Book recommendations

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If you're a reader (there's probably still a few out there), here's some notes on worthwhile or out-of-the-ordinary books that you may have missed.

If you'd like to see a list for younger readers that somebody requested for Christmas 2011, click here.




Peace by Gene Wolfe.

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Peace could be looked at as 1920s Americana, a ghost story, or a game that Wolfe is playing with the reader.

Here's what Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods and Coraline) says about the book:

Not only can you lie in fiction, but I think Gene is the master of lying in fiction, both directly and indirectly. Peace is built on lies. And assume that, being who he is, Gene is pretty damn sure what the truth and what the lies are in Peace. The rest of us have to get through that as best we can. After three or four times through that text, you begin to be able to say, I think he's lying about this or that.

Note: The current edition of Peace has cover art by Gahan Wilson, which is a clue that there's something besides 1920s Americana in the book.

Peace may be out of print, but you can order used copies from its Amazon page.

Here's an excerpt from the book:

“I am an elderly man now, Doctor, and there is no one to advise me. I have cast myself back because I need you. I have had a stroke.”

“I see.” He smiles at me. “You are how old?”

“Sixty or more. I'm not sure.”

“I see. You lost count?”

“Everyone died. There is no one to give birthday parties; no one cares. For a time I tried to forget.”

“Sixty years into the future. I suppose I'll be dead by then.”

“You have been dead a long, long time... I think your grave is in the old burying ground, between the park and the Presbyterian church...”

“I see. Open your mouth, Den.”

“You don't believe me.”

“I think I do, but my business now is with your throat.”





Atom by Steve Aylett.

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Atom is a detective novel, in the sense that Picasso's melting watches are standard timepieces. The book is about a private investigator named Taffy Atom and his piranha partner, Jed Helms. Jed is the fish you'll see in the picture to the left.

If you're interested in likable characters and linear plots, this book isn't for you. However, if you're looking for something unusual, Atom might fit the bill. Here's some typical quotes from the book:

  • “Ladies and gentlemen,” said Atom, “if you'll indulge me. I have assigned a musical note to every grade of human lie. Here's my rendition of the President's inaugural address.” And he took out a clarinet.

  • The one time Blince got near a fact his hair caught fire.

  • “Reality evades the eye,” said the barman, holding a clean glass to the light, “dodging the rods and cones like a swerve driver.”

  • Like most flux technology, the Syndication bomb hinged on a cheap but ingenious trick. Rather than actually stripping the subtext from the blast site it converted the wave range into a living Updike novel, the subtext containing information everyone already knew — the end result was a shallow reality in which every move was a statement of the obvious.

For more information, visit the book's Amazon page.





Passage by Connie Willis.

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Passage is a novel about a researcher who's studying Near Death Experiences. The story moves in unexpected directions when the researcher learns more about life after death than she bargained for.

Incidentally, the Titanic plays an important role in the plot, but you don't need to be a Titanic fan to enjoy Passage.

For more information, visit the book's Amazon page.





Prisoner's Dilemma by William Poundstone.

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Prisoner's Dilemma is a non-fiction book about John von Neumann, game theory, the Game of Chicken, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. If you're interested in business strategy or the history of the Cold War, you'll probably like this book.

For more information, visit the book's Amazon page.





Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.

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Into Thin Air is the true story of a Mount Everest expedition that didn't go as well as the participants had hoped. It's more of a philosophical investigation than an action-adventure kind of thing; you'll find it on some existentialist reading lists. The book was named Time Magazine's Book of the Year. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Non-Fiction.

For more information, visit the book's Amazon page.





Apes, Angels, and Victorians by William Irvine.

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Charles Darwin's work is generally misunderstood. Apes, Angels, and Victorians clears up a number of important points. This is an interesting “joint biography” of Darwin, who developed the modern version of the theory of evolution, and Thomas Huxley, who popularized it. The book includes an introduction by Sir Julian Huxley (Thomas Huxley's grandson).

Apes, Angels, and Victorians may be out of print, but you can order used copies from its Amazon page.





Standard Candles by Jack McDevitt.

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Standard Candles is a collection of people-oriented SF stories by Jack McDevitt. The overall tone of the book is philosophical and sometimes downbeat, but it's a good choice if you're in the mood for something deeper than the endless series of Tolkien imitations you'll find in most bookstores.

The book includes one single-joke story that doesn't really fit (Auld Lang Boom), but most of the stories are high-quality. The title story (Standard Candles) is probably the best one, but Ellie is a contender. Ellie begins with the great line “If the lights at Bolton's Tower go out, the devil gets loose” and lives up to the opening.

Incidentally, a “standard candle” is an ordinary star (like our sun). The title story is about an astronomer who comes to terms with the fact that he's only a “standard candle”.

Note: If you like the story Time Travelers Never Die, buy a copy of Alexander Jablokov's collection The Breath of Suspension (click here) and read the story The Ring of Memory. The Ring of Memory is an interesting variation on the same theme (time travelers argue about destiny vs. free will).

Standard Candles may be difficult to find. The author's home page seems to be missing. But it's worth the effort to find the book.

Here's an excerpt from one of the stories (Cruising through Deuteronomy):

“Listen to me. I was at the foot of the mountain when Moses returned with the Tablets. I saw him shatter them against the rocks. I watched Solomon give judgment and walked through his temple. I stood a few feet from David when he killed the Philistine. I was in the crowd when Jesus delivered the sermon on the mount.”

Perspiration glittered on Gant's forehead. “You're lying,” he said. “You're mocking me. And blaspheming everything that's holy. You're a non-believer. I know about you. I've read what you've written.”

Cardwell smiled gently. “That was true once. George, I was on the shore during the storm when the Master stepped out of the boat. I looked into His eyes.”

The pastor tried to speak, but only strangled sounds got out.





The Shipkiller by Justin Scott.

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The Shipkiller is a nautical adventure novel published in the 1970s. It's about a man who's trying to sink a million-ton tanker (aptly named Leviathan).

The book is out of print, but used copies can sometimes be purchased online for as little as 50 cents (plus several dollars shipping charges). Note: There are several books with similar names (apparently including a sequel). You're looking for ISBN 0-449-24036-3.

To buy a used copy through Amazon, click here.





The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter.

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The Time Ships is an unusual science fiction novel that's written in a pseudo-Victorian style. This is a sequel to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine published about 100 years after the first book.

If you've read H.G. Wells' book, you'll remember that the Time Traveler disappears at the end. Baxter's novel explains what happens to him. Note: The book includes a few Victorian-style illustrations.

Suitable for ages 15 to 95, though it's not light reading. The book is grounded in quantum physics, but Baxter makes the technical points understandable. The Time Ships won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1996 and the Philip K. Dick Award in 1997.

For more information, visit the book's Amazon page.





The Night Country by Loren Eiseley.

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Loren Eiseley was a noted anthropologist, and The Night Country is a collection of essays that he wrote about his life and work. The book is non-fiction, but it borders on magical realism in places.

Note: Dr. Eiseley's earlier writings may have influenced Ray Bradbury.

For more information, visit the book's Amazon page.

Here's an excerpt from the book:

If you cannot bear the silence and the darkness, do not go there; if you dislike black night and yawning chasms, never make them your profession. If you fear the sound of water hurrying through crevices toward unknown and mysterious destinations, do not consider it. Seek out the sunshine. It is a simpler prescription. Avoid the darkness.





1940: Myth and Reality by Clive Ponting.

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1940: Myth and Reality is a non-fiction book about World War II. The book explores the true stories behind popular myths about the war (from a British perspective). One surprising revelation: Churchill's famous We shall fight on the beaches speech was actually given by an actor from a BBC children's radio program.

1940: Myth and Reality couldn't be described as exciting. However, if you're interested in the issue of wartime political agendas, you'll find that the book's worth your time.

For more information, visit the book's Amazon page.





Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott.

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Flatland is an oddity. This book was published by an English clergyman about 125 years ago (in 1884), but it's still a useful introduction to the concept of higher dimensions. The book contains the autobiography of a geometric figure named “A. Square” who lives in a universe that's completely flat. Soldiers are triangles (they're pointy, after all) and priests are high-order polygons (more sides equals higher social status).

Over the years, several writers have published modern sequels to Flatland or variations on the theme. If you enjoy the book, three of the modern tales may be of interest:

  • Flatterland: Like Flatland, Only More So (click here).

  • The Planiverse: Computer Contact With a Two-Dimensional World (click here).

  • Message found in a copy of Flatland. This is a short story in Rudy Rucker's collection The 57th Franz Kafka. The collection is out of print, but used copies can be purchased online (click here).

The full title of the book is Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. You can read the book on this site. To do so, click here.





Deep Time by Gregory Benford.

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The full title of this book is Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia, which pretty much sums it up. Deep Time explores our attempts to create messages that will outlast our societies. Note: Gregory Benford is both a physicist and a well-known SF author.

For more information, visit the book's Amazon page.





The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom.

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The Lucifer Principle is a controversial non-fiction book which asserts that good and evil are based on biological imperatives. Bloom's thesis is that life is a power struggle between groups at all levels of existence (from groups of cells to groups of people and beyond), and that supposedly voluntary human behavior can be explained in terms of the power struggle. Most people who read this book won't be neutral about it.

For more information, visit the book's Amazon page.





From These Ashes by Fredric Brown.

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If you're looking for bite-sized fantasy without an excessive number of dragons or knights, From These Ashes might be the book for you. This book collects all of Fredric Brown's short fantasy stories. The stories range from humor to horror; many of them are corny or outdated, but at 693 pages and about 100 stories, the book has something for everybody.

Some notes about a few of the stories:

  • The Arena was the basis for a Star Trek episode (during the first season of the original series). The Star Trek episode added a “moral” which isn't present in Brown's story.

  • The book's title (plus the phoenix imagery on the cover) refers to one of Brown's best stories, Letter to a Phoenix.

  • The Weapon is one of Brown's best known stories, due to an unforgettable punchline. This story is also notable as an anti-arms race piece that was written at the start of the Cold War.

  • Come and Go Mad is reminiscent of Philip K. Dick's work. This story is about a paranoid reporter who learns of a conspiracy (which has the catchy name The Brightly Shining).

For more information, visit the book's Amazon page.





The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith.

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“Cordwainer Smith” was the pseudonym of Dr. Paul M. A. Linebarger, a professor of Asiatic studies at John Hopkins University who had connections to the U.S. intelligence community. Dr. Linebarger created a unique body of short fiction during the 1950s and 1960s set in a future universe called The Instrumentality of Mankind (or I-of-M).

Many of the I-of-M stories are classics (No, No, Not Rogov!, Scanners Live in Vain, Drunkboat, The Game of Rat and Dragon, Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons, etc.). The tone of the stories is old-fashioned in places (see the excerpt below), but they hold up fairly well after half a century.

The Rediscovery of Man collects all of Dr. Linebarger's short fiction in a single hefty volume (671 pages). Note: Dr. Linebarger planned his future history carefully. The book's title (Rediscovery of Man) refers to a renaissance that takes place around 15,000 AD. To see a related timeline, click here.

For more information, visit the book's Amazon page.

Here's an excerpt from one of the stories (Drunkboat):

When he came to know Elizabeth, he hated the girl.

This was not his girl — his bold, saucy Elizabeth of the markets and the valleys, of the snowy hills and the long boat rides. This was somebody meek, sweet, sad, and hopelessly loving.

Vomact cured that.

He sent Rambo to the Pleasure City of the Hesperides, where bold and talkative women pursued him because he was rich and famous.

In a few weeks — a very few indeed — he wanted his Elizabeth, this strange shy girl who had been cooked back from the dead while he rode space with his own fragile bones.

“Tell the truth, darling.” He spoke to her once gravely and seriously. “The Lord Crudelta did not arrange the accident which killed you?”

“They say he wasn't there,” said Elizabeth. “They say it was an actual accident. I don't know. I will never know.”





Complete and Utter Failure by Neil Steinberg.

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Complete and Utter Failure is an interesting look at gambles, ventures, and commitments that didn't quite work out. The book discusses a wide range of subjects, ranging from Mount Everest expeditions and smokeless cigarettes to spelling bees and Baby Jesus dolls.

For more information, visit the book's Amazon page.





Manifold: Time by Stephen Baxter.

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This is another Stephen Baxter time-travel novel. Manifold: Time is part of a trilogy (Manifold) from a few years back. This entry in the series shows off Baxter's specialty: stories with a background that spans millions of years. He'd like to be the 21st-century Olaf Stapledon, and to a large extent, he's succeeded. Manifold: Time is about the end of space and time. Something transcendental, anyway. You decide.

For more information, visit the book's Amazon page.





The Time Stream by John Taine (Eric Temple Bell).

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The Time Stream is an oddity from the 1930s that mixes a post-Victorian style with “superscience” elements that were common during the period. The book's about a group of friends who discover that their lives echo across millions of years, both past and future. The plot is hopelessly outdated, but this book was a favorite of mine when I was about 13 years old.

Note: “John Taine” was a pseudonym for “Eric Temple Bell”, a professor of mathematics at the California Institute of Technology during the early part of the 20th century.

If you look for this book, try to get one of the editions that includes the original 1930s “superscience” illustrations. For books of this type, the illustrations were half the fun.

For more information, visit one of the book's various Amazon pages.

Here's an excerpt from the book:

“We are drifting into the time stream again,” Ducasse murmured drowsily. “Watch the reflections on the table top.”

He was right. The walls of the room receded, and a new radiance quivered on the ampler air of this vast chamber into which we had drifted. It was a physical laboratory of the not far distant future. That this image was indeed not probably farther than a century down the stream, we recognized from the few familiar measuring instruments here and there among the strange apparatus of a future science.

Then we became aware of a familiar figure standing motionless by the table... He did not perceive our presence in the time stream. Evidently he was absorbed in thought.

Presently, his image turned... and moved toward a work desk at the far end of the laboratory. We followed, and stood with him looking over the litter of open books and closely written papers on the desk. All the books but one were opened at pages covered with the intricacies of some future mathematics, or with the clear cut diagrams of physical apparatus as yet undesigned in this shadow life.

The one exception was a book of poems. On looking for the title, I saw the single word “Hellas” across the top of the page, and thought at once of Shelley's sublime prophecy which bears that name.

Still Sylvester did not perceive our near presence beside him in the time stream. His eyes travelled over the intricate pages of his beloved mathematics, and then, as if by accident, rested for an instant upon the poem. His face lit up with a glad recognition; it had always been a favorite of his.





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