#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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#50 – Frankenstein Review – Mary Shelley

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While most readers think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the quintessential Gothic Horror story, many literature scholars have pointed out that it’s also one of the first examples of Science Fiction in modern literature. And while it might not deal with far away galaxies or future civilizations, the pseudo-scientific experiments and techniques that Dr. Frankenstein uses to bring the monster to life make it one of the earliest novels to deal with mankind’s manipulation of science to produce fantastical results. For those who are only familiar with the numerous film and television adaptations of the Frankenstein story and haven’t read the book, Shelley’s groundbreaking novel is as much about one man’s obsession with creating an artificial life and his shame and regret at the monstrous nature of his creation as it is about the Monster’s sadness and eventual vengeance against his creator for having made and then abandoned him. With thematic references to everything from Greek mythology to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Frankenstein is a potent evocation of how mankind’s attempts at playing god can have disastrous consequences.

Frankenstein Summary: The tale of Frankenstein’s monster is framed by the story of Robert Walton, a failed writer on an expedition to the North Pole in search of fame and glory. After getting his ship trapped in ice, Walton and his crew observe a large man making his way across the frozen tundra in the distance. A short time later they also discover a starving, near-dead man in pursuit of the creature – one Victor Frankenstein. As Walton and the crew try to help him recover from exhaustion, the man begins to recount the story of how he came to be in this situation. Thus begins Frankenstein’s narrative.

Victor starts by recounting parts of his privileged childhood in Geneva, including his infatuation with an orphan named Elizabeth that his family adopts. Along the way we learn of his interest in science, as well as the death of his mother to scarlet fever only days before he is to leave for the University. This unfortunate event helps fuel his passion for exploring unorthodox scientific theories in the realm of Chemistry, including the study of galvanism, which involves using an electrical current to help stimulate the contraction of a muscle. This leads to a breakthrough in which he supposedly develops a way to bring inanimate objects to life. While we don’t get a lot of detail into how Frankenstein actually goes about creating the monster, we do get some hints as to the gruesome nature of how he went about collecting the necessary parts to bring his creation to life. Unfortunately for him, instead of the beautiful specimen he was hoping for, the finished creature is actually hideous and nearly eight feet tall. Horrified at what he has created, Frankenstein flees, leaving the creature alone and afraid.

After months of recuperating from the experience, Dr. Frankenstein returns home to Geneva after hearing about the murder of his brother William. After returning home, he notices his monster in the woods near his house and becomes convinced that he is the one who murdered his brother. Victor’s eventual confrontation with the monster reveals the sad and lonely life that the monster has been living since being abandoned. By viewing humanity from afar and learning to read through finding a lost satchel of books, the beast is acutely aware of his freakish nature, even comparing himself at one point to Lucifer. He is furious at Frankenstein for creating him this way and demands that he create a companion for him so that he can finally be happy. Although Victor initially begins work on a mate for the companion, he gets spooked at the possibility of creating a race of monsters and so decides to end his work. Furious, the monster kills most of the rest of his family, including Elizabeth. Overcome with grief and anger, Victor vows to chase the monster and vanquish it or die trying – which brings us back to framing story in which he has chased the monster all the way to the North Pole.

Frankenstein Review: While many people mistakenly refer to the monster as “Frankenstein,” Shelley only actually uses that name in reference to Victor. In reality, the monster is a nameless, lonely creature – given life but denied a name or a place in this world. While we may sympathize with Victor’s quest to create life where before there was none, the isolation, loneliness and emotional anguish that his creation has to live with turns our sympathies away from him and to the monster. In fact, the way Shelley presents it, his creation is only a monster in appearance at first. His clumsy attempts at connecting with other humans shows that he is actually a caring and feeling being who just wants to connect with others. It isn’t until he is rejected repeatedly by humans and denied any chance of happiness by his creator that he truly turns into the monster that his appearance suggests.  As a study of both mankind’s tragic attempts at controlling the forces of life and creation and the need that every creature has for connection and meaning, Shelley’s Gothic masterpiece is a universal tale that still packs and emotional punch almost 200 years after it’s initial publication.

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#43 – The Day of the Triffids Review – John Wyndham

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With a premise that seems like it was taken from a SyFy channel original movie, John Wyndham’s 1951 post-apocalyptic novel The Day of the Triffids is a singularly unique and terrifying take on the fall of human civilization and the struggle to survive in a world turned upside down. And while the idea of a story about “Killer Plants” may seem laughable these days (especially since the release of the M. Night Shyamalan flop “The Happening”), the book does an admirable job of portraying the terrifying confusion and fear of a scenario in which most of the population has been rendered helpless against a slow but persistent predator. Amidst the terror and struggle for survival, Wyndham is also able to squeeze in a tender love story, a commentary on the pitfalls of mankind’s obsession with toying with nature, and even a frank discussion of the types of societal structures that may arise after the breakdown of civilization.

Day of the Triffids Summary: The hero of the story, Bill Masen, is an English biologist who has been working with a fictional strain of tall plants called Triffids that seem to possess a rudimentary level of intelligence and coordination. Having been bioengineered and accidentally spread throughout the world by the Russians, their extracts were found to actually be favorable to existing vegetable oils – which is why they were eventually tamed and cultivated. As the book begins, Masen is recuperating in a hospital after a lab mishap in which Triffid venom splashed in his eyes. With his eyes in bandages, Masen misses a spectacular green meteor shower that is seen across the globe. After waking up the next morning, he soon discovers that the majority of the population (having witnessed the meteor shower with their own eyes) have become blind. With most of London’s residents rendered sightless, society comes to a crashing halt and Masen is thrust into the ensuing chaos.

While making his way out of London, Bill is able to save a sighted woman named Josella who is being violently held against her will by a blind man. Together, they eventually find a group of other sighted people held up in a University building. After being forcibly separated from Josella, who he’s begun to develop relationship with, Bill tries desperately to reunite with her among the turmoil of competing leaders who have begun trying to set up their own little societies based on their own ideologies and theories as to how best to protect themselves and save as many people (both blind and sighted) as possible. To make matters worse, those lovable Triffids (now without any human supervision) have begun to get loose and prey on the humans with a whip-like stinger that they are able to use to poison and immobilize their victims before feeding on them. While the blind population are the easiest targets for the plants, the sheer number and persistence of the Triffids make them deadly predators of those who can see as well. In essence, the Triffids are a lot like how zombies are usually depicted – slow moving, but ravenous and in such an endless supply that they eventually overtake their victims in the end.

Day of the Triffids Review: This is a book that sneaks up on you. While the problem of blindness does cause mass chaos, it doesn’t have the emotional impact of the mass-extinction events that other post-apocalyptic novels contain. The Triffids aren’t some menacing alien species that wipes out human civilization with their superior technology and firepower. Instead, they stalk us silently and effectively as a result of the loss of just one of our five senses. They are a product of our own manipulations with the natural order – something that we think we’ve tamed, yet eventually breaks free of our control. But in a way they are a much scarier threat. Instead of extinction happening all at once, it will happen slowly and painfully with us picked off one by one. “Not with a bang but with a whimper” as T.S. Eliot put it. And Wyndham does an excellent job of slowly increasing the tension and desolation of the characters as they try to come to terms with this new reality. And while you may not look at gardening in the same way again, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this book just the same.

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August 23, 2010

#36 – A Winkle in Time Review – Madeleine L’Engle

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To be honest, I read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle a long time ago – so some of the finer details of the plot and themes may escape me. But like a lot of the books I read when I was teenager, I have a clear picture of the “Feeling” I had when reading this book and the emotions it stirred in me. The feeling I had was that I’d never read anything quite like it before, and the emotions were a mixture of sadness and empathy for the characters due to certain similarities to events in my own life and how they affected me. No, I’ve never traveled through a fifth-dimensional tesseract or done battle with a telepathic evil being. But I did lose a parent at an early age and I remember being acutely aware of the feelings of frustration and powerlessness that the Mury children feel at the beginning of the book. And while my father wasn’t accidentally trapped on alien planet while working on faster-than-light technology for the government, it was a comforting thought to think that maybe, just maybe, he might still be somewhere out there just waiting for me to come rescue him.

A Wrinkle in Time Summary: The main protagonist of the story is young Meg Mury, the socially troubled but mathematically brilliant oldest child of the Mury family. It is mostly through her eyes that we feel the peculiar awkwardness, anger and loneliness that comes with being a teenager, as well as the sense of longing that she feels for her absent father. Add to that the resentment and jealousy she feels towards he beautiful mother (who also happens to be a successful Microbiologist) and you have a severely wounded character in an even more dysfunctional family. Meg’s youngest brother, Charles Wallace Mury, is a brilliant but shy child who slowly learns over the course of the book that he has telepathic powers that give him the ability to read people’s thoughts and feelings. Although he is intellectually extraordinary, he is still very much a vulnerable child and Meg is particularly protective of him.

The events in the novel are set in motion by the appearance of the cryptically named Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which who reveal some of the details of their father’s mysterious disappearance and offer to help them rescue him. Accompanied by a neighborhood boy named Calvin O’Keefe, Meg and Charles Wallace are taken the Mrs. Ws through a transport device (the previously mentioned Tesseract) that is able to fold space-time and deposit them in another part of the universe. After a brief stay on the utopian world of Uriel (filled with joyful Centaurs) and an explanation by the Ws as to how their father became trapped, the group travel to the planet Camazotz where their father is supposedly held prisoner by a telepathic disembodied brained called IT. Is is there that the trio is forced to confront the evil presence in order to save their father.

A Wrinkle in Time Review: With its mixture of scientific exploration, mythological creatures, biblical allusions and philosophical underpinnings, A Wrinkle in Time walks a fine line between Science Fiction and Fantasy. And as a tale told through the eyes of children that also features a mature discussion on the nature of Evil, it also defies classification as either a children’s book or an adult novel. Reading it as a child, I remember liking the fantasy elements while also appreciating the fact that it didn’t talk down to the children in the book. By treating the children as real people with their own damaged sense of self and quirky set of emotions, L’Engle is able to imbue the characters with a more authentic sense of self – making it easier for us to both identify with and root for them. My own personal connection to the novel notwithstanding, I would recommend this book to readers of any age who are looking for a science fantasy story with heart and brains.

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August 25, 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

#22 – The Martian Chronicles Review – Ray Bradbury

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Told in a series of short story vignettes (much like Asimov’s I, Robot), The Martian Chronicles recounts mankind’s first efforts at colonizing the Red Planet and their interactions with the native Martians. At times serious, satirical, controversial, and darkly humorous, Bradbury’s vision of Martian colonization is a fascinating exploration of the ways in which we project our own fears and fantasies onto our closest neighbor in the solar system. Although the novel was written at a time in which our scientific knowledge of Mars was extremely limited, that doesn’t take away from the feeling of exploration, wonder and fear we experience upon visiting a truly foreign world.

The Martian Chronicles Summary: The book begins with the first rocket to leave earth bound for Mars in the year 1999, eventually picking up again as the first exploration reaches the Red Planet with disastrous results. While the second expedition successfully reaches Mars, mankind’s first interactions with the Martian natives are equally troublesome. It isn’t until the fourth expedition, after it is learned that all of the Martians have died due to exposure to chickenpox from one of the earlier expeditions, that the humans begin the process of trying to alter Mars to fit their own needs. Although one of the expedition’s astronauts tries to protect Mars from the impending human colonization (due to his belief that Men “have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things”) by trying to kill his fellow crew mates, he is eventually killed. It is a not-so-subtle reflection on Mankind’s abysmal track record when it comes to dealing with native populations.

The book then shifts into full “colonization” mode, as the next few stories detail the rapid settlement of Mars by eager humans. This period seems to mirror the expansion of settlers westward across the Americas, with the initial pioneers and villages giving way to larger town, settlements and eventually cities (as the Martian ruins are slowly destroyed). This part of the book features one of the most moving (and controversial) stories in the novel, in which a group of racist farmers learns that all African Americans have chosen to leave Earth bound for Mars in search of greater freedom and equality. First appearing in a 1950 edition of the magazine Other Worlds, the story is omitted from certain editions of the book – as it was considered too controversial for its time. The next few stories in the book reveal that the Earth is on the brink of nuclear disaster and that the pace of colonization has increased rapidly. Although many of the colonists end up returning to Earth after the nuclear attack in order to help friends and relatives, a few lone colonists remain on Mars, eventually (it is suggested) becoming the new “Martians.”

The Martian Chronicles Review: The Martian Chronicles was a revelation to me, and not at all what I expected when I first picked up the book. Not only do each of the stories work as fully realized stand alone pieces of fiction, but together they help create a sustained sense of anxiety, uneasiness and silent menace that is hard to shake. The Martians are neither the embodiment of evil nor the picture of innocence and peacefulness – they are just as wary of outsiders and distrustful of change as the humans they meet. At the same time, Bradbury’s distrust of humanity’s benevolence and good intentions is evident throughout, even while he presents us with a few lone examples of men who are able to see through their society’s false promises and realize their inevitable destructive tendencies. But what really ties all of the stories together into a cohesive whole is Bradbury’s incredible ability to draw you into the action and care about the characters (or loathe them) after only meeting them a few pages before. And even while the circumstances and landscapes may seem alien, the conflicts and emotions are all too human.

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September 9, 2010

#6 – Stranger in a Strange Land Review – Robert Heinlein

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Few books deserve the title of “Cult Classic” more than Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel about a Martian-raised human who returns to earth and ends up transforming human culture in profound ways. Although it started out as a minor hit in the science fiction world, Stranger in a Strange Land would eventually became a crossover success – attracting a devoted following among the counterculture movement of the 1960’s due to its emphasis on free love, liberty and the shared human experience. And while it may not seem as controversial and groundbreaking today as it did back then, it still has a lot to say about our current culture of consumerism and our reliance on organized religion to dictate our social and spiritual interactions.

Stranger in a Strange Land Summary

The novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, the offspring of the first human astronauts to reach the planet Mars. After the death of the crew, Smith becomes an orphan and is raised by the native Martians as if he were one of their own. During his time there, he acquires a number of the traits of the Martian culture, including the ability to read minds and control matter in strange and unusual ways. When he is eventually found and brought back to earth by a second expedition to Mars, he becomes an instant celebrity as the only known human to have made contact with the Martians and returned to Earth.

Valentine’s acclimation to human customs and mores (as well as Earth’s gravity and physical constraints) is slow and awkward – helped along by a Nurse named Gillian Boardman who inadvertently becomes Smith’s first “Water-Brother.” After escaping the grasp of leaders who wish to use him for their own personal gain, Valentine and Gillian (along with the help of the famous author and bon vivant Jubal Harshaw) are able to set about constructing a religion of their own based on the principles and teachings of the Martian way.

While some of the overall themes may seem a little heavy-handed to a modern audience, I can see how they may have caused a stir when they were first published.

Stranger in a Strange Land Quotes

“Smith is not a man. He is an intelligent creature with the genes and ancestry of a man, but he is not a man. He’s more a Martian than a man. Until we came along he had never laid eyes on a human being. He thinks like a Martian, he feels like a Martian. He’s been brought up by a race which has nothing in common with us. Why, they don’t even have sex. Smith has never laid eyes on a woman — still hasn’t if my orders have been carried out. He’s a man by ancestry, a Martian by environment.”

“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own”

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September 25, 2010

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

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While the genre of Science Fiction isn’t particularly known for its sense of humor, the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams is a prime example of how the format’s unique characteristics can be used for humorous effect.

With droll British humor and an absurdist streak to match anyone in the Galaxy, Adams is able to bring us a thrilling adventure through time and space that not only provides some genuine chuckles (maybe even guffaws) along the way, but also presents us with an awe inspiring picture of the universe (as well as an Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything).

Hitchhiker’s Guide Summary

Following the adventures of Arthur Dent as he tries to survive (and comprehend) the strange vastness of the universe after Earth is unceremoniously destroyed to make way for an interstellar expressway, the first novel in the series also introduces the reader to a motley cast of characters, including Ford Prefect (a humanoid looking alien who accompanies Arthur on most of his travels), Tricia McMillan (Arthur’s love interest and a fellow earthling who was also able to escape Earth’s destruction), Zaphod Beeblebrox (the two-headed President of the Galaxy) and the super computer Deep Thought (who is tasked with discovering the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life).

While the first book deals primarily with Dent accompanying Zaphod and the others on a quest to find the legendary planet of Magrathea, subsequent books (and plays, movies and comic books) help to expand the universe even further.

Hitchhiker’s Guide Review

Although most fans probably identify the series most closely with the 6 main books, the Guide originally started off as a comedy radio series that was broadcast by the BBC, the first parts of which eventually became the novel. That makes sense, as the book does have a slightly episodic feel to it. Besides the books and

radio series, it has also been adapted as a series of comic books, a TV series, a computer game, and even a 2005 movie starring Martin Freeman.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the book (and even the sequel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe), I couldn’t seem to muster up the energy or enthusiasm to keep going any further. Maybe I just got a little tired of the increasingly fantastical, tongue in cheek nature of the plot and characters. Maybe I just have a hard time appreciating British humor (wait, that can’t be it…Red Dwarf is one of my favorite shows of all time). Either way, if you’re a fan of science fiction or humor or absurdist farce, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a must read. Just remember two things: Don’t forget your towel…..and Don’t Panic!

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Quotes

“This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”

“In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.”

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy | The Restaurant at the End of the Universe | Life, The Universe and Everything | Mostly Harmless

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September 27, 2010