My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1956

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.

Not This August by C.M. Kornbluth- Grade: B+
I found this one surprisingly fresh. Initially, the plot seemed to be yet another “Red Scare” type novel, but the Soviets seemed to be possibly better (shock!) at some things than the Americans. Then, it turns out the whole thing is a rather pointed commentary on the doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction.” It felt surprisingly modern because of this, as we face things like nuclear threats continuing. The writing style is solid as well. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov- Grade: C-
I’m not sure how Asimov got away so frequently with calling his books novels. This is really just a dressing up of scientific theory and explorations thereof with a thin plot covering it lightly. Is it interesting? Sure, insofar as you’re interested in reading about causal loops and exploring one possible way that could have worked in the 1950s. Sound interesting? Great, you’ll love it. If not, this is one to avoid. Asimov’s characters are constantly paper-thin. I get that it was a different era, but other authors on this list managed some truly magnificent characters. Merely okay.

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (Winner)- Grade: C
The concept is interesting, if not terribly original (though, in fairness, I’m not sure how original it was in 1956): an actor is hired to play a politician in a dangerous time. It has the typical early-ish Heinlein action-first plot, which keeps it entertaining enough. It also has some Heinlein preaching that I grow weary of quickly. A decent romp, but nothing terribly special.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett (My Winner)- Grade: A-
After nuclear war, the United States is largely a scattering of towns and villages, enforced by the 30th Amendment- that no cities may be constructed, so that massive, global-scale wars would not happen ever again. Society has reverted to a kind of pastoral time, and in it, the protagonist, a young man who begins to get big ideas, finds himself trying to find a place for himself. I kept having to adjust my expectations during Brackett’s strange yet familiar post-apocalyptic story. Initially, I expected it to be a kind of coming-of-age story that would develop into a world-changing adventure. Those expectations were overthrown, but then possibly renewed, and then overthrown again and again. I found parts of the book startling. It was stark; it was eerie. At times it was quite suspenseful. A cozy catastrophe of great form. I listened to this one on Audible, and in case you’re also a fan of audiobooks, I recommend this one. It was a good listen that was well-read.

Three to Conquer by Eric Frank Russell- Grade: C
It’s a noir detective novel combined with some light science fiction in the pulpy era and works about as well as you might expect it too. There are some significant flaws here, but the overall effect is decent. The science fiction doesn’t happen until pretty close to the end, and it is largely composed of the kind of silliness you find in 1950s science fiction. Not bad, but not anything remarkable either.

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!

My Read-Through of the Hugos- Read more posts in this series and follow me on the journey! Let me know your own thoughts on the books.

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.

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Presidential Biographies: James Polk #11

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Polk, the eleventh 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 Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

Polk’s career seems to have been defined by destiny. Whether it was his destiny as a man mentored by Andrew Jackson to become President or his utter belief of and living out of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, Polk’s place in history seemed assured from a fairly young age. After studying law, he rose through the Tennessee legislature to get to Congress. Soon integrated into larger issues as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, his friendship with Andrew Jackson grew and he campaigned for the man to become President. Finally becoming President himself, he would expand the powers of the executive office more than perhaps any predecessor, with his eyes upon expanding the borders of the United States as well.

Polk was a firm believer in Manifest Destiny, perhaps one of the most damaging ideas in the history of the United States. The idea was that America was some kind of glorious city on a hill and the spread of American (read: white, largely Anglo-European) settlers across the vast expanse of the west was destiny–a destiny given by God. Though Borneman doesn’t explore the notion much (indeed, in the biography the term is only mentioned a few times, and never in much detail), it is clear through Polk’s actions that he fully bought into this perspective.

When he became President, Polk had four primary goals: “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (353). The first two were clearly goals related to Manifest Destiny, and he would go to war to gain California. The dispute over Oregon was eventually resolved as war loomed with Mexico. The United States wasn’t prepared for a two front war against two different opponents, and Polk fell back from his hardline stance over where the boundary for Oregon should be drawn, thus gaining agreement from the United Kingdom.

California was a different affair, and Polk seemed to realize quickly that Mexico would not easily cede California, and began looking for a way to take it from them. He was, he thought, given a gift when blood was spilled near the Rio Grande, though not on American soil. It did, however, become a rallying cry, and Polk moved to declare war. Rather than letting Congress initiate it, however, Polk presented Congress with a declaration of war and got their approval, a clear expansion of executive power. Even as he did this, and having already prepared for the conflict by moving American soldiers into the area, he moved to use the navy as well. These moves expanded the conflict but also helped get a victory for the United States.

There were a few times in Polk’s presidency when he made clear errors of judgment. Perhaps the most obvious time was with his claim about “American blood on American soil”–his claim that Mexico had attacked and killed apparently innocent American soldiers and killed them in American territory. The claim was false and would haunt Polk as his critics continually pointed out his error. Nevertheless, the claim burgeoned the popularity of war with Mexico and effectively got Polk what he wanted anyway. Another issue was his “54 40 or fight” slogan referring to demanding Oregon from the United Kingdom, apparently over threat of war. Those who took up the cry favored war rather vehemently, and Polk was forced to throttle back his claims a bit. Thankfully, it did not come to war, and P0lk had another victory from apparent error.

Polk owned slaves and wrote into his will to free them when he died–so long as his wife agreed. Some see wills like this as evidence of a kind of softening towards slavery, but I think this is clearly mistaken, as it really just shows people wanted to live by enslaving others and didn’t much care what happened once they died. It was a fairly common practice, but one that does nothing to mitigate the ills of slavery. Polk’s clearly expansionist attitude helped contribute to more atrocities being committed against native peoples as white settlers spread and used military might and deception to displace people who were already on the land they overtook.

Regarding the biography, Borneman writes well, and his outlining of the life of Polk is fascinating and enlightening. I had thought for some time that Polk was a rather forgettable President, but after reading this biography, it seems Polk’s influence–for good or ill–on later events in our country, and certainly upon its borders, is astounding. I recommend Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America highly.

Polk’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES

6. James K. Polk (11th President- original ranking- #6): James Polk achieved the goals that he set for himself as he entered the office of the President. As his biographer, Walter Borneman points out, those goals were “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (Polk, 353). Polk accomplished all of these goals, though it took a war to do so. Moreover, he expanded the power of the executive branch, including in the President’s powers regarding war, getting directly involved in helping order the conflict. His clear belief in Manifest Destiny, that doctrine that ought to be consigned to the trash heap of history, continues to influence nationalism today. The unspeakable atrocities that continued to be perpetrated on those peoples native to the land the United States would gain in international eyes though his Presidency must not be understated. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find many Presidents with greater impact on our country than Polk had.

 

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.

“Space Unicorn Blues” and “The Stars Now Unclaimed” – Two Recent Debut Science Fiction Novels Worth Noting

It’s been an insanely busy summer of reading, but I wanted to take a few minutes to highlight two debut novels that I think are quite worth tracking down to read.

Space Unicorn Blues by T.J. Berry

I saw the cover of Space Unicorn Blues in an ad on Facebook and knew purely based on that that I had to read it. It’s not that the cover is particularly striking, or anything, but it makes it really darned clear the book is about a unicorn… in spa-a-a-ace! Also, the tagline “Humanity’s Last Hope… A Murderous Unicorn” had me running to read it.

I have to say, I’m glad I did. There were a number of surprising things in this debut novel, not least of which is how rather serious it was despite the somewhat silly premise. Yes, of course it has its funny moments all the way through; nothing with this premise can or should take itself too seriously, but this book has some rather thoughtful, serious narrative going on.

The core of the book is really the world that Berry has invented. It’s a future in which humanity has reached the stars only to discover another resource to exploit: fantastic creatures like the unicorn, whose horn can help propel space travel. Yep, you read that right. But Berry manages to piece together a coherent and frankly intriguing world out of this premise in a way that has me salivating for the second book in the series. The characters are each built up in their own way as well, though at times our lovely space unicorn, Gary, isn’t at the center. I don’t mind, however, because the other characters have unique personalities that help foster plot twists and genuine growth.

The next book in the series comes out in May next year, and I will probably dive into a re-read of this delightful debut before I tackle book 2. I recommend it highly. Check out Space Unicorn Blues by T.J. Berry for a fun, insane science fiction/fairy tale mashup that will make you think more than you might expect.

The Stars Now Unclaimed by Drew Williams

I don’t think I would have read The Stars Now Unclaimed unless my local library had acquired it. I pretty much automatically check out every single sci-fi or fantasy book at the local library for two reasons: 1) they don’t get much of it, and I want to show that there is an interest (there really is–a few books I’ve requested have been checked out a lot!) and 2) I basically can’t say no to new SFF. This one was a winner.

Again, the cover didn’t really draw me in much. It’s fine, but the text is so dominant and the ships look somewhat generic. Opening the flap, I didn’t know whether I’d enjoy it, but as a dedicated completionist (can’t check out a book without at least giving it a try, right?), I started reading it… and devoured it in a day. All 444 pages of it. I couldn’t put it down. Why?

Well, a few reviews I saw on Goodreads make comparisons to Star Wars, which I guess is accurate in a few places, but this is definitely not derivative from that blockbuster series. It’s a far reaching science fiction adventure novel with a significant peppering of space opera thrown in for good measure. The book follows Jane, an operative of the Justified, one of the many, many groups vying for intergalactic power in a rather unforgiving universe. There’s the ominous threat of another “pulse”- an event that crippled civilizations all through the galaxy, with few exceptions. There are major plot twists, lots of action, and a good helping of character development as well.

The book is also wonderfully paced, with a few moments to slow down and breathe in between some seriously fast action sequences. If I were to draw a comparison, I’d actually call it closer to a kind of grown up Titan A.E. with a dash of Star Wars and maybe even some of Iain M. Banks as well. That’s high praise, given that I just named 3 of my favorite science fiction visions.

Oh, and another thing I liked about this book is while it is part of a series (and Drew Williams was kind enough to reply to me on Twitter to say the series is planned for 3-4 books plus potential other in-universe works), it doesn’t feel incomplete or too much like a cliffhanger. Yes, you definitely want to know more right away, and there are some major plot points waiting for future resolution, but it has the kind of ending that is satisfying in a series.

If you want a thoroughly enjoyable science fiction adventure, check out The Stars Now Unclaimed by Drew Williams.

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.

Reading through the [Alleged] Top 100 Science Fiction Books- #61-66

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.

61. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood Grade: A
“It’s difficult to say that I ‘enjoyed’ this book, because I really did not. It is not the kind of book to enjoy. It makes you uncomfortable, it challenges you, and it challenges some deeply held ideas. But this lack of enjoyment is, I think, the point. We don’t like to confront sexism and other issues that are systematically enforced in our society. But Atwood here forces readers to confront such issues in a very up-front way. It’s a good story, yes, but it is also a warning and a plea.”

62. Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks Grade: A
“It’s not as transcendent as The Player of Games, but what it lacks in the sheer volume of ideas in that latter volume, it makes up for in strong characterization and a sense of overall mystery that pervades the book. Stylistically, Banks continues to flash his brilliance. It would be hard to complain much about the structure of the plot and how it gets revealed. Banks is one of the few science fiction authors I’ve encountered who manages to make both the characters and the overall plot utterly compelling without sacrificing anything. No matter what length his books are, they seem to have an intimacy that cannot be ignored. He’s created an amazing future.”

63. Eon by Greg Bear Grade: B
“My favorite scene in this book occurs within the first 20 pages, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. Revealing that favorite scene might spoil something so I’ll leave it there. Anyway, reading this list has made me feel a bit jaded about the ‘alien artifact’ selection within science fiction. Some of it is done incredibly well (see Revelation Space) while other attempts are kind of dull. It is clearly a topic that science fiction authors return to again and again. Bear manages to give a twist in this one by incorporating multiple sci-fi tropes in alongside the core ‘artifact’ idea, including time travel and Red Scare. I enjoyed it, though it felt a bit bloated at points. Ultimately, a satisfying read.”

64. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi Grade: A
“Scalzi has created a novel that borrows from the same well as Starship Troopers and The Forever War while, in some ways, transcending its influences. At first it seems a fairly standard space marine-type novel, but the unexpectedness of the alien races, the (ultimate) thoughtfulness of the main character, and the twists that are thrown into the mix make it easily one of the best of the bunch. I particularly enjoyed all the ideas Scalzi threw out there for aliens and our interactions with them. The sense of humor that is fairly consistent throughout the novel is also excellent. Top-notch science fiction.”

65. The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke Grade: A
“I thought the beginning was utterly enthralling, with its portrayal of a strange post-human (?) city that had stood almost unchanged for countless eons. Injecting something ‘unique’ into such a city was captivating and exciting. The middle bogged down quite a bit, and it made it feel as though the book didn’t ever quite reach the stunning heights that I expected after the first few chapters. That said, I think it is an achievement of the imagination, and one with scenes that grabbed my imagination as few books have before.”

66. Sphere by Michael Crichton Grade: C-
“It’s not nearly as polished as The Andromeda Strain, and its core premise isn’t as strong as Jurassic Park‘s. What’s left is an interesting idea that seemed to me to get less and less entertaining as it went along. I had higher hopes for this one, to be honest. The payoff at the end is fairly low compared to Crichton’s other works, and because of this some of the flaws in his writing style are more distracting. Let’s not forget an over-defensive caricature of a female scientist, which may have been a rather poor attempt at introducing a pro-woman narrative into the plot (it didn’t work out). The biggest problem with the book is that it seems to get progressively less wonder-filled and devolve into a rather simple thriller. Not what I have come to expect from Crichton.”

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.