10 Interesting SciFi reads for the holidays


Here in North America, winter has finally arrived.  The days are short and the nights are cold.  Whether you’re looking to pick up a gift for a scifi fan, or you just want some epic reading material for these long nights, here are 10 reads you should definitely check out.

Dune, Frank Herbert

Dune first appeared on bookshelves in 1965 and was the first book to win the renowned Nebula Award for Best Novel in the award’s inaugural year.   Dune is set in the far distant future.  Humanity has spread through out the universe.  A feudal system of government run by a number of noble families, or houses, governs under the auspices of the Emperor of the Known Universe.  Against this huge cosmic tapestry, Herbert spins a story that is heady and personal.  Themes on religion, politics, ecology, and technology give the story an incredible scope while the central characters give the story it’s heart.  Dune continues to enjoy critical and commercial success having inspired a number of sequel novels, a video game, a feature film, and a two SyFy Channel mini-series.  Besides, any book with it’s own glossary and that inspired an Iron Maiden song gets cool points.

Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein

Starship Troopers was first published in late 1959 as a two part series in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  It is more of a political essay rather than a stand alone narrative.  The story follows one soldier from the Terran Mobile Infantry from boot recruit to commissioned officer.  Much of the book takes place in flashback to a high school civics class where Heinlein discuss ideas of political responsibility, citizenship, right of suffrage, and leadership.  Starship Troopers has enjoyed popularity in the military community, not so much for its technological coolness as for Heinlein’s views on military science and leadership.  In fact it is recommended reading for officers in 4 of the 5 U.S. service branches.

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

Where Starship Troopers discusses military science from a big picture perspective, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game involves itself in the moral dilemmas of war from the perspective of an individual soldier.  Earth is at war with an insect-like alien race.  The story follows Andrew “Ender” Wiggin during his education on an Earth orbiting space station called the Battle School, where the best of humanity’s children begin training to repel the coming invasion.  Though criticized for the violent actions of the book’s protagonist, Ender’s Game has enjoyed critical and commercial success.  It has been in continual publication since its first run in 1985 and rumors of a film adaptation continue to surface.  Like Starship Troopers, Card’s novel is on the U.S. Marine Corps recommended reading list because if offers, “lessons in training methodology, leadership, and ethics.”  USMC Professional Reading Program. Marine Corps University. 2009-09-25.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy originally came into being as a BBC radio drama before being novelized.  Douglas Adams’ hilarious story follows lowly English earther Arthur Dent on his odyssey across the cosmos where he discovers, among many things, the answer to life, the universe, and everything.  Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy spawned a number of sequel novels, a feature film, a comic book adaptation, a video game, and a line of designer towels.

The Dark Tower series, Stephen King

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,” thus opens one of the most ambitious stories of our generation.  Stephen King first scrawled these words in the early 1970s.  The first book in the series was published in 1982 and the 7th volume was published in 2004.  The story chronicles Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger of Gilead, on his quest to reach the Dark Tower.  The story is a brilliant mish mash of genres – fantasy, horror, science fiction, and American western.  King cited the Robert Browning poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” as the chief inspiration for the book but also recognizes the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, and others.  The Dark Tower series has been described as the narrative axis on which of number of King’s other novels revolve, such as The Stand, Hearts in Atlantis, Eyes of the Dragon, and ‘Salem’s Lot.  In September 2010, Universal Pictures announced an upcoming adaptation of The Dark Tower series in alternating feature films and a television series.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (WWZ), Max Brooks

WWZ is a brilliant collection of first person anecdotes that retell the events of a zombie plague that nearly wipes out humanity.  In it’s structure, WWZ is modeled after Studs Terkel’s The Good War: An Oral History of WWII while the content is right out of George Romero’s zombie movies.  In the great tradition of genre fiction, Brooks uses a fantastic and horrific setting the discuss a variety of social and interpersonal issues that give the individual vignettes their strength.  Each chapter is dedicated to a single character, who retells their story in the greater zombie conflict.  Principle characters are given multiple chapters though rather then tell individual narratives in a single through line Brooks uses the over arching timeline of the war to plot the individual tales.  As great as the print book is the audiobook is even better.  Alan Alda, Mark Hamill, John Turturro and others voice the various characters brilliantly.

Elric of Melniboné, Michael Moorcock

Elric VIII, 428th Emperor of Melniboné, first appeared in Michael Moorcock’s novella, “The Dreaming City” in 1961.  In stark contract to Tolkien’s characters, which represent fantasy’s literary archetypes, Elric is often described as an antihero.  His physicality speaks to the differences in temperament from other fantasy heros; Elric is beautifully and hauntingly described in the opening lines of the novel:

It is the color of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is milk-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody, and from the loose sleeves of his yellow gown emerge two slender hands, also the color of bone.

Elric is frail and weak and must take herbs to maintain his health.  He is the emperor of a dying corrupt culture.   Through out the story, Elric calls upon and enlists the favors of various gods and demons to accomplish his goals.  Elric is not villainous, Moorcock has written that he prefers to think of Elric as a complex hero rather than an antihero.  Elric of Melniboné is the first in a series of novels that chronicle Elric’s many adventures.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction a year after it’s release.  Fans of genre fiction may not be familiar with McCarthy’s work who’s previous novels include No Country for Old Men, the Border trilogy, and Outer Dark.  In addition to his novels, McCarthy has penned one screenplay and two plays.  He is widely respected in the academic and literary communities.  The Road marks a pronounced departure from McCarthy’s previous works, many of which take place in the  American southwest during the 19th and early 20th centuries and are pretty heady character pieces.  The Road is best characterized as a post-apocalyptic tale set somewhere in an America decimated by an unknown event that has destroyed civilization and nearly all of humanity.  The story is about a father and son who struggle southward in hopes of finding warmth and food.  The barren and dead landscape they traverse is populated by bands of roving marauders and cannibals.  By striping away all of the pleasantries and benefits of civilization, McCarthy explores in painful detail what it means to be humane when being humane may lead to death.  The Road is beautiful and heartbreaking; while it doesn’t have any of the escapist fun of other genre fiction, it is a story that should be read.

Neuromancer, William Gibson

Long before “The Matrix” trilogy there was Neuromancer by William Gibson.  This was Gibson’s debut novel; published in 1984, it won of number of prestigious publishing awards and heralded the beginning of the cyberpunk sub genre of science fiction.  The story follows one Henry Dorsett Case, a washed up junkie and one-time renowned computer hacker (or “cowboy” in Gibson’s vernacular), who is recruited for a job by a mysterious benefactor.  Along with a lethal street samurai named Molly Millions, Case weaves through a story and world where Gibson explores themes of the unintended and inevitable effects of technology on the human condition.  The narrative vibe of Neuromancer is very American hardboiled detective and high tech distopia.  The language of the book is gorgeous and interesting a number of terms coined in this and other Gibson works, like cyberspace and ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics) found there way into mainstream English during the 1990s when the World Wide Web came into it’s own.

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War centers on a young college student, William Mandella, who is conscripted into military service in Earth’s war against an alien race called the Taurans.  The novel is widely regarded as being heavily influenced by Haldeman’s experiences as a solider in the Vietnam war.  In the story, Mandella serves in the military for a total of 4 years but because the incredible relativistic effects of near-light speed travel centuries pass on Earth.  Each time Mandella returns to Earth, it is less and less like the home he’d left.  The alienation and disconnectedness Mandella experiences are central elements to the story.  Where Heinlein’s Starship Troopers espouses the virtues of the warrior in a free society, Haldeman’s work explores the dehumanizing human beurocracies that make soldiers tools of the state.  The Forever War is anything but a light romp; Haldeman’s talent as a writer and unique perspective as a combat veteran make this book a worthy read.