#81 – A Princess of Mars Summary – Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Much like it’s protagonist, Civil War veteran John Carter, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is a big, bold, testosterone-soaked piece of pulp fiction and adventure fantasy. Containing elements of science fiction, planetary romance and old westerns, the book is a landmark of genre fiction – having inspired countless future scientists and science fiction masters (such as Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke). Even though the novel’s scientific underpinnings and predictions about the landscape, conditions and inhabitants of Mars may have turned out to be false (having been based primarily on the writings of Astronomer Percival Lowell who speculated that Mars was a dying, Earth-like world with canals built to disperse the planet’s dwindling water supply), that fact makes the tale no less engrossing and readable. While we may now know for certain that this version of Mars never actually existed, Burroughs’ skill and imagination at conjuring a brutal, exotic and relentless world make us wish it had.

A Princess of Mars Summary: Although he’s probably best known for creating the character of Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs’ second most well known creation is the heroic, honorable and almost supernaturally gifted fighter John Carter. A Virginian gentleman and war veteran, Carter narrates his own astounding tale of Galactic adventure and romance. After the war, Carter goes to Arizona to prospect for gold. While hiding from a band of marauding Apaches, he is mysteriously transported to the planet Mars (no explanation is ever given). Once there, he is overtaken and held captive by the Tharks, a tribe of giant, green, four-armed warriors who seem to be in a constant state of war with all of the other races on the planet. Through his physical prowess and fighting skill, Carter eventually wins their respect and becomes a part of the tribe. But when the Tharks destroy a passing fleet of enemy ships and capture the beautiful Martian princess Deja Thoris (of a race of humanoid looking Martians), Carter goes into hero mode once again to free her and return her to her people.

In the process of rescuing the princess, Carter becomes embroiled in the politics and conflicts of the various warring factions on Mars (called Barsoom by its own inhabitants), eventually leading an army of Thark warriors against the enemy state of Zodanga in order to protect the people of Helium. In doing so, he is able to finally unite the Green and Red men of Mars into an alliance and end centuries of fighting and war. Carter eventually marries Deja Thoris and becomes Prince of Mars, living happily until an accident occurs at the Atmosphere Plant (which helps distribute Mars’ dwindling supply of oxygen). Always the hero, Carter rushes to the planet and seemingly gives his own life in order to restore the machinery and save the planet. But in just as mysterious circumstances, he awakens back in the Arizona desert having been gone for almost 10 years. While the existences of several sequels suggests that he eventually finds his way back to Barsoom, we never actually see him return to his newly adopted planet.

A Princess of Mars Review: It’s easy to look at Princess of Mars as simply a stereotypical male-oriented adventure tale about an American hero who is able to triumph in battle and win the hand of the girl through sheer force of will, goodness and humanity, but that wouldn’t do justice to the groundbreaking nature of Burroughs’ vision and his ability to capture the imaginations of readers everywhere. While this type of space/adventure/romance tale may seem commonplace and derivative to today’s reader, at the time they seemed incredibly new and intriguing. With close up images of our neighboring planets starting to circulate for the first time around the turn of the century and scientists predicting what strange and wondrous things we would find when we got their, the public’s appetite for speculative fiction and adventure was immense – and Burroughs’ gave them exactly what they wanted. Even if reality may not have fallen in line with his unique vision, this book makes it possible to imagine a time in which it was still a possibility – even if just in our collective imagination.

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January 4, 2010

#80 – The Puppet Masters Review – Robert Heinlein

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A cross between a James Bond adventure and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Robert Heinlein’s 1951 novel The Puppet Masters is a fast-paced alien invasion thriller that combines secret agent intrigue and sexual politics with a healthy dose of flying saucer paranoia.  While the book lacks some of the gravitas and narrative punch of his later works (this being one of his earliest novels), it more than makes up for it with a tightly-plotted, suspense-filled story populated by slimy monsters, daring secret agents, and beautiful women. And although Heinlein makes occasional allusions to the similarities between the mind-controlling aliens and the practices of Communist Russia (the Cold War being at its height at the time the book was written), I think that this book is best enjoyed as a Sci-Fi spy thriller rather than any sort of political allegory.

The Puppet Masters Summary: Our James Bond stand-in is a man named Sam, an expertly trained agent who works for a top secret government intelligence agency under the direction of his boss, a man simply known as “the Old Man.” There is no mention of the name of the organization and, it is explained, the only person who is aware of its existence is the President. The novel starts out with Sam and the Old Man (along with a gorgeous agent named “Mary”) as they investigate a flyer saucer appearance in Iowa. During their investigation they discover that local residents are becoming mentally enslaved by slug-like creatures that are attaching themselves to the back of their host’s neck (presumably their brain-stem). After capturing one of the slugs, the team tries to convince the President of the seriousness of the threat but is unable to persuade him to take the slug menace seriously.

After returning to Iowa to continue the investigation, one of the members of their team secretly becomes controlled by one of the slugs and inadvertently brings it back to their Washington, D.C. headquarters with him. In a funny bit of sexual serendipity, the slug is only discovered when Mary walks past the controlled agent and doesn’t get the same lascivious look that she usually gets from men reacting to her beauty, leading her to believe (however conceitedly) that he is not in full control of his faculties. Although her intuition turns out to be right and the agent is subdued, the slug is able to escape from its host and eventually attach itself to our protagonist Sam.  Under the control of the slug, Sam escapes their headquarters. At around the same time, we learn that the invasion has been spreading, with slugs multiplying and even sending themselves through the mail in order to infect more people. By the time Sam is recaptured and rid of the slug, the slugs have been able to take over control of people in high levels of government and are poised to make a play on the President.

The Puppet Masters Review: I won’t spoil the fun for you by telling you how they get out of their predicament (or even if they do), but I will tell you that the final act features some pretty cool reveals and enough action and suspense to fill a Hollywood blockbuster – which is probably why they’ve made a few of them out of the novel’s basic premise. So, if you’re in the mood for an exciting and original take on the alien invasion story, Heinlein’s Puppet Masters is a great read. Even if it doesn’t match the brilliance of his more celebrated works, it nevertheless stands on its own as a uniquely compelling piece of pulp entertainment.

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#78 – Have Space Suit, Will Travel Review – Robert Heinlein

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A lot of science fiction novels have a tendency to get bogged down in weighty themes, big ideas and serious, brooding characters – which is why the occasional book that throws a little humor and wit into the mix can be a welcome respite. Robert Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel is one of those books. As both a fast paced swash-buckling adventure tale across the farthest reaches of the galaxy and as a wry, humorous parable about a teenage boy who learns how to realize his dreams, the book takes off at a frenzied pace and doesn’t let up. Written during his “Juveniles” period, in which he published books aimed mainly at teenage boys, the book crackles to life with an energy that is infectious to readers of any age. Heinlein’s writing is sharp, smart and efficient (as well as funny) and manages to even make the mechanical intricacies and practical necessities of spacesuit design seem interesting. If you’re looking for some light Sci-Fi reading and a change of pace from your ordinary space operas, you can’t go wrong with this book.

Summary: The hero of the story is a teenage boy named Kip Russell. Scientifically inclined and obsessed with finding a way to travel to the moon, Kip enters a jingle contest for the Skyway Soap company in which first prize is an all expenses paid trip to the moon. Although he fails to win the grand prize, Kip perks up when his second place prize is delivered to his house: a real life spacesuit. Kip spends the summer fixing up the old space suit to the point where it’s actually in working condition, even though he still has no way to get where he wants to go – all the while planning and scheming on how he is going to make enough money to cover the tuition for his first semester of college. Kip starts to think that his dreams may have to be put on hold for a long time, until one eventful afternoon changes everything. Trying on his fully functional suit in his backyard one last time before selling it to help pay for school, Kip picks up a Mayday signal from someone on his suit’s radio. To his amazement, two flying saucers land near him and, next thing he knows, he’s captured and taken to the moon where he is held captive by a group of alien uglies that look like they have worms growing out of their faces.

Luckily he’s not alone. Joining him in captivity is a young girl named PeeWee (the one who sent the original radio message). She explains to him that they’re being held by a race of “Wormfaces” who we eventually learn are plotting to take over the earth for their own nefarious purposes. Also in captivity is a being known as the “Mother Thing,” a kindly, telepathic creature who PeeWee informs Kip is also sort of like a policeman for the galaxy (obviously trying to stop the Wormfaces). After a series of heroic escapes in which Kip uses his intelligence and ingenuity to save the day, including one across the moon’s surface in which we learn a lot about the workings (and limitations) of a spacesuit, the trio are eventually saved by the Mother Thing’s people and taken to their home planet: Vega 5. There they are made witnesses of and participants in the trial of the Wormfaces in what seems to be a sort of galactic court. Unexpectedly, however, the Wormfaces aren’t the only ones put on trial. Although they are considered heroes for helping stop the Wormfaces and saving the Mother Thing, they are made to stand trial for the entire human race -a race that the court has decided may some day pose a threat to peace in the galaxy (due to our penchant for explosive weapons and territorial aggression). While I won’t give away the ending, the question of whether the story written for teenage boys has a happy ending is probably not too hard to figure out.

Review: Even if the story seems a little childish and unsophisticated compared to some of the muli-dimensional, multi-character epics of science fiction, don’t let that fool you. What elevates this book above the majority of fiction written for the teen age group is that Heinlein never talks down to the reader, and that is exactly why this is a book that would have been just as entertaining to my 13 year old self as it was to my 32 year old mind. Sure, it may not be a mind-expanding, paradigm-shifting, otherworldly tour-de-force. But sometimes that not what you’re looking for in a book. If you’re looking for a quick, absorbing and fast-paced read while your sitting by the pool this summer (or gazing up at the stars), you couldn’t do a lot worse than this one. And if you’re of the type of intelligent, ambitious and searching souls as young Kip, you’ll find even more stuff in this book to relate to and dream about.

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January 7, 2010

#66 – The City and the Stars Review – Arthur C Clarke

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While Arthur C. Clarke’s first novel, The City and the Stars, may not be as instantly memorable or critically celebrated as some of his later works, it does give us a tantalizing glimpse into the groundbreaking talent that he would eventually become. With its far future setting, intriguing mysteries and engaging main character, the book does an admirable job of portraying a world in which all of mankind’s needs are taken care of and an antipathy towards the exploration and discovery of new experiences has become almost pathologically ingrained in society. Originally written as a novella called Against the Fall of Night, Clarke decided to rewrite it entirely when it came time to produce a novel length version of the story, taking into account what he’d learned as a writer since its original publication. And although the narrative may drag a bit towards the end, the fascinating premise and Clarke’s deft ability to imagine a world in which humanity has seemingly reached its twilight years make this a still vital tale of one man’s attempt to break free of the isolationism and fear of the unknown that has gripped his race for millenia.

The City and the Stars Summary: Set a billion years in the future, the story begins in the last known city on Earth, Diaspar. Entirely enclosed from the outside world and run almost completely by a central computer that regulates every aspect of life, the city of Diaspar is populated by what is thought to be the entirety of the remnants of the human race. Having been cut off from the rest of the world for so long, no one can recall anyone ever leaving or entering the city. While legend has it that the city was built during a time in which malevolent invaders nearly destroyed the human race (but were content to make sure that they never left the planet again), the reality of the reason for their self-imprisonment is unclear. The city is so efficient at preserving civilization that it keeps a record of every human in the city in its memory banks and then revives them periodically to live out 1,000 year lifespans. The result is that every member of society has knowledge of the time spent during many of their previous lives. That is, except one.

Alvin is a “Unique” – different than all of the other residents of Diaspar in that he has no memory of any previous lives. Being the first truly unique consciousness that the central computer has created in years, he is also different in that he does not fear the outside world in the same way that his fellow citizens do. In fact, as he starts to reach adulthood, he actually gets the urge to find a way to leave the city and explore the outside world. Although his behavior is deemed strange by his friends and family, he finds a kindred soul in Khedron the Jester, a figure (we learn) who has been inserted into society every so often by the central computer in order to inject a little bit of uncertainty and chaos into an otherwise staid and stagnant system. With the help of Khedron, Alvin eventually discovers a way to leave the city via a dilapidated underground subway system that use to connect all of the cities of the world. Upon leaving the city, Alvin discovers a second city (or set of villages) surrounded by grasslands: The city of Lys. He soon learns that the residents of Lys have evolved to the point where they can communicate telepathically. And while they seem to live in relative peace and happiness, he is also shocked to learn that new members of Lys are born naturally, live normal life spans, and then die a true death.

The City and the Cars Review: While Clarke spends some time illuminating the differences between how these two human cities evolved and what that says about our society in general, he quickly changes gears to focus on the central mystery of the story – how Earth came to be a barren wasteland inhabited by two very different societies. Although Clarke loses some steam during this section as he tries to sort out the vast and complex history of humankind, the answers that are revealed are surprising and often profound.  For a novel that was written over 50 years ago, it holds up surprisingly well. And even if it may not be an outright classic when compared to such masterworks as Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey, it still merits inclusion among the greatest science fiction novels of all time by any author.

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#62 – To Your Scattered Bodies Go Review – Philip Jose Farmer

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Of all the bizarre head-trips and out of this world scenarios that science fiction authors have subjected their characters to throughout history, few can compare to the awe-inspiring mystery and twisted brilliance of Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go. As the first book in Farmer’s Riverworld series, the book introduces us to a strange world in which all of earth’s inhabitants have been resurrected along the shores of a massive ongoing river. From prehistoric neanderthals all the way up to present age men (and women), the entirety of human seems to have been suddenly re-awoken at various points along the river by some unknown entity. Using a combination of actual historical figures and fictional characters from a variety of eras and cultures, Farmer is able to sustain a mixture of mystery, wonder and dread, as those who have been resurrected learn to adjust to their new surroundings and start asking questions about what, or who, is behind this mysterious “Riverworld.”

To Your Scattered Bodies Summary: While many characters move in and out of the story, the novel mainly revolves around Sir Richard Francis Bacon – a real life explorer, adventurer and ethnologist in the 19th century who was known for his travels in Asia and Africa. Having died on Earth, Bacon finds himself mysteriously resurrected, naked and hairless, in a strange land alongside hundreds of other people in the same situation. After getting his wits about him, he slowly begins to interact with some of his fellow companions, including Alice Liddell (the real-life inspiration for Alice in Wonderland), a stone-age man named Kaz, a science fiction writer named Peter, and even an Alien named Monat (who explains that he was a resident of earth at a time in Bacon’s future).  Together, they start to acclimate themselves to this strange world and learn how to survive . This includes the discovery of a giant stone table that periodically deposits food and other supplies to the travelers as necessary, as well as the discovery that the gum that is provided along with supplies is actually a powerful hallucinogenic drug which makes them crazy and sexually charged.

One night, a hooded figure (known only as The Mysterious Stranger) comes to Bacon and informs him that he is a member of the race of beings that brought them all to this world. Being against the sinister plot to resurrect humanity, the Stranger implores Burton to try and find the headwaters of the river in order to discover the true nature of the plot. Being the intrepid explorer and restless wanderer that he is, Burton sets off down the river with a group of locals. After a few weeks of traveling down the river (which is rumored to be endless), the group passes by a kingdom run by the Nazi Hermann Goering and is captured and enslaved. After leading a slave revolt against Goering and being reunited with Alice, Bacon discovers that an agent of the beings that control Riverworld has been living amongst them. Fearing for his safety, Burton sets off again to find the source of the river, using the “suicide express” to escape capture whenever necessary (killing himself allows him to be resurrected at another point along the river). When Burton is eventually resurrected in a Tower at the headwaters of the river, he is finally confronted with the true architects of Riverworld.

To Your Scattered Bodies Review: While most science fiction authors provide endless explanations of the worlds they create and the scientific underpinnings of everything in their universe, Farmer takes a much different approach to setting up his world. Part of the thrill and sense of wonder of To Our Scattered Bodies Go is the lack of explanation that we get for why this world exists and what the main characters are doing there. While the characters are interesting and their relationships and conflicts involving, the matter of why they have been brought to this seemingly alien world is the real that mystery that moves the plot along and keeps us guessing. And even if Farmer doesn’t give us a complete explanation of that central mystery (there are other books in the series), he at least keeps our attention throughout the novel and teases us just enough with clues and hints that we can’t help but follow Burton down the endless river is search of answers.

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February 9, 2010

#57 – The Sirens of Titan Review – Kurt Vonnegut

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As I mentioned before in my review of Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan is probably my favorite novel that Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote. If this were my list (and I may make one someday), I would surely have this book a lot higher up, maybe even in the top 5. But since this isn’t just about my favorite books, I’ll have to settle for giving it a glowing review in the #57 spot. This book contains all of the various elements that are usually associated with Vonnegut: dark humor, wry observations, a sad-sack protagonist who is swept up in an adventure of galactic importance, discussions of free will and destiny, and nothing less than the revealing of the ultimate purpose of the entire human race. With a description like that you’d think the book was a thousand word treatise on philosophy (or something equally as boring). Instead, what we get is a brightly colored carnival ride through time, space and the solar system in which we meet a host of characters whose seemingly insignificant actions end up having an effect on the course of human civilization.

Sirens of Titan Summary: As far as Vonnegut main characters go, Malachi Constant is a bit more upwardly mobile than most. As the richest man in the 22nd century, Malachi has lived a playboy’s life due to being born into wealth and then having tremendous good fortune to turn that money into even more money. But like most wealthy gadabouts in literature, he hasn’t really done anything meaningful with his life outside of make and spend a lot of money. That soon changes when he is invited to witness the reappearance of one Winston Niles Rumfoord, a wealthy inter-planetary space explorer who came into contact with a strange phenomenon known as the chrono-synclastic infundibulum – causing him (and his dog Kazak) to appear and disappear at regular intervals on a variety of planets, including Earth. Besides being stretched as thin as a wavelength across the vastness of space, Rumfoord is also able to view the past, present and future – making him an oracle of sorts (albeit a mischievous one). While it’s not immediately apparent, Rumfoord has a very peculiar plan for Malachi which includes, in part, in being a major figure in his newly formed “Church of the God of the Utterly Indifferent”.

To give a full account of the events that follow would be an almost impossible task and would rob the book of it’s unique charm and novelty. Let’s just say that it includes a stop on Mars (where an invasion of Earth is being planned), a brief period on Mercury (where kite-like creatures known as Harmoniums live on soundwaves), a number of trips to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn and the only place in the universe that Rumfoord can exist as a solid form, and even a brief description of the Vonnegut staple Tralfamadore, a planet whose residents (and one messenger in particular) are responsible for the entire course of human history.

Sirens of Titan Review: Where some might see Vonnegut’s ultimate revelation of civilization’s purpose as an absurdist slap in the face to those who want to believe in humanity’s central place in the cosmos, I tend to think of the final reveal as less important to the true aim of the book, which is to poke fun at all of the things we take too seriously in our lives – whether it’s religion, money, patriotism, beauty, or even love to some extent. Vonnegut is the eternal court jester of Science Fiction, poking fun at everyone and everything in ways that not only serve to make us laugh, but also to ponder why the things we hold sacred are even sacred at all. Although searching for meaning and order in the universe is a hobby as old as time, the rituals and stories that we come up with to make sense of it all can be as detrimental to our personal well being and spiritual evolution as the emptiness and meaninglessness that they serve to mask. Vonnegut isn’t telling us that our lives have no meaning. Instead he is trying to warn us to be skeptical about the things that we assign meaning to and the conclusions that we draw from the meanings we give them.

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August 12, 2010

#40 – The Gods Themselves Review – Isaac Asimov

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While it may not be one of Asimov‘s most famous books, The Gods Themselves is a uniquely ingenious and prescient yarn that touches on the issue of our civilization’s insatiable need for cheap, plentiful energy and our inability to accept the environmental consequences of that dependence. With a story told across multiple parallel universes and a description of a para-race of beings that is staggering in its complexity, the novel is a cautionary tale of scientific hubris and ego run amok and the cross-dimensional dissidents who try desperately to avert a crisis. With echoes of our own world’s current global energy crises and the environmental impact of our reliance on dirty energy sources, the book is an eerie reminder of the tradeoffs we make in the name of progress and civilization.

The Gods Themselves Summary: The book is told in three distinct parts, each with its own unique setting, rhythm, and characters. The first section takes place on Earth and focuses on a scientist named Hallam who inadvertently stumbles upon a way to exchange matter with a parallel universe that (due to the differences in physical laws between the two universes) results in a seemingly limitless source of free energy. Hallam’s creation of the “Electron Pump” is a major scientific breakthrough and turns him into an overnight celebrity. While the Pump is seen as a godsend to help feed the world’s energy needs, an up and coming scientist named Lamont eventually discovers that the exchange of matter between the two universes is creating a catastrophic increase in the strong nuclear forces within the Sun that will eventually cause it to go Nova. When Lamont brings his concerns to Hallam and the larger scientific and political community, he is shunned due to Hallam’s increasing influence and protectiveness over his creation and reputation. Unable to persuade them to stop using the Electron Pump, Lamont decides that the only way to prevent the destruction of our solar system is to try and contact the “Para-Men” in the other universe who are operating the other end of the Pump.

The second part is where things get really interesting. Set in the “Para-Universe,” it describes a race of beings that is divided up into two distinct forms – the “Hard Ones” and the “Soft Ones.” The Soft Ones are further divided into three groups: Rationals (or “Lefts”), Emotionals (or “Mids”) and Parentals (or “Rights”). Each “Triad” or mating group is made up of one of each of these types. The main focus of this section is on an Emotional named Dua who, like Lamont in our universe, discovers the disastrous consequences of the pump and tries to put a stop to it. While trying to convince her side to stop using the pump, we learn that the sun and stars in the para-universe are dying and that the pump is their only source of energy. In addition, the nova of our sun would actually be a benefit to them, as the amount of energy released would provide them with even more energy. In the midst of trying to solve the problem with the pump, we are also given more information on the purpose of the “Triad” in terms of mating and the mysterious relationship between the Soft Ones and the Hard Ones.

The Gods Themselves Review: There are really two main stories here, each equally interesting and profound. One is the tale of the Electron Pump and the struggle to maintain equilibrium between the two universes in the face of the seduction power of cheap, clean energy. The other is an exercise in species-building in which Asimov conceives of a unique social and mating structure for a race of beings that reside in a parallel universe. It’s a testament to Asimov that he is able to have these two stories co-mingle in the same story in such a natural way. And although the ending may seem a little too easy and convenient, the fascinating questions that the book poses and alternatives it suggests more than makes us for it. While it may not be the first book that comes to mind when you think of Isaac Asimov, it certainly deserves to be talked about and appreciated as much as any of his other works in my opinion.

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August 24, 2010

#32 – Gateway Review – Frederik Pohl

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Gateway is without a doubt one of the most entertaining and readable books on this list. It’s a page-turner in the best sense of the word, with an ingenious set up, a relatable main character, a dash of humor and a sustained sense of tension and suspense that keeps you on edge throughout. Add to that Pohl’s gift for clear, concise and engaging writing (something Science Fiction is not always known for) and you have a highly satisfying read that is able to entertain while also displaying the wonder and imagination that Science Fiction IS known for. Frederik Pohl represents a middle ground when it comes to Sci-Fi writers. He’s not too “Hard,” not too “Soft,” and he has just the right combination of grand ideas and compelling story lines to make his work instantly compelling – and Gateway is one of the best examples of his gifts as a storyteller.

Gateway Summary: The titular “Gateway” is actually a giant asteroid that was hollowed out and converted into a sort-of launching platform a long time ago by an alien species known as the Heechee who have since vanished from the universe. Humanity also discovers that the Gateway contains close to a thousand starships, each pre-programmed to travel to a different point in the universe (although they have no idea which point or how long it will take to get there). Due to their lack of knowledge of the Heechee technology, humanity is forced to use “Volunteers” to man the spaceships as they are launched out into the unknown reaches of the galaxy in search of more Heechee artifacts or civilization. These volunteers are tempted by the prospect of wealth and riches resulting from a mission that is able to bring back a useful piece of technology, although most of them are never heard from again or are sent to places that are either lethal to humans or devoid of any useful discoveries. In effect, the Gateway is like a giant lottery, with adventuresome pioneers risking everything in the hopes of making the next big discovery.

Our hero Robinette Broadhead (or “Rob”) is first seen on Earth in a therapy session with a robot psychologist, playfully named Sigfrid von Shrink. Rob has become enormously wealthy as a result of one of the Gateway missions, but it is made clear that the events surrounding that mission have left him psychologically scarred and guilt-ridden, although for what reason we are not told. The rest of the story switches back and forth between Rob’s therapy sessions and the events that led up to that last fateful trip. The knowledge of the profound and disturbing effect that the experience had on him coupled with the fact that we know absolutely nothing about what actually happened makes for sustained dramatic tension throughout the book. While we know that he will eventually become rich, we don’t know which mission it will be on and what he will have to go through in order to complete it.

Gateway Review: One of the reasons that the story draws you in so quickly is that Rob is a generally likable and sympathetic character. As a miner on Earth, we wins a lottery that gives him enough money to travel to Gateway to try his luck and make his fortune. At first he is afraid to go out on a mission, and Pohl does a great job at getting us to empathize with his intense fear of being shot out into space with such as small chance of survival. While on Gateway, he meets a fellow adventurer named Klara who he falls in love with. Each of these things allows us to get us to care about Rob even more, and also serves to increase our dread at the tragic events that we know he will eventually be confronted with.

If you’re looking for a Science Fiction book that emphasizes story and character as much as scientific accuracy and lofty ideas, Gateway is a great choice. Compulsively readable and imaginative at the same time, Frederick Pohl’s most famous novel is one that you won’t want to put down until you’ve discovered all of its secrets.

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September 27, 2010

#27 – Speaker for the Dead Summary – Orson Scott Card

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Speaker for the Dead is the sort-of sequel to the #1 book on this list, Ender’s Game, although the books share very little in terms of themes, setting and characters, except for the main character. And while this follow up is not as instantly memorable or revelatory as its predecessor, it is still a fascinating story in its own right and a worthy follow up to one of the most celebrated science fiction novels of all time. Judging solely by the cover of the book, you’d think that it would include as many high speed space fights and action packed adventures as the first book. In reality, the book leans much more towards the philosophical and contemplative. Most of the characters, including Ender, are psychologically damaged and dealing with extreme sadness and guilt. The events in the novel are fueled by the characters’ desires to make up for past failures and regain their own humanity. This is not a light read by any sense of the imagination, but it is one that I recommend nonetheless.

Speaker for the Dead Summary: Set nearly 3,000 years after the events of the first novel, ‘Speaker’ continues the story of Andrew Wiggin (still only 30 years old due to relativistic space travel) as he assumes the role of “Speaker for the Dead,” a quasi-religious figure who travels around the galaxy performing eulogies for people who have died in the hopes of illuminating the “Truth” of their lives. Ender is summoned to a planet called Lusitania to “Speak” for the xenologer (alien anthropologist) Pipo who died at the hands of the Pequeninos, a race of sentient beings that are the only other intelligent species that mankind has come into contact with since their disastrous encounter with the Formics thousands of years prior. While Pipo’s death is particularly gruesome, the alien nature of the Pequeninos (along with the lessons learned from the xenocide of the Buggers) indicates that the murder may not have been as malicious as it seemed.

As Ender begins to collect information for The Speaking, he starts to learn more (and become more interested in the Pequeninos), eventually making contact with them in violation of the law. After learning more about the killing of Pipo and the reason behind his vivisection, he attempts to form a treaty with them so that they might live in peace with the humans. When the Starways Congress finds out about the breach of security, they immediately recall all humans from the planet, causing them to form a united rebellion.

Speaker for the Dead Review: Readers hoping for a continuation of the story told in Ender’s Game will be severely disappointed by Speaker (for that, see Ender’s Shadow and Shadow of the Hegemon). But those who are interested in following Card to the logical conclusions and consequences of the first novel will be rewarded with a richly imagined story that serves as a form of redemption and release for Ender as he is finally able to rid himself of the burden of his xenocide. In essence, he is being given a second chance at establishing a relationship with an alien species built through trust and understanding rather than fear and violence. Card himself has said that Ender’s Game was written mainly as a prologue to Speaker, and even though that novel received much more critical acclaim, I can see where he might of thought of it as a prelude to the real themes he wanted to discuss in the second novel. Either way, you can’t go wrong with any of the books in this series in my opinion.

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September 3, 2010

#25 – The Mote in God’s Eye Review – Niven & Pournelle

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This is going to be a tough one. Rarely do I ever leave a book half-finished, but with this one I nearly came close. Although I did eventually finish The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, I have to admit that I came close to giving up due to extreme boredom. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the ideas in the book or the detailed explanation of an extremely complex alien race, it’s that I found the writing to be excruciatingly dull, the characters lifeless and undifferentiated, and the tension and suspense almost non-existent.

This book falls squarely in the “Hard” Science Fiction category, so maybe that had something to do with it (I had similar trouble with Larry Niven’s other book Ringworld), but I tend to think it’s more than that. I may get some flack from some of the more technically inclined Sci-Fi fans out there, but I really think that, no matter how scientifically rigorous or technical a story is, it will still only work if there are characters that you can root for and conflict that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Now I won’t say that the book has no redeeming qualities, but I can’t honestly say that I would recommend it either.

The Mote in God’s Eye Summary

The book tells the story of mankind’s first encounter with an alien species named The Moties (due them residing in the Mote system). The supposed hero of the story is Roderick Blaine, the petulant, headstrong and thoroughly unlikeable captain of the battle cruiser MacArthur, whose ship is the first to rendezvous with the alien spacecraft. After the alien pilot of the first craft is killed, the MacArthur (along with another vessel) is ordered to travel to the Mote from which the probe came. It is there that they first come into contact with living Moties.

Although the first Motie they come into contact with is short, furry and asymmetrical, they soon learn that there are many different castes of Moties, each with their own specific functions in society and their own unique color and configuration of arms and legs. While their initial interactions with the Moties make them seem harmless and peaceful, there is a distinct sense that they are withholding some very important information that could alter their view of them.

While there are a number of different secondary characters that interact with the Moties (both on the spaceship and during an excursion to the Motie planet) none of them are particularly distinct or memorable. I often had a hard time telling who was speaking or what their specific role was on the ship. I do remember one character having a deep Scottish accent, but that’s about it.

The only two other characters that made much of an impression were Sally Fowler, the niece of an imperial senator and Horace Bury, a trader and merchant who is tasked with establishing trade relations with the Moties. Nevertheless, none of the characters come off as particularly likable or sympathetic. The humans spend most of their time arguing whether or not to destroy the Motie race completely, while the Moties themselves spend their time either following around their human counterparts or scheming to keep their true nature hidden from them.

The Mote in God’s Eye Review

The one redeeming factor that I found was in the eventual revelation of the Motie’s secret, and why they felt like they couldn’t reveal it to the humans. While I won’t give the secret away, I will say that it presents a really unique picture of a species that has evolved (and devolved) in a way that is different than humanity while at the same time sharing eerie similarities.

I’m not going to say that this book isn’t for everyone. There may well be plenty of people who find it exciting and illuminating (I guess there has to be if it’s this far up on the list). I’m just giving my opinion that the books shortcomings and faults far outweigh its positive aspects. At the end of the day, I read for enjoyment, and The Mote in God’s Eye didn’t provide enough of that to make it worth the time it took to read.

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September 6, 2010