great SF books

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Re: great SF books

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Finished another classic... Interesting read, maybe it still works as a YA novel, but as an adult book it hasn't aged well imo.


CHILDHOOD'S END --- Arthur C. Clarke (1953)


In a way, this book is the opposite of Rendezvous with Rama. In both books big stuff from outer space approaches, and whereas in Rama ultimately nothing happens to Earth, in Childhood’s End ultimately everything happens to Earth. Childhood’s End is 20 years older than Rama, and I found it much harder to like. Although the novel starts promising, the biggest problem I experienced was my growing disbelief. Clarke acknowledges this in his 1989 preface:

When this book was written in the early 1950s, I was still quite impressed by the evidence for what is generally called the paranormal, and used it as the main theme of the story. Four decades later (…) I am an almost total sceptic. (…) It has been a long, and sometimes embarrassing, learning process.

Seen in this light, (...)



The full review on Weighing A Pig is here.

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Re: great SF books

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Next up, a review of a book that one the Locus First Novel in 2013.

Also, my 2015 favorite reads are up on my blog...


THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON --- Saladin Ahmed (2012)

This book feels like Young Adult to me, and the Arabian Nights setting feels mainly as window-dressing for what is a simple, typical fantasy adventure. That’s a bit of a shame, because I had my senses set on a different book, wanting to enjoy the magic of being transported to an unknown, original, challenging other world.

(...)


The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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I just posted a review of the follow-up to the Hugo winner of 2015...


THE DARK FOREST --- Cixin Liu (2008, translation 2015)

This novel is an entirely different beast than its predecessor. I liked The Three-Body Problem a lot, and looked forward to reading this sequel. I can’t say I liked it as much. Don’t get me wrong: there’s lots of good stuff in these pages, but as a whole it didn’t live up to the expectations I had.

I think there are two main reasons for my disappointment. (...)


The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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A review of a lesser known Frank Herbert novel is up:

THE SANTORAGA BARRIER --- Frank Herbert (1968)

I’m not too thrilled to write a review about this book. The Dune-series is among the best thing I ever read, so I hate to report that Frank Herbert didn’t even come close with The Santaroga Barrier. (...) The premise is interesting nonetheless, and Herbert manages to create an eerie vibe in the first couple of chapters.

(...)


The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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Finally read something by Guy Gavriel Kay. If you haven't, and you like fantasy, you really should too, like his debut, the first part of his acclaimed Fionavar Tapestry trilogy...


THE SUMMER TREE --- Guy Gavriel Kay (1984)

(...)

So, why, despite the fact that one can make a pretty solid case for this book to be generic in most of its aspects, was I blown away by it? I think because Kay manages to convey one of the key aspects of a Romantic worldview so, so well: we, mortal humans, are part of a vast Whole that is mysterious, ancient, uncaring and unforgiving. This Whole determines us, but at the same time we determine parts of the Whole too. We cannot expect the Whole to do our bidding, that we have to do ourselves. In acknowledging this, and in doing this bidding, living our lives, there is heroism and honor to be found.

(...)



The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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Finished a long review of Dark Orbit, a 2015 book that's getting lots of praise. I didn't like it. Why?


DARK ORBIT --- Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015)

I just want to forget this book. Yet this review has 2107 words. I want to apologize for that in advance. If you don’t want a fairly detailed analysis (plot holes, etc.), you can just skip to the 2.5 last paragraphs.

This fourth entry in the Twenty Planet universe started promising, and I enjoyed the first 100 pages a lot, but after about 1/3rd it turned into a giant mess. Really, a giant, giant mess. Then again, maybe I have read too much Wittgenstein and Rorty and Kant and theory of mind to be impressed by the epistemological profundities this book wears so proud on its sleeves. The problem with Dark Orbit is that it tries to offer a scientific take on magic, but ultimately falls flat on its face because it’s so muddled itself. I have no problem with mystics: I’m intrigued by all kinds of mysticism. But what I can’t stand is authors who don’t think things through.

(...)



The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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Read another Vonnegut...

CAT'S CRADLE - Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

Vonnegut doesn’t really write science fiction, nor is this, at heart, an apocalyptic book – his work is firmly rooted in a tradition of absurdist critique. Just as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle starts as a book about a writer wanting to write a book. And also Cat’s Cradle is war related, as the yet-to-be written book will be about the (fictional) father of the atom bomb, Felix Hoenikker. It quickly evolves into a travelogue of the protagonist visiting San Lorenzo, a fictional Caribbean island with a fictional dictator, on which the children of Hoenikker find themselves in possession of the final remnants of their father’s last invention, Ice-9, a chemical with the potential to destroy the world. And, importantly, everybody on the island is a Bokononist, followers of a fictional religion.

Bokononism’s main creed is that truth is problematic, and that we should all just live by the harmless untruths that make us happy. Humanity’s ability to lie to ourselves is probably the most important theme in the book.

(...)

The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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Been to vacation in Miami for a week, and read 2 books on the plane and the beach. First up, a review of the visionary dystopian The Water Knife...


THE WATER KNIFE --- Paolo Bacigalupi (2015)

The Water Knife is first and foremost two things: it’s a warning, and it’s a thriller. Its science fiction elements only play a supporting role, but that’s not to be taken as an objection. I hadn’t read anything by Bacigalupi, and I’m surely reading more of him in the future – good thing The Wind-Up Girl was a Christmas gift last year.

The book is set in the American Southwest, in a not so distant future – Britney Spears is still alive! – where climate change and the current Californian drought have worsened to apocalyptic proportions. The population has decimated and states fight over dwindling shares of the Colorado River. It focuses on three characters: Lucy Monroe, an East Coast Pulitzer winning journalist, Maria Villarosa, a poor Texan refugee and Angel Velazquez, a former gang member and current “water knife” – hired muscle doing all kinds of covert dirty work for Southern Nevada to ensure its water rights. The point of view changes between these characters, and sooner than later they run into each other.

The first half of the 369-page novel is mainly used to set mood. (...)


The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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Reviewed another high fantasy book...


THE DRAGON'S PATH --- Daniel Abraham (2011)

Recurring readers of Weighing A Pig won’t be surprised to read that I hold Daniel Abraham’s exceptional debut series, The Long Price quartet in very high regard. It was the most emotional story I’ve read last year. The series is secondary world fantasy, but it’s very much its own thing, with a subdued use of a highly original and poetic idea for a magic system.

That’s tough to beat. I was underwhelmed by Leviathan Wakes, the first entry in a space opera series Abraham co-wrote with Ty Franck as James S.A. Corey. And I’m sad to report that I’m also a bit underwhelmed by this first book in the epic high fantasy series The Dagger And The Coin, albeit less so: I don’t think I will continue The Expanse SF-series, but I’ll probably give the second book of TDATC, The King’s Blood, a real chance.

The Dragon’s Path is the first of 5 books, and it suffers from having to set things up. That’s a much read remark in reviews of fantasy series. Still, a first book doesn’t have to suffer from having to set-up things at all, as Abraham proved himself with the stunning A Shadow In Summer.

Of note is this part of an interesting interview with Abraham: (...)


The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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Finished the excellent 6 award winning book by China Miéville.


THE CITY & THE CITY --- China Miéville (2009)

(...)

This is not really “fantasy” fantasy. And for sure it’s not science fiction either. Some label this book as near-future, but it is most definitely not. The City & The City is simply speculative fiction. The novel is set in the timeframe of its publication: the very beginning of the 21st century, on our very own planet Earth, in a fictional Eastern European city that is a kind of double city. Two cities exist in and on the space of one, interweaving, but separate – Iron Curtain kind of separate. This is not to be taken as something magical, metaphysical, hallucinatory or fantastical. Both Besźel and Ul Quma are very, very real. While there is a sense of wonder for the reader, discovering both cities’ interwoven workings, it is all perfectly possible & explainable. It’s not New Weird fiction either – a genre tagged to some of Miéville’s other novels. There’s actually nothing weird about this double city, other than that it doesn’t exist in our reality. It could exist though, and that fact is one of the strengths of the book.

Something else it is not, is Kafka. It starts Kafkaesque though, and Miéville explicitly acknowledges Franz Kafka’s influence in the preface. But, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the political, bureaucratic stuff is more part of the setting, rather than one of the themes. Another crucial difference with Kafka is that The City & The City isn’t an existential book. Stories as The Trial and The Metamorphosis are very much about loneliness and the individual that is unable to connect with the mysteries of existence, nor with the absurdity of the world, nor with other individuals. In The Trial that oppressiveness of existence is transformed into its famous main narrative metaphor of judicial bureaucracy. The City & The City is not about the individual. It is about groupings of individuals, societies and opposing societies. The political bureaucracy in Miéville’s novel is not about the oppressiveness of existence, but about the oppressiveness of decorum. Yes, both Kafka as The City & The City are about the human condition, but about very different facets of that condition nonetheless.

(...)

The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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Fantasy this week! Next week, some Gene Wolfe SF!


THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS --- Aliette de Bodard (2015)

This is probably the book with the sharpest decline in quality I have ever read. The first half of its 399 pages was original and amazing. Sadly, the second half didn’t live up to what its author had set up. The House of Shattered Wings is the first book of Aliette de Bodard I’ve read, and I came to it with high expectations: most reviews are glowing. I was also intrigued by the world building it promised: a novel set in an alternative reality Paris, late 20th century, in ruins after a magical war. The city is ruled by a few Houses, factions of fallen angels, arcane creatures that wield the most magical power, at least in this part of the world.

The first 100 pages are truly promising: the world, the characters and the mystery at the core of the story all seem interesting. There’s also beautiful prose, and awesome, intuitive systems of magic.

It left her hands, a barely distinguishable tremor, a pinpoint that became a raised line, and then a rift across the faded ceramic tiles that would tear the girl apart.

Yet after 100 pages more, (...)



The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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So, as promised, Wolfe...


NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN --- Gene Wolfe (1993)

(...)

That doesn’t mean Nightside is a very good book. As with all Wolfe I’ve read, the same list of adjectives – bizarre, strange, baffling, different, mythical, mysterious and oddball – springs to mind. And harsh, and deadpan. Nightside is set in a giant generational space ship, of the spinning cylinder Rendezvous With Rama-type. It was sent from a far, far future Earth (or Urth, or the Whorl) to some distant planet. Yet Nightside doesn’t register as SF at first – as in The New Sun, the inhabitants of its world don’t understand their surroundings, aren’t even aware they are on a spaceship, and are not able to repair or even understand the technology – AI entities in the Mainframe that sometimes appear on screens are worshipped as gods. The ship has been flying for ages, and its origins are mostly lost to the book’s characters.

Nightside takes a long time to set things up, (...)



The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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I reviewed of one of the pinnacles of military SF, but I think it's an overrated classic, whiney & self-centered


THE FOREVER WAR - Joe Haldeman (1974)

The Forever War is supposed to be a SF classic with everlasting appeal. And not only a SF-classic, but even a straight out American classic of literature. 3 different quotes on my edition rave in one way or the other about the book being up there with the big boys of non-genre, non-pulp literature: "the most important war novel written since Vietnam".
I disagree, totally. It's not that the book hasn't aged well: it hasn't, but that's not its problem. It's simply not a very good book, and never has been. It is not without merit, and it has excellent parts, but overall there's not enough meat on the bone. It works as an allegory, but not as a story. Moreover, its ethics are pathetically superficial -- a pretty spectacular fail, especially for an indicting war novel.

I guess most SF-fans know that Joe Haldeman was a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart, and that The Forever War actually is about the Vietnam war -- moreover, it is a critique on that war; in the introduction he recollects having a hard time getting it published because of that. To make it even more personal, the protagonist's name, William Mandela, clearly is an anagram of Haldeman.

So, what's the good here? (...)



The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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GUY GAVRIEL KAY - THE WANDERING FIRE (1986)

The Summer Tree, the first book of The Fionavar Tapestry, was gripping & amazing. It gutted me. As the series is regarded as one of the classics of fantasy, it is no surprise that The Wandering Fire was a feast as well. My review of The Summer Tree applies to this book too: The Wandering Fire continues the story, and has the same strengths as Kay’s debut. I’ll elaborate a bit on some of those – language & emotion -, and discuss a few themes that are deepened in this second book. Naturally, I more than look forward to reading The Darkest Road, the concluding volume.

(...)


The full review is here.

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Re: great SF books

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I've written a rather lengthy review of the epic Green Earth


GREEN EARTH - Kim Stanley Robinson (2015)

Green Earth is a revised version of The Science In The Capital-trilogy, a near future series on climate change, American politics and science. The original trilogy consists of Forty Signs Of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005) and Sixty Days And Counting (2007). They were meant to be one long novel all along. In movies, most director’s cuts are longer, but not here so… Robinson cut about 300 pages, still leaving Green Earth to be a mammoth of 1069 pages. It’s unclear how much updating took place, if any – there’s about a decade of extra research and data on climate change since the first volume was published, and it’s not unthinkable that KSR tinkered a bit with some of the data in the original books too.

You can read the 6 page introduction of the book on io9. It is an excellent text by KSR himself on the reasons for this revision, and he tackles some other interesting topics too. His take on the ethics of contemporary literature & science fiction is bold, and rings very true to these ears.

Also, my original idea had been to write a realist novel as if it were science fiction. This approach struck me as funny, and also appropriate, because these days we live in a big science fiction novel we are all writing together. If you want to write a novel about our world now, you’d better write science fiction, or you will be doing some kind of inadvertent nostalgia piece; you will lack depth, miss the point, and remain confused.

I’ll start with some remarks about the book in general, and afterwards zoom in a bit on the 3 parts. I should probably mention that I made about 7 times as many notes while reading as I do for most reviews, and some of that is surely on behalf of the 1000+ page count, but still. Green Earth is an extremely rich book, and this review should have been at least twice as long to do justice to the scope of its ideas: I’ll leave a lot unsaid. So, don’t forget to read the book too!

(...)

Read the rest of the review here.

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Re: great SF books

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Read the much acclaimed fantasy book The Fifth Season, but was lukewarm about it.

THE FIFTH SEASON - N.K. Jemisin

(...)

So, to cut to the chase: The Fifth Season is not bad, but judging from the current average 4.32 Goodreads rating – that’s pretty high – I know I’m in a minority position when I state that I think it’s just okay, and not excellent at all.
There’s a couple of reasons for this, but the main thing was that Jemisin’s narrating voice didn’t convince me it was a real voice. In other words: not enough suspension of disbelief. In secondary world fantasy, I want to be transported to that other world, and I don’t want to be reminded of 21st century posturing and wittiness of the author’s part.

(...)

I’m tempted to say Jemisin needed a better editor, but that’s clearly not the case. The people at Orbit know very well this kind of formula has a huge potential and as such made to right decisions, judging by the rave reviews and the nearly universal acclaim this book has gotten, even in a mainstream publication as The New York Times.
My whining aside, The Fifth Season does have merit. There are (...)



Read the rest of the review here.

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Re: great SF books

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Read the "final" book of the Dune series. What a travesty!


SANDWORMS OF DUNE - Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson (2007)

(...)

If the ending is anything like that outline proposed, it turns out that Frank Herbert wanted the end of the Dune series to be about humanity’s material nature. The story echoes what so many other SF-writers wrote and still write: thinking, self-conscious robots, like any advanced self-conscious form of A.I., aren’t morally or ethically different from a biological human. It is electricity that runs through our nerves, we are robots ourselves, made of flesh: “moist robots”, as Dilbert creator Scott Adams coined it.

(...)

Reading Sandworms Of Dune I never had the feeling Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson showed any respect: no respect for the source material, and no respect for the intelligence of their readers.

I’m seriously thinking of not bringing this to the secondhand bookstore, but burning it.



Read the rest of the review here.

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Re: great SF books

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Pretty impressed by BSFA-winner River of Gods, near-future SF set in India 2047.


RIVER OF GODS - Ian McDonald (2004)

(...)

Ultimately, the story of this book could have taken place anywhere, and India mainly serves as a metaphor for the complexity of our planet and our species. It also makes for a colorful backdrop, and the Indian pantheon allows easy links with software avatars. All that doesn’t take away the feeling I have that the reason McDonald chose India as the story’s setting has more to do with the stereotypical images we Westerners tend to have of India: ever rising population numbers, lots of religions intersecting, an emerging technological powerhouse full of IT PhDs working for minimum wage, mad ascetic gurus, etc., etc.

The fact that McDonald also wrote a Brazilian and a Turkish book – both of which I’ll willingly read somewhere in the future – makes me think the setting is more of a gimmick and a technique, and not a necessity internal to the story. That’s not a fault per se, and an author’s prerogative. McDonald shows both respect and has done heaps of research. But as a reader, I don’t have the feeling that I learned a lot about India. My preconceptions were reinforced, that’s about it.

Again, not a fault per se: it’s impossible to get to know something as large as a nation through a book, and expecting that is questionable in itself.

(...)



Read the rest of the review here.

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Re: great SF books

Post by walto »

While we were in Seville, my younger daughter read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? So I reread it for for the first time in maybe 40 years. Still good stuff.
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Re: great SF books

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I wasn't very impressed with Androids...Sheep. Too much a construct. The review is on my blog.


I've posted 2 reviews since my last post.

The first of THE SECOND CHRONINCLES OF AMBER by Roger Zelazny. The review is here.


The second of...

THE HANDMAID'S TALE --- Margaret Atwood (1985)

A lot has been written about this book. It’s on number 37 of American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000, and that’s ‘challenged’ as in ‘banned on certain schools’ too. There has been lots of feminist discussion of the book as well – both favorable and unfavorable. The content of this books mixes sexuality, hardline religion, totalitarian politics, reproductive oppression and American culture in one explosive cocktail: perfect tinder to kindle a debate among the participants of the culture wars.

I don’t have the time nor the energy to contribute a lot to those debates. Atwood seems to have written a book that makes people think, and I can’t object to that. As far as the feminist debate goes, I’ll only say this: I have the feeling this book neither vilifies men nor simply victimizes women, and as such I think it’s intelligent and balanced.

(...)

I’m not sure the book worked for me.

It does succeed – masterfully even – to evoke an atmosphere. In that respect, the first person narration of a woman who is reduced to someone whose sole purpose is breeding works very well. The novel has a claustrophobic atmosphere, and just as the protagonist is kept uninformed and shielded off, the reader too only gets glimpses of the totality of the world and times the book is set in.

The prose is excellent, poetic even. Atwood manages to evoke a lot without that many words, and for me this is her true strength. The book is only 324 pages, but it’s not a light, quick read, as one needs the concentrate in order not to miss anything.

(...)

The full review is here.