Book reviews: science fiction

Updated May 15, 1998
New (May 15, 1998): Added a link to SETI@Home (thanks Kelly!)
New (December 20, 1996): Added a review of Red Mars

(This page needs a bit of reorganizing, especially the William Gibson section...)

Recommended to me

This is a list of the science fiction books that other people have recommended to me, but I have not yet read.

On my bookshelf waiting to be read are Gibson's Virtual Light, and Clarke's (with Gentry Lee) Garden of Rama. The last one is there mainly because I want to continue a better-than-average series of books, not because their immediate predecessors are all that great.


With all this hoopla about life on Mars, I dropped all other reading projects and began reading Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson on August 12, 1996. It's the story of the initial colonization of Mars in the year 2026. The book won the Nebula Award as best novel of 1993.

It's excellent --- about as good a science fiction novel as I've ever read. It's combines excellent description, interesting characters, and the larger ethical issues of whether one should terraform other worlds at all. In a preliminary review I wondered whether it would turn out to be a great idea book (like Childhood's End), or whether it would remain an extremely satisfying epic-without-the-opera. It's a bit too long to be taken just as an idea book. I suppose I'd say for now that it has something for everyone. The science, in particular, is impeccable.

About literary style: the first thing I noticed was the effective use of counterpoint in the first few pages. The contrasts are striking. Secondly, I'm enjoying the fact that the point of view stays with one crew member during each part (there are eight parts to the book, I'm in part three), but then shifts to a different crew member in the next part.

However, it is a long book. I now know a lower bound on the question ``Just how long can one describe a flood?''. The answer: at least 80 pages or so. Robinson is no Hemingway.

Definitely recommended.

The Nine Billion Names of God, by Arthur C. Clarke. This is a selection of Clarke's short stories from the 1940s and 1950s. There are many good tales, reflecting a number of styles: there is comedy and one spy story among his usual near-future space yarns.

Many of the stories are a thin varnish over a single scientific/technology concept. Sometimes I dislike this, and other times I don't mind. For the most part it works because these are short stories. When a technological idea is turned into full-length book, as The Fountains of Paradise was, I usually end up getting bored.

Included in this collection is The Sentinel, which is the first incarnation of what later became the 2001 story. (It's better as a full-length novel/and or Stanley Kubrick movie.)

I liked this collection a lot. It's a bit uneven at times, but has many gems.

Incidentally, I found this in the used books section of Baka on Queen West in Toronto. At $2.50, it was a bargain.

Contact by Carl Sagan. Wonderful, especially for a first novel. It's obvious that Professor Sagan is a first-rate writer and thinker. In this, his first novel, he show's he's also a first-rate novelist.

This story is ``what if we receive signals from a nearby star'', and more, but I won't give away the (fascinating) story. There are strong characters and strong ideas. On a second level of the palimpset, he weaves a picture of a world that is easily within our reach if we want it, where tolerance, respect, and teamwork makes a future worth looking forward to. Sagan is an optimist: a latter-day Rodenberry.

In my opinion, it is easily one of the two best science fiction novels of the 1980s. (The other being Neuromancer for sheer vision and influence.)

New (1998/5/15): Kelly Holmes is crazy about Contact the book, Contact the movie, and SETI in general. She sent me the link to SETI@Home, a chance to process some SETI data on your own computer. Cool.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. An SF book about a young boy military savant who gets trained to save the world from a third invasion of bug-like aliens from another planet. I'm not joking.

It's the first novel by Card, and an easy read. But I was bothered by a few things.

First, kids that age don't talk the way they do in the book -- not even the most gifted ones -- even if Orson Card says differently. In the preface to the most recent edition of the book, he says that he is making a case for the acceptance that the feelings, ambitions, and troubles of children are real and therefore should be taken seriously. However, I dispute that making them seem like little stern adults is the only way to do it. I agree, though, that in general SF is weak on this point.

Second, there was a large unexplained gap in the physics of the battle room games: how does a freefloating player change direction without propelling something? That is, momentum must be conserved. I waited and waited for an explanation, but one was never given.

Third, the middle half of the book was slow for my taste. However, everything got considerably better in the last 150 pages or so (once he got to "Command School"). I enjoyed that portion very much.

I definitely appreciate that he wrote an exceedingly clear book. That made it easy to read, and easy to pick on too. I would recommend the book to others. And I'll proably read more of his work in the future.

Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams. My favourite Hitchhiker book. It's absolutely thoroughly streetcar-laughingly funny. It brings resolution to DA/AD's journey.
Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke. Very good, just as I remembered it. A lot quicker-paced than I recalled. This is one of my all-time favourites. Go read it. Now.

Virtual Light, by William Gibson. I started reading this mid January 1995 but got bogged down. It's too slow for my taste. See below for my opinion on his other work.

William Gibson

One day while walking home from work one day I found William Gibson's Neuromancer lying on the sidewalk. I picked it up and was quite impressed that it had won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick awards. So I took it home and read it. I was so impressed by it that I read it a second time. I was 18, what can I say? But I still like it and recommend it. I see it as the breakthrough book in the cyberpunk movement. This is what the kiddies are reading; it is shaping their view of the place of computers in our society, crime, and commerce.

I've also read the sequels, but they don't have the freshness and the impact of the original. Count Zero is juvenile -- its protagonist is 15 years old or so. Mona Lisa Overdrive is better, but by the time I read it I had matured and grown weary of the story line and technological gimmickry.
I've also read The Difference Engine, Gibson's novel-length collaboration with Bruce Sterling. It's got a promising premise: what if Babbage's computing engine had been a success and revolutionized British society of the mid 1800s? But the plotline gets muddled and the story doesn't go very far. It has some cute moments and language, but it should have been a short story or novella.

Speaking of short stories, I highly recommend Gibson's Hinterlands. It is an engaging snapshot of how our civilization would handle first-contact communications with alien civilizations. It's part of his worthwhile collection of short stories entitled Burning Chrome. I'll lend it to you if you like. Tell me ahead of time and I'll bring it to my office.

Other favourites

Some other favourites of mine are Asimov's Foundation series, and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Childhood's End, and Rendezvous with Rama.
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. Just finished on June 11, 1995. Interesting read. Lotsa stuff about religion and the ethics of sex.
I finished and Douglas Adams' So Long and Thanks for all the Fish on January 9, 1995. It wasn't that great. It was interesting mainly because one of the characters, Fenchurch, suffers from a brief psychosis. Indeed, most of Adams' work is psychotic. (At least, manic.) 'Nuff said.

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