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science fiction

Dec 8 2014

The Best Books of 2014

by Jesse M

The MartianLooking for something good to read? It’s that time of year again when organizations begin putting out their lists of the “best books” published over the past twelve months. Over the past week, lists have been released from NPR, Goodreads, and Publishers Weekly, among many others.

I haven’t yet read any recently published books this year, so I’m hoping to rectify that by closing out 2014 with Andy Weir’s The Martian: A Novel, which I have heard described as a MacGyver story set on Mars. Weir initially had difficulty finding a publisher and began putting up the story for free in serial format on his website before eventually releasing a Kindle version at the request of his fans. The Kindle version (which is available through DCPL’s OverDrive collection) quickly rose to the top of Amazon’s list of best-selling science-fiction titles, where it sold 35,000 copies in three months, eventually attracting the interest of publishers. The book debuted on the New York Times Best Sellers list at number 12 in the hardcover fiction category, and a movie adaptation based on the story is slated for release in late 2015.

What were your favorite books published in 2014, and why? If you’re like me and haven’t read any yet, what books published this year are you most interested in?

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Oct 13 2014

Echopraxia

by Jesse M

Echopraxia coverPeter Watts, author of the recently published novel Echopraxia, is one of the luminaries of modern hard science fiction. Drawing on an educational foundation that includes both a Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science as well as a PhD in Zoology and Resource Ecology, Watts has paired his scientific knowledge and creative talents to produce a number of award winning novels and short stories.

His novels have a reputation for being bleak and nihilistic; although, in a recent reddit Q&A session, Watts argues that it isn’t a nihilistic viewpoint so much as one that is informed by his background as a biologist:

I was trained as a biologist. Humans are vertebrates, humans are mammals, and when you take a clade-wide perspective you can’t not notice that we’re all connected by far more than that which separates us. People…assume that anyone who regards us as just another mammal must be a cynic, must be doing it for shock value or trendy points. But I remember whole buildings where everyone had that perspective, and it wasn’t considered grim or nihilistic. It was cool; we were discovering patterns… We were connecting the dots in a global puzzle. It wasn’t depressing. It was exciting.

Echopraxia is the follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2006 novel Blindsight. Like Echopraxia, it takes its title from a neurological condition which serves as a motif for the events of the novel. In Blindsight, Watts takes both common (alien first contact) and uncommon (vampires in space!) science fiction tropes and weaves them into one of the most brilliant hard science fiction novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, a tour de force exploration of the nature of consciousness and its utility for intelligent life.

For those unfamiliar with Watts, or in need of a refresher, I recommend checking out this in-depth guide compiled by a fan. Watts’s website is also worth taking a peek at. Watts has released much of his shorter material for free; I recommended starting with The Island, which won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette in 2010.

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As readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of science fiction.  And as I’ve discussed in a previous post, I also enjoy reading flash fiction, which is usually defined as “fiction of extreme brevity.” In today’s post, I’ll be highlighting not one but two flash science fiction blogs, 30 Second Sci Fi and 365 Tomorrows.

The stories on 30 Second Sci Fi are all courtesy of a single author who began the project as a personal challenge. The rules are that the author must write one new story every day for a year, no longer than 250 words, that is complete in its own right (thus no multi-part stories). A look at the site’s archives shows that the project began back in November of last year.

Unlike 30 Second Sci Fi, 365 Tomorrows is a collaborative project involving multiple authors. The remarkable longevity of the site is probably attributable to this difference; like its fellow flash science fiction blog, it aims to present a new work of science fiction every single day, but it has been doing so since August of 2005. The stories are also a bit longer in terms of word count, with the maximum length set at 600. Another cool feature of 365 Tomorrows is that you can submit your own story for publication on the site.

If you are a fan of science fiction short stories you might also like one of these anthologies available through DCPL!New space opera
The New Space Opera

The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction

The Best of the Best. Volume 2, 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels

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Jun 7 2013

ShareReads: Cryptonomicon

by Jesse M

sharereads_intro_2013

ShareReads - Cryptonomicon coverAs long-term readers of DCPLive know, I am a big fan of the science fiction genre. In past ShareReads posts, I’ve talked about the sub-genres of space opera and cyberpunk, and this year, I am going to discuss a different type of science fiction novel, one that seems to straddle the boundaries between science fiction, historical fiction and techno-thrillers: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.

Unlike some of Stephenson’s other novels, in which the imaginative/speculative element of science fiction is more prominent (such as in the seminal cyberpunk novel Snow Crash or its loosely related “post-cyberpunk” sequel, The Diamond Age), Cryptonomicon features technology that while complex and technical to the layperson isn’t fictional at all. Information security is a major theme of the book, and in-depth asides and descriptions of cryptography and digital espionage techniques such as Van Eck phreaking pepper the narrative. The lengthy story (the paperback version owned by DCPL clocks in at 1152 pages!) is split between two time periods, one circa World War II and the other in the late 1990s, and as the plot evolves the connections between the two storylines become increasingly apparent (in fact, the main protagonists of the latter storyline are direct descendants of the protagonists in the WWII storyline). With the exception of a very few instances in the novel where phenomena seem to occur without any basis or explanation in modern science, Cryptonomicon can be considered to be very hard science fiction. The World War II storyline, while sparing no technical details of the complex struggle between Allied and Axis cryptographers and codebreakers, also features several notable historical figures including Alan Turing and General Douglas MacArthur, placing the book firmly into the category of historical fiction as well.

Fans of Stephenson’s digressive style will love Cryptonomicon, which features informative tangents in spades, from the mechanics and structure of pipe organs to the description of a manual cryptosystem calculated with an ordinary deck of playing cards. Indeed, such asides are a major factor in the book’s appeal. Upon finishing Cryptonomicon, readers looking for something similar should check out Quicksilver and its sequels, which form a sort of prequel to Cryptonomicon (featuring ancestors of the protagonists and shedding light on a few of the unexplained mysteries in Cryptonomicon) and are also written in a digression-heavy style. I also encourage interested readers to pick up a more recent work by Stephenson, Anathem, which although more speculative in nature than Cryptonomicon possesses similar qualities in terms of informative asides.

And if you’ve just finished Cryptonomicon and are feeling like you’ve missed some references, or that a plot point went unexplained, take a look at this site, which offers a good deal of insight into some of the more complex and esoteric references and plot points. But don’t click the link until you’ve completed the story, as there are spoilers aplenty to be wary of.

What are your favorite books that straddle genre boundaries? How do you feel about the digressive writing style that Stephenson so often employs? For the sci-fi enthusiasts out there, would you consider Cryptonomicon to be science fiction? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments.

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Photo credit Matt Keller

Last year, author Neal Stephenson wrote a World Policy Institute article titled Innovation Starvation, in which he argues that science fiction writing can, and should, serve as a model and inspiration for innovators in the real world:

Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

In pursuit of this, Stephenson founded Project Hieroglyph, “a publication, collective conversation and incubator for the ‘moonshot ecosystem’ bringing together writers, scientists, engineers, technologists, industrialists and other creative, synoptic thinkers to collaborate on bold ideas in a protected space for creative play, science, and imagination”. He has also had the pleasure of seeing an idea from one of his books, The Diamond Age, become reality.

[read the rest of this post…]

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Oct 26 2012

Bless Her Heart

by Veronica W

In the movie Steel Magnolias, two middle aged southern women, Clairee and Truvy, are at a wedding reception, watching one of their peers dance. Her “form fitting” dress shows all her curves and extras, in rolling, gyrating splendor.

Truvy: Clairee, you know I’d rather walk on my lips than criticize  anybody…but…Janice Van Meer…

Clairee: I know…

Truvy: I bet you money she’s paid $500 for that dress and doesn’t even bother to wear a girdle.

Clairee: It’s like two pigs fighting under a blanket.

Truvy: Well, I haven’t left the house without Lycra on these thighs since I was 14.

Clairee: You were brought up right.

This movie remains one of my favorites. It gave me an insight into a type of womanhood which I, growing up in my Yankee environment, would never have experienced otherwise. Although my mother was from Richmond, Virginia, there was little, if any, venom in her and she would have considered the above conversation in questionable taste. Then again, she had spent much of her adult life in the icy north.

There are so many books with southern women as main characters that I will only give you books or authors with whom I am personally familiar.  One of my favorite authors is Anne Rivers Siddons, whose Homeplace and Low Country delve into the lives of women returning to their southern roots.  The Secret Life of Bees, Cold Sassy Tree and Saving Grace are also good choices if you want to explore the hearts and minds of Dixie women. For pure fun, read the Miss Julia series by Ann B. Ross.

One of the most intriguing books I ever read was Kindred by Octavia Butler. In the story, a modern day, young African American woman goes back in time to live on a post civil war plantation. Without much warning, the young woman disappears from her current surroundings and reappears on the plantation. Only extreme, life threatening danger brings her back to her current time. On one such trip her husband, who is white, manages to hold onto her and he goes back with her, which causes all kinds of other problems. The premise is a fascinating one and a lot of insight is given into the relationship between black and white southern women.

For non-fiction fans, Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’ is an incredible paean to his Alabama mother, who “went eighteen years without a new dress so that her sons could have school clothes and picked other people’s cotton so that her children wouldn’t have to live on welfare.” It is the story of the “steel” that is not always evident beneath the slow, southern cadence or the often slower, rather deliberate movements of southern women. While I confess that much of my reading involves escapist fiction, I was enthralled by this book.

Two middle aged women sit in the crowded waiting room, their soft, honeyed drawls in big contrast to the litany of faults they obviously found in a mutual acquaintance. I unashamedly eavesdrop, my unread book in my hands.

“Poor thing,” one says with a sigh. “She just can’t seem to get her life straight.” Shaking her head, the other lady tacks onto this final assessment, the benediction “Bless her heart.” I smile to myself. Magnolias in full bloom.

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Aug 10 2012

Sharereads: Fiction and Nonfiction

by Joseph M

ShareReads intro

I’m a voracious reader, and working in the library, I come across interesting books on a regular basis. That being the case, I often find myself reading multiple books at a time. What I’m reading at any given moment depends on the occasion and my mood, and can run the gamut of content and format types. Generally, I find it easier to juggle more than one book at a time when I’m switching primarily between a work of fiction and a work of nonfiction. Earlier this summer, I found myself in just such a situation, dividing my reading time between two great books, which I’m going to talk more about below.

First, the fiction. The novel is called Hunter’s Run, and I found it noteworthy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is a collaborative effort between three authors: George R. R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, and Daniel Abraham. All are notable writers on their own. George R. R. Martin is, among other things, the author of the bestselling Song of Ice and Fire series of books, on which the popular HBO series Game of Thrones is based. Gardner Dozois was the longtime editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine and has won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for his work as a writer and editor of short fiction. Daniel Abraham is a prolific voice in American science fiction, and no stranger to successful collaborations, having penned the lauded epic Leviathan Wakes (unfortunately not yet available at DCPL) with author Ty Franck under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey.

There are many different ways for authors to collaborate on books, and in this case the story took shape over the course of several decades, passing back and forth between the authors and appearing in a number of different variations before publication in its present form in 2007. You can click here for a more detailed summary of the process. In addition to Hunter’s Run, Abraham and Dozois have separately collaborated with Martin on other projects.

But the writing process which created it isn’t the only fascinating thing about Hunter’s Run. It’s a science fiction novel, but with elements reminiscent of Western and Adventure/Exploration genres of literature. In many ways, it could be classified as a Space Western. The sense of a wild frontier is established with a description of the setting: a mostly-unexplored alien planet, settled by human colonists within living memory, and much of the action takes place in the wilderness away from the human communities. A majority of the characters and place names have a Latin American or Caribbean flavor, which also adds to the “Western” feel of the book.

Another aspect of the novel worth mentioning is the main character, Diego Rivera. Diego could definitely be classified as an antihero (and we’ve written about antihero protagonists before on ShareReads) at the start of the story, but he undergoes a fascinating internal transformation as the plot unfolds, providing an interesting counterpoint to his travels in the external world and allowing the authors to explore complex themes of memory, identity, communication, and the ways we are shaped by our experiences.

In addition to all of that, Hunter’s Run is also quite an exciting book, and does not lack for action and suspense; I certainly had trouble putting it down once I got started.

Now I’d like to talk a bit about What I Eat: Around The World In 80 Diets by Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel, the excellent nonfiction work I enjoyed concurrently with the novel discussed above. Peter and Faith are a husband and wife team who have traveled the world and documented the lives of people they met through photography and essays. In previous works such as Material World and Hungry Planet, they arrange “family portraits” based on the theme of the work; all the household possessions of the family were piled together for the portraits in Material World, while in Hungry Planet the families were pictured with a week’s-worth of food. In What I Eat, the authors alter the concept, focusing on the food intake of individuals over the course of a single average day, and using meticulous research to determine a caloric count. In all, 80 individuals were profiled in the book, and are ranked from first to last in order of calories consumed. The result is fascinating, informative, and poignant. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone. For a “taste” of what the book has to offer, you can visit the official website. Or, you can just check it out from your local library!

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Oct 24 2011

Sci-fi Shakespeares

by Jesse M

The poet and playwright William Shakespeare had a dramatic influence on the English language. In the course of producing the many plays, sonnets, and poems which he is now famous for, Shakespeare coined a plethora of new words and phrases (some estimates number in the thousands!), many of which continue to enrich our language and daily discourse hundreds of years later (just a few examples include “seen better days”, “full circle”, and “strange bedfellows”; more available here).

Shakespeare isn’t the only author to become a de facto wordsmith. Over the past century one group of authors have seen concepts, terms, and phrases introduced in their stories adopted by both the scientific and lay communities: Science fiction writers. The SF blog Io9 has compiled a short list of such words; follow this link to take a look. Some commonly used words and phrases sci-fi authors can claim credit for include “robotics”, “genetic engineering”, and “blast off” (introduced by Isaac Asimov, Jack Williamson, and E.E. Smith, respectively).

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Oct 10 2011

The top 100 sci-fi and fantasy books

by Jesse M

Back in June, NPR asked readers of its website to nominate their top five science fiction and fantasy titles. Over 5,000 people responded with nominations. Of those nominees, several hundred were selected as candidates for a slot on the final list, and readers were then asked to vote on their ten favorites. Over 60,000 voters participated and, once all the result were tallied, NPR presented its list of the top 100 sci-fi and fantasy books. The winners are an intriguing mix of classic and contemporary works, diverse in style and subject matter. The number one selection: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The list is an excellent readers’ advisory resource for devotees of sci-fi and fantasy who are looking for something new as well as for individuals interested in exploring one or both genres who don’t really know where to start. If you count yourself part of the latter category, the writers at the science fiction and fantasy blog SF Signal have constructed a flowchart for easy navigation of the top 100 list. You can choose to view the flowchart in one of two ways, either holistically in a large scrollable image or in an interactive format.

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Aug 24 2011

Double lives and new frontiers

by Dea Anne M

August 24th is the birthday of American science fiction author Alice Bradley Sheldon who is better known to the world by her pen name, James Tiptree Jr. Sheldon adopted the pseudonym when she began to publish science fiction around 1967. Her work won quite a bit of acclaim through the years but it wasn’t until 1977  that the public discovered that Tiptree was a woman. Apparently, Tiptree was afraid that her work would suffer negative feedback if her true gender was known and she also seemed to have concerns about exciting the wrong sort of notoriety by being a woman publishing in what had traditionally been a male-dominated genre. In an interview, Tiptree said “I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.” Indeed, Alice Sheldon had been in Air Force photo-intelligence, the CIA, and had received a doctorate in experimental psychology.

Tiptree was a unique stylist who expressed an often dark vision in her fiction. Some of her more famous pieces, such as “The Women That Men Don’t See” and the novella, Houston, Houston Do You Read?,  deal with gender and sexual politics in very interesting and surprising ways. In 1991, science fiction authors Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler established the James Tiptree Jr. Award, an annual prize given to works of science fiction and fantasy that expand or explore our understanding of gender. If you’re in the mood to sample some of these award winners, DCPL has several to choose from. Some of these are:

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (2008), Camouflage by Joe Haldeman (2004), Set This House In Order: a romance of souls by Matt Ruff (2003), Wild Life by Molly Gloss (2000), Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey (1997), The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996), Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand (I highly recommend this one!) and Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Theodore Roszak (both books won in 1995) , Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason (1991), and White Queen by Gwyneth Jones (also 1991).

Would you like to sample Tiptree’s writing for yourself? DCPL has these titles:

Crown of Stars

Byte Beautiful: eight science fiction stories

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever: the great years of James Tiptree Jr.

If you want to learn more about this brilliant and unusual writer and woman, don’t miss James Tiptree Jr.: the double life of Alice B. Sheldon. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly called this book “…a wonder: an even handed, scrupulously documented, objective yet sympathetic portrait of a deliberately elusive personality…”

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