Month in Review: October Reads and Recommendations

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October sent me all over the SF/F genre with my random Hugo reads. I was introduced to an anarchist alien physicist, subjugated deities, steampunk zombies, and cyberpunk druggies. So now, as I sit around waiting for trick-or-treaters (and eating their candy), I present to you my mini-reviews of what I read this month and what I recommend to anyone seeking a good SF/F book.

(Okay, creepy moment just now: I just heard a very loud train whistle behind my house. The nearest railroad track is at least 20 miles away. In the other direction. Spooooky.)

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin (Hugo winner, 1975) This novel about an alien physicist from an anarchist planet is by far my pick for the best SF I read this month. It’s beautifully written, with golden nuggets on the human condition located on nearly every page. For you fantasy lovers who steer clear of outer space SF due to its often cold and distant style, this is a great novel to experience the heart and soul of humanity beyond Earth, through the eyes of a brilliant physicist on the cusp of a major breakthrough, who must navigate the constraints of society and intellectual freedom (both anarchist and fascist). The protagonist is warm, introspective, and genuine, and the philosophical scope of the story is huge.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemison (Hugo nominee, 2011) Yeine is a teenage clan leader who digs dark, brooding deities. That’s all you need to know. I mean, she might risk her life to become the next ruler of the most powerful kingdom in her world, but… OMG, the Darklord is so hot! And complicated! And lonely! This was my least favorite book of the month, due to the poor writing, weak characters, and untapped potential of many more intriguing story nooks. It could have been way better. Hey, NaNoWriMo folks– somebody needs to take this premise and try again! They reboot movies all the time, so why not novels?

Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century) by Cherie Priest (Hugo nominee, 2010) Civil War-era Seattle is polluted by a zombie-causing gas, but Ezekiel Wilkes breaches the walls anyway, and his mama follows after him. They ride airships, fight zombies, and meet a colorful cast of steampunky characters who guide them back together. All the action and adventure still had me bored, mainly because I could not understand why, when you have zombies walled up with flammable gas, did no one think to just ignite the city for one night and move on?

Neuromancer by William Gibson (Hugo winner, 1985) You know it’s going to be trippy when Rastafarian space tugboat drivers are involved, but that’s not even tip of the Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics (ICE)-berg. (Lots of Halloween candy = terrible SF puns.) Computer hacker Henry Case is tasked to upload a virus to breach the ICE of the most powerful dynasty in the universe… but who is really giving the orders? The plot is unwieldy, and the characters are as stale as last year’s candy corn, but Gibson’s 1985 vision for the future of human interaction with computers is pretty uncanny. Read history as it is foretold and, possibly, sculpted, as Gibson coins terms like “cyberspace” and “matrix.”

My recommendations: Read Le Guin, because she’s beautiful. Read Gibson for the novelty. Avoid Jemison and Priest, unless you think poor writing and plot holes are worth the gimmicky premises.

Upcoming November reads: November will be heavy on outer space. I’m finishing Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama this week, then I’m declaring November as Kim Stanley Robinson month! I loved this year’s nominee 2312, and I have been eager to experience his Mars trilogy, all of which appeared on the Hugo list throughout the nineties. I also hope to cap off the month with either C.J. Cherryh or Octavia Butler, as I am close to completing the “Women of Genre Fiction” challenge over at WorldsWithoutEnd.

Happy Reading! I need to go investigate this phantom train…

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!