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February 09, 2005

Other People's Books

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Someone recently asked me what I was reading, to which my immediate response was a quick laugh -- like I have time to read for fun right now. Nevertheless, I have been buying books, and here's some of the most recent. From the bottom up:

The Ancestor's Tale, by Richard Dawkins -- Dawkins is the current bete noire of the creationists and the IDers, mostly because he's able to break apart their tinny little "scientific" arguments with his mighty hammer of evolutionary biology knowledge, and they of course hate that, since their game is to muddy the waters enough to confuse the people with a bare bones understanding of biology, and thereby shoehorn their nonsense into science classes. This book traces back the evolutionary ancestors of humanity going back to the first single-celled organism, and (so far as I've read, at least) does so in a way that a reasonably intelligent person can find not too hard to follow. Should probably be required reading for anyone on a school board. I'll be donating my copy of the book to the local library after I'm done reading it.

Roger Zalazny, The First Chronicles of Amber; Robert Heinlein, Expanded Universe; Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle -- Clearly, I'm continuing to use the Science Fiction Book Club to stock up on books from dead guys. I used to own some Amber books as well as Expanded Universe, but in both cases that was in junior high and high school and God only knows where those books might be at the moment; time for a hardcover upgrade. And I'd never read High Castle before, and I figure it's better to read Dick from the era in which he wasn't communicating with aliens or ghosts or whatever it was he was hallucinating in his later years. What's really interesting is how short all these novels are -- I thought Old Man's War was reasonably short, but each of these novels are about two-thirds the length. When did all us writers become windbags?

Orphanage, by Robert Buettner -- The other recent debut novel that's getting compared to Starship Troopers and Forever War; it's a paperback release but the SFBC has a special hardback edition, and since I couldn't find the book in my local bookstore, I went ahead and got that version. I'm only a couple of chapters in but so far, so good; Buettner's writing more of a straight-ahead SF military story than I did, as far as I can see. I think I may be helping to move a few copies of this book, since every now and then Amazon has one of those "buy both these books!" links jamming the two books together, and elsewise I've noticed that when my Amazon ranking gets a bump for whatever reason, so does his. It's "The Long Tail" in action. If I am indeed helping him sell, that makes me happy; I'm a big fan of trying to lift all the boats in the water. Of course, it could be that he's helping me. In which case: Thanks, Robert.

Coyote Rising, by Allen Steele -- Got this at the local bookstore. I enjoyed Coyote, so this sequel is a natural purchase. Some of the reviews I've seen have given Steele flack for the political systems he's put in the book, the gist being people wondering why he's kicking socialism when it's already so obviously down. Well, it's not down in the book, and secondly, I don't know, I think people are spending far too much time these days obsessing over the political angles of things. I don't think Steele's making a huge statement about socialism, so far as I've read; I think he's working within the parameters of the story he's constructed. At the very least, I haven't felt like it's been annoying polemical so far, and I have a pretty good ear for annoying polemics.

Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, by Olivia Judson -- A really neat conceit: An evolutionary biologist/journalist who explains concepts about sexuality in the animal would by creating an "advice column" format and having various species write in with their sex problem. This is exactly how popular science should be approached: By making it fun and interesting even for people who get scared at words like "science."

The Good War, Studs Terkel -- I've somehow managed to get through 35 years of life -- some of which in Chicago, for God's sake -- without reading any Studs Terkel. Seemed like a good time to fix that. Also, I've recently become interested in oral histories as a form, and again, this seems like a good place to start.

That's what on the reading list, should I get the time to, you know, read.

Posted by john at February 9, 2005 02:05 PM

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Comments

GGJ | February 9, 2005 03:22 PM

"When did all us writers become windbags?"

When hardcovers became $24.95. For that kinda money, people want a book that can stop a bullet. Just in case.

Jim | February 9, 2005 04:41 PM

Studs is just the best. Find time to read "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "Hope Dies Last." You won't regret it.

CB | February 9, 2005 05:57 PM

Did I read something awhile ago about you not yet having read Forever War?

John Scalzi | February 9, 2005 06:10 PM

Probably, because I hadn't, and still haven't. Not that I don't want to, but I think I'm going to wait until I finish The Ghost Brigades at least.

Mitch Wagner | February 10, 2005 01:10 AM

You might find "The Forever War" dated. But of course I guess you have to read it.

I think Joe Haldeman's best novel is "1968"---it's not science fiction, rather, it's a year in the life of a kid who goes to Vietnam in the title year, and the girl he left behind.

Joe's other best novel is probably "Buying Time," featuring the most likeable psychopath you could ever want to meet. Or not meet. Ever. Especially not in a dark alley.

His most recent novels, "Camouflage," "The Guardian," and "The Coming," are very fine. "The Forever Peace" covers similar thematic terrain to "The Forever War," but it might be more accessible to a contemporary reader. TFW is an allegory for Vietnam, "The Forever Peace" is an allegory for the first Gulf War. U.S. Soldiers fight in Central America using telepresence devices called "soldierboys." The Gulf War I often seemed, in America, more like a sporting event than a real war because it happened so far away and because of the great rift which had opened between military and civilian cultures at that time--if you weren't in the military culture yourself, you probably didn't know anyone who went over to the Gulf. In "The Forever Peace," even the American SOLDIERS don't even go to war, instead they operate killing machines by telepresence.

Joe also has a newsgroup---sort of like a blog---on sff.net, and I'm sure you'd be welcome there and you'd get along well.

Studs Turkel is brilliant and a hero, and "The Good War" is a great place to start. "Working" is great, too. I have his latest book, interviewing people about death, in my to-be-read pile; rather appropriate for a nonogenarian to be writing about that subject, eh?

Amanda | February 10, 2005 09:06 AM

Okay - you've now left an opening for me to confess something. I've been reading you since the 90's, loved Agent to the Stars, but Old Man's War has been sitting on my wish-list unpurchased because I'm scared of the comparisons of you to Heinlein. I went through a Heinlein "phase", reading and enjoying his books. Got a little stuck on "Job", but decided to keep going, and then read "Expanded Universe". And have never read another word of his since. Too hopeless and violent. I had been willing to overlook some of the troubling aspects of his earlier fiction because the stories and writing were good, but that collection has just colored everything else he's written for me. If I wanted stories of inevitable nuclear holocaust, I'd read the news...

So, can you reassure me that if I read Old Man's War, I won't come out of the experience feeling battered for not wanting to shore up our nuclear weapons and join a militia? You purchased Expanded Universe for the handful of good stories in it, and completeness - you're not secretly one of those Heinlein nutjobs who live their life by his philosophy? Can you say something nice for us liberal, pacifist women in the audience?

I mean, from what I read, I'm pretty sure Krissy would kick your ass if you treated the women in your books the way Heinlein treated his, but it's not like we can check out the status of your ass from here :)

John Scalzi | February 10, 2005 09:24 AM

"So, can you reassure me that if I read Old Man's War, I won't come out of the experience feeling battered for not wanting to shore up our nuclear weapons and join a militia?"

Well, *I* don't want to shore up our nukes and join a militia, and I *wrote* it. So no, I don't suspect you'll feel like you'll come out of it itchin' for guns and uranium.

The thing for me make clear here is why I certainly do appreciate all the Heinlein comparisons -- not only was he a generally fine writer, he was also one of the most commercially successful SF writers ever, so overall it's difficult not to be pleased -- the fact is I'm *not* Heinlein, couldn't be, and have no interest in aping every last one of his philosophical tenents or literary flourishes. I have my own books to write and my own thoughts to think.

As for living life by Heinlein's philosophy: Well, you know. No. Bob and I have points of agreement, but that's not saying too much, since I have points of agreement with conservative Christians too, and I'm pretty clearly not one of those, either. I think it's possible to enjoy a writer -- and even learn from him, as I have flattered myself by thinking I've learned from RAH's writing style -- without uncritically swallowing everything he did, said or wrote.

tor kristensen | February 10, 2005 11:08 AM

Terkel's book "My American Century" was one of the last books I read that reminded me that possibly, perhaps, there was one or two reasons to move back to America. It didn't last long, but the voices in his book are intrinsicaly american. I've recommended it to several europeans who are interested in learning about the "real" america.

Dawn B. | February 10, 2005 12:06 PM

Amanda, as a woman who doesn't like Heinlien much, I can safely say I enjoyed Old Man's War very much and did not want to join the miltia or stock up on nukes.

Jim | February 10, 2005 12:56 PM

I enjoyed Orphanage and plan to buy the sequel when it comes out. This is another discovery I owe to you and OMW because it was the comparisons to OMW that led me to try Orphanage just as it was your comments that led me to Elizabeth Bear's Hammered (another case where I am also looking forward to the sequel).

Other than the obvious surface similarities both being SF novels with 1st person descriptions of training and combat, I don't see OMW and Orphanage as being that much alike. Buettner writes in broader strokes (and at times seems to have as much in common with comic books as with Heinlein) -- don't get me wrong, I did enjoy Orphanage -- but I think OMW is a better novel.

John Scalzi | February 10, 2005 02:17 PM

Thanks, Jim. Clearly, I'm not objective on the matter, so it would be pointless to agree or disagree with that. Although I do *like* Orphanage so far.

Mitch Wagner | February 10, 2005 05:27 PM

I'm a passionate Heinlein fan. I re-read all of his books every few years, I've read several books of criticism about his work, and I'm eagerly awaiting a biography which has, alas, been in the works forever.

I think Heinlein's later novels, with the exception of "Friday" and "Job" are his worst novels, and some of them are downright unreadable. Or, rather, unreadable by me; they sold like gangbusters and I get the impression that they're his most popular works.

As to H's attitudes toward women:

- He was very progressive. But he was also a man born in 1907 in Kansas, and a graduate of Annapolis, and he died around 1988. Now it's nearly a century since his birth and nearly 20 years since he died; his views toward women look creaky and reactionary.

- As to "Job: A Comedy of Justice": It's told in the first-person, his views are not necessarily the views of the author. For one thing, the protagonist is a Fundamentalist Christian whose faith is tested, but never destroyed. His wife may well think of him as a big dumb goof, whom she loves for his other good qualities.

John Scalzi | February 10, 2005 05:32 PM

"I think Heinlein's later novels, with the exception of 'Friday' and 'Job' are his worst novels, and some of them are downright unreadable."

Agreed, and I'm not all THAT fond of Job, although I think it's the second best of his late-era work, after Friday. I think a lot of the affection for the older work stems from the fact he was able to tie up his future history before he passed on; basically, he put a bow on his work for his fans.

Mitch Wagner | February 11, 2005 03:28 AM

Asimov did the same thing, and I've never understood what drove both men to do that. Well, I suspect it was money -- Asimov came out and said that, and Heinlein was in similar personal circumstances to Asimov, with failing health and dependents whom he wanted to leave provided for after he was gone. Well, in Heinlein's case, one dependent.

That sounds like I'm accusing them of something nefarious, and I'm not. "Selling out" looks a whole lot less dishonorable when you a family have people financially dependent on you, especially when the alleged sell-out involves nothing dishonorable.

John Scalzi | February 11, 2005 08:37 AM

Indeed. I don't begrudge Heinlein his later bad books; I just haven't read them more than once.

Mitch Wagner | February 12, 2005 06:43 PM

And I actually think "Friday" and "Job" are pretty good.

We have a tendency to judge most Heinlein novels, and every late Heinlein, as a polemic of some kind. "Friday" and "Job" weren't that, they were just light fiction.

"Friday" was primarily light action-adventure. She was a female James Bond. Was Friday an adolescent fantasy? Of course she was! The novel also did a surprisingly good job anticipating the Internet -- I don't mean anticipating the technology (which already existed when RAH was writing) but rather the experience of the actual person using the Internet, complete with the experience of wandering the interconnections and wasting time getting lost on tangents. Heinlein even anticipated there'd be wireless connectivity.

(It's kind of similar to the way he anticipated cell phones in "Between Planets." Anticipating wireless, portable phones wasn't cool enough -- he also predicted that they'd often become a nuisance to people who just wanted to be left alone.)

Likewise, Job was primarily a comedy. Even said so in the title.

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