Tag Archives: sci-fi

The Man in the High Castle

I had no idea what to expect from this novel. I bought it years ago in Kindle format because Amazon cajoled me into it with a sale and some algorithm-based sales push. Then Gail mentioned that it was coming out in TV format and that she wanted to watch it, so my hand was forced and I cracked the book open. Continue reading

Fahrenheit 451

The first thing I thought of after reading this book was, “Aha, now I know where the people who made Book of Eli got the idea.” My next thought centered around how cool it is to read sci-fi written sixty years ago. If you can’t tell, for the most part, I’m pretty shallow. Continue reading

Redshirts

John Scalzi is a sci-fi writer I heard about years ago. You can get the whole story in my write-up of Old Man’s War from back in 2007 (this book blog is valuable). I don’t usually read one-off sci-fi or fantasy books, but there was a half-off sale at Open Books and I needed some summer reading. This worked nicely. Continue reading

A Feast for Crows

I’m not sure what George R. R. Martin was thinking during this, the fourth book in the series. Well, check that, he explains himself at the end. Basically, this thing is getting so huge and unruly that he had to break the beast up into separate books. Which means we haven’t heard a thing from some pivotal characters in 1000 pages.

Let me make sure I understand this: The whole other half of the story was happening in parallel, at the same time, and we’ll get that half in the next book. Do I have that right?

I found myself bored and confused for the whole time. Yet, yet, I’m still fired up about the next book and I’ll start it soon. This may not make sense, but I have too much invested to stop now. As mentioned during the book three post, there is some magic to a trilogy and we’re beyond that point, so we’re treading on thin ice. I don’t want this to be a repeat of the Dune series, which I eventually shut off in the middle of book five if I recall correctly.

Besides holding off on one half of the story, Martin also deviated from the first three books by loosening his method of naming each chapter after a defined set of main characters, resulting in new perspectives from characters we haven’t heard from before. This threw me a bit of a curve ball. At a certain point I just tuned out a lot of the detail. I’m kind of concerned that my confusion may be starting to ruin the story for me.

If I recall, I shut off Dune because it deviated too much in both style and content from the first book of the original trilogy, which I loved. Martin hasn’t deviated to that extent, not even close in my mind. But I’m much more patient now so maybe some day I’ll re-read the rest of the Dune series. I’m no stranger to falling in love today with books I didn’t like decades ago.

Martin has been especially artful in easing into the magical/supernatural side of things. I like my fantasy/sci-fi to be light on the magic and Martin has a near-perfect mix. In the end, the story is too awesome and the characters too interesting to deaden my interest and anticipation. I’m on to the next one soon.

Dune

I needed some sci-fi. Just felt like it, I guess. I read this book about 15 years ago as one of my earliest forays into the genre, and I loved it. So I bought it again the other day with some Border’s bucks. The cover of the paperback reprint that I read refers to this book as “Science Fiction’s Supreme Masterpiece.” I gotta tell you, that’s an understatement.

I’m not very knowledgeable about sci-fi and the one or two books a year I read in this arena don’t give me much of insight into it. All I can do is tell you that I felt like I held a masterpiece in my hands as I was reading it. It was distinct.

I didn’t get that feeling with The Lord of the Rings or Foundation, both of which I consider in roughly the same genre. Dune just feels cooler, deeper, and more interesting. It’s tough to put my finger on it. It’s sci-fi without a bunch of really fast spaceships. It’s fantasy without a complicated mix of monster-like beings. It’s a different world with a history so detailed that you have to consult a glossary to understand some key points, yet this doesn’t impinge on it’s approachability.

The tale itself is not so groundbreaking. It’s about vengeance. The Atreides family finds itself stuck in some interplanetary politics, leading to their demise. The formula: father killed, mom and noble son left for dead on the planet that was their fiefdom (Arrakis), disenfranchised indigenous peoples team up with nobility to try and overthrow evil occupants.

So yeah, somewhat standard story, maybe even in 1965 when it was published. But that doesn’t detract from it’s coolness. Here why it’s cool:

There is an underlying theme of conservation. The story takes place on a desert planet where people wear special suits to capture bodily fluids for recycling so they don’t waste any moisture. The indigenous people, the Fremen, have a minimalistic approach to life:

The Fremen were supreme in that quality the ancients called “spannungsbogen” – which is, the self-imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.
— From “The Wisdom of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan

The idea permeates the book. Evil is big, fat, and excessive; good is thin, conservative, and wily. Not sure how far ahead of his time Herbert was in discussing this.

The reader gets a big payoff from a little bit of work. The preceding quote is indicative of how the reader gets a lot of history and background information – each chapter begins with a quote from a sacred text. Additionally, Herbert will use terms that are simply not defined within the standard text, assuming that the reader will consult the glossary if needed. But it’s easy and doesn’t ever seem laborious, adding to the genius of it all.

We learn about the force, before there was the force. I couldn’t help but wonder how much George Lucas was influenced by the Bene Gesserit, an “ancient school of mental and physical training established primarily for female students after the Butlerian Jihad destroyed the so-called “thinking machines” and robots.” Which also makes me wonder how much James Cameron was influenced by the Butlerian Jihad when he conceived the Terminator series.

The desert landscape makes for an original, off-world experience. You have space, the ocean, and forests that are often depicted in sci-fi and fantasy settings, but when has a desert been so re-imagined? I can’t think of any, but help me out. Add to that the idea of sandworms roaming underneath the desert sand…attracted to surface disturbances…that can be ridden by hooking onto their back. That’s just a sampling of the imagination that went into this. I was blown away at times.

Dune is part of what was originally conceived as a trilogy by Herbert, but I think it eventually expanded into six books with even more offshoots by others (I’ll read at least the original trilogy over the next few years). There was a movie and a mini-series made of it, but I haven’t see either (I may put them on the list). Oh yeah, did I mention that Iron Maiden paid homage to it on Piece of Mind with a track called To Tame a Land (great tune).

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to proclaim that if you read only one sci-fi book in your life, make it Dune. But hey, that’s coming from someone who’s only reading about one or two per year in the genre, so take it with a grain of salt my friends.

7 Steps to Midnight

Okay, did you see I Am Legend? I thought it was a cool flick. It was based on a book by an author named Richard Matheson. I only read maybe one or two books a year in sci-fi so I need a strong referral to grab one, effectively this movie was my strong referral. I went out and combed the bookstores for Richard Matheson books a few days after seeing the movie and settled on this one. I’m not an expert by any stretch in this genre, so take this critique with a grain of salt.

It’s the story of a mathematician named Chris Barton who is working for the government on some defense project in a highly secure facility on the Arizona desert. He’s stuck on the project and has been working long hours to try and make a breakthrough. He goes home sleepy one night and finds some impostor in his house who has stolen his identity. The impostor calls the “authorities,” but Chris escapes and ends up playing a global cat-and-mouse game with any number of sinister forces bent on killing him.

** PLOT KILLERS FOLLOW **

As you’re reading it, it feels like a horror/supernatural book with a little spy thriller thrown in. In the end though, it’s a spy thriller. All of the “supernatural” things were orchestrated by dark, government forces in order to break Barton out of his funk so he could figure out the last few niggling problems in the Star Wars defense project.

I was kind of disappointed with this realization. It was just a little bit of letdown because I expected some horror aspect. Matheson’s books are clearly in the horror section of the bookstore, but I’m hesitant to classify this on my annual list as horror. Now that’s not to say I didn’t have a whale of a good time reading it. It was a fast-paced novel and relatively exciting.

I’ve read better common man thrown into international intrigue books, but this one holds up. Not much else to say.

The Last Colony

This is my one sci-fi book for the year. That’s one horror and one sci-fi in 2008, which is about normal for me. This is the third, and last, in the Old Man’s War trilogy by Scalzi. I read the first one back in February 2007 and they’ve all been great. I read this one the fastest. In fact, despite being pretty busy, I think I banged this thing out in about 3 days. The only book I can recall reading faster was The Kite Runner.

If I were to rank the books in this trilogy them by coolness, I would go 1, 3, 2. If I were to rank them by how thought provoking they were, I would go 3, 2, 1. On pure action, I’m saying 1, 3, 2. On chances for a great movie, this is the one. I’m reading a few heavy books right now which will get posted between now and the end of the year, so I needed this break from reality.

This book brings together the main character of book one, John Perry, and the main character of book two, Jane Sagan. They are married and living a somewhat genetically unmodified life, with their adopted daughter, on a quiet planet somewhere in another solar system. Then they get an offer from the governing body of the human universe (the Colonial Union) to be the leaders of a new human colony on another planet. It seems like an exciting opportunity to them, so they accept it. There are a couple of curveballs for the couple. First, the mortal enemy of the humans, this group called the Conclave, will stop at nothing to destroy this colony. Second, the Colonial Union may not really care if everyone in the new colony dies and is not above putting the new colony in harm’s way to further their own political agenda.

It’s a good combination of military and politics. Scalzi certainly draws up some intense and creative battle scenes, but the political discussions and verbal sparring are the highlights of this book. The dialogue is complicated and multi-faceted, yet very clear and easy to follow. It centers on a general mistrust of the government’s truthfulness (or lack thereof) with its subjects.

The ending is really cool and wraps up the trilogy (at least according to his credits). But I think he has already incorporated characters in a new book so maybe it will be kept alive forever. If I really wanted to get the story, I could probably just go to Scalzi’s website and read some of his ruminations. Like no other author I know of, his life is really an open book. I used to be more of an avid reader of his blog. I no longer subsribe to his blog feed but I do go there every so often to see what’s up. Check it out. I would love it if more authors did this sort of internet marketing.

The Ghost Brigades

As you may recall, I was completely clueless during Gibson’s Neuromancer. Since then, my only visits to the land of sci-fi have been with Scalzi. This guy writes some really cool stuff and it gives me hope that there is other good sci-fi out there that I’ll enjoy.

This is book two of a trilogy. It’s a follow-up to Old Man’s War but revolves around some new characters, so I think you can get away without reading book one, but I wouldn’t suggest it.

It’s roughly the same setting as Old Man’s War. The Colonial Defense Force is protecting the human race from all sorts of non-humans, but the non-humans are getting more organized and pose a more immediate threat than ever before, especially since they are assisted by a treasonous human. To combat this situation, the Colonial Defense Force calls in the Special Forces.

It’s a lot of military sci-fi after that, but also a fair amount of social commentary. Remember that Old Man’s War had a lot of commentary on the horrors of war. This book’s social commentary relates more to governments, their subjects, the choices that each make, and the amount of free will that the common person actually has.

It’s just great, fun sci-fi. Scalzi is a genius.

Old Man’s War

If you recall, the last time I tangled with sci-fi, it didn’t turn out that great. Well, I think I’ve made amends with the genre because this one turned out fine. Here is the route I took to the point of purchase:

  1. Read this article in the University of Chicago magazine about John Scalzi.
  2. Grabbed the feed to his blog, Whatever, in my Google Reader.
  3. Heard Dave Itzkoff talk about Scalzi on the NYT Book Review podcast.
  4. Purchased this book in paperback at Borders on Clybourn and Webster.

There was a lot of pressure on Mr. Scalzi because I was pumped about this book. His blog is fun to read and the accolades for the guy on all fronts are numerous. This is his first book and it was nominated for the ultimate award in sci-fi, the Hugo. I had very high expectations. Not to worry though, it was a trip worth taking and it exceeded my expectations considerably. It’s a great read and very manageable for someone who rarely reads sci-fi.

Here’s the plot. Earth is only one of many planets habited by humans. To protect all these humans, there is this interstellar group called the Colonial Defense Force (CDF). The main character, John Perry, joins the CDF when he turns 75. That happens to be the minimum age for joining up, but don’t worry, your body gets totally rejuvenated through some genetic mumbo jumbo. What ensues is a good amount of military sci-fi, but there is a heckuva lot more.

I just sit back in awe at Scalzi’s creativity. You can do stuff with sci-fi that you can’t do with regular fiction. Anything is fair game and it just makes for a ton of fun. For sure, it’s a lot more than hi-tech weaponry and virtually indestructible aliens. There is a lot of humor, a little romance, some physics, and a perspective on the victories and horrors of war.

Not that strangely, it’s part of a trilogy. What is the magic in a trilogy? All these sci-fi fantasy books seem to come in trilogies because I guess it beats writing a 1,000 page book. Plus, you charge pretty much the same for a 1,000 pager versus 300 pager, so you may make more money. But why doesn’t anybody do a quartet or a quintuple or something. It could be because the Dune trilogy really started to suck when Frank Herbert decided to do a second, follow-up trilogy. And look at Star Wars, that follow-up, pre-trilogy was kind of bad. I have a feeling that Scalzi will stay true to his trilogy because he just seems like the type of dude to do so.

Neuromancer

I went through a small period back in the mid-1990’s where I read a bunch of sci-fi and fantasy. I read the Dune trilogy, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and the Lord of Rings trilogy. That pretty much gave me my fix and I have not really touched it since. That is, until this week, when I grabbed Neuromancer off the shelf.

When you see lists of sci-fi/fantasy classics, all of the books mentioned in the preceding paragraph are usually included. Neuromancer is different from the others though because it was written in the early 1980s, so it is barely 20 years old. Young by comparison to the others, but advanced based on the year it was written. It envisions a world of interconnected computers, spread across the globe, referred to as the matrix. Those who have the power to master access and information on the matrix can steal, kill, and wreak all sorts of general havoc.

That’s where Case comes in. He spent his younger days jacking in to the matrix and having his way with other people’s information, and money. He made the mistake though of putting a little cash aside for retirement and his boss somehow destroyed his ability to jack in ever again, but kept him very much alive. Now he basically roams the streets of some Japanese city, doing drugs and engaging in contract jobs that may involve killing people. However, he gets a second chance to use his electronic expertise when some shady characters promise to perform an operation to restore his former abilities in return for assisting them in a certain matter.

That’s where this book loses me. It just got very complicated, very fast and I got lost. He introduced characters that I forgot about and started using terms that were never defined. I spent huge chunks of the middle of the book basically without any clue about what was going on. I had the gist of it, the pacing felt like adventurous sci-fi, and I could pick out the main characters, but it was just very confusing. My perspective did come around however, and the last quarter of the book was manageable.

If you are into sci-fi, go for it. I feel like you have to be in practice to read hardcore sci-fi like this and I was just not ready for it. I could pick out many of the ingredients. There is a huge, international conglomerate that is trying to control things with artificial intelligence. There is a leather clad, female assassin with genetically modified, retractable steel claws. And in the end, there is a frantic pursuit to find answers and save the good guys. I don’t know, I guess I’m just not smart enough for this type of book.