Tuesday, April 25, 2017


I have been an avid fan of science fiction since I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when I was in the 7th grade. I went on to read all the books I could find by Jules Verne and then H.G. Wells. Later I discovered Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. My sources for books back then were the school and public library of a small town, and they did not carry much science fiction, but in the mid-'60s I moved to a big city with actual bookstores, and my science fiction obsession increased, hitting a peak in the '70s. Since then my reading in the genre has declined somewhat, so I am no longer familiar with who the "big names" are. When I decided to do a science fiction binge-read, I chose recent winners of the most prestigious science fiction awards, the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus. The results were a bit disappointing. I find that my favorite science fiction books come from back-when.

To be classified as true science fiction, a novel should include some aspect of actual science or pseudo-science, such as time travel, space travel, aliens from other planets, cloning, futuristic technology, and so on. There is often only a thin line separating science fiction from fantasy, alternate history, dystopian literature, and magical realism. Those on this list all come from the science fiction side of the line.

A doctor creates animal-human hybrids, with unfortunate results. Back when I first read it, I responded only to the suspenseful story. Rereading it years later I see that it has several very serious themes which would still be applicable today.

A collection of short stories concerning human settlers on Mars when Earth is destroyed by atomic war. Bradbury's memorable stories are always deeper in meaning than is first apparent.

A man raised on Mars by Martians is returned to Earth, where he shares what he has learned. Heinlein was a hippy before being a hippy was cool: this novel embraces communal living, free love, and concern for the ecology, for example. A very fun read.

On the desert planet of Dune, two Houses vie for dominance. Herbert's greatest accomplish here is not the story, as exciting as it is, but the creation of a "thick" alternate world, including all aspects--the ecology, the customs, the mystical religions, and so on. And to top it off, giant sand worms.

On a primitive planet colonized by the survivors of destroyed Earth, humans try to find a way to exist among alien species, using advanced technology to pose as gods. Zelazny combines elements of Hinduism and Buddhism is a mind-bending story.

A group capable of blocking the psychic ability of corporate spies is targeted with a bomb explosion, and one of their number dies. Or does he? The rest begin experiencing surreal happenings. Maybe they died and he didn't. Or maybe not. As always, Dick explores the nature of reality.

An Earthling is sent to a distant planet as an emissary for a federation of planets, where he finds he must try to understand an androgynous culture. LeGuin is a most thoughtful writer who bridges the gap between mainstream and genre fiction.

Human soldiers battle aliens in an eons-long space war. This is essentially an anti-war novel, with particular emphasis on the problems of soldiers returning home. Military science fiction with a twist.

A young man with amnesia enters an American city where gangs masked by holograms of grotesque monsters and insects roam the streets. Inexplicable events occur. Two red suns appear in the sky. In truth, this book probably makes little sense, but it fascinates me. I keep thinking that the meaning can be found in just one more reading.

A grand romp through all the tropes of space opera science fiction. Adams comes up with one farcical and hilarious situation after another.

Time travelers from the 22nd century go back to the Pliocene era with no possibility of return and find that ancient aliens with metaphysical powers have peopled the Earth and have subjugated all arrivals from the modern era. This is a four-book series, with the first book, The Golden Torc, being the best.

Earth prepares for an anticipated battle with alien invaders by training young men and women for combat with increasingly difficult games. This reads somewhat like a Young Adult novel, and indeed some of its elements have since been copied for that age group, but it is also absorbing for grown-ups.

Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that combines elements of traditional science fiction with 19th century steam technology. This novel includes a love affair between a human male and a female of an alien species who has a body like that of a human and a head like that of an beetle. And moth-sex. And steam-powered weapons. Mieville seemingly throws out every weird idea he ever had, and the result is memorable and fascinating.

Human clones raised to become organ donors for the wealthy try to give their lives meaning in the time they have left before they are fully harvested. Ishigura is not normally a science fiction writer, and this is literary fiction with a science fiction scenario.

A look at the problems created by cloning and biotechnology and corporate greed in the 23rd century. This is what could happen if Monsanto gains total control of seeds.

I have not included any from the increasingly popular cyberpunk sub-genre, because my old-school, non-computer-literate brain refuses to understand them sufficiently for full appreciation. Those more up-to-date might consider reading Neuromancer by William Gibson, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

I'm not sure what bent of mind is needed to make one a science fiction fan. Back when I frequented Austin's first book store devoted exclusively to science fiction and fantasy, I was often the only female there. The rest were young men in their late teens and early twenties. At any rate, if your mind happens to be bent in this way, I hope this list will be useful.

Monday, April 24, 2017


In the galaxy-spanning war between the Culture and the Idirans, the hero of this space-opera, Horza the Changer, has sided with the Idirans, even though he is humanoid and they are not. Because of his ability to assume the appearance of anyone, he is able to spy on the enemy on behalf of his allies. But then he gets caught by the Culture. And then rescued by the Idirans. And then their ship is blown up. And then he alone escapes death and goes in search of an escaped Mind (a sentient super computer), along with the rag-tag crew of a pirate vessel. And so on and so forth, from one peril to another.

Iian M. Banks saves all this from becoming ridiculous by his near-flawless ability to narrate set-piece space and personal battles so that they become easily visualized and ultra-exciting. He is much less successful at portraying believable characters and elucidating cloudy motivations. In particular, Horza's reasons for hating the Culture are never convincingly explained.

I chose to read this because Banks has been one of the "big names" in science fiction for the past 20 or so years. Judging from this sample book, I would say that he represents the school of action adventure novels very well. It's just not my preferred type of science fiction.


Interesting note: This author also wrote mainstream novels under the name Iain Banks. His novel The Wasp Factory is ultra-creepy and highly memorable.

Thursday, April 20, 2017


A considerable number of science fiction novels are parts of series. For example, Dune has several sequels, but each book has its own story-arc, complete in itself. The same is true of Ender's War and its sequels. So when I picked science fiction books to order for my binge-read, I expected that the books would carry completed plots, even when I knew that the author had written sequels. I am thus completely annoyed that four of the eleven science fiction books I chose turned out to have plots that ended mid-story, and I realized I had to read at least one additional book to see how the story ended. Only in one instance, Hyperion, did I become so invested in the characters and their fates that I decided to read the next book. For the other three--including this one--I decided to just say no. I feel I should have been at least forewarned that I was reading part one of a two- or three-part story, not book one of a series.

So be aware that Blackout does not have an ending. It just stops. The conclusion to the story is apparently in the novel All Clear, which I shall not read.

The science fiction part of Blackout is time travel, which in this case only goes backwards. In the year 2060, universities utilize it to send history students back in time to observe periods of interest. Three students are sent to different locations in England in 1940, as World War II is beginning. One girl masquerades as a maid in a country manor house, caring for children evacuated from London, and another is sent as a department store shop girl in London during the Blitz. A male student pretends to be an American reporter in Dover, observing the evacuation at Dunkirk. Most of the book chronicles their adventures and misadventures in their assumed roles, which are interesting and often highly amusing. Then they realize that they have not been picked up to return to their own time as had been scheduled and that they may be trapped in a highly dangerous place and time. And they begin to fear that their continued presence may even affect history.

Willis's tone is breezy and whimsical and sometimes veers into farce. She does provide a superficial dosage of history, but in essence this is a comic novel I don't know if all her novels hinge on travel back in time, but the three of hers I have read do. She is one of the most popular British science fiction authors. This won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards. It's fun, but not two-books fun, as far as I am concerned.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


Red Mars is hard science fiction, containing much detailed actual scientific information. At least I assume that the scientific commentary is accurate or even a foreseeable extension of present science. As far as I know, it may just as well be gobbledygook, and there is a lot of it. The novel also contains pages and pages of detailed descriptions of the topographic features of Mars, some of which is necessarily fictitious, since the author could not have had this much actual knowledge of the Martian landscape. All of this detracted from the plot elements and often made for scan-reading, at least for me.

The story concerns the first 100 colonizers on Mars and is structured with limited third-person omniscient narration from several members of the group. From the beginning, the stage is set for conflict, with the settlers having radically different ideas about the approach to be used in relation to the Mars landscape. Some want to leave it as undisturbed as possible to preserve its character and beauty, and some want to completely terraform it to duplicate Earth. Personal animosities also flourish, including a love triangle between the three principal characters. When an increasingly war-torn and overpopulated Earth sends s massive numbers of new settlers, a great many to mine Mars' mineral deposits, the ecological conflict already present erupts into armed revolution against the corporate interests seeking to rape the planet.

This novel has obvious parallels in today's culture, particularly as sharp differences appear between those who believe in climate change and preserving the environment and those who reject climate change as nonsense. Other parallels would be the ascendancy of corporate control over world events and the inherent human tendency toward conflict even under "starting over" circumstances. Maybe it is just not possible for us to "just get along."

I found the core story of this novel interesting, except for the love affair sub-plot, which had mature scientists behaving like love-struck 15-year-olds. The scientific accomplishments might or might not be possible, even in the future, but I found it unbelievable that it could happen so quickly. The lengthy descriptions of the Martian planet became boring past belief.

Red Mars won the British Science Fiction Award and the Nebula Award. It is the first of a highly popular trilogy of novels about Mars. But this is just not the kind of science fiction I like. I am sure many would enjoy it, though. It is well done for what it is.

Saturday, April 8, 2017


Red Rising is a mixed hodge podge of plot elements from other best selling books: Ender's Game, The Hunger Games, and Divergent, most notably, with some contribution from The Game of Thrones thrown in. I suppose every author takes inspiration from books which have come before, but Brown carries his emulation to an extreme, contributing no new ideas at all that I could perceive. Like Divergent, this novel features a stratified society; like Ender's Game it features a brutal training school to determine future leaders; like The Hunger Games it features teenagers in combat in primitive circumstances, with an audience which is able to observe their every move and reward winners; and like The Game of Thrones it features political infighting between factions and the author's willingness to kill off principal characters from time to time.

After I read the first ten pages, I checked the internet to see if Red Rising was marketed as a Young Adult book. It was not, to my surprise. It certainly reads like a YA book. and not one of the better ones, at that. It is the first of a trilogy, with all being best sellers. I would not recommend it to an adult reader, but I think my 11-year-old grandson would enjoy it. Parts of it are fast moving and would likely be exciting for young readers.

I have not summarized the specific plot at all, because if you have read the books mentioned above, you can probably pretty much figure it out for yourself.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


This science fiction novel certainly caught me off guard. It starts out with a group of wise-cracking newbies about to board a starship for a tour of duty. It reminded me somewhat of Heinlein's Starship Troopers, and I thought it would proceed according to that formula. But no. After serving on board for a time, the new crew members start noticing that every Away Mission from the ship involves a confrontation with lethal aliens, that the senior officers on the Mission always survive, and that at least one low-ranking crew member is always killed. That's when I caught on to the meaning of the title and realized that I was reading a satire of the Star Trek formula.

Then come many very funny bits, as the crew resort to hiding and subterfuge to avoid being selected for Away Missions, and the officers spout scientific nonsense. Just when the book might have devolved into a one-joke spoof which lasted too long, Scalzi takes the story in an unexpected direction with the possible solution to the crew members' problem. And then, just when the problem seems to be solved and the reader assumes that the story is ending, it's not. There's more, in three Codas, which give the book an entirely new implication.

This is a laugh-out-loud and extremely inventive book. It constantly surprises. It won the Hugo and the Locus Awards. I enjoyed it immensely.

Monday, April 3, 2017

LaRose by Louise Erdrich (2016)

I have always considered Louise Erdrich to be greatly overrated as a writer, even though in the past she has won both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. This novel also won the NBCC, is a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award, to be announced April 4, and is considered to be a top contender for the Pulitzer Prize, to be announced April 10. So even though I had not planned to read LaRose, I decided to give Erdrich another chance to impress me.

The book begins dramatically with a death. While stalking a deer, Landreaux Iron accidentally shoots and kills the 5-year-old son of his best friend and neighbor, Pete Ravich. While the Ravich family is consumed by unimaginable grief, Landreaux suffers from unrelenting guilt and turns to his Ojibwe heritage to seek guidance in a sweat lodge. In a reversion to old traditions, he and his wife give their own 5-year-old son LaRose to the Ravich family, saying, "Our son will be your son." So begins a story of the hard process of healing and forgiveness.

In addition to the core plot, Erdrich includes stories of LaRose's like-named ancestors, the troubles of a conflicted priest, and the revengeful plans of a drug-addled man with a longstanding grudge.

I am still not impressed with Erdrich. It's not that she is incompetent as a writer or that her basic story is not intriguing. I just find her books, including this one, to be lacking in that special quality that would make them exceptional. They are not memorable. They lack focus. They include extraneous side plots with only tenuous connections to the core stories. They most always include a touch of Native American mysticism, which seems to me to be thrown unnecessarily into the mix for the purpose of enhancing her credibility as a chronicler of modern Native American life rather than for plot advancement.

I am sure most readers will enjoy reading LaRose, as I did, but I would classify her books as popular fiction rather than as literary fiction. I am continually surprised when she wins awards.

Saturday, April 1, 2017


Jo Walton creatively combines a fantasy about magic and fairies with the narrator's obsessive commentary about the science fiction of the 1970s to produce a novel that is bound to delight the fans of both genres. I know that I was enchanted.

The narrator, Morweena, is a 15-year-old Welsh girl who has been left with a crippled leg by the car accident which killed her twin sister. The two had been fleeing their mad mother, who happens to be a witch. As the story begins, Morweena has been placed in a boarding school in England, bereft at the loss of her sister and severed from the fairies who had aided her in surviving her mother's wrath. Her only solace is reading the kind of literature she loves--fantasy and science fiction.

The book is structured in the form of Morweena's diary, in which she records not only her loneliness and despair, but also her insightful commentary about the books she reads. Her life takes a more cheerful turn when she is invited to join a science fiction book club, and the diary then includes the club's discussions. But danger is never far away, because her mother may still be intent on destroying her.

Walton never falters in presenting the fictional diary in the entirely believable voice of a precocious teenager. This is a story about loss and acceptance, about growing up, about feeling different and out of place, about the healing power of literature...and about magic.

This is a perfect book for those who read and loved the fantasy and science fiction of the '70s. It combines a matter-of-fact story about fairies, reminiscent of the tone of John Crowley's Little, Big (one of my favorite books ever), with a multitude of references to and discussions about science fiction novels of that era, most of which I read back then. I don't suppose it would be nearly so interesting to those not familiar with the literature of the fantastic, but long-time geeks and nerds like me are bound to love it.

Among Others won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the British Fantasy Award.