The best literary science fiction

Theodore Irvin Silar Author Of Sex Quests: Two Tales of Futures Possible
By Theodore Irvin Silar

The Books I Picked & Why

The Quantum Thief

By Hannu Rajaniemi

The Quantum Thief

Why this book?

It is a truism that Science Fiction dates itself. SF stories that were written only a few years previous often fail to foresee technological innovations ̶ cell phones, GPS, gene-splicing ̶ that seem obvious and inevitable to hindsight-blessed present-day readers. Those disconcerted by such, let us call them “backwards anachronisms,” should find Quantum Thief a welcome relief for decades to come, because the novel is set so far in the future that hi-tech things like, say, cell phones seem quaint curios out of far-distant days of yore. Long-distance communications in Quantum Thief are effected by something more like telepathy (although the word is never used).

“Quantum” is the operative term in this novel, make no mistake.

Be forewarned: Quantum Thief is chock-full of coined terminology. But have no fear. You have a choice. Either use the online glossary - or you can just read for the story and absorb the terms by osmosis (as my mother used to say). Plan B worked well for me.

I found it interesting that the plot did not boil down into good guys vs. bad guys. No, many different entities and groups and factions and individuals jockey for control and/or freedom from control in this novel. Who is the good guy and who is the bad guy becomes very hard to tell.

Over and above all the conceptual grist to chew on, Quantum Thief tells a compelling story, full of love affairs, machinations, surprises, double- and triple- and quadruple-crosses, action. And there are sequels!


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Red Mars

By Kim Stanley Robinson

Red Mars

Why this book?

The Mars Trilogy attempts to portray, in detail, how Mars colonization might actually go in reality. No Martians, space-worms, Klingons, or ETs. Just normal human beings settling a new land. Many realistic details usually missing from the standard space opera Mars colonization treatment are presented: to terraform or not to terraform being the essential question, giving readers in the process a graduate-level course in terraforming. Soon you’re reeling off Argyre Planitia, Valles de Marineris, Noctis Labirynthus, Olympus Mons like you lived there.

Also, like a Dickens novel, The Mars Trilogy juggles 20 major, and many minor, characters, and covers 200 years, giving readers a chance to slowly get acclimated, to the environment, characters, and issues. At one point, a longevity treatment allows many of the First Hundred settlers to see the entire 200 years through. Which is great, because I never wanted to say goodbye.

I’d recommend The Mars Trilogy as the most comprehensive, realistic narrative of an actual, possible, imaginable colonization of a real, Martian-less Mars I know of. The technology is familiar. No magic transporters or warp drives or Forces Be With Yous. Just bulldozers and computers and genetically engineered algae. And for those more interested in plot, drama, human interaction, it is also a fascinating, intricate, teeming realistic novel portraying human beings in all their flawed glory, from a hundred Martian colonists to millions, a work that in its scope and slow evolution resembles what I would think of as just about the way colonization would go if it really happened.


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Hyperion

By Dan Simmons

Hyperion

Why this book?

Interesting to read a pretty hard-core science fiction novel like Hyperion that injects English-major-type things into the science. Poetry crops up, the main character is a poet, but more to the point, Hyperion‘s structure is the Canterbury Tales'. Moreover, poet John Keats ̶ that is, a re-animated simulacrum of John Keats ̶ is a character. The book’s title, in fact, comes from his poem, Hyperion.

Religion abounds, as in A Canticle for Liebowitz, but Canticle is post-apocalyptic, and religion is to be expected in regressing societies. In Hyperion, however, though Earth has been destroyed, technologically advanced colonists carry old and new religions into the stars. Why? Rumors, evidence of the truth of religion found on various planets.

The strangest new religion is the Shrike Church. The pilgrim/narrators are off to the planet Hyperion to see the Shrike, a god or monster or automaton from the future that kills indiscriminately.

As in Quantum Thief, Hyperion has many factions. The reader’s perception of Hyperion’s characters and factions becomes more nuanced and equivocal as more information is revealed.

Environmental exploitation is rife. (John Muir is another writer referenced.) Installation of a farcaster portal (a transporter beam, for you Star Trek fans), like a logging trail cut into jungle, guarantees a deluge of tourists, oil-drillers, hucksters, colonists. Sounds familiar.

Hyperion has something for everybody: English-major stuff for the English majors, scientific stuff for science buffs, romance for romantics, action for action/adventure fanatics, and plenty of plot for those who like a good ripping yarn.


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A Canticle for Leibowitz

By Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Why this book?

A Canticle for Leibowitz always makes the top ten. Well-written, funny, complex, profound, exciting, non-fans of SF like it as much as fans,

In WWII Miller helped bomb Monte Cassino monastery. ACFL, in expiation, is infused with Catholicism. Interestingly, Monte Cassino has been destroyed and rebuilt many times ̶ just as civilizations in ACFL are.

I particularly like where characters misinterpret inadequately-digested knowledge. Bernard Berenson said, after reading Fahrenheit 451, that Bradbury should write about how the book-memorizers would garble everything. ACFL is full of garbling. "This–it wasn't like this at all!" cries the monk, Brother Francis.

Written in the 1950s, when nuclear war threatened (why not now?), ACFL begins after a nuclear war. Outraged people burn books and murder the learned. Leibowitz, a monk, preserves books for posterity (as Dark Age monks did).

Characterization is complex, satirical, rounded: no saints, ogres, just flawed human beings. Particularly funny: the Abbot says to stumblebum Brother Francis after his finding the Leibowitz papers, "You are seventeen and plainly an idiot, are you not?" and he answers, “That is undoubtedly true, m'Lord.” Shades of Good Soldier Švejk.

ACFL’s style is so much better than average SF, erudite, not arcane, poetic, not rhetorical, inspired by the King James Bible.

I heartily recommend A Canticle for Leibowitz if you like excellent style and strong, memorable characterization. After reading it, an oceanic feeling washed over me, contemplating how history accretes through time, how the most insignificant lives telescope into a span of centuries.


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Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel

By Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel

Why this book?

As with A Canticle for Leibowitz, prisoner-of-war Kurt Vonnegut's WWII experiences inspired 20-years-in-the-making Slaughterhouse-Five. He survived a bombing raid on Dresden that killed 25,000 to 135,000. With SH5, he brought the forgotten Dresden story back into public consciousness.

Part of SH5 tells of Vonnegut’s surviving the bombing. The absurd SF part seems be to help Vonnegut to philosophize about his experience. For example, a plot of a novel by fictional character SF writer Kilgore Trout:

Trout, incidentally, had written a book about a money tree. . . . It attracted human beings who killed each other around the roots and made very good fertilizer.

So it goes.

“So it goes” recurs often, expressing the hopelessness of trying to make sense of the senseless.

Not that SH5 is grim. Post-modernist, with its self-reference, author’s intrusions, fragmented story, SH5 is nevertheless very funny.

Funny images: hero Billy Pilgrim in blue curtain, silver-painted boots, and fur-collared jacket; aliens stealing barca-loungers to furnish Billy’s zoo cage.

Funny tag-lines:

There was a soft drink bottle on the windowsill. Its label boasted that it contained no nourishment whatsoever. . . .

Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected. . . .

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.

I believe everyone should read SH5. It is the quintessential American novel of hope amidst despair. It may be the last (and arguably the best) great American novel of WWII.


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