Way Station (1963) by Clifford D. Simak

waystation1stIf pastoral SF is a legitimate subgenre, Clifford Simak’s Hugo-winning Way Station (originally published as Here Gather the Stars) is at the top of its class, with its drowsy prose and idealistic plot. This is the science fiction book you read on your porch swing, sipping an ice cold lemonade in the dusk of a summer day, between periodic glances at Venus burning bright in the darkening sky.
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Protector (1973) by Larry Niven

protectorIt took me over a week to read this little 200-page book, but not for any reason other than lack of time (and the embarrassment of reading the above pictured paperback in public*). I would have preferred to read it in one or two quick sittings, in order to match the pace and style of the story. The story itself covers lots of temporal space, taking place over a few centuries (and thousands of millennia, really), but Niven’s style is sparse and germane enough to skip over that unnecessary human content and get down to the brass tacks. “Time. Setting. Person. This is what happened. This is what the characters need to find out. This is how they investigate. And this is how a Bussard ramjet works.”

It sounds boring, but it’s not. Niven’s brochure-style writing is enriched by his imaginative ideas about human origins, evolution, and wonked-out space worlds with weird grav. And I really just stuck around for the sweet potatoes. <– this is fun (here, too!) Continue reading

Childhood’s End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke

ChildhoodsEnd(1stEd)To my continued bafflement, it seems like every SF recommendation list and message board suggests Arthur Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama as a highly enjoyable and critical must read. My experience with that novel was less than satisfactory, so I thought I might have hit an overall author dud in terms of taste. But its twenty-year predecessor, Childhood’s End, has always looked like something I would like to read, and the experience was far more entertaining than I expected. I’m surprised Rama gets more online discussion.

Thirty years after the end of WWII, alien ships fill the skies of the world’s biggest cities. The aliens will not reveal themselves, but lead Overlord Karellen communicates his expectations through one perplexed bureaucrat, Rikki Stormgren. Over the next eighty years, the world changes due to the Overlords’ indirect peaceful, yet intrusive rule, but their interest in Earth’s affairs remains a mystery. Continue reading

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

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This 1975 Hugo Award winner is probably the most literary bit of SF I’ve read all year. I’ve never read Le Guin before, but Jo Walton’s Among Others referenced her quite a bit, and made me eager to try her out. I’m glad I did.

Le Guin’s writing is beautiful. Nearly every page, especially for the first half of the novel, contains brilliant observations about the human condition, written in delicate language usually reserved only for high literature. This isn’t sci-fi. This is Literature with a big “L.”

It’s Literature that happens to be about a brilliant alien physicist who lives on an anarchist planet that was settled 180 years prior. As he works to discover a unifying Theory of Time, he finds his ideas stifled by the customs and needs of his anarchist community. He opts to continue his work on a neighboring planet, the planet of origin of his people, where capitalism and militarism reign, and where his work becomes threatened by the possibility of state ownership. This is a story about the tyranny of society, regardless of its legal and political system (or lack thereof), and the strength of the individual in combating that tyranny.

The story is secondary to the backdrop, which is why the second half of the novel dragged. I was much more intrigued by the first half, during which the world-building and philosophizing took place. However, as the worlds of Annares and Urras developed, the story unfolded and I found myself less eager to continue reading. Despite that, it was a beautiful book, and I would recommend it to anyone. Regardless of its vintage publication date, the themes and problems in The Dispossessed are easily transferable to modern times, and it doesn’t read like cheesy ’60’s/’70’s SF. This is a thinking person’s SF novel. Get out your highlighter.

Some quotes:

“A scientist can pretend that his work isn’t himself, it’s merely the impersonal truth. An artist can’t hide behind the truth. He can’t hide anywhere.”

“Nothing said in words ever came out quite even. Things in words got twisted and ran together, instead of staying straight and fitting together.”

“There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”

“Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal, The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.”

Enjoy!

Month in Review: September Reads

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I made considerable headway through the Hugo list this month. Here are my mini-reviews:

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Hugo winner, 2010)- Thailand goes all steampunky after the consequences of climate change cause a Contraction of resources and international trade. From all this, we get a genetically-engineered, wind-up stripper girl, and a series of other characters, all of whom are self-centered, greedy, and just plain horrible. If you like dystopian fiction and graphic rape scenes, this is the book for you. If not, go for the other 2010 Hugo award winner, The City & The City by China Mieville  (which is also kind of dystopian, but without all the rape and horrible people).

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (Hugo winner, 1962)- What happens when an Earthling is born and raised among Martians, then returns to Earth as a young adult? He starts out endearingly naive, (even when he permanently disappears people), exhibits phenomenal telekinetic powers, and then starts a sex cult. Such a weird book, but you have to read it because it’s Heinlein.

Among Others by Jo Walton (Hugo winner, 2012)- First-person, diary-style novel about a magical teen struggling in a mundane private school. Billed as the “reverse Harry Potter,” it feels like a YA book, but it’s tolerable enough to be read by grown ups. The best part– the main character is a major sci-fi bookworm and makes all kinds of references to seventies SF. This book introduced me to Le Guin and Zelazny.

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (Hugo winner, 2011)- Time-traveling Oxford historians from the year 2060 get stuck during the London Blitz and might be wrecking history as a consequence. These two books were my favorites of the month, despite my criticism that they should have been whittled down to one longer book with some considerable editing. It was still an exciting read that was difficult to put down.

My recommendations: Choose Willis’ Blackout/All Clear for the suspense and history. Walton’s Among Others is also great if you want fairies, and don’t mind the young, first-person perspective.