple SciFi about world conspiracies. The Illuminatis Trilogy is the better of the two books.
A collection of short stories around a common theme, I thoroughly enjoyed Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix Plus. One story in particular, about living inside a highly evolved insect-world, was engrossing (I forced my wife to read it immediately after I had). This book is a great way to become acquainted with Bruce Sterling.
Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land is more than just an excellent (easy-to-read) science fiction novel. I believe it's an excellent analysis of the dynamics of religion and religious organizations.
Bruce Sterling's The Artificial Kid is an entertaining, easy read. Features a William Gibson-like main character with super cool hair (electronically charged, no less) who kills lots of people.
How to Mutate and Take over the World by RU Sirius and St. Jude is a completely worthless book. It attempts to feel like reading a 5 year old Usenet discussion thread from the future, but it is "crafted" with such carelessness that it *reads* like your basic Usenet thread - that is to say, written without any editing, spouting juvenile opinions as they strike the mind, and babbling without purpose. I think I was supposed to be shocked by this book, but I was just booooored. I was especially disappointed because I've been a long-time fan of both these writers, when they founded the important magazine Reality Hackers, which later mutated into the slick Mondo 2000 (which I still liked, for the first few issues, until they started hiring less accomplished writers and covering fashion more, finally plunging the magazine into death).
Neil Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is a great story, and easy, engrossing read, and much better than your average SciFi novel. The plot follows two parallel tracks, one following the decryption of Nazi communiqués during World War II, and another the building of a data-haven on a Pacific island. Because the main character of the W.W.II story line is a hyper-intellectual mathematician, there are plenty of intelligent discussions, and analyses of interactions with the rest of the world, from the point of view of someone with a brain on their shoulders (i.e. doesn't pander to the average dumb reader, like more paperback SciFi does)
Frank Herbert's Dune series are a classic of science fiction, and highly recommended. Before you get involved in them, however, be sure to set aside a month of relative inactivity so that you can read them all. It's hard to stop once you get sucked in. Although not as good as the original, I did enjoy Herbert's son Brian (with Kevin Anderson) novel about the early Dune universe.
William Gibson's Virtual Light was a fun read, that I've now, one year later, totally forgotten.
William Gibson's Idoru is a fun science fiction novel set mostly in Japan. It features all the usual Gibson trademarks: VR, hoodlums, totally-cool-like-you-know-way-dude characters. I enjoyed reading it, but it left no lasting impression.
Bruce Sterling's Heavy Weather is not his best book, but it is fun, and is the only book I've found that focuses on the thrill seeking types of people who follow big stormy weather, especially tornadoes.
Bruce Sterling's Crystal Express is a book I don't remember at all. I will have to reread it to give a description.
Isaac Asimov's I, Robot is classic of science fiction. That said, as writing it is fairly primitive. Asimov has a recipe for every sort story in this book (really a collection of short stories, and not a novel): solve a puzzle, usually a paradox caused by the "3 laws of Robotics". Machismo runs rampant in many stories, with obsolete male bonding rituals thrown in for character (lots of threatened violence, for example). I enjoyed the ideas, but the execution left something to be desired.
Bruce Sterling's A Good Old-fashioned Future is a collection of short stories of various themes, all fun and professionally executed, with a few real standouts. I was especially amused to see Sterling "Channelling" Salman Rushdie in his story "Sacred Cow" (about an Indian Bollywood filmaker lost in Britain, fleeing the Tax Authorities -- just oh so Rushdie, it was odd [he even refers to Rushdie in an aside of the story]). The first story, "Maneki Neko" is about the next logical evolution of Pokemon like toys: they tell us what to do to improve our lives (no more feeding them, eh!). This is what Sterling does best: he takes a single interesting idea, and plays it out to its logical conclusion. Still, in this collection of stories, I was pleased to see Sterling branching out in new area, such as the barely sci-fi, more social documentary of The Littlest Jackal, reminiscent of Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist. Big Jelly is fun for its levity: the characters are all silly, and the plot silly, but that's what makes it fun. The best piece of the book is the last: Taklamakan, in that it describes a new kind of Universe. As with his Schismatrix Insect-World Story, it's a plausible, well defined and engrossing alternate world.
Dan Simmon's Hyperion is the first of a five novel series. I read it because it was strongly recommended by a friend (actually, he bought me all 5 books, and many other books, as a "greeting present" on our first in-person meeting -- we had exchanged quite a bit of email beforehand). I felt this book was an easy read, an interesting weaving of short stories around a central theme, but in the end, totally devoid of any meaning, or any need to "say something". It was purely entertaining science fiction, and didn't aspire to be anything else. I also didn't find any motive behind the author's writing the book -- most books I read cry out to have been written by the author, but this felt like a straight commercial enterprise.
Robert Silverberg's The Alien Years disappointed me such that I stopped reading about 150 pages into the book. There was nothing interesting about it: a common story of alien invasion, with trite characterizations that were almost insulting to read. I've read short stories of his that were excellent so I was suprised to not like this, his supposed "epic masterpiece", at all.
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