Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Universe... It's Big

Hello all, not too much to say except I saw this video a few weeks ago and found in inspiring. Watch it in the highest quality you can for the full effect.

I've watched the video several times in the past few weeks since I found it and it actually makes my stomach queasy. Honestly. Religious is the only word I can think of that describes how this makes me feel.

I can't help but think it is at least a bit similar to the masterful opening sequence to the movie Contact (one of my favorite movies of all time)

The purpose it to evoke the emotion here, not so much to be educational. The effect is eerily similar. The "bubble" of space covered since humans have been transmitting signals is presented here too, but nowhere near as accurately. Seeing the universe in silence once we pass that barrier is lonely (although one might mistakenly believe that the outer planets are 10's of light years away if this movie was to be believed.)

Still, I loved Carl Sagan's books (on which this movie was based) and I'm sure he would have approved. Good stuff.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Hey Borders! Here's Why You Suck!

Borders, remember when you used to be cool? I do. What happened to you? You've gone from a super hip place that had it all to a sad shell of a bookstore that has a selection more akin to a Wal-mart than anything else. I hear that you've been struggling to make ends meet. Is this an attempt to make yourself more profitable? Well, I'm sure your scratching your metaphorical head and wondering why I'm so upset. So let me back up a bit and explain, just so we can make sure we are on the same page.

See, I was at Borders last weekend and decided to pick up a book. I make no secret to the fact that I enjoy science fiction. Uh, that may not be entirely accurate - science fiction makes the world go round and without it I'm certain the universe would explode in hopeless despair. I haven't been avoiding sci-fi at Borders on purpose, it's just that it seems like I've had better luck finding what I want on amazon or at a used bookstore.

I still buy pop science, sports and general fiction at my local super Borders (btw, this rant could have been about Barnes and Noble, but I wasn't at Barnes and Noble, I was at Borders), but not science fiction. Over the last year or so I've been trying to pay attention. I figured out that my selection was limited there and have been trying to anticipate what I want to read and order accordingly from Amazon. My issue with that is that sometimes I'll either learn about something new that captures my imagination and want to read stories from the same author, or topic, or whatever, but if I want to read it now I either have to run to my local bookstore and cross my fingers that they have it or I have to order it online and sit on my hands until it gets here. I may lose interest during the wait (that has happened to me) or I may just up and decide that I don't know what I want to read but I will go to the store and figure it out while I'm there.

That last sentence describes my mood when I stumbled into Borders over the weekend. I didn't want a sports story, or pop-science book, or biography. I needed a sci-fi fix. In my last post I spoke about how I used to go to the bookstore and just see what they had in the sci-fi section. All those gems I talked about in my top 10 list that are more than 10 years old were books that were just sitting on the shelves at my local Borders or B&N.

I've always been a bit annoyed that fantasy and science fiction are mixed on the shelves at most stores. In fact, it bugs the hell out of me. I understand that demographically, those that buy fantasy novels are almost exactly the same group that would purchase science fiction. I don't care. Keep them separate. I can understand if Kroger's does it that way. But if you are a bookstore with 20,000 square feet of nothing but books, then you're just lazy.

Anyhow, before my rant becomes more of a ramble, let me get back on topic. Why can't I find my sci-fi at Borders. The picture above was taken on Saturday night (Jan 23) at one of the Borders stores in Knoxville.

After going through their selection again and feeling a bit frustrated I decided to do a quick semi-serious inventory of what they were offering. Just in case I'm just getting picky in my old age.

The picture I've posted was a single rack in the sci-fi/fantasy section. I counted 29 total racks in the section. I decided to see just how many sci-fi books were represented versus fantasy.

First off, I wanted to pick a rack at random, that was tough enough, R.A. Salvatore has his own, so does Terry Goodkind, Star Wars has three, another one was for Warhammer. In all, I found a large percentage of space was dominated by a surprisingly small number of writers or series. Of the racks not solely dedicated to a single author or series, many nearly were. I didn't have many choices, only an illusion of choice.

But I found one. At least one I felt would suffice. Here's what I found.

Total Book Titles: 128

Science Fiction Titles: 21

At first glance that might seem at least like I would have a few choices. But the sci-fi titles included about 7 books from E.E. Knight's Vampire Earth series, another was a story I'm not familiar with about Egyptian gods that had the SF label. A few military sci-fi books, some steampunk novels. Ursla LeGuin had several books there but her stories really blur the line between sci-fi and fantasy anyway.

The number of books I felt I had to choose from given my preferences totaled 0.

Damn. I won't pretend I can't find books by Jack McDevitt, Kevin Anderson or Charles Stross. But I guarantee I won't be discovering any new talent based on what is represented there. I left very depressed.

Borders, why? Have some dignity. Your business model isn't working right now. At a time you are losing customers right and left to the internet and indifference, you should work harder at not sucking.

You're welcome.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The 10 Greatest Science Fiction Books of All Time! (or at least the 10 best on my bookshelf)

Hello all, I know, I know. I promised more posts coming soon over a month ago and haven't quite fulfilled that promise. What can I say? I've been doing other things. However, I thought I would go back to my roots a bit and come up with a list. Lists are everywhere now. The 10 best this, the 10 worst that. The 7 things you should eat, read, buy, hate, etc. I'm drowning in them.

So guess what? When I saw this list I just couldn't take it anymore.

I got the sneaking suspicion that the author just went down their bookshelf and said "ok, I've got an article to write on the 100 greatest books of all time. I'll just start at the top of my shelf, work my way down, and be done in a 15 minutes" and went on to other things. Ha, I can do that. So I did. Now presented to you, wonderful reader, are the 10 greatest science fiction books of all time - which all, quite conveniently, happen to be on my bookshelf.

Honorable Mention: Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon

Guilty perhaps of having one of the worst covers in the world right now.

My edition is only a few years older and is way cooler, my scanner is down so I took a quick pic with my phone for proof.
Ahh, can you see the beauty there? at least you get a sense of the wonder that the book is all about. The newer cover reminds me of The Running Man (the Arnold flick from the 80's). No effort at all on that one. Ugh.

Regardless, the book is awesome more for its influence than anything else, I don't know if Arthur C Clarke or any of his ilk ever would have come if it weren't for this book. I dare anyone to show me a book that is more epic in scope. Can't be done.

Honorable Mention #2: Also, I have to throw in a token nod to Star Trek novelizations. The Next Generation novels to be exact. As a yougster I read quite a bit, Clan of the Cave Bear, Millennium, Riverworld, Foundation, along with many others. But during my teenage years it all stopped, I did other things and didn't feel like I had time to read. I did take notice however, when Star Trek The Next Generation hit the airwaves. I watched and adored all the original shows and was chomping at the bit to get my fix. When I went away to college the first time the show was really just hitting it's peak (I could be mistaken, but Riker ordering the Enterprise to fire on the recently Borgified Picard was the last episode I saw before I was wisked away to college life).

I stayed with the show through it's run and I found my 20+ episodes a year was no longer enough. I picked up a copy of novelization number 26.

Yep, I could have picked up any book, but this one was just published and I needed more Trek in my life. I don't recall much beyond the fact that Picard and a random Romulan were wondering around an abandoned world that was once populated by beings with amazing technology, of which the Romulans were trying to scavenge. As fuzzy as my memory is I'm surprised I got that much out of my head, the point is that I was hooked once again. I read as many TNG books I could handle and found that I got lucky with the one I selected, it was pretty good, many sucked. Hard.

Eventually though, I had to have more non ST related stuff, they glossed over what I thought were some of the more interesting portions of the stories they told. In a galaxy littered with the artifacts of long forgotten empires of glorious power and technology... why did they all disappear (I know, they all evolved to pure energy. I think something else was going on)?

The 80's and 90's were really a golden age for science fiction, especially space based sci-fi. I'm a sucker for first contact stories (you should read some of my fiction) and Big Dumb Objects (BDO's people), so the list I am about to provide you will have both those types of stories well represented. I haven't really connected with fantasy, steampunk, cyberpunk, or many of the other subgenres out there, I've tried, I really have. I just don't get it. So be warned, I'm biased and I don't care.

Number 10: Rendezvous with Rama, by Authur C. Clarke.

Big. Dumb. Object. I told you I loved them. This book is about one of those things just flying through the solar system and humans popping in to take a look. A tiny group of humans exploring a giant spaceship with no one on board. That's it. Awesome. Again, I can see its influence over and over again in the books I've read since. Including at least one other author that made this list.

Number 9: The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

Just in case you thought this whole list would be nothing but aliens and spaceships I decided I would throw this in - just to prove I've got depth. My wife handed this over to me a few years ago and told me to read it. She never does that. Ever. I rolled my eyes and said "sure thing".

A few weeks later she asked about it and I thought I'd better get reading or risk her wrath (we were only dating at the time, but I knew I was going to ask her to marry me, so I thought I would prove my love by reading her crappy book). I started in and was swept away. By the end I was a weepy mess of a man who was holding his kleenex box close and praying for a miracle to save our hero. What a book. It changed my outlook on what a sci-fi story could be. That was a game changer for me.

I never saw the movie that came out based on the novel. I'm sure it was crappy. But the book was great. I wish the cover wasn't so feminine, it's embarrassing if you get caught reading it out in public, definitely should be read on the Kindle.

Oh, and it is science fiction, not fantasy. The time-traveling is biological in nature, they had a doctor and everything, that makes it sci-fi.

Number 8: Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

Bam! Why is this science-fiction? I have no idea. It's a WWII tale about cryptography interspersed with a modern story about... uh, cryptography, and treasure hunting. If feels like sci-fi but I can't figure out why its classified as such. Not much to say about it though, it's great. That 2 page digression about how to eat the perfect bowl of Captain Crunch cereal was pure genius.

When I finished the book I got the feeling that I just read history in the making. A cult like following did spring up around Neal after this. I get the vague feeling I'm not smart enough to appreciate it in all its geeky goodness, but if it can make #8 on my list I can't be too dumb.

Number 7: Hyperion, by Dan Simmons.

Don't have any idea what this one is about. A spiky guy that watches sailing ships on seas of wheat? Did I read it? Yep, I loved it. This book in particular is the stories of several (7 people maybe) that have to meet to try to avert the destruction of the universe or something. Anyhow, most of the novel is their backstories. Great writing here. I tried to read the sequels and couldn't get into them. This is the work of a master though and I encourage everyone to read it. So read it.

Number 6: Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card.

Sigh. I am so sick of this damn book. It's The DaVinci Code of science-fiction. The only thing that makes this different is that it's actually good, real good. If you say you are a fan of the genre and you haven't read this then you are a liar. Because this is required to join the club. Many think its sequel, Speaker for the Dead, is better, but I was never able to agree, as much as I liked Speaker it just didn't mean as much to me.

Anyhow, I hope to never speak of this book again. I am over saturated with it and am tired of seeing on every list out there. I even think this made the list of best cookbooks I saw recently. I know I'm part of the problem (So is the author, there must be 30 sequels, prequels, comics and other branch-off stories that he's produced in the past few years), but this is one of those novels that is worthy of the praise it gets.

Number 5: Doomday Book, by Connie Willis

Another tear jerking time travel book. What's up with me? The only books I've ever gotten the missus to read are this one and number 6. It's a story that should be crossing genres - she'd make a killing if this was ever put in the historical romance market (except for the lack of romance... but still). Oh well. I felt this one way deep in my gut as I read it. Before reading this I had never heard of Connie Willis and must confess I've never read anything else she's written since. I did go buy more of her books, I just never got around to reading them. I'll get to them.

Number 4, The Rookie, by Scott Sigler

Did I like this book? I have 3 copies... and they ain't cheap. The author self published this novel because no one wanted to take it on. What Publisher would turn down a NY Times bestselling author with a rabid fanbase eager to buy anything he puts out? Apparently, every Publisher.

I've blogged about the author before, Scott Sigler is a relentless self-promoter that has parlayed his efforts into mainstream success (most notably for Infected and Contagious, two alien invasion novels that no one seems to have figured out are sci-fi yet). When I was first exposed to him I actually passed on reading any of his work because I figured anyone who had to work that hard to promote himself can't be a very good writer - the work should stand on it's own.

Well, on a bored afternoon I decided to give him a shot. I downloaded the podcast version of this novel and before I knew I had to eat my words and join his legion of followers. That thousands of others have done the same as I have gives him the freedom to pursue some avenues of publishing that "real" publishers might be too nervous to try.

So we have a masterpiece that no one knows about. The self described mash-up of Any Given Sunday, Star Wars, and The Godfather is awesome on too many levels to fully describe. I get the feeling that Scott Sigler shares a lot of my sensibilities when it comes to storytelling. So of course I feel like this is what I would have written if I had the opportunity (or talent, skill, discipline, etc).

There are a few noticeable changes from the podcast version of this novel as it made its transition to the print version. All those F-bombs that made the story a bit too R-rated for a lot of kids were gone and in it's place is something that I feel just as good about given to my children or nephews as I would Ender's Game (damn, I thought I wasn't going to mention that book again).

All in all, this is a masterpiece and my favorite of all his work - given more time this may end up sliding up a bit. But right now number 4 feels about right. I'll come back in a few short years and see how I feel then.

Number 3: Manifold Space & Ring, by Stephen Baxter

How can 2 books fill one slot, 2 unrelated books at that? It's my list and I can do what I want, that's how. Stephen Baxter is the first non Star Trek related author I remember reading once I decided to branch out. I totally lucked into Ring. Baxter had a string of books that came out in the nineties that were each unbelievably fantastic in their right. In some ways these are stand ins for the author himself - Timelike Infinity, Manifold Time, Vacuum Diagrams, Voyage, Titan... this list just goes on and on. I didn't want one author to dominate the list so I crammed him in this slot instead.

His more recent works have disappointed me somewhat. His Weaver quadrilogy was a disaster in my opinion. Whatever spark he showed during that fantastic run in the nineties hasn't really carried over into the the naughties. I have high hopes for him in the coming decade though, ARK holds some promise and I'm ready for another round of greatness from him.

But Ring is a story about the end of the universe and the ragtag band of scientists who are determined to find out why all the stars are going out. Epic scale that approaches Olaf Stapledon. Many of Baxter's early novels were stand alone stories that took place in the same universe. He had carefully crafted a backstory for Ring that you wouldn't have been aware that you were studying if you read his previous novels. It was pure brilliance. My hat's off to you sir. Congratulations.

Manifold Space was part of a trilogy of books that all started with the same premise and same central cast of characters. I enjoyed Manifold Time a great deal, but Space was the true gem here. This trilogy was his look at the Fermi paradox and this book in particular is about what it would mean to live in a crowded universe. A very philosophical trilogy of books. Well deserving of any praises I can give.

Number 2: House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds

It's so liberating to me to not feel like I have to pull out the classics for this list. Again though, this is a stand in for an entire body of work. Much like the British invasion of bands that rocked American girls in the 1960's, British Sci-fi authors rocked my world in the 90's.

House of Suns is a recent work by my favorite author, Alastair recently penned a million dollar contract with his publisher for 10 books and I feel like he's totally worth it. It's hard for me to pick a dud in his body of work. The guy is rock solid as a writer. He added something to the genre that I didn't realize it was missing, he has an admitted love for the mystery genre that clearly shows in how he constructs a story. His added mystery elements make for compelling novels.

House may well be my favorite - Like many great books, I don't think a blurb can do it justice. It's about.... um, just read it. Trust me.

And by the way, I mentioned other authors following the Rama template earlier, I think Reynolds' Pushing Ice is a descendant of that type story. Even the modern greats go back to the well for great stories.

Number 1: A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge

Damn straight. Is it really the best book of all time? Yes. How can I know that? I read it. And it's my list. You don't like it, go make your own, everyone else has.

Zones of thought as a concept made me scratch my head, but I've gone back to this book time and time again. I've never read a single book more (well, maybe Ring). I can't give you a synopsis because again, I don't think you would get it. It has space ships and aliens.... what more do you need?

There it is folks. A definitive list that you can use to weed out all the rest. A bit of space opera and perhaps a touch time travel heavy. But still, it makes me sad for the reality that I can only read them for the first time only once. There were many that I thought of adding, Ringworld (what really kicked off the BDO sub genre), Startide Rising (Space Opera), amongst others, and if I ever put up another list again, I'd probably change things around some.

Hope you enjoy.