Sunday, August 16th, 2015

Last night I finished reading The End Of All Things, the latest science-fiction novel from John Scalzi, and I have to say that I felt he overpromised and underdelivered by several orders of magnitude. All the things did not end. Not even close. There were, to be fair, a number of things that did end, but by far the vast majority of things did not end. In fact, I would have to say that, on a scale of “All Things,” the number of things that ended was statistically insignificant. So the title was a little misleading. Chalk it up to poetic license, I guess.

But other than that teensy-tiny little nitpick, I’d say it was a good read. The book is actually four novelettes (plus a bonus 25-page “deleted and alternate scenes” coda) set in the same storyline where Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War first conjured up what has become known in the mind-bogglingly technical nomenclature of science fiction fandom as “The OMW Universe.” You don’t have to read Old Man’s War to get maximum enjoyment out of The End Of All Things. It works just fine as a stand-alone collection, but I’m going to give you fair warning that The End Of All Things may leave you with an overpowering compulsion to get your hands on a copy of Old Man’s War, and from there you’re gonna want The Ghost Brigades and oh geeze you’re in it for the long haul at that point because, damn, these books are fun to read.

In the OMW Universe, humans colonize far-flung planets with the help of the Colonial Union, a organization that does not have the motto “We come in peace” emblazoned anywhere on its great seal, or a prime directive of non-interference with aliens it discovers on the planets it means to colonize. The CU exists to shove the aliens aside and make sure they stay shoved. This policy results in some hard feelings between humans and non-humans, to say the least. Hard feelings lead to conflict, and if I recall anything useful at all from the English Lit classes I took thirty-some years ago, it is that conflict is the heart and soul of exciting drama.

Each novelette in The End Of All Things is about a hundred pages long, give or take ten or twenty pages, so you could treat this book as four yummy afternoon snacks, but if you got it into your head to binge-read the whole thing from cover to cover, you could probably gobble it up in a weekend. Scalzi’s previous OMW book, The Human Division, was a similar collection of novelettes, and also one hell of a fun read. Again, you don’t have to read The Human Division to know what’s going on in The End Of All Things but, again, you’ll probably want to afterwards. Just sayin’.

Scalzi’s been compared favorably to Heinlein for his storytelling abilities; I would say that’s about right if you’re comparing Scalzi’s work to Heinlein’s earlier adventure novels, like Tunnel In The Sky or The Puppet Masters, not so much if you’re into Heinlein’s later works. For what it’s worth, when I read Scalzi’s stories, I get a vibe that’s a lot like the one coming from my favorite Joe Haldeman books, like The Hemingway Hoax or The Forever War, but I also feel as though I can detect a witty harmonic wave that’s a lot like the one running through Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker books. The characters in Scalzi’s stories talk like people I know and would be friends with; they take the time to intelligently think a situation all the way through, but they never take themselves so ridiculously seriously that I have to roll my eyes and moan, “Oh, come on, now.”

To sum up, an entertaining sci-fi adventure for a weekend, or to string out over several days, and don’t let the title put you off. All the things, relatively speaking, are pretty safe.

The End Of All Things | 5:19 pm CDT
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Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

image of book cover for John Scalzi's book RedshirtsI had John Scalzi’s book Redshirts on request for so long at the library that I forgot I’d even asked them for it until we stopped day before yesterday so My Darling B could pick up the dozen or so books she had on hold. When she came back to the checkout, Redshirts was on the top of her pile.

I started reading it immediately. Really, I read the first five pages while she was scanning her books. I read the first couple chapters as soon as we got home. I kept reading it as late into the night as I could, which isn’t very late on a work night. I read it on breaks. I read it at lunch. I finished reading it last night. I couldn’t stop reading it.

One of the reasons for that is, Scalzi’s books are mostly dialog. At least the ones I’ve read are. His characters hardly ever stop talking long enough for him to have to explain anything. They do it for him. And they’re never boring characters. If I could have just one wish, I’d like to meet actual people as witty and interesting as the characters in Scalzi’s books.

Being mostly dialog, Scalzi’s books are usually a quick read for me. The pages aren’t dauntingly packed with dense prose and, as I said, the banter is witty and entertaining. No matter how much I’ve read, I never feel I’ve read enough. I just keep gobbling it up until it’s almost midnight and I realize that, if I don’t go to bed soon, I’ll end up taking a nap for an hour before I have to head to the office and won’t I be cranky the rest of the day then?

If you know anything about Star Trek, you know that, when Captain Kirk, Spock and McCoy beamed down to a new planet each week, there was usually a crew member who beamed down with them, and the poor bastard’s one job on the away team was to get killed by aliens before the commercial break. Among science fiction nerds, expendable characters are called “redshirts” because security guards on the Enterprise, the guys who usually beamed down to protect Kirk and Spock, wore red shirts. The redshirt effect even carried over to Scotty, who got the crap kicked out of him on a regular basis.

In Star Trek, the fact that the security guards always die when they’re on an away team with Kirk seems to go unnoticed. In Redshirts, Scalzi’s characters are keenly aware of the fact and not only look for the reason, they try to figure out how to put an end to the madness. When I got to that part, I couldn’t have stopped reading for all the beer in town.

The book ends with four codas that I haven’t read yet. Probably have to take a long lunch today.

Redshirts | 6:07 am CDT
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Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

National Public Radio asked listeners to nominate their favorite fantasy and science fiction books, whittled the list down to a couple hundred, then asked listeners to vote for their top ten favorites. The aim was to discover what people considered to be the top 100 science fiction and fantasy books of all time.

I’m a little irritated that they mashed science fiction and fantasy together into the same pseudo-genre. They’re nowhere near the same thing, and anybody who says they are is just itching for a fight with the caretakers of the memory of Hugo Gernsback.

But I’m not coming to the party to split hairs, I’m here to pick my favorite ten titles from the ones they gave us. I copied and pasted the list to a notepad, then cut out all the titles that I was sure I hadn’t read. Then I went over the list again and cut out all the titles I wasn’t sure I’d read. That left me with:

1984, by George Orwell
2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, by Robert Heinlein
Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
Contact, by Carl Sagan
The Day of Triffids, by John Wyndham
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
The Heechee Saga, by Frederik Pohl
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
The Lathe Of Heaven, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Lensman Series, by E.E. Smith
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
The Number Of The Beast, by Robert Heinlein
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
Oryx And Crake, by Margaret Atwood
Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson
Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
Ringworld, by Larry Niven
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Sirens Of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
The Stainless Steel Rat Books, by Harry Harrison
The Stand, by Stephen King
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
Time Enough For Love, by Robert Heinlein
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak
World War Z, by Max Brooks

I’m pretty sure I’ve read all these books. I’d bet you a beer I had, anyway.

First off, the books I’m not going to vote for:

Battlefield Earth? Seriously?

I’m also not going to vote for a series of books. That’s just not fair to the authors who have just one book on the list.

Also, I’m going to vote mostly for science fiction books. I might as well just put that out there right now. And by “science fiction,” I mean books that are set in the world of the possible. Space ships are possible. However much woo and handwavium they use to get from here to there, space ships exist. Fire-breathing dragons are not possible. They are very cool, but they have never existed and will never exist. Therefore, Tolkein’s or Anne McCaffrey’s worlds are not in the same league as anything dreamed up by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells or Ray Bradbury. They are still very cool, they’re just not possible. That’s just how it is.

Why is Watership Down on this list? Anyone? Loved the story, but … why?

Now, out of all these titles, which are the ten that I liked best? Hmmm…

My number-one pick has got to be The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams’s masterpiece, his magnum opus, his gift to geekdom. I have a long-abiding faith that anyone who loves science fiction will always have a soft spot for this wonderfully witty work of art. I suppose it’s possible that someone out there doesn’t like H2G2 and yet can somehow prove they are Of The Body. Possible, but frankly I feel it’s only as possible as the chance that a stack of gold coins will issue from my posterior this evening. To love science fiction is to love this ingeniously funny send-up of the genre. It gets my first vote.

My second vote has to go to Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein, for several reasons. First of all: Just because. Second, who wouldn’t love a science-fiction novel about soldiers in robot armor blasting giant spiders from space? Spiders from space, people! How is that NOT one of the greatest science-fiction novels ever? Yes, I’m aware that there’s a fascist government. Yes, I’m aware the action is meant to be cover for the long, boring lectures about democracy morality blah blah blah. Whatever. I say again: Spiders from space! Soldiers in robot armor! This is nerd-o-riffic stuff! I have but ten votes to give, and this one must get my vote. I am helpless to vote otherwise.

The War of The Worlds gets my third vote if only because it’s got the all-time greatest opening of any science-fiction book I have ever read, and it just keeps getting better every time I read it:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

That’s not far from Shakespearian, folks. A story about the invasion of the Earth written in prose like that? Gotta be my third choice.

The Left Hand of Darkness gets my fourth vote, first because Ursula Le Guin is and always will be one of my favorite authors, and because this is not just a geek-o-riffic story about life on other worlds, but because it’s one of the all-time great stories about one of the most true friendships ever described. I’ve revisited this story every few years and I get something new out of it every time I do.

I decided to cast my fifth vote for Solaris even though I had one hell of a time learning to like it. In fact, I flat-out disliked it the first time I read it. I thought it was turgid to the point of being nearly impenetrable, but after it had simmered at the back of my mind for a while I picked it up and re-read it again. By the time I finished, I liked it enough to think on it a bit longer, then picked it up again several months later and read it a third time. As it grew on me I realized that this is an iconic work of science fiction, a work that every reader of science fiction should have in their bookcase. I should have had it in my bookcase! And now I do. And I’m voting for it in my top ten.

Brave New World deserves a vote as one of the seminal science fiction works of the genre. Some people would say that Frankenstein should get a vote for the same reason, but Frankenstein is long-winded and makes me sleepy, while Brave New World is funny and keeps me awake. Vote.

I’d have to give a vote to Rendesvouz with Rama not because I’m a rabid fan of Arthur C. Clark – if I were, I’d probably vote for 2001: A Space Odyssey instead – but because it fits my idea of a truly geeky science-fiction novel: Astronauts board an apparently abandoned alien vessel as it enters the solar system. While they’re inside, trying to figure it out, it comes to life. Clark could have made this into a pulp fiction horror story, but instead he let it play out as a story of wonder and discovery. I read the book just once and it still sticks in my head after all these years.

Ringworld has a hard and fast claim on my vote as one of my all-time favorites. For my money, some of the best SF stories are gadget porn. Ringworld is a story set in a world that is one of the greatest artifacts ever conceived, a ring around a star. Mind blown.

I’m not sure why Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s memoir of his incarceration as a prisoner of war during World War Two, is on this list, but since it is, and there are space aliens in it, it gets my vote. Everyone should read this book at least once. Also contains the single funniest line I’ve ever read in a work of fiction: “Billy Pilgrim made a noise like a rusty door hinge as he emptied his seminal vesicles into Montana Wildhack.” Hi-ho.

And finally, the one vote I have left would have to go to The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a book that’s going to be read by lots and lots of people for a lot of years. Great story.

skiffy | 10:25 pm CDT
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