Reading List, 26 December 2010

2010/12/26

Realizing that I haven’t written one of these in over a year, I figured I should write a little about what I’ve read over the past year. Because I’m sure y’all really, really want to know.

Note: I don’t necessarily remember everything I’ve read over the past year, so this may not be a comprehensive list. Also, since I started this year with three jobs, I didn’t do much reading for the first six months of the year, and have done quite a bit in the latter six months. This will probably mitigate the first caveat I listed. Probably. Finally, due to my chronically poor memory (and rather impulsive interests), I’ll try to list everything in chronological order, but again…well. It’ll be as close as I can get, given my shortcomings. Finally, since the last one of these I wrote was in early fall of last year, some of the books I’ll list here are actually from the tail end of last year.

And so, without further ado, here goes.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; Robert Heinlein – One of my favorites from Heinlein, this book tells the story of the Lunar colonies and their fight for independence from Earth – in this setting, we have many colonies on the Moon. As usual for Heinlein, the story also provides a convenient vehicle for him to expound on his political and social views – since I tend to agree with many of his views, this doesn’t bother me all that much. At the very least, Heinlein greatly values independence and self-sufficiency (to the greatest extent possible for one’s individual abilities, that is), and that’s certainly an admirable thing (again, I think so; YMMV).

Days of Infamy; End of the Beginning; Harry Turtledove – Turtledove’s alternate history of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. In this case, instead of concluding the attack in the manner they did historically, the Japanese successfully invade Oahu, which delays the historical events of World War II in the Pacific by several months as the United States fights to retake Hawaii. Understandable, given that using Hawaii as a forward base of operations was a sine qua non for the rest of the Pacific campaign. There are some interesting situations described in the narrative, though I’m not entirely sure how “important” this sort of event would’ve been in history; sure, it means that the USA would’ve been delayed by several months in starting their island hopping campaign in the Pacific, but there is little indication that Japan could’ve capitalized on their position at Hawaii to, say, mount a major campaign against the West Coast.

Hyperion; The Fall of Hyperion; Endymion; The Rise of Endymion; Dan Simmons – The former two books and the latter two books can be considered as complete stories, as the first leads directly to the second, and the second completes the story of the first. The two pairs can be read mostly independent of each other. All four incorporate many common SF tropes, though Simmons also plays around a bit with them, and also includes some rather metaphysical aspects in the second pair. Simmons also drops many, many literary references into his narratives, along with a great many references to The Wizard of Oz. An interesting example of space opera, though a bit light on “hard” SF concepts. Overall, I enjoyed reading them – else, I wouldn’t’ve read all four books, now would I?

Superman: Red Son; Mark Millar – Okay, okay, not strictly speaking “literature,” but it does pose an interesting premise: What if Superman had been raised in the Soviet Union, rather than the United States? As per usual in alternate history narratives, [1] the narrative unfolds across a number of different time periods, the first being at the start of the Cold War, when Superman is unveiled by the Soviets, the second being in the late 70s or early 80s, and the third being roughly around modern times. The narrative also presents an epilogue that covers a much longer period of time, but in a condensed form.

A Canticle for Liebowitz; Walter Miller – Considered a classic of post-apocalyptic narrative (and rightly so), this is an interesting, if somewhat depressing, story. In some ways, Miller’s narrative mirrors historical events, particularly in the portrayal of religious organizations as guardians of knowledge and technology – which certainly happened after the fall of the Roman Empire. [2]

The Years of Rice and Salt; Kim Stanley Robinson – This is an alternate history wherein the Black Death effectively kills off the population of Europe, leading to a world that is dominated by Muslims and the Chinese in Eurasia, and by the Native American tribes in the Americas. Many of the developments Robinson describes are very similar to what actually happened in history, with the primary differences being sociological due to the different viewpoints of the cultures involved. Not surprising, though, given that if it did happen in history, it is likely that it would happen in an alternate version of history, just in a somewhat different way than it did in our world. [3]

The Peshawar Lancers; S.M. Stirling – Another alternate history; in this case, the point of departure from our own history is during the late 19C when a large comet breaks apart in our atmosphere and “sprays” most of the Northern Hemisphere with fragments. The resulting climate disruptions makes the locations of most of the major powers at the time (Continental Europe, North America, and northern Asia) uninhabitable within a year or two of the impacts, leading to either the relocation of collapse of said powers. England and France manage to relocate to India and Northern Africa, respectively, while the United States collapses entirely, and most of Russia resorts to cannibalism. The story takes place in the 21st Century, but is a mostly conventional adventure story that happens to take place in an alternate timeline. That said, it’s a fun read, so I enjoyed it.

A Hymn Before Battle; Gust Front; When the Devil Dances; Hell’s Faire; John Ringo – Also collectively known as the Posleen War novels, these stories are generally considered military SF, but Ringo tends to focus a bit more on the military end of matters than on the SF end. Admittedly, much of the strategy involved in the narratives are heavily influenced by the technology the human soldiers use, and Ringo is very consistent in his descriptions of said technology, but some of it does come off as magical, rather than technological. [4] Fast-paced stories though, and easy to read, so they were fun.

The Last Question; Isaac Asimov – My favorite short story by Asimov. I had been discussing the ultimate fate of the universe with one of my buddies, and when we got to discussing entropy, I was reminded of this story. For those of you who don’t know, the titular “last question” is (roughly), “Can the overall entropy in the universe be reversed?” Asimov’s resolution to the question is…interesting, to say the least. [5]

The Star; Arthur C. Clarke – A short story about a space expedition to a supernova remnant, and what the crew of the expedition comes to realize about the historical significance on Earth of this particular supernova. [5]

1984; George Orwell – My favorite dystopian novel, and classic of the genre. This is the third or fourth time I’ve read the book, but it continues to disturb me whenever I do. Also important is the appendix to the story, The Principles of Newspeak, which expounds on Orwell’s theory (touched upon somewhat in the narrative itself) that our language shapes what abstract concepts we can understand. Big Brother generally gets the most attention, but the rampant manipulation of language in the narrative is probably the most important form of control exerted by The Party in the story.

Crime and Punishment; Fyodor Dostoevsky – One of the classics of 19C literature, and quite a bit less inaccessable than I had originally thought prior to reading it. Dostoevsky is quite a “psychological” writer in that he spends a great deal of time analyzing the psychological motivations of his characters. This could be a bit off-putting, depending on your perspective, but it’s also an interesting style of writing – and quite detailed. Of course, given that the protagonist of the story is likely insane, the narrative can also be difficult, again, depending on your perspective.

Worldwar: In the Balance; Worldwar: Tilting the Balance; Harry Turtledove – Parts 1 and 2 of Turtledove’s four-part alternate history of World War II wherein aliens invade sometime during 1942. Both were quite fun to read, though Turtledove does seem prone to repeating himself on occasion – your reaction to this may depend on how fast you read the books, though. I tend to read rather swiftly, so when I do notice a phrase or description that is repeated from earlier in the narrative, it’s a bit more glaring than had I read the book slower. As usual, though, Turtledove tends to do a pretty good job of conveying the feel of the time period, along with the prevalent attitudes and biases of said period – as jarring as they may be to modern readers.

A Christmas Carol; Charles Dickens – Yes, that famous short story by Dickens. I’ve made a tradition of reading it once a year on or around – you guessed it – Christmas. Seems appropriate, if you ask me. [6][7]

Starship Troopers; Robert Heinlein – If I were asked to name my favorite Heinlein story, it would be a tie between this one and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – and I would be unable to put one before the other. This story tends to get a bad rep due to it being seen as jingoistic and unfairly biased in favor of military – as opposed to civilian – values. Dig a little deeper, though, and the views Heinlein expresses regarding civic responsibility, honor, and morality are well worth considering, if only as a starting point for an honest discussion of said values. [8]

Notes From Underground; Fyodor Dostoevsky – This is what I’m currently reading. Widely regarded to be one of the first (if not the first) novel expounding upon existential viewpoints in a fictional setting.

As for where I’m going from here, I do already have a bit of a list assembled for that, as well. I’m not sure in what order I’ll read these, though.

Worldwar: Striking the Balance; Worldwar: Upsetting the Balance; Harry Turtledove
This Side of Paradise; F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Hammer of God; Arthur C. Clarke
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Mark Twain
The Idiot; Fyodor Dostoevsky
Von Neumann’s War; John Ringo

And I think that’s about it for now.

Notes:

[1]: This is probably a sine qua non for alternate history stories, since it is important to show the differences in history across, well, history itself – which can involve hundreds (if not thousands) of years, depending on the starting point of divergence with our own history.

[2]: Those of y’all who are fans of Babylon 5 might already know that fourth “chapter” of the fourth season finale, The Deconstruction of Falling Stars, is a direct homage to Miller’s renowned novel. Quite a good one, at that.

[3]: Robinson includes episodes that take place in the “afterlife” as part of each segment of the narrative; while I sorta understand the rationale here, I’m not entirely sure that the story is much enhanced by these episodes. I eventually ended up skipping the last few of them.

[4]: OTOH, as Arthur C. Clarke famously stated, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

[5]: Both of these stories are contained in an anthology called The Ascent of Wonder, which includes a number of selections of hard SF short stories.

[6]: This being a Dickensian “short” story, it works out to be roughly the length of an actual novel…

[7]: There is a made-for-TV movie of this story from several years back that stars Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. Well worth watching, both for the quality of the production and acting, but also because it is quite faithful to the original story. That, and seriously…Patrick Stewart as Ebeneezer Scrooge…how could that possibly be a bad thing?

[8]: If you do decide to read this book, do yourself a favor and try to ignore the fact that there are a few (rather poor quality) movies out there emblazoned with this title. These movies have little to no relationship to the book itself.

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2 Responses to “Reading List, 26 December 2010”

  1. MI Says:

    Interesting list. Concur re. Turtledove’s repetitiveness; it was one of the things that turned me off from much of his work. “Guns of the South,” for some reason, doesn’t seem infected by this, perhaps because of its brevity (relative to any of Turtledove’s series).

    I doubt a Japanese occupation of Oahu would’ve much affected the Pacific War, long-term. The US was _way_ too ticked about Pearl Harbor to let even the non-trivial speedbump posed by said occupation affect its willingness to pound Japan into the ground. My SWAG: Pacific War timelines get pushed back several months, but the eventual result is pretty much the same.

    I’m not sure whether the “monks sequence” in “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars” can really be considered a homage to “Canticle,” given JMS’s denial that the latter much influenced the former (*).

    (*) See http://midwinter.com/lurk/countries/us/guide/088.html

    • seeker312 Says:

      Yes, I have some rather eclectic impulses when it comes to reading…

      WRT DoFS, looks like I read that wrong the last time I visited Lurker. Thought it said that it was an homage, but I guess not. Oops. Let’s just move that from the “Inspired by” to the “Strikingly Similar but Unrelated” category. That said, it is very similar to Canticle, so one could be forgiven for making that connection.

      WRT Turtledove’s Pearl Harbor scenario, it’s possible that there would’ve been no delay at all. When the USA first attempted to retake Oahu, it was a few months after the invasion, so possibly before the historical Battle of the Coral Sea, and the results were rather similar to that battle. By the time we eventually did retake Hawaii (yeah, I know, that’s a spoiler, but c’mon…it’s not like the scenario could’ve ended any other way short of Japan developing a nuclear weapon or something drastic like that), it was in mid-1943, but when we did so, it was with overwhelming force (Turtledove’s list for the battle includes half a dozen fleet carriers and a dozen light carriers, with (likely) over 1,000 planes between ’em), so we annihilated the Japanese defenders at Hawaii, and could’ve very easily gone straight into our campaign across the rest of the Pacific. We wouldn’t’ve scored the same sort of victory that we did with Midway, but then again, Turtledove also mentions that during the interim between our first and second attempts at retaking Hawaii, we had used submarine warfare to devastating effect on the Japanese naval forces in the Pacific – hence, the reason why Hawaii was so “lightly” defended on the second attempt: the Japanese couldn’t get anything across the Pacific without it being pummeled by our submarines and being forced to turn back (or sunk). So yeah, it was an interesting thought experiment, but probably amounts to little more than that. And let’s face it…as pissed off as the USA got just from the actual attack on Pearl Harbor, I’d had to see what would’ve happened had the Japanese actually invaded…


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