10 Sci-Fi Novels People Pretend to Have Read

Came across this article in Io9 recently, then again over at Scoop.it. You can tell something is important not only when it speaks to you, but when like-minded individuals begin referencing it! And if you own a blog, you definitely want to get on that! In any case, I found the list especially interesting for two reasons. One, many of the books I have already read. And two, I haven’t even heard of the rest.

I’d say a list like this is long overdue, but it’s still highly subjective isn’t it? The books we pretend we’ve read all comes down to what we consider important and relevant, not to mention popular. And even within the genre of sci-fi, I’d say that list is too big to boil down to a simple top ten. Even so, it’s interesting to read and compare, and find out just how many you’ve read yourself. So please, check this out and tell me which of these you have read and which you think you’ll want to check out:

1. Cryptonomicon:
Read it! This book is Neal Stephenson’s groundbreaking piece of historical fiction, combining narratives involving World War II cryptographers with modern day IT geeks who are looking to establish a data haven in the South Pacific. The story tells the tale of a massive shipment of Nazi gold that got lost on its way to Japan, ran aground in the Philippines, and remained hidden until the late 90’s.

Personally, I loved this book because of the way it weaves history, both recent and distant, into a seamless narrative and draws all the characters into the same overarching plot. One would think that Stephenson was making a point about how we are all subjects of our shared history, but it could just be he’s that good a writer!

2. Dune:
Read it thrice! In Dune, Frank Herbert draws upon an immense store of classical sci-fi themes, a grand awareness of human nature and history, and a keen grasp of ecology and the influence environment has on shaping its inhabitants to create the classic that forever established him as one of the greatest sci-fi minds of all time.

Sci-fi geeks everywhere know this one and it saddens to me to think that it’s even on this list. Anyone who’s willing to pretend that they read this book clearly considers it important, which is why they should have read it, dammit! Not only is it a classic, it’s from the guy who literally wrote the book on science fiction that was meant to be taken seriously.

3. Gravity Rainbow:
Never heard of it! Apparently, the story came out in 1974 and deals with the German V2 rocket program near the end of World War II. Pat Murphy, author of The City, Not Long After and The Wild Girls, went so far as to compare this book to James Joyce, a the great Irish modernist writer who was also renowned for being brilliant and inaccessible.

In addition to be classified as enriching, it is known for being odd and hard to get through, with many authors themselves claiming to have started it several times but never being able to finish it. The plot is also rather unique, combining transgressive sexuality with the idea of total war and technological races. But one look at the dust jacket will tell you all of that, right? Crazy Germans!

4. Foundation:
Read it myself, and also am somewhat sad that it made the list. Sure, the fact that it’s a classic means that just about everyone who’s eve shown the slightest interest in sci-fi would want to read it. But I can’t for the life of me understand why people would claim to have read it. Jesus, it’s not a hard read, people. And Amazon sells used copies for cheap and handles shipping. No excuses!

And having just reviewed it, I shall say nothing of the plot, except that it in many ways inspired fellow great Frank Herbert in his creation of Dune. Like Frank, Asimov combined the idea of a Galactic Empire with a keen awareness of human history, eternal recurrence, and prescient awareness.

5. Johnathon Strange & Mr. Norrell:
Now this one I have heard of, but never felt compelled to pick up and read. Apparently, its size and bulk are the reason many people react the same. This 2004 book is the first novel by British writer Susanna Clarke which deals with the nature of the English character and the boundary between reason and irrationality.

Set in 19th-century England during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the story is an alternative history that is based on the idea that at one time, magic existed in England and has thanks to the help of two men – the namesakes of the story, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell. At once interesting and speculative, it also presents the rather romantic vision of romance returning to a world increasingly characterized by modernity and cold reason.

6. 1984:
Yep, read this one thrice as well! And given it’s reputation and place in the annals of literary history, I can totally see why people pretend to have read it. Oh, and let’s not forget the way people love to reference and abuse it’s message for the sake of making a quick and easy political point! But none of that excuses not reading it.

Set in an alternate history where WWIII and revolution have led to totalitarian governments in every corner of the world, the story tells the tale of one man’s quest to find answers and facts in a world permeated by lies and absolute repression. Of course, this meager description doesn’t do it justice. In the end, so much comes into play that it would take pages and pages just to provide an adequate synopsis. Suffice it to say, it’s a book that will change your life. READ IT!

7. First and Last Men and Star Maker:
Another one which I’m not too sure about. Much of what is described within are concepts I have heard of in other places, and some of the content sounds familiar. Still, can’t say I’ve ever heard of Stapledon or these two works by name. But after reading about his work, I’m thinking I ought to check him out now. Tell me if you’d agree…

Published in 1930 and 1937, these two books tackled some rather broad ground. The first deals with the history of humanity, covering 18 species of humanity from the present to two billion years into the future. Based on Hegelian concept of history, humanity goes through several different types of civilizations and passes between stability and chaos over the course of it all. However, undeniable progress is made, as each civilization reaches further the last, culminating in leaps in evolution along the way.

In Star Maker, the plot revolves around a man who is able to leave his body and venture throughout the universe. He is able to merge with more minds along the way, a snowballing effect which allows him and his companions to explore more and worlds through time and space. This leads to a climax where a cosmological mind is created and makes contact with the “Star Maker” – the creator of the universe.

Sounds cool huh? And they appear to have no shortages of accolades. For example, Arthur C. Clarke called Star Maker one of the finest works of science fiction ever written, and the concept explored therein had a profound influence on many subsequent sci-fi minds, not the least of which were Gene Roddenberry and J.M. Straczynski.

8. The Long Tomorrow:
This one, I have heard of, mainly because it’s on my list as an example of post-apocalyptic fiction. I have yet to read it, but after reading about it, I think I would like to. Set in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear war, the story takes place within a society that is controlled by religious groups preaching a technophobic message.

Inevitably, the story comes to a head when young people, intrigued by stories of a neighboring community, go out in search of it, braving punishment and even exile. Sounds familiar? Well, it should. This book, which was published in 1955, has gone on to inspire countless variations and pop culture renditions. It also attempts to illustrate the connection between natural disasters and regression, traditionalism and repression.

9. Dhalgren:
Yet another book that’s compared to James Joyce, largely by people that haven’t read it. I’m one of them! Apparently, this 1975 story by Samuel R. Delany takes place in a fictitious Midwestern town that has become cut off from the outside world by an event horizon. All communications are cut off, and the population become frightened by the night sky reveals two moons, and the morning sun is many times larger than our own.

More strange is the fact that street signs and landmarks shift constantly, while buildings that have been burning for days are either never consumed or show signs of damage. Gangs also begin to roam the nighttime streets, their members hidden within holographic projections of gigantic insects or mythological creatures. Against this backdrop, a group of people come together and try to make sense of what has happened as they struggle to survive.

Told from the point of view of a partial amnesiac, dysmetric, schizophrenic, as well as a bunch of other people who find themselves stranded in the city, the story is an exercise is confusion, dissociation, and a really just a big mystery. In the end, what is truly going on is never revealed, thus leaving the reader with their own interpretations. This is one of the selling points of the book, with William Gibson himself saying that it was “A riddle that was never meant to be solved.” Yeah, I definitely need to read this one!

10. Infinite Jest:
This last novel is more recent, having been released in 1996. Once again, haven’t heard of it, but given its content, praise, and the fact that the author’s low life was cut tragically short, it doesn’t surprise me that its one of those books that everyone feels they must read. But given the length, complexity and the fact that story contains 388 numbered end notes, I can see why they’ve also held back!

The story focuses on the lives of a celebrity family known as the Incandezas, a clear pun on their, shall  we say… luminous fame? The family is deeply involved in tennis, struggles with substance abuse, and in a state of disrepair since the father – a famous film director – committed suicide with a microwave. His last work was apparently a film (entitled “Infinite Jest”, but known throughout the story as “The Entertainment”) which is so entertaining, it causes viewer to lose all interest in everything besides watching the movie.

Clearly meant as a satire on North American culture, particularly celebrity families, entertainment, substance abuse and the sideshow that is celebrity rehab, the story is all about various people’s search for the missing tape of “The Entertainment” and what they plan to do with it. The novel received wide recognition and praise after its publication and became a testament to Wallace’s talent after he committed suicide in 2008.

Okay, that’s four out of ten for me. How did you do? And even if you could say that you’ve read most of the books on this list, or at least the one’s you’ve heard of, I’d say we’ve all come away with a more additions to our reading lists, hmmm? Yeah, I guess its back to Amazon for me!

Cryptonomicon

Having covered Snow Crash and Diamond Age awhile back, I thought it was time to move on to the third installment in my Neal Stephenson series. Today, for consideration, the historic techno-thriller Cryptonomicon! This story took me close to a year to read, in part due to interruptions, but also because the book is pretty freaking dense! However, the read was not only enjoyable and informative, it was also pretty poignant. As a historian and a sci-fi buff, there was plenty there for me to enjoy and learn from. And for those who enjoy techno-thrillers and dissertations on mathematics, this book is also a page turner! Little wonder then why this novel was dubbed the “ultimate geek novel”.

The name is derived from H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, a fictitious book that has been referenced numerous times in western literature and pop culture. The name is indicative of the book’s main theme, cryptology, as well as the unofficial manual used by cryptologists during and after World War II. In addition to featuring fictionalized versions of real events, it is also chock-full of fictionalized personalities drawn from history. They include Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, Isoroku Yamamoto, Karl Dönitz, and Ronald Reagan, as well as some highly technical and detailed descriptions of modern cryptography and information security, with discussions of prime numbers, modular arithmetic, and Van Eck phreaking.

Unlike his other novels, Cryptonomicon was much more akin to historical fiction and techno-thriller than actual sci-fi, mainly because its narratives take place in the past and present day. However, this is a bit of an arbitrary designation. As most fans of science fiction know, a story need not take place in the future in order to explore the kinds of themes common to the genre. And really, all science fiction is actually about the time period in which it is written, and actively draws on the past to create a picture of the future. So putting aside the question of where it falls in the literary spectrum for now, allow me to delve into this bad boy and what was good about it!

Synopsis:
The story contains four intertwining plotlines, three of which are set in the Second World War, and a fourth which takes in the late 90’s. The first follows the exploits of a man named Bobby Shaftoe, a decorated Marine who has just survived the battle of Gaudacanal and is being transferred to the OSS’s counterintelligence division. The second follows Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a mathematician and cryptologist working for the joint American and British cryptology unit 2702. This work involves breaking German codes and leads him to several interesting encounters with famous people. including Albert Einstein and Alan Turing. The third involves a Japanese man named Goto Dengo, an Imperial Army officer and a mining engineer who becomes involved in a a secret Axis project to bury looted gold in the Philippines. The fourth and final perspective which takes place in the 90’s centers on Randy Lawrence Waterhouse, an expert programmer working for an IT company (Epiphyte) that is been doing business in the Philippines.

As the story develops, we see Shaftoe become marooned in Finland where he meets up with some unlikely compatriots. The first is a Catholic priest and physician named Enoch Root, who is attached to 2702, while the second is a Kriegsmarine Captain named Günter Bischoff, who is the commanding officer of an experimental rocket-propelled U-Boat. We learn that an alliance has formed between these individuals, mainly because Bischoff, who became marooned in Finland with the rest of them, has learned that the Kriegsmarine has been given the task of smuggling gold to Japan in order to buy their continued cooperation in the war. He and the others decide to work together to get their hands on some, and soon find themselves back in the Philippines. Before the war, Shaftoe had a sweetheart there named Glory, who he has not seen since the Japanese invaded, and whom he is eager to get back to.

Meanwhile, Waterhouse is bounced around the globe in his efforts to break the Axis’ codes. First, he is sent to a fictional island in the English Channel known as Qwghlm (pronounced ???). On this island, the people wear incredibly thick wool sweaters and speak a language that is loosely related to Gaelic, and incredibly hard to understand. He is then sent off to Brisbane, Australia, to work on breaking the Japanese’s codes. While there, he finds a community of Qwghlmians, who he learns are serving as operators for the British. Whereas the US had their “Wind Talkers”, Navaho signal officers who used their native languages to confuse Japanese listeners, the British had Qwghlmians. Here, he falls in love with, and eventually marries, a young woman named Mary cCmndhd.

At the same time, Goto Dengo is nearly drowned when his troop ship is sunk in the South Pacific. He narrowly survives and drifts to an island where he is forced to survive amidst squalor, decay, and a group of Japanese soldiers who are pillaging and raping amongst the natives. In time, he is found by his fellow officers and is sent to the Philippines where he is put to work on the construction of a series of underground caverns. The purpose of these caves is to store the vast amounts of looted gold which is being shipped from Germany since the Germans are now losing the war and fear being overrun. After many years, the caves are completed and the Americans invade, during which time Dengo is reunited with Shaftoe. Having reenlisted with the Marines, Bobby was sent ahead to organize the resistance, and has learned that he has a son. After convincing Dengo to surrender and defect, he heads off for what turns out to be his final mission. Meanwhile, the sub carrying Gunter Bischoff and a hoarded supply of gold runs aground in the Philippines and the crew drown.

Fast forward to 1997, we come to meet Lawrence Waterhouse as he begins his work in the Philippines. Ostensibly, this involves selling Pinoy-grams to migrant Filipinos, a sort of fiber-optic communication system that allows migrants to speak with family instantaneously. However, he soon learns that his friend and CEO of Epiphyte, Avi Halaby, is interested in using this stream of capital to fund the building of a data haven in the nearby (and fictional) island of Kinakuta. At this point, his job description changes to surveying the laying of the underwater fiber optic cables that will run from the Philippines to Kinakuta, a job which leads him to enlists the help of a Vietnam veteran and mariner named Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe and his daughter, America “Amy” Shaftoe. These people, we quickly learn, are the son and granddaughter of Bobby Shaftoe. In addition, on the island of Kinakuta, the company that is contracted to build the underground facility that will house the haven is run by a Japanese man named Goto Furudenendu, who just happens to be the son of Goto Dengo.

Over time, there plans to create a haven free of repression and scrutiny comes under fire from various quarters. At this point, Amy and Doug begin to help Lawrence and his company find an alternative source of revenue – a hidden cache of gold rumored to be at the bottom of a Philippine harbor. They find the gold and have the money they need, but in the course of it, they also uncover the plot involving detachment 2702, the Japanese, the Nazis, and an unbreakable code named Arethusa. This discovery makes them more enemies, people who want the gold for themselves, or just revenge, and things start to get dicey! However, through this they also get to meet an aged Goto Dengo, CEO of the construction company and man who buried the gold. He agrees to show them where the cache is hidden so that it can be repatriated; and with his help, they find it, Randy and Amy get together, the haven is built, and just about everyone lives happily ever after!

Strengths:
From the description alone, I’m thinking people will assume that this story was dense, well-conceived and came together quite nicely. And they would be right!  One thing that is immediately clear about it is how well Stephenson weaves past and present together to create a grand narrative that is chock-full of suspense, intrigue and history. This last element is especially prevalent. I can’t tell you how many historical cameos made it into the novel. Through the character of Randy Waterhouse, Albert Einstein and Alan Turing make an appearance. Through his German counterpart, Rudy von Hacklheber, Hermann Goering makes several. Gunter Bischoff, though he never meets Karl Doenitz in the story, repeatedly references him since it he whom he is blackmailing and gets all his orders from! And through Bobby Shaftoe and Goto Dengo, Douglas MacArthur and Isoroku Yamamoto are also woven into the story.

In addition, the way he brings past and present together is done masterfully through his main characters, all of whom are apparently related. Lawrence Waterhouse is the son of Randy Waterhouse and Mary cCmndhd, Doug and Amy are the and granddaughter of Bobby Shaftoe respectively, and Furudenendu is the son of Goto. Hell, even Lawrence ex-girlfriend ends up shacking up with the son of a character in the story! In this way, the sense of connection between past and present is made more clear, as is the sense that destiny or some kind of long-term plan is being fulfilled. The evolution between cryptology and modern computing, how one grew out of the other, is also made abundantly clear.

Weaknesses:
As more than one critic observed, this book tends to appeal to the techno geeks in the crowd. In fact, that aspect of the novel can be quite oppressive at times. In several parts, the descriptions of mathematical concepts as they apply to various things (even the everyday), can go on and on and on. Two examples come to mind: the equation Randy comes up with to describe the rotation of a bicycle wheel, and the section where Lawrence and his peers are conducting some Van-Eck phreaking email surveillance. I mean really, page after page after page of inane detail! I got that the intent was to be comical in the sheer geekiness of it all, but for the non-geeky, the only way to survive these sections was to skip ahead or just keep reading and pray there was a point in there somewhere. Other than that, the sheer length of the book can feel somewhat stifling, which is why it took me a few months to finish it.

However, this book goes far beyond the mere technical. History buffs, fans of sci-fi and people who just plain like a good, complex and interwoven story will find something to enjoy here. Not only was it a good read, it previewed Stephenson’s ability to combine historical fiction and sci-fi, something he would reprise with the Baroque Cycle trilogy and the more recent Mongoliad, all of which I have yet to read! However, one thing at a time. I have yet to finish Anathem, and I’ve been eyeing Readme with keen interest lately…