#23 – Slaughterhouse Five Review – Kurt Vonnegut

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I should probably be clear about this from the very start: Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers of all time and Slaughterhouse Five is probably the best book he’s ever written in my humble opinion – and if that clouds my review in any way, well…so it goes. Blending equal amounts humor, history and absurdist fantasy, the book amounts to nothing less than a treatise on free will, the nature of the universe and the inevitability of human conflict. It is thought provoking, side-splittingly funny and eminently readable, while also being an unflinching look at one of the most horrific tragedies of the 20th century. Not many authors can juggle this many themes and topics together in one book (all while using a non-linear narrative), but Vonnegut is definitely one who can. Now that I think about it, Slaughterhouse-Five is probably the first book to get me interested in Science Fiction – and to make me realize that events in a novel don’t necessarily have to be realistic to make profound statements about the realities of the human condition.

Slaughterhouse-Five Summary: Slaughterhouse-Five (or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death) recounts various moments in the life of Billy Pilgrim, a reluctant soldier during World War II. As I mentioned before, the novel is told in a non-linear fashion, meaning that the narrative skips around to various moments in Billy’s life out of chronological order. Vonnegut describes him as being “unstuck in time,” uncertain as to which moment in his life he will be “re-living” next. During the course of the novel, we see Billy as a German prisoner being held in a slaughterhouse in the city of Dresden (during the Bombing of Dresden), as a captive of an alien race from the planet Tralfamadore who exhibit him as part of their zoo along with a porn actress, as a married man in post-war America, and even during his death. The totality of his experiences, along with a revelation by the Tralfamadorians about the 4 dimensional nature of the universe, eventually leads Billy to accept the predetermined nature of his own life (and that of a humanity that believes foolishly in free-will). While the book may be consider an “Anti-War” novel, it could just as easily be classified as an “Inevitability of War” book, as Billy’s reaction to some of the novels most disturbing revelations about death and the nature of mortality is the oft-repeated phrase…so it goes.

The pivotal event in the novel is the now-infamous firebombing of the city of Dresden by the British Royal Air Force in 1945. Vonnegut himself was actually a German prisoner of war during the bombing and was forced to help dispose of the bodies after the attack was over. The profound meaninglessness of the bombing in the overall scheme of the war along with the astronomically high number of civilian casualties had a profound affect on him, and the reality of that experience can be felt distinctly throughout the book. It is inevitable that Billy Pilgrim is often seen as an extension of Vonnegut himself, even though the voice of “Vonnegut” the narrator also makes brief appearances at various points in the novel. One of his other alter-egos, struggling Science Fiction writer Kilgore Trout, also makes a cameo, along with a few other characters that would become or had been characters in other of his novels, including Howard W. Campbell, Jr. and Eliot Rosewater.

Slaughterhouse-Five Review: While Slaughterhouse-Five is often accused of being “Fatalistic” and that Vonnegut seems resigned to the atrocities of man as pre-determined and inevitable (as well as being frequently censored due to its “obscene” content and irreverence when talking about issues that are often cloaked in solemnity and reverence), it is also one of the best examples of how post-modern novelists often try to examine the absurdity of our search for meaning and transcendence in the face of such blatant assaults on our notions of decency and human compassion. To me, Vonnegut isn’t telling us that war is a fact of life that we should just accept. Instead, he is showing us the ways in which we attempt to rationalize and normalize these experiences so as not to be overcome by their inherent meaninglessness. And the fact that he is able to do this while at the same time being a ruthlessly funny and compelling storyteller is a testament to his ability as a writer and social satirist. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, whether you are a fan of Science Fiction or not.

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September 8, 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

#18 – Childhood’s End Review – Arthur C. Clarke

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Childhood’s End shares many similarities with Clarke’s first novel on this list, 2001, in that it describes a jump in human evolution brought about by an advanced alien species. But while the aliens of 2001 are never seen or explained in any detailed way, the ones in Childhood’s End make themselves apparent at the very beginning (although they don’t show themselves in physical form until later in the book). The novel doesn’t spend a lot of time developing the individual human characters in any meaningful way and instead focuses more on the gradual transformation of society that occurs when Earth is confronted with the seemingly benevolent Overlords. In a way, though, Humanity itself is the main character in the book – and we watch as it slowly begins to realize its greater purpose and potential for achieving a higher plane of existence.

Childhood’s End Summary: In the midst of a heated space race between the United States and Russia over who will be the first to send a mission to the moon, large spaceships begin to hover over most of the world’s major cities. While they don’t show themselves at first, they do communicate with Earth enough to assure them that they are not hostile and have been charged with helping to smooth over international tensions in the hope of preventing the extinction of humanity, much like a parent would to a child who has been unruly. While the Earth begins a period of peace and prosperity under the Overlords watchful eyes, there are some who believe that the aliens are limiting human creativity and ingenuity. They decide to start a separate colony devoted solely to the development of creativity and the arts. Eventually, after years of “Supervision,” human children begin to exhibit telekinetic powers and are separated from the rest of humanity. It is then that the Overlords finally reveal their true purpose in helping human kind achieve the next step in their evolution.

The idea that our current stage of human development is merely a stepping stone to a greater level of consciousness and existence is one that has fascinated Science Fiction writers for decades, and it is a reoccurring theme in many of Clarke’s works. But he is not simply saying that we should submit blindly to the rule of omnipotent beings. While the Overlords do help usher in a Utopian period, they also help produce a world of increasing artistic stagnation and dissatisfaction. As humanity starts to resist this “Growing Up” that the Overlords force upon them, Clarke seems to be showing us how conflict and struggle are at the root of our desire to better ourselves and achieve a higher purpose and that utopias, by their very nature, only serve to repress these emotions. While the eventual goal of the Overlord’s forced transformation is a communion with a single galactic consciousness, man’s primal instincts lean more toward individuality and the power of unique human expression.

Childhood’s End Review: If you’re a lover of “Big Idea” books, then Childhood’s End won’t let you down. If you’re more of a swash-buckling, adventure type Sci-Fi fan, you may be a bit disappointed. But if you’re someone who has ever contemplated the nature of the universe and our true purpose in the grand scheme of things, then this book will definitely give you something to think about.

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September 13, 2010

#14 – Rendezvous With Rama Review – Arthur C. Clarke

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It’s fitting that Rendezvous with Rama comes directly after Ringworld on this list, as both books deal with mysterious mega-structures built by unknown alien civilizations and our attempts to understand their purpose and meaning. But where the mysteries of the Ringworld require an expedition into deep space to investigate, the star ship Rama happens to be traveling directly towards our solar system. And while Clarke’s novel also leaves us with few concrete answers in regards to who built the ship and why, I felt like it did a much better job of describing the wonder and awe of coming into contact with the product of an advanced alien species. I remember being fascinated by this book when I first read it and devouring its three sequels in an attempt at finding answers to the questions posed in the first book.

Rendezvous with Rama Summary: Although it’s originally thought to be a large asteroid, Rama is quickly revealed to be a synthetic structure hurtling through space at unprecedented speeds. Along with this comes the realization that it is in fact a spacecraft and that humanity is about to have its first encounter with an alien civilization. The book spends most of its time following a group of astronauts who have been sent to rendezvous with the starship and learn as much as they can about it. The crew soon learns that Rama is a perfectly cylindrical structure whose near-hollow interior contains an earth-like landscape with fields, oceans and even an island with tall buildings that resembles New York. The only alien life forms that the astronauts encounter are small robot like creatures who ignore the humans and seem to be preparing Rama for some sort of transformation. Each of these revelations serve to deepen the mystery of the space craft and its ultimate purpose.

There is a brief sub-plot in which leaders on earth become convinced that Rama might in fact be hostile and pose a threat to humanity. Although they eventually do launch a nuclear warhead, it has little effect on the object. Unfortunately for the crew (and the reader), Rama eventually gets too close to the Sun for them to continue their investigation and they are forced to leave as the ship is catapulted back out into the solar system (using the Sun’s gravitational field as a slingshot).

Rendezvous with Rama Review: While there are certainly parallels between Clarke and Niven’s takes on the Big Dumb Object trope, I felt that Rendezvous with Rama came closer to capturing the sense of wonderment and excitement that would come with probing and exploring the mysteries of an alien species, as well as getting the reader involved and invested in figuring out their ultimate purpose. Having read all three sequels to Rama (but none of Ringworld’s), I am probably partially biased – but hey, books connect with different people in different ways and I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the ones that have affected me more than others.

Rendezvous with Rama Series: Rendezvous with Rama | Rama II | The Garden of Rama | Rama Revealed

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September 17, 2010

#13 – Ringworld Review – Larry Niven

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Any book that begins with the main character teleporting to different time zones in order to prolong his 200th birthday party is worth giving a chance. And while Ringworld doesn’t exactly live up to its intriguing opening, it’s still a fun read with its share of interesting ideas and characters. The most interesting of those ideas is the titular Ringworld, a colossal artificial ring orbiting a distant star. The architects of the Ringworld and their purpose in building it form the central mystery of the novel, although the shallow characters and improbable circumstances threaten to overshadow it.

Ringworld Summary: The book tells the story of Louis Wu (our birthday boy!) and his fellow companions on a mission to the Ringworld to investigate its origins. Joining him on the journey are Nessus (a two-headed herbivore with a cowardly streak), Speaker-to-Animals (a Tiger/Human hybrid-like alien with a nasty temper) and Teela Brown, a fellow human. While it’s not immediately apparent, each of the members of the crew have been selected for a specific reason. After crash landing on the mysterious world, the group sets out on a mission to the edge of the ring where they hope to find some sort of technology that will help them get back into space. Along the way, the group encounters a number of strange things, including a primitive human-like civilization and a field of sunflowers that somehow shoot laser beams at the intruders (don’t ask).

Ringworld Review: Although the basic premise of the novel should have made for a great read, I felt like the book got bogged down in the middle with too much exposition and technical minutiae. While I wouldn’t exactly call this “Hard” Sci-Fi, I do think that Niven spent way too much time explaining the mechanical workings of the Ringworld (including exact measurements of its radius, gravity and spin velocity) and not enough time painting a vivid picture of what was actually happening to the main characters – or why we should care about them at all. I often found myself not being able to tell which of the two alien species were talking at any given moment. I’m as much of a fan of otherworldy awe and spectacle as the next guy, but if its not supported by someone I can relate to (or at least root for), then it often falls flat.

In its defensive, Ringworld actually seems like an introduction to a much larger (and more interesting story), and with three sequels and three prequels currently available, I’m betting that the characters and story eventually get fleshed out even more. And while I may not be clamoring to figure out exactly who these mysterious Ringworld Engineers were (and how the hell they built it), I’m sure that there are plenty of people who are.

Ringworld Series: Ringworld | The Ringworld Engineers | The Ringworld Throne | Ringworld’s Children

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September 18, 2010

#10 – Starship Troopers Summary – Robert Heinlein

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This is the first book on the list that could legitimately be classified as “Military Science Fiction,” in that it examines the nature of war, conflict and military service in the future (usually either in space or on another planet). And while I’m generally not very interested in anything having to do with the military, I still found this novel to be unexpectedly absorbing. Along with The Forever War (#21 on this list), Starship Troopers paints a gruesome, yet believable, picture of the emotional and physical challenges of taking part in an interstellar war with an alien species. And while the book’s overarching themes may lean more towards glorification of the military and personal sacrifice than I may have liked, I couldn’t help but be sucked in by the book’s fascinating political and moral arguments and the sympathy I had for a soldier who was stuck in the middle.

While some readers may be more familiar with the 1997 film of the same name, the book has a much different tone. Where the movie is an almost satirically over-the-top look at how war can create a culture of senseless violence and aggression (and the propaganda that supports it), the book can actually be taken (and was by some critics) as a philosophical treatise on how military service and unquestioning allegiance to the state is actually a virtue and the responsibility of any good “Citizen.” While action and combat take center stage in the movie, the book spends a lot of its time in the classroom where the students and potential recruits are given lectures on history and moral philosophy – including the realization that “violence has settled more issues in history than any other factor.” Although Heinlein does offer a brief counterpoint to these ideas, they really aren’t very fleshed out and don’t seem to hold much weight with any of the main characters.

Starship Troopers Summary:The story is told from the point of view of Juan “Johnny” Rico, a member of the mobile infantry, as he rises through the ranks of the Federation military while fighting an ongoing war with an alien race of arachnids, also known as “Bugs” (I’m not sure what it is with science fiction’s fascination with killer bugs). Told in flashbacks, the novel follows Rico through his initial training and combat missions all the way up through his eventual promotion to officer. Besides flashing back to various combat operations and points during his military career, the book also shows some of Rico’s high school experiences (including the classroom discussions discussed above). Through this we learn that Earth is currently ruled by the Terran Federation, a result of the collapse of the unlimited democracies of the 20th century. While certain human rights remain intact, the ability to vote or hold office is reserved for “Citizens” – that is, people who volunteer for a minimum level of military service. While this is one of the original motivations for Rico joining the military in the first place, he eventually decides to become a career soldier.

Starship Troopers Review: I’m not going to dance around the fact that a lot of the novel’s ideas about personal responsibility and sacrifice for the great good rub me the wrong way. And while I admit that violence may have solved the majority of the world’s disputes in the past, I don’t think it makes the use of military might or aggression “Noble” in any way shape or form. I do, however, understand that Heinlein wrote this book at a much different time in history and had a much different relationship to the military (he served in the Navy for five years, although never saw active combat). His views reflect a time in which self-sacrifice for the greater good against a common enemy was much more clear cut than it is today. But regardless of how I feel about Heinlein or his politics, I can’t deny that this book paints a startlingly vivid picture of a world at war with a menacing alien threat and the ways in which men are motivated to join the cause against it.

Starship Troopers Quotes: “Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.” – Lt. Col. Jean V. Dubois

“I always get the shakes before a drop. I’ve had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can’t really be afraid. The ship’s psychiatrist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me that it isn’t fear, it isn’t anything important — it’s just like the trembling of an eager race horse in the starting gate. I couldn’t say about that; I’ve never been a race horse. But the fact is: I’m scared silly, every time.” – Juan Rico

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September 22, 2010

#8 – 2001: A Space Odyssey Review – Arthur C. Clarke

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While most people know 2001: A Space Odyssey from the classic Stanley Kubrick-directed film, the original story and novel were developed by Arthur C. Clarke, based on a short story called The Sentinel. And while Kubrick’s unique vision doesn’t give the viewer a lot of explanation for the events that take place, Clarke’s novel provides a much clearer picture of the relationship between the black monolith that appears to the group of early human ancestors and the eventual first contact that human civilization has with an alien life form.

2001 Summary and Interpretation: The novel opens with a group of hominids living on the African savanna around 3 million B.C. The group is shown foraging for food and engaging in confrontations with rival groups. After the appearance of a strange black monolith causes them to erupt in a frenzy, members of the group begin to exhibit uncharacteristic levels of comprehension and ingenuity, including one who becomes the first to use a bone as a crude tool for killing animals (as well as a rival leader). While the movie is much more subtle, the book makes clear that the monolith has helped awaken intelligence in these primitive beings, giving them the ability to hunt for food and protect themselves from predators. The implication is that this mysterious nudge forward is what helped our ancestors evolve into the species we are today.

The book then jumps forward to the year 1999 (still in the future at the time the book was written) where we meet a scientist on his way to investigate a magnetic disturbance on the moon – what turns out to be the same black monolith from before. When the monolith is finally unearthed and sees sunlight for the first time, it sends out a radio signal that is fixed on one of Saturn’s moons. The next jump takes us 18 months into the future on-board a ship on a mission to Saturn to investigate the source of the radio transmission and hopefully meet the makers of the monolith. During the long journey, the crew is forced to deal with the mutiny of the ship’s artificially intelligent computer HAL 9000. When the ship finally reaches the rendezvous point, the true nature of the monolith is revealed and the remaining crew member undergoes a staggering transformation.

2001 Review: To say that this book deals with some lofty themes would be a huge understatement. From the perils of intelligent technology and the panorama of human evolution to the very origins of our species and our purpose in the universe, 2001 is a novel of grand thoughts and ideas rather than action and adventure. If you’re someone who prefers your science fiction to be fast paced and exciting, you may want to skip this one. Like the movie, the book takes a steady, deliberate approach to its narrative. While the overall story may be grandiose, Clarke takes plenty of time to detail the minutiae of space travel and provide descriptions of the mechanics of space flight. So if you’re able to get through some of the slower parts, 2001 can be a great companion piece to Kubrick’s film for those that want to delve further into the movie’s story, characters and ideas.

2001: A Space Odyssey Quotes: “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.”

“Let me put it this way, Mr. Amor. The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error. “

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#90 – Roadside Picnic – Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Roadside PicnicJust when you think that all of the possible science fiction plots have been written, you come across a book like ‘Roadside Picnic’ that makes you realize how varied and diverse this genre can be.

This is an alien visitation novel without the aliens, a first contact story without the ‘contact,’ and a story of strange and wondrous possibilities that only seem to lead to death and despair. The heroes in the book aren’t noble scientists trying to understand an advanced culture for the benefit of humanity, they’re working class stiffs just trying to survive and provide for their families.

And while some have tried to ascribe various political themes to the novel based on its unique publication history and censorship from the Soviet Government, the reality is that it’s actually more about the psychological and sociological implications of contact with advanced technology than any sort of political manifesto. While it may not be the type of novel that most readers are used to, this is a gripping little novel that poses some unsettling questions about human nature and offers few reassuring answers.

The novel begins 30 years after what is known as “The Visitation” – an event in which extraterrestrials landed on Earth in six different locations (known as the “Zones”) and then left before contact was made. In the aftermath of the visit, humans discovered that these Zones now contained strange (and in some cases extremely dangerous) phenomena and artifacts left by the aliens.

In order to study these “supernatural” artifacts and prevent them getting into the wrong hands, the Zones were walled off and can only be legally entered by scientific personnel designated by the UN and world governments. While the exact location of each of the Zones isn’t revealed, the story centers on one Zone in particular – somewhere in Soviet Russia.

When we first meet him, Redrick “Red” Schuhart is a 23 year old “Stalker” – an outlaw who travels into the Zone in order to retrieve alien artifacts and sell them on the black market. While he has a part-time job as working as a lab assistant for the institute studying the zone, the real money is in venturing into the Zone and bringing out these strange artifacts, which go by descriptive names such as Sponges, Black Sprays, Pins, Bracelets, Rattling Napkins and (my favorite) Death Lamps. In most cases, the purposes of these objects is unknown, although there are some (such as the Batteries which seem to be an unlimited power source) that may have real benefits.

But getting these artifacts out of the Zone isn’t a walk in the park. As we follow Red on an expedition into the Zone (and hear stories about the horrible deaths of other Stalkers), we soon realize that the Zones are hotbeds of dangerous phenomena that can cause horrific injuries, mutilations and death. These ‘phenomena’ have great names too, such as Witches Jelly, Burning Fluff, Exploding Rainbows and the Meat Grinder. We also learn that the offspring of Stalkers often have severe generic mutations.

As the book progresses, we follow Red as he loses friends in the Zone, gets married and has a daughter (who he lovingly refers to as “The Monkey” due to the layer of hair that covers her body), deals with various authority figures who are trying to clamp down on the illegal trading of artifacts, gets busted, gets out of jail and tries to rehabilitate himself. But seeing as though there’s no real industry in the area (and residents are forbidden to emigrate due to their exposure to the Zone), Red is forced to continue going back into the Zone in order to pay the bills.

And while Red is a rough and tumble kind of guy, we also see that he is a good man with good intentions who is fiercely loyal – even to a fault. The only thing that seems to offer any possibility of salvation is a mythical artifact known as the  “Golden Sphere” that supposedly grants wishes to whoever is standing in front of it. And it’s the hope of finding the Golden Sphere which compels Red to go back into the Zone one last time.

Apart from the human drama and the sympathy that we feel for Red as he struggles to survive and provide for his family amidst a collection of shady politicians, greedy black marketers and double-crossing Stalkers, there’s also the compelling mystery and intrigue surrounding the Zones, the reasons for the Alien’s visit, the purpose of the artifacts and the potential for both positive and negative effects on humanity as a whole.

What I loved about the Strugatsky brothers approach is that they rarely explain the artifacts and phenomena in any real detail, instead leaving it up to the reader’s imagination to determine how they look and what they’re used for. And their ability to ratchet up the tension and suspense during Red’s trips into the Zone make this a gripping ride throughout. If you’re looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, I think that you’ll enjoy Roadside Picnic as much as I did.

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#60 – Ender’s Shadow Review – Orson Scott Card

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No other book series (other than maybe Foundation) has a larger presence on this list than Orson Scott Card’s Ender series. With the #1 (Ender’s Game), #27 (Speaker for the Dead) and now #60 entries in the top 100, it’s fair to say that it is one of the most popular series’ in all of science fiction. While some might argue that the Shadow books make up their own unique series, it’s hard to really separate the two in my mind. While the two parallel stories eventually diverge completely, the two linchpin novels tell basically the same story, just from the perspective of different characters. While Ender’s Game tells the story of Battle School and the Bugger War with Ender Wiggin at its center, Ender’s Shadow illuminates the back story of Ender’s right hand man Bean and follows him as he moves up through the ranks of Battle School to become an integral part of the team that eventually helps defeat the Bugger menace. What is so amazing about Card’s companion novel is that it manages to tell a story that we already know so well in a way that makes it seem fresh and exiting. Even though we already know the eventual outcome, the new insights that we get into the life and motivations of what was a minor character in the original novel help increase the richness of the story as a whole.

Ender’s Shadow Summary: Ender’s Shadow picks up the story of Bean, a diminutive homeless street urchin trying to survive in the crime ridden streets of Rotterdam in 2170. Having escaped from a genetic engineering laboratory as an infant (where they apparently did experiments to increase intelligence), Bean’s primary focus is on survival (meaning food and protection from the ruthless child gangs that roam the streets). Although he eventually manages to fall in with a gang that is able to get food from a local soup kitchen, his access to that food is controlled by a sociopathic bully named Achilles who torments Bean and eventually murders one of his closest friends. Luckily, Bean’s brilliance and creativity are recognized by one of the nuns at the soup kitchen who is secretly recruiting gifted children to help fight the Bugger War. Bean is then taken to Battle School where he meets Ender and begins his training in Military strategy and tactics along with other gifted children. This first section of the novel serves to illustrate Bean’s amazing ability to survive in the harshest conditions imaginable due to his advanced intellect, something that will eventually set him apart from all of the other students at Battle School.

By the time Bean gets to Battle School, the legend of the brilliant Ender Wiggin has already begun to form, and Bean takes a concerted interest in learning as much as he can about the boy who will eventually go on to lead the human fleet against the Buggers. Along the way, we are made aware of some interesting facts that weren’t disclosed in the original novel, such as the fact that it was Bean (not the commanding adults) who created the Dragon Army of misfits and new recruits for Ender to lead and mold into fighting form. We also learn that the adults chose Bean as Ender’s replacement should anything happen to Ender. While some may accuse Card of re-writing history here, I personally don’t think that anything he introduces in Ender’s Shadow in any way takes away from the power of Game.  All he really does is to show that Bean was actually a much more integral part of the story than we previously thought.

Ender’s Shadow Review: I think that one of the reasons that I liked Ender’s Shadow so much is the fact that Bean is a much more sympathetic character than Ender. While Ender grew up in a middle class family (with his main challenge in being a Third child), Bean is forced from a very early age (he’s 2 years old when we first meet him) to survive in a brutal world where most of the cards are stacked against him. The only advantage he has is his heightened intelligence and will to survive, both of which he uses in a coldly efficient manner. And while Ender is the hero that eventually goes on to defeat the Buggers, it is Bean who is able to see the reality of their situation – that the battle exercises are actually real battles with real Formics, something that Ender fails to realize until it’s too late.

Although Speaker for the Dead may be the true sequel to Ender’s Game, I think that Bean’s story may actually be a more fitting addendum to the original novel – even if they recount many of the same events. So if you found Speaker to be too removed and distant from the themes and motifs of the first novel, I’d recommend giving the Shadow series a try. Besides succeeding as its own stand alone tale, it brings added depth and insight into a story that many of us have known and loved for years.

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July 26, 2011

#94 – Cities in Flight – James Blish

A lot of science fiction stories claim to be epic in scope. But few come close to the size and spectacle of James Blish’s Cities in Flight. Beginning in the near future and culminating in the destruction of the known universe, this four-volume series (published as a single volume omnibus in 1970) spans thousands of years, hundreds of protagonists, multiple sentient races, and even hints at a scientific explanation for the existence of god in creating new universes. If that’s not “epic,” I don’t know what is. And while the individual stories themselves can be sometimes drag a bit, and the amount of characters can often make it confusing as to whose doing what and for what reason, the sheer audaciousness of Blish’s vision of the future and the various technologies that shape mankind’s path more than make up for any narrative shortcomings.

The first volume, They Shall Have Stars, starts in the near future. With the Cold War still raging and civil liberties in decline all over the world, scientific progress has stalled and Western Civilization seems to be stagnating. In secret, Bliss Wagoner, the Head of the Joint Congressional Committee on Space Flight has been supporting research into “Fringe” scientific theories as a last grasp attempt at spurring innovation and growth. One particular project, a bridge made of ice on Jupiter, leads to two unique discoveries. First, the discovery of properties that allow for the manipulation of gravity – which eventually leads to the development of technology that allows for faster-than-light travel (known as a “spindizzy”). Second, the discovery of an anti-agathic drug which helps stop aging. These two discoveries together finally make interstellar travel possible. While Wagoner is eventually tried for treason, his work sets the stage for everything that follows.

The next volume, A Life for the Stars, picks up years later as Spindizzy technology has been successfully developed to transport large objects through space. With Earth in a severe depression, whole cities have taken to the stars in hopes of finding work throughout the galaxy. The main character of this volume is Chris DeFord, a teenager who unwittingly catches a ride on the departing city of Scranton, Pennsylvania as it’s leaving Earth. These “Cities in Flight” are referred to frequently as “Okie” cities, referring to the Oklahoma residents who escaped the Dust Bowl in the 1940’s in search of work. After a series of adventures on Scranton, Chris eventually transfers to the larger and wealthier city of New York, where he meets Mayor Amalfi – a character who features prominently in the ensuing volumes. After helping successfully defuse a dangerous conflict, Chris is elevated to Resident status and made the City Manager of New York.

Earthman, Come Home continues Amalfi’s adventures as the head of New York, spanning almost 300 years (of relativistic time) and covering most of the galaxy. Over the course of the book they encounter an ‘Okie Jungle’ of economically collapsed cities, fend off a mythical alien threat to Earth, outwit a city of renegades, and outrun the Earth police. Eventually they find themselves hurtling out of the Milky Way into the Greater Magellanic Cloud and settle temporarily on a planet where they encounter and get the better of a group of renegades called IMT (Interstellar Master Traders).

The final volume, The Triumph of Time, finds the gang (now on a planet called He) undertaking the first intergalactic flight. During their journey, they discover that a collision of universes threatens to wipe out all life, and that a competing civilization has already realized this. The rest of the novel involves the Hevians racing to beat the other civilization to the singularity in order to potentially manipulate the new universes that will result from the collision.

While a lot of the concepts and technical specifics of cosmology and intergalactic travel went waaaaaaaaay over my head, the ideas and compelling story helped me get past some of the more incomprehensible moments in the book. I’ve always been a sucker for “Big Ideas” so you might not be as forgiving as I am (unless you’re a cosmologist). But if you’re not a cosmologist and you’re down for a little incomprehension, James Blish’s Cities in Flight is a fun flight of fancy filled with interesting ideas about the future of humanity (and the universe we live in).

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