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21L.434 - Science Fiction - Spring 1998 - The Books

As I mentioned in my last post, I took a Science Fiction class in college from Prof. Henry Jenkins with an awesome reading list. Here's the course syllabus. I already talked about the movies I watched in that class, so here are the books I read. I'm sad he hasn't taught it again, because I kept going back to look for new reading lists. :)

First, though, I have to warn you. I'm a visually-oriented person, and I tend to forget most of the details of even my favorite books, while I can remember scenes from the crappiest movies I've watched. So what I remember from a book tends more to be a general sense, if I remember it at all. That said, here are my general senses of the books I read:


  • Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein - I've liked Heinlein's other books better like The Moon Is a Hash Mistress, but this one is most interesting when you compare it with Paul Verhoeven's film adaptation. The book appears to be a more straightforward depiction of a militaristic—some say fascist—society in which a war against alien bugs dominates the social sphere. The alleged film adaptation is really more like a parody of the novel, taking the fascism to a comical extreme. I personally found the book rather forgettable and the movie underrated.

  • Kindred by Octavia Butler - This is the story of a modern black woman who is inexplicable transported to the South of the slavery era. It's notable for tackling subjects that science fiction rarely mentions, but to be honest I found the writing somewhat stilted. It's a book that's interesting more from an intellectual than a literary perspective.

  • A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge - Ah, now this is one of my favorite books of all time. Anyone who's interested in cognitive science, in how we think, and how other intelligent life might think, needs to read this book. At its core, it's a depiction of the thought processes of a variety of different races: hyperintelligent AIs that cover pages of ruminations in a microsecond, a pack of dog-like creatures that are individually sub-sentient, but that communicate "telepathically" (through radio waves I think) with each other, such that the pack as a whole hits the threshold of sentience, and even some sort of cybernetic plant that had evolved long term memory and rudimentary information processing skills in order to better spread its seeds, and that someone else then came along and hooked up to a machine with short term memory and locomotion. And at the same time, it also shows an anachronistic but still amusing interstellar Usenet newsgroup system. :)

  • Ammonite by Nicola Griffith - You know, I know I read this book, but I honestly can't remember a thing about it. :\

  • Fool's War by Sarah Zettel - This one I know I somehow never got around to reading. :P

  • Globalhead by Bruce Sterling - This was a collection of short stories, and I'm sad to say none of them stuck with me enough for me to remember. I do however remember that Mr. Sterling actually came to give a talk at MIT, and he spoke to our class. I have this general impression of edgy, modern cyberpunk, and that he was a snarky and interesting guy. :)

  • The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson - I know Stephenson is revered in the geek community, but I've never been able to finish his books. I started Snow Crash, and found the ideas interesting, but just, I dunno, got bored or something. Same here. I just couldn't get through it. Maybe I need to try another one some time? I mean, I love Neil Gaiman, but I couldn't get through Good Omens. Maybe I should give Stephenson another try some time.

  • Permutation City by Greg Egan - Okay, after all those books I didn't finish or couldn't remember, here's another one of my favorite books of all time. Uploading our minds into a computer is a common theme in science fiction, but no one has ever explored the concept as fully as Egan. He starts with the early days of mind upload, where we create accurate models of brains for medical research and find them gaining sentience and going insane from lack of stimulating sensory input, to well, let's just say he takes things to a logical extreme. I highly recommend this book.

  • Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress - Often in science fiction, quality writing takes a back seat to speculation and ideas. That's not the case here. This is quality literature that happens to speculation and explore ideas. The idea is that we develop a way to genetically modify people at birth to require no sleep. These kids grow to be superintelligent, and the book explores the impact on their relationships with each other as well as their relationship with the rest of society. This is one of those cases of a book that I really enjoyed but can't remember the details of, but I'd still definitely recommend it. I even liked it enough to read the sequel, Beggars and Choosers, though I heard the third in the trilogy wasn't as good, and so I skipped that.

  • Blood Music by Greg Bear - Okay, I have to give a bit of a spoiler warning here, because the main thing I remember about this book is the ending. It's an ending where, not to give too much away, the entirety of human existence changes forever. :P It kinda freaked me out, actually. A lot. I dunno, I guess I take comfort in feeling like people are fundamentally people, and that while our values and social structures my progress, we will always fundamentally act and feel like people. I guess the technological singularity people think everything will fundamentally change soon. I guess I find that scary, too. :P

  • Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card - Most of you know Card from Ender's Game, which I loved, like everyone else. I actually never got around to reading this book, but I'm going to use this space instead to relate the story of Card's visit to MIT in November 1997.

    He took over MIT's largest lecture hall. I think he read from his latest book (I forget which) for a bit, and then he took questions. He gave brilliant answers. He came across as cynical but inspirational. Every time he answered a question, the entire audience would applaud! I mean, we're talking about answering questions about computers in public schools and stuff like that, and his answers were so insightful and on-the-mark that he'd get all but a standing ovation! I also remember him answering a question about science fiction in movies, and he said he felt that the public gets a skewed view of science fiction because special effects are too expensive, and that as the cost of effects goes down, we'd get better science fiction movies. That has happened to a large degree in the last decade, especially on the television front. Again, the audience love his answer. But then....

    This talk was in 1997, the year Contact was released. It was a bit of a milestone for science fiction movies, and so someone asked what he thought of Contact.

    He started by mentioning that, as his fans know, he is a deeply religious person. (For those who don't know, Card is Mormon and has spoken out strongly against homosexuality.) He said that he thought Contact was an awful movie and that it portrayed religious people in an incredibly negative light. He said that with the exception of Ellie, who was the only "truly religious person" in the movie because of her hard-fast belief in the existence of extraterrestrials, the other religious characters were all portrayed as loonies or idiots. He thought it was incredibly arrogant the makers of the movie to think that they're the only ones who are right. He said that if the Christians in the movie were replaced with black people, we would all be appalled at how offensive the movie is.

    There were definite sounds of mumbling, and when it came time to applause, whereas before just about the entire audience applauded enthusiastically every time, only about a quarter of the audience applauded, many sporadically and tentatively. There was one person hissing near the back.

    As the thing went on, and Scott did continue to make very insightful comments and so forth, and there were still a few instances of enthusiastic applause, though not quite as enthusiastic as before.

    So that was my first-hand impression of Orson Scott Card. Definitely an interesting man! Apologies for that digression. :P

  • Astro City: Life in the Big City by Kurt Busiek - This was the only graphic novel we read, though each chapter/issue was a separate story, so you can really just think of it as a bundle of comic books. :P It's a sort of "realistic" look at the lives of superheroes. The story I remember best is about a Superman-like character who feels constant guilt whenever he's NOT out there saving lives. Every moment he takes for himself, someone out there is dying who doesn't need to die! He tries to date a Wonder Woman-like character, but when he's on a date, all he can think about are the people who are dying out there because he's sitting down having dinner. I read this years before I got around to reading Watchmen, so this was my first exposure to this type of treatment of superheroes. Great stuff.

I grew up reading all the Isaac Asimov I could get my hands on, as well as lots of Arthur C. Clarke, and some Robert Heinlein. But this class exposed me to a great breadth of material. Makes me want to read more now. :)

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