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

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One to read with the kiddos: The High Crusade (1960) by Poul Anderson

TheHighCrusade 1stWhen a spaceship lands in the English shire of Ansby during the middle of the Hundred Years’ War, Sir Roger, Baron de Tournville, leads his knights to battle against strange blue “demons,” then hijacks their ship to mount an attack against France. But the lone alien survivor of the Wesgorix, kept alive for information, misleads his captors and autopilots a return to his home empire. Do the merry English bat an eye? Hardly!  The sprawling interstellar empire of the Wesgorix is simply another territory for the Crusade-happy Baron to claim in the name of King Edward III and Christendom.

Monty Python meets Hitchhiker’s Guide? Why not? While the marrying of medieval romps and galactic pioneering sounds as fun today as it did over fifty years ago, the execution is sparse for modern SFers whose mash-up expectations require hundreds of pages, years of research, valid science, and ironic nihilism. But when the first tenth of a novel is dedicated to its most famous fans’ love letters, you know you’ve stumbled on to an important piece of SF history. 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!