Stand-Alone

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

The Fold: Fun for everyone

The Fold by Peter Clines

The Fold, by Peter Clines, is a science fiction thriller with a superhero aspect, a bit of Sherlock Holmes and a bit of H.P. Lovecraft thrown in. It’s got dry humor, plenty of pop-culture references and an engaging main character who can be surprisingly vulnerable. This is a perfect summer read; the ideal vacation book. It’s a book you’ll want to pass along to your friends when you’re done.

Leland “Mike” Erickson teaches high school English in a small town in New England. His life is tranquil and even uneventful, until his college friend Reggie, who works for the Department of Defense, comes for a visit. Reggie is part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and his division oversees a project in San Diego called the Albuquerque Door. The scientists running the Door project insist that they can fold space, transporting matter across t... Read More

Horrible Monday: Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco

Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco

For all those folks who have at times felt that their home and possessions owned them, rather than the other way around; for those folks who love a good haunted house/possession tale; and even for those readers who simply enjoy a well-told thriller of a page-turner, Robert Marasco's 1973 novel Burnt Offerings will be a real find. This was Marasco's first novel in a sadly unprolific career; he came out with only two more titles – Child’s Play, a drama, in 1970, and Parlor Games, a Gothic-style mystery, in 1979 – before succumbing to lung cancer in 1998, at the age of 62. A real loss, if Burnt Offerings is any indication of the man's skills.

In this work, we meet Ben and Marian Rolfe, a nice, ordinary couple from Queens, who, with 8-year-old son Dav... Read More

A Clockwork Orange: A malenky bit of ultraviolence makes for a horrorshow jeezny

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Not everyone may be a fan of Anthony BurgessA Clockwork Orange, but we all know of it thanks to the iconic film by Stanley Kubrick. The image of juvenile delinquent Alex and his droogs with their frighteningly ruthless smiles, black hats, suspenders, and kicking boots as they terrorize helpless citizens while singing “Singin’ in the Rain” in a dystopian near-future London is impossible to forget.

The story is simple: Alex’s little gang goes on a horrifying crime spree until he is caught, put into prison, but is offered a new experimental therapy, the fictional Ludovico technique, which involves forcing the subject to watch violent imagery for extended periods while administering drugs that induce nausea. At the end of this treatment, little Alex cannot even think violent thoughts without being crippled with pain and nausea, with the uninte... Read More

SevenEves: You might love this book; I only loved the end

SevenEves by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson doesn't shy away from big concepts, long timelines, or larger than life events. His most recent novel, SevenEves, begins with the moon blowing up. Readers never find out what blew up the moon, because all too quickly humanity discovers that the Earth will soon be bombarded by a thousand-year rain of meteorites — the remnants of the moon as they collide with each other in space, becoming smaller and smaller — which will turn Earth into an uninhabitable wasteland. Humankind has a 2-year deadline to preserve its cultural legacy and a breeding population. The solution is to make extended life-in-space a possibility. The first two thirds of the book follows a group of astronauts and scientists who are among those who will form the new colony orbiting Earth, waiting a few millennia for it to become habitable again. The last third shows us what has become of humanity after 5,00... Read More

Why Call Them Back From Heaven?: Cold storage

Why Call Them Back From Heaven? by Clifford D. Simak

Although the concept of cryogenically preserving the bodies of the living had been a trope of Golden Age science fiction from the 1930s and onward, it wasn’t until New Jersey-born Robert Ettinger released his hardheaded book on the subject, 1962’s The Prospect of Immortality, that the idea began to be taken seriously. Ettinger would go on to found the Cryonics Institute in Michigan around 15 years later; over 1,300 folks have subscribed to this facility as of 2015, agreeing to pay $30,000 to have themselves turned into human “corpsicles,” and 130 are currently “on ice” there. (And let’s not even discuss Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, whose head is currently in deep freeze at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona!) But getting back to Ettinger’s book: This volume apparently impressed sci-fi author Cliffor... Read More

After Dark: Staying up late

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.

The bars are closing and the night’s last trains are shuttling people out of the city to their suburban beds. The city would be empty if it weren’t for the few remaining people who have decided to stay up After Dark.

Mari Asai, who studies Mandarin, sits in a Denny’s, reading a novel, when a stranger, Takahashi Tetsuya, joins her. Technically, Takahashi is not a stranger. He went to school with Mari’s sister, Eri, and he and Mari actually met once at a party the year before. Takahashi is staying up all night be... Read More

The War of the Worlds: Martians come to England and they’re not here for tea

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

This classic alien invasion story from 1897 hardly needs any introduction. We all know the image of Martians descending from space, moving on giant metal tripods and using deadly heat rays to ruthlessly destroy everything in their wake. Most infamous was the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast that had average Americans convinced they were being invaded by Martians. Then George Pal had a crack at The War of the Worlds with a film version in 1953.

The funniest film inspired by this book is definitely Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, which is gloriously silly and spares no civilians. And last but not least, Steven Spielberg gave The War of the Worlds the full-budget Hollywood treatment in 2005 with perennial SF leading man Tom Cruise. So this tale is part of our culture, which is a credit to Read More

The Kraken Wakes: Baked Alaska

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

At this point, only the most obstinate of naysayers would ever deny the alarming evidence regarding global warming, the shrinking of the ozone layer, the melting of the polar ice caps, and the rising of the Earth’s ocean levels. Indeed, just recently, the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite revealed that Greenland and Antarctica are, together, losing their millennia-old ice caps at the rate of some 500 cubic kilometers per year! But over 60 years ago, British sci-fi author John Wyndham presented to his readers an even scarier proposition than Man’s unwitting destruction of his environment, in his 1953 offering The Kraken Wakes (released in the U.S. under the title Out of the Deeps); namely, the deliberate destruction of the polar ice caps, with its concomitan... Read More

The Dragon in the Sea: Submarine treachery

The Dragon in the Sea by Frank Herbert

The East and the West rule the world, but the West is running out of oil. The West has been sending subtugs (specialized submarines) to smuggle oil from the East, but the last twenty missions have failed. It’s treachery! Security knows that the East has a lot of sleeper agents among their ranks, so they assign John Ramsey, who specializes in psychology and electronics, aboard the next mission in order to uncover the sleeper agent.

There are four men aboard the subtug, and since one of them is Ramsey, his search seems pretty simple. He even has fancy new technology that monitors the crew’s hormone levels. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned. The crew discovers a dead man aboard the subtug — was he a sleeper agent or the victim of one? They also find gadgets designed to give away their location. And there’s sabotage, too. (How many sleeper agents does the East ... Read More

Anathem: This book could be anathema to some readers… DNF

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

At one point do you admit defeat and give up on a book? Especially one that you really WANT to like, by an author whose work you respect, and has been lauded by critics and readers alike. I’ve put off tacking Anathem for many years because: 1) it’s a massive door-stopper about an order of monks millennia in the future devoted to philosophy, science, and mathematic theorems; 2) it’s got an entirely new lexicon of neologisms invented to describe this alternate world; 3) most of the readers I respect have found it challenging but rewarding; 4) will I lose all my SF street cred if I admit to not liking this?

I decided that the audiobook format might be the best way for me to take on this behemoth. It features four different narrators (Oliver Wyman, Tavia Gilbert, William Dufris, and Neal Stephenson d... Read More

The Diamond Age: Nanotech, Neo-Victorians, Princess Nell’s Primer, and the Fists of Righteous Harmony – all we need now is the kitchen sink

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

I am a big Neal Stephenson fan based on his novels Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. He is frequently a brilliant writer, unafraid to explore new ideas in the most unexpected and entertaining ways. His sense of humor is more subtle and clever than most, and his world-building abilities are top-notch. However, he has a serious problem with endings, particularly in The Diamond Age.

This also happened in Snow Crash, where an amazing opening led to a fairly fascinating middle portion and then a dissolved into a flurry of confusing action and events that brought things to a less-than-perfect close. It makes it very hard on fans, who really WANT to like everything he writes.

I listened to this on audiobook narrat... Read More

Swallow: Action, romance, and some mystical elements, too

Swallow: A Tale of the Great Trek by H. Rider Haggard

No, this is not the Linda Lovelace biography. (Oops, sorry ... bad joke.) Rather, Swallow is yet another fine piece of adventure fantasy from the so-called "father of lost-race fiction," H. Rider Haggard. In addition to some 14 novels depicting the adventures of hunter Allan Quatermain, Haggard penned some dozen or so other books that were set in the wilds of Africa. Swallow, his 22nd novel, was written in 1896, but did not see publication until January 1899. It is a somewhat unique book in the Haggard canon, being narrated, as it is, by an old Boer woman, the Vrouw Botmar, who is anything but sympathetic to the cause of British imperialism. She tells her story of the Great Trek of 1836, and all the many incidents surrounding it. And what a tale thi... Read More

The Maracot Deep: What’s doing in Atlantis NOW?

The Maracot Deep by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Readers who know of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle through his Sherlock Holmes stories, his tales of Sir Nigel in the 14th century, the Napoleonic adventures of Brigadier Gerard or the sci-fi escapades of Professor Challenger might still be unfamiliar with The Maracot Deep. Published in 1929, only a year before the author's death, this short novel amply demonstrates that Doyle still retained all his great abilities as a spinner of riveting yarns, even in his twilight years. At a mere 140 pages, the novel(la) is a compact but densely written fantasy of the discovery of the remnants of Atlantis.

It seems that Professor Maracot (a kind of early 20th century cross between Jacques Cousteau and Robert Ballard), along with an American naturalist and an American engineer, had suffered a terrible accident while in his bathysphere off the... Read More

The Time Machine: An early masterpiece of science fiction

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine (1895) is one of H.G. Wells’ most visionary and influential novels. It introduced the concept of time travel to a large readership, one of the most often-used conceits in SF. It also depicts a frightening and apocalyptic vision of a far future Dying Earth that has influenced countless genre practitioners including as Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe.

The book starts out with an unnamed Time Traveller describing, to a dinner party, his revolutionary time-travelling device and the adventures he has with it. His first stop is 800,000 years in the future, where he encounters the Eloi, a gentle and simple-minded people, and the darker, un... Read More

Snow Crash: So much more than just “cyberpunk,” and funny as hell

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

This is probably my favorite cyberpunk novel of all time, but “cyberpunk” really doesn’t capture the book’s range. It runs the gamut of the Metaverse and avatars, skate punks, an anarcho-capitalist Balkanized United States, super-cool technology, neurolinguistic viruses, hacker communities, burbclaves, ancient Sumerian mythology, Aleutian harpoonist super assassins, the Church of Happyology, and last but not least, Uncle Enzo’s Cosa Nostra Pizza, where your pizza is delivered in less than 30 minutes or Uncle Enzo, the Mafia boss owner, will fly by helicopter to apologize to you in person. And the driver’s life is forfeit.

The opening chapters feature Hiro Protagonist, Last of the Freelance Hackers and Greatest Swordfighter in the World, as he strives to deliver a Pizza with 20 min already on the clock, in his black, kick-ass Deliverator vehicle, which sounds like the Batmobile customized f... Read More

Davy: My favorite coming-of-age SF novel of all time

Davy by Edgar Pangborn

Davy (1964) is a wonderfully-written coming-of-age story set in a post-apocalyptic Northeastern United States 400 years after a brief nuclear exchange destroyed high-tech civilization, where life has become far more like the frontier days of the early US, with a scattered group of city-states dominated by the Holy Murcan Church. Far from what you might expect, it is a tale filled with humor, pathos, and charm. It is the narrative voice of Davy as he grows up from a simple boy to a randy young man that captures the reader from the start. His early days are dominated by wanting to escape from his bondsman life (in between freeman and slave), his desire for the tavern owner's daughter, and his discovery of a golden horn in the possession of an innocent and ignorant mutant.

Taking this horn propels him on a series of adventures with deserters from a battle and he eventually joins an iti... Read More

The Chrysalids: Forbidden post-apocalyptic telepaths

The Chrysalids by John Wynhdam

It’s no wonder that David dreams of a distant and wondrous city at night: life in the post-apocalyptic settlement, Waknuk, is difficult. Waknuk’s people are descended from the survivors of the Tribulation, which everyone knows was sent by God to punish the Old People. Though David and his community are lucky to have any land to live on, they must always guard against Deviations — in their crops, in their livestock, and in their children.

Deviations are not made in God’s True Image. Children that, say, have six toes, have the Devil in them, so they are either destroyed or else sent to the Fringes after they are sterilized. Though these exiles may later return as raiders, life in Waknuk is — if not always peaceful — still much better than life in the Badlands.

David Strorm may not care that deeply about Purity and maintaining God’s True Image, but his father, Joseph, cares ... Read More

The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything: An excellent fantasy … in more ways than one!

The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything by John D. MacDonald

Having never read anything previously by renowned author John D. MacDonald, I discovered his 1962 paperback The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything after reading about it in David Pringle's excellent overview volume Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels. Writing about the novel in that volume, the British critic tells us that it is "an amusing romp," and MacDonald's "only full-length fantasy." There may perhaps be many readers who are surprised to hear of MacDonald being mentioned in the same sentence as the word "fantasy"; after all, he is an author more well-known for almost 50 hard-boiled crime thrillers, not counting the 21-book series featuring his most famous character, Florida-based private investigator Travis McGee, which started in 1964. But in truth, MacDonald was, early in his ... Read More

The Puppet Masters: Early Heinlein at his most embarrassing. DNF.

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein

Slug-like alien invaders who land and take over Des Moines, Iowa, 50s-style cold war paranoia, wise-cracking secret super agents, and a totally hot red-headed babe with deadly weapons concealed on a voluptuous body who is strong-willed but still totally subservient to our intrepid, tough-talking hero Sam. Yes, that would be a Robert A. Heinlein book, this one first published back in 1951. Apparently what I read was the extended version, and I guess they just stuffed back all the embarrassingly-bad, sexy repartee and other bits that should have remained on the editing floor.

Most readers either love or hate Heinlein, and I've only read a few of his books, having absolutely hated Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, but really liked Read More

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

The Sirens of Titan: An early Vonnegut classic about the randomness of life

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

The Sirens of Titan is a tough book to review. And it’s not really SF at all though it adopts the trappings of the genre. The thing about Kurt Vonnegut’s books is that they are so deceptively simple. The prose is spare, humorous, ironic, and to the point. And yet the story is very ambitious, as it seeks to provide answers to some very basic questions. Why do we exist? What is the universe for? Do we have any free will to determine our lives? Should we have chicken or fish for dinner?

The story focuses on Malachi Constant, the richest man in America; Winston Niles Rumfoord, an older wealthy man who travels throughout the solar system with his dog Kazak, manifesting in various locations in space and time; Unk and Boaz, two buddies in the Martian Army preparing to invade the ... 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