Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Science Fiction: Signs of the Times

I first fell in love with science fiction during my teen years when I became enthralled with imagining what the future will be like. Science fiction seemed to ask the big questions: What makes us human? Where do we fit in the universe? Most of all, it posed the question: What if? What if we could travel to distant stars? What if a creature from another planet landed in your back yard? The possibilities (and plot lines) seemed endless.

Some of the most popular books of all time fall under the category of science fiction: Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984, Dune, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. These have moved into the canon of classics. But is this a genre that time and technology have begun to pass by? Certainly fantasy fiction has risen in popularity and attracted more readers over the last ten years. Obviously we are also now living in a world that seems an awful lot like the plots of some of these famous tales: tourists in space, perpetual surveillance, a deteriorating environment, unusual pathogens, and people drugged with behavior controllers…”

I also have been wondering whether science fiction fans have been reading fewer books as they interact with computers more. The internet and the world of technology have indeed created endless ways to capture our attention. That said, I still think there is value in imagining the future, with all of its infinite possibilities (for good or bad). And besides, there is just too much pleasure to be had from curling up with a good book, especially on a rainy day.

Here are a number of titles that have received starred reviews within the last year:

The Accidental Time Machine (2007) Joe Haldeman. When MIT research assistant Matt Fuller discovers that the quantum force calibrator he is tinkering with actually appears to function as a time machine, he decides to take a short trip into the future. Matt stocks an old car with food and water and takes off. However he doesn’t go quite far enough, as he ends up under arrest for the murder of the car’s original owner, who dropped dead after watching Matt disappear before his eyes.

Cauldron (2007) Jack McDevitt. After a physicist finally produces a star drive that makes previously remote areas of the galaxy within easy reach, a team of explorers’ attempts to take two ships to the center of the galaxy. Along the way they get up close and personal with a black hole, and discover the source of “omega” clouds that have menaced the galaxy for thousands of years.

Firstborn: A Time Odyssey: 3 (2007) Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. Remember the black monolith in the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey? An alien race, the Firstborn, provided this mystical icon at the dawn of civilization. The Firstborn have menaced Earth throughout its history, and are now bent on destroying humankind by sending a “quantum bomb” speeding towards Earth. The authors have crafted a nail-biting conclusion to their “Time Odyssey” trilogy.

Nova Swing (2007) M. John Harrison. In a dark (nourish) tale of love and murder, tourists become the target when they start visiting the Saudad Event Site, a zone of twisted physics and frightening psychic onslaughts. Hoping to experience realities beyond human comprehension, people instead are being subject to transformations in unsettling and inexplicable ways. This sequel to Light won the 2007 Arthur C. Clarke and Hugo awards.

Silver Ship and the Sea (2007) Brenda Cooper. A group of genetically enhanced orphans have been abandoned on the colony planet of Fremont, a dangerous world full of fearful settlers, vicious predators and frequent earthquakes. When one of the orphans is falsely accused of murder, the group must take a stand to help each other, or attempt to leave the planet on a spaceship that was left behind.

Spindrift (2007) by Allen Steele. A shuttle with three survivors returns to Earth more than 50 years after the starship Galileo has disappeared while exploring an unidentified object known only by the name Spindrift. The survivors have not aged and the shuttle has been retrofitted with a new star drive. And they’ve made contact with another race….

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

My Reading Journey

Have you every thought about WHY we read? I think about it all the time, because my reading tastes keep changing. There are so many reasons I am attracted to different books: for entertainment, to escape from daily cares, to explore new issues, and to educate myself. I for one feel like I have been on a reading journey that has led me through every genre of fiction, and has now shifted to nonfiction.

Here I am in my fifties hungry to learn about history, science, philosophy, art – you name it – I want to know MORE, especially if I am going to be traveling somewhere. At least six months before any trip I start reading about the area I am going to be visiting. This doubles my enjoyment, as I get to anticipate the journey through the literature I choose to read.

Listed below are some favorite books from my latest trip, a journey to Paris for Thanksgiving with my stepdaughter.

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb. I love it when I am surprised by a book, and this one really threw me for a loop (so to speak). Graham Robb strips France of its romanticism by developing a picture of its people in all their disparity. The differences in language and custom tell a story that actually defies the creation of a nation – you can’t believe that France became a functioning state. He also manages to infuse this tale with a great deal of humor, something I always appreciate.

Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, by Ruth Scurr. A biography of Robespierre, the man who is undoubtedly most responsible for the terrible excesses of the French Revolution. This psychological portrait attempts to explain how a person with good intentions could get things so terribly wrong.

Mistress of the Revolution, by Catherine Delors. Here’s the one fiction title in the group, and I feel like I’m cheating, since it won’t be released until March 2008. It’s a classic page turner, which I managed to read in one sitting. The story concerns Gabrielle de Montserrat, an impoverished noblewoman who is widowed and a mother while still in her teens. Gabrielle manages to arrive at the court of Louis VXI and Marie Antoinette just in time to be swept up in the emerging cataclysm. I forgot to tell you that it’s a real nail biter, too.

Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France, by Lucy Moore. You think Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had it hard? You should read about the women who tried to have a role in the French Revolution. All of the women in this fascinating story paid a price (some to exile and prison, one to the guillotine), when they tried to give women a voice and role in the revolution.

The Age of Napoleon, by Alistair Horne. Alistair Horne wrote one of my favorite histories, The Seven Ages of Paris, so I was glad to see him tackle Napoleon in this wonderful new biography produced by the Modern Library. I don’t know if you are aware of this, but the Modern Library Chronicles are a series of short biographies and histories by experts in their field of study. I want to collect the whole set – how 19th century…

Walks Through Marie Antoinette’s Paris; Walks Through Napoleon and Josephine’s Paris, by Diana Reid Haig. Here’s my last pitch, for two of the best travel guides I have ever seen. These petite, beautifully designed books give you just enough history (and wonderful illustrations) to get a sense of what happened on the streets of Paris during those tumultuous times. And they are small enough to carry on a trip!