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Tag: science fiction

READING THE TBR, DAY 150: The Cosmic Computer (1963) by H. Beam Piper

I have a fondness for old SF paperbacks, and it is very hard for me to pass one by should I see it at a book sale or op shop or similar. This one came in a set of six vintage titles on which I successfully bid at filking convention’s silent auction in Atlanta — “filking” is, essentially, making music about nerd stuff, and I went to a convention of same because I was living in Atlanta at the time and Seanan MGuire told me to — and is the first one of them I have actually read.

Set on a world struggling to lift themselves out of economic collapse, it tells the story of the enterprising Conn Maxwell, who returns from a university stint on Earth and tells his compatriots that a long-rumoured super-computer known as MERLIN does, in fact, exist, and is buried along with much other disused weaponry in the planet’s wastes. He employs some people to help him dig, and more people dig, and all of a sudden the desolate planet with  no hope is buzzing with industry and purpose. It’s very pro-capitalism (there are a lot of ltd. companies created in this book, plus holding companies and shell companies and companies of every kind, really), and also very anti-worker’s rights — they get whipped, if you please — so that’s kind of problematic. I mean, I like capitalism as much as the next business owner, but come on.

Still, it’s a pretty inventive story from a stalwart of SF’s golden age, and as I have not read any of H. Beam Piper’s other works, and given that he wrote dozens of books and short stories, I am just glad to have, at last, sampled his offerings. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out to read any more of them, however.

There are only so many board of directors’ meetings and formation of LLCs that a sci-fi fan can take, after all.   

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 149: The Cosmic Computer by H. Beam Piper
GENRE: Classic SF, SF
PUBLISHED: 1963
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 9 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: A filking convention…
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 147: Damnation Alley (1968) by Roger Zelazny

I have long loved Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, a sci-fi/fantasy series of depth and breadth and significant scope. But strangely, those ten books are the only Zelazny I have ever read, probably because I once attempted reading Lord of Light, another of his works, and couldn’t get past the first chapter. (It really is awful.)

But many years back I found this post-apocalyptic tale of his, and since I have something of a collection of those, I could not pass it by. And while it has its flaws — it’s a bit abrupt, and sometimes opaque, and its treatment of women is pretty lacking, of course — I am nevertheless very pleased to have it on my shelves.

The story: In a land blighted by nuclear war, with society in tatters and with a plague on the loose, convict Hell Tanner is given a pardon from all his many crimes if he will ferry a load of serum from Los Angeles to Boston – the oly two remaining functional major cities. The only way to get there is along Damnation Alley, a route laden with outlaws, the occasional hopeful township, the increasingly virulent plague, and giant monsters out of the worst radiation-based “When Animals Attack!” B-movie. Action-packed, but seeded with no little philosophy (and sexism), Tanner’s epic journey is a compelling series of near-disasters, proves him to be a pretty fascinating anti-hero in this future world where true heroes are few and far between.

The book was turned into a film in 1977 (starring Jan-Michael Vincent, who pretty much is the 70s), which I shall now be looking up. And, not long before, UK band Hawkwind delivered themselves of this:

Amazing!

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 146: Damnation Alley  by Roger Zelazny
GENRE: Science Fiction, Apocalypse
PUBLISHED: 1969
TIME ON THE TBR: ~8 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 145: The Last Book in the Universe (2000) by Rodman Philbrick

My stepmother Angela gave this book to me for Christmas several years back, and it is a mark of how well she knows me that it is exactly in my wheelhouse. It’s a post-apocalyptic dystopia, told through the eyes of the ickily-named Spaz, who ekes out an existence in the slums and fights to save the life of his one-time foster sister with the help of the elderly Ryter, an adorable orphan child, and a privileged scion of the utopian Eden.

This book could have been written specifically for me.

It’s compulsively readable, even with — or perhaps even because of — all he future slang and determined classism. It’s hard to quite understand the economy of this world, especially in the halcyon “proov” enclave in which everyone is genetically engineered and disdainful of the “normals” struggling for life outside the radiation-proof dome of Eden, but that doesn’t really matter when the message of the novel, of equality and conscience how politically active youth can change the world, is so powerful.

There are tears, of course, and not many laughs, but it is a thoroughly immersive experience, both heart-breaking and hopeful, and one I shall not soon forget. 

Thanks, Angela!

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 145: The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick
GENRE: YA, Post-Apocalyptic, Science Fiction
PUBLISHED: 2000
TIME ON THE TBR: 4 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: It was a Christmas gift.
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 133: One Second After (2009) by William R. Forstchenm For

Full of the kind of conservative rhetoric and survivalist preaching you’d expect from a post-apocalyptic book featuring a Foreword by champion Republican evildoer Newt Gingrich, this is nevertheless the compelling story of a world gone made after an EMP (electromagnetic pulse), caused by three atmospheric nuclear detonations, sends the US back to a pre-Industrial Revolution footing, and sends most of the population mad.

One interesting facet to this particular post-apocalypse, and one you don’t often see, is that the population level remains the same even as technology and comfort and communication break down, which means that it really is a very much worse case scenario. According to this version of events, it will take a week for food riots to break out and starvation will be imminent in only a couple of months and those dependent on life-saving drugs will be dead within the same amount of time. It will take less than a season for cannibalism to take over the population, and satanic cults to rise, and for disease to run rampant and for anarchy to let itself loose on the world.

And for America to be invaded by Mexico and China.

And all of this will happen because “we” weren’t prepared, and because “our enemies” — most likely from the Middle East and North Korea, though the real culprits are never confirmed — know our weaknesses and because people are too fat and happy and contented and take too many prescription mood stabilizers and watch too many movies. A lot of the book is just our hero, Army vet and military scholar John Matherson, thinking outraged thoughts about how no one ever took the threat seriously — yeah, because it’s not a serious threat — and how in the good old days, people were better.

Also, man-made climate change isn’t real. Obviously.

For all my philosophical objections to the book, however, I found it compulsively readable, and was gripped by both the destruction of society as they knew it — so quickly! — and also the formation of a new world order, as conventions broke down and old taboos became luxuries the good people of Black Rock, North Carolina simply could not afford. There were some deaths that literally had me weeping, even though I hated so much of this book’s underlying bile, and I came to care for John, despite our vast political differences. Because people on the other side can still be decent people, of course.

Every now and then, I think it’s important to read a book that challenges you and also humanizes diametrically opposed points of view, because living in a liberal bubble can be just as dangerous as being blind to, you know, science and facts and the fact that trickle down economics does not work.

The fact that I got to fulfill this mission and spend some time in a post-apocalyptic world — one of my favourite (hopefully) fictional locales of late — is just a bonus.

Not sure I’m going to go out of my way to track down the other two books in this trilogy, however. I feel like, in reading this blood-soaked manifesto, I’ve been fair and balanced enough for now.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 133: One Second After (After #1) by William R. Forstchen
GENRE: Post-Apocalypse, Science Fiction
PUBLISHED: 2009
TIME ON THE TBR: ~2 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: Possibly…

READING THE TBR, DAY 132: The Machine Stops (1909) by E. M. Forster

Is that a science fiction book by E. M. Forster?  That was the first incredulous thought that hit me when I noticed this little gem in the window of one of my favourite second hand bookshops. Of course, the cover didn’t give away all that much, but the clock and the title implied some kind of time travel, and I so wanted to know more. If the author of A Room with a View and A Passage to India and Howards freaking End wrote sci-fi, why did I not know about it? Was it a posthumous release, like the queer classic Maurice? Did he hide it away in shame during his multi-Nobel-nominated lifetime?

It turned out that while yes, 1909’s The Machine Stops, is indeed sci-fi, it is more dystopian/apocalyptic than timey wimey, and also, at 12 000 or so words, it is a novelette, which is not a length of story much seen nowadays. The narrative moves briskly, as we encounter a future world in which humanity has given all its autonomy over to The Machine, an artificial intelligence designed to cater to every whim and desire (except freedom) and the consternation of the worldwide populace when the machine fulfills the promise of the title and ceases to function.

We are told the story through the lens of Vashti, a music scholar — most everyone is now a scholar, now that the Machine takes care of everything else — who is reluctantly persuaded to visit her son, who lives on the other side of the world. People in this future live below ground (we assume there was a surface catastrophe that drove them there), but she sees roving bands of outcast humans as she flies across the planet, and pities them their Machineless existences. Vashti’s son Kuno wanted to see his mother because he, too, has been to the surface, but without permission, and has realized that the Machine’s control of them all is stifling humanity, and making them helpless, slaves to the system. 

Vashti disowns him. But he’s right, of course, as the later breakdown of the Machine illustrates.

There are so many themes explored in this short work, it is quite remarkable, and so much technology that is proposed, and has now come to pass. Skype, the internet, digital home assistants, apps and labour-saving devices… Forster was a true visionary, and it is a shame that he never wrote a full-length genre novel. (Then again, he only wrote six, which is always hard to believe.) I’ve learned that some of his other short stories are SF, though, I will be searching them all out immediately.

This is also one of the first literary examples of a machine-based dystopia, which is truly phenomenal. It is a crying shame that this genius is not more widely known, and celebrated.

It should be.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 132: The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster
GENRE: Science Fiction
PUBLISHED: 1909
TIME ON THE TBR: ~4 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Alice’s Bookshop.
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 112: Uncompromising Honor (2018) by David Weber

There was a time when I would have taken a day’s holiday upon the release of a new Honor Harrington book. I wouldn’t even wait for it to come out in stores, but would purchase the early-release e-book, poring over my computer screen as I breathlessly scampered through this latest space opera pitting the ever-honourable Honor against her star system’s mightiest foes. My friends would try to make plans with me, and I’d tell them, no, I’m afraid I’m busy just now, I am reading a book. And as the years went on, and the books grew longer and more numerous, often I would be unavailable for the weeks leading up to each new release as well, as I reread the entire series before striking out on the new addition.

Several years ago, however, the Honorverse began to lose its hold on me. Part of it was the multiple spin-off series, which began to grow ever more unwieldy and hard to keep track of. Part of it was the short story collections — written by authors other than Weber — that would work their way into the narrative of both spin offs and mainline canon. But mainly it was just that Weber’s writerly equivalent of verbal tics began to bug the living hell out of me, his editors apparently having decided to just not edit him anymore, at all, and so I would find myself clenching my jaw and sighing every time he would employ these over-used phrases again and again and again.    

And here we come to Uncompromising Honor, heralded as the final Honor Harrington novel (though the spin off series will continue — not all plot threads are tied off here — and Honor will doubtless appear elsewhere), and I have some major issues with this book, it must be said. For a start, all the recent Weber passion for repeating phrases “for that matter” and “on the other hand” and “point” and every character sounding the same, even down to their lame attempts at sarcasm, are very much present and accounted for here. Additionally, there is not nearly enough Honor in this book, instead leaving us to dwell on way too many conferences between way too many other people — both enemies and non-combatants and allies — and there is a lot of repetition. A lot

On the other hand (and for that matter — God, it’s contagious!), the space battle scenes are gosh darned amazing, as always, and damn if some of these new characters aren’t awesome, which is a Weber specialty and double-edged sword, especially since they often soon die, and then you’re sad about someone you’ve only known for a chapter, sometimes even a paragraph. Indeed, the scale of death in this book is enormous, I think by far the biggest death toll in all of the Honorverse (which is saying something), and while it gets so bad that you are desensitized to it after a while, that is kind of the point, that war is just awful and people die all the time, especially when both sides are being manipulated by shadowy forces.

Where this leaves me, when it comes to the Honorverse, I am not entirely sure. Will I read on through the spin offs, just for a chance at a glimpse of Honor and friends, as well as for the conclusion of the centuries-long conspiracy plot line, if that ever comes? Maybe. Probably? But, as with this one, which I waited six months to read — longer than that, if you count that I could have read an ARC version several months earlier — none of it will be appointment reading.

I miss those days, when new Honor was essential to my being. I mean, the first book in the series, On Basilisk Station, was so incredible that as soon as I finished it, I read it again immediately! And the first ten are without doubt some of the finest examples of space opera ever written, I give you my word. It’s just a shame that over time, and with overuse, the Honor Harrington series should have become just another example of a series, and author, who didn’t know when to quit. (His Safehold series, now numbering ten laborious, way-too-long novels in which the characters all also sound the same and in which he likewise uses all his best-loved phrases, is another example of same.)

Still, I can’t regret the time I have spent in this world, and there was a lot in this allegedly concluding book that I just completely, utterly adored. If nothing else, treecats with guns! Nice, David Weber. Nice.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 113: Uncompromising Honor (Honor Harrington #14) by David Weber
GENRE: Space Opera, Science Fiction, Honor Harrington
PUBLISHED: 2018
TIME ON THE TBR: ~6 months.  
PURCHASED FROM: Minotaur, Melbourne
KEEP: Yes, of course.

READING THE TBR, DAY 102: Penny Pollard’s Diary (1983) by Robin Klein

I remember the jolt of pure joy that ran through me when I spied the distinctive tartan check cover of this book, its corner peeking out below an avalanche of others at a school book fair late last year. “Penny Pollard’s Diary!” I may or may not have exclaimed out loud. “I remember this book!”

I, of course, bought it immediately. (It was 50c. A crazy bargain.)

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that no, I actually didn’t remember that much about the book. I remembered loving Polly, in that she was totally different to any girl that I knew. But as I sent my mind back through the decades to that Grade 2 student who had re-borrowed the book so many times in a row from the school library that I was eventually banned from ever doing so again, I realized that I could not recall a single detail of the story, and resolved to read it again to relive that childhood obsession.

And I get it. I had good taste back then. This book is gold. Penny is THE BEST. She’d be diagnosed as on the spectrum nowadays, but in the 80s, she was just a bit of an eccentric, as she sorted and resorted her horse swap cards (swap cards! Oh, the flashback that gave me!) and refused to wear dresses and made friends with an elderly lady who is just as non-conformist as she is. 

Text-heavy for a picture book, and featuring actual photos that makes it all seem remarkably like a true story (if it is: where is the real Penny now, and why is she not my friend?), this “diary” features some Klein touches that are familiar to readers of her best-selling novel Hating Alison Ashley and — my favourite of hers — Halfway Across the Galaxy and Turn Left, like the perfect pattern card of ladylike virtue that our heroine detests for no real reason, but that is all part of its appeal. 

One thing of which I was utterly unaware until this very day is that there are FIVE sequels to Penny Pollard’s Diary that I guess my school librarian just never bothered to get in, because she hated me or something. How have I made it so advanced an age without learning that there was a sequel to a book that I — admittedly — didn’t remember, but did remember loving so very much?

We’re agreed, I do not need any more books to read. The whole point of this book-a-day TBR mission is to clear the decks of all the books I already own. But you don’t understand, I NEED these books more more than I need chocolate. More than I need air. They are now a physical requirement. My life will be incomplete until my Penny Pollard collection is, at last, now that I know that’s a thing, complete — and in original first edition format, too.

This is who I am. I can’t fight it, so I have to embrace it. I need to buy five kids’ books very, very much, and I will not be able to rest until I have found them and read them and they are mine. They’re currently running at about $13 each on eBay, by the way.

Turns out my 50c bargain is going to cost me more than $50. 

Totally worth it. 

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 102: Penny Pollard’s Diary (Penny Pollard #1 [!!!]) by Robin Klein
GENRE: Children’s Fiction
PUBLISHED: 1983
TIME ON THE TBR: 6 months. 
PURCHASED FROM: School book fair.
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 89: Warehouse 13: A Touch of Fever (2011) by Greg Cox

I bought this book a few years back when I was deep in a Warehouse 13 binge-fest, working my way through all five seasons. This is the only media tie-in novel released for the show, which is something of a shame, since its steampunky wackiness is almost perfectly designed for the written word, when a Syfy Channel special effects budget is no longer an issue.

The series follows the escapades of Agents Pete Lattimer and Myka Bering, dragooned into the world of the Warehouse and tasked with tracking down magical artifacts that have been imbued with great power by close association to historical personages and events.

In this novel, the artifacts causing trouble include Countess Báthory’s bathtub, Johnny Appleseed’s cider pot, a problematic totem pole, and Civil War nurse Clara Barton’s  gloves, among others, and Greg Cox does an excellent job of evoking the TV show’s general insanity while having dual crises to be faced by Pete and Myka, as well as archivist Artie and his computer wunderkind protégé, Claudia. All the usual Warehouse 13 beats are hit — the careless storage solutions that cause nothing but problems, one of our Agents in deathly peril, B&B owner Leena being largely useless and unnecessary — and Cox has a nice line in callbacks, mentioning early episodes frequently enough to prove that he actually watched and appreciated the show before signing on to this particular piece of professional fanfic, not always a guarantee in a media tie-in.

But Cox is a veteran of the form, having written for franchises like Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias, as well as the novelization of multiple blockbuster movies, and so his success with this one should come as no surprise. I really enjoyed reading it, and more than anything it reminded me how much I enjoyed the show on which it is based. Enough to rewatch it? Probably not. But enough to appreciate this further adventure of these old friends? Absolutely. 

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 89: Warehouse 13: A Touch of Fever by Greg Cox  
GENRE: Media Tie-in, Warehouse 13, Syfy, Steampunk
PUBLISHED: 2011
TIME ON THE TBR: 4 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 86: Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) by Neil Gaiman

This book was originally published under the title Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion in 1987, but my edition is the revised 2005 version. (I have just learned there is a newer updated version, published in 2018, and I kind of wish I had read that now. Oh well.) 

A galloping, captivating tale of the creation of this cult science fiction classic, and its sequels, featuring interviews with Douglas Adams himself, as well as sundry related personages, including those who were involved in the original radio program, and the original television adaptation, and also in the creation of assorted video games, this book painstakingly reconstructs the many different threads of the Hitchhiker’s franchise. As muddled as the time travelly, often mind-blowing paradoxes of the books themselves, Gaiman painstakingly lays out the complicated history of the story’s creation and perpetuation, while also acting as a kind of biography of Adams himself.

Gaiman — just beginning his own writing career, when he was entrusted with this work — brings a light, often sardonic, humour to events, which certainly suits the subject, but in no way intrudes himself into the narrative, instead focusing very distinctly on Adams, whom he clearly admires. (Even when he manifestly does not quite understand his hero’s inability to meet a deadline—which makes sense, as prolific as Gaiman has proven himself to be in the years since.)

But this is really a book, not just for fans of the Hitchhiker series… but for deep, deep fans. And for Gaiman completists, too, I guess.     

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 86: Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Neil Gaiman  
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Entertainment, Biography
PUBLISHED: 2005 (originally 1987)
TIME ON THE TBR: ~13 years! 
PURCHASED FROM: Minotaur, Melbourne.
KEEP: Sure!

READING THE TBR, DAY 79: Z for Zachariah (1974) by Robert C. O’Brien

Dread.

From the very beginning, this book is filled with dread.

In many ways, our heroine Anne is living a pastoral idyll, self-sufficient in her green valley. Outside of this hamlet everything is dead, the trees brown and bare, the sky empty of birds, the nights silent.

Growing her own crops, husbanding her own livestock, canning and cleaning and scavenging, and even attending Church, she is a frighteningly competent fifteen-year-old surviving alone with her sanity remarkably intact. Seriously, we all want to be Ann when we grow up.

But the coming of John Loomis  – she calls him “Mr. Loomis”, because he is an adult and she has been raised to be respectful – a scientist in a radiation-proof suit who foolishly gets himself quickly radiation poisoned, changes everything for her, at first as she hides from him, sensibly assessing his threat level, then as she cares for him in the depths of his illness, and then as he tries to exert both verbal and physical control over her at every turn.

Ann is a particularly perceptive, determined young woman, but this book is very good at illustrating that even very perceptive young women can and will fall into patterns of politeness and appeasement when confronted with an aggressive, domineering man. It is Loomis’s own madness — we want to believe his brain was affected by the radiation, but his fever-fuelled flashbacks prove he was always a dick — that eventually drives Ann away from the home she has cared for so diligently (she’d idly considering marrying him, this Last Man Alive, when he first arrived; on her seventeenth birthday would be perfect, she thought), and as a parable for female empowerment this book works even better than as a warning of the devastating effects of science gone mad.

It is a book of terrible beauty, a knife’s edge read, where the peaceful serenity clashes so perfectly, so devastatingly, with the gut-wrenching fear that the cognitive dissonance is almost too much to bear.

Two characters and a dog. That is all this book gives us. But it does so much with them, tells such a big story so intimately, through the clear, matter-of-fact journal entries of the intrepid Ann, that it never falters, never fails to make its point. It is a force of nature.

I’ll be thinking about this book forever.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 79: Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien  
GENRE: Post-Apocalypse
PUBLISHED: 1974
TIME ON THE TBR: 5 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Dymocks.
KEEP: Yes.