Tag Archives: science fiction books

Book review: Beggars in Spain (Nancy Kress 1993)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5

“Beggars in Spain” is a science fiction novel written in 1993; it was nominated for the top two awards in the field, the Hugo and the Nebula, though it didn’t win either. (“Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson won both; it is one of the most detailed hard sf books I’ve read.) “Beggars in Spain” is one of those sf books that can be summarized by a what-if– what-if some people didn’t have to sleep at all? How would society react? What kinds of advantages would they have? How would it affect the personality of such a person?

The novel opens with a wealthy man wishing to procure advantageous genetic alterations for his to-be-conceived child in 2008. Though it is still rare, he wants his child to be sleepless. The children who have the trait have proven to be much smarter and always cheerful. Another child is conceived accidentally who is not sleepless (as a small nitpick, the science in this bit seemed fishy, but I am not familiar with what was known in 1993). Leisha is the sleepless daughter, Alice is the sleeper daughter.

Leisha is of course beautiful and brilliant. Much of the novel rotates around how she relates to sleeper people. The characters in the book didn’t always work for me; Leisha is always cheerful as a sleeper, but this is hard to relate to, and hard to imagine how it would even work. Also there is an injection of almost libertarian politics that I wasn’t sure what I thought of. The politics aren’t preachy and are presented as Leisha’s world-view rather than the author’s. I liked the first half of the novel immensely. I didn’t dislike the second half, but I found it less exciting and engaging. One consistently strong point of this book was the writing: I sometimes have to labor through harder science fiction books, which must belabor the description of complicated mechanical things. This book just flew for me, while still attacking the central question of science fiction: what would happen to people if? So if you are a fan of hard sf and only hard sf, it probably isn’t for you.

“Beggars in Spain” was also one of the most female-dominated sf books I’ve read. Most of the principal characters are female. The book is feminist without caring about it or focusing on it; these characters could just as easily be male but they simply aren’t. It’s feminist not in the sense of women’s rights, but simply having women as protagonists and examining their relationships. I’ve read umpteen scifi books with barely a woman on the pages, so this was a welcome change of pace. Nancy Kress is also one of the few premier female names in science fiction, so it also seemed appropriate.

Overall, I found “Beggars in Spain” a very worthy read. It raised a lot of thoughtful questions that even a week after finishing the book, I find myself thinking about. It never came together in a “wow” moment, as a few sf books do for me, but it was pleasant and easy to read, which is not always the rule in sf. This was the first work I’ve read by Nancy Kress, and based on this book, I want to read more from her.

Sources of Sci-Fi Inspiration: City Culture of Prague

Setting is a critical element to most stories. It frames the actions of the characters and provides a rich and interesting backdrop. Often the environment motivates the character. As most portraits of people would be less interesting on a white backdrop, most stories of people would less interesting without the setting. New Orleans gives Ignatius a good playground in “A Confederacy of Dunces;” “White Fang” would be reduced hugely without the north, and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” would be slightly different without the asylum.

As a writer of science fiction, setting is both a problem and one of my favorite things. How do you draw in the culture and idiosyncrasies of a place that doesn’t exist? They have to be imagined, and imagined plausibly, by the writer. All of my favorite science fiction books have strong settings: In “The Left Hand of Darkness“, we learn about the sexual culture of a differently gendered humanoid species. Through their myths and traditions, we get to learn how they eat, how they like their weather, what is taboo, and what is an insult. In “A Canticle for Leibowitz“, we start at a Catholic abbey in post-apocalyptic New Mexico several centuries in the future. In “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress“, the setting is a lunar colony that feels bullied by earth. We learn about their principles, their marriages, and their aspirations. They can be a little closer to home, too. In “Holy Fire“, the protagonist travels from future San Francisco to future Munich to future Prague. Some sci-fi stays closer yet to home, but I find that I love crazy settings; thus I prefer Vernor Vinge’s “A Fire Upon the Deep” to his “Rainbow’s End“. (For others see my top 20 scifi books post.)

When I write my stories, I don’t want the settings to feel like the Midwestern United States plopped onto Mars or Alpha Centauri. I want them to feel like products of their interstellar, future environments. So I try to understand how settings influence culture currently and historically. I spent a summer in Prague, and in that brief time I tried to learn what I could about the culture. I tried to go where the Czechs go, eat what they ate, and read what they read. My host in town was a retired Czech professor who liked to talk (derisively) about the communist days. I worked half days at a chemistry lab out in suburban Prague. One of my coworkers smoked at her desk only feet from various chemicals and dressed like a 60-year-old teenager. I took frequent walks to Vyšehrad, an ancient fortress in Prague (pictured below).

I most appreciated the Czech sense of humor. As a country often conquered, the country developed a strange sense of absurdism. Under the Petrin Tower in Prague, there is a museum to Jara Cimrman, the best Czech man, who never existed. I can hardly say I understand everything there is to know about Prague and Czech culture, but a few months there certainly showed me a type of people I hadn’t seen before. Hopefully this will aid me in constructing a people we haven’t met before.

Some worthy Czech reading:

Side note: No post this past Friday; I broke my toe and then I had a lot of traveling to do this weekend. Happily, the toe is already much improved, and today it’s 80 F (25 C) out.

Book Review: Downbelow Station (C.J. Cherryh 1981)

Note: I avoid spoilers in this review. Any plot details I mention occur early in the book.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

I’ve had Downbelow Station on my shelf for a while. It’s 526 pages, so a little on the long side. I’d seen the book on a few “best of” lists, but no one I know has ever mentioned it. It was the 1982 Hugo award winner. So finally I bucked up and read it, and it was excellent.

Although I see “Downbelow Station” described as a hard science fiction book, the technological aspects of the book do not occupy the foreground. The interactions and desires of the characters do that; in some ways it’s a  high-class space opera. I found the style of the book most similar to Vernor Vinge in books like “A Fire Upon the Deep” with a little more militarism. I wonder how much the post Vietnam era affected the portrayal of militarism; the warring elements do not come off positively in this book. Cherryh does a good job developing culture; we can see the cultural differences between Union, Company, Pell, and the Downers. If you like sweeping science fiction, this is a highly worthy read.

Most of the action takes place on Pell Station, a space station orbiting a habitable planet with natives called “Downers” in the year 2352. Humans have expanded into space, one station after the next. At some point in history, humans developed faster than light “jump” technology, so they can spread further yet, into the “Beyond”. The humans in the Beyond have become disassociated with Earth; likewise Earth is somewhat detached from the stations. Pell finds itself between the forces of the Beyond and the renegade forces of Earth. The first 20 pages or so lay down this background; it’s a lot of exposition and it’s confusing and not totally engaging. The beginning is the weak point of this book. Once the ground work is laid, the story takes off.

We arrive at Pell when the Company ships of Earth force the station to take on a bunch of refugees from another station which has been destroyed in the conflict between the Company and the Union of the Beyond. These unregistered people are housed in quarantine, or Q, which is lawless and places a great deal of strain on the station’s resources. Over the course of the book, we watch people from Q, from Pell station, from Union, and from the Company as they vie for the strategically valuable Pell. The people of Pell station I found especially interesting, and their interactions with the Downers.

There are several other books in Cherryh’s Union-Company universe that I look forward to reading. Check out my Top 20 science fiction novels for more science fiction recommendation.

My Top 20 Best Science Fiction Novels

Following my post last week about my top 5 science fiction novels, I’ve been getting a lot of hits on search engines. I too scour the web for good scifi lists, so I thought I’d add my top 20 science fiction novels to the mix. I weighed a little towards including some less-common mentions, so while I enjoyed both “Hitchhiker’s Guide” and “Hothouse”, two incredibly different books, nobody needs help in hearing about “Hitchhiker’s Guide”. So without further ado, my top 20 science fiction novels in no particular order.

Top Five (see last  week for longer descriptions of each)

The Rest

  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert Heinlein 1966)- The inhabitants of the moon attempt to revolt from the oppressive Earth with the help of a supercomputer named Mycroft. Mycroft is an awesome central character. The best of the grown-up Heinlein novels. 1967 Hugo Award winner.
  • The Demolished Man (Alfred Bester 1953)- How does one get away with murder when telepathy is common place? Fast moving and surprisingly modern, the winner of the first Hugo award.
  • The Absolute at Large (Karel Čapek 1922)- See a longer review I did here. The author hypothesizes that when the atom is split (a new concept at the time) that energy is released, as well as a pervasive religious fervor. As the atom-splitter spreads due to its phenomenal energy production, so too does the side effect of religiosity.
  • The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula LeGuin 1971)- When one man dreams, his dreams can become reality. He fears this awesome power; when he enters therapy, his therapist begins to use his gift, imagining he will fix the world.
  • Mathematicians in Love (Rudy Rucker 2006)- Totally awesome and wacky. Mathematics grads students compete to find the equation of everything, and win the affections of a cute girl. And there are enormous sentient venomous conch shells, intergalactic mathematicians, and parallel universes.
  • Worlds (Joe Haldeman 1981)- A woman from a communist orbiting asteroid visits New York City on a scholarship. I love everything by Haldeman, but this is my favorite after “Forever War”. Very heartfelt and emotionally gripping. The rare female protagonist, and done phenomenally. This is the first of a trilogy, but I think it’s the best and stands alone just fine.
  • The Door into Summer (Robert Heinlein 1957)- My favorite of Heinlein’s “children’s” books, which are all very intelligent, but have less of some of Heinlein’s more alarming interests like incest. A man is duped by his business partner, who steals the company and puts him into cold sleep. He awakens after 30 years, and tries to figure out how to get his life back. One of the main characters is the protagonist’s cat, always a plus.
  • Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson 1992)- cyberpunk done properly with a sense of humor. A pizza delivery man, Hiro Protagonist, and a 15-year-old girl start investigate the propagation of a mysterious internet drug, snow crash. The plot line of this one gripped me less than the excellent fun had with a future world.
  • Tau Zero (Poul Anderson 1970)- A crew on a near light speed ship is on a five-year journey to another planet. During the voyage, the deceleration mechanism is damaged. As they continue to go faster and faster, the time dilation grows and they travel farther. The best hard scifi book I’ve read.
  • A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge 1992)- The best and most intelligent space opera I’ve read. Different laws of physics exist in different parts of the galaxy. People create a malevolent higher intelligence near the rim of the galaxy and must flee into the galaxy where the laws of physics preclude such an entity. They get stuck on a planet of sentient creatures composed of several animals in constant communication with one another. They are called the Tines, and they are hands-down the best alien I’ve read in scifi. Also read anything by Vernor Vinge. 1993 Hugo Award winner.
  • Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner 1968)- At first I found this book a bit confusing; the chapters jump around to relatively random people doing random things as part of the world building. But after 50 pages or so you get your bearings. The world is over-populated, and child-limits have been instituted. The plot is complex and rich. The style is grimly funny. Hard to describe, and requires some effort to read, but one of the greats. 1969 Hugo Award winner.
  • Hothouse (Brian W. Aldiss 1962)- Also called “The Long Afternoon of Earth”. In the distant future, the sun is bigger and hotter, and one side of the earth always faces the sun. Plant life, with so much energy available, has evolved in many ways, and all but overruns this half of the earth. There are plant birds, plant predators, and plant just about everything. A small group of humans tries to survive in this near-apocalypse Earth. Chock full of great imaginings. Aldiss doesn’t have the most sparkling characters, but he has engaging concepts, somewhat like Asimov. “Helliconia Spring” is another worthy read by Aldiss, but it is somewhat longer.
  • The Caves of Steel (Isaac Asimov 1954)- My favorite Asimov book, partially because it is self-contained and relatively succinct. People of an overcrowded Earth live under steel domes, and never go outside. The story is set around the investigation of a murder.
  • The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi 2009)- The 2010 Hugo Award winner. A biopunk story set in Bangkok. After the world has been devastated by engineered illnesses and crop-plagues, society is finally mostly recovered. Carbon emissions are strictly limited, so energy-efficient methods are desirable. The main character is an employee working at a start-up energy company as a front, but for one of the bio-engineering firms that creates genetically modified species actually. A rich world that incorporates biology well.
  • Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson 1993)- A group of 100 brilliant hand-picked scientists is selected and sent to Mars to live there and begin terraforming it. These scientists are strong-minded, and don’t always agree how to go about things; political fractures form. The first book follows the political developments of the first 100 martians. “Red Mars” is followed by “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars” which occur over the course of a couple of centuries. Mars itself is the main character of the whole trilogy, and is described in the best scientific detail available at the time. Sometimes a bit long-winded, but very realistic, and an interesting exploration of terraforming.

Happy reading!!