Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

This classic novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars, by Martians. He is brought “back” to Earth and soon whisked away by a nurse and a reporter. He can perform seemingly miraculous feats of bodily control, telekinesis, and more. He ends up at the house of Jubal Harshaw, author, professional cynic and bon vivant; a man who surrounds himself with three secretaries to take down prose or poetry at any time. “Mike” Smith, the “Man from Mars”, after an education at the hands of Jubal, goes out into the world, spreading his ideas about sharing, love and “grokking” under the guise of a new religion.

Stranger in a Strange Land is widely acclaimed as a genre classic, and I cannot help but agree. The evolution of Smith from uncommunicative quasi-cripple with the blank mind of a baby to mental giant with a huge following is masterfully described. Jubal Harshaw (Heinlein’s “ideal” alter-ego, perhaps?) is equally interesting as a character, with his honest modesty but sharp intellect and wisdom. The book is VERY heavy on the dialogue and rather light on the action. The risk an author takes with an reliance on dialogue is that the whole things becomes rather boring and long-winded. Such is not the case here. The characters talk about interesting things as wide ranging as religion, politics, art, jurisprudence and morality. Furthermore, they actually learn stuff and develop as people as they do so. They do not merely talk to support the action. Their talking IS the action. The view of females is somewhat rooted in the 50s and 60s but even so Heinlein was being rather “modern” in his views. The views expressed are very interesting, especially since Heinlein doesn’t take the obvious (for scifi) route of dismissing religion as nonsense. THAT really intrigued me. The way he manages to meld religion into Smith’s “message” is mindblowing. This is not the lightest of reads but I must recommend it. It is both interesting and entertaining but most importantly it makes the reader think long and hard about the accepted truths of our society.

The Night’s Dawn Trilogy; A Second Chance at Eden – Peter F. Hamilton

The trilogy itself consists of:

  • The Reality Dysfunction
  • The Neutronium Alchemist
  • The Naked God

There are also two ancillary volumes:

  • A Second Chance at Eden – short story collection
  • The Confederation Handbook – reference volume

In the USA, each volume of the trilogy was published in two parts, as evidenced by the thumbnails.

The Night’s Dawn trilogy is a huge story spanning over 4000 pages, in truth one massive multi-volume novel. It tells of a great evil that befalls the otherwise mostly peaceful but very interesting and multifaceted Federation. Everything changes as mankind faces its true self. As the external threat starts to seriously damage the foundations of civilization, the large differences between various human and alien factions make for an interesting backdrop to the struggle. Actually it is very difficult to describe Night’s Dawn in a few short sentences. The scope is quite breathtaking, there are many characters and the writing is impeccable. The only nagging complaint is the far too rapid conclusion. Hamilton seems to have been in a hurry to tie things up. Some might feel the ending is a bit of a cop-out. But in my opinion whatever you think of the ending, the journey is certainly worth it.

“The Confederation Handbook” reference can be practical to have lying around since there is a lot to keep track of.

The short story collection ”A Second Chance at Eden” is a fine companion to the trilogy. Although only a few of the stories are in the same universe, all of them are gems in their own right. Importantly, though, the title story gives some valuable background on how the Edenist Culture was founded.

These books have particularly gorgeous covers, thought US editions marred this a bit by darkening and altering the colors.

The Crucible of Empire – Eric Flint & K.D. Wentworth

This direct sequel to The Course of Empire takes up the story two years after the events of the previous book. The nascent Terra taif consisting of both Jao and humans finds clues that the Lleix, a race practically exterminated by the Jao during their time as an Ekhat slave race, may have survived, but is in imminent danger from the Ekhat. Terra taif’s newest ship, the gargantuan Lexington, is dispatched to the system in question.

It is a rare sequel that is as good as the original, but Flint and Wentworth have managed to pull it off. The inclusion of the fascinating Lleix and the telling of sections from their point of view is excellently done and brings a necessary new wrinkle to the story. Flint is a master at telling a story from various points of view and really getting into the psychology of various people and races. While, of course, neither the Jao nor the Lleix are truly alien, they are different enough to make the contrasts and interactions interesting, especially when written with a good measure of humor as here. There is even a passage written from the point of view of the Ekhat, as frightening as they are powerful and utterly mad. A real page turner, this.

Wild Blue – Steven Ambrose

The late and great Ambrose on USAAF bomber crews flying over Europe during WWII. Very well researched and focusing on the men (and their families) and how the conflict affected them. Enjoyable and worth the read even if you are not into aviation or militaria.

Pattern Recognition – William Gibson

Gibson is not what you would call a prolific writer. Every now and then something dribbles out. The works are generally short, although the ultradesigned packaging can fool you into thinking otherwise. I am a huge fan of Neuromancer and his other early works. Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrows Parties were all good, but it felt like he was just showing off and not really putting his heart into the thing. Pattern recognition is much much better.

The story starts in London where our heroine has to deal with the peculiar and uniquely retro British way of constructing household appliances and home furnishings in general. The novel is quite simply put one of the best I have ever read. The elegance of Gibson’s inventive and very modern prose takes us into a world of branding and a mysterious body of footage which has spawned it’s own subculture. The heroine, Cayce Pollard (in-joke for Gibson fans is the way her first name is pronounced “Case”) is very likeable in her imperfections and phobias. The descriptions are flawless as we follow the action exclusively from her point of view.

Her friends are the colorful protagonists of the world in which we ourselves live. A world of global powermongers seeking influence, but not by the unfashionable means of violence. These persons, in Gibson’s trademark way only glimpsed from somewhere further down the food chain, are postmodern creatures, influencing without revealing themselves. Cayce herself has friends in many places, and like many of us now living in ***cliché warning*** an increasingly global society, we communicate via email for close friends, as well as chatrooms and message boards where we can easily find likeminded people, people who share a common interest. Larry Niven talked about how, in a society with instantaneous, cheap transportation, social clubs became increasingly important when men and women needed to anchor their lives socially as geographical roots became blurred. In the same way, Gibson explores how, with internet technologies it is quite possible, indeed necessary, today to be far from friends, but still very close.

So, a “lifestyle” piece from Gibson which absolutely fascinated me and sucked me in like few other books have. Cyberpunk, having been invented by Gibson himself way back in 1984, is alive and well as the most cutting edge way to be a spectator to our own world.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void – Mary Roach

In this curious non-fiction volume, Mary Roach explores an aspect of space travel that is normally glossed over: the human inside the machine. She starts by explaining why engineers find humans the trickiest part of their spaceships, and goes on from there through impact experiments on cadavers, body odor research (really!), what happens to humans if they lie still for weeks on end, the horrors of space food, the even greater horrors of going to the potty in space and various other subjects.

If this sounds boring, think again. Not only is the subject matter surprising and fascinating, but Ms. Roach’s writing is infused with an extremely entertaining dry wit. Throughout her research and her many interviews with scientists, astronauts and even interns involved in space travel and its accessory activities, she seems to find the humor in every situation. To be fair, it is hard not to see the humor but she describes it so well. A couple of selected gems:

“Safeguarding a human for a multiaxis crash is not all that different from packing a vase for shipping. Since you don’t know which side the UPS guy’s going to drop it on, you need to stabilize it all around.”

“The staff played hot potato with my call until someone could locate the Person in Charge of Lying to the Press. The PCLP said that the room that houses the base archives is locked. And that only the curator would have a key. And that Holloman currently has no curator. Evidently the new curator’s first task would be to find a way to open the archives.”

I recommend this book even if you are not particularly interested in the space program. It is a great read about what it really takes to put people in space.

The Sprawl Trilogy – William Gibson

The Sprawl Trilogy consists of:

  • Neuromancer
  • Count Zero
  • Mona Lisa Overdrive

Gibson invented the cyberpunk subgenre with this plot-wise loosely connected series of books and he revitalized SciFi in the process. His sparse, cool prose and his approach to characterization mark the writing of many of his successors, probably chief among those Neal Stephenson.

His descriptions of cyberculture have aged well, since he was wise enough not to be too specific about hardware and software. He himself attributes this to the fact that he had never owned a computer at the time, although that is, in typical Gibson fashion, probably far too modest a justification. Another interesting fact is that these novels were written in the mid eighties, but illustrate many of the advances in computer technology which scientists and engineers are striving towards today in 2010. Whether his ideas on man-machine interfaces are simply the result of some very good thinking, and whether he inspired a generations of computer wiz kids is, of course, open to debate.

His work remains one of the pinnacles of SciFi, and his ability to distill the essence of something into a single, cool sentence remains, perhaps, unrivaled.

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Probably the funniest book I have ever read. An angel and a demon, specifically the angel who guarded the gates of Eden and the demon who gave the apple to Eve, are now in charge of Great Britain. Over the millennia, they have pretty much decided that their lives will be a whole lot simpler if they stop fighting and instead fudge their reports to their respective superiors while getting on with living the good life. This all works fine until the Antichrist is due to be born. In England.

So funny it made my stomach ache from the laughter. The subtle, understated little English gems of humor are carefully woven into an engaging, and ultimately absurd (and absurdly good and funny) story. Does for me what Pratchett cannot do alone, which is to say suck me in and make me want to read it to the end.

The Wreck of the River of Stars – Michael Flynn

The cover looks magnificent. Flynn is back with a near future tale mirroring the twilight days of the age of sail. “The River of Stars” has long ago furled it’s magnetic sail in favor of a more modern engine. The past glories of the ship are almost forgotten as she plies her trade as a tramp freighter. But an engine failure forces a difficult decision. Her crew want to use the sail to save the ship in a last tribute to her old days of glory.

Incidentally, the story is set in the same universe as the Firestar series, with quite a few inside references sprinkled around for the avid Flynn fan.

It took me more than a month to read this book. Flynn’s prose is unusually fine, but it takes a long time to get through it. The title says it all, I guess, and the ending is more or less foretold from the beginning. This novel concentrates on the characters and their interactions. Long gone are the glory days of The River of Stars, and her crew is made up of a collection of misfits and losers who cannot find another berth. The Captain dies in the very first chapter, and things go downhill from there. Gradually the flawed crewmembers dance out their dance of death, and maybe they know their fate all along, which makes the drama even stronger.

I should point out that this book is intensely psychological, and does not, despite the setting, move very fast at all. Descriptions of feelings and motivations and interactions are drawn out almost to breaking point. It is a tribute to Flynn that he manages to hold the reader’s interest. So be warned, this is not a light summer read, but its majesty will captivate you.

Firestar Series – Michael Flynn

Near future SciFi has seldom been done better. Flynn takes us on an epic journey only hinted at in the humble beginnings of the first book. A millionairess has a hidden fear, almost an obsession. She is afraid that an asteroid has the potential to wipe out humanity by striking the Earth. While her fear is no doubt well founded, it takes extreme expressions in her, and she uses her fortune to build up a huge aerospace industry. The series consists of:

  • Firestar
  • Rogue Star
  • Lodestar
  • Falling Stars

What really makes this series great is the variety and richness of the many characters (from the second book, a Dramatis Personae is thankfully provided). The antagonisms and alliances flow over decades as Flynn deftly describes human nature, and the many things which make up its facets. Many novels have (too) many characters, but in almost all cases the majority are not fully fleshed out and threedimensional. Flynn’s wonderful character are these things. They have a past, motivations, goals and aspirations.

It is also quite remarkable how Flynn manages to weave together the many strands of his story into one whole, making this more than just a massive work of Science Fiction. It is, in fact, a story about ordinary people who, each in his or her own way, faces extraordinary personal and professional challenges in a changing society.

My only, very small, gripe with the series is how it loses a bit of steam in the third book. However, seen as a whole, the entire story is outstanding.

And yes, the last two covers are horrible and have very little to do with the books. Pah!

Back to the Moon – Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

The story is set in the 2020s. NASA is finally returning to the Moon using the (now canceled) Orion/Altair hardware. Meanwhile, a private company is sending tourists around the Moon and the Chinese are up to something. The first mission back to the Moon turns in to a daring rescue.

I’m a big space program buff so I’m a sucker for this kind of book. The story itself is a decent adventure/thriller. The engineering is well described, as would be expected since Dr. Taylor works with NASA Huntsville and Les Johnson is a NASA physicist. Unfortunately the prose is quite stilted, especially during the first third. The characters are stereotypes, especially the Chinese. Unfortunately the Chinese are also the wrong stereotype. They feel like reruns of Cold War era Soviets with a dash of “Asian” thrown in. The story does pick up in the second half and there are some nice thrills for the space buff. If you aren’t interested in the space program particularly you should give this a pass. It isn’t a bad book per se but could have used an author with a smoother prose style.

The Commonwealth Saga – Peter F. Hamilton

These two books are simply two volumes of the same novel, dubbed the Commonwealth Saga. With the invention of wormhole technology by straight arrow Nigel Sheldon and eccentric Ozzie Isaacs, traditional space exploration (vacuum, spaceships, all that kind of thing) is all but abandoned. Rail lines running between worlds through wormholes are the only means of interstellar transport, and humanity is rapidly expanding to many planets.

Hamilton seems to have been inspired by Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon when it comes to rejuvenation technology, although there are differences. Practical immortality is available to all but the very poor. Most people pay money into a sort of pension fund which pays for rejuvenation. The more well to do rejuvenate more often, staying forever young. This has brought about a maturing of humanity, where planning is much more long-term. Careers span decades and centuries. The rich can take entire “sabbatical lives”.

These two massive upheavals, longevity and cheap transportation over interstellar distances, have led to an unprecedented period of growth and prosperity for human society. A commonwealth unites the worlds. The Commonwealth is nominally a democracy, but the reins of power are firmly in the hands of dynasties rich enough to own entire planets. A utopia of sorts, but not really a democracy despite outward appearances.

A mysterious stellar event far outside the human sphere of influences forces the construction of a starship. It is the first one ever built. Former astronaut (immortality remember?) Wilson Kime captains the mission, which leads to the escape of the greatest threat humanity has ever faced from its ancient prison. And it soon becomes clear that the escape was not entirely an accident. There are mysterious forces at work inside the Commonwealth.

In the tradition of that other (even more) massive Hamilton opus, Night’s Dawn, this story is a somewhat daunting cornucopia of characters and interweaving subplots. This author can get away with it, since even his explanatory filler is eminently enjoyable. An immensely rich societal backdrop forms the stage for a drama with some very unexpected twists and turns. The most insignificant details come back to haunt the characters in what is obviously a very finely and meticulously crafted story. The end of Pandora’s Star is a massive cliffhanger and the story picks right back up in Judas Unchained, so I would recommend reading the two volumes back to back.

The story is peppered with wondrous things such as the Silfen, an enigmatic race of aliens, and their even more enigmatic forest paths, which lead seamlessly from world to world. Even the enemy is fascinating and an example of a true non-human intellect. There are bizarre, enigmatic and just generally cool characters such as super investigator Paula Myo, slut turned reporter Mellanie Rescorai, the orphan Orion, cult leaders, resistance warriors, criminals and politicians. A tangled web held together elegantly by Hamilton.

The story moves from utopia through gathering storm through all-out chaos and war to a spectacular conclusion, and is finally neatly put to bed in the epilogue. The true genius of Hamilton is that his universe is not populated by 20th Century humans living long lives and using wormholes. Society and its inhabitants are quite different, reflecting the changes in society and culture brought about by technological advances. Motivations, reactions and behaviors are believably described for these “future humans” (and aliens), just as a 17th Century human would behave differently from us.

It should be clear by now that this novel is among the very best I have ever read. Sure, one could criticize the perhaps unnecessarily long road chase in the second volume, or the seeming abandonment of a few supporting characters at the end. But the truth is that it is very very difficult to write something this long, with so many character relationships, and not run into the occasional pacing problem.

So stop reading this and order the books. You will not be disappointed. And if you want more, Hamilton returns to the Commonwealth Universe and many of the characters in the Void Trilogy, set over a thousand years later.

Mirror Dance – Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles’ twin brother Mark is back. He manages to infiltrate the Dendarii while acting as Miles. In short order, he is taking a ship on a harebrained mission to Jackson’s Whole in order to free clones doomed to act as replacement bodies for the rich, a procedure which leads to the clones’ brain being dumped. Naturally, it all goes to hell, with Miles chasing after. Miles is shot “fatally” and cryo-frozen, at which point Mark is whisked off to Barrayar to meet the parents for the first time. Meanwhile, Miles’ frozen body is lost.

McMaster Bujold is back in good shape here. The first part of this book is merely good, but the fireworks really fly when Mark ends up on Barrayar. His mother, Cordelia, steals all the scenes she is in. A truly great character who does even better in middle age as a bit player than in the books featuring her as protagonist (Shards of Honor and Barrayar). The parallel plot following the lost (in several senses) Miles is equally engaging. One of the best in the series so far.

This novel is collected in the “Miles Errant” omnibus.

Brothers in Arms – Lois McMaster Bujold

While traveling with the Dendarii Mercenaries, Miles ends up on Earth. While there, he is entangled in a plot to replace him with a clone.

The elements to create a good story are in place. Miles’ clone brother Mark is an excellent addition to the series, seeing as how he can act as a counterpoint to Miles himself. The character development and exploration in this book is on par with McMaster Bujold at her best. The plot, unfortunately, is not. It seems a bit forced, somehow. And while still an enjoyable read (this woman is a fabulous writer) it is weak compared to other installments in the series.

This novel is collected in the “Miles Errant” omnibus.

The Borders of Infinity – Lois McMaster Bujold

This short story, collected in the Miles Errant omnibus, is a tidy set piece. It opens with Miles in a Cetagandan prison camp. The camp consists of some terrain enclosed in a dome shaped force field. No visible guards or anything like that. Every day, ration bars (one per prisoner) are passed through the force field. Inevitably, fights break out about the food. Equally inevitably, cliques have formed, for mutual protection and for acquisition of food. Miles has a secret agenda, but how will he take command of this group, using only his quick tongue?

“The Borders of Infinity” is a fine example of the short story genre. McMaster Bujold displays her uncanny grasp of the human psycho and logic. She manages to both solve the problem in a plausible manner, and tack on a realistic motivation for Miles’ actions, while keeping the reader guessing right up until the end.

This short story is collected in the “Miles Errant” omnibus.

The Mote in God’s Eye – Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Arguably the best story about first contact ever written. A ship comes careening into a human system. The pilot is dead, and strange, and it has apparently traveled for years at sublight speeds to get there. Even more strange is the fact that the ship hardly seems enough to sustain it. Two ships are dispatched to a star system hidden inside a nebula to contact the aliens. The society of “Moties” they find is very strange, and very fascinating, almost as fascinating as the creatures themselves. What they fail to realize is that the truth behind Motie society is deeply disturbing and will be a danger to all humanity.

It has aged very slightly due to the its being written in the seventies, but this hardly detracts from the magnificence of this novel. Manages to capture the essence of encountering the truly alien, and how humans have a hard time not placing their own values and prejudices on that which they do not understand.

The Course Of Empire – Eric Flint & K.D. Wentworth

This is truly an undiscovered gem of a novel. Almost discreetly thrown out there, it will unfortunately be missed by many readers thinking it just one more of Baen’s (admittedly mostly excellent) military scifi offerings. It is much much more than that.

The story it draws closely on the history of the English occupation of India. The Jao conquered Earth twenty years ago in their struggle to hold ground against the powerful and enigmatic Ekhat. Since then, Earth has suffered under an abusive Jao viceroy. Humans still do not understand the Jao and their complex society. Most Jao see humans as lesser beings to be used up in the war against the Ekhat. But things change as a new Jao commander of ground forces arrives with fresh ideas. Meanwhile, the Ekhat are closing in and the mysterious Jao faction known as The Bond of Ebezon watches closely, ready to intervene.

The book is a page turner with plenty of action, but I did struggle with the alien Jao in the beginning. They are not written to be easily understandable. Flint and Wentworth have made them complex and truly alien without succumbing to the temptation of explaining their quirks and affectations in human terms. It’s a bit of a hump but well worth conquering. The Jao are fascinating creatures that misunderstand humans as much as humans misunderstand them. Not since Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye have I encountered aliens that are truly alien and not just humans looking different.

Flint & Wentworth masterfully take the reader from simple beginnings and purposeful confusion to understanding and enlightenment. This journey parallels that of the main protagonists, both Jao and human. Excellent!

The Raj Whitehall Series (I-VIII) – David Drake, S.M. Stirling & Eric Flint

The human galactic federation is in ruins, and the worlds have devolved to various levels of barbarism. On the planet Bellevue, which is at about the early nineteenth century in development, a young officer named Raj Whitehall and his friend venture into the catacombs under the capital. There, they find an ancient battle computer named Center. With Center’s help, Raj must unite the planet and enable humanity to retake the stars. The story is at least somewhat based on that of the Byzantine general Belisarius.

The first seven novels are written by Drake and Stirling. The last one by Drake and Flint. David Drake writes very detailed outlines, while his collaborators write the actual text.

The first five novels are a set and deal with the conquest/unification of Bellevue. They are nowadays published in two volumes, known as Warlord and Conqueror:

  • The Forge
  • The Hammer
  • The Anvil
  • The Steel
  • The Sword

After finishing the conquest of Bellevue, the personalities of Center and Raj are imbued in computers that are sent to other worlds with launched asteroids. This scenario has infinite permutations as human worlds at various levels of development can be written about. The first of these follow-up novels is:

  • The Chosen

It is a great singleton set on a world with early twentieth century technology. Finally there is the two volume story consisting of:

  • The Reformer
  • The Tyrant

Here, we take a serious step “back in time”, as the planet Hafardine is at about Roman Empire level in it’s technology. The Tyrant is rather different in style from the others due to being penned by Flint. However, his trademark dry humor meshes well with the overall thrust of the series.

This is great military SciFi, with excellent battlescenes and great characters, not to mention a dose of dry humor. Very highly recommended.

Nova – Samuel R. Delany

I first read this book years and years ago as a teenager. I can still remember staying awake half the night, then finishing it the next evening. It is a magnificent grail quest of sorts, complete with manic captain, a demonic enemy, big stakes, a rich and varied past for the characters, and a fabulous setting. The ease with which the prose flows, and the believable and interesting situations and interactions make this one of SciFi’s masterpieces.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Joss Whedon et. al.

I came very late to Buffy. I watched the original movie, and thought it was vaguely fun but brainless, so that put me off. I now know that Joss Whedon hated what they had done with his script. After many positive comments on io9.com, I thought I would give the series a shot.

On the face of it, Buffy is a pretty silly show. A high school girl has a destiny. She is the latest in a long line of “Vampire Slayers” who keep the world safe from evil. Vampires and demons are real. All the classic tropes like wooden stakes, drinking blood, burning up in sunlight, crosses are also real. Very silly. But delving a bit deeper, one notices that Buffy isn’t just a copy of countless late night TV horror movies. It is an unexpectedly intelligent show with strong themes such as love lost, death, the danger of absolute power, hate and fear but despite all that is not afraid at poking fun at itself or the characters.

Buffy’s greatness comes from several factors. First is the subersion of classic tropes. In the typical horror movie scenario, the dumb but pretty blond is being chased by vampires, or demons, or zombies. She shrieks and dies a horrible death. In Buffy, the blond is pretty but certainly not dumb (granted, not very academically minded either). She turns around and kills the vampire. The series is full of this reversal of the accepted order of things, often done in a humorous ways. It thrives on our knowledge of pop culture, offering up recognition moments without just copying old ideas.

Second, The Slayer (capital T, capital S) starts out is a high school girl with a head full of boys, make-up and clothes shopping. She is not an aloof superhero, but an approachable teenager saddled with way more responsibility than she could ever want. Buffy is an action hero, but not like a man at all. She isn’t a strong woman who acts like a man. She is strong but still feminine. She is also strong because she must; becoming a hero very much against her will. She realizes that she must save the world regardless of the personal price to herself, since no one else can or will.

Third, it is an ensemble show with strong characters. The “Scoobies”, as Buffy’s friends call themselves, are not just sidekicks. They drive the show as much as she does. Buffy is protagonist but not lone gunman. In fact, the Scoobies often have more interesting character development than Buffy does. The interaction between the characters and the wonderfully witty dialogue makes scenes spring to life in an uncanny way.

Fourth, it is easy to identify with the characters and really feel for them. Empathy for the characters unfortunately seems to be an underrated quality in television. I tried to watch the pilot of Lost but after an hour I really thought everyone did deserve to die in the crash. On the other hand, shows like Friends, Firefly (Whedon again), Farscape, Babylon 5, Warehouse 13 and The West Wing get to me. The creators make me care about what happens to these people, despite the shows sometimes being weak in other areas.

Fifth is character development. Identification with the characters is not enough. There must be a real sense of character development. After watching all seven season of Buffy, I went back to episode one just for fun. I was shocked to see how the characters seemed so young and naive, so different from what they would become. It was like imagining I was a teenager again and looking forward to who I am now. Just like real people, Buffy and the Scoobies had changed, and their environment had changed around them. I had been dragged along in this process, watching the kids grow up and the adults watching them, frequently in despair.

Sixth, the creators aren’t afraid to make awful things happen to the characters. The fact that they make us care for them makes it poignant, even heartbreaking at times. At the same time, the love between the main protagonists becomes all the more beautiful because of the adversity they must face.

Seventh are the all-important story arcs. Shows that press the reset button after each episode (e.g. The Mentalist) can be fine, but will never be great. The story arcs that flow through Buffy are nothing short of astounding, with foreshadowing of themes and events sometimes three of four seasons before they happen. Despite that, this isn’t a show that requires note-taking or obsessive attention. It does not make the mistake of being only about the arc, and most of the episodes are just fine as standalones.

The eighth and final element is the dialog. It is snappy, witty, intelligent, and frequently interspersed with unexpected and clever little jokes. There is rarely boring exposition. The words feel as if they mean something, and go deeper than just moving the scene along.

The first season has its fair share of corniness, but right from the start, the characters and their interactions feel “real”. The dialog is witty and incisive, very often crossing over into brilliant. Most importantly, I started caring for Buffy and her friends in the very first episode. The first season certainly has weaknesses, including a couple of pretty crappy episodes, but there is enough fun to keep things going, as well as a strong feeling that this is a diamond in the rough. By the middle of the second season the show has hit its stride, evolving from its initial “Monster of the Week” format towards ever greater awesomeness.

I recommend Buffy to anyone who loves television. Yes, the subject matter is silly, but this show is both fun and engaging. If you give Buffy a chance she will amaze you.

If you are really skeptical I recommend getting a taste with one of the best episodes of television of all time: Season 4 episode 10 – “Hush”. In this one, the town of Sunnydale (where Buffy is set) is invaded by strange evil men who take away everyone’s ability to speak. For about half the episode, there is no dialogue at all! Despite this, the acting is stellar and the story gripping. The fact that the characters cannot speak, but it is perfectly clear what they are trying to say. Most shows can’t accomplish such clarity even with dialogue.

Good-bye Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Cordelia, Spike, Faith, Anya, Angel, Joyce, Tara, Dawn, Riley, Kennedy, Andrew, Principal Wood and the rest. But not farewell. I’ll come back to visit soon.

Xenocide – Orson Scott Card

Technically this is the second sequel to Ender’s Game, but in actuality Ender’s Game is pretty much a singleton with a spin-off. Xenocide picks up directly where Speaker for the Dead left off. The Lusitania fleet is still bearing down on our heroes, and the question of how to ensure the survival of Pequeninos, Buggers and humans dominates the book. The secondary plot on the planet Path could have been skipped altogether from a story point of view, but psychology is never boring with Card, and so it’s good, if sometimes long-winded reading.

Xenocide is rather slow in the first two thirds, and it took me a long time to get through it. The last third speeds up as the story reaches it’s climax. For a while I though Card would lose it with his theory of the universe, but it all works out rather neatly in the end. Well, life is a mess for Ender, but that seems to be his lot in life.

The ending neatly sets the stage for the sequel Children of the Mind. Just like in Speaker for the Dead, a lot is left unresolved.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as Speaker for the Dead. The story is just as good, if not better. However it is quite slow and long winded. Card himself has said this book is maybe his “deepest” work. That isn’t to say it isn’t a great book. It really is. Finally, don’t start with this one. Read the previous two first.

Speaker for the Dead – Orson Scott Card

As in the prequel Ender’s Game, Card puts puts Ender center stage. Ender is now in his mid thirties, but three thousand years have passed (thanks to judicious speed of light travel on his part) and he finds a chance to redeem himself for what he (and the public) sees as the xenocide (murder of alien race) of the “buggers”. History, cruelly revisionist as it often is, has condemned him for saving the human race, and his very name is a curse. Using his real name, Andrew, he travels from world to world as a Speaker for the Dead, a person who speaks the truth about a person after death at their request.

Mankind has found a new alien race, the seemingly primitive “Piggies”. The colonists of the Piggie world Lusitania call them Pequeninos (little children) and this is a powerful hint for the reader. Ender falls into a maelstrom of human suffering spanning generations, while untenable Piggy-xenologer (scholar of aliens) interaction rules and their violation is putting the future of the Piggies and the colonists in doubt.

I enjoyed this book almost as much as Ender’s Game, and it delves much deeper into the human psyche, showing off Cards strength here. While Ender may sometimes be almost annoyingly wise and seemingly unerring, this does not detract from the story. The book focuses very much on human (and piggy) interaction and feelings, and at the end you wonder how a book can be so good with so little essentially happening. It deeply explores questions of humanity and existence, as well as morality and integrity, but without becoming preachy or boring. As with Ender’s Game, Card has yet again penned a masterpiece.

The Light of Other Days – Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

This novel explores a really fascinating concept. What if technology could be developed that let us see any place in space and time, including past, present and future? Society would be transformed. Lying would be impossible.

But Clarke and Baxter take it much much further than that, and the ending is just plain incredible as, without spoiling it too much, humans can finally seek redeption for the crimes of ages past. Read this book.

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

I had never read this classic for some odd reason. Card sets the boy Ender center stage from the very beginning. Most other characters are two dimensional parts of the surrounding for Ender to react to, with the exception of his siblings. The surroundings are equally vague, further enhancing the impression of Ender moving in a strange world. The novel focuses entirely on Ender’s personal development, and how the military is forced to mold him into a super soldier to end a mysterious alien threat. Society has become controlled and strict, with everything subjugated to the war effort, including trivial things like personal happiness.

Ender is a complex and deeply unhappy genius child. His plight is made all the more tragic by the fact that he is intensely aware of what is happening to him. He is becoming a great leader, but his empathy is suffering. He is being taught to manipulate others and mold them to his will, all the while realizing that he will be disliked, even hated, by those he controls. And what child doesn’t want to be liked rather than respected? for that matter, what adult?

The military establishment acts like those parents who want their child to “become something” without bothering to ask what the child wants. The excuse of the greater good of mankind could easily be substituted with “the good of the child”. Yet, while members of the military (appearing as voice-overs only) have doubts about what they are doing to Ender, the ends always overshadow the means.

In his introduction, Card mentions a letter from a guidance counselor who claimed that children simply don’t act or talk as the author describes them. But I agree with Card. Children can talk in an adult fashion, and their acts and motivations can be intensely Macchiavellian. However, they will censor themselves in front of adults, especially those who would frown upon their behavior. Children are seen in this novel as an underclass with no rights, which is used by society to further it’s means. Even though survival of the species is on the line, it still seems a very cruel thing to do. And this is an important theme in the novel. How far are we willing to go to ensure our survival? Is nothing sacred?

The central parts are somewhat predictable, but this in no way detracts from the enjoyment. The pages just fly by and I was unable to put it down. The last part of the book takes an unexpected turn, but it is here that we discover Ender’s true purpose. Without giving anything away, I will say that it is not quite what you expect.

After finishing the novel, I just sat in awe for several minutes. The depth of understanding that Card has over human psychology on both the individual, group and mass levels is astounding. The way he weaves it into a story is spectacular and keeps the reader guessing, turning the pages to see what new surprises are in store. I cannot recommend this book enough. If you haven’t already, run out and buy it now!

Debt of Honor and Executive Orders – Tom Clancy

An older Jack Ryan moves upwards in the chain of command. Debt of Honor is nowaday subtitled “The prelude to Executive Orders”. I think this does it a tremendous disservice. Although it does end in the middle of the story, it is a fully fleshed out novel in it’s own right, and raises some interesting questions about the future of the Pacific region.

Executive Orders is my favorite Clancy. Its amazing mix of high level politics, forced change at the highest levels of the US governemnt (wishful thinking by Clancy, but I do agree with his views on this one) and of course excellent military action make this a book to read over and over.