Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Summer Reading

John Irving once wrote, “My life is my reading list.” In a further effort to share with everyone the wonder that is my life, I present: My Summer Reading List!

1) The Dragonriders of Pern series, by Anne McCaffrey

A classic series that claims (dubiously) to be sci-fi, but reads like fantasy. In this extended narrative about the people of Pern, she presents an intriguing culture centered around the dragons that were genetically engineered by the colonists of the planet before their descent into the current dark age to protect the planet from an interplanetary parasite.

It’s a ridiculously farfetched scenario, but the books are still a lot of fun to read. I’d recommend reading the first three in order, because I don’t think she even knew what she was doing until halfway through the second book. After that, go nuts in any order you choose, since most of the books are chasing down offshoots of the “main” storyline, such as a plague several centuries in the past, the rediscovery of dolphins and their unique abilities, and the life story of The MasterHarper of Pern (my personal favorite).

2) Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer, by Henry Petroski

A memoir telling the tale of his childhood in Queens, his early fascination with all things mechanical, and a story about the intellectual and moral development of a young boy into a young man.

I enjoy memoirs, but this one was mediocre. If you’re going to read a memoir of a future engineer, go with October Sky (originally published as Rocket Boys). It’s a much more compelling story, and way better than the movie to boot.

3) A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

Owen Meany is a diminutive child with a disturbing voice. He believes that he is God’s instrument; he’s right. The story is told from the perspective of his best friend, John Wheelwright, several years after Owen’s death. It’s a compelling story of how a troubled child deals with foreknowledge of his destiny, faith and its many unanswered questions, and how John deals with the death of his best friend, who is also the reason for his faith in God.

This story has more plot twists than you can believe, and is only slightly spoiled by its rampant anti-Americanism. I don’t want to spoil the book for you, so I won’t elaborate. Its opening chapter (plus a few more tidbits) was made into the truly horrid movie Simon Birch (a.k.a. Owen Meany). If you saw the movie, don’t let it poison you toward the book. To make that infernal film they eviscerated the entire storyline by treating the exposition as the plot and ignoring everything that made this book so moving. The odd mix of humor, wit, and a heartbreaking story make it one of the best books I have ever read.

4) The Road to Serfdom, by F.A. Hayek

Originally published in England in 1944, this is the classic warning against economic totalitarianism decades before it became obvious that the planned economy was a flop. In this book, he points out many not-so-obvious prerequisites and consequences of a planned economy, be it fascist, socialist, or any other type.

Oh, come on… did you really expect me to go all summer without reading anything political? Anyone who at all supports any form of communism (which I abhor) needs to be able to refute the arguments in this book. I recommend it to anyone at all interested in the politics of the past century, because it goes a great distance toward explaining the roots and depth of the conflict between the capitalist democracies and the socialist dictatorships that dominated the latter half of the twentieth century.

5) The Smoke Ring, by Larry Niven

The sequel to the very enjoyable The Integral Trees, it continues the story of a group of humans who abandoned their starship 500 years ago to inhabit a gas torus surrounding a neutron star… The residents of Citizens Tree learn of the existence of a large civilization called the Admiralty, which is both a threat to their small city-state and a potential source of knowledge. Exploration ensues, and neither Citizens Tree nor the Admiralty will emerge unchanged…

This is a fun book, although like much of Niven’s work, puts entirely too much emphasis on sex. (Why is it that in every vision of the future, sexual morality goes out the window? Does no one ever speculate that it might intensify, or at least remain roughly the same?) It’s an entertaining book with a well developed ecosystem for a completely freefall environment. My only other gripe is that it doesn’t end, it just stops. There’s no resolution, so there’s obviously another book to follow (that I now need to find). I prefer the Ringworld series, but if you’ve already read those classics, by all means tackle these next.

UPDATE: I just looked online, and there doesn't appear to be another book to follow. This means that the ending officially blows. You'll get little to no plot resolution. For geeks like me, the interesting exploration of a planetless ecosystem may be enough to recommend the book. For others, consider yourself warned.

6) Songs of Earth & Power, by Greg Bear

What do Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, and the Christian narrative have in common? All art, music, poetry, and myth contain the roots of a Song of Power, which allows passage into the Realm. The Realm is home to the Sidhe, an ancient race of magicians who fought and won a war with humans eons ago. Michael Perrin has been transported to that realm, and it falls to him to discover the Nature of the Realm, the source of the enmity between humans and Sidhe, and eventually, to attempt to reunify the Realm with Earth, a created world whose garden has long since gone to seed. Originally published in two volumes (The Infinity Concerto and The Serpent Mage) it is now in one volume as the author had intended.

I found the first half of this (The Infinity Concerto) at the used book sale in Valpo, and I just got around to reading it. I read it in one sitting, and immediately set about finding the second part. This is definitely the most original fantasy epic I have seen, and one of the most riveting stories I’ve ever read. It keeps you constantly on your toes, and you learn with Michael just how he is being used and by whom, as well as what exactly he is capable of. (It possesses much of the feel of the first Matrix movie in that respect.) This is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys fantasy, music, and literature. He weaves a complex and mysterious tapestry of connections between the arts that is a wonder to behold.

7) The Federalist Papers, by Publius (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay)

A series of editorials on the United States Constitution, they were originally published serially in newspapers to convince the people of New York to ratify it. It is, as Madison pointed out, “the most authentic exposition of the text of the Federal Constitution, as understood by the Body which prepared and the authority which accepted it.”

There are some books which you need to read to be able to speak intelligently on some topics. In the field of American politics, this is one of them. It is America’s addition to the body of political literature. I’ve only just started, but it’s fascinating thus far, and I’m enjoying myself.

9) The Babylonian Captivity of the Church; To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation; The Bondage of the Will; by Martin Luther

Definitely worth reading in full, particularly for Lutherans like me. Particularly important in Babylonian Captivity are the section on communion in both kinds vs. in one kind and the last part, where he presents the case against marriage, confirmation, ordination, and last rites. Christian Nobility is marvelous for understanding the historical context (from Luther’s perspective) of the Reformation and the abuses in the Church. Still working on the full text of Bondage of the Will.

10) One Nation Under Therapy, by Christina Hoff Summers and Sally Satel, M.D.

A political polemic on the transformation of American culture from one of self reliance to one of “a counselor for every crisis [and] a lawsuit for every grievance,” dedicated to the premise that “talking about problems is no substitute for confronting them.”

I have yet to read it, so I am unqualified to comment.

11) Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

It’s Starship Troopers minus fascism meets The Forever War without the societal degeneration. Humanity has begun to colonize the stars and has discovered that the universe is a crowded and unfriendly place. At the age of 75, you become eligible to enter the Colonial Defense Force and fight for the preservation of Humanity. But you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into…

A must read for any fan of the space warfare genre. Not quite as good as Heinlein’s classic, but it’s close. From me, that’s quite a compliment. In my opinion it’s a great what-if scenario with not-too-implausible science.

I’m sure there will be (and have been) more, but this gives you a decent feel for what I’ve been up to. Also yet to come: Democracy in America, more by Luther, more by Niven, and whatever I can find at the Waukesha Public Library. In closing, I like books. A lot. :-)

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