Reading List, 06 November 2011

2011/11/06

Long-time readers here will probably recall that every so often, I regale you with tales of the various books I’ve read in the recent past. I had intended to write this post back in July, but well. Yeah, I know…I’m so damn lazy, I procrastinate on stuff that isn’t even that important! Anyways, without further ado, here’s the list since January; likely, I won’t write up another one of these til sometime next year – not likely to get many more books read by the end of the year. Please note, these will not be in any sort of order, as I’ve mostly forgotten said order.

Worldwar: Upsetting the Balance & Worldwar: Striking the Balance; Harry Turtledove – the conclusion to Turtledove’s alternate history of World War II where aliens invade sometime in 1942. Interestingly enough, the conclusion mirrors (sorta) the real conclusion of WWII with the detonation of the two atomic bombs over Japan; in this case, however, the nuclear arms race gets a jumpstart from refined plutonium recovered from a number of destroyed alien weapons (for those of y’all who only know about nukes from Hollywood, these bombs actually don’t detonate when they’re damaged – most of the time, anyways), and the major powers all attempt to create (and, in most cases succeed) nuclear weapons and deploy them against the aliens, who enjoy a rather substantial technological advantage over us puny humans.

The Idiot; Fyodor Dostoyevsky – I will freely admit, I felt like an idiot after reading this book (the title actually refers to an outdated term for epileptics)…really, though…I didn’t have too much trouble reading Crime and Punishment or Notes from Underground last year, but this one stumped me. I still have no idea what the point of the story was…if there even was a point. I’m not going to say it was a pointless endeavor (Dostoyevsky’s psychological insights, as always, are quite…interesting), but I doubt I’ll be repeating the experience. OTOH, my Mom has been suggesting (for over 10 years now) that I should read War and Peace, so maybe I’ll switch up Russian writers next time.

The Songs of Distant Earth; Arthur C. Clarke – As always, Clarke’s story skews towards the “hard” side of the SF scale – there are interstellar human colonies (created by robotic seed ships carrying frozen embryos), and there is no faster-than-light (FTL) travel. In this case, the Sun (and, by extension, Earth) is imperiled by (at the time unresolved) Solar neutrino problem, which eventually led to the Sun exploding in 3400 CE (as opposed to dying a slow death 5 billion years from now); as such, humanity sent out as many ships as possible to escape the end (which, of course, was only a small fraction of the population). The bulk of the story is concerned with the culture shock that results from the meeting of one of Earth’s earlier far-flung colonies (none of whose inhabitants knows about Earth as anything more than ancient history) and the last “ark” to leave the planet before the end. It’s an interesting story, to say the least.

This Side of Paradise & The Great Gatsby; F. Scott Fitzgerald – One of my friends had mentioned that she had started reading The Great Gatsby (actually a few years back – it takes a while for books to filter through my queue), and I recalled at the time that I had read the book in high school, but had no recollection of what it was about. As such, I decided that it would be a good idea to re-read the book (hey, it’s short, so it wans’t that difficult). Turns out that I do enjoy Fitzgerald’s writing, as it quite adequately captures the “feel” of the times during which he wrote (the 20s and 30s, in case you didn’t already know). I read This Side of Paradise because, well. I just wanted some more. I also have a compilation of some of his short stories that is on my future reading list.

A Journey to the Center of the Earth; Jules Verne – A number of years ago, I resolved to read some of Verne’s novels…I have always been interested in SF, but had never read Verne in my childhood (yeah, I know…it’s shocking, I tell ya – but then again, I’m not real crazy about what passes for “literature” in school classes these days), so I read some of the more well-known titles. AJTTCOTE was the last one I chose to read, but I never finished it. Fast forward several years, and I figured I should finish it, but had to restart it, since I had no recollection of the parts I did read. It’s interesting now mostly for the sense of wonder that pervaded early SF stories; most of the ideas are now generally considered outdated (at best), but if one remembers what was (and, more importantly, wasn’t) known at the time, it makes the glaring scientific inaccuracies a little more interesting.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass; Lewis Carroll – This is one that I’m just shocked that I never read as a child. Hell, the story was originally a children’s story! Okay, okay…there are also a number of satirical elements that criticize various aspects of Victorian society (most of which nobody knows anymore), but at its core, it’s a tale of whimsy. And seriously…Jabberwocky is just awesome.

The Time Ships; Stephen Baxter – This book is an authorized sequel to H.G. Wells’ novel, The Time Machine; oddly enough, the titular ships play a relatively small role in the overall narrative. In the course of the (long) narrative, the story touches on human evolution, time travel, and alternate universes, among other things. It also pre-dates the new TV show that depicts a human colony during the age of the dinosaurs by over ten years – and from what little I’ve seen of said show, I think this book did a better job.

Small Miracles; Edward M. Lerner – This story explores some of the possible problems that could arise with human-implanted nanotechnology, in particular, tech that’s designed to operate with greater efficiency / computing power with greater numbers of individuals in a confined space. I’m not entirely sure how convincing it is, though, as I really don’t know how the tech is supposed to have mind-controlled various individuals; OTOH, ignoring that little issue makes the story a little more frightening.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; Alexander Solzhenitsyn – I found a well-worn copy of this book when I was packing up stuff last year after my Mom sold her house, so I took it with me. The story paints a slightly fictional account of what sorts of things took place in the Soviet gulags during the height of the Communist regime. It’s about as much fun as it sounds.

Von Neumann’s War; John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor – This story depicts what might happen if Earth were in the path of a Von Neumann Probe gone horribly awry; for those of y’all who don’t know, a Von Neumann Probe is a concept for a robotic, self-replicating probe that could be used for automated exploration (i.e. without the need for humans to be along for a slower-than-light trip to another star system), and named for physicist and mathematician John von Neumann, who studied self-replicating machines. Of course, in theory, the machines wouldn’t be programmed to replicate indefinitely, but where would the fun be in that, right?

Nightfall; Isaac Asimov & Robert Silverberg – Yes, I’ve read this book before, but it’s been a while, so I figured I’d revisit it. The story is based on an older short story Asimov wrote that depicts what would happen to a civilization that exists on a planet that orbits a stellar system that has six stars and, as a result, never knows night…except for every 2,000 years when another planet in the system on a long, highly elliptical orbit eclipses the smallest star in the system on a day when only that small star is in the sky. While “night” may be a bit of misnomer (compared to our situation), it does capture the feel of the concern that the civilization feels when they finally reach the awful conclusion that night will, indeed, arrive and drive the majority of the population insane. Asimov definitely deserves credit for describing a civilization that comes across as believably alien – and deathly afraid of the dark.

The Hammer of God; Arthur C. Clarke – Clarke’s take on what might happen when a planet-killing asteroid is discovered heading towards Earth, and our response to it. From a literary standpoint, it’s a better story than the two competing asteroid impact movies of the late ’90s (Armageddon and Deep Impact), but it did also suffer from a very obvious lack of explosions and other action sequences. The book also has a fairly slow pace, so it didn’t keep my interest very long; OTOH, I hate not finishing books (see A Journey to the Center of the Earth above), so I slogged through it.

Agent to the Stars; John Scalzi – Most SF fans probably recognize Scalzi’s name from his Old Man’s War series of novels, but this was his first one, written many years before, and published online. The book explores (in inimitable Scalzi fashion) what would happen if Earth’s first contact with aliens involved a race of beings whose base form is essentially the Gelatinous Cube from D&D and smell like rotting fish…and are also shapeshifters. Despite these potentially paranoia-inducing qualities, they are quite friendly, so they hire a Hollywood agent to represent them and figure out a way to smoothly introduce them to humanity. It was, as with most of Scalzi’s work, quite amusing and fun to read.

Reliquary; Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child – This is the sequel to Preston & Child’s book, The Relic, which I read last year. As mentioned before, the book formed the basis for the 90s movie of the same name, though the sequel has not (thus far) been made into one. The story is notable for its very in-depth exploration of New York City’s underground world – which is, apparently, quite heavily stratified and features its own culture that operates mostly independently of the surface world. The story also features more examples of the monster that figured prominently in the previous story, so that part was both chilling and fun.

Fahrenheit 451; Ray Bradbury – Another story that I’ve previously read. I hadn’t read it in several years, so again, I figured it was time to refresh my memory. While the story is commonly cited as a cautionary tale about censorship, Bradbury generally claims now that it is more about the ways in which media (other than books, that is) can lead to the degeneration of society. I think the book is a little less clear in either regard, so there seems to be ample support for either argument to be made. Regardless of the cause, I would be rather annoyed if someone forcibly removed my books – laziness has led to most of my stuff still being in boxes and only unpacked when needed (apart from items of a sentimental nature, which tend to be kept boxed up except for the few occasions in any given year when I’m feeling nostalgic); the bulk of the items that I did unpack is comprised of lots and lots (and lots and lots and lots) of books. If you’re even thinking about taking my books from me, just kill me – if you can.

The Alien Years; Robert Silverberg – This story was notable for being a fairly reaslistic take on the standard SF trope of alien invasions – throughout the course of the story, humanity (and, oddly enough, us as the readers) never learns where the aliens come from or what they want. I call this “realistic” because when it comes to alien intelligences, it is very possible that even if they aren’t malevolent, we just won’t be able to understand each other. It also meant that the story was a bit less than satisfying, since I really was curious about the details behind the alien civilization.

Footfall; Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle – Yes, yes…yet another book I’ve previously read. OTOH, it was much more satisfying a read than the previous entry. I’m torn between this one and The Mote In God’s Eye (which I also need to re-read) as being Niven & Pournelle’s best work. Perhaps the best part is the climax of the narrative that involves a human-designed and -built spacecraft featuring nuclear-pulse propulsion (known to SF and space travel fans as Project Orion – a design study funded by DARPA back in the day), and cobbled together from, among other things, surplus Space Shuttles and the main armament from the various Iowa-class battleships (yes, the 16″ / 5o caliber guns). One of the best aspects: the ship is named Michael – yes, after the archangel who cast Satan out of Heaven. And yes, it is as awesome as it sounds. Not to be outdone on the hard-SF scale, the aliens arrive at Earth using a Bussard ramjet. In case you’re wondering, yes…Niven and Pournelle do tend to enjoy infusing their stories with a number of real-world (or close to it) technologies. They’re generally pretty good about making said integration exciting.

Great Expectations; Charles Dickens – In general, I wasn’t all that impressed with Dickens when I read his work back in school. Lately, though, I’m a little less annoyed with him – though I’m still fair sure I won’t be re-reading David Copperfield. Ever.

The Colour Out of Space & The Whisperer in the Darkness; H. P. Lovecraft – Last year, I started reading Lovecraft stories around Halloween, and I decided to carry on the tradition this year. As I’ve probably mentioned before, Lovecraft’s stories are generally more disturbing not for what is actually depicted, but for what the narratives imply (but don’t state). The Colour Out of Space, for example, involves what modern readers would likely characterize as an energy being and its detrimental effects on a rural New England family – what is left unsaid, though, is whether or not this effect is intentional or accidental, or even whether or not the “colour” accidentally or intentionally crashed on Earth in the form of a meteor.

And yes, I know…I’m pretty well admitting to being a massive nerd…I’ve read this many books in one year, but I haven’t been on a date in several years.

As for what’s on my future reading list, well. I have a number of books stacked up on the “to-read” pile, but I’m not entirely sure which ones I really want to tackle first – I may just pick a random one off the pile. I am about 70% of the way through The Bhagavad Gita, so I suppose I should finish that one, first. As for the rest of the year, I’m fair sure I’ll re-read both 1984 and Starship Troopers – both have evolved into yearly traditions for me, so I would hate to forego either one this year. And as for what’s randomly at the top of the “to-read” pile, here are a handful of titles:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Mark Twain (believe it or not, I’ve never read Twain – I need to fix that)
The Martian Chronicles; Ray Bradbury (I tried to read it way back in high school, but didn’t have the patience for it)
The Three Musketeers; Alexandre Dumas
The Mote in God’s Eye; Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle (re-read)
Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, & Antigone; Sophicles (re-read)
The War of the Worlds; H. G. Wells (re-read)
The Call of the Wild & White Fang; Jack London

And that’s about it for now. Enjoy.

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