Reading List (Revised), 04 January 2011

2011/01/04

While I was putting away some of the books I’ve read over the past year, I stumbled upon some others that I had read and forgotten to include in my previous reading list post. I wrote that post while I was visiting my family for Christmas, so I didn’t have access to all of my books, just what I could remember from memory. Seeing as how I left out a half dozen books, it would appear that if I were responsible for drawing up a map of the world, I’d probably forget to include half of western Europe, and not notice the problem until someone pointed out the gaping hole where those countries should be. So, here are the additions.

Dragon’s Egg; Robert L. Forward – This novel is generally considered to be a masterpiece of “hard” SF, and rightly so: being a physicist, Dr. Forward was quite knowledgeable regarding the physical implications of life evolving on the surface of a neutron star (the titular Dragon’s Egg). The novel provides a unique thought experiment, and much of the narrative involves different stages in the development of the civilization on the neutron star; interspersed with this narrative is a description of a human expedition to document the neutron star from a relatively close distance (the star is a rogue that passes through our solar system). Given Dr. Forward’s background, there are extensive descriptions of the neutron star, the physics involved, the biology and physiology of the Cheela (the name of the alien race that lives on the star), etc. Forward himself once described the novel as “a textbook on neutron star physics disguised as a novel.” I enjoyed reading it, but I will also freely admit that there’s quite a bit of writing in there that I didn’t really understand. [1]

Inferno; Escape From Hell; Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle – Niven & Pournelle have had a very productive collaboration over the past couple decades; I’ve read many of their novels, and enjoyed all of them. These two are a loose re-imagining [2] of Dante’s Inferno, set in the modern day (or close to it) and populated by similarly updated characters. I’m actually not terribly fond of these two books (I much prefer their earlier Footfall [3] and The Mote In God’s Eye), but they were fun and easy to read.

The Demolished Man; Alfred Bester – The narrative of this story revolves around a murder and the consequences of that crime in a setting where telepathy is common (though not universal), and wherein the use of telepaths to “peep” into the motives of suspected criminals and stop them before they act. [4][5] The narrative is broadly similar to that in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, though Bester’s villain protagonist is being more actively sought by the police, while Dostoevsky’s is haunted more by his own mind than the machinations of the police. I have to admit, I’m not terribly fond of the idea of telepaths, and Bester’s novel does an admirable job of portraying the sorts of problems that might arise in a situation wherein telepaths exist, but the majority of the society is non-telepathic.

Flashforward; Robert J. Sawyer – This story focuses on time displacement, though in this case it only involves the consciousness of each individual of the human race, rather than physical displacement, and it is both accidental and maddeningly brief for all involved. The story delves rather deeply into the clash between theories of determinism and free will, and seems to come down slightly in favor of the latter. For a near-future narrative (the novel was published in 1999 and depicted the world of 2009), it was interesting (and sometimes amusing) to see how Sawyer had envisioned the directions technology might take compared to how they actually developed. [6][7] Also, I should mention that the events of the story are kicked off by an experiment at the European Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and that said experiment was designed to prove the existence of the Higgs Boson…

Relic; Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child – This book was the inspiration behind the 1997 movie, The Relic, and since I enjoyed the latter, I figured I might also enjoy the book. I wasn’t disappointed. Actually, in some ways, I’m a little disappointed with the movie now that I’ve seen the source. Of course, I understand that some “threads” need to be cut to compress the story into something that can be portrayed in a reasonable amount of screen time, and this didn’t bother me much. [8] It has more to do with differences in direction from the novel to the movie, and let’s face it…while I loved the creature effects for the movie, [9] having read the book, I really do want to see that monster now.

I also need to issue a retraction from my previous post: one of the four people who actually read my posts pointed out that my comments regarding the relationship between the Babylon 5 episode, The Deconstruction of Falling Stars and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz were incorrect. Straczynski clearly states that he was not influenced by Miller’s novel, so this is more of a case of similar logic and conclusions, rather than inspiration / homage. That being said, one could argue that Straczynski was just trying to make it sound like he was being more original than he claimed, but whether or not you believe that is your business. I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, as I do enjoy the show immensely.

And that’s about it for now.

Notes:

[1]: In fact, this is pretty much the same thing that happened to me when I read A Brief History of Time by Dr. Stephen Hawking. Of course, seeing as how that was mostly about quantum physics, and Hawking is pretty much the smartest man on the planet, this isn’t surprising to me…

[2]: Yeah, I know…this term was popularized by the recent (and thankfully, terminated) Battlestar Galactica TV series, and I’m not at all a fan of the show. I’m also not really a fan of this word, either, but it has its uses, so at least in that sense, it is more worthwhile than the TV series that popularized its use.

[3]: Which reminds me…I really should re-read Footfall sometime soon. And, for that matter, The Mote in God’s Eye.

[4]: This is also somewhat similar to Philip K. Dick’s short story, The Minority Report, which, sadly, I haven’t read (yet). The two stories differ in the particulars, however; Bester’s story involves telepathic police officers, while Dick’s story involves precognitive individuals who could see the particulars of a future crime before the events transpire.

[5]: Fans of the TV show Babylon 5 will likely recognize the name of this author. Series writer / producer / Great Maker J. Michael Straczynski has acknowledged that the Al Bester in the show is named in honor of the real-life Alfred Bester (see the “JMS Speaks” segment of the link). It should be noted, however, that B5’s portrayal of telepaths and the PsiCorps (the organization that controls and nurtures all human telepaths – at least, during the show itself) is much different than Bester’s. That being said, there are some similarities between the (hidden) goals of the Esper Guild in Bester’s story (basically, to eventually mold humanity into an entirely telepathic species) and those of some of the telepath factions in B5. Also, the “death of personality” punishment in the show (the show’s equivalent of the death penalty – without the physical death) is very similar to the titular “demolition” of the novel, wherein a criminal’s personality is “demolished” so that it can be rebuilt into something more productive for society.

[6]: Of course, by now Sawyer’s narrative is technically alternate history, since 2009 has already happened.

[7]: The cover of the edition I own makes reference to a TV series produced by ABC…I must confess that I’ve never heard of this series. Of course, I’m more amused by the fact that the blurb is misspelled on the cover – unless “inspriation” is the correct spelling of that word…

[8]: This also doesn’t much surprise me, as I rarely consider a movie adaptation to be superior to the original source novel. This is not to say that such movies can’t be good stories in their own right, simply that I don’t think they compare favorably to the stories upon which they are based. In fact, I can’t currently think of any movie adaptation that surpassed the original source, though I’m also not really thinking about it all that hard.

[9]: Created by the legendary (late) Stan Winston – who wouldn’t like his work?

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