Reading Through the [Alleged] Best 100 Science Fiction Books – #56-60

I’m a huge science fiction fan, but realized I haven’t read a lot of those works considered classics or greats. I decided to remedy that, and found a list online of the Top 100 Science Fiction Books. The list is determined by vote from sci-fi fans online, so it may change over time. I am going off the order of the list as it was when I first saw it. Each book will receive a grade between F and A+ as well as very brief comments. I’m interested to read what you think about these books as well. There will be very minor spoilers in some of these.

56. The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton Grade: C-
“I wanted to like this one a lot more than I did. Hamilton seemed more focused on describing details of sex than upon advancing the plot. It’s another overly long space opera that makes length key to a good science fiction epic as opposed to substance. It was chock-full of cool ideas, though, so it gets a passing grade for that. I definitely see why others would love this one a lot. It just wasn’t for me. It’s also possible it hit me at the wrong time. I thought some of the discussion of worldview was offputting as well.”

57. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson Grade: B
“It never quite reached the heights of Snow Crash, and it seemed a bit too wordy, but it was still pretty thrilling. The interplay of the two (plus!) plots that were all woven together made it an interesting read just to see how it was written. Stephenson also does a tremendous job writing cyberpunk, though I guess it is technically postcyberpunk, based on a perusal of articles based on the book. It was intense at times, but also went down too many rabbit holes. A good, not great book.”

58. A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick Grade: C+
“It’s only barely science fiction, which was disappointing. It’s basically a pseudo-autobiographical account of Dick’s own life in drug culture and the startling toll that culture makes its adherents pay. The characters aren’t much to write home about, but they get the job done. At times it shines through with the radical strangeness that makes Dick interesting to read, but I really don’t understand how it made this to 100 list, to be honest. It didn’t capture me at all through characters or plot.”

59. Startide Rising by David Brin Grade: C+
“I wanted to like this one so much. It started off with so many cool concepts–humanity helping along other species on earth to achieve space flight, among other things; a lost, ancient fleet discovered and all the promise there; some neat (and nefarious) aliens–but it never fully cashed in on any one of them. The scope of the plot was quite narrow, which made it even more difficult to swallow the somewhat plodding pace and lack of real development of characters. The other books in the series were better, but again felt more like ideas than fleshed out narratives.”

60. The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Grade: F
“Not quite the disaster that is ‘Slaughterhouse Five,’ but it has become clear after reading 3 Vonnegut books on this list that he is just not for me. Yes, I do see the moments of comic genius. However, those very brief and rare moments do not make up for hundreds of pages of jokes that fall flat, terrible pacing, boring (at best) characters, and stunted attacks on religion. It’s just not good. This is basically another iteration of the other two Vonnegut books on the list, just rinse and repeat. Plot that goes all over the place with little cohesion? Check. Characters full of themselves and writing that displays more pomp than content? Check. Inane references to aliens that are never fleshed out? Check. Asinine comments about religion that sound like a whining child? Check. Down the garbage disposal, for me. Glad I got these from the library.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Reading through the [Alleged] Best 100 Science Fiction Books– Check out more posts in this series as I continue.

SDG.

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My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1953

First Edition Cover By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9110826

I’ve almost completed my read-through of the top science fiction books of all time and was casting about for something else to do. I decided that reading through the list of Hugo award winners and nominees wasn’t a bad way to spend my time. I start here, at the beginning, with the first Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel. Each year, I’ll read all the books nominated and pick my own winner, while also noting which novel won the award that year.

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (winner/my winner)
Grade: A-
I thought I had the whole book figured out fairly early on, but Bester got me big on this one at a number of points. I didn’t figure out the ‘truth’ at the center of the novel until the very last pages. I am the kind of person who doesn’t really try to figure things out because I enjoy the development, so that doesn’t necessarily mean it was a masterful manipulation of the plot, but I think it speaks well of the strength of Bester’s storytelling. Does he rely on some pretty outdated psychology? Absolutely, but that doesn’t take much away from the overall enjoyment of the work. As this is the only book nominated this year, it makes my own choice of winner quite simple.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Presidential Biographies: John Tyler #10

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with John Tyler, the tenth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and  this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was John Tyler by Gary May.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

John Tyler by Gary May

John Tyler was a man of many firsts for the United States. Often nicknamed “The Accidental President,” he was the first President to succeed a former one because William Henry Harrison died while in office–only 31 days in! He also was the first to have his Veto overturned by Congress. Tyler was a Whig, but one who was a strict constructionist who felt the President should guide policy. It was an interesting balance, and it was somewhat clear his party never really intended for him to be President.

Tyler was born to a powerful Viriginia family that owned slaves and he spent much of his life in positions of power. His upbringing made him an ally of those who enslaved others, and this came through in his Presidency as well. He almost always framed this support in terms of states’ rights, a kind of historical lie that has continued into this day. Tyler, however, was more consistent with his application of this than some of his contemporaries *casts meaningful glances towards Andrew Jackson.* His opposition to Jackson during the nullification crisis is one example of this–though a cynical person might simply argue he was just favoring the South yet again. He was also critical of Jackson during the Bank crisis. Strangely, once he attained the highest office in the land, he worked to expand the power of the President himself, liberally using the power to veto and working to define the Presidency’s role alongside other powers. Internationally, Tyler oversaw treaties with Britain and China, each of which strengthened our relations with foreign powers.

At the start of the Civil War, Tyler was nominated to the Congress of the Confederate States, sealing his position as a treasonous President.

May’s analysis of Tyler is particularly intriguing, because he points out that while Tyler is often seen as one of the “footnote” type Presidents, he actually did quite a bit to solidify the strengthening of the office of the President that Andrew Jackson had really begun to expand. Through his repeated use of the veto, he exercised his Constitutional rights in ways that may not have been fully anticipated by the authors of that document. Moreover, he showed that the office of the President can be interpreted–as Jackson did–as a kind of will of the people. Tyler was an intriguing President, even if he was accidental.

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.

3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.

4. John Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.

5. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.

6. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.

7. Martin Van Buren (8th President- original ranking- #7): How do you analyze a man who was perhaps first and foremost a politician? Though that word has become something of a pejorative depending on its usage now, Van Buren didn’t play the system so much as he created one. He created what would develop into the modern day political party, taking what Andrew Jackson had started and running with it. He did so on a local and then national level, leveraging it to eventually become President of the United States. His continuation of Jackson’s policies towards Native groups caused enormous harm. His outright support of slavery may be baffling in light of his being remembered by contemporaries as a voracious abolitionist, but this change in policy was later in life and cynics may argue that it was a policy of convenience. He struggled as President to get much passed, largely due to his shouldering the blame for the economic crisis that greeted the beginning of his Presidency. His political skill helped create our modern political system, for better or ill. No matter what you think of him, he does at least give me the chance to use my new favorite phrase of this list: “He’s still a better President than Andrew Jackson.”

8. John Tyler (10th President- Original ranking- #8): The Accidental President helped to solidify the role of the President while also balancing concerns for his party and his own political beliefs. As a Congress member and as President he remained adamantly allied to slavery and a slaveholder. He strengthened the position of the President and helped clarify the office’s role in our three party system. He was a major supporter of states’ rights, but again this was largely due to his support of slavery over and against any move by the federal government to oppose it. An enigmatic, oft-forgotten President who may have had more influence than we would think.

9. William Henry Harrison (9th President- Original ranking- #8): I know the immediate complaint for not having Harrison at the bottom would be something like “He was barely President for a month! How can he outrank… anyone?” First, the sheer amount of damage that the/those President(s) ranked beneath Harrison did to our country and people moves them lower. As my new saying goes, “Still a better President than Andrew Jackson.” Second, Harrison’s own potential damage to our country was limited as President, but he still deserves a rank quite low not just because he did very little as President but because his whole body of work is a testament to how poorly the U.S. has treated those it considers “other.”

10. Andrew Jackson (7th President- original ranking- #7): I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how Jackson manages to get ranked so highly on so many lists of Presidents. On the positive side, he did help prevent an earlier Civil War by, eventually, ending the nullification crisis. He defined the office of President as representative of the people. He also was the first to truly form up a political party around himself and help use it to shape the dynamics of policy. Not an unimpressive list of accomplishments. Yet he was also an extremely staunch defender of slavery, to the point of failing in his office to enforce the law by allowing freedom of speech to be impeded by federal postmasters through the south. He personally oversaw slaughters of Native groups and set up and endorsed policies that would lead to countless thousands of deaths and atrocities against Native Americans. He callously saw only white people as worthy of the words of the Constitution, as demonstrated in both of these actions. Moreover, he used federal power and authority only when it suited him–if he wanted something to happen, he had no qualms about using federal authority; if he did not, he shamelessly looked the other way. He was concerned primarily with himself and ensuring his own success. He is vastly overrated.

*Rankings not definitive

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Star Trek: DS9 Season 4 “The Sword of Kahless” and “Our Man Bashir”

Secret agent men.

I’ve completed my re-watch of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Now it’s time to start Deep Space Nine! I am much less familiar with this show, though I’m pretty sure I’ve seen about 80-90% of the episodes. It’s been so long that I’m sure it will all feel brand new. My wife has never seen the show. She and I will go through, review every episode, and give commentary and a grade from A-F. There are SPOILERS for each episode below. Without further adieu, here’s:

“The Sword of Kahless”

Synopsis

A Klingon warrior, Kor is on station and convinces Dax and Worf to go with him on what seems a fool’s errand: finding the Sword of Kahless, the original Bat’leth that Kahless himself used. He believes it will help to bring the Klingon Empire back to the right path. However, other players are involved who steal information on the Sword’s whereabouts, and when the three heroes eventually find it, they must fight to keep it in their possession. After their victory, though, it becomes clear the Sword’s real existence may actually be a significant problem, as it seems to be influencing both Kor and Worf to fight for its prestige. Dax takes control of the Sword after some bickering, and eventually Worf and Kor realize the divisive power of the Sword. They beam it into space, hoping that one day it will be able to be possessed by a Klingon Empire that is ready for it.

Commentary

Okay, let’s admit that this episode has some problems. First, it has a pretty slow moving middle, with the episode getting bogged down in the cave system after the Sword is recovered. Second, the rapid descent into chaos with both Worf and Kor is a stretch.

But what does the episode have in droves? Klingon awesomeness. And Klingon lore and chest slapping kickassery makes up for a lot of boring downtime. I liked the episode quite a bit and bought into the lore of the Sword of Kahless. It’s exactly the kind of thing that could make for a Klingon version of Indiana Jones, and I appreciated that aspect of it a lot. It also gave some more development to the relationship between Dax and Worf.

Grade: B+ “It was a bit overdone, but I love Klingon lore and this episode has it in droves.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: B “It was a cool Klingon story. That’s about it.”

“Our Man Bashir”

Synopsis

Bashir has, of course, created a secret agent program in the holosuites on DS9. As he’s involved in one such program with Garak, a runabout with a lot of the senior crew malfunctions and the patterns of the crew members must be stored in station memory in order to save their lives. Of course, this means they show up on the holosuite as imitations of themselves, and Bashir and Garak must work to save themselves and the lives of the crew, because if they die their patterns will be destroyed. Bashir manipulates the evil genius, played by the “pattern” of Sisko, into a position where he is able to save the lives of the crew by effectively destroying earth with lasers. Just as Sisko is about to kill Bashir, their patterns are restored and they return to normal. Garak is impressed by Bashir’s willingness to sacrifice the population of Earth–real or not–for his personal ends.

Commentary

Bashir is ridiculous, but he embraces it. It’s something I have thought DS9 does really well–allowing central characters to be almost caricatures without going too far on it. Here, Bashir does something that is right in line with his character- he makes a holosuite program in which he is the star of a spy drama. Yep, that’s right in line with how I’d expect Bashir to be spending his holosuite time.

Like the previous episode, there is some serious suspension of disbelief involved here. The “patterns” for major crew members just happen to be salvaged from a wreck and stored in memory, while taking over the holosuite? Yeah, that seems reasonable. Not. But once you do suspend the disbelief and just let yourself enjoy the episode, it becomes one of those fun breaks in the building drama that is DS9. Once in a while we just need something silly to happen, because DS9 is so relentlessly serious at times. I enjoyed this one, and apparently fans did too because there are all kinds of fan arts for it.

Grade: A- “It’s a bit silly, but it is also so fun and awesome that I didn’t care.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: B “It was an enjoyable story, but at some point I have to believe that they either fix the holosuites or stop letting people into them.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Star Trek: DS9– For more episode reviews, follow this site and also click this link to read more (scroll down as needed)! Drop me a comment to let me know what you thought!

SDG.