Friday, June 3, 2022

H G Wells

 Imaginary Interviewer: Well, now we're on to one of the biggies, HG Wells. What can you tell me about him?

Humble Writer: Wells is indeed one of the biggest names in science fiction. Along with Jules Verne, he developed some of the most popular types of science fiction stories. 

II: Kind of invented them?

HW: Uh...that's not quite how I'd put it. Other people may have written stories about time travelers, for instance, but virtually every time travel story of today owes more to 'The Time Machine' than they do to any earlier work. 

II: His work is that revered?

HW: Without a doubt. Not only because other writers were influenced by him, but also because so many people read him that the value of science fiction, as a genre, was proved. 

II: And what are you reading this month?

HW: We're reading 'The Time Machine', the tale of a time traveler who has built his own time machine and used it...perhaps unwisely. 

II: What else should we know about Wells?

HW: His works are often political in nature, sometimes in a way that isn't obvious to us now because the political discussions have moved on. He was a Socialist, but that term in Great Britain in the 1890s simply didn't mean that same thing that it does now. If he were around today, he would almost certainly be left of center, but I'd hesitate to pin him down more than that. 

II: Have you read any of his work before?

HW: I've read his biggest works, 'The Time Machine', 'War of the Worlds' and 'The Invisible Man'. I've read a large chunk of his 'The Outline of History' but that was a while ago and I don't remember it anymore. 

II: Enjoyable?

HW: Oh yes, I think so. I mean, his writing is 19th century, so be prepared for long paragraphs of text. But he's a very good writer and he makes it work. I remember preferring 'War of the Worlds' to 'The Time Machine' but I don't know how that memory will stand up. 

II: Anything else?

HW: This is one of the shorter works that we'll read. So if you don't enjoy it, at least it won't take that long!  

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Richard Adams

 Imaginary Interviewer: Who is the next author that you'll be reading?

Humble Writer: Next up is Richard Adams, and his novel 'Watership Down'. 

II: Have you read it before?

HW: I have. I read it sometime in the past decade but I don't remember much about it. Only that it involves rabbits and is not a warm and cuddly book at all. 

II: Not cuddly? 

HW: No. It's a very Tolkienesque story that involves a group of rabbits. They're on a quest and they face dangers. The world of rabbits is shown to have very vicious elements. 

II: And it reminds you of Tolkien?

HW: Well, most modern 'quest' books have Tolkien to thank in some part, so yes. This one also has a fairly developed rabbit culture, complete with defined words and concepts that are created as if by rabbits. 

II: Was Adams a Tolkien fan? 

HW: I don't know. After browsing the internet, I can see that I'm not the only one to make the connection, but I don't see any strong evidence either way. 

II: What about Adams other work?

HW: Per Wikipedia, I can see that after 'Watership Down' Adams became a writer and published quite a bit. I don't recognize any of the other titles but that could obviously be my own limitation. I don't see any awards given by science fiction or fantasy groups, so it doesn't look like he had much of a legacy there. Interestingly enough, 'Watership Down' won some awards for children's books. I don't really see it in that category. 

II: But 'Watership Down' is popular?

HW: Yes, very much so. It was a worldwide best seller when it was published. There was a film version and a couple of television versions. It inspired a role playing game. It was *big*. 

II: Does it deserve the acclaim?

HW: Yes. It regularly pops up on lists of best books and I remember enjoying it when I read it a few years back. It's a good read and deserves its place on our reading list.  

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Jasper Fforde

 (Sorry this is late!)

Interviewer: Who are we reading next?

Humble Writer: 'The Eyre Affair' by Jasper Fforde.

I: Do you know much about Fforde?

HW: No, nothing really. This is the first time I've read any of his works. Maybe the first time I've heard of him. 

I: His last name is interesting. 

HW: Yes. I love the double F!

I: Is he well known in writing circles?

HW: I don't really know. Looking at the Wikipedia page, I don't see a lot of awards or nominations. He did write something that was turned into a TV show, which is a nice accomplishment. 

I: What do you think of the book?

HW: 'The Eyre Affair' is really interesting! It's kind of madcap in the English way, with alternate history, time travel and a world bustling with literary awareness. In many ways it feels like a Dirk Gently story, from the (sadly short) detective series written by Douglas Adams.

I: How do you mean?

HW: Well, you've got a mystery, or at least a crime, that needs to be solved. Nothing travels in a straight line and yet it somehow all makes sense. 

I: So you'd recommend it?

HW: Yes. Unreservedly yes. There are some literary references that will help you though I don't know how needful they are. 

I: Like what?

HW: The main story has quite a bit to do with the novel 'Jane Eyre'. I've read it, but I don't remember much of the particulars of the story. 'The Eyre Affair' clued me in on what I needed to know without feeling clunky or boring. Similarly, there is a plot point about a Dickens novel, 'Martin Chuzzlewit'. I've never read it, but I didn't feel lost about it either.

I: Overall summation?

HW: It's a light and enjoyable read. Perfect holiday fare.  

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Classical Status Takes Time

 I'm currently working my way through this list of the top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy novels of all time. The task of narrowing down two fields like that is a daunting one and by no means do I treat NPR's effort as a definitive one. As a way of further understanding what should actually be at the top, I've been paying attention to other, similar lists. While the first list is driven by a wide poll, this list here (top 100 Science Fiction) has been put together by a smaller group. Yet another list came to my attention this week, a top 50 science fiction one, which is here

The latest list is brand new, having come out in the past week. The Stacker one is from 2020. The NPR list, which started this all, is from 2011. I think they illustrate an interesting thing when it comes to recency bias. (Please note: none of this is meant as criticism of the lists or list makers.) 

The two later lists, Stacker and Esquire, both came out about the same time. Esquire has 14 (out of 50) titles come from the decade before it the list was published. Stacker has 23 (out of 100). Only eight pieces overlap. This is where I'd start with if I was trying to determine the best of the 2010's. If you're curious, they are:

  • This is How You Lose the Time War
  • Rosewater
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts
  • The Long Way to a Small and Angry Planet
  • The Fifth Season
  • Three Body Problem
  •  Annihilation
  • Station Eleven
Stacker had 15 books that didn't make the cut on Esquire's list. That includes two of their top ten, 'Ancillary Justice' at #9 and 'The Martian' at #2. (I've read 'The Martian' and it's excellent.) Four of Esquire's titles in that time span, weren't highly regarded by Stacker, though none of them were in Esquire's top half. Again, all of these books may be excellent, but apparently they weren't obviously excellent enough to be a consensus pick. 
The books that NPR had in the decade before they published didn't fare any better. Of their 15 books in that range, only one of them, 'Old Man's War', made one of the other lists. This isn't a great comparison, though, because many of the NPR lists are probably more fantasy than science fiction. Some are science fiction and it's interesting that they didn't make the cut for the other lists. 
How about the ones from the 20th century? There we see much more agreement. Of Esquire's 28 such books, only three of them aren't on the other lists. These titles, given more time to think about them, have a much greater degree of consensus about them. 
What I'd love is to see a list where the creators (poll, panel, single author) simply didn't consider any book written in the ten years prior. That would give the reader enough time to really think about each one. They could see which ones other people were talking about. See which ones they wanted to re-read. (Fwiw, I'd like the same thing with movies!)

Interesting (to me at least), is that there are five novels that both Esquire and Stacker liked in the 20th century, that didn't crack the NPR list. I'll be putting these on my personal 'to read' list. They are:
  • Ammonite
  • Re: Colonized Planet 5, Shikasta
  • Dhalgren
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • Solaris
I've read 'A Wrinkle in Time' before, but not the others. In time, I'll fix that.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Kim Stanley Robinson

 [Imaginary Interviewer] Our next work is 'Red Mars' by Kim Stanley Robinson.

[Humble Writer, i.e. Me] Yes. Well, perhaps the entire Mars trilogy but just the first one for our purposes.

II: Have you read his work before?

HW: I've read the Mars trilogy all the way at least once. I've read the first, 'Red Mars' several times. 

II: What's it about?

HW: It's about sending people to Mars, to stay. The book is on two tracks really, one about the technical details in terraforming the planet. This part of the writing is consistently excellent. A layman, like myself, can feel like they understand the general gist of everything that's being done. You get the sense that if we ever do change the planet Mars, it will look a lot like Robinson's writing.

II: And the other part?

HW: The other track is about the human interaction side. This can probably be divided into two parts, as well. One side is how the specific people chosen for the initial expedition relate to each other. This is very political, in the sense of "office politics" but also in the sense of "strong, differing ideas on what the future should hold". This is also excellent and consistently compelling. 

II: And the other part of that?

HW: Robinson writes about the economics that would go along with creating a new planet. This is ambitious but not as convincing. Some of it is that Robinson is further left than I, the Humble Writer. Some of it is that the engineering, as a science, is very good and the economics, as a science, is just less so. The reader doesn't feel like "yes, this is what will happen."

II: Would you recommend the book? Or books?

HW: The first book, yes. The series is interesting, and if you like the first one, you'll be interested in continuing to see where the story goes. But the second and third books are not as good. The engineering fades into the background. The economics get more time. This isn't a great trade-off. 

II: That's a lot of pages...

HW: Yes. I'd suggest that a reader try the first 200 or so pages (through 'The Crucible' section.) If you're not interested by then, set it down. I enjoyed the rest quite a bit, but it's hard to ask someone to commit to hundreds more if they aren't enjoying it.

II: Is Robinson well respected in SF?

HW: Oh yes, quite a bit. A couple of Hugo Awards (for Green Mars and Blue Mars, though really those are proxies for Red Mars). Some lifetime awards. Very well respected.

II: Have you read any of his other works? 

HW: I've tried 'The Years of Rice and Salt', which imagines the world if the Black Death had killed virtually everyone in Europe, instead of half the population. I can't seem to get more than a 100 or so pages in before losing interest. Probably my fault. 

II: Anything else?

HW: 'Red Mars' is a great book and I hope everyone will give it a look!

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Ray Bradbury

[Imaginary Interviewer] Another month and another new author for us. This January, we'll be reading 'The Illustrated Man' by Ray Bradbury. Have you read it before?

[Humble Writer, i.e. me] I haven't. I've read some other Bradbury but not this one.

II: What else have you read?

HW: His most famous novel is 'Fahrenheit 451' and I've read that several times. I don't think I've read any of this other works. He shows up multiple times on our list, though, so we'll cover a number of his works.

II: What else is on there? 

HW: Well, 'Fahrenheit 451' is there, #7 on the list. There is also 'The Martian Chronicles' and 'Something Wicked This Way Comes'. I don't really know much about any of them.

II: Science Fiction or Fantasy writer?

HW: I don't know that he really bothered with that distinction. In what little I've read, he didn't concern himself with scientific fact but he also didn't include magical things. He seemed much more interested in setting up a specific setting or situation, so that he could tell a story about a specific problem. As a reader, I wouldn't spend too much time on questions of realism.

II: What do you mean?

HW: Well, if you concentrate on something like "that's not how conditions on Mars would be!" then you miss out on the point of the story. As a reader, we often have to meet the author midway and accept *something* for the story to work. That's true of Bradbury.

II: Was he well regarded?

HW: Enormously so. Possibly more so than the Big Three of science fiction, because he largely broke away to a larger audience. 'Fahrenheit 451' is universally thought of as one of the best works of American literature. 

II: Anything else we should know?

HW: I feel a little badly that I don't know much about him. If anyone else has something to share here, it would be most welcome!

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Isaac Asmiov

 The book for December is Isaac Asimov's 'I, Robot'. What should we know about Asimov?

He was born in 1920 in the Soviet Union. His family emigrated to the United States a few years later and ran a series of candy shops. He credits the newspapers and magazines that were sold there for his lifelong love of reading and learning. He started writing in 1939. Short stories at first, and later full length novels. Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, publishing literally hundreds of books. 

Mostly science fiction?

He's most well known for his science fiction, but he wrote a ton of non-fiction books as well. I've got his guide to Shakespeare, and it is an incredible resource of the history of the plays, as well as the terms and situations that happen in the writing.

But, he's well known for the science fiction?

Extremely. Asimov is one of the Big Three of science fiction, the other two being Arthur C Clarke and Robert Heinlein. The three of them dominated science fiction sales in the 40s and 50s. Asimov's two most famous series are the Robot stories and the Foundation Series (which we'll eventually get to.)

Are they good?

They're both very good. The Foundation Trilogy is ranked 8th on NPR's list. 'I, Robot' is ranked 16th. Each of them is a collection of short stories that Asimov wrote over a period of time. The Robot stories are shorter than the Foundation ones. Almost all of them are plotted as solving a mystery of some sort. I personally prefer the Foundation stories, but it's not a strong preference.

Is there anything we should know about 'I, Robot'?

This is where Asimov created his famous Three Rules of Robotics. These control how robots operate around humans and each other. The stories usually involve some difficulty in how the robots interpret these rules. It's fun for the reader to try and outguess the author. My record of doing so is very poor. Asimov is much, much smarter than I am.

What else should we know?

Asimov's novel, 'Caves of Steel' belong to his Robot stories. This is number 94 on the list, so we'll get to it eventually.