Tag Archives for " science fiction "
Here are my choices for the 15 best books of 2017. All were published in English in the United States from November 2016 through November 2017. They’re arranged within each section below in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Every title is linked to my review.
At the bottom of this post, I’ve listed 34 books I feel merit honorable mention.
A searing account of the 2016 election that centers most of the blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss on the candidate herself and the people surrounding her.
The astonishing story of a woman whose seminal work in developing the science of cryptology and identifying Nazi spies in World War II has only recently been recognized.
Then the richest people in America, the Osage of Oklahoma became the victims of a series of brutal murders in the 1920s by neighbors bent on stealing the oil wealth under their land.
To an extent that is only dimly understood, the histories of the US and China have been deeply intertwined ever since the founding of the republic.
A lexicographer with a wicked sense of humor gives an inside look at the making of the most popular dictionary in America.
A Soviet agent sent undercover in Nazi Germany proves that “a single spy in the right place and at the right moment may change the course of history.”
The author of the long-running series of bestselling detective novels featuring Harry Bosch introduces a new leading lady, destined to have her own series.
A retired MI6 officer plots to avenge the murder of his lover by the KGB colonel who had undermined his work over the years.
The iconic British spy, George Smiley, hovers in the background as a younger MI6 officer who had worked with him during the Cold War confronts a lawsuit about their work together.
The Georgia-based novelist who writes the Grant County and Will Trent series of crime thrillers probes the depths of depravity that touch a family of lawyers in rural Georgia.
This debut novel tells the haunting, dystopian tale of a second American civil war set late in the twenty-first century.
An American book publisher visits Moscow to edit the memoirs of his brother, who had defected to the Soviet Union decades earlier and joined the KGB.
In a future dominated by artificial intelligence and biotechnology, a military robot seeks to gain autonomy while on the hunt for a “patent pirate” who illegally manufactures medicine.
A police officer in the 22nd century investigates the death of a religious cult figure under the tight control of the company who has enslaved him.
The author of the bestselling Kindle County courtroom dramas shifts his attention to the Hague and the war-crimes trial of a notorious Bosnian military leader.
Okay, now let’s get real. Nobody, and I mean nobody, including the army of reviewers who contribute to the New York Times Book Review, can possibly identify the “best” books published in any year. Believe it or not, more than one million titles were published in the United States alone in the most recent year for which statistics are available (2013). Some 304,000 titles were issued by “traditional” publishers in the US, and another 184,000 in the UK. In other words, in a single year, publishing companies brought out nearly half a million titles in just two of the biggest English-language publishing markets. (The numbers for India were substantially smaller.) And that’s only the data for traditional publishers. Self-published titles (in the US alone) numbered more than 700,000. So, don’t believe anyone who claims they’ve identified the “best” books of the year.
One other thing: reviewers are selective. I’m especially so. I don’t read cookbooks, poetry, romance novels, collections of short stories, self-help guides, or books about sports, art, philosophy, vampires, zombies, ghosts, or a dozen other topics that don’t come readily to mind. I do read mysteries and thrillers, science fiction, popular “serious” fiction, humor, and nonfiction about history, world affairs, biography, politics, science, and business. Broadly speaking, my reading falls into three categories: mysteries and thrillers, trade fiction, and nonfiction. Those are the three categories I’ve used above.
In a given year, I read about 200 books. Now, I recognize that speedreaders may consume far more than that. But I’ve tried speedreading, and I don’t like it. It’s not really reading: it’s mining for information. That may work for lawyers, scholars, or others reading with specific ends in mind. But it’s not fun, at least not for me. And I only review books that I’ve read from beginning to end.
Now you know.
Here, then, are the 34 books I thought were also excellent but warrant only honorable mention. As above, they’re all linked to my reviews.
I’ve reviewed 21 recently published nonfiction books in the last year, all of which are good but not quite good enough to make the list of five top reads above.
During the past year I’ve read and enjoyed the following nine mysteries and thrillers in addition to the five top reads listed above.
Here are four books I classify as trade fiction (including science fiction) that I found worthy of mention, in addition to the five top reads in this category above.
Cetaganda (Vorkosigan Saga #6) by Lois McMaster Bujold
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Much of classic science fiction consisted of what came to be called “space opera”—and most of it was junk. With some notable exceptions, the format is rarely used today. However, the multiple-award-winner Lois McMaster Bujold has updated the space opera with a long (and ongoing) series of novels, novellas, and short stories about a brilliant military officer who happens to be a dwarf. His name is Miles Vorkosigan. He’s the son of the (now) former regent of the Empire of Barrayar, a backward planet on the fringes of galactic civilization about one thousand years in the future; the emperor is his cousin. The Vorkosigan Saga continues with book #6, Cetaganda.
In Cetaganda, Miles and his (much taller) cousin Ivan are dispatched to represent the Barrayaran Empire at the funeral of the Dowager Empress of their bitterest and longest-standing enemy, the Cetagandan Empire. However, to call both entities “empires” gives the lie to the vast difference between them. Barrayar, a single planet located off the main trade routes of the galaxy, has only recently become integrated into galactic civilization. Barrayarans, even the most noble, are considered barbarians elsewhere. The Cetagandan Empire is vast and wealthy beyond compare. Barrayar managed to survive an invasion by the Cetagandan military only through the brilliant soldiering of Miles’ father, then Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan. Thus, when Miles and Ivan arrive on Eta Ceta IV, “the heart and homeworld of the sprawling Cetagandan Empire,” they feel like country yokels visiting the big city for the first time.
The author paints a fascinating picture of Cetagandan society. Though an emperor rules, the empress (who is not necessarily his wife) wields what might be considered even greater power. She commands the Star Creche, where bioengineers have been tinkering for centuries with the genome of the ruling caste, the haut. (Think haute cuisine or haute couture.) Though the emperor reigns over the men who serve as governors of the eight satrap planets, their freedom of action is circumscribed by the haut women who are assigned to be their wives. The haut are effectively a super-race and possibly no longer truly human. The governors, by contrast, are members of a decidedly human and subordinate military caste called the ghem.
Miles, now 22 and a lieutenant in Barrayaran Imperial Security, has been cautioned to avoid drawing attention to himself on his mission to Cetaganda. However, this is a difficult, if not impossible, assignment, since Miles is 4’9″ tall, hunchbacked, and wears braces to prevent the brittle bones in his legs from breaking. In any case, it’s not in his nature to play by the rules. It’s a sure thing that Miles will get into trouble—and drag Ivan along with him.
As is the case with all the previous novels in the Vorkosigan Saga, the action comes thick and fast from the very beginning of Cetaganda. As Miles and Ivan are docking in orbit around Eta Ceta IV, a mysterious local man bursts into their shuttle, apparently intent on assassinating them. They tackle the man and seize his weapon as well as a mysterious tubular object they’d thought was also a weapon. As they puzzle over the object, the Cetagandan escapes. Any discerning reader will be aware that this strange object will play a central role in the tale that follows. (It’s pictured on the cover of the edition I read.) Not long after arriving on the planet’s surface, Miles realizes that he and Ivan will be accused of stealing the object, whatever it is, presumably as a pretext for the Cetagandan Empire to go to war again with Barrayar.
In the complex series of events that follow, Miles becomes embroiled in a desperate search to understand why he and Ivan have been targeted, and who was behind the attack. The two cousins soon find themselves socializing with Cetagandans of the ghem caste. Although barbarians like them aren’t supposed to come into contact with the exalted haut, it doesn’t take long for that to happen, too. The story that unfolds involves a murder investigation and political intrigue of the highest order within the Cetagandan Empire. Bujold writes with a light touch. The dialogue is clever and sometimes very funny. The book is a great deal of fun.
For example, consider this exchange between Miles and Ivan:
Miles: “you have to stay absolutely cool. I may be completely off-base, and panicking prematurely.”
Ivan: “I don’t think so. I think you’re panicking post-maturely. In fact, if you were panicking any later it would be practically posthumously. I’ve been panicking for days.”
For some reason, when I read dialogue like this, I think of Redford and Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ll enjoy my post, My 27 favorite science fiction novels. And if you want to access my reviews of the five preceding books in the Vorkosigan Saga, you can find them by searching for that name on this site.
In my new book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction, I review 62 dystopian novels, nearly all of which I’ve read and reviewed recently. Over the years, the total number I’ve consumed probably approaches 100. So, I feel comfortable putting forward the list of my six favorite dystopian novels.
Here goes, in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. If I’ve left out one or two of your all-time favorites, or if you simply detest one I’ve included, let me know. You can do so by using the contact form at the bottom of this post.
In M. T. Anderson’s terrifying future world, people access all their news, advertising, education, games, “m-chat,” and money through implants in their brains—not just embedded chips but multipurpose devices that are fully integrated into their nervous systems. This is the “feed” of the title. A powerful future version of Virtual Reality allows people to experience novelty and excitement at any time without special equipment—and without pausing for reflection. Corporations are the dominant force on the planet. Climate change, pollution, and overfishing have killed the oceans. Past wars have left a blanket of radioactive dust all across the surface. Human settlements on Earth exist underground under domes to shield people from the intolerable heat and unbreathable atmosphere. Massive numbers have migrated off-planet to the moon, Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and nearby star systems. This is truly a dystopian society.
The frightening world depicted by Margaret Atwood in the MaddAddam Trilogy is the product of catastrophic climate change, runaway genetic engineering, and . . . something else that only becomes clear much later. Whatever it was that happened was so severe that Atwood’s protagonist in the first of these three novels, a young man named Jimmy who now styles himself as Snowman, believes he is the only human being left alive on Planet Earth. In Oryx and Crake, Book #1, we enter the future world of Atwood’s cruel vision shortly after the Waterless Flood, which virtually exterminated the human species. Climate change has wrought havoc on Planet Earth, confirming the most pessimistic projections of the early 21st Century. It’s not a pretty picture. Book #2, The Year of the Flood, takes us back to the years preceding the Flood, when the conditions described in Oryx and Crake came about. We learn the nature of the Flood, and how it came to be. Finally, in Book #3, MaddAddam, we encounter once again the principal characters of the first two books and follow them as the future grimly unfolds. Most of the action is compressed into a few months following the calamity of the Flood.
The Windup Girl is the first of (now) four novels in Paolo Bacigalupi’s Drowned Cities cycle. It was followed by The Drowned Cities, Ship Breaker, and Tool of War. These four outstanding novels depict a grim future long after the oceans have drowned many of the world’s great cities. Strictly speaking, only the last three constitute a series in a formal sense. But the scenario they illustrate is the same. In the first three books, most of the action takes place in and near Bangkok in the 23rd century; later, the action moves to the Drowned Cities of the North American East Coast. Sometime in the past, the oceans have risen 20 feet or more, and the city of Bangkok is just one of a handful of coastal cities that survive only because a visionary Thai king built an enormous seawall, dikes, and pumps to hold back the waters of the annual monsoon. Genetic engineering has run amok around the globe, and the Thai Kingdom is one of few countries, perhaps the only country, still resisting the “calorie companies,” powerful food-exporting corporations headquartered in the American Midwest and in China. Having killed off virtually all traditional sources of food—and hundreds of millions of people—with genetically engineered plagues to increase their leverage in the market, the calorie companies hungrily eye Thailand and its own independent success in creating new fruits and nightshades capable of resisting the ubiquitous plant-killers. In this grim environment, so long removed from the 21st century, one character “wonders if it was really better in the past, if there really was a golden age fueled by petroleum and technology. A time when every solution to a problem didn’t engender another.”
Centuries in the future, the people of Earth live under the control of an artificial intelligence called UniComp. The result is a worldwide society free of war, hunger, crime, and violence of any sort. “Hate” and “fight” are swear words. The world run by Unicomp is dedicated to efficiency above all else. The population of the planet is kept steady at eight billion through rigorous control of the birth rate and through emigration to colonies the Family has established on other planets. It’s inefficient to grow and prepare a variety of foods, so everyone’s nutritional needs are met through an unchanging diet of totalcakes. To suppress undesirable behavior, everyone submits monthly to chemotherapy “treatments”; otherwise, they will get “sick” and demonstrate aberrant behavior. This is the world Ira Levin describes in his superb science fiction novel, This Perfect Day.
Walter M. Miller, Jr. wrote scores of short science fiction stories but only one novel that was published during his lifetime. In fact, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) was a reworked version of three short stories that spanned thousands of years of human history following a nuclear holocaust. Divided into three parts, each corresponding to one of the short stories, the novel describes the efforts of the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz to preserve scientific knowledge for use in the future once humankind is capable of understanding it once again. The monks worship Saint Leibowitz, a Jewish engineer working for the American military at a base in the Southwestern US. Leibowitz had anticipated all-out nuclear war and a return to dark ages by hiding books in safe places after the war ended. He was betrayed, martyred, and then eventually named a candidate for sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church. But about all that remains of Leibowitz’ life is a shopping list, which is treated as a holy relic by the monks. The books have been lost. Part One, “Fiat Homo” (“Let There Be Man”), is set in the 26th Century, when Leibowitz is canonized following the discovery of the shopping list and other handwritten notes. In Part Two, “Fiat Lux” (“Let There Be Light”), 600 years later in 3174, the new Dark Age is ending. A few scholarly residents of the region are beginning to recreate rudimentary electrical technology. Part Three, “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (“Let Thy Will Be Done”), is set six centuries later in 3781. Once again, humanity possesses nuclear energy and is now populating extra-solar colonies. Nuclear war threatens once again. Of all the science fiction I read as a boy, A Canticle for Leibowitz stands out most vividly in my memory.
In the post-apocalyptic world of this wonderful novel, a National Book Award Finalist, there are no functioning cities. A devastating disease known as the Georgian Flu has killed off nearly all the world’s people. Survivors have scattered over the countryside, some of them coming together in communities of at most a couple of hundred people. Someone has set up a Museum of Civilization in an airport lounge, displaying mobile phones, electronic games, credit cards, and other artifacts of lives long gone. This is a world fraught with danger. In the years immediately following the collapse, many survivors walk for hundreds of miles in search of food and other resources. Distrust leads many to kill anyone who approaches them. Meanwhile, feral humans rove the earth, preying on travelers unable to defend themselves. Soon, madness takes hold of many, and would-be prophets begin to collect followers, imposing their will through force on anyone they encounter.
You’ll notice of course, that the most familiar titles don’t appear on this short list. The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and other high-profile examples of the genre are a mixed bag. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is excellent, though I found the world she imagined in Oryx and Crake (and the other novels in the MaddAddam Trilogy) to be more engaging and ultimately more thought-provoking. As I remember the other well-known titles, none of which I’ve read in recent months, I don’t think any of them is as evocative as the six novels I’ve listed above. And perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising: Brave New World was written in the early 1930s, 1984 in the 1940s, and Fahrenheit 451 in the 1950s. The authors couldn’t possibly have foreseen the world we live in today, much less how to write in a way that contemporary readers would find truly relevant.
Are the six books in my list the six best dystopian novels of all time? Of course, that’s a matter of opinion. Feel free to disagree with me.
Autonomous: A Novel by Annalee Newitz
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
You hope the world will never look like this. It’s 2144. Slavery has revived, camouflaged as indentured servitude. Theoretically, indenture is limited to a specified term; in practice, contract owners frequently refuse to honor the commitment. Millions of humans and robots alike are trapped in these unbreakable contracts. Only rarely do indentured servants escape, and autonomous robots are rare.
This is the world imagined by Annalee Newitz in her intriguing new science fiction novel, Autonomous.
Bioengineering is supreme. The pharmaceutical industry, and the lives of most of the world’s citizens, are dominated by a handful of huge pharma corporations. These companies produce patented drugs that lengthen lifespan, enhance productivity, and induce euphoria as well as prevent illness. Unfortunately, officially sanctioned drugs are far too expensive for most of the world’s people. A flourishing pirate economy fills some of the gaps by reverse-engineering the most popular drugs. To combat the pirates and enforce patent law, the paramilitary International Property Coalition (IPC) sends teams of agents around the world to capture or kill the practitioners of “black pharma.”
IPC Agent Eliasz Wójcik is partnered with an indentured military robot named Paladin. They work out of a large military base operated by the African Federation. The pair is charged with hunting down a notorious pirate known as Jack, who appears to be somewhere in the Arctic. In fact, as the novel opens, Jack (real name: Judith Chen) is traveling on a submarine along the Arctic coast “beyond the Beaufort Sea.” Jack has learned that a batch of a new, reverse-engineered drug she had unloaded in Calgary is causing sometimes-lethal side effects. She is on a mission of her own—to develop an antidote. Jack knows that the small batch of black-market drugs she distributed is only a minor part of the problem: the official drug, a product of Zaxy, one of the world’s largest pharmacorps, is in use as a productivity-enhancer at large corporations that can afford to pay its high price. Jack sees it as her responsibility to identify Zaxy as the source of the problem, get the word out worldwide, and make an antidote freely available. Eliasz and Paladin are determined to stop her.
Robotics has advanced in tandem with bioengineering. Now, robots may take on an unlimited variety of shapes, sizes, and forms. Biobots closely resemble humans and include both biological and manufactured materials. Other robots, only vaguely humanoid, possess human brains to supplement their cybernetic capabilities. Yet others may be configured as insects, birds, or machines. Paladin, for example, appears roughly humanoid but has automatic weapons concealed in its chest and arms as well as a human brain in its midsection. However, Paladin is much more than a military machine: it communicates both by vocalizing and wirelessly, it is curious and continuously absorbs new information—and it hopes to gain its freedom from indenture and join the ranks of autonomous robots.
Politics in the world of 2144 is as dramatically changed as economics. Climate change and epidemic disease have upended the geopolitical order, leaving the United States a backwater and Europe frozen, in the absence of the Gulf Stream. The world’s dominant powers are the Asian Union, the Brazilian States, and the African Federation, where most of the advanced biotech companies conduct their research. North America is a Free Trade Zone, with its most prosperous cities in the summery Canadian and Alaskan Arctic. It’s there that most of the action in Autonomous takes place.
Known primarily as a blogger and science journalist, Annalee Newitz is the author of five books of nonfiction. Although she has previously published science fiction short stories, Autonomous is her first novel. Newitz holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in English and American Studies and was on the Cal faculty for a time. She now writes full-time.
I have also reviewed Newitz’s most recent nonfiction book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: Will the human race survive climate change and a mass extinction? You might also be interested in 24 compelling dystopian novels or my own new book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction.
Tool of War (Drowned Cities #3) by Paolo Bacigalupi
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Paolo Bacigalupi‘s new novel, Tool of War, is a brilliant successor to Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, which together form a series the author may not yet have finished. The setting of all three novels is a dystopian world in what may be the twenty-second century. Much of human civilization in the past is now underwater or absent from areas that are now intolerably hot. Fossil fuels have been totally depleted. For most of the planet’s remaining inhabitants, life is a constant struggle for bare survival. Runaway bioengineering has created vicious new predators. Government has failed nearly everywhere; only a few city-states (Shanghai, Lagos, Boston) remain intact and peaceful behind massive seawalls. A handful of mighty corporations dominate world trade.
The two characters at the center of the action are familiar to readers of the other two novels: Mahlia and Tool. The latter, the subject of the title, is a bioengineered “half man.” He was designed for battle, as the book’s title suggests, bioengineered to blend DNA from the planet’s most fearsome animal predators with that of a superb human warrior. His vision, his hearing, his ability to detect smell at enormous distances—all his senses are heightened far beyond human limits. And both his reflexes and his movements are faster than any other living creature’s. Tool is a “nightmare out of humanity’s primeval past, a monster of old, a creature re-emerged from the darkest myths of protohumans, when jungles had never been razed, and when apes still cowered from darkness and struggled to master fire. A monster with its own interests and agenda.”
The story is set primarily on North America’s mid-Atlantic Coast, now known as the Drowned Cities, and in Seascape, a prosperous metropolis located inland from old Boston. The city lies behind enormous seawalls that have held back the ocean. As the novel opens, Tool has mustered a huge army that consists mostly of teenagers that has been fighting and defeating the warlords who have dominated the Drowned Cities in the past. (Anyone who lives beyond the age of thirty is considered ancient in this perilous environment.) Headquartered in the ruins of the White House, near the new shore of the Atlantic Ocean, Tool has finally triumphed. He is now the undisputed overlord of the Drowned Cities.
At just this point the supremely powerful Mercier Corporation, a militarized commercial enterprise that virtually controls a quarter of the globe, locates Tool after a years-long search. Tool somehow represents a threat to the company’s supremacy. Without hesitation, Mercier’s military commander, General Caroa, orders missiles fired from drones above the coast to eradicate Tool’s headquarters, killing him in the process. Somehow, Tool survives. Though grievously wounded, he makes his way to the shoreline where Mahlia finds him. Tool had saved her life in the past. Without hesitation, she has him carried onto the clipper ship she owns, and they set sail for Seascape to obtain medical care for him. Frustrated that his target has lived, General Caroa pursues him with all the forces at his disposal.
Tool of War is marketed as a young adult novel. But the book is so full of violence and gore that I wonder whether it’s really suitable for teenagers. I suppose many video games that are popular among young people are equally bloody. But still. (Maybe I’m just too old to make this judgment.)
I reviewed Ship Breaker, the first entry in the Drowned Cities saga, at Another exceptionally good sci-fi novel from an emerging master. My review of the second, The Drowned Cities, is at Another great sci-fi novel from Paolo Bacigalupi. You may also be interested in the list of My 27 favorite science fiction novels.
From time to time, I post lists of recommended mysteries and thrillers, science fiction, historical novels, biographies, or books about science or business. Here I’ll include the 15 best of these lists. Each of them contains a number of individual titles with links to the reviews I’ve posted on this blog.
This list just scratches the surface of what’s available, but I’m confident that at least some of the very best mystery and thriller series can be found below. All these series have one or both of two things in common: the protagonist is the same from one book to the next, or (in just two cases) the series are rooted in a particular time and place, though the cast of characters varies. There are just two exceptions to this rule: the work of Ross Thomas and John Grisham. I’ve included both authors because many of their characters appear in each of several novels—and because they’re so good I can’t bring myself to ignore them.
In times past, science fiction was widely regarded as pulp literature suitable only for 14-year-old boys. Those days are long past. Now the field is often referred to as speculative fiction. Which is as it should be. In this list are the 27 science fiction novels that have lingered in my mind—in some cases, for fifty years or more. Some are dystopian novels, others alternate history, imagined futures, or time travel; some are set on Earth, others elsewhere around the galaxy.
My favorite subjects are European history, including many historical spy novels; World War II; American history, especially political history; and Asian and African history. You’ll also find that several authors show up multiple times: Geraldine Brooks, Thomas Fallon, Olen Steinhauer, Alan Furst, and Joseph Kanon—in the last three cases, because of especially insightful series they’re writing.
Among the works included here are outstanding trilogies by Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Blake Crouch, and Hugh Howey, and a connected series of three novels by Paolo Bacigalupi that has not been marketed as a trilogy. In my reviews, I’ve awarded almost all of these books ratings of 4 out of 5 or 5 out of 5 stars.
In the companion post linked above, I listed two dozen dystopian novels that were published in series. Here I’ve listed 15 standalone works. These posts are a result of some of the research I’ve conducted in preparation for writing my newest book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction.
Over the past seven years, I’ve read and reviewed more than 60 espionage novels. My ten favorites are listed below. Though my preliminary list included multiple titles by three authors (Alex Berenson, Charles Cumming, and Ross Thomas), I’ve limited myself to a single title from every writer. I gave every one of these ten titles a score of 5 out of 5 stars on its review.
The 15 detective novels listed in this post may not be the 15 “best” detective novels, even by my uniquely idiosyncratic criteria. I’d read a lot of work in the genre even before I began writing these reviews in January 2010—and there are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of detective novels I’ve never read. This list consists exclusively of those I’ve selected from among the 200 or so that I’ve read and reviewed in this blog. I gave every one of these books a rating of 5 out of 5 stars.
Roger Ailes. Catherine the Great. William Armstrong Custer. Steve Jobs. Malcolm X. These are among the men and women featured in the 34 biographies I’ve awarded four or five out of five stars in my reviews.
Astronomy. Epidemiology. Lexicography. Microbiology. These are among the thirty different scientific fields discussed and explained in the thirty-three excellent books about science that I’ve read and reviewed.
Three decades ago an American historian named David Christian who was teaching at an Australian university at the time launched a new approach to world history. His unique take on the subject took the discipline far beyond the limits of the written word. Calling it Big History, Christian started his new course at the beginning of time itself: the Big Bang. He enlisted guest lecturers from the fields of astrophysics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, biology, and other scientific fields, incorporating their specialized knowledge into his comprehensive survey of Big History. Many other scholars have since followed in Christian’s footsteps, bringing their own unique perspectives to bear on this fresh approach to understanding our lives and the world we live in. My list includes eight of the best books to emerge in this field.
In addition to the many World War II novels I’ve read and reviewed in this blog, both mysteries and trade fiction, I’ve read a great many nonfiction books on the years leading up to and during the war. Here I’ve listed 17 of the best I’ve come across in recent years. They cover everything from economic policy in the Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany to the role of business and the conduct of the war itself.
For good or ill, a fair amount of what I’ve learned about espionage over the years has come from reading spy stories. A few authors are particularly diligent about research and accuracy, so most of what I’ve picked up is probably true. In fact, many of those authors are veterans of the intelligence game and should know what they write about. But, for assurance that what I read is less likely to be fictional, there’s nothing like an in-depth nonfiction treatment of the field by a credible author. Since January 2010, I’ve read seventeen such books. I recommend them highly.
The 35 books listed here cover a wide range of both historical and contemporary figures, every one of them prominent in a significant way, from Cleopatra and Catherine the Great to Clarence Darrow, Allen Dulles, and Steve Jobs. Most of the 35 fall into a few categories that describe some of the topics I’m most interested in: espionage, science, business, and American history.
One way or another, I’ve been at least peripherally involved in electoral politics ever since I was in high school. Which is why I seek out books about politics. Fiction, nonfiction—it doesn’t matter. If it’s credible and at least reasonably well written, I’m game. So, ever since I launched this blog six years ago, I’ve read and reviewed a fair number of books about the topic. This list includes only the 35 nonfiction books that have appeared in this space.
Caveat emptor: I don’t pretend that the 14 books in this list are THE BEST nonfiction books ever published. They’re simply some of the best ones I read and reviewed during the first five years I posted to this blog, every one of them a source of enlightenment that deepened my understanding of the world we live in.
Amatka by Karin Tidbeck
@@@ (3 out of 5)
Historically, science fiction has mostly been identified with the United States and Great Britain. That’s not to say, however, that talented authors from many other countries, writing in languages other than English, haven’t made their mark in the genre. Science fiction novels, some of them outstanding, have come from Russia, China, and other countries as far-flung as Brazil, Czechoslovakia, and Iceland. Now Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck, previously known for her well-received collection of short stories, offers her first novel, Amatka.
From the outset, it’s clear that Amatka is a science fiction novel of a very different sort. Anyone who accepts a literal definition of science fiction—stories that are possible given what we know about science—will consider this novel fantasy, not science fiction. At best, it’s very strange science fiction. Its premise clearly rests somewhere outside the bounds of possibility.
On an unnamed world somewhere far away, four small colonies of humans struggle to survive. Their surroundings are inhospitable. Featureless tundra extends in all directions. Ostensibly in order to ensure their communities’ survival, the colonies are governed by rigid bureaucrats who have made rules for virtually every aspect of life. Most of the buildings and almost everything else, from pencils to suitcases to furniture, are constructed out of a viscous, mud-like substance mined from the surface of the planet. And everything made of this mysterious stuff will hold its shape only if those who use it continuously remind each object of its purpose. They paint labels on every item (“door,” “building,” “bed”) and chant the word on its label to assure the object’s stability. If they don’t do so frequently enough, seemingly solid and stable items simply liquefy into goo that spreads across every surface and destroys anything else within its reach. And the bureaucrats have layered over this reality with new requirements of their own. For instance, here’s what Vanja learns in the community’s library: “One couldn’t name a book anything other than BOOK, or start the title with anything other than ‘About . . .’ Naming an object something else, even accidentally, was forbidden.”
Not literally science fiction, is it? Or, as I’ve noted, at the very least strange science fiction.
Amatka is a short novel—a novella, really. In just 170 pages, Tidbeck tells the story of a woman named Brillars’ Vanja Essre Two, known as Vanja. Vanja is sent from her home colony of Essre by train (train???) to Amatka, where she is to investigate the potential for factories at home to produce hygiene products such as soap and shampoo that might be sold in Amatka. Her job is to interview prospective customers and report back to her boss in Essre. But Vanja soon begins to learn that all is not as it appears in Amatka. And she falls in love with the woman who is hosting her. Between the love affair and her increasing understanding of the truth about the colony, Vanja resigns from her job in Essre, committing herself to stay in Amatka. There, she plays a central role in the unfolding events that lead to the novel’s shattering conclusion.
In its strangeness, Amatka fits snugly into a new sub-genre that has emerged in science fiction in recent years. I’ve previously reviewed three such books by China Mieville (The City and the City), Jeff Vandermeer (Authority), and Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice). I enjoyed none of them.
If you’d like to know which sci-fi works I enjoyed a lot more, see My 27 favorite science fiction novels.
The Warrior’s Apprentice (Vorkosigan Saga #4), by Lois McMaster Bujold
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
If you’re looking for escapist entertainment, and if science fiction strikes your fancy, you’ll enjoy the long series of novels in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. The Warrior’s Apprentice, the fourth book in the series’ chronology, is a case in point.
In the preceding entries in the series, we learned the backstory of its central figure, Miles Vorkosigan. He is the son of one of the most senior military and political leaders on the planet of Barrayar, Aral Vorkosigan, and Cordelia Naismith, a scientist and unwilling soldier who is a former enemy from the far more technologically advanced Beta Colony. In a failed assassination attempt on his father, Miles is crippled in his mother’s womb by poison gas. His life has been saved only by Betan technology and a courageous local physician. But he was born a virtual dwarf, less than five feet tall, and with bones so brittle they break when he falls or one of his limbs is squeezed too strongly. Miles compensates for these disabilities with a brilliant mind, a copious memory, and a genius for military strategy that allows him to gain the allegiance of the toughest professional soldiers.
Miles is surely one of the most off-beat and intriguing protagonists in all of science fiction. No doubt, the strange attraction we all feel to Miles explains how the author has been able to produce (to date) a total of at least sixteen novels in the series, plus a large number of novellas and short stories. And she has won numerous awards for her work.
In The Warrior’s Apprentice, seventeen-year-old Miles washes out of officer training for the Barrayaran military when he breaks both legs in leaping off a wall in an obstacle course. Freed from the strictures of the military, Miles sets out on a visit to his grandmother on distant Beta Colony. His bodyguard, Sergeant Konstantine Bothari, and the sergeant’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Elena, accompany him on the journey. No sooner do they arrive than Miles manages to embroil himself in rescuing an old starship pilot. Brashly, he buys the pilot’s ship to save it from salvage—with money he doesn’t have. This foolish act triggers a series of misadventures that begin Miles’ long trek to galactic fame.
I’ve reviewed all three of the preceding novels in the Vorkosigan Saga: Falling Free (An outstanding sci-fi series), Shards of Honor (The exciting second book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga), and Barrayar (The Vorkosigan Saga: much more than a space opera). I enjoyed them all, and you will, too, so long as you don’t expect to gain any deeper meaning from the experience.
Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Science fiction is full of clichés about alien invasions of Earth, some evil, some benign. The murderous rampaging monsters that lay waste to the planet. The enigmatic species so different from the human race and so far advanced that communication with them is virtually impossible. The humanoid invaders who blend into contemporary society, either by morphing into human shape or because they themselves resemble human beings since we share common roots. You might think that every possible take on an alien invasion has been done before. Not so. In his new novella, Landscape with Invisible Hand, M. T. Anderson proves the point.
“We were all surprised when the vuvv landed the first time,” Anderson writes. “They’d been watching us since the 1940s, and we’d seen them occasionally, but we had all imagined them differently. They weren’t slender and delicate, and they weren’t humanoid at all. They looked more like granite coffee tables: squat, wide, and rocky. We were just glad they weren’t invading. We couldn’t believe our luck when they offered us their tech and invited us to be part of their Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance. They announced that they could end all work forever and cure all disease, so of course, the leaders of the world all rushed to sign up.”
Big surprise! This was not a good idea. The story of the sad (and sometimes hilarious) consequences of this peculiar alien invasion is told through the voice of Adam Costello, a seventeen-year-old art student. Adam lives in a decaying middle-class home with his out-of-work parents and his younger sister. Because the vuvv give nothing away free of charge, and jobs are extremely scarce, everyone on Earth has essentially gone broke, with the exception of a small number of super-wealthy people who live in palatial homes that float above the land. The dollar and every other human currency is virtually worthless in exchange for the vuvv currency, the ch’ch. (“The lowliest vuvv grunt made more in a week than most humans made in two years.”) Adam, his family, and practically everyone he knows are on the verge of starvation. He takes it upon himself to earn money so the family can eat, first with one crazy scheme, then another.
Landscape with Invisible Hand, reflects the same inventiveness and sarcastic humor that so enlivens his popular dystopian young adult novel, Feed. The heading of each short chapter (“A Food Cart in Front of a Strip Mall,” “My Parents’ Bedroom, with the Covers Askew”) represents the title of one of Adam’s paintings. The book is full of surprises.
M. T. Anderson (Matthew Tobin Anderson) wrote fourteen previous novels as well as a number of short stories and picture books. He writes primarily for young adults and children. Anderson won the National Book Award for one of his novels, among other awards.
For my review of Anderson’s Feed, go to A terrifying vision of the future in an award-winning young adult novel. For a review of another book that features an off-beat alien invasion (in which the humans are the invaders), see Alien encounters of the strange kind in a captivating sci-fi novel. You might also be interested in My 27 favorite science fiction novels.
After Atlas (Planetfall, A) by Emma Newman
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
In Planetfall, published in 2015, British science fiction author Emma Newman introduced us to the Earth-like planet where a massive starship had delivered 1,000 people many years earlier. The ship was called Atlas. The following year, Newman brought out a sequel, After Atlas, which portrayed life on Earth for the billions who remained behind. It’s a grim picture of society in what appears to be sometime in the 22nd century.
This is a world you or I wouldn’t want to live in. Only the wealthiest can afford to eat real food. Everyone else must eat what comes from printers (successors to our contemporary 3-D printers). Every nation is governed by a “gov-corp” that operates under the influence of a tiny elite of billionaires. Virtually everyone is “chipped” with implants in their brains that connect them to the world around them—and make them vulnerable to their bosses or public authorities. Many of the most talented people are enslaved in decades-long contracts resembling what was once called indentured servitude. One of those people is Carlos Moreno.
Carlos Moreno is a brilliant, top-level homicide investigator contracted to the Ministry of Justice of Norope (northern Europe) for fifty years; he has thirty years to go. But the contract is extended every time he overspends his allowance, because Carlos has a powerful hankering for real food. And every time he does something to displease his boss. As he reflects, “A black mark puts another year on my contract. Three black marks and they’ll send me in for ‘calibration.’ I shudder at the thought of it. Like all expensive property, I’m kept in good working order.”
Carlos, known as Carl to friends, is assigned by the ministry to investigate the death of one of the world’s most famous people, a man named Alejandro Casales, who heads a large and wealthy religious cult based in Texas. Alejandro has died in a hotel room in England, an apparent suicide. But the case is complicated by more than Alejandro’s celebrity status: his body was hacked to pieces with an axe following his death by hanging.
Further complicating the case is Carlos’ history with The Circle, the cult Alejandro led. Abandoned by his mother as a baby and neglected by his father, who suffered a nervous breakdown when his wife deserted the family to leave Earth on Atlas, Carlos spent eight years with the cult in Texas. He grew to hate Alejandro and his father as well.
Using the massive information resources available to him through his Artificial Personal Assistant, the avatar who personifies his chip, Carlos doggedly pursues his investigation at a pace that would astonish any 21st-century cop. Newman tells the tale with a wealth of intriguing detail—and she creates suspense like the best of them. The book also works well as a police procedural. After Atlas is an excellent piece of work.
I felt differently about Newman’s previous novel, Planetfall, which I reviewed at A promising but disappointing new science fiction novel. For links to my reviews of other books in this genre that I’ve loved, see My 27 favorite science fiction novels.