Tuesday, November 15, 2016

2016 best reads

I read a lot: as research, to stay knowledgeable about the genre in which I write, and simply for enjoyment -- overlapping categories, to be sure. Continuing an annual tradition, I'm posting pre-holiday shopping season about the most notable books so far from this year's reading. (And, occasionally, the year's rereading. That a book not only elicits a reread, but still impresses on the second time around, is certainly a recommendation.) When I mention a book, I really enjoyed it and/or found it very useful. Life's too short to carp about what I didn't find notable (much less anything I didn't finish).

Presuming that you visit SF and Nonsense because you appreciate my take on science or technology or fiction, you might find, in the post that follows, books you (and like-minded friends, relatives, etc.) will also enjoy. Unless otherwise indicated, the dates shown are for original publication. Every cover is an Amazon link, often to newer editions than the original publication (and to Kindle editions, where available).

What made the cut? Read on ...

Science Fiction

 Lest Darkness Fall
Lest Darkness Fall and Related Stories (2011), L. Sprague de Camp, et. al. The title novel (a 1939 serial, expanded somewhat in 1941), is among the earliest SF explorations of what drives history. Do great men and women shape events, or do significant events arise from irresistible trends whose time has come? Think: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, sans axes to grind w.r.t. feudalism and the Catholic Church. The shorter stories in the book (by Frederik Pohl, David Drake, and S. M. Stirling) are homages to the novel.

 Fredric Brown megapacksThe Fredric Brown Megapack (2013) / The Second Fredric Brown Megapack (2014), Fredric Brown. Two collections of classic SF, by one of the sharpest practitioners of any kind of short fiction. (Brown, 1906-1972, is well-known for SF and mysteries.) Some of these stories have stuck with me for decades, including "The Waveries" and "Answer."

Kindle edition
Bloom (1998), Wil McCarthy. Intense, technically thoughtful novel about humanity driven from the inner Solar System by a nanotech infestation. McCarthy is an engineer by training, and one of the pioneers of programmable matter -- and (or he wouldn't be mentioned here) an excellent fiction writer.

Calculating Minds (Kindle edition)
Calculating God (2000), Robert J. Sawyer. A novel of first contact unlike any you've ever read (and that it takes place mostly in Canada's premier science museum is only the smallest reason for that). Thought-provoking and page-turning at the same time. A gem. 

Real-life adventure, exploration, and first contact

What better way to appreciate (or do research for) tales of future adventure, and future first contact, than through the study of actual epic adventures and first contacts?

Undaunted Courage (Kindle edition)
Undaunted Courage (1996), Stephen E. Ambrose. The Lewis and Clark expedition was certainly epic. Consider the physical challenges: a journey through largely unexplored wilderness, from St. Louis up the Missouri -- by person power, against the current the entire way, across the Rockies on foot, and finally down the swift-flowing Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. Consider the many Native American tribes along the way that had never before encountered a European American -- and that some of those contacts weren't friendly. Consider being the first European Americans to behold grizzly bears and vast buffalo herds. Now imagine doing all that and amassing geographic, cartographic, ethnographic, botanic, and zoological data along the way. In addition to recounting that adventure, Undaunted Courage provides a rich background of early United States history, from Thomas Jefferson's scientific interests to the political conflicts of the times. Fascinating.

South! The Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition, Sir Ernest Shackleton (~1920? The expedition was 1914-1917; many editions are available, each with different front material and copyright date [the main work being long out of copyright]). Imagine your ship trapped for the winter in pack ice, deep within the Antarctic Circle ... until, at last, the hull is crushed and you must set out across the ice for dubious safety. Imagine a world at war, with no resources to look for you. That was Shackleton's situation ...

European Discovery of America (Northern Voyages)
The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (1971) and The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages (1974), Samuel Eliot Morison. My grade-school and high-school American history texts had little to say about the discovery and exploration of the New World beyond names and dates. Columbus's discovery was made to seem notable for (a) general ignorance of the world's true shape and (b) convincing the Spanish crown to invest. Well, the educated people of the day weren't ignorant of the Earth's shape, skepticism about Columbus's ability to reach the Indies (and, of course, he didn't) was not unfounded, and -- given the limitations of ships and the navigational arts at the time -- Columbus's sailing accomplishments (I'm not addressing how the Native Americans were treated) were amazing. The book covers many westward voyages -- from legendary to failed to successful -- and for a long time, failures predominated. So, too, did most early attempts at settlement in the Americas fail -- and I don't mean merely the Vikings.

European Discovery of America (Southern)
The southern voyages of discovery are equally fascinating, and less familiar. The around-the-world voyages of Magellan and Drake were certainly epic, as was Balboa's trek across the Isthmus of Panama to discover the Pacific Ocean, as were many lesser known (to this North American reader, anyway) adventures that Morison chronicles. Bottom line: it is no small thing to explore and map two new, huge continents with nothing but muscle- and wind power.


How about some completely different sorts of adventure? Such as explorations of the mind ...

The Perfect Theory
The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity (2014), Pedro G. Ferreira. A sweeping exploration of the grand ideas within, and fascinating characters behind, one of the most profound human accomplishments ... ever. What less than profound insight could encapsulate in ten elegant equations (none of which, I hasten to add, the reader of this book will confront) such disparate phenomena as black holes, gravitational waves, and the presence of matter slowing the passage of time? Mind expanding.

Annotated Gullivers Travels
The Annotated Gulliver's Travels (1980), Johnathon Swift and Isaac Asimov. The imaginary worlds of Jonathon Swift are satirical, not science fictional (no matter that Swift somehow seems to have anticipated the two moons of Mars about a century before their discovery). Often, Gulliver's Travels is re-imagined as a a diversion for children, good fun with Gulliver meeting wee people and giants -- but Swift intended no kiddie tales. In this copiously annotated edition, Isaac Asimov (who was a polymath, not merely an SF icon) brings to light the subtexts, such as about British politics and religious rivalries, that Swift's contemporaries would have read into Gulliver's recountings.

Sapiens: A Brief History
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015), Yuval Noah Harari. An evolutionary biologist examines the really big picture of humanity. How did our species became the only surviving species of  genus Homo? Why did agriculture happen and what did it signify? Why do humans congregate in groups of millions when other primate communities top out in the hundreds? What are the sources and significance of science and religion? And much, much more. Fascinating. 

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