Monday, October 17, 2011

I Liked It So Much I Never Want To See It Again

Please be good, please.

Woo boy. Last week, the sequel to what is probably one of my favorite books of all time was released. And I’ve not read it yet. It hurts, and I’m scared. I’m scared I won’t like it.

Best. Book. Ever.
The book? Oh yeah, it’s Children of the Sky, by Vernor Vinge. The sequel to the book that I fell in love with, oh so many years ago, A Fire Upon the Deep. And it was one of a trinity of books that made me fall head over heels in love with Science Fiction.

Now, I’ve often recommended some of my seminal books to others and have been met with blank stares, or outright confusion after folks have tried to read them. I have had to do some deep soul searching before I can tell you why I love those books so.

Here’s my best guess. From the earliest times of my life as a rational being, like, 4, maybe 5, I dreamed of being a scientist. To be specific, an Astronomer. Well, I did have a brief foray where I investigated becoming the incredible Hulk, but found the science was… a little untenable. Anyway, the minutia of actual scientific work was a bit too dry to keep my interest. It required a lot of math, which I was pretty good at, but it required that I really put forth effort to do it well. Being lazy won out and I decided I would pursue one of the other great passions of my life.

The arts.

Sigh.  As I got older, I still loved the sciences, and read as much pop-science type of stuff I could - books about physics, cosmology (about the cosmos, not hair), paleontology, whatever it was, I ate it up. I might not ever contribute to any of those fields, but I could at least enjoy the work that others had done.

It wasn’t until I was in my early 20’s, after quitting college and finding that I had tons of time on my hands that I started to read books again. You see, that was a time of my life where I was spending as much of my free time as I had attempting to play music. I’ve told the story of how much I loved Star Trek before, and won’t rehash it again here, but I would watch TV, or movies, and be playing my guitar quietly the whole time. If I was on the phone, I was playing. If I had some free time, I was playing.

It was really hard to read and play guitar. I did have the good fortune to work the nightshift at a gas station then, and I probably could have brought my guitar in to play, but it was in a pretty rough neighborhood, and I wasn’t about to put my guitar in harm’s way. So, I brought something to read with me.

Like I said, I read a lot of pop-science books anyway, so it wasn’t like I hadn’t read anything before, and during my late middle school/early high school years I read several genre books, I enjoyed them, but none of them were life changing.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in that gas station at 2 o’clock in the morning, bored out of my mind, that I thought I could pass the time reading. Of course, my much admitted adoration of Star Trek meant I read Star Trek novels. There were already a lot of them then (yes, even way back then), but I did have some taste, and I passed on a few I thought would be stinkers.

I found I could read a lot of books that way, I worked 10 hour shifts, and generally, I had about 4 or 5 hours of every night where I did absolutely nothing but sit and read.   After a few months I had no more Star Trek.

By that time, I had gotten into a habit of running by the bookstore on my way to work, browsing the isles and looking for the most Star Trek like book I could find, which meant I was looking for a cover with a spaceship on it.

Not Just Epic. Super Epic!
I've talked about Stephen Baxter’s Ring before. It was epic in a way few books ever written were epic. I mean, what happens when you get a window into the future where every single star in the observable universe has been snuffed out? What do you do then? How do you fix that? Epic.

That was my very first non Star Trek book and it was so much bigger, better and more powerful than anything I’d ever experienced in fiction before. It was so full of… ideas.

Oh, idea based fiction. Now that’s awesome. So, as it were, I fell in love with not just science fiction, but a sub-genre labeled as hard science fiction. There are tons of definitions readily available, but the one that best fits for me is this: The emphasis is on the science. Characters and plotting are of lesser import than the science, or the scientific speculation that takes place in the story.

It makes sense that I would be drawn to that. I was, after all, a frustrated adult, already wishing I had at least made an effort to follow my childhood dreams of becoming a scientist one day. I would lay in bed and think about what I read in that book. It got in me like a drug, I was hooked.

That was also getting pretty close to the time that I chucked any thought I had of being a musician. I was no longer reading when I was just at work. At the time I had a schedule that meant I worked 8 days on, 6 days off. That was a long time between books. I was reading a minimum of 3 books a week when I was at work, and none when I was not. I was finding that I couldn’t wait all the way until my next work week before I started reading again. All that time I formerly spent playing guitar was now taken up with reading.

It’s okay though, I think grunge was still the popular rock music at the time and I didn’t begin to appreciate it until a good 10 years later, after it had long since gone out of style.

Well, I think the book I picked up not too long after Ring, was A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. This one, it might have had too many ideas, because I had to read it twice. Literally, I read it. Freaked out, waited a day or so, and read it again. In a lot of ways, it was superior to Baxter’s novel, actually, in almost every way. He introduced me to the Tines, the zones of thought, to the technological singularity*, to a great story. This one had it all.

What made me love Stephen Baxter is that he kept putting out books, Vernor Vinge though, he had a lot of other interests, writing novels was just something he did on the side. Now, almost 20 years after he published A Fire Upon the Deep, he’s writing the sequel. Set 10 years after the events of the first book and involving most of the characters.

And again, I still haven’t read it.

I read Rainbow’s End just after it was released, again, Vernor’s book, and I found it to be a big whomping clusterf**k of crap. I can’t think of much I found that disappointing. I hated, hated, hated it. The guy who produced the greatest work of genius of my generation also produced the biggest turd.

So I'm scared. I purchased it from Amazon and it's being delivered later in the week, and I will read. I’m just stalling. I’m going back to my birth as a heavy reader of science fiction, and also, the birth of my dream to become a writer. It’s holy ground. It’s a place to tread carefully. Wish me luck.

* The Zones of Thought have absolutely no scientific rationale at all. This book isn't really hard science fiction. But it is a work of pure genius. 

15 comments:

Rogue Mutt said...

I read that probably 10 years ago and the prequel too. As you say, since it's been so long since the last one, I had no idea this was coming out. I'll have to put this on my list. Though I think I'd want to reread the other one first.

Michael Offutt said...

I'm adding Vernor Vinge's books to my to be read pile, but I'm going to bump them up in front of the others so that I can get to them as soon as next week or so. Your recommendation has got me sold. I wonder if Vernor Vinge is a real name...it just sounds so odd.

Munk said...

Well done Rusty. Expectations can be a bitch.

Matthew MacNish said...

I used to consider myself pretty well read in sci-fi, at least when I was younger, but I've never heard of any of these. They sound good though. Thanks, Rusty.

Laila Knight said...

Well, so now I know why you like these books and why you're so attracted to science fiction. I haven't read any of them so thanks for pointing them out. :)

Nancy said...

High expectations can lead to big drops. I was so disappointed in the new installment of Thomas Covenant books a few years ago. That being said, perhaps he also felt that book was special and waited until he had it just right before writing this one. I will be eager to hear about how it measured up to the memory. Have you reread the first one in awhile?

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Don't you hate it when the next book doesn't hit anywhere near the mark of the first? Wait, don't answer that.
I've learned to slowly lower my expectations over time. I still read every Preston & Child Pendergast novel that comes out, but the last few have become routine. If I didn't dig the character so much, I would give up.
Here's hoping you aren't disappointed.
And that maybe some day we'll jam together!

Andrew said...

Have you read Timescape by Gregory Benford?
Or Hyperion by Dan Simmons?
I had the same experience with Hyperion. Hyperion(and it's sequel) are... exquisite, but the follow up pair of books were... well, a waste of time. In many ways, Endemion (I think I have that right) ruined the story of Hyperion. I'll go back and re-read Hyperion at some point without reading the sequel pair.

I'll have to check out Fire... once I hit a gap in my TBRs.

vanyelmoon said...

That's how I felt when I read "Destination Void" by Frank Herbert. It got me hooked to Science Fiction and there was no turning back. I will have to check out "A Fire On the Deep."

Rusty Webb said...

Rogue - I'll be rereading the first one too. I'm pretty stoked about it.

Michael - Awesome. Unless you don't like him, in which case I'm disappointed.

Munk - you said it. I wish I could strip my expectations away from everything I read.

Matthew - I think A Fire Upon the Deep probably is one of those books like Dune, or Foundation, that every fan of the genre has to read at least one time.

Laila - Well, here's hoping you try them, and enjoy them.

Nancy - I'll let you know. The more I think about it the more excited I'm getting.

Alex - Ha! Too funny. I don't want lower my expectations though, I just want them to be what they are, and then have them met.

Andrew - You asked me once before and I'm not sure I ever answered. I had thought, assumed I'd read some of his novels before, but once I started looking through his bio I realized I had not. There were a lot of author's whose last name started with a 'B' that I read, and I enjoyed them all. But I can't believe I never read Benford. I love Bova, Brin, Baxter, even Bear (sometimes). Weird about that. Oh, I did read a short story of his once though. Anyway, I loved Hyperion (I think I put it on one of my top 10 lists a year or so ago), and didn't enjoy the sequels near as much. I read Simmons book, The Terror, last year and thought it was pretty lame. I'll read Timescape soon, promise.

Vany - Thanks for stopping by, I think it's my first time meeting you. I never read anything past Dune from Herbert, glad you were sucked into the genre.

Kim Mullican said...

I feel your pain - the bucks I spent on Baldacci had me reeling. A $5.99 8000 word eBook. I felt really ripped off. Not only did the book suck ass - it was way too short. I cussed - like a truck driver. And, I won't buy anything from him again. There are way too many great authors out there selling 100k word novels for $2.99 or less and not ripping off their readers.

Briane P said...

You've almost sold me on reading these books. I don't know. Lately, I find that books require such a commitment from me that I'm almost reluctant to start one for fear it won't live up to my expectations. I go through phases like that; lately, my reading has been lighter fare and I've even been neglecting my beloved New Yorker subscription.

*pauses, adjusts monocle, picks brandy up again*

Where was I?

I think I liked best the part about reading every book about Star Trek before moving on. Once upon a time, I read like that: I read every Anne Tyler book that I could get at the used bookstore down on 3rd street in Milwaukee, then every Vonnegut (man, THAT summer was I ever depressed!) and so on.

Sweetie does that now: she tears through authors and reads superfast, and can't tolerate a long wait for a sequel. She'd never put up with this "10 years later" stuff.

As for your fears that the book may not live up to the standards you place on it: I waited and waited for Irving's "Twisted River" and then found it mildly disappointing. I waited and waited for "Freedom" and found it mildly disappointing. I think the best you can hope for is that because he's returning to material he did well before, he'll be good at it. But don't build it up too much in your mind.

mshatch said...

Loved Fire Upon the Deep as well as A Deepness in the Sky. Can't wait for your review of Children of the Sky. Peter Hamilton's Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained are also quite good imho - in fact, I just might read them again :)

Andrew said...

I have some Brin in a stack to get to. And the Bear Foundation book that I still haven't gooten to.
One day.
I think you'll like Benford, though. Lots of science. Which makes sense considering the writing gig is just side work to his physisist job.

Andrew said...

Oh, and, yeah, I probably did ask you that before. I forget things like that, though :( I blame it on children.