“The other Graces”, Alice Sola Kim Grace is a high school senior who’s on her way to an Ivy League school. Which Ivy? “Who gives a shit which one?” She needs to get in because her home life is dysfunctional, with a stay-at-home older brother in his mid-20’s and her mentally ill father living in a nearby shelter. Grace is confident she’ll get in to an Ivy because other Graces in parallel dimensions opened a portal to her mind to give her the answers to the SAT. The possibility that Grace may suffer from a similar condition to her father is there just below the surface of, but absolutely never mentioned in, the text, making the story all the more compelling. This is a story that really deserves thoughtful reading.
The Untied States of America, Mario Milosevic Just a couple generations ago, the states of the U.S.A. broke apart and began wandering aimlessly around the world’s oceans. I can see what’s supposed to be going on here: The premise is just supposed to set the scene for an examination of the psychological effects of isolation in an uncontrollable world. And those aspects of the story are strong. But the long explanation of the rivers running dry, and the climate changing, and all the other purely physical effects of breaking up the states just distracted from the strong parts, without making the idea of a 70,000 square-mile landmass floating on the ocean fast enough to risk collision with other similar islands any more plausible.
SF Signal is “mind melding” on this topic , with contributions from a bunch of writers and industry insiders (okay, they said “have on your bookshelf”, but I haven’t got a lot of room for bookshelves). Here’s my fan’s-eye list:
- The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin. I only finally read this a few months ago, but it is undeniably a classic. It tackles an important topic that’s not explored often enough in SF, and it continues to advance its speculations throughout the entire novel. An absolutely key example of why speculation is the core of science fiction. This was probably the most-cited book by the SF Signal authors, though A Canticle for Leibowitz may have edged it out only because a couple of other Le Guin titles also contend for this list. And for good reason, as to my mind this is the most uncontestable title to be included on any list of exemplary sf.
- The Forever War, Joe Haldeman. Another favorite of the SF Signal contributors, and the key example of how science fiction comments on the present day.
- The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gen Wolfe. Shows all of Wolfe’s genius, but its readable without taking notes.
- Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson. Sarah Hoyt cited The Diamond Age, but Snow Crash was the book that introduced Stephenson’s frenetic narrative style, and announced that the cyberpunk era was over.
- The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury. The earliest SF book I can think of that also achieves literary brilliance.
- Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein. There has to be a Heinlein story in the list, first because he showed the genre that characterization and plot are as important as scientific speculation in making a readable story. Second, because so much later work is written in response to Heinlein’s work, and particularly to this one. Starting with The Forever War, listed above.
- Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner. The book is (IMHO) under-appreciated, but it is simultaneously a great example of stylistic experimentation and speculations beyond the purely technical, and a precursor to trends that didn’t fully materialize for 16 years after it was written.
And here’s a few that, based on reputation alone, I think everyone should read, but I (shamefully) haven’t read yet myself:
- Solaris, Stanislaw Lem
- Dahlgren, Samuel R. Delany
- A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
- The Drowned World, J. G. Ballard
“Why that crazy old lady goes up the mountain”, Michael Libling Its hard to sum this story up in just a few words. There’s a lot going on: A high school romance, the grave of God, family illnesses, an amoral hick sheriff, suicide, smart-alecky narration, gun battles … Even if the dramatic elements get lost amidst the entertainment, somehow the mishmash all works, coming together to make a good read.
What if…Charles Lindbergh made a surprise bid for the 1940 Republican presidential nomination, took the White House, and proceeded to form a pact with Nazi Germany to keep America out of the World War brewing up in Europe and Asia, while simultaneously initiating policies to encourage “America’s religious and national minorities to become further incorporated into the larger society.” Most to the point of this book, how would those events have affected little “Phil” Roth, 9 years old and growing up in an urban, almost entirely Jewish, New Jersey neighborhood.
Wernher von Braun was one of the preeminent technological figures of the second half of the 20th century, and the man for whom the term “rocket scientist” was largely coined, regardless of the fact he considered himself a rocket engineer, rather than a scientist. He’s apparently also, with Edward Teller, one of the motivator’s for President Eisenhower’s parting warnings against the influence of the military-industrial complex; and one of the inspirations for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. He is also one of the most successful engineering leaders of history, having led the development the Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo moon-landing missions to orbit, and which never failed in operation.
I previously mentioned I ought to read more of Gordon R. Dickson’s work. This is probably his best-known novel, and I hadn’t read it before.
The story centers on Tam Olyn, an exceptionally talented young man who’s blessed (or cursed?) to be one of the exceptional individuals who makes his own way through history, rather than being pushed around by forces bigger than himself. He knows this explicitly because he’s told it by Padma, an Exotic from a human colony planet that has devoted itself to the study of the mind. Other colony planets are devoted to science, militarism (Dorsai, which gives its name to Dickson’s series of stories), and to religion. The religious planets of Harmony and Association, collectively known as the Friendlies, are in opposition to the Exotics, or at least Tam thinks they are, and for that and for their fanaticism (early in his career as a Newsman, he witnesses a battlefield atrocity perpetrated by Friendly soldiers against prisoners they regard as unbelievers) he sets himself to use his special place in history to destroy them.
Tam is an arrogant and self-centered person, and unlikable himself, even as the narrator of his story. For me, that made the first two thirds of the book somewhat hard going. In addition to an unsympathetic narrator, the book presents an unsubtle view of the role of individuals in history, and in a somewhat ponderous tone.
The saving grace of the book is the final third, where Tam Olyn comes to realize (at least partly) the limits of his powers, and the negative effects of his selfish actions; and even more so because of the final revelation about the Friendlies’ place in the human universe, and the value of their contribution to the human race. Unfortunately I was somewhat primed for these revelations by reading a much later short story set contemporaneously to this one (“Brother”?), and I’m not sure they’d come through clearly for someone reading this novel first.
Overall, the book is worth the read, but the first portion is definitely a price to be paid for the payoff of the final chapters.