My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1959

I have no idea who thought this was a good cover for this book, but here we are.

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. Each year, I will show which novel won the Hugo, as well as my own choice from the bunch of which should have won. They aren’t always the same!

We Have Fed Our Sea AKA The Enemy Stars by Poul Anderson- Grade: C
It’s a kind of space adventure that this period is particularly known for, but I couldn’t honestly see anything distinguishing or interesting about this particular book. It’s an inoffensive, at times entertaining romp in a thoroughly 1950s style science fiction setting. If you like that, read it. If not, it’s probably skippable.

Who? by Algis Budrys- Grade: C
A man shows up and claims to be a lost scientist, but here’s the catch: the Soviets have had him under their power for a time. Is he really who he claims to be? Can he be programmed as a spy? Yep, there’s a lot of Red Scare in this one, and the characterization and pacing isn’t all that great, but the idea of it is interesting enough. How do you know someone is someone? What makes you you? Those are the kind of questions that are explored, with however blunt an instrument, in this book.

A Case of Conscience by James Blish (Winner)- Grade: B
I find Blish’s writing style to be a bit impenetrable for my taste. It’s like reading something through a fog. I don’t know how else to describe it. In this work, we have one of the few forays into religious questions found in this era of science fiction. How can an alien race without religion be moral? The Jesuit priest in this book asks that question and ultimately doesn’t really get an answer, leading to some spectacular difficulties in the process. Reading the book, though, is like wading through mud. I enjoyed the ideas, but had difficulty understanding the writing.

Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein- Grade: C
Younger Heinlein is in top form here, which means you get his action with much less of his preaching at you about how we should all have sex all the time. Unfortunately, this early Heinlein is not as talented as some of the later Heinlein turned out to be, though I think Heinlein’s works are kind of a roller-coaster of quality. Anyhow, this one is basically just a coming of age story with a spacesuit. If that sounds interesting, you’ll probably like it well enough.

Time Killer AKA Immortality, Inc. by Robert Sheckley (My Winner)- Grade: B+
The premise initially seemed pretty standard–a man gets sucked into the future without any knowledge of what’s happening to him. But as the story developed, the intricacies Sheckley adds, layer by layer, to the plot and premise makes the book feel more and more special. Exploring what would happen if there were a scientifically verifiable afterlife was an unexpected pleasure, as was the way Sheckley deftly danced around questions of the mind-body problem, religion, and more. None of it seemed heavy-handed, which is what I was expecting once I got a feel for what was happening in the book. Instead, it was a unique look at one of sci-fi’s tropes- transhumanism/immortality. It also had a couple compelling characters, which isn’t always the case in some of the classic sci-fi. I recommend this one, folks.

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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A Stunning Epic – “Empire of Silence” by Christopher Ruocchio

A friend recommended I read Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio. I’m a sucker for science fiction, and I knew this friend had great taste, so I went and got it almost immediately. I was blown away as I devoured it over the next four days. I’ll avoid SPOILERS in what follows, because I just want to encourage you, dear readers, to go grab this book ASAP and read it.

The novel is told by Hadrian Marlowe looking back on his own life. It’s a kind of memoir/autobiographical storytelling style that I personally find captivating. It goes beyond a simple first person perspective by inserting “historical” notes into the text as you’re reading, casually dropping bits of world-building and storytelling into the main narrative. In this regard it reminds me of Fitzpatrick’s War by Theodore Judson, though that overlooked masterpiece probably won’t ring many bells. Anyway, the first person style is usually offputting to me, though I have enjoyed my share of first person perspective novels. For those who enjoy their sci-fi/fantasy in epic style, the first person narrative here doesn’t take away from that in any way.

Again, I’m really hesitant to spoil anything, so to introduce the plot I’ll just tell you what Hadrian himself tells you at the beginning. Hadrian is a man that would be reviled for killing a sun, and all those around it. He is writing from a point well in the future of where this novel begins, telling we readers the “real story” of what actually happened to get him to the reviled hero he is. Along the way, we learn much of Hadrian’s life, motivations, and meet many, many characters, each with unique personalities and contributions to Hadrian’s capacities and actions.

There’s a wealth of sci-fi greats I could see as inspiring Ruocchio’s book. The world building and writing style made me think of Iain M. Banks. The epic scale of the universe could only recall Dune. There’s a splash of Star Wars there, too, though only in the sense of the rise of a hero (anti-hero?) character. I’d be remiss to mention some aspects of the film Gladiator getting mixed in, too. And, for what it’s worth, I really got strong vibes from Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series mixed in, too.

If this seems like a grab-bag of awesome things, I’d like to downplay that a bit. Ruocchio has undoubtedly created his own style and carved out his section of the sci-fi universe. If it is reminiscent of all of these other awesome novels, that’s not because it is derivative. The richness of the narrative cannot really be overstated here. There are times the scale seems incredibly huge, but the reader is never left adrift because the narrative ties us down to Hadrian’s life and perspective, giving us a way to navigate the huge universe. As even more elements pile onto the plot–notably linguistics and archaeology coming into play–Ruocchio manages to balance all these elements and weave them into a deeply personal narrative that turns Hadrian into a fascinating, real character.

Perhaps most importantly for a novel like this–a near 600 page epic–is that although it is part of a larger series (according to a Tweet from the author after I asked him, it will span 4 books along with potential side stories), it has a satisfying ending. Readers won’t feel cheated or baited by the end. Instead, they’ll be lining up to get the next book, knowing how excellent this one was. Hadrian’s concluding lines in the book help to make it feel, truly, like the first volume of an immense memoir.

Without a doubt, Christopher Ruocchio has created a fantastic universe to explore. Empire of Silence is a superb space opera on an epic scale. I recommend it very, very highly. What we are seeing with this book is, I think–as does my friend who recommend it–the rise of a new genre master.

Links

“Space Unicorn Blues” and “The Stars Now Unclaimed” – Two Recent Debut Science Fiction Novels Worth Noting– Come read about two exciting science fiction debuts that couldn’t be more different. Space unicorn wha?

“Gate Crashers” and “Space Opera” – Two wild first contact novels– Do you like first contact sci-fi? Here are a couple novels to look at if you like a helping of humor to go alongside it.

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.

“Gate Crashers” and “Space Opera” – Two wild first contact novels

I quite enjoyed sharing my last couple reads of debut novels with you (Space Unicorn Blues and The Stars Now Unclaimed) and figured I’d keep doing some of these little book posts. Here, I want to review two humorous first contact novels I read recently.

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

I love space opera. It is perhaps my favorite subgenre of science fiction, and I read a ton of science fiction. When I saw a book entitled simply, “Space Opera,” I was intrigued. When I saw the cover and the tagline “In space, everyone can hear you sing,” I put it on the “to read” pile for when I was ready for what I assumed would be a funny romp.

I wasn’t wrong. Catherynne M. Valente is clearly a talented author, and her humor is cut from the same cloth as Douglas Adams. At multiple points, I was reminded quite vividly of Adams’ writing, but never in a derivative way. Valente has her own brand of dry humor that will make you laugh, really laugh at life. Yeah, life–in the all-encompassing everything that is alive now kind of way.

The plot is zany: humans are contacted by some species and told we can produce our best talent to compete in a universe-wide talent show and not lose or be killed. So a washed up pseudo one-hit-wonder type of band gets brought back together to show the galaxy what-for. It’s ridiculous but it somehow works. It’s full of what would almost certainly be anachronisms and occasionally stilted dialogue, but by gum it still works. Valente basically wills this novel into being in a way that feels fresh and frankly hilarious throughout. You care about the characters more than some of them perhaps deserve, and the aliens introduced are interesting. But what makes it tick, again, is Valente’s almost casual wielding of humor that never gets in the way.

Space Opera is perhaps a little bit too over the top at times, but Valente cashes in on a wildly funny premise, fills it to the brims with wit, and brought me laughing to a satisfying finish. Readers who enjoy Douglas Adams should run to get it.

Gate Crashers by Patrick S. Tomlinson

What if we are totally incompetent when it comes to contact with other species? What if they were just as confused by us as we were by them? What if we found out they were trying to just ignore us? Tomlinson touches on all these questions and stirs in a helping of humor in his intriguing Gate Crashers, a rare self-contained space opera/first contact novel that hits back at several tropes.

The book is ultimately more serious than you might be lead to expect by the extended introduction. There is a lot of depth here, and readers hoping for a simple laugh riot may be disappointed by a lengthy middle portion introducing many side characters and much exposition. But it is this central portion that sets up for a rather satisfying conclusion that Tomlinson deftly handles in a way that doesn’t disappoint.

Gate Crashers is an entertaining read, though at times I wondered what the central theme or motivation is. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my time spent in this jaunt. I recommend it for people who think C.J. Cherryh needs more humor and less verbosity (I don’t know why Cherryh came to mind, as Gate Crashers only tangentially reminds me of her work, but that’s where I’m at as I type this up).

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.

My Read-Through of the Hugos: 1955

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.

They’d Rather be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley (Winner/My Winner)
Grade: D
Apparently this book is widely regarded as the worst book to ever win a Hugo award. I thought it was passable in parts, though. The main plot is a decent thread: scientists make a machine that can basically make you immortal, but only if you are able to give up all of your prejudices and admitting you’re wrong. The problem is that many, many people would rather be right than admit to being wrong, so very few can benefit. It’s a good piece for irony, though the authors don’t often cash in on it. Instead, what we have is a bunch of 1950s ideas about men and women that are very outdated, some horrible dialogue, and some head-scratching moments. Honestly, the opening was the coolest part, where a young boy is discovered to have certain mental powers. Overall, it is not a very good book, though it could have been a great short story. Also, what the heck is with that 1st Edition cover? Finally, I am guessing–I may be wrong–that this is going to be the lowest grade given to a Hugo Award book that is also my winner. This one gets it by default, being the only one known on the ballot.

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.

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.