Tag Archives: Book Review

Ten Favorite SF Novels

I was asked in an e-mail what my favorite science fiction novels were. It was a real trip down memory lane, since I haven’t read much if any SF in a while now (I don’t know if Cryptonomicon counts or not).

I got to thinking about it, and before I knew it, I had enough for a decent sized list. So here are my off-the-top-of-my-head choices for my ten favorite SF novels, alphabetically by book title and subject to change to allow for ones that I forgot:

1. The Andromeda Strain (Michael Crichton)
The novel that inspired me to want to write books.

2. Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke)
I have always admired Clarke for his stunning ideas (his characterization always left a lot to be desired). This is his best novel.

3. The Diamond Age (Neil Stephenson)
Nanotechnology meets the cultural precepts of Victorian England. The book is hobbled because it comes off the rails at the end, and really needed another 50 pages to end properly, but up to that point it’s an impressive read.

4. Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
Another classic, this one with one of the greatest opening lines of any novel I’ve ever read.

5. Mother of Storms (John Barnes)
A brilliantly realized novel of global catastrophe (imagine a hurricane that scrubs all forms of life off of the Hawaiian islands) and the dark side of human survival. Graphic and disturbing in places (hey, it’s John’s divorce book – can you blame him?).

6. The Past Through Tomorrow (Robert Heinlein)
A collection of short stories and novels that formed Heinlein’s “Future History.” Ambitious, classic SF.

7. Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)
I think Vonnegut wanted this to be his “bitter old man writes anti-war screed” novel. That doesn’t matter to me – this book is a fascinating read that uses time travel to turn storytelling upside down. This book is why Vonnegut was an important writer at one time.

8/9. Starship Troopers (Heinlein) and The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)
Forget the movie of the former. These two books are now fused together in my mind because they both take the same concept – future fighting men wearing suits that give them extraordinary fighting abilities – and look at them from two different angles. Heinlein’s book is hawkish and jingoistic; Haldeman’s is an examination of war’s insanity. Both are excellent.

10. Startide Rising (David Brin)
My favorite SF novel. Great plot, great vision, great characters. A book that really stirs up my sense of wonder.

11. When Gravity Fails (George Alec Effinger)
Cyberpunk in a world dominated by Islam. You’ve never read anything like this before. Great stuff. George will be missed.

Okay, so it goes to eleven. Call me Nigel Tufnel.

***

On today’s writing front, I was so busy at work that I actually forgot to work on Deadline over lunch. I’ve been suddenly crushed by three of the other kind of deadlines all at once, so my lunch was kind of an eat-and-run kind of affair.

I think I could have written more tonight, but I simply ran out of steam. The last couple of weeks at work have been long and involved, ditto goings on at Church, ditto the weekend spent working on making a stall in the barn a more suitable chicken coop. That’s okay. I’ll still take these numbers.

Today’s Scorecard
And/News – Chapter Twenty
673 pages (+6)
148,180 words (+ 1258)

NP – iTSP (Evita OST, “Requiem for Evita”)

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Punk’s Wing (Discussion)

Again I interrupted my reading of Cryptonomicon because I made the happy discovery that Ward Carroll’s new novel, Punk’s Wing, was finally out.

His first novel, Punk’s War was a real find. With its dark humor and focus on men trying to survive their job, it reminded me of The Mushroom Shift, my law enforcement novel which is metaphorically in my closet under a pair of old bowling shoes. It also has a plot device I like so much that I plan to steal it someday (SPOILER: highlight area with mouse to read): a character who is totally incompetent in his given station is taken out of that station by being promoted to something higher that he obviously did not deserve.

For details on what I thought of Punk’s Wing, you can check out its entry in my Book Blog. What I wanted to do now was say something nice about another writer, since the only mention I’ve made of others recently was taking both Stephen King and Harold Bloom to task over the National Book Foundation Award flap.

Punk’s Wing is Carroll’s sophomore novel, but there’s not a whole lot to complain about. The dust jacket copy doesn’t do the novel justice – it’s more about integration of female pilots into Naval Aviation, which isn’t even mentioned in Signet’s copy; there’s one scene focusing on Muddy (a female pilot who has the attention of an influential Senator) where Punk wasn’t present that I felt he could have and should have been in; and he uses the dreaded As You Know… device that I often rail against. But these are quibbles, and they’re all editorial things that are hard to blame on the author.

Carroll has many gifts as a writer. One is his ability to take you through the world of Naval Aviation without getting bogged down in jargon and technospeak. In Punk’s Wing he makes deft use of a “Why” character, a Senatorial aide, to take us through the details and rigors of training pilots to land on carriers.

He is also able to make the reader understand the nature of the military hierarchy, often with a well-placed simile:

If the captain was king at sea, the air boss was one of his handful of brothers who had the misfortune of being born other than first in the family. He’d never be king, but he still had power over his part of the kingdom.

That’s a nice bit of writing on Carroll’s part, and the book is filled with things like that.

There are also signs that Carroll may be an Elmore Leonard fan because of the way things happen out of the blue in his novels – a strange twist so odd that it could only happen in real life – such as Punk’s exasperated reaction to an ill-timed cell phone call from his fiance that results in consequences far from what he was seeking.

One reason writers tell new writers to keep reading is because you can learn things all the time from other writers – even newcomers like Carroll. I’ve picked up great stuff from both of his novels now – and the added bonus here is that the Punk books are a pleasure to read.

So read and learn. And with a Carroll novel, the directive is read, learn and enjoy.

Rejection and Writer’s Support

This threatened to become the world’s longest comment so I decided to post it here as opposed to sapping someone else’s bandwidth.

Cindy over at A Writer’s Diary posted an entry that discusses her anguish over giving a book a negative review. Her contention is that since she’s down there in the trenches, too, she empathizes with the authors over their struggle to get words on page.

This presents a number of interesting initial questions that I will not deal with in this entry. However, before moving on to my main point, here they are – just for the sake of floating a possible meme:

1) “Those who can’t do – review.” True or false?

2) Should novel writers review novels? They are qualified in the sense that they are experts in the field. Yet, they are going to pick up on things that nobody else would in the process of reading a book, perhaps criticizing for things an ordinary reader would miss (witness my own criticism of Stephen King’s Bloat, for example). That in turn poses this question:

3) Should the duty of reviews be left to readers who don’t novelize? I have trouble reading novels for enjoyment because I either pick them apart or turn green with envy. Perhaps reviews of books should be left to people who are the purest audience, those who read for enjoyment and aren’t involved in the writing process.

However, the issue at hand is whether Cindy should remove the negative reviews of books she has posted on her web site. Their removal is probably a done deal at this point since she made this entry yesterday, but here are my arguments against her doing such a thing.

First, I subscribe to the PR/Advertising theory that there’s no such thing as a negative review. If someone took the time to write it up, it meant something to him or her – even if it was simply a paycheck from a magazine. As my daughter now says every five minutes, “It’s all good.” That negative review is still a mention of book and author, or another hit for a search engine to find (the only exception to this rule might be a review that contains the phrase “I wish I could get the six hours I spent reading this book refunded to me”).

Second, a negative review isn’t negative when one explains why they felt the book was flawed or “didn’t do it for me” (as Cindy says she did, given her word count limitation). I once learned something from the most savage review I’ve ever received in my writing career. I had to look beyond the witch hunt tone of the critic, but once I did, I saw some valid points; I did have some trouble imagining how computers would be used in the future (I corrected this in the PH novels), and my characterization was thin (this led me to discover that in my quest to edit the book down by 20% per Del Rey’s request, I chopped out everything that didn’t advance the plot – namely, characterization).

Third, I am convinced that reviews do not make sales. Word of mouth does. How else would you explain the fact that the PH novels got the best reviews of my career, and yet were my worst selling books ever? The two of them combined did not sell as much as my previous worst-seller.

Fourth, negativity aside, there’s a chance that the author won’t see the review. Some agents or publishers insulate their author’s fragile ego from such things (I speak from experience – I always got clippings of good reviews, but I was always the one who found the bad ones – Editor: “Hmmm, why don’t you send me a copy of that?”). Further, the World Wide Web is a big place. Unless they’re doing really deep egosurfing, they may not find it.

Finally, even if you don’t believe that there is no such thing as a bad review, you have to accept that bad reviews are a part of the writing game – just like rejection slips.

I think that is one of the dirty little secrets of writing that nobody talks about. We all bolster each other up when a rejection slip comes. But what about rejection after the fact, in the form of a negative review? Perhaps it’s because, in the eyes of a writer’s peers, the act of Getting Published is the Be All End All – your name in print, game over. But it’s actually the beginning of a new game. It’s an interesting double standard and a fascinating anomaly, that.

Those are the general reasons for leaving the reviews up. Now here are some that are a little more personal, from me to Cindy:

1) Your reviews are as much of you as your WIP is.

2) If you can’t be honest with yourself enough to write a negative review of someone else’s book, how can you be honest enough to write your own book?

3) In spite of all the effort, there really are some truly dreadful books out there. I’m sure they got into print because a desperate editor on deadline said, “I need one more title for May of 2005, and I’m going to take the next manuscript that’s coherent and in proper form.” There’s no other way to explain some of the howlers I’ve read – or started and never finished. And you, Cindy, in taking on the mantle of reviewer, have taken a tacit vow to protect us from them. Or in the words of someone’s uncle, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

So my advice is not to censor yourself. I know your heart bleeds for these authors. There IS a lot of work that goes into the process of being published, and anyone that survives the lonely hours of writing, the rejections, the endless rounds of revisions and everything else it takes to get words published deserves a gold star on their paper.

Unfortunately, life isn’t always fair.

NP – iTSP (Marillion, “Warm Wet Circles”)