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Recommended reading

Started: 2013-03-10 20:48:38

Submitted: 2013-03-11 22:14:49

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid reader suggests books for his wife to read

Kiesa recently solicited my [fiction] book recommendations as part of her reading goals to expand her horizons. When I read fiction my tastes tend towards cyberpunk; you'll also see the singularity, and some harder space opera, represented on this list. Kiesa also reads science fiction and fantasy, but our subgenres barely overlap. So this is not a general listing of books I recommend; rather, it's a specific list of recommendations for a specific reader, taking into account what she's already read.

The List

First, here's a priority order of my actual recommendations:

  1. Old Man's War by John Scalzi
  2. A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
  3. Accelerando by Charles Stross
  4. Idoru by William Gibson
  5. Seeker by Jack McDevitt
  6. Idlewild by Nick Sagan
  7. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, if you're feeling ambitious (see below)

The Commentary

And here's the commentary, sorted by author, with extra-credit reading:

Cory Doctorow: Having read Little Brother I'm sure there's something else I ought to recommend; I did enjoy Eastern Standard Tribe when I read it sometime in the last decade. Maybe combine "graphic novel" and pick up Cory Doctorow's Futuristic Tales of the Here and Now. I'd thumb through it for inspiration but for the cat colonizing my legs as I sit on the couch typing. There's also The Rapture of the Nerds (cowritten with Charles Stross), which is a comic take on the idea that the singularity is going to uplift ("rapture") humanity, starting with the nerds.

Neil Gaiman: I'm sure The Ocean at the End of the Lane is going to be fantastic, but it's not officially out until this summer (and somehow I haven't gotten an ARC), so I can't officially recommend it yet. I have two of his short story collections, Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things, which include some good stories.

William Gibson: Popularized cyberpunk in 1984 with Neuromancer, which would normally be close to the top of any of my recommendations but for the fact that my intended audience has already read it. I think his middle-nineties trilogy is the most accessible; I recall liking Idoru when I read it long ago. ("Johnny Mnemonic" is a short story in his collection Burning Chrome.)

Jack McDevitt seems to write the same novel over and over again, with the same three ingredients (space opera, mystery, thriller) in slightly different proportion. The Nebula Award-winning Seeker picks just the right mixture to make a good read. I also enjoyed The Engines of God, which throws in some alien archeology and mysterious interstellar forces for good measure. (Science fiction clearly requires the willing suspension of disbelief to allow for the possibility of aliens and faster-than-light travel, but the author's woeful ignorance of video transmission technology in the [spoiler, but I can't bring myself to care] first-contact scenes in Infinity Beach -- in which he suggests that humans and aliens could figure out their disparate video-transmission standards in a matter of seconds -- left me screaming at the book as I was reading it. It didn't help that my day-job at the time involved video encoding standards, and I was wading through the hundreds of pages that describe the MPEG-2 container format without even discussing the encoding of the elementary streams themselves.)

Nick Sagan: Son of the more famous guy with his surname. I can't actually tell you very much about Idlewild without spoiling the first couple of plot twists, so all I can say is to go read the book.

John Scalzi: Go read Old Man's War. Right now. I'll wait. It's an homage to Starship Troopers and was great fun. I also enjoyed The Android's Dream and his 'practice' novel, Agent to the Stars, both comic sci-fi.

Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon is one of my favorite books ever, which is why Kiesa first read it many years ago when we started dating. I didn't actually make it through The Baroque Cycle, but I did enjoy his more recent books, Anathem (my review) and Reamde.

Charles Stross: I haven't read his Merchant Princes series, but I've read the rest of his varied bibliography. Accelerando is a straight take on the singularity uplifting humanity into the cloud. Glasshouse pushes the idea out a few more centuries -- with rootkits for your memories (and a war criminal or two). Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise are space opera in a universe where a weakly-god-like AI mostly leaves humanity alone (unless they try to violate causality inside its light cone) and faster-than-light travel is possible by opening a wormhole into an adjacent parallel universe, which is essentially identical to one's own universe. I enjoy the Laundry series, which crosses Office Space with Lovecraftian horror; the obvious starting point is The Atrocity Archives.

Vernor Vinge: He takes an interesting idea, tries to extrapolate its second- and third-order effects, and writes a book (or two, or three) around that idea. In The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime he introduces "bobbles", impervious spherical enclosures, which have some interesting properties (some of which can't be disclosed lest I spoil the plot). The Witling shows what a pre-industrial civilization can do with teleportation if they still have to conserve momentum on a spinning planet. In his "Zones of Thought" series he proposes that the galaxy is divided into different zones, each with different rules of physics; Earth is deep within "the slow zone", where faster-than-light travel is impossible; faster-than-light travel is possible in the next zone, but emergent Singularity god-like intelligences can only exist even further from the galactic core. I have the Hugo Award-winning A Fire Upon the Deep on my shelf (and I enjoyed his most recent book, its direct sequel, Children of the Sky), in which an uplifted alien intelligence tries to break its way into the galaxy through a group of researchers seeking forbidden knowledge (and features human-class alien intelligences in the form of packs of wolves making up a pre-industrial civilization that serves as a refuge for the researcher's children). I think his best book is the Hugo Award-winning A Deepness in the Sky, which sets up an interstellar space opera in the slow zone and still manages to capture the sort of epic scale of A Fire Upon the Deep.

What I actually have on my favored-fiction shelf

For everyone who waded through that and still wants to know what I really like, rather than what I think Kiesa might enjoy reading, here's the contents of my favored-fiction shelf in the living room:

  • Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
  • Microserfs by Douglas Coupland
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
  • Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
  • Anathem by Neal Stephenson
  • Glasshouse by Charles Stross
  • The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
  • A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge


Kiesa went out of her way to not solicit my input on other genres, for fear that I might overwhelm her with a stack of books taller than Calvin. But she did call out "Biography, Autobiography, Memoir" on her list, and I have a couple on my shelf she might actually enjoy. The most accessible is likely Gandhi's Birthday Song by Willy Logan (if for no other reason than we know the author); it's a collection of stories from my brother's time teaching for a year in India. (Though I must confess to being at least slightly disappointed that my visit to the Garo Hills and our trip to Darjeeling did not merit even an oblique reference.) Right next to it on my shelf (shelved in my "favored non-fiction" collection, by LC number, in DS421) is Delirious Delhi by Dave Prager; he lived and worked as an American expat in Delhi and I enjoyed the zeitgeist snapshot of expat life. (I bought a copy of the Indian edition directly from the author at the end of 2011; he signed the book "Dili chalo" -- which he translated as "go visit Delhi". I did not expect at the time that I would actually follow his advice and visit Delhi in the following year. An American edition is forthcoming this spring.)

Kiesa may also be amused by Slowly Down the Ganges by Eric Newby (DS485.G25 N4): a British guy drags his wife on a trek down the Ganges river, through the fertile Indian heartland.

And one more recommendation, out of left field

Kiesa specifically said she didn't want to read The Generalissimo, which I understand (it took me nine months to get through it), but I would like to suggest, in the accessible narrative-non-fiction genre, Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzelmann (DS480.842.V66 2008), which discusses the events leading up to Indian independence in 1947.