Stand-Alone

These are stand alone novels (not part of a series).

A Case of Conscience: A Catholic priest faces aliens with morality but no religion

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

Great A-side, dreadful B-side. A Case of Conscience is James Blish’s 1959 Hugo-winning SF novel, expanded from the1953 novella. Part One (the original novella) is set on planet Lithia, introducing a race of reptilians with a perfect, strife-free society and innate sense of morality. However, to the consternation of Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, they have no religion of any kind. Their morality is inherent, and they have no need of a religious framework to direct their actions.

As a Catholic, Ruiz-Sanchez cannot make heads or tails of this. Without religion, do the Lithians have souls? If so, are they fallen into sin like humans, or still in a state of grace like Adam and Eve? He struggles with this conundrum, as well as the purpose of the expedition to Lithia, which is to determine whether the planet should be exploited for its lithium or quarantined sin... Read More

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress: TANSTAAFL on the Moon

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A. Heinlein’s libertarian creed is TANSTAAFL ("There ain't no such thing as a free lunch"), and this book is probably the most complete expression of his political ideas about self-government, attempts to empower women while still being incredibly sexist and condescending, and some pretty good hard SF extrapolation of what a moon colony’s technology, politics and economy might be like. Oh yeah, and there happens to be an omniscient, all-powerful AI named Mike who helps the Loonies stage their revolution against the oppressive Lunar Authority (can you say DEUS EX MACHINA?). The outcome is never really in doubt, so what we are given instead is a 300-page lecture on what Heinlein’s ideal society would be.

Basically Heinlein thinks that most politicians are self-serving and cor... Read More

Fledgling: Love and relationships examined through vampirism

Fledgling by Octavia Butler

In some ways there are superficial resemblances between Fledgling and the last vampire book I read, Let the Right One In: both books have as their star apparently pre-pubescent vampires who have ‘complicated’ relationships with their human companions. In John Ajvide Lindqvist’s case it was a Renfield-like adult who was enamoured of the vampire-child for whom he obtained blood and the young boy who becomes a part of her life. In the case of Butler’s book the vampire in question, Shori, isn’t even only apparently pre-pubescent… according to vampire physiology she is in fact still a child, though that still translates to her being much older than her appearance would suggest (around 52 years old in fact). Despite this fact the relationships she has with the humans around her bear all of the appearances of a pedophilic relationship, at least from the outside.... Read More

Double Star: No second-rate actor could ever become president, right?

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

Double Star is one of Robert Heinlein’s most enjoyable early period SF novels, a short and tightly-plotted story of out-of-work actor Lawrence Smith (aka “The Great Lorenzo”), who is unexpectedly tapped for a very important acting job, to impersonate an important politician named John Bonforte who has been kidnapped. Initially the job is supposed to be just short-term until the real guy can be rescued, but as things drag out, this becomes more difficult. Even more surprisingly, Lorenzo finds he is actually getting quite good at impersonating Bonforte, and has started to understand and sympathize with his politics as well. But how far can this situation go before somebody blows his cover…

Published in 1956 and winner of the Hugo Award, this book is perfectly paced, with great supporting... Read More

A Mirror for Observers: Aliens struggle over the soul of one young man

A Mirror for Observers by Edgar Pangborn

It's somewhat surprising that this 1954 International Fantasy Award winner has never found a very large audience in the SF genre. The writing style is reminiscent of Theodore Sturgeon or Ray Bradbury, very much focused on the characters and their inner thoughts and struggles, a big contrast with the more pulpy science and space-adventure tales featured in pulp magazines like Galaxy and Astounding.

I knew about A Mirror for Observers only because it was included in David Pringle's Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. Although it is ostensibly the story of two undercover Martian Observers who battle over the heart and soul of a promising young boy, it basically breaks down to 65% characte... Read More

Bring the Jubilee: A brilliant alternative history where the South prevailed

Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore

Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee is a fairly obscure alternate-history story published in 1953 in which the South won the "War for Southron Independence." In this world, Robert E. Lee succeeds Jefferson Davis as the second president of the Confederacy in 1865. The Confederacy steadily expands its empire through Mexico and South America. Its chief rival is the German Union, which splits control of Europe with the Spanish Empire. In response, the Confederacy has allied with Great Britain, creating two opposing empires that straddle the Atlantic.

Strangely enough, slavery was abolished but minorities continue to face persecution, and poverty is rampant in the United States, the former Union states of the North. Other than a rich landowner minority, most people are indentured to their owners, effectively a form of slavery. In addition, the combustible engine, l... Read More

The Affinities: What if online dating worked?

The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson

Adam Fink was just another graphic art student in Toronto before he took InterAlia’a affinity test. The affinity test examines a person’s genes, brain patterns, and behavior and sorts people into one of twenty-two affinities (or into none of them). InterAlia has an algorithm that’s sort of like online dating, but it looks like they got it right this time.

The Affinities are still new when Adam takes the test. Not a lot is widely known about them, but there are twenty-two Affinity groups. The Taus might be the largest Affinity, and though it’s wrong to generalize, their members tend to smoke pot, they tend to enter open relationships, and they tend to prefer decentralized groups to hierarchical leadership. The Hets, meanwhile, are extremely hierarchical and deeply concerned with power and dominance. Given that Read More

The Invisible Man: Not someone you want to piss off

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

The Invisible Man (1897) is a story known by most people, but how many have actually read the book? It’s probably a lot darker and action-packed than you think. Also, like most of H.G. Wells’ books, it is not long and is available free as an e-book, so it’s well worth a day’s reading time.

Imagine you are an ambitious but poor young medical student named Griffin, eager to make a name for yourself and enjoy success. What if you were to discover how to change the refractive index of the human body (tested first on an unfortunate cat), to make your body completely invisible? W... Read More

The Island of Dr. Moreau: A dark fable of mad science and Beast Men

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells

H. G. Wells’ 1896 novel is dark, disturbing and thought-provoking. Coming just several decades after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), it tells the tale of a man named Edward Prendick who gets shipwrecked on a remote island, subsequently encountering a sinister figure named Dr. Moreau, who he discovers conducts vivisections of animals, combining various creatures to make subhuman beasts who he then loses interest in and releases to roam the island. Some of these Beast Men have banded together and recite a Law that rules their actions:
Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men? Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law.... Read More

The Philosopher’s Stone: A great book by an evolutionary “throw forward”

The Philosopher’s Stone by Colin Wilson

In her article on Colin Wilson in the May 30, 2004 Observer, reporter Lynn Barber mentioned that the author, then 73, had seemingly read "every book ever written." She also noted that Wilson claimed never to have thrown a book away, and that his home library in Cornwall contained approximately 30,000 volumes. Well, any reader who delves into the author's 1969 offering, The Philosopher's Stone, is not likely to dispute those statements. Though chosen for inclusion in Cawthorn & Moorcock's Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, the novel could just as easily have been placed on a Top 100 Horror or Science Fiction list, and its range of literary, cultural, historical and anthropological reference is immense. In his 1961 book Read More

The Lathe of Heaven: Dreaming of Utopia

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

When George Orr sleeps, he sometimes has “effective” dreams that alter reality. Believing that he has no right to effect such changes, George begins taking drugs to suppress the dreams. As the drugs lose their efficacy, George ups the dosage, exceeding legal limits. George is caught and ordered to choose between therapy and asylum. He chooses therapy and is sent to Dr. William Haber. When Haber realizes that George is not crazy and that these “effective” dreams indeed change reality, the psychiatrist decides to make the world a better place.

And why not? Overpopulated, polluted, radioactive, and starving – humanity’s near future is an age of terrible consequences. The world could use a dreamer, figures Haber, so he hypnotizes George to shape the future.

By the end of the first week, the weather is warm and sunny, George wakes up to discover that he owns a cottage, ... Read More

The Door Into Summer: A charming time-travel story from Golden Age Heinlein

The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein

The Door Into Summer (1957) is an immensely enjoyable time-travel story told effortlessly by Robert A. Heinlein long before he turned into a crotchety, soap-box ranting old crank who had a very unhealthy obsession with free love and characters going back in time to get involved with their mothers (gross!!).

So, back to this book. The Door Into Summer is the story of Daniel Davis, a hard-working engineer in 1970 who invents a wonderful robot vacuum cleaner named Hired Girl (not at all sexist, right?), but has more ambitious plans for an all-purpose household robot called Flexible Frank. He collaborates with his business partner Miles Gentry and assistant named Belle Darkin. However, one evening Dan discovers that his partner Miles is in cahoots... Read More

Horrible Monday: Mile 81 by Stephen King

Mile 81 by Stephen King

One of the best things about e-books is that many more novella-length works get stand-alone publication. You don’t have to search them out in magazines, or wait for the author to write several of them and combine them in a collection, or spend a large chunk of change for a special printing from a small press. As I’ve always thought that the novella was the form best suited for short science fiction, I’m pleased with this advance; it almost makes up for not being able to hold a real book in my hands, turning real pages.

One of the worst things about e-books, though, is that they disappear on one’s Kindle (or Nook, or tablet; whatever). You can’t really search through them the way you can scan a bookshelf. When you’re an inveterate collector of books, those e-book deals fill up your reader until you’ve forgotten you bought that cool novella by one of your favorite writers that you couldn’t wai... Read More

Dandelion Wine: A perfectly-distilled small-town summer

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

Can you be nostalgic for a place you never lived in, for a time long gone before you were born? I certainly never lived in Waukegan, Illinois in the summer of 1928 as a 12-year old boy named Douglas Spalding, but Ray Bradbury has perfectly evoked a magical world of a long-lost Midwest small town as seen from the eyes of a bright, energetic young boy.

You would think small town life is fairly boring and uneventful, but in the lyrical hands of Bradbury, think again. The short vignettes he tells are always unexpected, and verge from wryly-amusing to heart-breaking to outright terrifying, all because of the skill and love with which Bradbury approaches these characters.

Strangely enough, I didn't like The Martian Chronicles much, because it merely used Mars as a stage to ex... Read More

The Buried Giant: I Enjoyed It. Others Might Not.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I enjoyed it. Others might not. I suppose I could put that title on a lot of my reviews without sacrificing much for accuracy, but I mean it to be suggestive here that The Buried Giant is going to be a bit divisive. It’s a well-crafted book, certainly, and it has as much thematic heft to keep anyone happy, but whether or not it’s an appealing book may be a bit less cut-and-dried.

The story, in brief, is as follows: sometime in early British history, an elderly couple named Axl and Beatrice set out on a quest to find their son. They have a general idea that he left them at some point, but they aren’t sure how long ago that was or what drove the family apart. The land is swathed in what our protagonists call “the mist,” a kind of metaphysical force that fogs the memories of anyone who lives in it to the extent that they might forget events that occurred... Read More

Slaves of Sleep: Not an E-Meter in sight

Slaves of Sleep by L. Ron Hubbard

Potential readers of L. Ron Hubbard's Slaves of Sleep who might be put off by the author's association with the cult of Dianetics and Scientology need not be concerned here. This novel first appeared in Unknown magazine in 1939, more than a decade before Hubbard's first Dianetics article was published (in Astounding Science Fiction) in May 1950. Thus, in Slaves of Sleep, there's not a mention of “auditors,” “clears” or “E-meters” to be found. Rather, this is an extremely fast-moving and colorful fantasy tale, told with much brio and panache. In it, we meet Seattle shipping magnate Jan Palmer, a rather pusillanimous young man who is falsely accused of the murder of a visiting professor. I'm not giving anything away by saying that this murder was actually the work of the hairy, fanged and 15-foot-tall jinni Zongri, w... Read More

Childhood’s End: The Overlords have a plan for us

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

There's something very comforting in the SF novels of Arthur C. Clarke, my favorite of the Big Three SF writers of the Golden Age (the other two being Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov). His stories are clearly-written, unembellished, and precise, and they focus on science, ideas, and plot. Though some claim his characters are fairly wooden, I don’t see it that way. They tend to be fairly level-headed and logical, and focus on handling the situations on hand in an intelligent manner. In Clarke's world, the average protagonist is a smart and scientific-minded person, much like ... the author himself. And I think his target audience is also readers who think scie... Read More

The Day of the Triffids: The Walking Vegetables

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Bill Masen wakes in a hospital with bandages over his eyes. Finally, he will be able to expose his eyes to light — if only a nurse or doctor would come to remove the bandages. Well, no one is left to help Bill because a gnarly comet has blinded every person that watched its lightshow. Bill removes his bandages, leaves the hospital, and learns that English civilization — perhaps human civilization — has collapsed due to mass blindness.

Without its ability to see, humanity loses its place atop the food pyramid. A new creature now dominates: the triffid. A triffid is a tall plant. It eats insects. It can use its stalk as a whip, which is deadly because it contains poison. Though a triffid can’t just eat a person, python style, its prehensile stalk can tear and consume the flesh from a rotting corpse. Worse, the triffids can walk. And they can talk to each other! Each triffid h... Read More

The City and The Stars: Restless in a perfect future city

The City and The Stars by Arthur C. Clarke

The City and The Stars is a 1954 rewrite of Arthur C. Clarke’s first book Against the Fall of Night (1948). There are plenty of adherents of the original version, but the revised version is excellent too. As one of his earlier classic tales, this one features many familiar genre tropes: A far-future city called Diaspar, where technology is so sophisticated it seems like magic, a young (well not exactly, but close enough) protagonist who curiosity is so strong it overcomes the fear of the outside that all the other inhabitants share, and a gradually expanding series of discoveries by our hero Alvin (actually, would anyone really have a name that is shared by an animated chipmunk, one BILLION years in the future?) as he strives to discover the reality of his world, and the lar... Read More

Fantastic Voyage: People inside a submarine inside a person

Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov

Jan Benes, a brilliant scientist from the Other Side, has knowledge that can deliver America a military advantage. Benes has decided to defect, but when the Americans smuggle Benes into the country, They shoot him. Though Benes survives, an inoperable blood clot threatens to end his life. But wait! There may be a new technology that could allow surgeons to remove the blood clot from inside Benes’ body.

Miniaturization is that secret new technology. Controlled by the Combined Miniature Defense Force (CMDF), miniaturization will allow “four men and one woman” in a submarine armed with surgical lasers to enter Benes’ blood stream. From within his arteries, the team hopes to destroy the clot, saving Benes’ life and delivering the Americans the technological advantages Benes has smuggled from the Other Side.

Fantastic Voyage is primarily told from the p... Read More

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