My Favorite Books
by Paul Waldowski
I mostly concentrate on TV & movie sci-fi, but I've been known to read a book without pikchers from time to time. Here's a list of my favorite sf fiction.
The Forever War - Joe Haldeman
You can never go home again -- especially if you're a soldier traveling at relativistic speeds and fighting a thousand-year war. This is not only one of the best sf books ever written, it's also one of the best war novels ever written. I'm not a fan of most military fiction, normal or sci-fi, because it usually focuses on the gee-whiz aspects of war: the toys and the tactics. No one ever focuses on what it really feels like, but Haldeman, himself a Viet Nam vet, captured the weird disconnect someone feels when they've not only been away from home for a long time, but they've participated in things that no one back home can relate to. Haldeman uses time dilation as a device to exaggerate the feeling, but it doesn't diminish its authenticity. The main character, Mandella, does what a lot of people who find that they no longer fit in with "the world" do: he re-ups and basically spends the remainder of his life fighting and living in an unchanging reality with the only other people he can relate to -- his fellow vets. The book also features a thread about the way military folk are often viewed and treated by the higher-ups: basically as pieces of expendable, thinking meat. If you've ever heard the phrase, "I need a body for (insert task)", then you'll get the mindset that Haldeman explores in the novel.
If you ever wanted to know what it feels like to go gallivanting off on a multi-year adventure in some far away place, do some really strange shit, then come back home, then read this book. But do yourself a favor and stay away from The Forever Peace. It blows goats.
The Foundation Series - Isaac Asimov
I have a soft spot for the Foundation series (yes, even the later ones). Asimov's great gift was his ability to tell large, complex stories in a simple (but not simplistic!) style. His writing is so clean and smooth that your eyes slip off the page. He never needlessly complicated the text by including archaic or obscure words, as some authors do to impress us with their ability to read a thesaurus. He also communicated great ideas with a great economy of text. Contrast this to modern authors, who feel that a thought is only as deep as the amount of verbiage used to express it. With Asimov, you never find yourself skipping page after page of filler to get back to the plot.
His Foundation series is one of the most influential and interesting sagas in sf. Its tale of a vast city-planet at the heart of a galactic empire not only inspired Star Wars, but the Aum Shinrikyo cult as well. Hey, who thought a ripping tale of a dying galactic empire and the plucky scientists who vow to shorten the ensuing dark age by preserving civilization would appeal to disaffected youth from Modesto to Tokyo? At any rate, the series introduced the concept of psychohistory, which was a fictional discipline involving the ability to mathematically predict humanity's actions, and thus its future. Its discoverer, Hari Seldon, sets the plot in motion by predicting the end of the thousand year galactic empire and the beginning of a new dark age. He figures he can shorten the interval between civilizations by preserving knowledge and technology on a small, forgotten planet and then applying little "tweaks" to the galaxy to move things along. The rest, as they say, is psychohistory.
Asimov eventually tied his Robot, Empire and Foundation series into one interconnected saga. Fortunately, Hollywood's only been able to bastardize two of Asimov's robot novels (I, Robot and Bicentennial Man) and not the Foundation series. I think Foundation should be left in the capable hands of the dreamers, religious terrorists, and disaffected yutes.
Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert Heinlein
With Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein doesn't merely limit his wanking to a secondary character, he goes full bore with his textual stand-in, Jubal Harshaw. The book screeches to a halt with the introduction of this character, who spends much of its bulk simply telling everyone what he believes about everything. Of course, he's always right, everyone always does what he tells them to, and no one seriously challenges him. The pages positively stick together from Heinlein's wanking.
Still, the tale of a Martian Mowgli applied to a future that looks remarkably like 1950's America is interesting, mostly for its ruminations on human society and taboos. You gotta love stories of the future that feature flying cars and videophones, yet completely fails to predict social change or progress. The book is a good read just for that anachronism alone.
Red Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson
Red Mars is the first in a trilogy describing human colonization and terraforming of Mars. Of the three, Red Mars is the best, mostly because of its realism and Robinson's ability to present different points of view equally well. There's none of Heinlein's wanking in these books, which are told from different points of view and represent what will likely be the debates surrounding the colonization of Mars. Some believe it should be kept in its pristine state while others encourage full-bore terraforming. Even though the mission calls for strict adherence to Earth's guidelines, the 100-person crew quickly fragments and starts doing their own thing. They eventually become the leaders of the various factions on Mars, and much of the rest of the book explores the consequences of the First Hundred's decisions. Some live, others die, but all are profoundly changed by the rapid colonization and terraforming of the planet, as well as an increasingly over-populated and creaking Earth.
Robinson captures the exhilaration of exploring new lands for the first time, as well as the frontier mentality that results as a new culture and new ways of thinking develop and grow on the planet. By the end of the book, you've been taken from the first tentative steps of colonization to the opening act of a Revolution. In between are falling space elevators, assassinations, massacres and long life courtesy of science and industry. The novel is an epic in every sense of the word. If you want to see the debates of tomorrow today, read this book. If you want to read about zero-g sex, read the first 50 pages of this book. If you want to see giant transforming robots destroying wee space probes, don't read this book.
Dune's stock in SF circles goes up and down over the years, but it remains my favorite book to date. Forget the movies (but watch the mini-series, it's really rather good) and just read the book. Most SF tends to treat religion with contempt when it's not dismissing it out of hand, but Dune bucks that trend by making religion as important in his world as it is in ours. I'm not a religious person myself, but you'd be hard-pressed to find any human society devoid of religious or spiritual beliefs. It's utter nonsense to believe that humanity, barring radical genetic engineering, would simply cast-off or "outgrow" religion and embrace Reason wholesale. It seems more like wishful thinking on the part of authors than an honest assessment of the human condition. Luckily, Dune incorporates religion into the very fabric of society, which gives it a deep, earthy texture in a genre that's often cold and cerebral.
The rise of Paul Atreides as Messiah of Arrakis' (Dune's) Fremen is the heart of the story, but what really makes it great is the mix of politics and religion, manipulation (both religious and environmental), and oil's sf stand-in: Spice. It's got great bad guys in the Harkonnens, worm-riding, and words like Kwisatz Hadderach. What more could you want? A word of warning: don't buy the newer Dune books by Herbert's son and Kevin J. Anderson. Atrocious crap, those. They make the Honor Harrington series look like Shakespeare.
Anyway, those are my favorite SF books. If you have any, feel free to tell the rest of the class.
Paul believes that sometimes the best stories don't come on the teevee.