I am the worst kind of sci-fi fan: the kind who has watched all of it and read none of it. At some point in 2013 I got tired of trying to care about Farscape and Mass Effect, and tried to start a loosely organized book club. In the end it was mostly me and Todd Bailey, with occasional guest appearances by BJ Warshaw (from Parts & Labor) and Tom Martin (also from Parts & Labor, and Hunters), but it was good fun, and made me feel like 10% less of a fake nerd. Here’s what I read:
Stranger in a Strange Land
Robert A. Heinlein, 1961
The hugely popular story of man raised by martians, who teaches the people of earth to love each other and have threesomes. There are so many ideas flying around in this book it’s easy to see why people found things to like, and why it fit well with ’60s counterculture, but it also made me want to vomit several times. It’s intermittently racist, sexist and homophobic beyond the standard lazy classic sci-fi tropes. The helpful martian’s teachings enable his girlfriend to understand that “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault.” Fuck this guy. Read Left Hand of Darkness.
Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. Le Guin, 1969
Yes, I am a clown for only including one female writer in here, and one of the most well-known ones. This book is beautiful, and tied with A Canticle For Leibowitz for best/saddest. The idea is that a human astronaut bro visits a planet where partners choose their sexual role/organs at each mating cycle. The speculation as to what that would mean is deep, as is the exploration of the rest of the culture.
Orson Scott Card, 1985
The fucked up part about Ender’s Game is that it’s really touching. Many people have discussed this better than I, but it can easily be read as an elaborate set up to justify genocide (by children), or maybe not. It gets by, in my opinion, because its intention feels ambiguous. I can’t even tell if that ambiguity is what the (notorious bigoted asshole) author intended. It also has some true beautiful weirdness in the form of the psychedelic video games the kids play, and some genuinely touching shit about the relationship between siblings. Please note that I took this one out of the library. Don’t give that guy your money, don’t read the sequels (so I’m told by Todd), and don’t ever watch the movie. Fuck this guy.
Isaac Asimov, 1951
Written as short stories in the 1940s, Foundation comes with hilarious references to coal-powered spaceships and cool space dudes smoking cigars all the time, but for the most part just chugs along laying out the galaxy-sized blueprint for anything epic and sci-fi to come. Todd read all the sequels, but I was content to just check this one off and move on. It jumps ahead a generation or so each chapter, and feels slow and huge at all times.
Robert A. Heinlein, 1959
See Stranger in a Strange Land for my thoughts on this guy. Troopers is way more military and streamlined than Stranger. It’s also boring. It might just be so influential on military sci-fi that I’m unable to see it as interesting in 2015, but I barely remember what happens other than zippy high-powered space armor. It bares only a passing resemblance to Paul Verhoeven’s bonkers film adaptation, which I recommend over the book in a heartbeat.
A Canticle For Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller Jr., 1960
Very beautiful, occasionally funny, and so epically sad it’s a hard sell, but you should read it. Leibowitz is composed of loosely connected tales of a monastery scraping by in post apocalyptic North America. Highlights include an illuminated manuscript of a circuit board, and the complicated process of baptizing someone with two heads. Easily my favorite prose of any of these books. It’s the only novel Miller ever wrote, and he apparently took his own life half way through a sequel, decades later.
Dave Eggers, 2013
I kinda liked this one up until I hated it. A solid episode of Black Mirror with a baffling Scooby Doo mask-tear-off ending staple gunned to the last page. I found myself uncomfortably falling in line with the protagonist’s slow-growing belief that we’d all be better people with constant social-media surveillance, which made it great until M Night Shyamalan showed up. Technically not part of book club, since nobody else wants to read this shit.
Dan Simmons, 1989
Tons of rad imagery and ideas: spaceships that are also trees, beings and objects that only travel backwards through time, and massive seas of grass. But the ones that stick in my memory are generally not the best. There’s some terrible, yucky sex scene writing, and (SPOILER ALERT) an ending centered around the singing of “We’re off to see the wizard”. There’s been talk of a movie, and I kind of think I’ll like it better.
The Forever War
Joe Haldeman, 1974
Written by a Vietnam war vet, this one follows a solider as he travels far away, through wormholes, and back to earth, finding the culture harder to understand each time he returns. It’s touching and odd, and the only clumsiness occurs around the protagonist’s inability to deal with the rise of homosexuality on earth, which doesn’t feel homophobic as much as just needlessly dumbed down in places.
The Dragon Masters
Jack Vance, 1963
The last one I read. Todd burned through a huge a collection by this guy, but I only made it through the first 250 pager. Good story telling with good characters using their dragons to fight aliens with lasers. George R. R. Martin is apparently a big fan. You get the idea. Totally solid, but left me feeling like it’s time to take a break from reading sci-fi for a while.
Feel free to send me suggestions.