Whatcha been readin’?

Since the pandemic started I’ve been leaning harder into setting wind-down time in the evening aside specifically for reading, and as a result have made my way through around twenty-seven books in the last eighteenish months. A couple of these were re-reads, but of the new ones I’ve compiled a couple of highlights below:

THE NAME OF THE WIND / THE WISE MAN’S FEAR — Patrick Rothfuss

Wonderfully written “traditional” fantasy with one of the best modern voices in the style, imbued full of wonder, intelligence and a deep love of the genre by its author. The only problem being that the third book is close to a decade past due with no release date in sight so while I highly recommend the first two books they come with the caveat that you’ll be joining the ranks of disappointed fans stuck waiting for a conclusion.

CIBOLA BURN (THE EXPANSE) — James S.A. Corey

The best modern sci-fi series, hands down. I read this, the fourth book, as a refresher for season five of the show last December. Book five will be the same for season six at the end of this year and then I’ll be able to read the last three without fear of spoilers. It’s less complicated than it sounds. I rave about this series a lot, it’s got everything.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE — Kurt Vonnegut

One of my all-time favourite books got a graphic novel adaptation that both serves its source beautifully while also bringing its own flavour and style. Probably better appreciated if you’ve read the original novel, but nonetheless a worthwhile pickup.

THE THREE BODY PROBLEM — Cixin Liu

Heady, cerebral sci-fi that’s both wildly imaginative and coldly mathematical. Considered one of the greatest novels of the modern era and for good reason — a slowly unfolding scope puts its vision on timescales akin to masterwork Foundation while making the human elements much more compelling. Currently reading the sequel, The Dark Forest.

RAYBEARER — Jordan Ifueko

African magical realism via YA, with political intrigue thrown in for good measure. The world is incredibly distinct and well realised, and this is just the first in a series well worth following.

THE DISPOSSESSED — Ursula K LeGuin

An anarchist physicist is brought to a Capitalist society so that he can realise his great unifying theory, but quickly becomes disillusioned with the falsity and exploitive nature of their culture. Hard biting political commentary draped in planetary science-fiction and social satire. It’s dense, but it’s faaaaaaar ahead of its time.

DAWN — Octavia E Butler

After the world ends, aliens abduct a small handful of surviving humans to help them rebreed and repopulate, but this also means intermingling their DNA with their new benefactors. Very strange, and also the first in a trilogy. I plan to come back to see where it goes, this first one was great.

DOCTOR SLEEP — Stephen King

How do you follow up something as iconic as The Shining? With pretty much exactly this book. Explores other creatures from King’s multiverse, while tying it back to the Overlook and the Shine in new and satisfying ways. Adult Danny might not have the same problems as his father but hooboy does he have troubles of his own.

HOUSE OF X / POWERS OF X — Hickman, Larraz, Silva, Gracia

Fantastic recalibration of the X-Men universe by way of a looping time cycle, a living island and multiple possible realities (most of which end in some variation of terrible apocalypse). Makes mutantkind feel fresh and new again, full of big ideas, which is an impressive feat. The main problem is that it immediately sprawls out into half a dozen plotlines so I have no idea how to follow up from this collection, but as a standalone “reboot” of the X-Men this was great.

THE IMMORTAL HULK — Ewing, Bennett, Garbett, Hotz

Similarly, this run takes the concept of the Hulk and turns it into a Cronenbergian body horror nightmare. See, Bruce Banner can die, but the Hulk is immortal and no matter what you do to the man the monster will always come back. It was a brilliant move to take this character and make him terrifying, and the series looks like it’s only getting darker.

JURASSIC PARK / THE LOST WORLD— Michael Crichton

Pulp fiction at its best. I first read these twenty-five years ago and somehow still remembered every detail like I’d read them just last week. Quite a tonal departure from the first film and far more critical of the Capitalist aspects of genetic patenting. The second book and film are almost completely unrelated aside from a few character appearances. Still, easy to understand why they were so popular, I blew through the two of them inside a week.

“VALIS” — Philip K Dick (1981)

Reality it that which, once you stop believing in it, does not go away.” — PKD, Valis, 1981

Having been an ardent fan of Philip K Dick for most of my lifetime, it actually took me quite a while to get around to VALIS amongst his catalogue of work. If I had arrived at it earlier, certainly it would have coloured much of my perception of the man going on to his other stories, because I’m now utterly convinced that this is where he went off the rails. The first in a series of novels that he never completed due to his death prior to the release of BLADE RUNNER – an adaptation of his vastly superior novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? – perhaps I’m selling the story short overall given that the complete narrative has not and will not ever have a chance to come full circle.

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Odyssey, Anxiety and “THE RISE OF ENDYMION” – Dan Simmons (1997)

Of all the (now 23) novels that I’ve absorbed by audiobook in the past six months, none has had such serendipitous timing with other events in my life as THE RISE OF ENDYMION, the last in a series of four within Dan Simmons’ HYPERION universe. Just a quick clarification on that: HYPERION (CANTOS) and THE FALL OF HYPERION are a single, self-contained story told across the first pair of novels, while ENDYMION and THE RISE OF ENDYMION are their own complete story across a second pair that are set several centuries in the universe’s future that both function as a more traditional Hero’s Journey/Monomyth-type tale but also augments, alters, informs and reveals larger truths and obscurities behind the previous two novels’ tellings. There are innumerable resonant quotes throughout all four of the HYPERION books on life, death, immortality, love, vengeance, resurrection, trust, faith, truth, time, evolution, technology, humanity, inhumanity, myth, poetry, fable, story and all the spaces in between – it’s impossible to drop a single one without wanting to cross-reference it with a dozen more. I will hardly even touch on the actual journey of Raul Endymion, Aenea, the android A. Bettik, the fantastic Shrike (the truth of which we finally learn in twist of irony so poignant to certain characters in the series that even uttering that much verges on spoilers) or the host of other characters pursuing and aiding them, including a monstrous “woman” so brilliantly, threateningly beyond-Terminator-esque as to give even the legendary Shrike a run for its money.

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Don’t Panic: “ENDYMION”/”THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY”

Twenty-two books down on audiobook alone since October last year! Hot damn, that seems like a lot…

I was intending to write up Dan Simmons’ ENDYMION last night as I finished around halfway through the work shift, but alas I managed to be under a wall of boxes when it came down and took a solid thump to the head so spent the rest of the night in a mild, headachey daze, and really didn’t have the brain function to cobble a sentence together. Tonight, my phone mysteriously erased the sequel, RISE OF ENDYMION, from my library so instead I had to look into my backup supply of audiobooks and managed to get through the entirety of the first HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY in its place, so now it’s a double-up!

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“FALL OF HYPERION” – Dan Simmons (1990)

Shrikes are passerine birds of the family Laniidae. The family name, and that of the largest genus, Lanius, is derived from the Latin word for “butcher”, and some shrikes are also known as “butcher birds” because of their feeding habits –  known for catching insects and small vertebrates and impaling their bodies on thorns, the spikes on barbed-wire fences or any available sharp point. This helps them to tear the flesh into smaller, more conveniently-sized fragments, and serves as a cache so that the shrike can return to the uneaten portions at a later time. — Wikipedia

It’s something of a tricksy task trying to analyse the sequel to HYPERION, in that it’s not so much a sequel to what has almost instantly become my favourite sci-fi novel ever as it is a continuation of the story picking up immediately from the pilgrims’ arrival at the Time Tombs on the titular planet at the very end of the first book. So really, the two should be viewed as a single story in two parts and ideally I’d have thus reviewed them together, but there’s jsut so much to each of them in their own right as well that it was certainly wiser to do it in halves. Eschewing the Canterbury Tales structure of the previous volume, THE FALL OF HYPERION is not more about the groups’ individual reasons for coming to the planet to ask The Shrike for a single wish as it is the story of what those wishes are and the consequences they will come to have for all of existence.

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“HYPERION” – Dan Simmons (1989)

Working on a lot of script things over the years, one question that’s often come up in my mind is: “If you could adapt one series from whatever medium into film or television, what would it be?” And quite simply, it’s HYPERION. Standing as it does at #15 on the Top 100 Sci-Fi Novels Of All Time, and as such in the company of certified masterpieces, even still it leapt out at me for it’s incredibly rich and beautiful imagery, horrifying and literary language (the poet Keats is recognised as a huge influence on Simmons, and his presence is felt throughout the tale in more ways than one), and a Canturbury Tales style use of chaptered storytelling that weaves any kind of fantastical science-fiction together into a sprawling, faceted gorgeous story of stories, each stranger and more impressive than the last. Concepts and themes I’ve loved on other novels and films are here condensed and interwoven into a much larger whole. Perhaps its only flaw is that it ends on a total cliffhanger that picks up in THE FALL OF HYPERION – which I haven’t read just yet but plan to as soon as is humanly possible. I feel a real urgency to continue experiencing the tale that I have seldom have grab me so thoroughly, so as far as reviews go I can hardly lavish much more praise upon it without seeming facetious. Consider that my glowing recommendation.

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“THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE” – Niven & Pournelle (1974)

A thief was on trial before the Sultan and sentenced to death. He asked the Sultan to spare his life.
“You don’t know it, but I am the greatest teacher in your land. If you spare my life, I promise to teach your horse to sing hymns.”
The Sultan smirked but accepted the offer. “You have a year, and if the horse cannot sing, you will be killed.”
Daily, after that, the thief spent his time singing hymns to the horse. His friends laughed as they saw him and asked what he hoped to accomplish.
“Many things can happen in a year,” the thief told them. “The Sultan may die, the horse may die, I may even die. Or, maybe the horse will learn how to sing.”

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“A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ” – W.M. Miller Jr (1960)

canticle (from the Latin canticulum, a diminutive of canticum, “song”) is a hymn, psalm or other song of praise taken from biblical texts other than the Psalms.

The divide of Church vs State has been around since approximately forty-five seconds after the rise of churches and/or states (whichever came latter), and to this day remains a touchy subject in a realm of touchy subjects. Don’t talk about politics or religion over the dinner table, someone’s parents have echoed throughout time, but Walter M. Miller’s A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ doesn’t so much focus on the aggressive dichotomy so much as it broadens the scope to tell how each shapes the other in turn, and how the results become neither and both. As each side tries to co-opt the discovery of articles relating to Saint Leibowitz (an engineer in the time immediately proceeding the Great Flame Deluge/Third World War of Atomics) Miller looks at the ways that various sociopolitical factions approach information and fact, and tailor it to their own agendas as humanity first crawls out of a new Dark Age to a new technological Renaissance and in doing so reawakens knowledge of destructive power so vast that it threatens to break the cycle of societal/historical recurrence and technological progress/regress to eradicate mankind altogether. Mostly set within the development of the Order of Saint Leibowitz, traditional religion is forefront – much language being derived from the Latin employed by the Roman Catholic Church – though for the most part they are portrayed as more centrist-atheistic and institutionally focussed in practice. Primarily, this is divided into three sections of the book, each a little over a half-millennium apart:

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“SNOW CRASH” – Neal Stephenson (1992)

It’s hard to look at anything based on cyberpunk ethos and not immediately draw comparisons to William Gibson, but I’ll be damned if Neal Stephenson hasn’t written the finest Gibson novel Gibson never wrote. SNOW CRASH is the quintessential 90s imagining of The Future complete with tech skateboards ridden by young Kouriers delivering data packages for the mafia, street-punk lingo, katana-wielding pizza deliverymen, Moby Dick references, a fantastic antagonist, hard-wired physical technology and detailed descriptions of “The Metaverse” – that is, The Internet That Is Still Yet To Come. I really love the optimism of the 80s/90s cyberpunk authors in the timing of evolving technology, they always expect fantastical things to arrive much sooner than real-world development actually manages but more often than not their predicitvity is more hit than miss. For one thing, this novel came out three years before the ACTUAL rise of the internet and it’s this prophetic imagination that really draws me into science-fiction. In fact, the very nature of futurist writing comes itself to inform a lot of the ways that technology is understood and grown within a society, often working as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy (again, Gibson comes up a LOT in this area, essentially precursing the entirety of the online culture and technology in 1984’s NEUROMANCER), and SNOW CRASH is absolutely exceptional in its true realm of investigation: the correlation between the “hardware” of a human mind and the “software” of language that functions as a kind of BIOS (built-in operating system), and that of the computers we are creating and connecting ourselves to in more and more complex ways. Predicted elements include online avatars, Google Earth, cyberterrorism and personal data hacking.

Side note: Hiro Protagonist is the bestworst lead character name time of all time.

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“THE FOREVER WAR” – Joe Haldeman (1974)

One of the small concessions of the day job I’m currently working to save for overseas is the ability to keep an earbud piping things into my brain for the five or six hours of repetitive labour. Currently, the weapon of choice is a number of audiobook titles in the Top 100 Science Fiction Novels of All Time that I haven’t yet had time to get to reading, so the exercise is turning out to be an immensely satisfying two-birds-one-stone kind of venture. Over the Xmas period I managed to get through the entirety of Frank Herbert’s millennia-spanning DUNE series, Stephen King’s magnum opus THE DARK TOWER (the final/middle book read by the author himself), and Thomas Pynchon’s GRAVITY’S RAINBOW. Each of these is a lengthy dissection in itself, and I may yet wheel around for them but I wanted to open on something fresh. For those who have yet to read any of the titles I’ll do in this fashion, I’ll endeavour to stick to themes, context and concept in discussion in order to spare the gratifying twists in plot in all but necessary strokes that a reader/listener would want to experience first hand. So, “review” is perhaps inaccurate, especially considering all of these are widely regarded already as being masterpieces and the world doesn’t need one more arrogant blogger throwing around his spare change on the matter.

First up, Joe Haldeman’s 1974 novel “THE FOREVER WAR”, listed as #21.

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