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Staff Picks Category: Science fiction

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz []

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Imagine a future in which genetic engineering is commonplace, artificial intelligence has advanced to the point where machine consciousness is taken for granted, and robots, which are built from a mixture of electrical, mechanical, and biological components, are an accepted part of everyday life. Property is key in this world. Robots can be owned, and people too, but the most valuable property is information, and corporations will do nearly anything to defend their patents. The individual in this world, whether human or machine, has few rights and less power.

Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous is set in such a world. Jack is an anti-patent pirate, skilled at chemical and bio engineering and determined to make pharmaceuticals available to those who need them, but she is in trouble when she realizes the dangers inherent in a new highly addicting productivity drug. Meanwhile Paladin, an AI, and Eliasz, both employed by a military organization dedicated to protecting intellectual property, are on her trail.

Told from varied perspectives, including the perspective of a new Artificial Intelligence learning about the world, Autonomous is a moving and engaging novel. With great characters, adventure, sci-fi, philosophy, and romance, it has a lot to offer. I enjoyed this book enormously!

Content warning: drug use and abuse; some sexual content; some violence which can be graphic at times, including a disturbing description of a torture during an interrogation

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The Dispossessed: A Novel by Ursula K Le Guin []

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Shevek is born in a world created by anarchists. This world, a moon in fact, is home to a planned society in which the concept of property does not exist and the language has been designed to discourage selfish thought. The people there have very little contact with the world from whence they came—the capitalist planet of Urras. Shevek is a brilliant physicist whose groundbreaking work is too advanced to be understood by his colleagues. If he wishes to continue his research he must, therefore, visit Urras and work with the scientists there.

Le Guin’s writing is excellent. In telling the story of Shevek, of his research, and of his journey, she also subtly explores some very interesting ideas about culture, language, government, and psychology. This imaginative work, like most of Le Guin’s science fiction, stands alone, and if you have never read any Le Guin this would be an excellent place to start. And if you like it you will find that Le Guin has written many more excellent books set in the same universe.

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The Diviners by Libba Bray []

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An enchanting mystery that will have you on the edge of your seat until the very end! A dark story of the supernatural set in 1920s New York City. Speakeasies, theater, jazz and plenty of twenties slang to keep you giggling.

The story follows a young woman named Evie O’Neill who possesses a power she just can’t explain. After Evie’s brother dies, she is sent to New York City to live with her uncle, a professor of the occult. A chilling murder takes place and Evie’s uncle is called in to help the police investigate the mysterious circumstances. Could Evie’s power help solve this disturbing mystery?

Bray’s characters will stay with you long after you finish reading. Stay tuned for the second book in this series, Lair of Dreams.

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The long earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter []

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As a longtime Pratchett fan, I was looking forward to a fantasy full of humor and parody.  This isn’t it, but I’ve been drawn in and am still reading.  Stephen Baxter is known for his prolific science fiction novels.  The Long Earth posits an infinite number of other worlds just like ours, each in its own universe–except they are completely undeveloped by humans.  In the very near future, a reclusive scientist develops a way to step between worlds by building a “stepping” box so simple any teenager can make one.  Large numbers of people begin popping back and forth, creating complex consequences and changing the world(s) in ways that no one can keep up with.  I’m enjoying interesting characters such as 13-year-old Joshua, who is more comfortable in the primordial forest of other Earths than in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, and a computer in the shape of a vending machine named Lobsang who claims to be a reincarnated Tibetan motorcycle repairman.

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Patternmaster by Octavia E. Butler []

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Folks have been recommending that I read Octavia E. Butler for some time. I’ve received recommendations from friends that know I like Ursula Le Guin and have told me that I would therefore like Butler’s writing as well, and I’ve also received recommendations from friends who have said, “Oh, you like science fiction. I don’t read much science fiction, but I just read this book by Octavia E. Butler…”.

I picked up my first novel by Octavia E. Butler, Patternmaster, last Thursday, and I finished reading it over the weekend. Needless to say, I enjoyed it! In this short novel, Butler introduces us to a post-apocalyptic world in which humans are divided into a complex system of social castes and warring factions based upon the powerful mental powers of some, and the disease induced mutations of others. The story, of a student who leaves school to find himself in conflict with his own power hungry brother, is relatively simple, but the detailed world in which it takes place makes it feel like part of something much bigger.

Reader’s of Ursula Le Guin’s fiction will recognize themes of class, gender, and sexuality in Butler’s writing, as well as a similar approach to speculative fiction that is based on rigorous world building and avoids the stereotypes of the genre. The struggles depicted in Patternmaster are, however, more violent, and the cast more power hungry, than in Le Guin’s writings. If you like Ursula Le Guin and don’t mind the a story with some loose ends and some violent passages, you should give Patternmaster a try.

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Doctor Who: The Awakening []

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Peter Davison stars as the Doctor with the cricket inspired get up and celery stalk fastened to his lapel. You’ll have to wait until Davison’s last appearance however to learn the purpose of the mysterious vegetable! Regarding this particular shorter story, the Doctor promises to reunite his companion Tegan with her grandfather in her present time of 1984.

If it were only that simple…
When they arrive at the quaint village of Little Hodcombe, they are greeted by people with long flowing beards in suited armor on horseback. The Doctor and his companions are led to believe the townspeople are taking part in some sort of reenactment of a famous civil war battle from 1643.

We soon discover that they have actually landed in a time parallel between the years 1643 and 1984 due to an underground beast who is also warping the minds of Little Hodcombe’s citizens and projecting humans from the 17th century in their reality. Confused yet? Check it out for yourself and enjoy this entertaining two-part Doctor Who adventure.

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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang []

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As a Doctor Who nerd and an admirer of several of the lead actors in this long running science-fiction series, it is difficult to come up with a favorite episode or story. One finds much of what is discussed on various websites, television programs, magazines, blogs… or real life conversations for that matter tend to fall under the categorizing or ranking of books, films, music, athletes, politicians, restaurants, etc. Is this need for placement really all that necessary? Must our filing cabinets extend throughout all of space and time?

Let’s just say, that the The Talons of Weng-Chiang from the Tom Baker era is a story that I really, really enjoy.

Robert Holmes, who was one of the more prolific and humorous writers of the Doctor Who enterprise, scripts an exciting adventure taking place in Victorian London. Our time traveling protagonist called “the Doctor” and his assistant Leela find themselves mixed up an other worldly, underground cult, battling a giant sewer rat and dealing with a scary looking puppet (I know, right?!!). The episode has a Sherlock Holmes motife: the vested Doctor is fully equipped with a long herringbone overcoat, a deerstalker hat and cravat. Furthermore, Holmes (this time I’m talking about Robert) playfully throws in several references to Conan Doyle’s writings.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang is an excellent introduction to Doctor Who if you’re unfamiliar with the series. The script is dynamite, there are memorable, comedic supporting roles and it ABSOLUTELY STARS THE GREATEST ACTOR TO PLAY THE DOCTOR. Busted… caught ranking, categorizing and picking favorites. I guess it’s just what we do.

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Welcome to the Monkey House []

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Selections from Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Welcome to the Monkey House, an anthology of shorter fiction, appeared on the Showtime channel in the early 1990’s. The series was on the air for a brief time, but all of the episodes exist on a dvd that we’ve just received from the Pleasant St. Video collection.

Welcome to the Monkey House is fascinating from the outset; the author makes an on camera introduction to the episodes. His opening dialog is the only instance of seeing him on film/tape that I can recall (until this moment, I’ve used my imagination to estimate his mannerisms via book jacket photographs!).

The stories and the overall feel of the series strike a kinship with David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks. Both idiosyncratic television programs were on the air around the same time, draw from 1950’s style and also deal with the abnormal. A mysterious double life, a sadistic battle of wits involving humans as chess pieces, a woman’s obsession with home design catalogs and a child’s eventful night without a babysitter all feature in Welcome to the Monkey House.

Vonnegut has always struck me as someone who has the ability of skillfully introducing science fiction elements or ideas into his writing without having them seem far removed from contemporary society. Though he often delves into the world of science fiction, I can’t classify him solely as a science fiction writer. His laconic central characters tend to ease us into strange, new worlds by having a dark sense of humor or an overall surly, sarcastic attitude toward the present state. For instance, a soap opera actor portraying a doctor is lead into mansion that houses an elderly woman whose only original body part is her head. The actor is initially surprised, but accepts the situation within moments after the orchestrator of this scientific achievement gives his explanation in the most blasé fashion possible.

Kurt Vonnegut’s stories are wonderfully captured in this series and feature performances by Madeline Kahn, Frank Langella, Jon Cryer and many more fine character actors. It was a short lived television program, but it managed to capture some of the author’s bizarrely brilliant concepts.

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Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis []

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In this early work of science fiction (Out of the Silent Planet was first published in 1938) C.S. Lewis tells the story of a philology professor, much reminiscent of Lewis’s friend J.R.R Tolkien, who, while exploring a mysterious house in the English countryside, is kidnapped and brought to the mysterious planet of Malacandra aboard a strange space–going vehicle. The professor escapes his captors soon after they land, and he finds himself terrified in an unfamiliar world. His curiosity overcomes his fear, however, when he discovers that many of the native creatures possess the ability to speak and share a common tongue. During his time on Malacandra the professor learns much about the planet and its inhabitants, but even more about his own home, the Earth, and the place of human kind in the universe.

This is an engaging tale, characterized by a sense of wonder and enthusiasm which is too often lacking in newer works of speculative fiction. It is as much a fantasy story as it is science fiction, and with its exploration of the nature of good and evil and its Christian inspired themes it has some resemblance to Lewis’s more familiar Chronicles of Narnia, though it is a more serious, more adult book in many ways.

Out of the Silent Planet is a quick, enjoyable read, that provides much food for thought to those who want it, without weighing down those who would rather do without. It’s also the first book in a trilogy; those who enjoy it will want to continue with it’s successors Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.

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Rocannon’s World by Ursula K. Le Guin []

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Ursula Le Guin’s first novel seamlessly blends science fiction and fantasy. Rocannon, an ethnologist, visits the planet Formalhaut II to study the native culture, and finds himself trapped when his ship is destroyed. In his adventures he rides on the back of giant winged cats, meets the various species inhabiting the planet, some of which have striking similarities to the men, elves, and dwarves of fantasy fiction, and must confront a mysterious presence in a cave. In Rocannon’s World, Le Guin explores the implications of space travel, faster than light communication, and the meeting of alien cultures. A powerful story, appropriate for fans of either genre.

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The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury []

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A science-fiction classic, The Martian Chronicles tells a story of the colonization of Mars through a series of short stories and vignettes. Bradbury imagines Mars as the home of an ancient and beautiful civilization, doomed to fall when it encounters the shortsighted and destructive people of Earth. Despite the gloomy prospects for all involved, Bradbury’s stories are full of humor, and make for a quick and very enjoyable read.

Interestingly, these stories have been the subject of several radio dramas and audio productions; I first encountered them listening to Relic Radio‘s science-fiction podcast, where they are still available to download, and here at the library you can find radio theater versions on audio tape (Old Time Radio: Science Fiction) as well as a long playing record of Leonard Nimoy reading two of the stories (The Martian Chronicles).

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While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. []

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In his touching preface, writer Dave Eggars refers to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. as a “hippie Mark Twain”. Never has Vonnegut’s appeal been described so accurately. While Mortals Sleep features unpublished, short fiction pieces by the Slaughterhouse- Five, Breakfast of Champions and Cats Cradleauthor. This is the second posthumously released collection (the first being Look At the Birdie) and it focuses solely on the author’s early work before receiving literary notoriety. In these stories, we get a preview of themes and tones that will exist later in his most famous writings: mainly bizarro science fiction and his select brand of acerbic wit and humor (this is where we mostly relate his Twain influence).

In these rich stories, we encounter the mother and widow of a fallen World War II soldier, a restless newspaper man who has no time for Christmas and a scientist who falls in love with a talking refrigerator he’s modeled after his ex-wife. These tales from the young author manage to succeed as classic Vonnegut.

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