Best of: Science Fiction 2014

As I described in my introduction this Best of list reflects my favorite Science Fiction Novels I read in 2014. It is less an awards kinda thing, and more a distillation of my year of reading and a short list of recommendations. Here’s a link to all of my Best of 2014 lists.

Red RisingPierce Brown – Red Rising
It has been compared to a lot of other Young Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy series, but Red Rising stands on it own. Pierce Brown’s phenomenal debut is dark and complex with an earnestness that captivates. The sequel releases tomorrow (January 6th, 2015)

Solaris Stanisław Lem – Solaris
This haunting classic story is as thought-provoking and relevant today as when it was written. Intermixing psychological thriller aspects with hard science fiction and exobiology, Solaris has a slower burn and more measured pace than many of the genre.

The Ghost BrigadesJohn Scalzi – The Ghost Brigades
All great Sci-Fi asserts an alteration to reality and investigates the ramifications. Ghost Brigades takes the excellent foundation of Old Man’s War and expands the world building and character development to wonderful depths. The result is a nearly perfect second book in a series which underlines what was great about the original and refocuses our attention to other corners of this well conceived universe.

Ender's GameOrson Scott Card – Ender’s Game
Card masterfully manipulates the characters and the reader alike through the twists and revelations of this character driven classic sci-fi story which depicts the genius of the characters without forgetting that these are children.

Off to Be the WizardScott Meyer – Off to Be the Wizard
Silly, funny and highly enjoyable hard science fiction medieval romp mixed with computer science. Maybe only Terry Pratchett comes close to this in tone, which is fairly high praise.

Honorable Mention:
Andy Weir – The Martian, I chose to acknowledge this as Realistic Fiction rather than Science Fiction, but others will disagree. By which ever criteria or category you prefer The Martian is one of the best books of 2014.

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Review: The City and the Stars

The City and the Stars
The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The City and the Stars is stacked with science fiction concepts and philosophical questions. The protagonist is born into a human society on Earth a billion years in the future. Physical objects are projected into reality directly from energy at a thought, and similarly each human is created as an adult, lives a thousand years then, returns to the mainframe to wait a hundred thousand years for their next cycle. Human sexuality has been removed, as has any need for industry. Humans in this city live to pursue philosophy, art and other individualized human mental pursuits. This city is an isolated ecosystem buried in a vast desert.

We are introduce to another city nestled in the woods where each individual is born naturally, engages in sex, lives a natural lifespan of around two hundred years then dies a natural death. All inhabitants of this city communicate telepathically with each other and maintain a communal link. The absolute dichotomy for these two ideals (technological versus biological futurism) is the primary debate Clarke is engaging us in, but the story doesn’t stop there.

We engage in the robotic laws and artificial intelligence, and take a faster-than-light trip to neighboring stars and see a handful of unique planets where we can speculate or interact with exobiology. The trip culminates in the philosophical ideal of a disembodied intelligence.

The City and the Stars is a physicists take on Greek philosophy. Many consider this Arthur C. Clarke’s most important work, but I found much greater depth and enjoyment in his more focused works Childhood’s End and Rendezvous with Rama. This feels like a summation of all of his previous works, as if he wrote a loose narrative framework around the index of science fiction concepts he had been working on all his career. The characters are human in biology, but like when you think your cat winked at you – their humanity is merely a projection of your own.

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Review: The Final Now

The Final Now
The Final Now by Gregory Benford

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Final Now is a philosophical debate between creators and their created at the heat death of the universe about the nature of eternity. Author Gregory Benford describes the slow unmaking of the structures of galaxies and atoms, and the forms life has taken in these final epochs. The philosophical questions (whether eternity can exist beyond time, and a debate about the creation of physical laws and the effect on the creator) recalls Waiting for Godot but without Beckett’s extreme cleverness. I could have used more insight into the strangeness of this dark era, and more illustrative description of metabolism and thought at these low energy states. But in a story that takes place at the end of all things, I think Benford has it right to reflect on the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

The Final Now can be read for free at Tor.

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Review: Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Flatland is an ambitious concept book. When I started reading it I knew it was a thought experiment in conceiving higher dimensions, but had not realized its scope was even greater. I was surprised to see all of the class/caste distinction; shocked to see the religious criticism; astounded to see sexism incorporated into the satire as well. Unfortunately Abbott only actually investigates the geometry and religious aspects, and the classicism and sexism was just the reality of being British in the 1880s. I guess that is mostly what soured me on the story. So much time is spent establishing the rigid caste system and degrading the females that I expected enlightenment within those arenas as greater perspective is afforded. Sadly this is not the case. The principal subject is geometry and the conception of higher dimensions. As this was written roughly 100 years before broad acceptance of String Theory and M-Theory, I appreciate that the conjecture is not limited to imagining 4th dimension. The thought game described in the book is to imagine a two-dimensional point of view describing a second dimension to a one-dimensional character and attempting to do the same with a non-dimensional point. Our character is then confronted with a three-dimensional character who reveals the third dimension and together they discuss higher dimensions. As a mathematical progression they imply an infinite progression of dimensions. If you have read Jules Verne| then you should be prepared for the laborious dialogue and circular exposition common of that genre and era. Flatland is a little tedious, very sexist and only marginally successful at framing the thought experiment, but the fact that it exists at all is the real marvel. I love that the experiment was attempted at this scale and has persisted for generations. It is a landmark achievement in science and science-fiction.

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Review: The Martian

The Martian
The Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Science! I love this book. One of my pet peeves is when we are smarter than our character (when perceiving knowledge obtained through the character). That never happens here. These are smart people making smart choices. In fact, this is probably the “hardest” “hard sci-fi” book I have read. Mark Watney (the primary character) is part Wall-e, McGuyver and John McClane rolled into one. He (and others) utilizes chemistry, mathematics, physics, botany and engineering to overcome the many, many obstacles of which they are confronted, but it never feels like a lecture. This is a page-turner, edge-of-your-seat, [insert your own cliché] thriller. It is also very funny. Both through the personality and dialogue of the characters, but also through the pacing and transitions; this will definitely end up as a film. It jumps off the page. I love that this exists; a thriller where a gun is never fired and the greatest weapons are ingenuity, courage, determination, patience and a positive mental state. It amused me that when thinking back over the book, how it achieved my every metric, that it actually fails the Bechdel test. But if you factor in that while the two women are discussing a man, they are themselves badass astronauts discussing how to rescue the man through feats of incredible daring, intelligence and resolve; I think Alison Bechdel would approve.

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Review: Rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous with Rama
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Arthur C. Clarke writes with scientific authority, but his narrative is as devoid of life as the slumbering Rama. This is a problem typical of Clarke and common among hard science fiction authors. The conceptual science of the vessel, its inhabitants, and the descriptions of microgravity environments are excellent. I also appreciate the idea of interfacing with alien technology as an archeological exercise, and not the aliens themselves. If the technology and archeology had gone further, answered more questions, delved into culture, biology, intent for the aliens it would have been more satisfying, but that is a different book. To make this book more satisfying I would need a more empathetic character who can wonder and speculate on the big questions with greater depth. In that way we could run through many theories, conceiving many biologies, technologies and motivations from a single generative find. In short the book was long on wonder and short on wondering. The final line however is one of the great lines in science fiction. There is more potential in that line than in the majority of the book.

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Review: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mix of Ayn Rand-like political stumping and as close to hard sci-fi as I have seen Heinlein go. I appreciated the thought applied to how society, politics, and anatomical changes would develop on the moon. like all good sci-fi it poses a simple questions and teases or the ramifications from a multitude of perspectives. it is unavoidable that unforeseen technological advances in our own timeline are missing from this possible future and their absence make it tedious. certain inventions have already become so common place that the omission effects the suspension of disbelief.

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