Recommended Sci-Fi Books (for modern citizens)

Science Fiction + Speculative Fiction

The Testaments: A Novel (2019) Margaret Atwood

Set 15-years after The Handmaid's Tale (reviewed 2-page clicks below), "The Testaments" is book of speculative fiction which explores life in an American Christian Theocracy named Gilead
comment: daily news about American states challenging female reproductive rights makes me wonder if this speculative fiction is already become fact. Obviously many of the American religious-right do not think the idea of Gilead would be a bad thing. Doesn't anyone ever heed the warnings of speculative-fiction any more?

My Review

This book contains the testimony of three people: Aunt Lydia in Ardua Hall, Witness 369A and Witness 369B. While I do not think the book was meant to terrify, similarities between my own childhood (I was raised by Christian Evangelicals) and Witness 369A have triggered several nightmares. I suspect that some readers educated in Catholic schoolrooms may associate some nun-related experiences with the shenanigans by the Aunts. Students of history will see similarities between Rodrigo Borgia and Commander Judd. Likewise, activities by some of the Commanders will be associated with the Cardinals of Rodrigo's day.

IMHO, people who have previously read "A Handmaid's Tale" or watched the recent TV series will get more out of this book than those who didn't. For that reason alone, I have included a few observations which some readers might consider SPOILERS so those people should not read past the five hash marks.

 ##### possible spoilers follow #####

Offred (June Osborne) had two daughters:  Hannah/Agnes was raised in Gilead, and Emily/Nicole was raised in Canada as Daisy. Witness 369A represents the testimony of Hannah/Agnes while Witness 369B represents the testimony of Emily/Nicole. We learn that Offred is living in Canada which means she was not able to leave Gilead with her oldest daughter. Since this book is presented as a testimony, it is safe to assume that Gilead has collapsed and some sort of official investigation was made. Be sure to read the last chapter titled "The Thirteenth Symposium" dated 2197. Now go back a read the last chapter of "The Handmaid's Tale" titled "Historical Notes" dated 2195.

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece (2018) Michael Benson

Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s release, this is the definitive story of the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, acclaimed today as one of the greatest films ever made, including the inside account of how director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke created this cinematic masterpiece.

Regarded as a masterpiece today, 2001: A Space Odyssey received mixed reviews on its 1968 release. Despite the success of Dr. Strangelove, director Stanley Kubrick wasn’t yet recognized as a great filmmaker, and 2001 was radically innovative, with little dialogue and no strong central character. Although some leading critics slammed the film as incomprehensible and self-indulgent, the public lined up to see it. 2001’s resounding commercial success launched the genre of big-budget science fiction spectaculars. Such directors as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and James Cameron have acknowledged its profound influence.

Author Michael Benson explains how 2001 was made, telling the story primarily through the two people most responsible for the film, Kubrick and science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke. Benson interviewed Clarke many times, and has also spoken at length with Kubrick’s widow, Christiane; with visual effects supervisor Doug Trumbull; with Dan Richter, who played 2001’s leading man-ape; and many others.

Artemis (2017) Andy Weir

Andy Weir is the author of The Martian which was made into a 2015 movie by Ridley Scott. Artemis is a sci-fi story about life on the first permanent moon base. It has already been optioned by Hollywood for a future flick.

The Handmaid's Tale (1985) Margret Atwood

A dystopian vision of a future in which [American] Christian fundamentalists have executed the President, machine-gunned the Congress (blaming the assassinations on Muslim fanatics), suspended the constitution, and created a new social order in which women are, at best, commodities.

comments: There is no science in this fiction so the tag "speculative fiction" is more appropriate. This story was written in 1984 but contains many similarities to western life in 2017. For example, many people in this story pretend to be pious bible-thumpers but are secretly sexual, if not perverse. Computerized banking enabled their society to become hijacked. Young men have very little to do so are employed by the military/paramilitary groups to protect the theocracy. Pollution (chemical, genetic and radioactive) prevents many people from reproducing but only women are blamed. The new nation's capital has been moved to Anchorage Alaska [ 24 years before anyone ever heard the name Sarah Palin ]. Many people in this story are obsessed with "the wall".

A Book Within a Book?

The Handmaid's Tale covers 313 pages divided into 46 chapters and stands on its own as a chillingly brilliant cautionary tale. What follows is another 15 pages in an apparent appendix titled "Historical Notes". I wonder how many people read up to this page then just closed the book. This last fictional chapter is even more chilling if not down-right scary. It begins as follows:

Being a partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, held as part of the International Historical Association Convention, held at the University of Denay, Nunavit, on June 25, 2195.

Neuromancer (1984:2004:2016) William Gibson

Before the Internet was commonplace, William Gibson showed us the Matrix—a world within the world, the representation of every byte of data in cyberspace. Henry Dorsett Case was the sharpest data-thief in the Matrix, until an ex-employer crippled his nervous system. Now a new employer has recruited him for a last-chance run against an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence. With a mirror-eyed girl street-samurai riding shotgun, he’s ready for the silicon-quick, bleakly prophetic adventure that upped the ante on an entire genre of fiction.

comment: if you enjoyed the movie Blade Runner or the video game Deus Ex then this book is for you

Brave New World (1932) Aldous Huxley

I first read this dystopian sci-fi story 45 years ago but re-read it again after stumbling upon a free PDF copy. What I treat to re-read it as an Adult while using Wikipedia to retrieve rare words like "freemartin" and "viviparous". I have always believed that dystopian stories provide humanity with warnings about what might go wrong with utopian plans.

Predictive Misses:

  • They still have lift-operators ("liftman") in the year 2540? (page 30)
    • this side of the Atlantic we use the phrase "Elevator Operator" if anyone could ever remember such a job
  • The author writes about "mescal" and "peyotl". Although college students have continually experimented with "mescaline" and "peyote" starting long before 1932, no government today is advocating for the recreational use of these compounds.
    • "mescal" could also mean "tequila" but mescal that "ought to be called soma " (page 65) most likely refers to mescaline.
  • They still have music recorded on paper rolls in the year 2540? At least the author employs selenium cells to read them. (page 84)

Predictive Hits:

  • The author writes about oral contraceptives 28-years before they first appear in the US (year: 1960)
  • The author writes about recreational drug use (Soma) 90-years before US voters in Colorado and Washington approved measures that legalize non-medical use of cannabis (year: 2012)
  • One of the primary story threads of Brave New World involves a man (Bernard) with a high IQ (Alpha-plus) who does not like to ingest recreational drugs (Soma) even though the society in which he lives demand that he does. To me, this is no different than those people today who limit their consumption of grain alcohol or avoid it entirely.

Other:

  • The author writes about banned books (page 91) and yet the author's own book is still on the top-ten list of banned books more than 80 years after its first publication.
  • One of the secondary story threads involves a savage (John) who appears to know more about humanity (partly by reading Shakespeare which is banned in 2540) than Alphas and Betas
  • Quote from page 91: "But inexorably, every thirty seconds, the minute hand of the electric clock above his bed jumped forward with an almost imperceptible click". The phrase "minute hand" indicates analog time displays in the year 2540 but at least they are electric (I would assume that most clocks in 1931 Britain would have been spring-wound).
    • facts: in our world there are 86,400 seconds per day (60 x 60 x 24)
    • calculations: divide this number by 36 leaves you with 2400 minutes; divide this number by 24 leaves you with 100 minutes per hour
  • Brave New World (1932) was published in the first decade of the second quarter of the twentieth century (a few years after the stock market crash of 1929 triggered the great depression of the dirty thirties; many historians agree that this depression was a contributing factor in the rise of Adolph Hitler along with the Nazi party in Germany)
  • Brave New World Revisited (1958) is a non-fiction retrospective published in the first decade of the third quarter of the twentieth century and contains a lot of comparisons to that other dystopic novel "1984"
    • page 8 quote: But liberty, as we all know, cannot flourish in a country that is permanently on a war footing, or even a near-war footing
      comment: I was thinking about the USA as I read this
    • page 10 quote: The shortest and broadest road to the nightmare of Brave New World leads, as I have pointed out, through over-population and the accelerating increase of human numbers -- twenty-eight hundred millions today, fifty-five hundred millions by the turn of the century
      comment: he was out by 500 million because humanity reached 6 billion in 1999

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968/2000) Arthur C. Clarke

After rewatching this movie on New Year's day (2007-01-01), I visited www.bookfinder.com to purchase a 1999 hardcover copy of the book. What a treat; so timeless and yet still relevant.

Some Observations (and spoilers):
  • there were many monoliths on Earth
  • the monoliths were transparent rather than black
  • one of the monoliths accidentally killed one of Moon-Watcher's companions during "the experiments"
  • Heywood Floyd flies by plane to the Kennedy Space Center and lands on a runway near the VAB (vehicle assembly building). Clarke published this story in 1968 which would have predated the shuttle's runway by almost 15 years.
  • The space-plane was named Orion which happens to be the project name for NASA's return to the moon in 2020. Click here for more details.
  • While flying to the moon on the Aries-1B, Heywood reads an electronic newspaper which sounds suspiciously similar to connecting to the internet and then doubling-clicking on an icon. Here is an excerpt from P.52:

    ...he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship's information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world's major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display's short term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him. Each had it's own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.

    So there you have it. Clarke's imagination preceded the Apple Macintosh (1984), Microsoft Windows (1985), the merged-protocol Internet (1973), and using a computer for communication rather than number crunching. I wonder if he was ever called to testify in the court case between Apple and Microsoft regarding the graphic interface? :-)
  • At Clavius base, the office equipment includes typewriters, office computers, and telephones (see Page 60)
  • Once properly heated by the first sunlight in 3 million years (it was dug up during the 14 day lunar night), the monolith emits 5 radio burst.
  • Deep Space Monitor 79 was designed by Americans scientists, built by British engineers and launched by Russians. (see Page 80). Did Clarke foresee the collapse of the USSR as well?
  • destination:
    • book: The Discovery mission was originally planned for Jupiter but was diverted to Saturn after the radio wave is emitted by TMA-1.
    • movie: They only go to Jupiter because Stanley Kubrick worried that he might not be able to produce believable rings for Saturn.
  • The thin, card-sized plate, of the AE-35 unit lay on the bench under a powerful magnifying lens. It was plugged into a standard connection frame, from which a neat bundle of multicolored wire led to an automatic test set, no bigger than an ordinary desk computer.
  • problem with Hal:
    • book:
      • Frank does the first EVA to retrieve the primary AE-35
      • The AE-35 passes bench-testing so Dave notifies Earth
      • Earth says there might be a problem with Hal
      • Hal now predicts a fault with the second AE-35
      • Just as Earth begins to tell Dave and Frank how to disconnect Hal, the antenna is moved and communications are lost. Hal claims this is due to a failure of the second AE-35 (or related subsystem) which he has predicted.
      • Frank does the second EVA to repair the antenna.
      • Hal kills Frank
      • While Dave attempts to do a manual revival of Whitehead, Hal attempts to kill them both by opening the pod bay doors and vent the atmosphere to space
      • Dave ducks into an emergency shelter to put on a space suit
      • Hal kills the three hibernating astronauts
    • movie:
      • Dave does the first EVA to retrieve the AE-35
      • The AE-35 passes bench-testing so Hal suggests they put it back and let it fail
      • Frank does the second EVA to put back the original AE-35
      • Hal kills Frank
      • Dave leaves Discovery to rescue Frank's body but is then locked out of Discovery
      • Hal kills the three hibernating astronauts
      • Dave reenters Discovery by coming in through the emergency air lock (without his helmet)
      • Hal is disconnected from Discovery
  • star gate
    • book:
      • the entrance to the star gate is inside TMA-2 ( a two mile high black monolith on the lighter-side of the Saturnian moon, Japetus)
    • movie:
      • TMA-2 is floating in orbit around Jupiter
  • room at the end
    • book:
      • refrigerator is full of blue food
      • ceiling TV above the bed displays programs collected over the past two years (must have been collected by TMA-2 after a wake-up-call from TMA-1). Dave's hotel room is seen in a TV program (so that's where his hosts got the reference)
      • Dave goes to bed and turns out the lights
        • then the room dissolves around him
        • his memory is relived in reverse order (and transferred somewhere?) until he becomes a baby
        • the monolith reappears, turns transparent, then reprograms the baby (just like it did 3 million years ago to Moon-Watcher's clan on Earth)
    • movie:
      • no refrigerator
      • no TV
      • Dave goes to bed but the lights stay on
  • Star Child
    • book:
      • he looks at the Earth then destroys the orbiting weapon systems
    • movie:
      • he looks at the Earth but does nothing

2010: Odyssey Two (1982) by Arthur C. Clarke

  • In January 2010, I enjoyed a TV screening of the 1984 movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact and was so moved that I decided to purchase a hard-cover copy of the book 2010: Odyssey Two ($8) at the local used book store. What a joy to reread.
  • I reread it again in January 2020 just for something to do while people and politicians were behaving badly
  • Movie: begins at the VLA (very large array) in New Mexico where Heywood Floyd, a university chancellor, is found in the unlikely position of cleaning the radio telescope with an oily rag
  • Book: begins at the focus of Arecibo Observatory where it appears that Floyd and Moisevitch have snuck away from a SETI conference where Carl Sagan was giving a speech they have heard too many times before
  • Chapter 4 (titled "SAL 9000") is almost identical to what you saw in the movie
  • No where does Clarke tell us what SAL 9000 means (could it just be Secondary ALgorithmic computer?)
  • From the book we learn that Heywood Floyd is a little uncomfortable of the 20 year age difference between himself and his second wife. So one reason why he agrees to go on the mission to Jupiter is that hibernation will suspend 2.5 years of his life which might improve their subsequent time together.
  • On page 263, we learn that Chandra has gathered new information during the restart of HAL 9,000 which will allow him to begin work on HAL 10,000
  • I had forgotten the final chapter titled Epilogue 20,001
  • cool quote from the movie: Listen, just because our governments are behaving like asses doesn't mean we have to. We're supposed to be scientists, not politicians, how fast?
  • cool quote from the book (P.173): "Is it true, Dr. Chandra, that you chose the name HAL to be one step ahead of IBM?" (H+1=I, A+1=B, L+1=M).
    "Utter nonsense! Half of us came from IBM and we've been trying to stamp out that story for years. I thought that by now every intelligent person knew that H-A-L is derived from Heuristic ALgorithmic"

completely off topic comment: that VMS + 111 = WNT is a similar accidental coincidence even though both product lines were engineered by Dave Cutler

Rendezvous with Rama (1973) by Arthur C Clarke

The new celestial body that appears in the outer reaches of our solar system in 2130 believed at first to be an asteroid, and named Rama by earthlings, soon proves not to be a natural object. It is a vast cylinder - about thirty-one miles long and twelve and a half across, with a mass of at least ten trillion tons - that is moving steadily closer to the Sun. The five-thousand-ton spaceship Endeavour lands on Rama, and when Commander Bill Norton and his crew make their way into its hollow interior they find a whole self-contained world - a world that has been cruising through space for at least 200,00 years and perhaps for more than a million. They have, at most, three weeks to explore Rama: a dead world, as it seems at first, though not without its perils, and with intensifying perils when it proves to be, in its own astonishing way, very much alive. Yet in the end it is Homo sapiens who poses the greatest menace, and whose exploits bring a continuously absorbing narrative to its highest pitch of excitement.

I read this book 39 years ago but did not realize (until now) that I had forgotten 90% of it.

Childhood's End (1953) by Arthur C Clarke

Large spaceships appear over Earth's largest cities. The Overlords have announced that they will not to show themselves until 50 years have past, but they do have a few demands: put a stop to racism; put a stop to war; put a stop to animal cruelty (like bull fighting).

I thought I had read this book but I was mistaken.

The Eternity Artifact (2006) L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Five thousand years in the future, humanity has spread across thousands of worlds and has more than a dozen different governments existing in an uneasy truce. For all this expansion, though, human beings have found no signs of other live close to approaching that of human intelligence anywhere. This changes when scientists discover Danann, a sunless planet traveling the void just beyond the edge of the galaxy at such a high speed that is cannot be natural. It is a world whose continents and oceans have been sculpted and shaped, with but a single megaplex upon it - close to perfectly preserved - with tens of thousands of near-identical metallic-silver-blue towers set along curved canals. Yet Danann has been abandoned for so long that even the atmosphere has frozen solid. The preservation alone hints at a miraculous level of technology. Within a few years, Danann will approach an area of singularities that will make exploration and investigation impossible. Orbital shuttle pilot Jiendra Chang, artist Chendor Barna, and history professor Liam Fitzhugh are recruited by the comity government and its Deep Space Service [D.D.S.], along with scores of other experts - predominantly specialists in aspects of hard physical sciences- as part of an unprecedented and unique archeological expedition in an effort to unravel Danann's secrets. This is the story of their voyage beyond the galactic rim.
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Neil Rieck
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.