#2 – Dune Review – Frank Herbert

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Few books on this list have had a bigger cultural impact than Frank Herbert’s 1965 masterpiece. Often cited as the best selling science fiction novel of all time (over 10 million copies sold), it is also usually in the discussion as possibly the best novel that science fiction has ever produced, period. Spawning countless sequels (only 5 of which were written by Herbert himself), prequels, movies, TV adaptations and even a video game, the Dune saga looms large in any discussion of the top science fiction franchises of all time.

Dune Summary

Dune tells the story of young Paul Atreides and House Atreides as they take over control of the desert planet Arrakis from their hated rivals House Harkonnen. Despite its harsh climate, unfriendly native population and hostile wildlife (i.e. Killer Worms), Arrankis is also the only known source in the universe of the “spice” Melange – an addictive substance which has the ability to extend life and give greater awareness to the user – including the ability to fold space-time for interstellar travel. Suffice it to say, the Spice is the engine that powers the entire Empire, making Arrakis the most strategically important planet in the universe.

While Paul is a member of House Atreides, it is also revealed that he is the product of a centuries old breeding program organized by the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a shadowy group whose goal is to produce a super human with prescience abilities – also known as the Kwisatz Haderach. As the novel progresses, Paul becomes more attuned to his growing powers and how to harness them for his own purposes. After an ambush by House Harkonnen deposes House Atreides and sends them scattering, Paul and his mother Lady Jessica are forced to take refuge with the planet’s native elements – the Fremen. During his time with the Fremen, Paul completes his transformation from fresh faced royal heir to the vengeful messiah Muad’Dib – bent on retaking Arrakis back from the Harkonnens and spreading Jihad throughout the universe.

Dune Review

While there are many reasons to appreciate Herbert’s brilliantly realized world (its philosophical meditations on war and power, its subtle environmental and ecological themes, its epic battles and strategic maneuvering), the thing that impressed me most was the sense that, although the novel often take place on an intimate, individual level (as with Paul’s almost constant inner dialogue and self reflective soul searching), there is still a sense that the events set in motion have consequences on a much larger scale. Whether it’s the generations worth of selective breeding and silent influence of the Bene Gesserit or Paul’s own visions of the Jihad he created sweeping out into the Universe unchecked for centuries, the larger than life nature of Dune’s mythology serves to elevate the stakes of what may seem at first to be petty squabbles between feuding families. Even Paul’s own personal metamorphoses is a clear narrative archetype – a dramatic retelling of the Hero’s Journey (or Monomyth) – and one that can be found in numerous stories throughout history.

While the original Dune is still untouchable, the sequels do an admirable job of continuing the story and adding new layers and characters to the mythology. So if you end up finding yourself becoming addicted to the spice-tinged intricacies of the Dune universe, you’ll be happy to know that there is no shortage of further adventures and interplanetary intrigue to help you get your fix.

Dune Quotes

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear

Dune Series: Dune | Dune Messiah | Children of Dune | God Emperor of Dune | Heretics of Dune | Chapterhouse: Dune

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September 29, 2010

#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

#76 – Ilium Review – Dan Simmons

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No other author that I know of is better at infusing Science Fiction with elements of classic literature and epic storytelling than Dan Simmons. Where other writers are content to work within the confines of the genre’s establish parameters, Simmons seems intent on showing us how speculative fiction is simply an updated vehicle for dealing with themes and conflicts that have occupied writers for centuries. Who else has the courage (and the writing chops) to let sentient robots and quantum teleportation exist side-by-side with discussions of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or a complete re-imagining of Homer’s Iliad – not to mention allusions to H.G. Wells The Time Machine and Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor? Even more so than Simmons’ breakthrough masterpiece Hyperion, Ilium uses one of the most famous texts in the English language as a framing device to explore issues of power, honor, and hubris. That these issues arise from the actions of near-god like beings thousands of years in the future is all part of the fun. Like your favorite English professor in college, Simmons is able to bring even the most uninspiring pieces of literature to life in a way that makes you appreciate both the power and significance of the original work and the feats of imaginative brilliance that it took to integrate it seamlessly into this new creation.

Ilium Summary: The plot of Ilium follows three distinct story lines, each with their own group of primary characters. The first story line (and you could argue the most central and important) takes place on a terraformed version of Mars thousands of years in the future and centers around the events of the Trojan war, which seem to be taking place in real-time under the supervision (and sometimes intervention) of supremely powerful creatures who have taken the form of Greek gods (Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, etc.) Whether this is simply a recreation a Homer’s Iliad by a group of bored super-beings, some sort of virtual reality simulation, or the actual Trojan war manifested on Mars through some sort of quantum disturbance in time and space, Simmons doesn’t reveal for the majority of the novel. While it may seem frustrating at first to be left in the dark about whether the events that are happening are real or not, it actually provides a tantalizing hook that helps draw you into the narrative in unexpected ways.

While we may be unsure about the true identity of the seemingly all-powerful gods that are observing and influencing the legendary fight between the Greeks and the Trojans at the siege of Ilium from atop Olympus Mons (the largest volcanic mountain on Mars), we are at least given one character who we can identify with. Thomas Hockenberry, a portly 21st century Homeric scholar from Indiana, is somehow resurrected by the gods and asked to observe the events of the war to see how closely they are matching up to Homer’s recounting of the tale in the Iliad. Given a set of powerful tools from the gods, including the ability to morph into the body of anyone in the war and to teleport in and out of battles at will, Hockenberry and the other resurrected “scholics” have been observing the famous Greek and Trojan warriors as they each fulfill their part in the narrative. It is only when Hockenberry is given a secret assignment by the goddess Aphrodite and makes a series of fateful decisions that the war begins to veer from the path laid out in the Iliad.

The second story begins on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and involves a group of sentient robots (called Moravecs) that are planning a mission to investigate and hopefully terminate the increased amount of quantum activity that seems to be coming from Olympus Mons. As we’ve seen that the Gods on Mars have access to quantum teleportation, we can only assume that they are the cause of this increased activity. When the expedition’s spacecraft is destroyed by a mysterious robed figure riding a flying chariot above Mars, the two remaining Moravecs, Mahnmut and Orphu, are forced to try and deliver a mysterious weapon to Olympus Mons on their own. As sentient robots, the Moravecs act more like humans than traditional robots. So much so that Mahnmut is an expert in Shakespeare while Orphu is something of a Proust scholar. Their debates about literature and the works of two of the most important writers in the English language provide a bit of levity and humor throughout their journey. This intertextuality also allows Simmons to parallel the events in the novel with the themes and ideas expressed in these classic works of literature.

The third and final thread takes us all the way back to Earth where a small group of “old-style” humans are kept docile and taken care of by a mysterious race of mechanoid nanny-type creatures known as voynix. Relegated to living in blissful ignorance and isolation, the humans live on the few unspoiled patches of land left on the planet and are allowed to live for 100 years before being, supposedly, taken to the Earth’s new equatorial rings to live with the mythical post-humans who left the planet after a series of natural and man-made disasters made it virtually uninhabitable. While most of the humans are content to live their simple lives (Simmons refers to them as being like the “Eloi” in H.G. Wells’ famous novel The Time Machine), a small group of inquisitive ones struggle to find answers and meaning in the series of events that have led to the majority of the planet being off-limits to them and their lives monitored and controlled by the mysterious voynix creatures.

Ilium Review: While I’ll admit that I had some trouble at first with the disjointed nature of the narrative and the lack of concrete who/what/when/where/why answers, it didn’t take me long before I got over my initial confusion and just started to enjoy the novel for what it was and what it was trying to do. Simmons has a history of posing profound questions and intriguing central mysteries without providing definitive answers, and this book is no different. And while he does reveal a good deal about the events that have brought about the current state of the Earth, the question of who or what the Gods are and why they are trying to recreate the Iliad (if that’s even what they’re doing) is left only partially answered. Since there is a sequel to the novel, Olympos, there’s a good chance that this mystery is eventually revealed, and I’m sure I’ll pick it up to find out sometime soon. But taken on its own, I still think that Ilium is an incredibly engaging and thought-provoking novel and one that doesn’t mind taking big risks in terms of structure and scope in the service of big ideas and literary transcendence. So, if you can handle a little enigmatic uncertainty, this book is well worth a read.

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#47 – Red Mars Summary – Kim Stanley Robinson

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Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars is one of the few hard science fiction novels that spends as much time delving into the inner lives of its main characters as it does explaining the scientific underpinnings of the theoretical technology and advancements that they are surrounded by. Where other hard sci-fi novels are content to let the characters take a back seat to the scientific details, Red Mars treats it characters like real flesh and blood human beings. Passionate, driven, jealous, vengeful, conflicted. There are no good guys and bad guys, only people. People who have sacrificed everything to make the trip to Mars and who are now confronted with the daunting task of making it their new home. And while Robinson demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of the terrain and conditions of the red planet (as well as a plausible recipe for how humans might alter the landscape to be more Earth-like), he never loses sight of the human drama at the center of this sweeping story of love, loss, conflict, discovery and rebirth.

Red Mars Summary: Beginning in the year 2026, the action begins aboard the spaceship Ares on mankind’s first colonial expedition to Mars. The crew is made up of 100 scientists (mostly Russians and Americans) of varying disciplines, each chosen for their specific expertise in one of the many subject areas that will be necessary for setting up and establishing a permanent human colony on the planet. There is the public hero John Boone, the first human to land on Mars, returning for another trip. Frank Chalmers, the fiercely cynical and driven leader of the American team. Maya Toitovna, the beautiful and beguiling head of the Russian contingent, who becomes involved in a love triangle with John and Frank. Arkady Bogdanov, the political troublemaker who eventually helps ferment a revolution on Mars. Sax Russell, the brilliant physicist whose single-minded pursuit of terraforming puts him at odds with those who want to see Mars left as it is. Ann Clayborne, a geologist who comes to believe that Mars should be left alone and kept in its original state. And Hiroko Ai, the mysterious agricultural expert who forms a hidden colony in order to start her own group.

During the initial stages of colonization, the arguments for and against terraforming begin to coalesce into two distinct camps: The Greens (led by Sax) who believe that changing the atmosphere and ecology of Mars to support human life is inevitable and necessary. And The Reds (led by Ann) who feel that humans shouldn’t have the right to mess with the ecosystem of Mars and that it should be left in a pristine state. With the weight of Eath’s government (and the powerful transnational corporations) behind them, the Greens eventually win out and begin their terraforming efforts. Giant space mirrors, nuclear reactors and large scale heating vents are just a few of the tactics that Sax’s team uses in order to try to raise the raise the temperature of the planet and begin the process of creating a breathable atmosphere. Eventually, however, incidents of sabotage and destruction begin to occur – presumably the work of underground “Red” factions that have not given up trying to protect Mars. Aided by a new influx of immigrants oppressed by the transnationals into working long hours mining for minerals in dismal living conditions, a new revolution is born that will come to envelop the red planet in chaos and upheaval.

Red Mars Review: There is a haunting quality to Robinson’s writing that perfectly mirrors the mystery and scope of the Martian environment – as well as the inner lives of many of the main characters. Although they are all outwardly strong, smart and ambitious, they each hide their own secrets and emotions that drive their actions and their relationships to the planet. While the idealistic colonists come ready to change Mars into their own paradise, they are the ones who are changed. Instead of a creating a new utopian society freed from the injustices and inequality of Earth, they see their new world devolve into the same old patterns of conflict and revolution through a mixture of greed, arrogance and apathy. It is only as the Mars they’ve built comes crashing down around them that they begin to see the way forward.

Red Mars is the first in a trilogy of Mars novels, followed by Green Mars and Blue Mars – each detailing a different stage in the evolution of the planet from a dusty crater to a water rich planet that can sustain human life. While I enjoyed the first novel immensely, I may have to wait a bit before tackling the next two books. I still have a long way to go on this list and there are other books calling my name right now.

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August 22, 2010

#45 – Time Enough for Love Review – Robert Heinlein

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Lazarus Long (aka Woodrow Wilson Smith) has to be one of the most fascinating characters ever to come out of the science fiction genre. In Heinlein’s hands, Lazarus is the ultimate rugged individualist; a man so full of life that he becomes witness to over 2,000 years of human history, always moving from one planet/marriage/occupation/conflict to another in search of adventure and new experiences. Along the way we are treated to a series of tales that recount significant events or time periods in Lazarus’ life – all in the service of supposedly putting together an exhaustive biography of the “oldest living human being.” And while this framing device may be a convenient way for Heinlein to jump back and forth between different time periods and settings, they also serve to weave together a picture of a man who has literally done it all, seen it all, and lived to tell about it. A lot of sci-fi scholars consider Time Enough for Love to be Heinlein’s crowning achievement; a perfect distillation of his personal philosophy and a nuanced exploration of themes and topics that he’d been playing around with for years. More than that, though, it’s a brilliant yarn that makes for a great read – which is also one of Heinlein’s hallmarks.

Time Enough for Love Summary: In order to understand Lazarus’ extended lifespan, we need to take a look at an organization called the Howard Families (a group that pops up in a number of different Heinlein books, including their original appearance in Methuselah’s Children). Started by Ira Howard in the 19th century, members of the family are chosen for their above average longevity. By using a selective breeding program (not unlike the Bene Gesserit of Dune), the Howard Families aim is to help extend human lifespans – a goal that has been achieved due to thousands of years of careful genetic oversight. Add to that a method of physical and mental rejuvenation that has been perfected through scientific methods and you have the recipe for almost unlimited life. When we first meet Lazarus, he is officially the oldest human being alive, having lived over 2,000 years through a combination of good genes and regular rejuvenation. But while this may seem wonderful, by the time we are introduced to Lazarus he has grown weary of life and has decided it is finally time to die.

The framing device that I mentioned comes in the form of a reverse Arabian Nights type deal that he makes with one of his descendants, Ira Weatheral -now the Pro Tempore of the Howard Families. After being rescued from the flophouse on Secundus where he has gone to die peacefully, Lazarus agrees to postpone his imminent departure while recounting various portions of his life that have gone unrecorded up to this point. As the oldest living human, Lazarus is something of a celebrity and has already had a good part of his life detailed in numerous books (how many of these accounts are real or fictional is unknown). However, having lived for almost two millennia, there are thousands of stories still left to tell.

The tales that follow take us across the galaxy to various moments and periods in Lazarus’ life, from 20th century America to the colonization of new planets and systems. I won’t get into the specifics of each of his tall tales – as that would spoil the surprise and fun. I’ll just say that each of the stories, as well as excerpts from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long that are sprinkled throughout the book, help to reveal a little bit more about the unique worldview and indomitable spirit of Lazarus. We start to put together a picture of a man who is fiercely independent and loyal, yet always restless and ready for a new adventure. He is tender and protective of the women in his life, yet who has no qualms about bedding down with women (some of them his own descendants) thousands of years his junior. While future society has developed advanced luxuries and scientific breakthroughs, he is content to help a fledgling community colonize a new planet in dusty pioneer style. For Lazarus, it’s not the outcome but the journey that matters. Always moving, always having new experiences. He also finds, as the title suggests, Love in the unlikeliest of places.

Time Enough for Love Review: While some people have expressed discomfort at some of the topics in the novel, including frank discussions of free love and incest, my opinion is that you really have to look at them in the context of the novel. For someone who has lived as long as Lazarus has and has fathered so many children (who have in turned fathered many more), it’s hard for him to find someone who isn’t related to him. And as his unique set of genes makes him a desirable mate for almost every female in the galaxy, he is constantly getting propositioned to “contribute” his genes. In addition, Heinlein also includes a thorough scientific explanation of the genetic issues that come in to play when evaluating the chance of defects in the offspring of two people. To Lazarus, the taboo against incest is suspect because it is a moral one rather than a scientific one. If the genetic makeup of the two people can be determined to have a low chance of defects (and it can be determined at least in this novel), than there is nothing inherently wrong with it. I may not agree with it completely, but it’s a unique perspective to say the least.

In the end, the thing that makes this book such a great read is that Lazarus is such a great storyteller. As the reader, it’s like curling up next to a roaring fire and listening to your grandfather tell stories. The only difference is that these stories happen to span 2,000 years and take place on various planets throughout the galaxy.  So if you’re in need of a good yarn or two and are ok with some unorthodox views on love and life, than this book may be just what you’re looking for.

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#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

#33 – Lord of Light Review – Roger Zelazny

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I wanted to like this book, I really did. Check out that sweet cover of the glowing florescent Buddha! Science Fiction mixed with Hindu mythology and Buddhist mysticism? Sign me up. A world where humans use their advanced technological prowess to act like gods? Sounds fascinating. Unfortunately, what I thought would be a rousing philosophically tinged science fiction adventure story actually turned out to be a intentionally vague, highly confusing mess of Eastern religious platitudes, cardboard characters (given the names of Hindu gods), bad puns and yawn-inducing confrontations between good and evil. The book makes large leaps in time and setting without much warning, characters change names (and allegiances) on a number of occasions, and the narrative is hard to follow from one chapter to the next. Even the basic premise (that human refugees have used technology to make themselves god-like and all-powerful) is not fully explained until nearly half-way through the book – just long enough for me to be thoroughly confused and frustrated.

Lord of Light Summary: The story centers around a character named Mahasamatman (or Sam for short), the de facto leader of a rebellion against the ruling gods of the planet who have kept the masses oppressed under a rigid caste system and deprived them of the advanced technology that has allowed them to become so powerful. It isn’t until a good 100 pages into the book that it is revealed that these deities aren’t actually gods, but merely humans who have used their advanced technical and medical knowledge to become immortal. As a crew of colonists from a devastated Earth, they landed on this unknown planet and were forced to develop superhuman powers for themselves in order to survive. They eventually tamed the native inhabitants of the planet (referring to them as “Demons”) and have kept most of their own descendants in a state of arrested progress, fearing that any breakthroughs in technology may weaken their position. To complete the illusion of god-like importance, they even build themselves a fortress called the Celestial City as a stand-in for Heaven. With names like Yama the “God of Death” and Kali the “God of Destruction,” the colonists co-opt the Hindu mythological tradition in order to complete their metaphorical transformation from humans into gods. Add to that the ability to grant “Reincarnation” only to those who they deem worthy and you have the basis for total control.

Although Sam was one of the first colonists along with the other “Gods” and received many of the same benefits and powers that they did, he disagreed with them when it came to governing the populace of the planet. His view that the fruits of their technology should be shared with everyone rather than kept to the small circle of “Gods” was considered a threat to their power, causing him to be sent into exile (which is where he is returning from when the book opens). The rest of the book details his struggles to ferment rebellion against “Heaven” and free the population from oppression. The main way that he goes about instigating revolution is by the simple introduction of a competing belief system, Buddhism. That, along with his ability to control the pure-energy beings (demons) that were the planet’s original inhabitants, allow him to wage a fierce battle against the Gods.

Lord of the Light Review: While the story may sound interesting when you lay it out clearly like that, the actual telling of the tale is another story. I’m all for unconventional narratives and enigmatic storytelling, but when those things get in the way of a basic understanding of what is happening, when it is happening and to whom, that’s when you lose me. Now that I have a better grasp of what the book is about, I’m sure that a second reading would be much more rewarding. Unfortunately, there are too many better books out there that deserve a first reading to make me justify spending the time to give it a second chance. Maybe now that I’ve given you a basic outline of the plot you’ll enjoy it more than I did, who knows.

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August 26, 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

#26 – The Left Hand of Darkness Review – Ursula K Le Guin

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The Left Hand of Darkness is the first novel on this list from a female author. And while it’s no secret that women are severely underrepresented in the world of Science Fiction, the ones that are (such as Ursula K. LeGuin) are so good that we often forget that they make up such a small portion of the celebrated authors in the field. Some critics have called ‘Darkness‘ a “Feminist” science fiction novel, but I think that label does a disservice to LeGuin and women writers in general. Just because the book tackles complex issues of gender identity, sexuality and politics, doesn’t mean that it should get saddled with such a politically charged label – and people’s attempts to co-opt the book to support their own agendas or worldview are missing the point entirely. The deftness of LeGuin’s writing is not in its ability to make grand pronouncements on the inherent evils of a male dominated culture, but in its capacity to pose fascinating questions on the nature of gender and its role in society so that we can examine them ourselves and reach our own conclusions.

The Left Hand of Darkness Summary: Set in LeGuin’s Hainish universe, the novel takes place on the planet ‘Winter’, a cold, frozen world that is in the middle of an ice age. The citizens of Winter share a unique physiological trait – they are genderless and androgynous for all but two days out of each month, during which they become either male or female depending upon the partner that they are coupling with. In essence, residents of the planet contain the makeup of both sexes, leading to a society in which problems resulting from gender differences are virtually unheard of. But while male sexual dominance and female dependence may be unknown in their culture, there is still room for many other conflicting human characteristics such as love, jealousy, power and politics. And while war is also something that is rarely (if ever) seen on Winter, two of the planet’s largest countries seem to be on the brink of some sort of conflict at the beginning of the book.

Although the book is told from a few different points of view, the story mainly unfolds through the eyes of Genly Ai, an envoy from Earth who is sent to try and bring the planet of Winter into the organization of planets known as the Ekumen. Genly faces many obstacles upon arriving in the kingdom of Karhide and is ultimately saved by the Prime Minister Estraven. The political intrigue surrounding a piece of disputed territory causes Estraven to be sent into exile. After resistance from the King of Karhide, Genrly goes to the neighboring territory of Orgoreyn to plead with its leaders for help. Meeting up with Estraven again who is living in exile, the pair make a harrowing journey across ice and snow to return to Karhide. During the journey, Genly becomes close with Estraven and learns many things about his companion, including a period of “Kemmer” in which Estraven briefly becomes a woman, which helps him understand the true nature of the androgynous people of the planet.

The Left Hand of Darkness Review: While the narrative gets bogged down a little in the middle (and during their interminable trek across the barren ice), the unique nature of the characters and conflicts keep the book moving along at a brisk pace. The fact of whether or not the planet becomes a part of the Ekumen is secondary to the fate of the characters and how they reflect the society that they are a part of. For me, it wasn’t until after I had finished the novel that I started pondering some of the larger questions and themes that the book presented – and that is a good thing in my opinion. LeGuin’s ability to paint a believable portrait of a society in which all members are both male AND female draws the reader in so deeply that they don’t even realize the staggering implications of what it means for a culture to not have a clearly defined barrier between genders. It is this ability that makes her not merely a great “Feminist” science fiction writer, but one of the best overall Science Fiction authors writing today.

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September 5, 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