Science Fiction

The Year in Reading

As of this moment (and depending on how you count omnibus editions), I have read 30 books in 2011. There’s a pretty good chance that I’ll finish my current book by the end of the year as well. If you’ll permit some navel gazing, here are some stats about what I’ve read this year:

  • 30 books in 2011 is a big improvement over the 20 books I read in 2010 (which was itself a pretty big year for me). This might be the most I’ve read in a single year since high school… and it’s worth noting that at least 4 of the books from 2010 were read in December of that year (i.e. this has been a pretty well sustained pace for the past year and half or so).
  • According to goodreads, these 30 books translate to 10,964 pages of reading in 2011 (and if you count my current progress, I’m over the 11,000 mark…) This number is perhaps a little suspect, as it depends on print size and spacing and book format and so on, but as an approximation it feels… well, actually, I have no real frame of reference for this. I’ll have to enter in dates for my 2010 reading to see what Goodreads comes up with there.
  • 9 of the books were non-fiction, which might also be a record for me (unless you count textbooks or something).
  • Most of the 21 fiction books were science fiction or fantasy novels, and my progress this year was definitely fueled by shortish novels (i.e. around 300 page novels)
  • The longest novel I read this year was Reamde, clocking in at 1044 pages. The second longest novel was Perdido Street Station, which ran 623 pages.
  • 13 of the 30 books were written by women, which is probably another record for me (for a point of comparison, in 2010, I only read 2 books written by women). I should note that this is mostly fueled by Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga – I’ve read 9 books in the series so far, and may finish the 10th by the end of the year.
  • Goodreads also provides a neato graph of when you read stuff and when that stuff was published (unfortunately, it’s a little too big to feature here). As it turns out, I read only 2 books that were initially published before 1986, though one of those 2 was published in the late 19th century, so there’s that.

All in all, a pretty great year of reading. For reference, my top 4 books of the year:

Oh hell, can we just make the Vorkosigan Saga (as a whole) the honorary 5th best book of the year? Ok then.

Things have slowed down in the latter part of this year, though I think a large part of that is that I’ve been focusing on longer novels and non-fiction, which obviously take more time. Indeed, if I manage to tackle Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid next year, I expect that will drag down my numbers a bit. Of course, I could hold off on that and slot in 4 short novels in its place, but I should really read GEB, as it’s been on my shelf for quite a while… Looking ahead to next year, I’ll definitely be finishing off Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels, and I was given a Kindle for Christmas, so I’m sure I’ll find plenty of things to read there. Perhaps an updated book queue is in order!

Nerding Out on Star Trek

Star Trek has been in the news lately, as J.J. Abrams preps the new movie. It seems that Khan will be the villain again (originally thought to be played by Benicio Del Toro, but that has apparently not happened), though there is also apparently a secondary villain who plays an older mentor to Khan. Or something. It was the obvious choice and I’m interested in seeing what Abrams does with the new movie, but in a lot of ways, it’s also a disappointing and lazy choice. Not just because Khan was the villain in the original second Star Trek film either. As Devin Faraci also notes, I think one of the things people forget about is that one of the reasons that film worked so well was that Khan wasn’t the obvious choice:

Khan wasn’t an obvious choice for the original Star Trek II. Basically Harve Bennett watched every single episode of the original series because he thought Star Trek: The Motion Picture lacked a good villain, and took a shine to Space Seed; while it was always regarded as one of the better episodes of the series, Khan wasn’t quite the iconic villain he is today.

What made Khan iconic was the fact that his quest for vengeance led to the death of Spock. It seems unlikely that Star Trek 2 will be a remake of Star Trek II, so it’s probably a riff on Space Seed – except made more EXTREME for 3D movie purposes. I bet they get Chris Pine to yell ‘KHAAAAAAAAN!,’ though.

I think I would have rather seen Abrams go in a completely different direction. Either mining the original series for other obscure characters to update for the big screen, or maybe even – and I know this is crazy talk – creating a new character from scratch. The Star Trek reboot was extremely popular, so they’ve got a built in audience for this next installment. As long as you can make a trailer with a bunch of lens flares, swish pans, and explosions, people are going to go see the sequel. Why not take a chance? Khan is an iconic villain because of his context – none of which has been built up in this new reboot universe.

Anyway, I got to thinking about the existing movies and just for shits and giggles, I ranked them from favorite to least favorite below. Mostly because this post just wasn’t nerdy enough. Here goes:

  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – The obvious choice, and the film most frequently cited as the best of the Trek movies. I actually haven’t seen it in a while, but there are lots of memorable things about it, and of course, Khan was probably the most memorable of the villains in the films…
  • Star Trek (2009 Reboot) – Oh sure, it’s not a very rigorous movie and I would totally prefer more science in this film’s fiction (and what’s there is just breathtakingly stupid), but this film is just so much damn fun that it really does catapult up towards the top of the list. I’d actually say it ties with the next few films, but for now, this is where I have it.
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – Who among us hasn’t picked up our mouse and talked to it, saying “Computer? Commmputerrr?” like Scottie does in this movie? It’s an unusual movie in that it’s a sorta fish out of water comedy rather than a sci-fi action film (and quite frankly, those who complain about the reboot’s science should take a look at how time travel is portrayed in this film). Fortunately, it’s still a boatload of fun.
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – Returning to the series more adventurous roots, this film also wound up being really well done. I feel like I’m saying this for all the movies so far, but it’s a lot of fun.
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture – I know, it’s slow and plodding and filled with lame glory shots of the Enterprise leaving stardock or something, but I actually enjoyed this one overall. It was a little nebulous and intellectual, but that’s what I like about it.
  • Star Trek: First Contact – Certainly the best of The Next Generation movies, this one is pretty fun, but it’s also much more of a lame action movie than the series or even the other movies. I think this movie also demonstrates that while the Borg were once awesome villains, their continual evolution into ineffectual dweebs was disappointing. They’re better than this movie gives them credit for. This movie works, but there’s lots of dumb things going on here.
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock – I’m actually surprised this one fell this far on the list. It’s not a horrible movie and I don’t hate it, but quite frankly, I don’t remember much about it (which isn’t a good sign).
  • Star Trek: Insurrection – Meh. It’s an ok film, and Worf has a space bazooka and everything, but it plays out like a third rate TNG episode. I remember having an ok time with the movie when it came out, but it’s ultimately a pretty forgettable experience…
  • Star Trek: Generations – And now we get to the part of the list where the movies are legitimately bad. This movie was just so unnecessary and got the TNG crew off to a horrible start. It’s one thing to honor the old crew. It’s another to try to cater to everyone, and thus make a movie that works for no one. A horrible movie.
  • Star Trek: Nemesis – Another terrible movie. Hard to believe that’s the same Tom Hardy that was in Bronson and Inception, but yep, that’s him. I’ve always thought that the Romulans would be a good villain for the movies, but it never seems to work out…
  • Star Trek V: The Final Frontier – A total abomination, the less said about this the better.

I think my biggest problem with the Star Trek movies is that I consider a lot of The Next Generation episodes better than most of the movies, even including the ones at the top of the list. And even a lot of TNG episodes haven’t aged that well, but many are still really well done and interesting. Much moreso than the movies, at least. Speaking of TNG, check out this twitter feed which is throwing out humorous plot summaries from a proposed 8th season of TNG. My favorite episode:

A sentient nebula chases the ship, which has nowhere to hide, because usually it would be in a nebula. Data adopts a dog, snake, and parrot.

Heh, great stuff. Speaking of great stuff, RedLetterMedia has reviews of all the Next Generation movies (in the same style as their brilliant Star Wars prequel reviews) that are certainly worth checking out. Well, I think that covers all the Star Trek nerdery I have right now, so there. I hope you enjoyed it.

NPR’s Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books

I’ve been meaning to comment on this for a while, but haven’t gotten around to it until now. A couple months ago, NPR put out the call for fans to nominate the best science-fiction and fantasy books. Out of several thousand nominations, NPR narrowed the list down to a few hundred, then had another voting period, finally ending up with the top 100 books (or series).

Like most lists, especially crowd-sourced lists like this, there are many quibbles to be had, but it’s a pretty decent list. Below, I’ll bold the ones I’ve read and add annotations where I can, then follow up with some comments.

  1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien – An unsurprising choice for the top slot, and while it may not be my “favorite” series, it’s hard to argue with it being the most influential of the books in this list (indeed, many of the fantasy novels below are deeply indebted to LotR).
  2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams – Another unsurprising pick, though my shocking nerd confession is that I don’t seem to like this as much as most other nerds. Go figure.
  3. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card – Given Card’s reputation with the NPR crowd, I’m surprised this book made it this high. Of course, he doesn’t espouse any despicable views in the book, and it is very good, so it’s well worth reading.
  4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert – I’ve only read the first book, which is fantastic. I never got around to the sequels though, and from what I’ve heard, I’m not missing out on much.
  5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin – I’ve not read any, though I’ve seen the first season of the TV show, which is excellent. Probably more likely to keep following the show than read the books. I have to wonder, given some of the heavyweights that fell below this book, if the TV series gave this entry a bit of a boost in the voting…
  6. 1984, by George Orwell – A classic, probably deserves to be higher on the list, but it’s hard to argue with a top 10 slot.
  7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury – Another shocking nerd confession – I haven’t read any of Ray Bradbury’s books. Consider this book on the list of shame.
  8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov – This one always seems to come out near the top of lists like this, but I’ve always preferred his robot books.
  9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley – I should read this someday, but I just can’t muster the enthusiasm to read dystopic stuff these days.
  10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman – I like this book a lot, but 10th best SF/F book of all time? I don’t think so. I wonder how this one got to be so high…
  11. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman – I’ve never read this, but I get the impression that the movie is better than the book and that the book is getting a bump due to the sheer awesomeness of the movie (which is brilliant).
  12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan – Never read any of it. It may surprise you to learn that I don’t actually read much in the way of fantasy novels (though obviously I’ve read some of the ones on this list).
  13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell – Another classic, and one that I now like despite being forced to read it in school (seriously, being able to climb out of that cellar is a big feat in itself).
  14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson – Probably the best of the Cyberpunk novels, which isn’t say that much since it was really the first of the Cyberpunk novels. Still, it’s a good one, deserving of a lot of the praise it gets. Wouldn’t be as high on my list, but I can see why it’s here.
  15. Watchmen, by Alan Moore – It is probably the best comic book series of all time, well worth the placement on this list.
  16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov – Well here’s the weird thing. They grouped the Foundation novels together (along with lots of other series on the list), but not the Robot novels? I really like I, Robot, but I like the way the series goes as a whole (I guess people aren’t as big a fan of Asimov’s latter work where he tied Robots and Foundation together).
  17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein – Heinlein makes his first appearance with… one of my least favorites of his work. I suppose it does represent more of a cultural touchstone than his other work, and I know this novel was one of the driving forces behind the 60s counter-culture, so I guess it’s not a surprise that the NPR folks like it, but still. Luckily, more Heinlein shows up on this list.
  18. The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss – I’ve not read this fantasy series, though lots of folks really seem to love the first novel. I’ve heard mixed reviews of the second book, and like a lot of fantasy series, who knows how long this will go (I believe it’s planned at 3, but so were a few other long-running series, so again, who knows). I also can’t think of this book without thinking of Scalzi’s story of “hearty stew” fantasy.
  19. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut – Another one that goes on the list of shame (at least I’ve read some Vonnegut before).
  20. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley – Is this the first female author on the list? Damn. Well, it’s a justified classic novel, probably belonging higher on the list.
  21. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick – I’ve never read this, but I have to wonder if the fact that everyone knows Blade Runner was based on this story has anything to do with its performance.
  22. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood – Never read it and I’m not a big fan of dystopias either, but at least there’s another female author in the top 25…
  23. The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King – A series filled with high highes and very low lows. Difficult to describe, but there was a time when I loved these books. But the series kinda finished with a wimper. I had kinda steeled myself against the ending, knowing that it could not possibly live up to what was being built up in the earlier novels, so I didn’t hate the ending, but it was still an unsatisfying conclusion. I might, however, make a case for Wizard and Glass, it being an interesting and tragic tale that is, perhaps more importantly, mostly self-contained. (As an aside, both the Dark Tower series and the previous book on this list, The Handmaid’s Tale, feature a city-state known as Gilead – a biblical reference, but interesting that these two were ranked next to each other.)
  24. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke – An interesting choice for the first Clarke novel on the list. Once again, i wonder if it gets a bump from its incredible movie adaptation. Still, it is a very good book that I did enjoy (even having seen the movie).
  25. The Stand, by Stephen King – I do really love this book. There are some issues with the ending, but something like “the hand of God came down and saved them” works infinitely better on the page than it does on the screen (not that I’d hold up the TV mini-series as something particularly good). Well worth a read, probably my second-favorite Stephen King novel (with the first being The Shining, which probably doesn’t qualify for this list).
  26. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson – If the aforementioned Neuromancer popularized Cyberpunk, Stephenson put the final nail in the coffin with this satirical, action-packed romp through cyber-space. It’s a surprisingly prescient novel, though it doesn’t get everything quite right. Stephenson is my favorite author, but I would have ranked Cryptonomicon higher (more on that below).
  27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury – On the list of shame.
  28. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut – On the list of shame.
  29. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman – I was always under the impression that Gaiman’s Sandman stuff didn’t hold up as well as some of his other work, but I guess people still love it. I’ve never read it, and probably won’t…
  30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess – Never read it. If the rest of the list is any indication, there seems to be an inflation of rank for films with great movie adaptations…
  31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein – An interesting thought experiment from Heinlein, who basically originated the modern military SF genre with this novel, but there’s not much of a story here. An important book, but one that would probably chafe a lot of readers with its ideas and the bald way Heinlein presents them.
  32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams – Saw the movie, probably won’t read it, makes sense to be on the list though.
  33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey – Eh, fantasy. Only the third female author so far.
  34. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein – My favorite of Heinlein’s novels, its libertarian themes and strange sexual politics could probably turn off readers, but there’s a well paced story that accompanies things this time, and I really enjoyed the novel.
  35. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller – Never read it, but it’s in the queue somewhere.
  36. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells – On the list of shame, though of course I know the general idea of the story (which says something about its importance, I guess).
  37. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne – See previous entry.
  38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys – I’d heard of this, but never knew what it was about until now, and I kinda want to read it now.
  39. The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells – See The Time Machine above.
  40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny – It’s in the queue somewhere.
  41. The Belgariad, by David Eddings – Another fantasy series. Good to know if I want to read some fantasy, but I doubt I’ll get to this anytime soon.
  42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley – The fourth female author.
  43. The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson – More fantasy I’m unlikely to ever read.
  44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven – In the queue somewhere, I think my brother might even have a copy somewhere, but I just haven’t gotten to it yet.
  45. The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin – Wonderful SF novel probably deserving a higher spot on this list. And the fifth female author so far.
  46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien – A little bit of a cheat, as I haven’t read the whole thing, but still. Why isn’t this considered part of the LotR series?
  47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White – I think I read this for school? King Arthur and stuff? Must not have made much of an impression.
  48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman – In terms of pure enjoyment, I think this is Gaiman’s best. Real page-turning stuff here, and a more satisfying narrative than American Gods or Stardust.
  49. Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke – A solid choice and a good novel, but I’ve never been as in-love with it as everyone else. There are a couple other Clarke books I’d put ahead of this one.
  50. Contact, by Carl Sagan – Adaptation bump? Whatever the case, I’ve heard that the movie kinda stops short, while this one make a bolder statement. I’ve always really loved the movie, but if it really does betray the book, I’d find that disappointing.
  51. The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons – The first book is certainly on my list to read, but I’ve heard the rest of the series is kinda meh, and then there’s the fact that I’ve never actually read a good book by Simmons (I read one of his weird vampire books a while back and hated it so much that I drilled a screw through the book so that no one else would read it).
  52. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman – I know I read this, and I’m pretty sure I liked it, but I don’t remember anything about it and it’s been sorta overridden by the movie adaptation in my mind (rightly or wrongly, I did enjoy the movie, which I understand diverges pretty significantly from the book)
  53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson – My favorite book of all time? Perhaps! Would definitely be higher on my list.
  54. World War Z, by Max Brooks – I can only imagine that this is on the list because people love zombies right now. I hate zombie stories.
  55. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle – Fantasy. Fleh.
  56. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman – Considered by many to be Haldeman’s response to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, this is first rate SF and it actually features some semblance of a story. There are some flaws (in particular, the way he treats sexuality), but it’s still a great book.
  57. Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett – The only Pratchett I’ve read is Good Omens (co-written with Neal Gaiman), but I was underwhelmed by it and have never really sought out more Pratchett. I should probably do so at some point, but I guess we’ll see.
  58. The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson – Fantasy series. Fleh.
  59. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold – Love that this made it on the list. I really enjoy these novels and am looking forward to reading more of the series. Would be higher on my list.
  60. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett – See Small Gods above.
  61. The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle – I keep hearing about this novel, but I’ve never read it. It’s in the queue.
  62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind – More fantasy. Fleh.
  63. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy – More dystopia. Fleh.
  64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke – I’ve wanted to read this for a while, I’ve just never gotten around to reading it.
  65. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson – A study of isolation and grim irony. Does this get a bump from the movie adaptation? The movie kinda stinks. The book is far more disturbing, and it’s definitely influential in many of the horror writers who followed.
  66. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist – More fantasy. Fleh.
  67. The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks – More fantasy. Fleh.
  68. The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard – I enjoy the movies, but I doubt I’ll ever get to the books…
  69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb – More fantasy. Fleh. But the blurb on NPR sounds nice, I guess. But then, zombies. Fleh.
  70. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger – Doesn’t seem like it would be my thing, but I’d be open to reading it, I guess.
  71. The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson – More fantasy. Fleh.
  72. A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne – Familiar with the story, but never actually read the book.
  73. The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore – More fantasy. Fleh.
  74. Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi – Fantastic modern entry in the military SF canon. Scalzi’s tightest novel, though he’s got some other good ones.
  75. The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson – I’m surprised this made the list, as I’m convinced that Stephenson’s reputation for bad/rushed endings comes from this book. Still, it is a really good book, and you can see the transition he was making between Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. I would probably put Anathem higher than this, but I can’t argue with putting it on the list.
  76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke – This might actually be my favorite of Clarke’s novels.
  77. The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey – More fantasy. Fleh.
  78. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin – I was less impressed with this novel and it probably wouldn’t make my list, but I can see why so many people love it.
  79. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury – On the list of shame.
  80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire – Eh, really?
  81. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson – More fantasy. Fleh.
  82. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde – Never heard of it, but it sounds interesting.
  83. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks – In the queue somewhere.
  84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart – Yet another Arthurian tale (I think this is the third on the list so far). Not much interest here.
  85. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson – Very nice to see this one on the list despite it’s relatively recent release. A fantastic novel, his best since Cryptonomicon.
  86. The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher – More fantasy. Fleh.
  87. The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe – On my list of shame.
  88. The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn – I’m surprised this Star Wars series made the list. I loved this as a teenager, but when I revisited it a few years later, it wasn’t quite as riveting. Still a thousand times better than the prequels! And Grand Admiral Thrawn was indeed quite a great villain for the series. I’m glad Zahn got a place on the list. He’s a workhorse, but I tend to enjoy those authors.
  89. The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan – Not familiar with this, may have to add it to the queue!
  90. The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock – More fantasy. Fleh.
  91. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury – *sigh* List of shame.
  92. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley – More fantasy. Vampire fantasy. Fleh.
  93. A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge – One of the best portrayals of a truly alien species in all of SF. The ending is a bit… strange, but I really love the book (A Deepness in the Sky is pretty good as well and I’m really looking forward to The Children of the Sky, which comes out in October I think)
  94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov – As previously mentioned, I’m a big fan of the Robot series. Again, these are books I read as a teenager, and some of them don’t hold up as well, but the ideas are great.
  95. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson – On my list of shame.
  96. Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle – In the queue somewhere.
  97. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis – It’s a really good book, but I’m not sure I’m as taken with it as some others.
  98. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville – It’s been sitting on my shelf for, like, 4 years at this point. I have promised myself that I’d read it by the end of this year!
  99. The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony – Fantasy, but Piers Anthony rings a bell for me. I may check something of his out, maybe not Xanth though.
  100. The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis – I didn’t even know these existed!

I did some quick counting of the list:

  • I’ve read 38 of the books on the list
  • The breakdown between Fantasy and SF is arguable, but a quick count got me 37 fantasy, 63 SF.
  • Only 15 of the books on the list are written by women (and there’s at least one woman who comes up twice)
  • Of those 15 books by women, 7 are fantasy (again, the line between SF and Fantasy can be blurry for some of these)

I should note that despite my frequent “fleh” comments above, I don’t really have anything against fantasy, I just don’t read much of it and thus don’t have much to say about it. There are at least a couple series/books above that I’d probably check out at some point. I thought I’d have read more than 38 on the list, but when you consider that only 63 are SF, that does change things a bit, as my focus tends to be on SF.

I’m not sure what to make of the disparity between male and female authors on the list. Is it that there are less female authors of SF/F? Or is it that there are less female readers voting? I can think of one glaring omission on the list – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russel is superb, and would certainly be on my list (I’m pretty sure it was on the shortlist, but got culled when NPR cut down to 100). Thanks to my incessant Bujold reading, 10 of the 23 books I’ve read so far this year have been written by a woman (though again, most of that is Bujold). I could probably improve that to 50/50 by the end of the year, which would be nice.

And that about covers it. How many have you read?

Update: Forgot to bold one of the books I read, so my count at the end was off. Updated!

SF Book Review, Part 8: Vorkosigan Edition

I’ve read the first few books in Lois McMaster Bujold’s long-running Vorkosigan Saga and reviewed them in the the last couple SF Book reviews. In short, I’ve really enjoyed them, and now I’ve read five more books in the series.

At this point, it’s hard to talk about the series without giving a little background info to start with. This, by necessity, means some spoilers, which I’ll try to keep at a minimum (if you’re sold on the series and want to get started, just skip to the last paragraph of this post). Here goes: In Shards of Honor, Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony meets Aral Vorkosigan of Barrayar, and they get married around the time Aral becomes the Regent of Barrayar (the planet is ruled by a military class called the Vor, which consists of an Emperor and a bunch of Counts. A Regent is appointed when the current Emperor is not yet old enough to take the throne). Barrayar is a largely feudal society, so there’s lots of Machiavellian scheming going on, and thus Aral’s Regency was not unchallenged. An assassination attempt exposed the pregnant Cordelia to a teratogenic gas. All survived, including the fetus, but the baby was born with several birth defects, including most notably brittle bones.

That covers the first two books in the series (in a really frighteningly abrupt manner that leaves a ton of important stuff out!), and in The Warrior’s Apprentice we are introduced to Miles Vorkosigan, who has grown up in a world that hates and fears “mutants” like himself. Unable to depend on physical prowess, Miles instead relies on his powers of observation and quick-thinking wit. He doesn’t give in to the urge for self-pity, but he isn’t one-dimensional caricature of a man driven by demons either. Bujold tends to write his stories from his perspective, so we get lots of visibility to what’s going on in his head, and he’s always thinking ten steps ahead (as is required of him). In The Warrior’s Apprentice, he fails to get into the Barrayaran Military Academy due to his physical infirmities, after which he stumbles into a military conflict involving mercenaries, eventually improvising a mercenary fleet of his own (called the Dendarii Free Mercenaries) and foiling a political plot against his father. His mercenary fleet only knows him as Miles Naismith and does not know of his connections to Barrayar, which is a good thing, because Miles and his father propose making them Barrayar’s secret army. Impressed, but given few options, the young Emperor pulls strings to get Miles accepted into the Barrayaran Military academy. Whew. That took longer and was probably more spoilery than I intended, but it gives you the appropriate background (I assure you, Bujold is much better at explaining all this! Read the first three books!)

  • The Vor Game – The novel opens with Miles Vorkosigan graduation, followed by his assignment to the Barrayaran equivalent of an arctic outpost (i.e. not a very desirable position). It turns out that the commander there (General Metzov) is rather insane, and a confrontation leads to a career wrecking scandal for Miles. His only option at that point is to work for Barrayaran intelligence, but of course, his first mission there goes belly up as well, forcing him to take command of the Dendarii Mercenaries (again) in order to help save his Emperor. Oh, and there’s a Cetagandan invasion fleet on its way to Barrayar too. Yes, it’s difficult to describe this plot, but it’s an excellent novel, and Bujold deftly maneuvers around various pitfalls and tropes.

    Bujold does a particularly good job with the initial confrontation with the mad General Metzov. Miles has been ordered to participate in a massacre that is most probably illegal. However, disobeying orders isn’t exactly a good option either. Miles isn’t just a newly minted soldier. He’s a Vor Lord, a member of the military caste, son of the Prime Minister (and former Regent) and cousin of the current Emperor. And he’s faced with an impossible choice here. Participate in an atrocity, or potentially ruin his life, maybe even taking his father with him and soiling the family name. What do you do when all the available options are bad? It’s a recurring theme in these books – and Miles can’t just make decisions for himself, he has to constantly consider the political, social and cultural ramifications of his actions.

    Later in the book, he runs across the errant Emperor, where Bujold has steadfastly declined to give in to cliche. Emperor Gregor has been in the series since he was a little boy, protected by Miles’ parents during an attempted coup. Miles and Gregor grew up as playmates (inasmuch as the Emperor-to-be could have playmates) and in the hands of a lesser writer, Gregor would have grown into a tyrant that would be the flip-side of Miles’s honor. Or something. But Bujold avoids that temptation without going too far in the opposite direction. Gregor is, in himself, a most interesting character. He’s got his flaws and some major problems, which we see in this novel, but he’s not a tyrant either.

    In the end, it’s easy to see why this got the Hugo award for best novel. I don’t think it’s Bujold’s best, but it’s definitely a great novel and well worth a read.

  • Cetaganda – One of the great things about this series of novels is that Bujuld doesn’t stick to one type of story for all the books. The series is primarily comprised of Space Opera stories, but there are a number of books that stray from the path, and this is one of them. Miles and his cousin Ivan (who is Miles’s cousin and something of a foil, usually referred to by Miles as “That idiot Ivan.”) are sent to represent Barrayar at the Imperial funeral of the dowager Empress, mother of the current Cetagandan Emperor. The Cetagandans are generally the villains of the Vorkosigan universe, so you can imagine that when Miles gets into trouble (which happens almost immediately upon arrival), things get hairy pretty quickly. In essence, this novel takes the form of a murder mystery, with some espionage and political wrangling thrown in for effect. The Cetagandan empire has a multi-tiered aristocracy, along with numerous castes and an almost inconceivable list of customs, traditions, and ceremonies. Like the best SF, Bujold keeps the info-dumps to a minimum, letting us infer the details of all this from the context of the story. Of course, Miles is in-over-his-head almost immediately, yet he manages to pull it out (that’s not really a spoiler, right?). Indeed, given his earlier career (as discussed above, along with the fact that his exploits with the Dendarii Mercenaries can’t be trumpeted), his success on Cetaganda proves almost politically embarrassing! This is actually the most recently written book of the ones listed in this post, though it is placed rather early in the actual chronology. I guess this is getting a bit repetitive, but it’s a good, fun read, handled with wit and care, like all of Bujold’s work.
  • Ethan of Athos – Perhaps the most unusual of the novels in the series in that it does not feature Miles (or anyone from his family) at all, instead focusing on Dr. Ethan Urquhart, from the planet Athos – a planet entirely populated by men. It’s an isolated and reclusive planet that does not seek any real outside contact. They reproduce using uterine replicators (something mentioned often in the series, actually), basically technological wombs where children can be grown. However, they do require certain genetic materials, which means that someone has to go out into the big bad galaxy and secure some new biological samples. Ethan is their man, but he’s quickly embroiled in a galactic conspiracy. He is helped in his task by Commander Elli Quinn of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries (which is one of the ways in which this book connects with the rest of the series). When we last saw Quinn, she had her face blown off during a battle in The Warrior’s Apprentice, but she has since had reconstructive surgery, and is now quite the beauty. Given that Ethan has never had contact with women, this makes for a somewhat interesting dynamic. The bulk of the action takes place on a space station and it takes the form of an espionage thriller. This was actually among the first books of the series to be published, and I think you can see that, but once again, it’s a really good story, and provides you with some background information on an important character (Elli Quinn) and obliquely connects with a couple other books in the series. Another good read.
  • Borders of Infinity – Ah, this is the book that causes a great deal of confusion for those of us seeking to read the series in chronological order. It’s basically a collection of three 100 page (or so) novellas, with some connective tissue provided in the form of an interview conducted by Simon Illyan, who is the head of the dreaded Barrayaran Imperial Security Service (basically an intelligence organization). However, the confusion comes in because each story takes place between other books in the series. I tried to read them in the appropriate order, but kinda messed up because the connective tissue takes place after Brothers in Arms (which is the next book below). No matter, because these are three of the best stories in the series.

    The first story, entitled “The Mountains of Mourning” is particularly effective, and it even earned Bujold a (well-earned) Hugo award for best novella. It’s another of the murder/mysteries, but it takes place in the backwoods of Barrayar, allowing Bujold to explore certain Barrayaran prejudices – especially for their intolerance to birth defects or “mutants”. This is particularly impactful because Miles is, himself, something of a mutant, and he has a lot of political considerations to make during this investigation.

    In “Labyrinth”, Bujold tells a somewhat less plausible tale, but it is one which connects with Ethan of Athos and Cetaganda a bit, and it is quite an enjoyable read. I’m kinda curious as to whether or not the character Taura will make another appearance in the series (it would certainly be a welcome development!) The third and final story, “The Borders of Infinity” starts a little strangely, but it quickly escalates, and Bujold manages a few interesting twists in what basically amounts to a prison-break story. It ends on a bit of a tragic note, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit.

    Like a lot of short story collections, this one doesn’t quite work as a whole as much as a single novel would, but that’s to be expected, and each individual story is truly excellent. Indeed, I would put “The Mountains of Mourning” up as one of the best stories in the series, and the other two aren’t too shabby either. If you’re looking at reading the series and think it’s ok to skip these because they’re “only novellas”, think again – these are really fantastic and should not be skipped. I believe they’re better integrated into the omnibus editions that are now in print, but that’s probably a topic for another post someday.

  • Brothers in Arms – One of the things I’ve always found somewhat improbably about this series was that Miles would be able to lead an entire fleet of mercenaries without anyone noticing that he was one of the most famous Barrayaran noblemen in the galaxy. In this book, Bujold solves that problem rather handily. If I tell you how she did so, well, it will sound ridiculous. And it kinda is. In the hands of a lesser writer, it might have fallen flat, but Bujold does an excellent job executing her solution here. It’s almost comedic, though she never quite goes that far (if you just accept the premise and go with it, you’ll find yourself laughing). However, by the time of the time you reach this novel, she’s laid all the groundwork, and it actually fits rather well. The story itself is more of a political espionage tale, and quite a good one at that. Elli Quinn makes another appearance here, and the story ends at a point that leads into the whole connective tissue parts of Borders of Infinity. I expect to see more of a few of these characters in later books as well.

Yes, I’m completely hooked by this series. The only reason I haven’t devoured the 8 remaining books is that I’m deliberately trying to prolong the experience, as I will no doubt experience a bit of withdrawal when I finish the series. Of course, the most recent installment was just published last year, so more books are not out of the question.

I heartily recommend the series. If you’re interested, I would start with Shards of Honor (or the omnibus edition called Cordelia’s Honor, which features Shards of Honor and the hugo-award winning Barrayar) which primarily deals with Miles’s parents, or The Warrior’s Apprentice (which is probably easier found as part of the omnibus called Young Miles, which features The Warrior’s Apprentice, “The Mountains of Mourning” from Borders of Infinity (another Hugo winner), and The Vor Game (yet another Hugo award winner)). Actually, I think those two omnibus editions are an excellent deal, and will give you a significant amount of the series with just two purchases… Well worth it, if you ask me.

The Book Queue

So the last book queue I posted at the beginning of this year had 12 books on it, and I’ve made great strides against that list. Only 4 remain, and I’m halfway through one of those. I’ve also read at least 7 other books that weren’t on that list (mostly Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga books, of which only the first was on the original list). With only 3 books remaining, I’m looking to fill up the immediate queue again.

Holdovers

The four remaining books from my last queue…

  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond: It’s been a bit of a slog. Two weeks of reading, and I’m still only about halfway through it. However, it’s gotten better as I’ve read. It still hasn’t quite overcome the bad first impression, but there is at least some interesting stuff going on now. I plan to nail it down this week.
  • Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville: I admit, this is getting ridiculous. This has been in the queue, even sitting on my shelf, for years. I will definitely get to this one this year.
  • Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter: I’m making such good progress this year, but I have a feeling that if I start this, even if I’m reading every day, it will take me a long time to finish it off. It’s a 900+ page book, with small type and dense material that I’m sure I’ll really enjoy, but which will totally break the momentum I’ve built up this year. Definitely in 2012 though!
  • Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon: Trashy noir novel by Pynchon? Sounds awesome (also apparently being adapted by Paul Thomas Anderson for the screen, so I want to read this before that movie comes out). This one hasn’t even been on the list that long though, so it’s not a big deal that it’s a holdover. Will definitely get to it this year.

Vorkosigan Saga

I started Lois McMaster Bujold’s long-running series of science fiction novels mostly (but not solely) chronicling the adventures of the physically diminutive but mentally gifted Miles Vorkosigan. So far this year, I’ve read 7 novels in the (loosely connected) series. I’ve got a whole stack of other books just waiting on my shelf now too… and Bujold just released a new one last year, so there’s always the chance of more books in the future! I don’t know if these are the nerdiest books I’ve ever read, but referring to them as the Vorkosigan Saga certainly makes it seem so… In any case, this is what I’ve got left in the series. I’m trying not to read too many of these in a row – I can already sense that I’ll be a bit bummed when I finish the series because I very much enjoy spending time with these characters:

New Stuff

Pretty self explanatory:

  • Readme by Neal Stephenson: I’ve already posted about this several times. Stephenson is probably my favorite author, so of course a new novel will immediately jump to the top of the queue (even though it’s a 900+ page behemoth). Comes out in September.
  • The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge: I’ve also posted about how much I’m looking forward to this one, another book in Vinge’s Zones of Thought universe (not really a series, though maybe, kinda, sorta). This one comes out in October and will probably jump to the top of the queue after I finish Reamde.
  • The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi: A science fiction heist story. I am so there.
  • Savage Season by Joe R. Lansdale: The first in a series of crime novels by Lansdale, whom you may know from his work on Bubba Ho-Tep (a book/movie where a black JFK and an old Elvis fight a mummy in a modern-day Texas retirement home). I’m not anticipating a book that’s quite that crazy, but this series seems to get some good reviews, so I’ll check it out…

So that’s 15 books right there, which should keep me busy through the end of the year. Of course, new books will undoubtedly be added (especially since I’ve just noticed that there’s no new non-fiction on the list) and so on, but that is the way of the book queue.

Tasting Notes – Part 4

Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don’t really warrant a full post. So here’s what I’ve been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:

Television

  • Game of Thrones – The season finale aired last week, and I have to say, I’m impressed. My usual approach to stuff like this is to let it run for a couple of seasons to make sure it’s both good and that it’s actually heading somewhere. At this point, the book series isn’t even finished, but friends who’ve read it think it’s great and they say the books get better, so I gave the series a shot – and I’m really glad I did. It’s a fantastic series, much more along the lines of swords-and-sandals (a la Spartacus or Gladiator) than outright fantasy (a la Lord of the Rings). People talk about magic and dragons and whatnot, but most of that seems to be in the distant past (though there are hints of a return to that sort of thing throughout the series and especially in the last minutes of the season). Most of the season consists of dialogue, politics, Machiavellian scheming, and action. Oh, and sex. And incest. Yeah, it’s a fun show. The last episode of the season doesn’t do much to resolve the various plotlines, and hints at an even more epic scale. Interestingly, though, I don’t find this sort of open-endedness that frustrating. Unlike a show like Lost, the open threads don’t seem like red-herrings or even mysteries at all. It’s just good, old fashioned storytelling. The worst thing about it is that I’m all caught up and will have to wait for the next season! Prediction: Geoffrey will die horribly, and I will love it. But not too quickly. He’s such a fantastic, sniveling little bastard. I want to keep hating him for a while before someone takes him down.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Doctor Who – Most of the semi-recently rebooted series is available on watch instantly, and I’ve only just begun to pick my way through the series again. I vaguely remember watching a few of Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor episodes, but I never finished that first season. I’m not very far in right now – just saw the first appearance of the Daleks, which should be interesting.

Movies

  • 13 Assassins – Takashi Miike tends to be a hit-or-miss filmmaker for me. Fortunately for him, he is ridiculously prolific. His most recent effort is a pretty straightforward Samurai tale about a suicide mission to assassinate a cruel and ruthless evil lord. Seven Samurai, it is not, but it is still quite engaging and entertaining to watch. It starts a bit slow, but it finishes with an amazing 45 minute setpiece as our 13 heroes spring their trap on 200 enemies. Along the way, we get some insight into Japanese culture as the days of the Samurai and Shogunate faded, though I don’t think I’d call this a rigorously accurate film or anything. Still, there’s more going on here than just bloody action, of which there is a lot. An excellent film, among the top films I’ve seen so far this year.
  • HBO has a pretty great lineup right now. In the past couple weeks, I’ve revisited Inception, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and How to Train Your Dragon. All of these films have improved upon rewatching them, a subject I’ve always found interesting. Scott Pilgrim, in particular, has improved it’s standing in my mind. I still think it’s got some problems in the final act, but I also think it’s a dreadfully underappreciated film.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: Transcendent Man – I mentioned this a couple weeks ago, but it’s an interesting profile of Ray Kurtzweil, a futurist and singularity proponent. I don’t really buy into his schtick, but he’s an interesting guy and the documentary is worth a watch for that.

Video Games

  • I’m still playing Mass Effect 2, but I have not progressed all that far in the game. I’ve found this is common with RPGs lately – it takes a long time to get anything accomplished in an RPG, so I sometimes find it hard to get started. Still, I have liked what I’ve seen of this game so far. It’s far from perfect, but it’s got some interesting elements.
  • Since I had to hook up my Wii to get Netflix working during the great PSN outage of ’11, I actually did start playing Goldeneye again. I even got a Wii classic controller, and that made the game approximately 10 times more fun (but I have to say, plugging the Wiimote into the classic controller to get it to work? That’s just stupidly obtuse, though I guess it keeps the cost down). Since I could play it in short 30 minute chunks, I actually did manage to finish this one off in pretty short order. It’s a pretty simple FPS game, which I always enjoy, but there’s nothing particularly special about it, except for some muted nostalgia from the original.

Music

Books

  • I’ve been cranking my way through Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga novels, of which there are many (and I’m actually quite glad, as they’re all great fun). I’ve covered the first few novels in SF Book Reviews, and will probably have finished enough other books to do a Bujold-only edition in the near future. I’m currently reading Ethan of Athos, which seems to me to be a kinda spinoff/standalone novel, but an interesting one nonetheless (and we get to catch up with a character from one of the other books).
  • I also started Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, but have found myself quickly bogging down (it doesn’t help that I have, like, 10 Bujold novels sitting around, begging me to read them) almost from the start. It’s not bad, per say, but there’s something about the style and scope of the book that bothers me. There are some interesting ideas, and Diamond admits that his methods are, by necessity, not that rigorous, but it’s still seems extremely speculative to me. I would normally be fine with that sorta approach, but I’m finding something about this grating and I haven’t figured it out just yet…
  • If you count the aforementioned Guns, Germs, and Steel, I’m down to just 4 unread books from my last Book Queue, which is pretty good! And I’ve only really added the Bujold books and Fuzzy Nation since then. I’m actually at a point where I should start seeking out new stuff. Of course, it probably won’t take long to fill the queue back up, but still. Progress!

The Finer Things…

  • I’ve managed to have some pretty exceptional beers of late. First up is Ola Dubh Special Reserve 40, an imperial porter aged in 40 year old Highland Park casks. It’s an amazing beer, though also outrageously priced. Still, if you can get your hands on some and don’t mind paying the premium, it’s great.
  • Another exceptional beer, the legendary Pliny the Elder (currently ranked #3 on Beer Advocates Best Beers on Planet Earth list). It’s a fantastic double IPA. Not sure if it’s really #3 beer in the world fantastic, but fantastic nonetheless.
  • One more great beer, and a total surprise, was Sierra Nevada Boot Camp ExPortation. Basically, Sierra Nevada has this event every year where fans get to go to “Beer Camp” and collaborate on new beers with Sierra Nevada brewers and whatnot. My understanding is that the batches are extremely limited. Indeed, I never expected to see these, but apparently there were a few on tap at a local bar, sorta leftover from Philly Beer Week. The beer is basically a porter with Brettanomyces added and aged in Pinot Noir barrels. This is all beer-nerd-talk for a sour (in a good way) beer. I’m not normally big into the style or Brett, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t a fantastic beer. I loved it and unfortunately, I’ll probably never see it again. If you see it, try it. At the very least, it will be an interesting experience!

And that’s all for now.

Fuzzy Nation

In recent years, Hollywood has been remaking or rebooting nearly every property it could get its hands on – including franchises that are only a few years old. Some have speculated an unhealthy obsession with branding and marketing, others just call it a result of Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy. This sort of thing happens frequently in other forms of art as well. Indeed, it’s a hallmark of Theater – every night, a new remake! You don’t hear people complaining about yet another production of Macbeth, do you? And covering songs is quite common as well. In both of those realms, the remakes are outnumbered by original works (well, maybe not in theater), though, which is probably a good thing.

One area that doesn’t seem to see too much in the way of remakes is literature. Enter John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation. He calls this novel a “reimagining of the story and events in Little Fuzzy, the 1962 Hugo-nominated novel by H. Beam Piper.” Not having read the original, I can’t speak to the fidelity or necessity of the remake, but I am confident in calling it a fun, entertaining take on several common SF tropes.

Our tale begins with Jack Holloway, an independent contractor working for ZaraCorp, prospecting and surveying the planet Zara XXIII. ZaraCorp is apparently a company that basically strips down planets for all of their useful materials – metal ores, oil, and a rare mineral called sunstones. Not much time is spent mentioning how planets are discovered, but once they are, a team of specialists attempts to determine if there’s any sentient life on those planets, and if there isn’t, then ZaraCorp (and/or its competitors) are given a license to “exploit” the planet. Holloway, a former lawyer, has just found a huge cache of valuable sunstones. It will take years to exploit and even Holloway’s measly 0.25% share will garner him millions, if not billions of credits.

Not long after that, Holloway goes home and discovers that a small, catlike creature has snuck into his house. These ridiculously cute creatures begin to act suspiciously intelligent (incidentally, while I like the cover art, I have to say that the Fuzzy pictured there does not seem as cute as they do in the book). And from here, I’m guessing you can figure out several of the central conflicts in the book.

I burned through the book in about two sittings, and probably could have read it in one big session if I timed it right. I’m not sure if that’s simply to do with the length of the book (it’s about 300 pages with relatively large type and spacing) or if it’s Scalzi’s knack for page-turning storytelling (something I’ve talked about before). As previously hinted at, there are several common SF tropes at work here (Big mean corporations! Planetary exploitation! Is it sentient?!), and while Scalzi isn’t often breaking new ground or even exploring various ideas very deeply, I think there’s something to be said for a very well executed trope. There are several times when you can easily predict what will happen next, though Scalzi does manage some genuine twists and turns later in the story. It’s clear he’s working in pure storytelling mode here, which is perhaps why the pages seemed to turn themselves so quickly.

I do want to single out one aspect of the story that I think is particularly well done, and that’s the character of Jack Holloway. The story is told mostly from his perspective, and he’s got a certain charisma that makes him a good protagonist, but he’s also kind of a selfish prick. I don’t want to give anything away, nor do I want to give the wrong impression – he’s certainly not an anti-hero or anything, he’s just a fully fleshed out character who makes mistakes with the best of us. Flawed characters can be difficult and often present stumbling blocks to otherwise good stories, but I think Scalzi manages to pull this one off well.

Again, I have not read the original Little Fuzzy novel, but I suspect that Scalzi has done it proud. I’m not particularly looking forward to other reimaginings of classic SF, but I think in this case, it worked well, and I actually think that Scalzi’s choice, while not totally obscure, was old enough that he may be introducing lots of folks to Piper’s original works (I believe there are a few other Fuzzy novels as well). Among Scalzi’s novels that I’ve read, this one is towards the top of the list, though I don’t think it’s his best work. I do think that most of his novels would make good introductions to the SF genre though, and would recommend them. While Scalzi may be best known for taping bacon to his cat, I would argue that he should be better known for his novels! Fuzzy Nation would be a good place to start.

SF Book Review, Part 7

Continuing to make some progress through my book queue… and, of course, adding new books to the queue as I go along. This time, it’s Lois McMaster Bujold’s fault, as I enjoyed Shards of Honor so much that I went out and read the next two books in the (apparently long running and loosely connected) series. I’ve now got about 10 more of her books in the queue. If the first three are any indication, I’ll probably move through them pretty quickly… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m going to start with one from the actual queue though: Timothy Zahn’s Cobra Trilogy. I’ve been listing it as one book, but it’s technically an omnibus edition of Zahn’s first three Cobra novels, and I’ll review each separately below. As a side note, Zahn is currently in the process of writing another trilogy set in the same universe (the second novel was published this year, with a third tentatively planned for January 2012) and plans a third trilogy at some point in the unspecified future.

  • Cobra by Timothy Zahn – Though this is not Zahn’s first novel, it is among his first, and it shows. It is certainly not bad and you can see flashes of what he would grow into, but it is quite unusual. The pace of the novel, in particular, is rather strange. It starts off in rather standard military SF fashion, with a youth signing up for a war against an invading alien race. Of course, young Jonny Moreau gets assigned to a new, elite force of guerilla super-soldiers, packed to the gills with concealed weaponry. You get the standard training section, then you’re off to war. But the war lasts approximately one chapter, and we’re back in civilian life, but Jonny’s powers (which cannot be removed) are causing problems. He’s having trouble fitting back into civilian life, an interesting perspective, to be sure, though something that’s been covered a lot, even in military SF. But then, even that section of the novel doesn’t last, and Jonny is sent off on other adventures. The conflicts that arise are reasonably well done, but the solutions often leave a poor taste in your mouth… but then, that seems to be the point of a lot of it. This is an interesting approach, but Zahn hadn’t quite reached the height of his storytelling powers just yet, so it reads a bit stilted. I think if Zahn had attempted something similar later in his career, it may have been a bigger success. It’s a fine read, but nothing particularly special, except insofar as it gets you to the later books in the series.
  • Cobra Strike by Timothy Zahn – This book picks up about 20 years after the first, and follows the next generation of Moreaus (though Jonny also plays a big supporting role) as they attempt to cope with living in an isolated trio of worlds. A new threat appears, and the Cobras are sent to investigate. I won’t go into too much detail here, as this book is a little more cohesive, telling one story from start to finish. I’m not entirely convinced about the conflict or the ultimate solution, but it’s definitely an easier read, and you definitely see more commonality with Zahn’s later works. A worthy sequel and indeed, an improvement on the original.
  • Cobra Bargain by Timothy Zahn – The last book in the series, and probably the book that most resembles Zahn’s later success. It’s not quite as accomplished as his later work, but it’s up there, and it’s the one book in the series that really had me turning the pages. This one jumps us forward another 20 years. Jonny has passed away, but his sons have established themselves in planetary politics and the third generation of Moreaus are becoming Cobras. This time around, we follow Jasmine “Jin” Moreau, the first female Cobra, and one of the more engaging protagonists in the series. Of course, things never go as planned and Jin is quickly caught alone in enemy territory. Things have changed there over the last 20 years, but it’s still a dangerous place, and she finds herself in an uneasy alliance with certain members of the enemy. Quite entertaining, and the pages turned themselves more in this final novel than in either of the previous two. Indeed, I read the last 150-200 pages in one sitting. Is it worth reading the first two novels to get to this point? Maybe for fans of Zahn, but it’s certainly not something I’d recommend folks start with. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t count it as one of my favorites, even amongst Zahn’s other work.
  • Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold – This book picks up right after the end of Shards of Honor, with Cordelia Naismith marrying Lord Aral Vorkosigan. And as it turns out, Aral has taken up a rather important position in the Barrayaran government – one that involves lots of behind-the-scenes politics and intrigue, betrayals and conspiracies. The book starts out a bit on the slow side, establishing all the players in the coming civil war. Things come to a head in the second act, and our protagonists take the initiative in the final act. The mixture of high technology with old-school Machiavellian duplicity is an intriguing one, and Bujold masterfully weaves a web of cunning and deception throughout the plot. Cordelia is a wonderful protagonist, and her outsider’s perspective provides the perfect lens through which the readers can get a look at Barrayar and it’s odd mish-mash of traditions and ceremony. Near as I can tell, this is the last book in which Cordelia is the main character, and if you’re interested in reading these, I recommend starting with the omnibus edition, called Cordelia’s Honor (which contains Shards of Honor and Barrayar). Highly recommended.
  • The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold – With this novel, Bujold shifts the protagonist from Cordelia to her son, Miles Vorkosigan. Without getting into too much detail about the previous books, Miles was born with various physical impairments – in particular, his bones don’t develop normally. So physically, he’s somewhat frail (and very diminutive), but he more than makes up for that with his mental acuity and cunning. This book starts with Miles’ failure to gain entrance into the Barrayaran military academy (he couldn’t pass the obstacle course without breaking his leg), after which he must find something to do with himself. The rest of the novel plays out like an old “Adventure on the High Seas” type of story (but in space!) Indeed, Bujold has mentioned that her series is modeled after the Horatio Hornblower novels, which partially explains the mixture of past and future present in the books. Miles makes for a great protagonist, and I love the way his predicament escalates so quickly… and how he somehow manages to hold things together. I read most of this book on my way to (and returning from) Las Vegas, and very much enjoyed it. I was a little hesitant at first, and at first I was a little worried that Bujold was taking too obvious a path, but she manages several twists on the formula later in the novel that really turned things around for me. Indeed, the novel ends very much on a political bent along the lines of Barrayar. Very entertaining novel, and I can see why this is a popular starting place for the series (apparently most of the novels in the series are about Miles). I’m very much looking forward to exploring more of this series (and I have about 10 new books on my shelf now).

Well that just about covers it. I’ve got some non-fiction to catch up on right now, and while I’m at it, I might as well finish off a couple other non-SF novels that have been sitting around for a while as well, so it may be a while before the next SF book review. Unless I get hooked into the Vorkosigan saga again. Which is probably likely.

Tasting Notes – Part 3

Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don’t really warrant a full post. So here’s what I’ve been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:

Television

  • Community is actually a pretty fun show. In a lot of ways, it’s standard sitcom fodder, but the inclusion of the character of Abed redeems most of the potentially overused cliches. Abed is a pop-culture obsessed film student who appears to be aware that he’s a part of a sitcom, and thus his self-referential observations are often quite prescient. The cast is actually pretty fantastic and there are lots of traditionally funny jokes along the way. Honestly, I think my favorite part of the episode are the post-credits sequences in which Abed and Troy are typically engaging in something silly in a hysterically funny way. I’ve only seen the first season, but I’m greatly looking forward to the second season (which is almost complete now, and probably available in some form, but I haven’t looked into it too closely).
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: The X-Files – It looks like the entire series is available. I watched the series frequently when it was on, but I never realized just how many episodes I missed. I was never a fan of the alien conspiracy episodes (in part because it was difficult to watch them in the right order and I never knew what was going on), but I’ve always loved the “freak of the week” style episode, and now that all of them are at my fingertips, I’m seeing a bunch that I never knew even existed. The show holds up reasonably well, though it’s a little too on-the-nose at times (especially in the early seasons). In the context in which the shows were being produced, though, it’s fantastic. From a production quality perspective, it’s more cinematic than what was on TV at the time (and a lot of what’s on today), and it was one of the early attempts at multi-season plot arcs and continuity (technology at the time wasn’t quite right, so I don’t think it flourished quite as much as it could have if it had started 10 years later).

Video Games

  • Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction is a lot of fun, though you can sorta tell that it was a near launch game. I actually mentioned this a while back, and because it was my first Ratchet & Clank game, I didn’t suffer from most of the repetitive and derivative elements (which I gather is what disappointed old fans). Some minor usability issues (constantly changing weapons/tools is a pain), but otherwise great fun. I particularly enjoyed the Pirate themed enemies, who were very funny. I enjoyed this enough that I’ll probably check out the more recent A Crack in Time, which I hear is pretty good.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops – It’s another CoD game, so I got pretty much exactly what I expected. The single player game actually has a semi-interesting story, though the animators fell in love with the overly-hyper cutting and shaky-cam style that is already overused in film, and which is mostly unnecessary in video games. Don’t get me wrong, the story is kinda hokey, but it’s entertaining in its own way. And, of course, the combat is very well balanced and fun (as every game I’ve played in the series is…) The game ends with one of the most gleefully manic sequences I’ve ever played (much better than, for example, the airline thing at the end of CoD4). The multi-player is not particularly noob-friendly, but I got a few hours out of it and even managed to win a round one time. The kills come so quickly that it’s pretty rare that you’ll escape anyone once they start shooting (the way you can in some other games). This is both good and bad though. All in all, it’s a good FPS for console.
  • I’ve started playing Mass Effect 2 for the PS3. I have no idea what’s going on with the story (I thought there was supposed to be some sort of PS3 intro thingy, but I didn’t see it when I started the game), but I’m having fun so far. It’s not something I’ve been playing a lot though, perhaps because I don’t have a ton of time to dedicate to it…
  • Remember when i said I would play more Goldeneye for the Wii? Yeah, I still haven’t unpacked the Wii from that trip, which is a pretty good expression of how I generally feel about the Wii these days. I guess it’s a good thing Nintendo is announcing their next console soon (though I have to admit, the rumors I’m hearing aren’t particularly encouraging).

Movies

  • James Gunn’s comic book spoof Super continues the trend towards deconstruction of superheroes that’s been going on recently in comic book cinema (though things look like they’re about to revert a bit this summer). As such, it’s semi-derivative at times, but it sticks to its guns (or should I say, Gunns!) and never flinches at its target. It’s also not afraid to embrace the weird (such as, for instance, tentacle rape). It’s extremely graphic and violent, and some of it is played for laughs, but there’s at least one unforgivable moment in the film. One thing I have to note is that there’s going to be a lot of teenage nerds falling in love with Ellen Page because of her enthusiastic performance in this movie. She’s awesome. The critical reception seems mixed, but I think I enjoyed it more than most. I wouldn’t call it one of the year’s best, but it’s worth watching for superhero fans who can stomach gore.
  • Hobo with a Shotgun does not fare quite as well as Super, though fans of Grindhouse and ultra-violence will probably get a kick out of it. If Super represents a bit of a depraved outlook on life, Hobo makes it look like the Muppets. A few years ago, when Grindhouse was coming out, there was a contest for folks to create fake grindhouse-style trailers, and one of the winners was this fantastically titled Hobo With a Shotgun. Unfortunately what works in the short form of a fake trailer doesn’t really extend well to a full-length feature. There are some interesting things about the film. Rutger Hauer is great as the hobo (look for an awesome monologue about a bear), the atmosphere is genuinely retro, it actually feels like a grindhouse movie (as opposed to Tarantino and Rodriguez’s efforts, which are great, but you can also kinda tell they have a decent budget, whereas Hobo clearly has a low budget), and the armored villains known as the Plague are entertaining, if a bit out of place. Ultimately the film doesn’t really earn its bullshit. Like last year’s Machete (another film built off of the popularity of a “fake” trailer), I’m not convinced that this film really should have been made. Again, devotees to the weird and disgusting might enjoy this, but it’s a hard film to recommend.
  • Netflix Watch Instantly Pick of the Week: The Good, the Bad, the Weird – Kim Jee-woon’s take on the spaghetti western is actually quite entertaining, if a bit too long and maybe even a bit too derivative. Still, there are some fantastic sequences in the film, and it’s a lot of fun. Jee-woon is one of the more interesting filmmakers that’s making a name for Korean cinema on an international scale. I’m greatly looking forward to his latest effort, I Saw the Devil.

Books

  • In my last SF book post, I mentioned Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor. I really enjoyed that book, which was apparently the first in a long series of books, of which I’ve recently finished two: Barrayar and The Warrior’s Apprentice. I’ll save the details for the next SF book review post, but let’s just say that I’m fully onboard the Bujold train to awesome. I put in an order for the next several books in the series, which seems to be quite long and varied.
  • Timothy Zahn’s Cobra Trilogy is what I’m reading right now. I’m enjoying them, but it’s clear that Zahn was still growing as a storyteller when writing these. Interestingly, you can see a lot of ideas that he would feature in later works (and he would do so more seamlessly too). I’m about halfway through the trilogy, and should be finishing it off in the next couple weeks, after which, you can expect another SF book review post…
  • I’ve also started Fred Brooks’ The Design of Design, though I haven’t gotten very far just yet. I was traveling for a while, and I find that trashy SF like Zahn and Bujold makes for much better plane material than non-fiction. Still, I’m finding Brooks’ latest work interesting, though perhaps not as much as his classic Mythical Man Month.

The Finer Things…

  • The best beer I’ve had in the past few months has been the BrewDog/Mikkeller collaboration Devine Rebel. It’s pricey as hell, but if you can find a bottle of the 2009 version and if you like English Barleywines (i.e. really strong and sweet beer), it’s worth every penny. I got a bottle of the 2010 version (which is apparently about 2% ABV stronger than the already strong 2009 batch) recently, but I haven’t popped it open just yet.
  • My next homebrew kit, a Bavarian Hefeweizen from Northern Brewer, just came in the mail, so expect a brew-day post soon – probably next week, if all goes well. I was hoping to get that batch going a little earlier, but travel plans got in the way. Still, if this goes as planned, the beer should be hitting maturity right in the dead of summer, which is perfect for a wheat beer like this…
  • With the nice weather this weekend, I found myself craving a cigar. Not something I do very often and I really have no idea what makes for a good cigar, but I’ll probably end up purchasing a few for Springtime consumption… Recommendations welcome!

That’s all for now. Sorry about all the link dumps and general posting of late, but things have been busy around chez Kaedrin, so time has been pretty short. Hopefully some more substantial posting to come in the next few weeks…