Tag Archives for " science fiction "

Recommended mysteries, science fiction, historical novels, nonfiction

recommended mysteries - All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony DoerrFrom time to time, I post lists of recommended mysteries and thrillers, science fiction, historical novels, biographies, or books about science or business. Here I’ll include the 15 best of these lists. Each of them contains a number of individual titles with links to the reviews I’ve posted on this blog.

Fiction lists

48 excellent mystery and thriller series

This list just scratches the surface of what’s available, but I’m confident that at least some of the very best mystery and thriller series can be found below. All these series have one or both of two things in common: the protagonist is the same from one book to the next, or (in just two cases) the series are rooted in a particular time and place, though the cast of characters varies. There are just two exceptions to this rule: the work of Ross Thomas and John Grisham. I’ve included both authors because many of their characters appear in each of several novels—and because they’re so good I can’t bring myself to ignore them.

My 27 favorite science fiction novels

In times past, science fiction was widely regarded as pulp literature suitable only for 14-year-old boys. Those days are long past. Now the field is often referred to as speculative fiction. Which is as it should be. In this list are the 27 science fiction novels that have lingered in my mind—in some cases, for fifty years or more. Some are dystopian novels, others alternate history, imagined futures, or time travel; some are set on Earth, others elsewhere around the galaxy.

75 readable and revealing historical novels

My favorite subjects are European history, including many historical spy novels; World War II; American history, especially political history; and Asian and African history. You’ll also find that several authors show up multiple times: Geraldine Brooks, Thomas Fallon, Olen Steinhauer, Alan Furst, and Joseph Kanon—in the last three cases, because of especially insightful series they’re writing.

24 compelling dystopian novels in series

Among the works included here are outstanding trilogies by Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Blake Crouch, and Hugh Howey, and a connected series of three novels by Paolo Bacigalupi that has not been marketed as a trilogy. In my reviews, I’ve awarded almost all of these books ratings of 4 out of 5 or 5 out of 5 stars.

A brief look at 15 notable dystopian scenarios

In the companion post linked above, I listed two dozen dystopian novels that were published in series. Here I’ve listed 15 standalone works. These posts are a result of some of the research I’ve conducted in preparation for writing my newest book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction.

My 10 favorite espionage novels

Over the past seven years, I’ve read and reviewed more than 60 espionage novels. My ten favorites are listed below. Though my preliminary list included multiple titles by three authors (Alex Berenson, Charles Cumming, and Ross Thomas), I’ve limited myself to a single title from every writer. I gave every one of these ten titles a score of 5 out of 5 stars on its review.

15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others)

The 15 detective novels listed in this post may not be the 15 “best” detective novels, even by my uniquely idiosyncratic criteria. I’d read a lot of work in the genre even before I began writing these reviews in January 2010—and there are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of detective novels I’ve never read. This list consists exclusively of those I’ve selected from among the 200 or so that I’ve read and reviewed in this blog. I gave every one of these books a rating of 5 out of 5 stars.

Nonfiction lists

34 great biographies I’ve reviewed

Roger Ailes. Catherine the Great. William Armstrong Custer. Steve Jobs. Malcolm X. These are among the men and women featured in the 34 biographies I’ve awarded four or five out of five stars in my reviews.

Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books

Astronomy. Epidemiology. Lexicography. Microbiology. These are among the thirty different scientific fields discussed and explained in the thirty-three excellent books about science that I’ve read and reviewed.

8 great books on Big History: New perspectives on world history

Three decades ago an American historian named David Christian who was teaching at an Australian university at the time launched a new approach to world history. His unique take on the subject took the discipline far beyond the limits of the written word. Calling it Big History, Christian started his new course at the beginning of time itself: the Big Bang. He enlisted guest lecturers from the fields of astrophysics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, biology, and other scientific fields, incorporating their specialized knowledge into his comprehensive survey of Big History. Many other scholars have since followed in Christian’s footsteps, bringing their own unique perspectives to bear on this fresh approach to understanding our lives and the world we live in. My list includes eight of the best books to emerge in this field.

17 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era

In addition to the many World War II novels I’ve read and reviewed in this blog, both mysteries and trade fiction, I’ve read a great many nonfiction books on the years leading up to and during the war. Here I’ve listed 17 of the best I’ve come across in recent years. They cover everything from economic policy in the Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany to the role of business and the conduct of the war itself.

17 good nonfiction books about espionage

For good or ill, a fair amount of what I’ve learned about espionage over the years has come from reading spy stories. A few authors are particularly diligent about research and accuracy, so most of what I’ve picked up is probably true. In fact, many of those authors are veterans of the intelligence game and should know what they write about. But, for assurance that what I read is less likely to be fictional, there’s nothing like an in-depth nonfiction treatment of the field by a credible author. Since January 2010, I’ve read seventeen such books. I recommend them highly.

35 biographies worth reading

The 35 books listed here cover a wide range of both historical and contemporary figures, every one of them prominent in a significant way, from Cleopatra and Catherine the Great to Clarence Darrow, Allen Dulles, and Steve Jobs. Most of the 35 fall into a few categories that describe some of the topics I’m most interested in: espionage, science, business, and American history.

35 excellent nonfiction books about politics

One way or another, I’ve been at least peripherally involved in electoral politics ever since I was in high school. Which is why I seek out books about politics. Fiction, nonfiction—it doesn’t matter. If it’s credible and at least reasonably well written, I’m game. So, ever since I launched this blog six years ago, I’ve read and reviewed a fair number of books about the topic. This list includes only the 35 nonfiction books that have appeared in this space.

14 of the best recent nonfiction books

Caveat emptor: I don’t pretend that the 14 books in this list are THE BEST nonfiction books ever published. They’re simply some of the best ones I read and reviewed during the first five years I posted to this blog, every one of them a source of enlightenment that deepened my understanding of the world we live in.

From Sweden, a strange science fiction novel

strange science fiction - amatka-karin-tidbeckAmatka by Karin Tidbeck

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Historically, science fiction has mostly been identified with the United States and Great Britain. That’s not to say, however, that talented authors from many other countries, writing in languages other than English, haven’t made their mark in the genre. Science fiction novels, some of them outstanding, have come from Russia, China, and other countries as far-flung as Brazil, Czechoslovakia, and Iceland. Now Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck, previously known for her well-received collection of short stories, offers her first novel, Amatka.

From the outset, it’s clear that Amatka is a science fiction novel of a very different sort. Anyone who accepts a literal definition of science fiction—stories that are possible given what we know about science—will consider this novel fantasy, not science fiction. At best, it’s very strange science fiction. Its premise clearly rests somewhere outside the bounds of possibility.

On an unnamed world somewhere far away, four small colonies of humans struggle to survive. Their surroundings are inhospitable. Featureless tundra extends in all directions. Ostensibly in order to ensure their communities’ survival, the colonies are governed by rigid bureaucrats who have made rules for virtually every aspect of life. Most of the buildings and almost everything else, from pencils to suitcases to furniture, are constructed out of a viscous, mud-like substance mined from the surface of the planet. And everything made of this mysterious stuff will hold its shape only if those who use it continuously remind each object of its purpose. They paint labels on every item (“door,” “building,” “bed”) and chant the word on its label to assure the object’s stability. If they don’t do so frequently enough, seemingly solid and stable items simply liquefy into goo that spreads across every surface and destroys anything else within its reach. And the bureaucrats have layered over this reality with new requirements of their own. For instance, here’s what Vanja learns in the community’s library: “One couldn’t name a book anything other than BOOK, or start the title with anything other than ‘About . . .’ Naming an object something else, even accidentally, was forbidden.”

Not literally science fiction, is it? Or, as I’ve noted, at the very least strange science fiction.

Amatka is a short novel—a novella, really. In just 170 pages, Tidbeck tells the story of a woman named Brillars’ Vanja Essre Two, known as Vanja. Vanja is sent from her home colony of Essre by train (train???) to Amatka, where she is to investigate the potential for factories at home to produce hygiene products such as soap and shampoo that might be sold in Amatka. Her job is to interview prospective customers and report back to her boss in Essre. But Vanja soon begins to learn that all is not as it appears in Amatka. And she falls in love with the woman who is hosting her. Between the love affair and her increasing understanding of the truth about the colony, Vanja resigns from her job in Essre, committing herself to stay in Amatka. There, she plays a central role in the unfolding events that lead to the novel’s shattering conclusion.

In its strangeness, Amatka fits snugly into a new sub-genre that has emerged in science fiction in recent years. I’ve previously reviewed three such books by China Mieville (The City and the City), Jeff Vandermeer (Authority), and Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice). I enjoyed none of them.  

If you’d like to know which sci-fi works I enjoyed a lot more, see My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, Miles begins his journey

The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster BujoldThe Warrior’s Apprentice (Vorkosigan Saga #4), by Lois McMaster Bujold

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you’re looking for escapist entertainment, and if science fiction strikes your fancy, you’ll enjoy the long series of novels in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. The Warrior’s Apprentice, the fourth book in the series’ chronology, is a case in point.

In the preceding entries in the series, we learned the backstory of its central figure, Miles Vorkosigan. He is the son of one of the most senior military and political leaders on the planet of Barrayar, Aral Vorkosigan, and Cordelia Naismith, a scientist and unwilling soldier who is a former enemy from the far more technologically advanced Beta Colony. In a failed assassination attempt on his father, Miles is crippled in his mother’s womb by poison gas. His life has been saved only by Betan technology and a courageous local physician. But he was born a virtual dwarf, less than five feet tall, and with bones so brittle they break when he falls or one of his limbs is squeezed too strongly. Miles compensates for these disabilities with a brilliant mind, a copious memory, and a genius for military strategy that allows him to gain the allegiance of the toughest professional soldiers.

Miles is surely one of the most off-beat and intriguing protagonists in all of science fiction. No doubt, the strange attraction we all feel to Miles explains how the author has been able to produce (to date) a total of at least sixteen novels in the series, plus a large number of novellas and short stories. And she has won numerous awards for her work.

In The Warrior’s Apprentice, seventeen-year-old Miles washes out of officer training for the Barrayaran military when he breaks both legs in leaping off a wall in an obstacle course. Freed from the strictures of the military, Miles sets out on a visit to his grandmother on distant Beta Colony. His bodyguard, Sergeant Konstantine Bothari, and the sergeant’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Elena, accompany him on the journey. No sooner do they arrive than Miles manages to embroil himself in rescuing an old starship pilot. Brashly, he buys the pilot’s ship to save it from salvage—with money he doesn’t have. This foolish act triggers a series of misadventures that begin Miles’ long trek to galactic fame.

I’ve reviewed all three of the preceding novels in the Vorkosigan Saga: Falling Free (An outstanding sci-fi series), Shards of Honor (The exciting second book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga), and Barrayar (The Vorkosigan Saga: much more than a space opera). I enjoyed them all, and you will, too, so long as you don’t expect to gain any deeper meaning from the experience.

A clever new take on an alien invasion in a humorous young adult novel

alien invasion - Landscape with Invisible HandLandscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Science fiction is full of clichés about alien invasions of Earth, some evil, some benign. The murderous rampaging monsters that lay waste to the planet. The enigmatic species so different from the human race and so far advanced that communication with them is virtually impossible. The humanoid invaders who blend into contemporary society, either by morphing into human shape or because they themselves resemble human beings since we share common roots. You might think that every possible take on an alien invasion has been done before. Not so. In his new novella, Landscape with Invisible Hand, M. T. Anderson proves the point.

“We were all surprised when the vuvv landed the first time,” Anderson writes. “They’d been watching us since the 1940s, and we’d seen them occasionally, but we had all imagined them differently. They weren’t slender and delicate, and they weren’t humanoid at all. They looked more like granite coffee tables: squat, wide, and rocky. We were just glad they weren’t invading. We couldn’t believe our luck when they offered us their tech and invited us to be part of their Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance. They announced that they could end all work forever and cure all disease, so of course, the leaders of the world all rushed to sign up.”

Big surprise! This was not a good idea. The story of the sad (and sometimes hilarious) consequences of this peculiar alien invasion is told through the voice of Adam Costello, a seventeen-year-old art student. Adam lives in a decaying middle-class home with his out-of-work parents and his younger sister. Because the vuvv give nothing away free of charge, and jobs are extremely scarce, everyone on Earth has essentially gone broke, with the exception of a small number of super-wealthy people who live in palatial homes that float above the land. The dollar and every other human currency is virtually worthless in exchange for the vuvv currency, the ch’ch. (“The lowliest vuvv grunt made more in a week than most humans made in two years.”) Adam, his family, and practically everyone he knows are on the verge of starvation. He takes it upon himself to earn money so the family can eat, first with one crazy scheme, then another.

Landscape with Invisible Hand, reflects the same inventiveness and sarcastic humor that so enlivens his popular dystopian young adult novel, Feed. The heading of each short chapter (“A Food Cart in Front of a Strip Mall,” “My Parents’ Bedroom, with the Covers Askew”) represents the title of one of Adam’s paintings. The book is full of surprises.

M. T. Anderson (Matthew Tobin Anderson) wrote fourteen previous novels as well as a number of short stories and picture books. He writes primarily for young adults and children. Anderson won the National Book Award for one of his novels, among other awards.

For my review of Anderson’s Feed, go to A terrifying vision of the future in an award-winning young adult novel. For a review of another book that features an off-beat alien invasion (in which the humans are the invaders), see Alien encounters of the strange kind in a captivating sci-fi novel. You might also be interested in My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

A 22nd century police procedural in a fascinating future Earth

future Earth - After Atlas by Emma NewmanAfter Atlas (Planetfall, A), a police procedural by Emma Newman set on a future Earth

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In Planetfall, published in 2015, British science fiction author Emma Newman introduced us to the Earth-like planet where a massive starship had delivered 1,000 people many years earlier. The ship was called Atlas. The following year, Newman brought out a sequel, After Atlas, which portrayed life on Earth for the billions who remained behind. It’s a grim picture of society in what appears to be sometime in the 22nd century.

This is a world you or I wouldn’t want to live in. Only the wealthiest can afford to eat real food. Everyone else must eat what comes from printers (successors to our contemporary 3-D printers). Every nation is governed by a “gov-corp” that operates under the influence of a tiny elite of billionaires. Virtually everyone is “chipped” with implants in their brains that connect them to the world around them—and make them vulnerable to their bosses or public authorities. Many of the most talented people are enslaved in decades-long contracts resembling what was once called indentured servitude. One of those people is Carlos Moreno.

Carlos Moreno is a brilliant, top-level homicide investigator contracted to the Ministry of Justice of Norope (northern Europe) for fifty years; he has thirty years to go. But the contract is extended every time he overspends his allowance, because Carlos has a powerful hankering for real food. And every time he does something to displease his boss. As he reflects, “A black mark puts another year on my contract. Three black marks and they’ll send me in for ‘calibration.’ I shudder at the thought of it. Like all expensive property, I’m kept in good working order.”

Carlos, known as Carl to friends, is assigned by the ministry to investigate the death of one of the world’s most famous people, a man named Alejandro Casales, who heads a large and wealthy religious cult based in Texas. Alejandro has died in a hotel room in England, an apparent suicide. But the case is complicated by more than Alejandro’s celebrity status: his body was hacked to pieces with an axe following his death by hanging.

Further complicating the case is Carlos’ history with The Circle, the cult Alejandro led. Abandoned by his mother as a baby and neglected by his father, who suffered a nervous breakdown when his wife deserted the family to leave Earth on Atlas, Carlos spent eight years with the cult in Texas. He grew to hate Alejandro and his father as well.

Using the massive information resources available to him through his Artificial Personal Assistant, the avatar who personifies his chip, Carlos doggedly pursues his investigation at a pace that would astonish any 21st-century cop. Newman tells the tale with a wealth of intriguing detail—and she creates suspense like the best of them. The book also works well as a police procedural. After Atlas is an excellent piece of work.

I felt differently about Newman’s previous novel, Planetfall, which I reviewed at A promising but disappointing new science fiction novel. For links to my reviews of other books in this genre that I’ve loved, see My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

 

 

In an unusually original sci-fi technothriller, technology meets neuroscience

sci-fi technothrillerAbsence of Mind, by H.C.H. Ritz

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

It’s the near future. Phoebe Bernhart is a psychiatric nurse at Atlanta’s largest hospital, struggling to keep her job. Plagued by headaches and a quick temper, she is prone to mouthing off to doctors and is one report away from being fired. One evening she meets Mila Bremer when their two cars collide and Mila gives her a ride to the hospital while her car is towed to the shop. Mila is a beautiful young woman who manifests the signs of the Asperger’s spectrum, and Phoebe is alternately intrigued and insulted by her lack of affect.

“Just because she doesn’t have her smartphone implanted in her head,” Phoebe thinks, “doesn’t mean she lives on a different planet.” (What this means will become clear.) Their chance meeting soon proves consequential—to Phoebe and to the world—when she encounters a baffling neurological pandemic that is flooding the city’s hospitals with “aggressive and paranoid people.” Together, Phoebe and Mila have a rare opportunity to investigate the source of the mysterious epidemic.

Phoebe and the younger brother she adores have left behind their parents in an ultraconservative Mennonite community in Ohio. Like nearly everyone else in this future society, both of them have had Navis installed in their brains to access instant messaging and news non-stop, hold subvocalized conversations, and command smartcars and smart appliances with their thoughts. “Normally, conversations are private, because they’re Navi-to-Navi,” but Phoebe is forced to speak out loud to communicate with Mila.

This is the set-up in the outstanding sci-fi technothriller Absence of Mind by H.C.H. (Hilary) Ritz, published in 2015. The Houston-based author has written two other novels, The Lightbringers (2012) and The Robin Hood Thief (2016). Ritz demonstrates great skill and originality in plotting, she builds suspense like the best of them, and her characters are fascinating. It seems likely that she will one day gain wide recognition in the science fiction field.

For other sci-fi novels I’ve loved, go to My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

 

Alien encounters of the strange kind in a captivating sci-fi novel

alien encountersRemnant Population, by Elizabeth Moon

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Stephen Spielberg’s iconic film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, appeared in 1977, starring Richard Dreyfuss and François Truffaut. Nearly forty years later, in 2016, Arrival covered similar territory with a cast headed by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Both films featured uniquely original ideas about the nature of the first alien encounter between the human race and an intelligent species on another world. In Remnant Population, originally published in 1996, American science fiction author Elizabeth Moon displays an equally imaginative idea about an alien encounter—on the printed page.

Remnant Population centers on the life of Ofelia Falfurrias, a widow who is seventy years old as the story opens. She lives with her unlovable youngest son and his demanding and disdainful wife, so it’s no surprise that Ofelia resolves to stay behind when the whole colony is shut down and the colonists shipped off to another planet. Ofelia revels in her aloneness, tending the vegetable garden, the sheep and cows, the “fabricator,” and the power plant that drives the refrigeration and stove in her home. For the first time in her life, nobody is telling Ofelia what to do. She loves it.

Months go by, then years. All of a sudden, a mission arrives on-planet to establish a new colony at a distant location. As the shuttles land, depositing teams of colonists, their landing site is viciously attacked and all the humans are killed in short order. The shuttles are destroyed by bombs some unknown species has placed there.

Much later, a group of the “monsters” who killed the human party begin showing up in Ofelia’s village. To them, she’s a monster, too. But each soon realizes that the other means them no harm. The locals, who call themselves the People, are endlessly curious. They follow Ofelia everywhere, observing everything she does. As Ofelia learns to distinguish individuals among them and to appreciate their child-like inquisitiveness, they grow to respect one another. It also becomes clear the People are extremely fast learners.

Then a second new human mission arrives to investigate why the colony’s power plant remains open. The corporation that evacuated the planet had insisted they’d turned everything off to prevent any potential intelligent life from gaining access to advanced human technology. The survey team includes exobiologists and exolinguists as well as soldiers because the bombing of the earlier landing site suggests that, against all odds, there may be an intelligent species on the planet. As they arrive in Ofelia’s town, the prospects for a friendly encounter seem dim. Ofelia is determined to keep things peaceful and protect her new friends among the People.

Elizabeth Moon skillfully tells her tale, building suspense all the while she develops characters as complex as humanity itself. The novel starts slowly, dwelling on Ofelia’s thoughts and feelings over the initial months after her family and neighbors had left. But it’s worth the wait. This is a truly delightful tale of an alien encounter unlike any you’ve ever imagined before.

Not long ago I reviewed a very different novel on a similar theme: Saturn Run by the thriller writer John Sanford and Stein. My review is at First Contact: Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind. On a slightly different vein, I recently posted A brief look at 15 important dystopian novels.

From Connie Willis satire that doesn’t make me laugh

satireBellwether, by Connie Willis

@@ (2 out of 5)

I’m a big fan of satire. For instance, I love Christopher Buckley‘s books. Some of them make me laugh almost nonstop. But there’s nothing worse than a satirical tale that. Just. Isn’t. Funny. Unfortunately, that’s what I found in Bellwether by Connie Willis. Apparently, Willis wrote the novel to satirize scientists and corporate bureaucracy. But the characters and their behavior are over the top. To call them outrageous might be a compliment. A little restraint would have gone a long way.

So, how did I get sucked into reading this book in the first place, much less read it all the way to the end? Connie Willis is an extraordinarily talented science fiction and fantasy author. She has won eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards—more major awards than any other writer in the field. Years ago, I was greatly impressed by her 1992 Nebula Award-winner about time travel, Doomsday Book. And the cover of Bellwether characterizes her (justifiably) as “one of science fiction’s best writers.” Unaccountably, Bellwether, published five years after Doomsday Book, was itself nominated for a Nebula Award. Suffice it to say that if I had been voting—I’m a long-time member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, though no longer a voting member—I would have gone for something much more in line with my idea of science fiction. Bellwether doesn’t cut it.

The novel’s protagonist is one Sandra Foster. She calls herself a scientist and engages in lots of mathematical calculations to prove it. She is analyzing fads and fashions for the unimaginatively named HiTek Company, presumably in an effort to discover how fads start and “how scientific discoveries come about.” (The connection between these two lines of inquiry is not obvious to me.) Management (capital “M”)—a person, not a category—of HiTek is interested in her work, she believes, because he is eager to learn how to start fads himself. Sandy is plagued by the rudeness and incompetence of the “interdepartmental assistant” who misdelivers mail, starts ugly rumors, and refuses to take on routine assignments such as photocopying. Compounding problems for Sandy, Management is obsessed with impossibly long forms on paper, which are impossible to understand, and with the latest acronym-laden management theory, which changes every few days. As I said, the story is over the top. But the situation becomes even more intolerable when Management decides that the entire scientific staff must bear down in an effort to win the prestigious, million-dollar Niebnitz Grant.

Each chapter in Bellwether begins with a brief description of one or another fad that has captivated humanity through the ages, from the hula hoop to quality circles, miniature golf, hot pants, coonskin caps, chain letters, and many more. Some of this material is interesting. But there’s entirely too much of it.

Eventually, Sandy teams up with a researcher in chaos theory named Bennett O’Reilly. Absurdly, Ben is attempting to learn what sets chaotic conditions in motion, apparently believing there must be some logic in a complex system. Will Sandy and Ben fall in love? Will they win the Niebnitz Grant? You shouldn’t have to read this book to figure it out.

For a successful effort at satire, see Self-help gurus get their comeuppance from Christopher Buckley or Washington and Beijing get what they deserve in this satirical novel of politics and diplomacy today.

The Vorkosigan Saga: much more than a space opera

space operaBarrayar (Vorkosigan Saga #3), by Lois McMaster Bujold

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Captain Cordelia Naismith is one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever come across in science fiction: empathetic but tough, brilliant but self-effacing, loving mother and coldblooded soldier. In Barrayar, the third book in the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, she is now married to Admiral Aral Vorkosigan. When the two met, they were enemies, both stranded on an alien planet. They came together to defend themselves against the traitors in Vorkosigan’s army who had seized control of his battleship. Now, months later, living in luxury on his home planet, Barrayar, Cordelia is reasonably content—until the Admiral is appointed regent for the four-year-old heir to the Barrayaran imperial throne, Prince (now Emperor) Gregor. As she soon discovers, the new position takes Aral away from home most of the time. Cordelia becomes increasingly unhappy. “She hadn’t married the regent of Barrayar, four months back. She’d married a simple retired soldier.”

Life in a militaristic patriarchy plagued by factional fighting

Barrayar is a hierarchical and militaristic patriarchy riven with factional disputes. Aral, an aristocrat with the title “Lord” as the son of General Count Piotr Vorkosigan, is a rare example of tolerance and flexibility in a society that is stubbornly resistant to change. Only 80 years earlier had Barrayar emerged from its Time of Isolation and “made contact with the wider galactic civilization again.” Prince Gregor’s grandfather, Emperor Ezar Vorbarra, had been largely responsible for suppressing the factional fighting and reintroducing contemporary technology to the planet. However, by Cordelia’s standards, Barrayar is a primitive place compared with her home world, Beta Colony. The society’s relative backwardness proves problematic when she gives birth to a son months later.

Not long after Aral’s appointment as regent, a near-successful assassination attempt upends his and Cordelia’s lives. But even that horrific event pales by comparison with the civil war that breaks out some time later following a conservative revolt against his “progressive” rule as regent. The struggle that follows tests both Aral and Cordelia to the limit. Though we’re confident they will triumph in the end, the path to victory will be strewn with costly losses.

Much more than a space opera

Superficially, Barrayar is a space opera. But it’s much more and better than that. What sets Bujold’s writing apart from that of most other science fiction authors is the depth and complexity of the characters in her stories. Cordelia is at once strong enough to best some of her most fearsome enemies, a loving mother, a homesick off-worlder, and a leader who inspires both respect and affection from those she commands. Her internal dialogue is colorful, full of internal inconsistencies, and all too believable. She is truly a unique character. Aral, too, often surprises, as do several of the soldiers who surround them. Barrayar is superior science fiction.

For links to my reviews of other science fiction novels I’ve enjoyed go to My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

About the author

Lois McMaster Bujold has won multiple awards for both science fiction and fantasy. The only other author who has won four Hugo Awards as she has, is Robert A. Heinlein. The Vorkosigan Saga, one of the three book series she is writing, consists of 30 novels to date, spanning the 30-year period from 1986 to 2016.

A powerful feminist story in a dystopian landscape

feminist storyThe Book of the Unnamed Midwife, by Meg Elison

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Meg Elison‘s debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the prestigious Philip K. Dick Award and was included among the Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year, 2016, and Amazon Best Books of the Year, 2016. It’s another sign that science fiction has come of age, no longer confined to a readers’ ghetto. The novel is a powerful feminist story set principally in the US in the near future. An unstoppable “plague” has killed off nearly all the human race but has proven far more lethal for women and children than for men.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, a registered nurse-midwife at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) has awakened after a weeks-long bout with the illness, only to find that her lover, a physician named Jack, has disappeared and everyone else in the hospital is dead. We never learn the midwife’s name: as she staggers through the desolate world, encountering other living human beings only occasionally, she introduces herself under a series of assumed names. “The book” of the title is her diary, a searing account of her feelings and experiences in a world gone mad. A diligent diarist, she incorporates stories from others she meets along the way. Several generations later, the midwife’s book represents for at least one community the only full account of the collapse that followed the plague. In a twist reminiscent of Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, the book is treated with reverence by the survivors, who are gradually building a new, matriarchal civilization.

The midwife slowly makes her way, partly on foot, partly by car or bicycle, and later by snowmobile, from San Francisco through Northern California, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah. She frequently encounters violent, sex-crazed men who victimize every woman or girl within their reach, typically enslaving them. Much more rarely, she comes across a woman or a helpful man. She survives by plundering abandoned homes, avoiding the rotting corpses of the dead—and by using the guns and rifles she manages to accumulate from time to time. (Her father had taught her to shoot.) As the months go by, remaining food, fuel, weapons, and ammunition become ever more scarce. From time to time, she joins one or two others and settles down temporarily, but those connections don’t last. Later, she comes across a new phenomenon: a “hive” in which a single woman rules over a household of several or even dozens of men, doling out sexual favors at whim. Most of the small towns she visits are abandoned. The midwife chooses to avoid the cities, where greater danger lies. Eventually, after harrowing experiences that force her to kill without compunction, the midwife arrives in a peaceful and thriving community, where she takes up her practice as a nurse and midwife once again. Since the plague struck, no babies have survived birth. In fact, many of their mothers die as well. The midwife has lost hope—but prematurely so.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a rewarding read, but it’s flawed. I found myself wondering who was telling the story. The tale unfolds in a series of excerpts from the midwife’s book, interspersed with a third-person narrative. For much of the book, the narrative focuses only on the midwife. Then the narrative’s scope widens, first to other people and other parts of the US and later to the entire planet. Perhaps it’s irrational of me to expect that a contemporary novel would follow all the dictates of logic. Maybe I’m just too old.

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