Can the award-winning science fiction novels of the past actually still be worth reading several decades later? Do they have messages, technology, and characters that are pertinent in modern society? Have I just been reading rehashed versions of past award-winners? There's only one way to find out...
read and review the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award-winning novels.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., was published in 1960 and was the winner of the 7th Hugo Award. The book consists of three distinct sections: "Fiat Homo" is set in the mid-2500s, "Fiat Lux" begins in the year 3174, and "Fiat Voluntas Tua" begins in 3781. The stories take place in North American Earth, but in a world that was first devastated by nuclear holocaust in the mid 1960s and then stripped of its remaining documents, books, and scholars in a global Age of Simplification, leaving the Catholic Church as the dominant world power.

The book's technology ranges with its time period, from candle flames to spaceships, and every stage in between. The few pieces of technology and documentation that are salvaged and protected by the Order of Saint Leibowitz, along with the eventual reinvention and rediscovery of the natural sciences, allow the post-apocalyptic world to slowly rebuild itself from rubble to riches.

Most of the book's characters are members of the Catholic Church, or politicians; as a result, much of the book involves political and religious discussions and debates. There's a lot of Latin, and many references to the Bible; those unfamiliar with either will do a lot of cross-referencing or just miss a lot of the book's levels of meaning.

The author has a clever way with words, and describes things in unusual and often entertaining ways that create vivid mental pictures. Each section of the book is written in a specific style, each is different, and each presents its own challenges. I enjoyed the first section tremendously, but bogged down slightly in the scriptural and political styles of much of the 2nd and 3rd sections. Still great writing, but slow going at times.

I first encountered this book in January of 1986, while I was in 10th grade. An amazing school librarian took it upon herself to expand my already broad literary horizons, and proclaimed this a must-read. For whatever reason, I disliked it immediately and promptly returned it to the library. Coincidentally, some students were there watching the Challenger launch; I stopped to watch the launch, book in hand, and the book's cover art has since been inextricably linked in my mind with the image of the explosion. If not for this project, I wouldn't have revisited A Canticle for Leibowitz.

I'm glad I did. The final scene is hopeful, which is a nice foil to my previous memory of the book. I'm not likely to read this one again, and unlike many people out there, I don't consider it to be the best book in the genre; however, it's a well-written, thought-provoking, original story that I enjoyed reading. Rating: 3/5

Sunday, March 22, 2009

While we wait, my mini-reviews of the best and worst of 2008's reading

In 2008, I started keeping a log of every book I read, and an assigned an immediate gut-level rating to each book as I finished it. Here are some stats from my 2008 reading list:

Number of books (not including the ones I read to my toddler): 73
43 Science Fiction or Fantasy
26 Fiction (mostly "Thrillers" like David Baldacci and Greg Iles)
4 Non-Fiction
Average Rating by Genre:
SF/F = 3.89 (ranged from 2 to 5)
F = 3.35 (ranged from 3 to 4)
NF = 3.5 (ranged from 2 to 5)
Most-Read Authors:
Lois McMaster Bujold = 9 (I got on a mid-year re-reading kick)
David Baldacci = 8
Jim Butcher = 5
[2008 was my year for reading "B" authors, it seems...!]

Books that I rated as "5"s, in no particular order:

Mars Life, by Ben Bova--This is a continuation of the story that began with 1992's Mars and 1999's Return to Mars, and was the only book I read by this author in 2008. I became a fan of Mr. Bova in, I believe, the year 2000. I bid on and won his desk copy of the manuscript for the not-yet-published Jupiter in a literacy-benefit auction, and missed most of a convention while I huddled over it in my hotel room and devoured the book at a rapid pace. Toward the end of the weekend, I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Bova, and wryly explained how he'd both "ruined" and made the convention for me. He included a heartfelt apology with his signature on the manuscript. Mars, like most of Bova's books, is well-written, classic science fiction--good stuff. Rating: 5/5

Captain's Fury and Princep's Fury, both by Jim Butcher--The 4th & 5th books in the Codex Alera series, which just keeps getting better and better. I read five books by Mr. Butcher in 2008, and rated each of them as a 4 or 5. The Codex Alera is high fantasy with a Roman twist, and is one of those series I'm always reluctant to put down--I'm anxiously awaiting the series finale, First Lord's Fury. There's an anecdote out there about how this series came to be, but I don't know the veracity of it; supposedly, Mr. Butcher was inspired by a friend who bet that he couldn't write a novel combining Pokemon and the Roman Empire. If it's true, he certainly won that bet! Ratings for both: 5/5

Quantico, by Greg Bear--This near-future FBI thriller kept me engaged and interested. It's more of a thriller than science fiction when you boil it all down, but had enough hard science to satisfy my SF cravings. I read one other book by this author in 2008, and rated it a 4; I occasionally get bogged down in the politics of his books, but the two I read in 2008 were great. Rating: 5/5

Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold--Part of the Vorkosigan Saga, and set a couple hundred years before the saga's main character, Miles, is born. In my opinion, this is the best-written book of an incredibly well-written series. Original, consistent, engaging, intriguing, and very satisfying. I read nine books by this author in 2008, many of them for the second or third time, and although one earned a rating of 3, most were 4s & 5s. Rating 5/5

Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold--The first in a trilogy, and just as well written as the books of the Vorkosigan Saga. This book's characters are fully-fleshed out, most are flawed in obvious ways, and all of them are fascinating. From the first scene, I was fully engaged with the people and the world. While I also enjoyed books two and three of this series, this one is the best of the three. Rating 5/5

The Sharing Knife: Beguilement and The Sharing Knife: Passage, both by Lois McMaster Bujold--The 1st and 3rd books of the Sharing Knife series, which is set in a fantasy version of pioneer-era North America. The series is a combination of adventure and romance, and features a wide range of characters in both the "pioneer" and "native" categories. I liked the 2nd book as well, but only gave it a rating of 4. Ratings for both: 5/5

The Outlaw Demon Wails, by Kim Harrison--ODW is the 6th book in Harrison's Hollows series, and is the best one yet. I've enjoyed this series from the beginning, and the author's skill and finesse as a writer has visibly improved over the series. This book pays off some outstanding debts from earlier in the series, and opens up many things that will undoubtedly pay off later. I also read the 5th Hollows book in 2008, but only rated it a 3 (can't remember why...). Rating: 5/5

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell--Outliers, like the first two books by this author, made me look at things in a new way. It's not science fiction at all, but it's a mind-bending book. There's not much to say about the book that hasn't already been said by others, so I'll just say that it's worth every minute. Good stuff. Rating: 5/5

The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester--This is one of the most original and gripping books I've read in a long time, and I heartily recommend it. It's dark and gritty, and holds up remarkably well after all these years. Rating: 5/5

Books that I rated as "2"s:

The New Strong-Willed Child, by James Dobson--My daughter's pediatrician loaned me this book after a 2-year checkup, insisting that we'd have to take it to heart to be able to successfully raise such a precocious little critter. I found it condescending, preachy, and far too overtly religious for my taste. There were a couple of good bits of advice here and there, but nothing that I hadn't already gotten from other sources. Rating: 2/5

X-Rated Blood Suckers, by Mario Acevedo--I picked this one up because the author is a Coloradoan, and I kept reading it because some of the characters were mildly amusing. Overall, the tone and style of Acevedo's writing didn't do it for me. Too bad, as some of his ideas were pretty interesting. Rating: 2/5

Whispering Nickel Idols, by Glen Cook--I started this one a decade or so ago, and never got through it. I gave it another shot in 2008, but still found it hard to finish. I've enjoyed many of this author's books over the years, but for some reason I just couldn't connect with this one. Rating: 2/5

Spellbinder, by Melanie Rawn--Ms. Rawn is another author I've really enjoyed over the years, so I gave this book a shot. Unfortunately, this book's characters and plot weren't as consistent as I've come to expect from her work, and her move to the supernatural romance (with an emphasis on the romance) sub-genre may alienate fans like me who are more interested in harder science fiction and fantasy. Rating: 2/5

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Still Waiting for Godot, and Leibowitz

Still no word from the library to indicate they've got the next book ready for me. Sigh. Within the next couple of days, I'll post a list of what I've been reading while I wait, with brief reviews. I may also look back at my list of what I read last year, and compile a Top 10 list ala Stephen King in Entertainment Weekly...

Friday, March 6, 2009

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein, was published for the teen market in 1959 and was the winner of the 6th Hugo Award. Although the back-of-cover blurb on my 1968 paperback edition says that the story is set in the 22nd century, a date is never actually specified in the text. The story is a military sci-fi piece set in a universe that includes at least three intelligent species, including humans, all of which have interstellar travel and a presence on multiple planets. The book's "history" diverges from our own sometime before 1987, which in the book was the start of the war between a Russo-Anglo-American Alliance and a Chinese Hegemon.

Technologically, Starship Troopers is mainstream science fiction--infantrymen go into battle protected and assisted by powered suits which amplify their strength and physical abilities, K-9 troopers are paired with genetically-enhanced dogs with the capacity for speech, and infantrymen are launched from spaceships to the planet below in automatically-fired capsules like human bullets. There's nothing that seems painfully outdated or outlandish, or that's not supported by the rest of the book.

Before trying his hand at writing, Heinlein spent eight years in the U.S. Navy, and made a failed attempt at a career in politics. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of WW2, Heinlein's application for a return to active Navy duty was rejected for medical reasons; during the war, he acted as a civilian mechanical engineer for the military at the Naval Air Experimental Station. If you read any review of Starship Troopers, you'll run across the opinion that Heinlein used this book as a platform for his political and social opinions; I can't disagree, but I also don't mind that he did it. Heinlein had a background in the military and politics, and drew on his experiences and opinions for his book--don't many authors do this in their writing? Maybe the critics were just miffed that he aimed his opinions at teenage American boys.

Speaking of teens... Because the book was written for the juvenile and teen audiences, it's missing a couple of things that are pretty standard in the adult market: bad language and sex. Heinlein's language, in my experience, is usually pretty tame; in Starship Troopers, "crumby" is the vilest word I could find (other colorful exclamations included "unprintable", "expurgated", "deleted", and "blankety-blank"). Although the book's main character has a keen appreciation for the few females he encounters, the closest the book comes to a romantic or sexual relationship between any characters at all is a post-dinner peck on the cheek.

Getting back to the book's political and social opinions--which may or may not have been Heinlein's, though I tend to believe they were mostly his--here are just a few that caught my attention as I read Starship Troopers:
  • The idea that violence never settles anything is an "inexcusably silly idea"
  • "Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in human history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst"
  • Communism is a "magnificent fraud" and 20th Century democracies just a "noble experiment"
  • Sometimes capital punishment is the only viable option
  • There's no such thing as a juvenile delinquent, just a juvenile criminal paired with a delinquent adult
  • "Both for practical reasons and verifiable moral reasons, authority and responsibility must be equal"
  • The military should only accept officers who are combat-proven soldiers
  • "Everything of any importance is founded on mathematics"
  • In an ideal government, ""every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service [federal, which can be military or non-military] that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage"; "The maximum responsibility a human can accept is thus equated to the ultimate authority a human can exert"
Interestingly, I agree with most of them. They're all thought-provoking, and in the right (or maybe wrong) circles, probably argument-provoking as well.

As much as I like Heinlein's writing, and as much as I enjoyed this book (again--I've read it at least twice before), there are still a couple of things I don't particularly like about Starship Troopers. As always, Heinlein's sexism is blatant; as always, I shrug and move on. I'm not much of a military buff, despite enjoying military sci-fi, so I get horribly bogged down in his loooong descriptions of rank, hierarchy, and military organization. As an Air Force brat, this is probably an unforgivable sin. Oh, well.

There were a couple of throw-away bits I found pretty interesting, and that I hadn't really noticed in previous readings. First, in a brief scene in the middle of the book, a secondary character is reading a book called "Space Rangers against the Galaxy"; the narrator opines, "a pretty good yarn, except that I doubt a military outfit ever had so many adventures and so few goof-offs." As far as I can tell, this book doesn't actually exist, but it seems possible that this was Heinlein's good-natured ribbing of the pulp science fiction trade as a whole. Second, as part of the narrator's second phase of training, he's put in a situation and conversation that's nearly identical to one in Double Star, also by Heinlein. After assuming a position of power as a temporary replacement for an ailing superior, the narrator is forced to determine whether or not his superior intended to promote an underling or have him transferred elsewhere. It's a minor plot point in both books, but is used in both cases to demonstrate that the main character possesses the analytical skills required to hold a position of command.

Whether you agree with Heinlein's politics or not, this is a good book, and it's quick to read. If you've only seen the 1997 movie by Paul Verhoeven, don't make the mistake of thinking that you know what happens in the book. Although several things made the print-to-screen translation, the two versions are radically different. I like them both, by the way, but consider them distant cousins. Rating: 4/5

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

A Case of Conscience, by James Blish, was first published as a novel in 1958 and won the 5th Hugo Award. The book is divided into two distinct sections, the first of which was published as a novella in 1953 then expanded for the novel. ACOC starts in the year 2049, and takes place on the planets Lithia—50 or so light-years from Earth—and a bomb-shelter-obsessed Earth. The main thrust of the story concerns religion and science, and the ways in which they interact and overlap.

I’d like to start by saying that I’m an agnostic and a libertarian (at least loosely). I’m willing to entertain the idea that the Christian God or Norse Odin exist and have an effect on our lives, but I don’t think there’s any way (or need) to prove it—you believe in your thing, and I’ll believe in mine, and please don’t try to convert, subvert, or divert me. As a libertarian, I’m not a political anarchist—I just believe that human adults should be responsible for their own actions and decisions, and also responsible for those of their children. If I’m not hurting anyone else by my actions, the government should have no right or responsibility to dictate that I live or behave in a different way than I choose to (as it turns out, I’m married to a person of the opposite sex and the same race, we own a home and two cars, and we have a lovely daughter and a few pets—I’m pretty traditional when you get right down to it; however, I don’t believe that the church or the government should be able to dictate that their way or even my way is the only “right” way.) My stances on religion and politics almost certainly influenced my opinion and understanding of this book.

After I got past the annoyance of the myriad pencil markings left by a previous reader (who either stopped reading or stopped marking on page 137 of 188), ACOC was an interesting, thought-provoking read. Like many authors of the time, Blish seems to make use of every word in his extensive vocabulary; because the English vocabulary has evolved in the ensuing decades, it makes for slow reading—and cross-referencing with a dictionary—at times. Add in the references to Catholicism and its tenets, and it slows down even more (at least for a reader with no grounding in Catholicism).

The first part of the book centers on a Jesuit priest who is also a biologist, and a crisis of faith brought on by his experiences and observations of the Lithians. The second part focuses on a young Lithian who is raised on Earth by humans— an outsider by definition, and described in the book as “a preacher without a creed, an intellect without a culture, a seeker without a goal.” The book’s characters—even these two—are, for the most part, more sketched-in archetypes than fully-fleshed individuals. Some of the minor characters, who appear only briefly, are pretty colorful—including a few members of the glitterati, a scientist/nobleman who goes by the pseudonym of H.O. Petard, and a politician who finds it easier to talk than to listen. They’re all still just hazy outlines, though.

The science and future tech are pretty standard sci-fi fare, although the Lithian race, their evolutionary process, and their world’s science are a little more original. The fearsome weapon of the time is that 50s bugaboo, the hydrogen bomb. The Earth has moved beyond a state of war into a “Shelter state” brought on by the rampant bomb scares of the past; with only a few exceptions, humankind dwells in underground bunkers, told to be afraid mainly because their parents were. For the most part, this message is probably lost on current generations—although I can remember having bomb drills at my elementary school in the 70s (we lived fairly close to an active Air Force base), many modern readers probably weren’t exposed to the post-war fears and paranoia that came at the true height of the Cold War. When a main character rises up, issuing a call to passive anarchy and urging the populace to return to the surface, future readers probably won’t have any idea what a radical suggestion it is that humanity throw off the inherited fears and move on.

Throughout the story, the reader is shown things from two different perspectives—faith and science—and left to judge for himself which of them drives the characters and events of the story. Blish leaves it open to individual interpretation, and even the characters in the climactic scene view the same event with different interpretations—one believes that what he sees was caused by his faith in God, and another believes it’s the result of a math error. Either one, or both, could be correct.

This book, like Stranger in a Strange Land, which Robert A. Heinlein would come to write within a few years of this one, deals with a character who is essentially a fish out of water. After reading ACOC, I have to wonder if Heinlein wrote SiaSL after reading this one, and as a foil for it. ACOC’s outcast, while he preaches passive anarchy, instigates a violent worldwide revolution; SiaSL’s outcast also has a widespread effect on the world, but in a more peaceful and positive way (although it’s been a few years since I last read SiaSL, and I could be remembering it incorrectly…). I’ve heard that The Sparrow, written by Mary Doria Russell and published in 1998, is essentially a modern update of ACOC—it won the Arthur C Clarke Award, the James Tiptree Award, and the BSFA Best Novel Award in its year, so might be worth tracking down.

I liked this book, but more as a piece of the larger “history of sci fi” puzzle than on its own merits. It’s a short book, and if you have some understanding of Catholicism it might be a faster read for you than it was for me. I don’t regret reading it, but probably haven’t become an ardent fan of James Blish. Rating: 3/5