Well it’s December and 2013 is on it’s way out. I’ve read a lot of science fiction this year and I thought I’d give you what I thought were the stand out reads of the year in no particular order.
First we have Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline.
What it’s about – In 2044 the world is a shambles, the economy is severely depressed and resources are scarce. The world now functions almost solely through an MMO called OASIS, created by James Halliday and Ogden Morrow.
James Halliday, who controls OASIS, has died and with no relatives he has set up a massive Easter Egg hunt within the OASIS game. The prize is Halliday’s vast fortune and control of OASIS itself.
Why it’s great – Cline has essentially written a love letter to his and my, and many other’s, youth. The book is rife with references to the 1980’s, its pop culture and its advanced (for then) technology.
Reading Ready Player One was a trip though my teen years and I will admit it was a fun romp back. More than just a nostalgic look at the 80’s Ready Player One is also a very good look at how an MMO might be put to use as more than a simple game. These uses can be both grand and nefarious, showing that the technology is only as good or bad as the people that use it.
Next up is Nova (1968) by Samuel R. Delany.
What it’s about – More than a thousand years from now the galaxy is split into two factions, the Earth based Draco and the Pleiades Federation and both are vying for control of the Outer Colonies where Illyrion, the mineral needed for starship travel and terraforming, is mined.
Lorq Von Ray and his crew are in a race against Prince Red and his sister, Ruby Red, to reach the nova in order to collect vast quantities of Illyrion created by the death of the star. The nova will create a mere seven tons of Illyrion, but it is enough to shift the power balance of the galaxy away from Draco and over to Pleiades.
Why it’s great – Delany is a genius, pure and simple. His unique style and voice really are really apparent in Nova. And while Nova is not a weighty tome like Dhalgren, what it lacks in size it make up for in impact.
Delany puts forth a great space opera story with action and intrigue. The story criss-crosses the galaxy taking the reader through so many novel ideas and situations it can be difficult to grasp it all in a single reading. Delany’s use of politics, psychology, drugs and technology make for a heady mix that at times can be comparable to Dune, published three years earlier.
While reading Nova I couldn’t help but see how it has influenced future writers, especially the cyberpunk movement of the 1980’s. With ideas like man-machine interface, casual drug use and sex. You can trace a line straight back from authors like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling directly to Delany.
When it comes down to it, however, Nova is a highly entertaining read that should be on anyone’s list.
On a special note, on 4 December, 2013 Samuel R. Delany was named the 2013 Damon Knight Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Congratulations Mr. Delany! Mr. Delany will receive his honours at the 49th Annual Nebula Awards Weekend, 16-18 May, 2014.
Now we come to World of Ptavvs (1966) by Larry Niven.
What it’s about – Larry Greenberg, a telepath, has his personality taken over by Kzanol, the last living Thrint, a telepathic race which has died out.
Greenberg/Kzanol and the real Kzanol each steal a spaceship and race to Neptune, where a thought amplifying machine awaits to allow Kzanol, or another telepath, to assume control of the solar system.
Why it’s great – I admit it. I’m completely biased when it comes to Larry Niven. I love his writing and I love his ‘Known Space’ universe. It’s a future that seems entirely plausible.
Niven is not one to write what you might call ‘two-fisted’ action books, but rather his characters think their way out of problems. That’s not to say that force isn’t used when the story calls for it, but it’s never the focus. I like the more cerebral solutions that Niven seems to come up with.
World of Ptavvs, Niven’s first published book, is an exciting and and oft times tense read, building to the final confrontation and resolution. Niven gives a short, but enjoyable book that holds up very well after nearly fifty years.
Of course you may be wondering exactly what a Ptavv is, I will just say that you really need to read it to find out for yourself.
My next favourite read of 2013 is The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick.
What it’s about – In an alternate history a chain of events, starting with the assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, lead to America staying isolated from WWII, thereby having insufficient military capability to assist the Britain and the U.S.S.R. in the war, leading to their eventual defeat and the U.S.’s inability to repel the invasion from Japan. The world is divided between the German Reich, the Italian Empire and the Empire of Japan.
Fast forward to 1962, Germany has set out to space and has colonised the moon and Mars. While Germany and Japan are supposedly allies, there are tensions that are spilling over between the two and factions within the Reich are competing clandestinely to sway the Reich.
Why it’s great – Any story where the Axis wins WWII is always going to pique many people’s interest. It’s usually quite interesting to see how a writer leads to a point where the Allies lose and what happens from then on. Dick has taken the time to make a very scary and very logical chain of events where this happens.
While German and Japan are supposedly allies, Dick portrays the Reich has continuing on with its pogrom against the Jews and extending it further into Africa. Whereas Japan, while conquering western America, has established itself as more moderate and accepting of its former enemies.
The tensions between these two allies are the crux of the story, but not its sole focus. It is the story that interested me the most and felt the most fully realised. You can see that while hostilities between Germany and Japan are averted, unless there is major change in the Reich, it will become inevitable.
There are other plot lines that come close to one another, but never actually intersect in any meaningful way. Rather, all these plots serve to paint a picture of the new order as a whole and how people act and react within that new order.
There is a lot going on in The Man in the High Castle and for a small book it is densely packed with themes and ideas. A second read may be in order for the future.
The last book I will include is All You Need Is Kill (2004 Japanese/2009 English) by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.
What it’s about – Earth is at war and Keiji Kiriya is fighting the same battle over and over again. Caught in a time loop Keiji desperately wants to find a way out and the only way seems to be by killing every damn alien there is.
Why it’s great – All You Need Is Kill is a view of a war where time travel has evolved as a survival mechanism in the invading ‘Mimics’. This is a novel idea.
Keiji has been affected by this time travel and only he and one other person, the U. S. Special Forces Sergeant Rita Vrataski, who had been caught in an earlier loop, knows about it.
At first Keiji is disoriented and mystified, but he starts to learn and with each loop, uses his training and what he learns in each battle to get further along with the hopes of eventually escaping the loop.
What is happening is not strictly time travel in the true sense, but rather the Mimics, when they lose, send a signal back in time through their dreams and then they adjust their tactics accordingly. It’s a rather tidy way to get around the physics of actual time travel.
All You Need Is Kill was translated by Alexander O. Smith into English. While I cannot say whether it was done well or not from a purely grammatical standpoint, I will say that Smith did help me, as an English speaker, read a book that was very enjoyable and fun.
The year 2013 has provided me with ample opportunity to read some really great books and some really great science fiction. I’m heading into 2014 with a view to do more of the same.
Like anyone else I’m always on the look out for great recommendations for science fiction reads (or anything really). If you’ve got any for me please leave them in the comments below. Cheers.