Book Challenge #94: The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

It’s reading challenge time again! This book is #94, The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, first published in 1953. I actually really enjoyed the introduction to this one, since it gave a whole history of Asimov’s robot novels and shone some light on the state of publishing at that time. Now on to my review!


I had read this book a very long time ago, which was enough to ruin the “whodunnit” of the mystery but left my memory of the details vague, and I enjoyed revisiting them. The story centers around Elijah, a detective who has the unenviable task of investigating a murder fraught with diplomatic hazards between Earth and the “spacers” who colonized other planets but still have an embassy of sorts back on Earth. To complicate matters, the detective is forced to partner with a robot, R. Daneel. This is problematic in a world where robots are widely disliked or distrusted due to them replacing humans in many jobs, with only a minimum social safety net for those squeezed out of work. It is also challenging because all robots on Earth are instantly recognizable as such, while R. Daneel is effectively indistinguishable from a human without close examination.

As the story progresses the relationship between the human and robot detectives slowly thaws, with many missteps along the way. I won’t completely spoil the story here since it is technically a detective novel and for me knowing the who and the why of the murder in advance did detract from the fun of the experience a little. The murder case isn’t always compelling, but the social context makes this novel interesting. There’s a lot of interesting ideas in here about how you can pack the highest density of people into a city, which by the time of this story are sprawling monstrosities the size of some states or small countries, where people never see the open sky. The density and efficiency of these massive population centers are also what make them extremely vulnerable, and yet the people who live there almost never seem to realize that. The conflicts between the people of Earth and the Spacers are partially due to things like religion but are mostly related to how they view distribution of resources.  The goal of the Spacers is to find some way to convince Earth to start colonizing new planets again, for the good of humanity as a whole. This is an interesting concept and in stark contrast to many sci-fi works that pit Earth against its colonies as they fight for resources. It was fun to see things like interplanetary relations and the Malthusian growth problem tackled from a very different perspective than the Mars books I just finished reading.

TL;DR:  There’s a reason this one is a classic. It is a fairly simple story but told well, and with some thought provoking commentary on automation, planetary carrying capacity, and effecting cultural change.

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Rating: 4/5 stars

Verdict: Go read it. It’s short, sweet, and worth your time.

Next up: A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

Book Challenge #96: Lucifer’s Hammer by Lary Niven & Jerry Pournelle

It’s time to knock another book off of my challenge list. This time we’re discussing #96, Lucifer’s Hammer by Lary Niven & Jerry Pournelle. First published in 1977, this novel looks at what happens when a comet collides with Earth. Spoilers Ahoy!


Let’s get  this book’s biggest strength laid out right up front. The authors do an incredible job of setting up the science. I don’t pretend to know if everything presented about the comet and its physical effects is completely accurate, but as someone with a career in the geosciences, it feels plausible. The initial strikes are devastating, but they also set off secondary disasters like earthquakes and tidal waves. These all combine to change the landscape and the weather substantially, and add challenges for the survivors to worry about. The only piece of the science that felt really unlikely to me was the fact that the space station survived and the astronauts were able to return safely, and I can allow that suspension of disbelief for the sake of the narrative. Overall the science felt good, if very depressing.

The story itself follows a whole host of characters for several months before and after “Hammerfall”. There are so many characters that in fact today, about a week after I finished reading, I can’t even recall all of them or their names. The book moves around to different perspectives for each chapter and it does help to give a much wider view of what is happening than a smaller cast possibly could. We get to see the stories of scientists, astronauts, politicians, religious leaders, and filmmakers side by side with those of a mailman, an accountant, and other more mundane folks. The comet starts as a vehicle for self-promotion for the amateur astronomer and the documentary filmmaker, then becomes an object of interest and a means to an end for scientists and politicians. Once it becomes clear that the comet has a chance of hitting Earth, it becomes an object of religious fervor and a scapegoat for moral transgressions. Having so many perspectives let us see all these different angles of the comet first-hand. Once the disaster happens it also lets us see the many different ways that the comet ruined lives.

A few times while reading this one I felt the hopelessness of the situation and considered giving up on the book. After all, the time of holiday stress is not the greatest for reading a depressing book about the end of the world. This hit me the most when reading the perspective of Maureen, the senator’s daughter. She’s very pragmatic about their chances for survival and has a hard time reconciling the fact that she has to be a leader and a voice of hope for the town when she has none for herself. The hopelessness is compounded by sexism that gives the unwritten understanding that she can’t take over leadership when her father dies, so she has to choose a husband that can. I’d like to hope that if this book were written today her situation would be more in her own hands and less dependent on the men around her.

The way women and people of color are portrayed definitely contribute to how dated the novel feels. It is very difficult to disentangle how much of the racism and sexism are the too-real human response in the face of societal breakdown, and how much are the authors’ biases bleeding through. I very much got the feeling while reading that the authors would probably consider themselves on the progressive end of the spectrum for the time, but the results still widely miss the mark by my standards today. For example, in the space station, there’s some interesting discussion and parallels between the woman cosmonaut and the black astronaut and the pressures they face to appear perfect. Unfortunately in the same chapter the woman’s actions get dismissed as part of her “monthly troubles”. I could also rail at length about the lack of agency of all of the women in this book, or about the black characters who start out as criminals and end up cannibals. Suffice it to say that race and gender issues are a problem this book acknowledges but doesn’t deal with very well.

In the end I can see why this one is rated as a classic, and can agree even if I don’t think it holds up quite so well 40 years later. It is a good example of its genre that gives a reasonable look at what might happen in the months surrounding a catastrophic event like a comet impact. Heck, it even manages not to end on an entirely depressing note which was a pleasant surprise. Large-scale disaster stories like this generally don’t work very well for my tastes. I much prefer the chance to get to know a smaller cast of characters, regardless of the scale of the problems they face. That, in combination with how dated it feels in terms of both society and technology, led me to give this one a middling score.

TL;DR:

Lucifer’s Hammer by Lary Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Rating: 3/5 stars

Verdict: Excellent example of apocalypse fiction from its time. Unfortunately apocalypse fiction isn’t my thing, and this one in particular feels pretty dated now.

Next up: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.

 

Book Challenge #97: The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

I’m doing a bit better on my book challenge this month. This time I’m reviewing The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, published in 1992. This is the first book on the list so far that had never heard of, and the first one that I’ve given a 5/5 rating. Read on to find out why I loved this book so much!


This book takes place in the near future 21st century, where historians not only study the past via archaeological digs and old tomes, but also by traveling back in time to experience things for themselves. The technology is in its growth phase in the book, established enough that there are protocols for it and trained technicians to oversee it but new enough that whole swaths of history are still off-limits due to safety concerns. Kivrin, our protagonist, is a bright and determined student at Oxford who wants to be the first to visit the 1300s.

The novel opens as Kivrin is being prepared to leave for her journey to 1320. There’s comedic but all-too-real rivalry between departments or schools at the university. Her mentor Dunworthy specializes in less remote time periods that are more routinely open to time travel, and is concerned about her safety and the way the drop is being rushed. Meanwhile the acting head of the medieval department appears more focused on the prestige and opportunity he might gain by pushing the project through before the actual department head returns from Christmas vacation. Kivrin herself is just excited to be on her way to see the middle ages at Christmastime and wants everyone to stop worrying over her. The whole book is full of genuine-feeling interactions between characters with real motivations and expressions and it’s part of why I enjoyed it so much.

The drop to 1320 appears to be a success, but shortly after it is completed the technician in charge comes down with a serious illness. Unbeknownst to the modern characters, Kivrin also becomes ill upon arrival in the past. The net that allows time travel is supposed to be impervious to things like diseases coming back through, but did something go wrong? The story splits, and follows both Kivrin’s experiences in the 1300s and the epidemic happening in 21st century Oxford. We get treated to the antics of overprotective mothers, precocious children, and status-seekers across the centuries. There are heroes and saints and villains but mostly there are average folks just trying to make the best of terrible situations and get on with their lives.

What started out as a story about time travel turned out to be part medical mystery, part survival story, and part family drama. It was so satisfying to watch these parts unfold in tandem across both timelines. Also, though I don’t usually like children in general, it was impossible not to become attached to the children in this story. Colin, in the future, watches the epidemic unfold with morbid fascination, ducking past quarantine lines, helping in the hospital, and endlessly sucking on his everlasting gobstopper. Agnes, in the past, could be any young girl in any age, playing with her puppy, teasing her older sister, jingling her new bell during mass when she’s supposed to be quiet. I absolutely cared about these characters and wanted them to have a happy end to their stories, even the ones who, from one perspective, had already been dead for hundreds of years. I stayed up way too late reading the last section of the book in one go because I was too invested to put it down before I knew what happened to all of these people I cared about. And that’s leaving out the biggest question: Would Kivrin  ever make it home?

The strength of the last book I read for this challenge (Perdido Street Station) was in the deft complexity of the story threads and the way the city itself felt alive. By contrast, I was almost always a few steps ahead of the plot of The Doomsday Book, but it didn’t matter in the slightest because I genuinely cared about the characters and wanted to see how things played out. It also helped immensely that the grim realities of life in the middle ages and in the midst of a modern epidemic are at least partially offset by moments of humor and human kindness. I can’t recommend this book highly enough!

The past is wonderful and terrible and nothing like you imagined, but you will be glad you made the journey.

TL;DR:

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Rating: 5/5 stars

Verdict: Deeply human and relatable characters and an engaging story make this my first 5/5 book of the challenge. You should read it!

Book Challenge #99: Piers Anthony’s Xanth Series

The next item on my reading list is Piers Anthony’s Xanth series. It starts with A Spell for Chameleon, published in 1977. I knew this was a long series, but I had no idea that there are 39 of them, and several more still forthcoming. These books were always staples at my local used book store, but I never picked them up. Something about getting into a long series like that is incredibly daunting.

Luckily after the last book I read for this challenge, this one doesn’t take itself seriously at all and is a light, vaguely pleasant read. Well, most of the time. Spoilers ahead!


Continue reading

Book Challenge #100: C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy

So when I thought about doing this challenge, I got all excited about the long list of amazing books I was going to read. Then I looked at the list and saw that the first thing I’d be reading was C.S. Lewis and I almost decided to quit before I’d even started. To say I have a negative opinion of this author is a huge understatement. However, I hadn’t read this series in particular, and it did make the list so I figured I would give it a shot. I did resent shelling out four bucks for the privilege.

The Space Trilogy is Lewis’ attempt to reach adult audiences with his The first book of this series is Out of the Silent Planet, published in 1938.

This series’ inclusion on this list smacks of “well we can’t include Narnia since it is technically children’s fiction, but we have to throw some C.S.Lewis on there somehow.”

In this story, the protagonist, Professor Ransom, walks through the countryside until he is drugged, beaten, and abducted by a childhood acquaintance and a famous scientist. They steal him away to another planet where he’s meant to be given to the natives for presumably nefarious purposes. Instead, after they land Ransom escapes and runs off, eventually meeting the planet’s inhabitants and learning about their world. By the end he is reunited with his captors, and they discover the reason why the aliens wanted a human in the first place.

The first 2/3 of this book is boring but passable. It sets up the story and gets the protagonist from Earth to Mars. Addition of alien language comes across as grammar lesson instead of compelling part of the world. Portrayals and reactions to women, “simple” people, and “savages” are awful and incredibly off-putting.

The last 1/3 of this book was a condescending, thinly-veiled religious allegory. I have no problems with allegory in general, but here there’s no subtlety or novelty about it whatsoever. A book about ending up on an alien planet and uncovering their social structure and religion could be interesting. A book about going to Mars to hear a retelling of the bible is incredibly boring.

My copy came with a free preview chapter of the 2nd book of the series. I declined to read it.

TL;DR:

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Rating: 1/5 stars

Verdict: Would not recommend, unless you are interested in being bludgeoned about the head with christian allegory.

What I’m…Reading?

I am fortunate enough to have some extra down time in my days when I’m not working and playing games and making ends meet. I suppose I could use this time to be productive. I could wash the giant pile of laundry that’s waiting for me, or finish painting my office, but no. Why would I do those things when I can lose myself in a good book? I’ve been trying to step away from the computer each night early enough to read for at least a half hour before bed. This week I remembered that NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction & Fantasy Books list exists, and that I keep meaning to work my way through it. I figure Blaugust is a perfect time to get started on it, to give me more blog fodder and to keep me honest and see if I’m still making progress.

I chose this list instead of any of the billion other lists of top sci-fi and fantasy because I generally trust NPR as a curator of interesting stories, because 60,000 people voted on it, and because it is easily accessible. I do acknowledge that it is 5 or so years old now, so it is probably missing a few amazing recent works.

The list cheats a bit, in that many of the items are series, not single books. If a single book of a series is listed alone, I’ll just read that one. For listed series, I’ll read the first book and leave the rest up to personal discretion. If I enjoyed the first one or if I feel like it is worthwhile to me culturally to keep reading I will. Even if I’m really loving a series I will probably stop after 3 and come back to it later because if I get myself bogged down in The Wheel of Time or some other long series I may never finish this list.

I also recognize that this is a very long term project. If I did no other reading it would still take ages to get through this entire list, so I’m only going to require that I finish one of these per month. That way I can alternate between these classics and whatever new shiny novel Seanan McGuire wrote this week or other thing that catches my fancy.

So here are my full ground rules for this challenge:

  1. Start at #100 and work up the list to #1
  2. Must attempt every book
  3. May skip books after reading at least 25% if they are just awful or upsetting
  4. May stop series after reading the first book
  5. Must track progress and rate each work
  6. Must complete one book each month

I did the math before writing this post, and I’ve read about half of this 100 already. Some of them recently, some of them decades ago. I’m curious to see if they hold up to my vague memories of them, or if age gives me a bit of perspective and makes them even more enjoyable.

Item #100 on the list, and hence my first for this challenge, is the Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis. I’ve never read these, but I’m not a huge fan of C.S. Lewis’ other work. I don’t really know anything about this one at all, though, so I’m curious to see how it compares.

Interested in joining me on this challenge? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!

Are you watching Steven Universe?

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I didn’t get as much time as I would have liked to play games last night, but I did get to watch a few episodes of Steven Universe that were sitting on my DVR. I started watching the show a bit late, and I admit I was pretty baffled by the outspoken love for this show on my social media radar. The show is about a young boy named Steven and his alien gem friends/caretakers who protect the planet earth. It is a fairly normal-sounding premise for a generic kids cartoon, but luckily the delivery is anything but generic.

Steven Universe does so many amazing things I wish I had seen on TV when I was a kid. Almost all of the main characters are women and girls. It has perfect beautiful normal flawed queer relationships. I realize it is 2016 and I should be taking things like this for granted by now, but it is still amazing to me for a cartoon to step forward and say “these people love each other” without being either so subtle about it that it could be overlooked or so awkward that it is meant to be a lesson not a relationship. Likewise, the show covers some pretty grown-up sounding themes like consent in a straightforward honest way without ever having to mention sex, and without sounding like an after-school special. To top it off it packages it in a cheerful fun art style and some of the most amazing catchy music I’ve ever heard on television.

If you haven’t seen it yet, I really recommend you give it a try. Start from the beginning if you can, because the series is definitely telling a story. The most recent episodes pack a real emotional punch for fans, but might just be 15 minutes of confusion for someone new to the show. I was hooked within the first 5 or 6 episodes, and if you make it to episode 12 (Giant Woman) and aren’t completely sold then I think you can probably walk away safely. At this point the show has become enough of a cultural touchstone among my social circles that I couldn’t imagine being without it.