Keener Book Club: September 2015

Keener Book Club

The field of Speculative Fiction is like a long-running conversation between writers and readers all around the world. It’s easy for some of the best pieces of this vast conversation to be missed, including contemporary stories that may not have achieved the recognition they deserve or older stories that may have fallen out of the public consciousness.

Thus, the Keener Book Club, where each month I’ll highlight one contemporary novel, one classic novel (generally more than twenty years old) and one piece of short fiction from any time period (and I do mean any).

2015: July  August  September

Book: Shades of Milk and Honey — by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette KowalPublished: 2011
To Purchase: Amazon

What if Jane Austin was alive today and she decided to try her hand at writing fantasy? Well, I suspect she’d write a romantic Regency-era comedy of manners with magic, something very much like Mary Robinette Kowal’s Nebula-nominated first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey.

Jane Ellsworth of Dorchester is a glamourist, a woman who can create genteel illusions, or glamours, by manipulating strands from the Ether. She dreams of earning recognition as a glamourist, something that only men are generally renowned for. In her personal life, unmarried and in her late twenties, she worries that she’ll be left to live life as a lonely spinster, unlike her lovely younger sister, Melody, who has a surfeit of suitors.

Little does Jane realize that a threat to her family lurks closer than she could possibly imagine. And, who is the mysterious Mr. Vincent, the first glamourist she’s met who’s more knowledgeable about magic than herself?

The plot is tight, the dialogue is witty, the romance is cutting and the magic is seamlessly woven into the story. Yes, OK, I know I’ve probably lost most of the guys with this particular recommendation, but it’s still an excellent book and well worth reading if a romantic comedy of manners is something you can appreciate.

It’s also the first book in what has now been labeled the Glamourist Histories series, followed by Glamour In Glass (2013), Without a Summer (2014), Valour and Vanity (2015) and Of Noble Family (2015).

Note: If you decide to buy the trade paperback, make sure you purchase the second edition, which has an excellent cover (the one shown to the right) that matches subsequent novels in the series. The first edition had a truly atrocious cover. Just awful.


Classic: Gateway — by Frederik Pohl

Gateway by Frederick PohlPublished: 1977
To Purchase: Amazon

Robinette Broadhead has become the richest man in the solar system, but a trauma suffered on his way to fame and fortune has left him with deep psychological problems. As a young man, he won a lottery that plucked him from the poverty and obscurity of life as a food shale miner and gave him the chance to be a prospector on Gateway, the mysterious space station left in the Asteroid Belt by a long-vanished alien race known as the Heechee.

Gateway is the ultimate lottery, an alien transport hub with hundreds of FTL ships, each with numerous programmable destinations. But there’s no way to know whether a destination will result in a discovery worth a fortune or just a lonely death in a far-off place.

What was the trauma that broke Robinette? What is it that gives him nightmares? This Hugo and Nebula winning novel by Frederick Pohl alternates between Robinette’s struggle to repair his shattered psyche and his recollections of his experiences at Gateway leading up to the terrifying trauma he can no longer recall.

Gateway is a true classic of the SF field and I highly recommend it. I particularly liked how it didn’t answer all of the questions about the Heechee.

Because of its success, it was followed by several sequels which, to me, although interesting, don’t pack the same punch as the original and, perhaps, reveal too much of the mystery surrounding the Heechee. If you read the sequels, I’d start with The Heechee Trip, which collects a novelette and some additional content dealing with the Heechee before later revelations. The plotline from Gateway then continues in Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, Heechee Rendezvous and The Annals of the Heechee. There is also a later connected novel, The Boy Who Would Live Forever.

I consider Gateway to be essential reading for any science fiction fan. If you read nothing else in the series, you should at least read this novel, which stands completely on its own.


Short Fiction: “A Study in Emerald” — by Neil Gaiman

Shadows Over Baker StreetPublished: 2003
To Purchase: Amazon

What do you get when you mix Sherlock Holmes with the Chthulu Mythos? Well, if you’re Neil Gaiman, you get an enchanting, Hugo award-winning story like “A Study in Emerald.” To say more would inevitably reveal far too much. Just go read it.

The story was originally published in the groundbreaking anthology, Shadows Over Baker Street, a delightful mash-up of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes universe and H. P. Lovecraft’s Chthulu mythos. The short story can also be found in Neil Gaiman’s story collection, Fragile Things.

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Keener Book Club: August 2015

Keener Book Club

The field of Speculative Fiction is like a long-running conversation between writers and readers all around the world. It’s easy for some of the best pieces of this vast conversation to be missed, including contemporary stories that may not have achieved the recognition they deserve or older stories that may have fallen out of the public consciousness.

Thus, the Keener Book Club, where each month I’ll highlight one contemporary novel, one classic novel (generally more than twenty years old) and one piece of short fiction from any time period (and I do mean any).

2015: July  August  September

Book: The Martian — by Andrew Weir

The Martian by Andrew WeirPublished: 2014
To Purchase: Amazon

The first manned mission to Mars is forced to abort their mission due when a bad dust storm damages their landing base and takes the life of crew member Mark Watney. There’s only one problem.

Mark’s not dead.

He’s stranded on Mars with limited supplies, a damaged habitat and no way to even tell anybody off-planet that he’s alive. He’s going to have to be ingenious in order to figure out a way to survive.

The Martian is a hard SF novel that’s been described as a cross between Apollo 13 and Castaway. Perhaps the most accurate, and most concise, review of the book is the one posted by the online comic XKCD.

It’s also significant in that it is a highly successful self-published novel. Andrew Weir first published it in parts on his web site starting in 2009. At the request of his readers, he self-published it on Amazon.com in 2011, where it sold more than 35K copies in three months. Eventually, he was approached by Crown Publishing, who re-published the novel in 2014 and helped shepherd its way to the New York Times bestseller list.

It has also been made into a high budget movie by famed director Ridley Scott, with Matt Damon in the starring role. The film was fast-tracked for a late 2015 release and will be released in October 2015.

Note: (2015-10-23) The movie was indeed released in October and turned out to be an excellent movie, a faithful adaptation and a bonafide hit.


Classic: Rite of Passage — by Alexei Panshin

Rite of Passage by Alexei PanshinPublished: 1968
To Purchase: Amazon

In 2198, Mia Havero is a young girl growing up in a high-tech but insular society aboard a large spaceship, one of only seven starships still in existence. The ships were originally the transports that established colonies on some one hundred planets after Earth and its in-system colonies were destroyed in a series of catastrophic wars more than one hundred and fifty years before.

Mia’s ship subjects its children to a Rite of Passage, partly to ensure their worthiness to be citizens and partly as a population control measure. Sometime after their fourteenth birthday, Mia and the other children in her age group will be set down in the hostile wilderness of a planet for a month to live or die.

But this isn’t going to be just any Rite of Passage. Mia will find herself facing challenges that neither she nor anybody else ever expected.

This novel was first published in 1968 as an Ace Science Fiction Special (a very influential line of books in its day). It won the 1968 Nebula Award for Best Novel and was nominated for the 1969 Hugo Award for Best Novel (which it lost to John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, an SF novel that has not aged well). I first read Panshin’s novel in 1975, and I’ve never forgotten the impact it had on me.


Short Fiction: “The Most Dangerous Game” — by Richard Connell

The Most Dangerous Game - by Richard ConnellPublished: 1924
Free PDF: PDF Books for Free

Richard Connell (1893 – 1949) was a famous short story writer, journalist and screenwriter. He’s now best remembered for his classic story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” which was published in Collier’s magazine in 1924. The story has spawned more than a dozen movies, innumerable TV episodes and countless similarly-themed stories.

In the 1920’s, an aristocratic big game hunter has grown jaded with hunting conventional prey. Even hunting the big predators no longer holds a thrill for him. When a fellow hunter falls into his grasp, he decides that he’s found the perfect prey. Let the hunt begin…

The story is in the public domain in most countries, and is readily available online in PDF form. It’s not actually SF or Fantasy, but it’s influenced so many SF and Fantasy stories (including one of my own) that I think it might reasonably be of interest to SF/Fantasy readers. And, hey, it’s a 91-year-old story that’s still a fun read, and how many stories can you think of that have lasted the test of time like that?

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Keener Book Club: July 2015

Keener Book Club

The field of Speculative Fiction (which encompasses both Sci-Fi and Fantasy) is like a long-running conversation between writers and readers all around the world. But in this busy, fast-moving world, it’s easy for some of the best pieces of this vast conversation to be missed, including contemporary stories that may not have achieved the recognition they deserve or older stories that may have fallen out of the public consciousness.

Thus, the Keener Book Club, where each month I’ll highlight one contemporary novel, one classic novel (generally more than twenty years old) and one piece of short fiction from any time period.

2015: July  August  September

Book: Ready Player One — by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest ClinePublished: 2012
To Purchase: Amazon

It’s the year 2044 and Wade Watts, an overweight teenager who lives in a run-down trailer park, spends almost all of his time immersed in OASIS, a vast online virtual environment used by almost everybody in the world. For Wade, it certainly beats facing up to the poverty and squalor that that he faces whenever he’s unplugged.

Wade, like millions of other people around the world, is obsessed with deciphering the clues left behind by James Halliday, the richest man in the world and the inventor of OASIS. His will stipulated that whoever solves his puzzles and gains three vital keys will inherit his vast fortune. The catch: Halliday was obsessed with 1980’s pop culture.

When Wade stumbles upon the first clue found since Halliday’s death, a dangerous and thrilling chase begins, where suvival depends on courage…and an intimate knowledge of the 1980’s.


Classic: The Pride of Chanur — by C. J. Cherryh

The Pride of Chanur by C. J. CherryhPublished: 1982
To Purchase: Amazon (single volume), Amazon (omnibus with two other books)

In the Compact, six different species (none of them human) with six vastly different mindsets interact within a very loose confederation. The Hani are a felinoid species who are new to the Compact, and not entirely comfortable with being a spacefaring species. Beset by challenges in space and threatened by politics and societal disapproval at home, Pynafar Chanur, the Hani captain of the trading ship, the Pride of Chanur, is simply trying to accomplish a successful trading run.

But things get complicated when Pyanfar’s crew rescues a naked alien on the rough docks of Meetpoint Station…a seventh alien species that’s never been seen before. A representative of a species that calls itself…human. Power is shifting within the Compact and the Pride of Chanur has just entered the maelstrom.

This was a 1983 Hugo Award nominee; it lost out to the entirely overrated Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov. It’s a stand-alone novel, but also the start of an excellent five book series.


Short Fiction: “The Star” — by Arthur C. Clarke

Published: 1956

This is one of the most famous science fiction stories of all time. It’s about an exploratory mission to a distant star…and the revelation that shocked the crew to the core.

It won the Hugo Award for Short Story in 1956 and is available in various collections of Arthur C. Clarke’s stories. Despite its age, it’s as relevant now as when it was first written.

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