Sci-fi Book Club
December 07, 2011
I'm in a small but keen science fiction/fantasy book club. We've been meeting for about a year now, sharing new - or re-discovered - books with each other. We also discuss politics, economics, food, music, Occupations, retirement, ABCP, families - whatever we are all interested in. The books we choose can be pretty well anything - just not so old we can't find a copy, or so new we need to wait at the publisher's door. We do a writeup for our newsletter, I'll copy it below, and keep in adding every session.
Here's a list of the books we have read so far:
'Old Man's War' by John Scalzi
'Flood' by Stephen Baxter
'Makers' by Corey Doctorow (published in print or available as a free download)
'A Thousand Words for Stranger' by Julie E. Czerneda
'Wake' by Robert Sawyer
We would recommend them all except perhaps 'Flood' which was quite bleak (although it had some interesting concepts). We tried to read David Brin's 'Sundiver' (the first book in his Uplift Wars trilogy), but couldn't find copies as it was out of print. Which led to one of our few guidelines – while we're open to considering any science/fantasy selection, it has to be new enough to be found in the library or stores, but not so new that we need to wait at the publisher's door.
Our book for the January 16th meeting is/was 'Blackout' by Connie Willis.
January 2011 - January’s book was Blackout by Connie Willis.
Falling under the sub-genre of time travel, this is novel was more historical fiction than science fiction. It takes three time travelers back to Britain during World War II. Eileen travels to rural England to study the children evacuees who were sent out of London to country to keep them safe. Polly travels to the heart of London to experience the Blitz firsthand, but ends up landing later than she expects. Mike tries to travel to Dover to watch the saving of the British army at Dunkirk from the London side but lands far away from his target. The time travel lab has run into a problem, and the trio of travelers is stranded in the past. Aware of each other’s plans, they each try to find the others; hoping one of their gateways back to future will still be open. While they search, they take us on a journey through England at war. From a small acting troupe putting on shows to entertain the thousands of people using tube (subway) stations as bomb shelters, to the women working as ambulance drivers; from two incorrigible children who are fighting to survive on their own, to a rocky trip to Dunkirk on a tiny boat captained by a geriatric hobby sailor, Willis paints a picture of all of the small daily heroisms (of many, many ordinary people) which it took to win a war. This is the strength of the book, while its undoing is its length and its tangle of secondary characters, some of which turn out be the three main characters under different names, making other visits to the past. Yes, that is confusing. Plus, Blackout tells only half the story, ending when the three friends finally find each other and realize they are truly trapped in the past. Readers have to get the sequel, All Clear, to find out if Eileen, Polly and Mike ever find their way back to the future. Despite these shortcomings we all found things in the book to enjoy, including the detailed descriptions of life in Britian during this period of history. It was these details, and the delightful array of local eccentrics who crossed paths with the three protagonists that kept us all reading the book through to the end, and moving on to the sequel.
March 2011 - Our book for the March meeting was to be THE LOST GATE, by Orson Scott Card. However some of us were not able to find a copy yet, so our backup novel was Keith Laumer's book GALACTIC ODYSSEY.
This was one of many books offered free online by Baen Books, as part of an interesting marketing model. Laumer's book was a great example of the Space Opera style from the early years of sci-fi. It stars Lady Raire, the fair damsel in distress, and Billy Danger, the pure and noble hero, and follows his epic journey to save the fair maiden. Billy first meets the damsel when her boyfriend/kidnapper, a big game hunter, visits earth to hunt lions and tigers and bears, and Billy, less of a hero and more of a down and out and freezing loser, stows away on board the spaceship. Thus begins his adventures and gradual evolution into a hero, all played across a colourful backdrop of dozens of stars, planets, and races. Some places or people merit a chapter, or a paragraph, or a sentence, and at times it seems that Laumer had just been collecting a stack of scenes in search of a story, but no matter, they are all entertaining, as are the hero's adventures, his setbacks, triumphs, and development as he journeys across the galaxy. He has several side-kicks of course, including a cat, adopted on one of the first planets they visit. It's less of a kitten and more of a mutated terror the size of a large dog, but it's both a personal comfort and a fighting partner. Of course, in the end, the damsel is saved, and perhaps rewards Billy with a kiss – off camera - as they ride off into the sunset. We still have THE LOST GATE scheduled for our next meeting, but have added an alternate title again, just in case. It's VARIABLE STAR by Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson. This was written by Robinson in 2007 from a book outline Heinlein had done in 1955. We're looking forward to it, as it could be an interesting blend of styles.
April 2010 - Well, we finally managed to read and discuss The Lost Gate, by Orson Scott Card, at our April meeting.
It's the first in a series, a Harry Potter sort of story about a young boy who discovers he has magical powers – powers forbidden by his people and punishable by death. His people are exiled from another world, now he's exiled from them and must rediscover his abilities on his own. Along the way he meets several helpful mentors, and several not so helpful people, he develops his skills and moral compass, and eventually does find that lost gate, and the planet it's on. The story contains two plot threads, set on his planet and on his former world, threads running parallel but eventually twisted together by this gate. Just in time for the sequel - hopefully soon to be released. We found it a little light in places, with some characters and the “other” planet a little under-developed, but it is a series so hopefully we will see more. We also discussed our back-up book, Variable Star by Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson. This was written by Robinson in 2007 from a book outline Heinlein had done in 1955. This is a nice combination of styles from the two authors, if a trifle long winded in places - as some of Robinson's books are. A young boy, struggling for identity, heads off into space on an epic adventure in a fancy kind of new space ship, packed with inventions and the standard social experimentations we expect on these types of closed world voyages. At the end he finds himself, and his true love. No sex anywhere of course, barely a kiss, so is more typical of early Heinlein. There is an interesting Afterword that describes the process of being chosen for, and writing this book.
May 2011 - Our May book was Imager, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
This fantasy opens with a very detailed city map in the opening pages, with streets named in a strange blend of Latin and French. We then move – slowly – into the story, with a long list of characters being introduced, all with complicated names and relationships. We meet our hero Rhennthyl, and his siblings Kethilda, Rousel, and Culthyn, parents, servants, neighbours, friends, city officials. Many descriptions are thrown in of the politics and ethics of his area, as well as the different ones from neighbouring states, details of his own religion, and quotes from several sermons he hears. So much setup information that I started keeping notes in case this was all needed later on in the series. Frankly, If this hadn't been well recommended, and on our list, I would have bailed. I stuck it out though, and around page 66, things picked up. I stopped my note taking and started enjoying the story, and before I knew it, it was 2am and I was done.
June 2011 - Our latest book was CARTAMANDUA LEGACY, by Carol Berg.
It's actually a double book, previously published as FLESH AND SPIRIT (2007), and BREATH AND BONE (2008). They were a winner together in 2009 of the Mythopoeic Award. They follow a central character as he learns of his magical abilities and his role in a world with two parallel realities linked together. When we met for our monthly discussion, I'd only finished the first book, so our group kindly agreed to avoid any spoilers and any discussion of how all the threads were resolved at the end. We kept it generic, sort of like those book reports in our younger days where we didn't actually get to the end – but faked it nicely. As in many of these other world fantasies, there is a lot of set-up needed. Characters, cities and towns, religions and deities, knights and nobles, all with suitably “foreign” names of course, and all packed in the first few chapters it seems. I needed my scribbled list to keep track of them all at first. The hero is a reluctant one, not that likeable or knowledgeable, a failure at many things in life, addicted to a drug, rejected by his family, using his few skills to carouse and battle through life. We read the first few chapter wondering when the real hero was going to step forward – as did he I think. This does give the hero ample room for improvement through the story, as he learns to develop these skills into magical abilities, and explore the links between this world and a more magical realm, and his role in both of them. There are several battle scenes, covered quickly and superficially – room for improvement here. Our hero finally does decide to get a grip – and a life – and takes control of things. I'd recommend checking out both books, as the first ends abruptly, with many problems unresolved.
Next books – GRACELING, by Kristine Cashore, and I SHALL WEAR MIDNIGHT, by Terry Pratchett. The latter is from the Discworld series, his 38th I think. Two thirds of us had never read any Discworld books, so we added to our list – they are an easy read.
July 2011 - At our last meeting we reviewed I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett, another selection (38th?) from his Discworld series.
This novel was listed in some places as Young Adult - I'm not sure why, unless it was because the main characters were a young teenage witch and her friends. At any rate, they did mix it up with a number of adults, and were confronted with some serious life and death moments, so definitely not “juvenile”. There was also a fair amount of sexual bantering back and forth too, and, typical of this series, a lot of jokes and humourous asides, as well as some pretty bad puns. If you haven't read any of these, try one out, especially one of the earlier ones – more action and fun in them. We had intended to also discuss Graceling, by Kristine Cashore, but all of us hadn't all read it so we decided to pass. I had checked it out, it's a good story, about a young girl who's “graced” with the skills of an assassin, and is swept up in political intrigue. There's another in the series, a prequel about the evolution of her antagonist – the bad guy – but he's such a jerk we didn’t really care how he came to develop, so will give that novel a pass. Next month hopefully we'll finally get to both 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, and Fuzzy Nation. These are fairly new, and thus popular and in much demand at the library, but after several months they finally reached the top of the queue. 2030, by Albert Brookes, is a rather depressing look at the economic future of the US – an ageing population, mounting national debt, failing health care system, and resentful youth. Oh, and the economic and social stress of a major West Coast earthquake. It was depressing enough that we all may not finish it – but don't let me discourage any of you. Fuzzy Nation, by John Scalzi, is actually based on an earlier book, Little Fuzzy. Scalzi writes in the forward “it's a reimagining of the story and events in Little Fuzzy, the 1962 Hugo-nominated novel by H. Beam Piper. Specifically, Fuzzy Nation appropriates the general story arc of Little Fuzzy, as well as character names and plot elements, and weds them to entirely new elements, characters, and events. Think of this as a “reboot” of the Fuzzy universe, not unlike the recent J. J. Abrams “reboot” of the Star Trek film series (but hopefully with better science).” Read more from Scalzi on topic at http://tinyurl.com/yaz7mn6. I had been waiting in the library queue for this book, but I found it, and the “original” online, so read them as ebooks. We also found them as an audio book, and one of us listened to them while driving on a long trip. So, next meeting, besides reviewing 2030 (maybe) and Fuzzy Nation, we can compare and contrast both Fuzzy books, as well as the concept of rewriting earlier pieces. As well, we'll touch on the pluses and minuses of ebooks and audio books, and whether trying to follow an intricate story plot and yelling at the characters while driving is better or worse than talking on a cell phone. That's our agenda, but we may just get distracted by sparkly things and wander – happily – completely off topic.
August-September 2011 - We've had two sci-fi meetings since the last Opineon, discussing – and mostly enjoying - four books.
2030 - by Albert Brookes. As mentioned in the last issue, this is a rather depressing projection of America's current economic and social woes, forward to the year 2030, blending an ageing population, failing health system, skyrocketing debt, resentful youth, and a West coast earthquake. Given that premise, Brookes struggles to then build a plot to carry his message. Or to build characters, for that matter, as they all seem so shallow and unmotivated that when someone eventually survives - or dies - we don't really care. His premise is similar to FLOOD, by Stephen Baxter, which we read a while ago, the difference being that those in Baxter's world evolve and cope. Brookes' previous successes were all screenplays, which may have given him the connections to get this published. We'd suggest he stick with the screenplays.
FUZZY NATION - by John Scalzi, and LITTLE FUZZY, by H. Beam Piper. Scalzi's recent novel is based on Piper's 1962 Hugo-nominated novel. The original plot is that of a somewhat cynical explorer/ miner who tries to protect suspected sapient local fuzzy beings from the ethically challenged mining company wanting to plunder the planet. Scalzi redoes the story by tweaking characters, settings, and motivations, as sort of a "reboot." In the earlier version, written post-World War 2, the military are the good guys and step in to maintain justice, battling secret agents and corporate greed. In the later version, most of the main characters are lawyers. Both versions centre on the discussion of what exactly defines intelligence, and what differentiates man from animal. We all enjoyed the stories, one of us via a library text, one as e-book, and one as audible book. An e-book is, of course, easier to carry around on an iPhone or netbook, but harder to just bookmark and leave on a table for later. Or lend to a friend. The audio book version can be a little slow to follow – you can't skim - but is ideal for a long car trip. That is until sudden traffic decisions distract you from the book. Or not. Bonus – the audio version is narrated by Wil Wheaton, of Big Bang Theory fame.
YELLOW BLUE TIBIA - by Adam Roberts. This fiction is written as the autobiography of Russian sci-fi writer Konstantin Skvorecky. He and his fellow writers are summoned in 1946 to a Russian dacha, where Stalin orders them to invent an extraterrestrial menace as the next enemy for Communism to defeat. They barely get started when the project is cancelled and the group disbanded. Then, in the 1980's, in the beginnings of perestroika, past events and people re-enter Konstantin's life, reminiscent of their earlier story, with hints of conspiracies and cover-ups, and a link to the Chernobyl disaster. Konstantin is old and frail, not a heroic image, but a quick mind and a sharp tongue serve him well, His close friend, whose phobias include a fear of touching that would make Howie Mandel look like a cuddly Care Bear, is another unlikeable character, so quirky in fact that we end up being drawn to him also. Both show strong loyalty to each other, and a clear sense of right and wrong, in spite of the chaos and uncertainty around them. There are many digs at Soviet life, with it's paranoia, government controls, and economic failures. The story is hard to follow though, with seemingly conflicting events and time-lines. In addition, we have a hero that seems a little too lucky in his escapes. All this is eventually explained, somewhat satisfactorily, in terms of parallel universes, and we do have a happy ending. In several of them. The book finishes with a copy of the Wiki entry for Konstantin. More fiction, of course.
NOVA SWING - by M. John Harrison. This has been described as space noir, a blend of sci-fi and film noir, with cynical heroes, a complex plot, and an examination of existential philosophy. The hero, Vic Serotonin, guides tourists into “the event”, an area of warped time and space. These tourists look to experience change without changing themselves, to redefine themselves from these experiences. Then Vic – and the Site Crime police – discover the site itself is generating new people, that wander the world outside, trying to define themselves out there. Trying, mostly failing, and then fading from existence. While the plot is complex, with jumps from reality to fantasy and back, I held in there. I enjoyed the tight prose itself, the phrases and images. True to it's noir roots, the story sees women as existing not as part of rationality. They prod and motivate the men, but are themselves inscrutable, until the very end where they are the ones to step forward. Our next book is UNDER HEAVEN, by Guy Kay. Not sci-fi this time, but historical fantasy. Why not, we figured.
October-November 2011 - In our two meetings since the last Opineon, we reviewed UNDER HEAVEN, by Guy Gavriel Kay, and ENCHANTEMENT, by Orson Scott Card.
UNDER HEAVEN blended enough historical detail about China in the eighth century with the fictional lives of a number of characters, from various social casts and with a variety of motivations and flaws. The hero, Shen Tai, is gifted with 250 war horses - an unimaginable wealth that makes him the catalyst for major changes in the empire. And also makes changes in his own life, which intertwines with those of a ninja-like female bodyguard, his sister, the emperor’s concubine, and a part wolf barbarian from the north. We enjoyed the occasional slip into documentary mode, recounting that historians in later centuries would point back, with infallible hindsight, to how a particular person's choice of action acted as a trigger for the death (or survival) of millions.
ENCHANTEMENT combined the Sleeping beauty fairy tale with time travel and early Russian history. A change from Card's normal books, but well done. It seemed a slow start, with a little too much back story, but we enjoyed it once it got rolling. At the other end, it ended too fast - there's a battle, and we're done, with Baba Yaga's house revolving endlessly in the forest. It was interesting to see the hero's challenges when propelled back in time, and those faced by a villain transported back from then into modern times. After dispatching both books, we discussed the NaNoWriMo progress of two of us, the Occupy movements, and Mensa International.
Our next book is ZOO CITY, by Lauren Beukes, a young South African author. Amazon says of it “A slightly in the future story of a young woman, a criminal, paired with an animal as punishment, who has a Sloth on her back, a dirty online 419 scam habit – and a talent for finding lost things. When her latest client, a little old lady, turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job: missing persons.” This her second novel, both published by Angry Robot Books. Here's a link to more info - http://angryrobotbooks.com/our-authors/laurenbeukes/zoo-city/
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