Summer reading #3B

Summer continues, and so does the science fiction list. Here are authors M-Z who made my roster of favorites.

Alphabetical, by author’s last name:

MARLEY, LOUISE: The Terrorists of Irustan. The book is set on a planet that was settled by humans long ago, but where the Second Book of the Prophet reigns, where men maintain their dominant male culture and women are not seen outside the home without being wrapped head to foot in veils. The only women who maintain a tiny portion of independence are those who are trained as medicants, the poor excuse for doctors on this planet. (The men find the profession of medicine distasteful.) These women treat the colonists injured in the rhodium mines, and also minister to any others who are sick and injured. One such medicant, Zahra IbSada, makes a controversial personal decision in the course of her duties that will have unexpectedly wide ramifications for the women
on her world.

RUSSELL, MARY DORIA: The Sparrow, Children of God. This is such an odd sci-fi duology; it’s about first contact with extraterrestrial life, but while the United Nations dithers over whether, whom, and when to send a mission to the planet near Alpha Centauri from which has emerged music denoting civilization, the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits of the Catholic Church) quietly puts together a group of eight and sends them off as “missionaries” to the planet Rakhat and its inhabitants.

The story is told from the point of view of Father Emilio Sandoz, who must return from the trip and report back to a tribunal of Jesuits about the fate of the woefully ill-fated group. The book is couched in religious terms, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a religious book; rather, it goes into the complexities of moral behavior and deals with the sometimes devastating knowledge (to the people at the forefront of this contact) that there will be misunderstandings, contradictions, comedy, tragedy, and everything in between if humans go into this interaction expecting “the others” to think and behave as they themselves do.

It’s almost more about anthropology with its concepts of culture and race and behavior. The characters are compelling, the language is mesmerizing, and Russell knows how to create suspense as well as pathos. The story won’t be for everyone—ratings on Goodreads tend to extremes, either five stars or one. But no one can claim it’s not interesting.

SCALZI, JOHN: Various works. John Scalzi has a variety of long series (Old Man’s War, The Human Division, The End of All Things). I have read the entire Old Man’s War series, of which I loved the first few and liked the rest well enough. But my favorites of his are a couple of stand-alones and a trilogy.

The trilogy begins with Lock In, which is a nifty combination of science fiction, murder mystery, and police procedural. A highly contagious virus ravages the world (sound familiar?), and most people experience it as just a mild flu, but for one percent of the population the virus is devastating—it causes “lock in,” wherein the patient is fully awake and aware inside his or her head but unable to respond physically in any way. Technology presents a solution: A method is evolved whereby the locked-in can transfer their consciousness into a robot and thus be mobile and vocal. There is also a less utilized but rather ominous practice whereby the patient can “ride” in another person’s consciousness—the “integrator” is submerged, and the locked-in person dominates the body. You can imagine the implications for solving crime: Who, exactly, was in charge of the person OR the robot when the crime was committed? Rookie FBI agent Chris Shane and his partner, veteran Leslie Vann, are tasked to find out.

The two stand-alones are Red Shirts, whose significance you will instantly comprehend if you are a Star Trek fan (and otherwise don’t bother), and The Android’s Dream. Of the latter, this was my response upon completing the book:

“There are lots of things you can say about books—you can laud the lyrical writing, or compliment the well fleshed-out characters, you can cite the lightning-fast excitement of the pacing—but I would like to pay this book an ultimate compliment: It was one of the most sheerly entertaining books I have ever read. The turn of every page, the beginning of each chapter, led to a more improbable, more hilarious, more ominous, more engaging next one, and it didn’t falter once, beginning to end. It had just enough science in its science fiction to keep things on an intelligent, brain-challenging level; it had just enough philosophy and politics to start you thinking about the what-ifs of human interactions when they are backgrounded by relations with more powerful (and possibly more devious) alien races; it had action, violence, a little romantic intrigue, and a pace that never let up.”

Oh, and I also quite enjoyed his book Fuzzy Nation, which is part of a series but which I read successfully and enjoyably as a stand-alone. I will have to circle back around to his other series some day!

SCHWAB, V. E.: The Villains trilogy. Victoria Schwab is an incredibly prolific 30-something author who has written four or five trilogies and a few stand-alone books, some for Young Adults and some for the rest of us. Most are more classifiable as fantasy, but her book Vicious is a sci-fi masterpiece that consistently stays in my top five. It is so perfect to me that I almost regretted finding out she was writing a sequel, and I just discovered there is to be a third book as well. I am now glad of both of them—I love the way she took the story in #2, Vengeful, and am intrigued by the hints in that book of what will be revealed in #3, Victorious. But whether or not you go on with the trilogy, do consider reading Vicious.

Victor and Eli are college roommates, both of them brilliant above the standard of everyone around them. They decide to collaborate on a research project that involves adrenaline, near-death experiences, and supernatural events, but it evolves into a science experiment, with disastrous results. Victor goes to prison, and 10 years later comes looking for Eli, who has developed his own troubling agenda during Victor’s years away. The characters challenge all your standards for heroes and villains: Victor is the bad guy you love, while Eli is the saint you abhor, and in this book superpowers don’t lead to heroism. The story is elegant, spare, with just the right amount of detail and not an ounce more or less. The fantastic characters come across fully fleshed out in only a few sentences of description. This book is masterful and mesmerizing.

TEPPER, SHERI S. Various works. Sheri Tepper is up there in my list of formidable female science fiction writers, and there is hardly a book of hers that I didn’t appreciate, although I love some much more than others. The ones I will specifically recommend:

The Family Tree: Police officer Dora Henry is investigating three murder victims, all of whom are geneticists. There is a potential civilization-ending catastrophe directly related to these crimes, and Dora is about to find out that her fate is directly entwined with the survival of humankind, with a solution that will reach out to her from a far distant future. Both profound and comical, this is a great book to trigger a rousing discussion of our ecological future.

The Gate to Women’s Country has been dismissed by some as exclusionary second-wave feminism. I prefer to view it as an exciting story with an exaggerated but still valid message. Its subject is the way gender roles have been fixed and cemented for millennia, and where the power should really lie in the battle of the sexes; it portrays a society peculiarly evolved to keep humanity from ever suffering a second wave of nuclear destruction. It is post-apocalyptic, dystopian, and memorable.

The Fresco: Benita Alvarez-Shipton is having a difficult time in her personal life when she is approached in the desert by some aliens asking her to speak on their behalf to the Powers That Be in Washington. She agrees, but then finds herself the sole liaison between the two sentient races, as the Pistach offer the humans a spectacular opportunity for knowledge and enrichment, which the humans typically want to dither and argue about until it’s too late…. This book is both philosophical and hysterical, and I reread it every once in a while just for the fun of it.

The Companions: This is real science fiction—layered, intricate, analytical, examining moral, racial, social, global, galactic issues, all within the context of a story. It deals with humans’ seemingly innate inability to refrain from destroying their own environment, and what happens when other intelligent life decides to stand up for itself. A fascinating read.

JOAN D. VINGE has been a notable contributor to many science fiction anthologies, and has also written some Star Wars novels, but her two original series should be a fan’s focus. The first takes place on the planet Tiamat, beginning with The Snow Queen, which initially reads more like fantasy than science fiction. This is a purposeful choice, however, because the story is told from the perspective of the Summer “primitive,” Moon, a sibyl for her tribe. The bigger story is that Tiamat is a central stargate that has been ruled during its Winter period by a ruthlessly ambitious and fabulously wealthy queen Arienrhod. The planet is not only essential for interstellar travel but is also a secret source of the empire’s wealth and power. But the planet has 150-year cycles, and the galactic stargate to the planet is about to close, isolating Tiamat and putting its rule in the hands of the Summers…. There are three more books, all good, but the first is exceptional.

Vinge’s other fun series is framed as Young Adult, but can be enjoyed by anyone. It features a half-human, half-alien orphan telepath named Cat, an outsider whose only hope is to work for an interstellar government that he fears and mistrusts. There are three books in the series: Psion, Catspaw, and Dreamfall.

I have to mention the formidable JO WALTON, whose books I only discovered a few years back, and whose style and subject matter are as various as they are brilliant. She is not an author that everyone will appreciate, but her audacious creativity is compelling. Her trilogy, Thessaly, begins with The Just City, created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene. The goddess is enamored of the writings of Plato, and decides to create a planned community of 10,000 children, overseen by a few hundred adult teachers plucked from all parts of history (past, present and future); the goal is for the adults to use the teachings of Plato to lead the children to become their best selves. Athene puts the commune on a Mediterranean island in the distant past that will, in its future, be destroyed by a volcano, ensuring the eventual obliteration of her experiment. The god Apollo decides to live a human life, coming to the city as one of its children. Things progress for a few years, and then Athene has the bright (?) idea of pulling Sokrates himself out of time and setting his inquiring mind to work in the City that follows his own pupil’s instruction. The result is intriguing, frustrating, exciting, laughable, and also deadly serious for the fate of the experiment. The story is continued in The Philosopher Kings, and concluded in Necessity.

CONNIE WILLIS: Time travel and other stuff. Connie Willis has written some amazing novels, but my favorites among them are her loosely connected series of time travel books. The first is Doomsday Book, in which the Oxford history department has invented a method of time travel and is sending graduate students, appropriately prepped, accessorized, and clothed, back in time for short periods to study the actual events. Kivrin is sent back to the 1300s to do some research on medieval times, but two things go wrong: The first is that she ends up someplace (well, someTIME) different than she was supposed to, and the second is that there is immediately a flu pandemic in present-day Oxford that prevents anyone from discovering the mistake about where/when she was sent for quite awhile, leaving her to her own inadequate devices.

Willis’s second foray into time travel, although still controlled and initiated by the Oxford history department, takes place quite a few years later, when the perils of time travel are more well known and better appreciated, and To Say Nothing of the Dog is also as silly as The Doomsday Book was serious. Only Connie Willis could combine time travel with a French farce in Victorian England, throw in a couple of mysteries to solve, and pull it off.

I found her other two time travel tomes less satisfying: Blackout and All Clear have a World War II setting as their objective, but someone decided that Willis didn’t need an editor, resulting in one mammoth book of more than 1100 pages being split down the middle into two separate books despite the fact that it’s one connected story, presumably both to make it a more manageable size and also to stimulate extra sales for all those who wanted to read the rest of it! I enjoyed it, but the characters’ circular agonizing over whether they’ve irreparably screwed up the historical timeline becomes tedious, and I wished in vain for someone to come along and judiciously trim about 400 pages from its content to make it a better tale.

Other non-time-travel books of hers I have enjoyed are Passage and Crosstalk.

Last but not least, let me mention a fun and thought-producing book by GABRIELLE ZEVIN, called Elsewhere. It’s intended for teens and I read it with my high school book club, but I think anyone could enjoy the premise and the execution. Liz Hall is a 15-year-old girl who has just died as the result of a hit-and-run accident. She wakes up, quite confused, on a cruise ship that takes her to a place called Elsewhere, which turns out to be the afterlife. In Elsewhere, everyone ages backwards until they become infants who are sent down a flume to Earth and rebirth. But Liz is outraged by this fate: She wants to get her driver’s license, go to prom, and grow boobs, for goodness’ sake, not get younger; and living with a grandmother she never met and doesn’t particularly like is equally unacceptable. Watch as Liz attempts to come to terms with this unexpected outcome.

That’s the end (for now) of my science fiction picks to entertain you for the rest of this long, hot summer. I hope you find something (or things) that fulfills your curiosity about our collective or individual futures!

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