I do not like book series.

I avoid them, though I’ve been fooled a few times. The Eyre Affair by Joshua Fforde fooled me. I enjoyed it but I did not ever read the second novel in the series. Figuring out about 3/4 of the way through the book that this was an SF detective story with sequels already published took the momentum away. Spoiler Alert: Thursday Next is gonna be fine because she’ll be in the next book; her sidekick and pet dodo will also survive.

Of course there are serial exceptions to my antipathy: Harry Potter, LotR, Sherlock Holmes, and more. These are well-written, excellent books!

Most series, though, fall far short of the standards set by these wildly successful and worthy tomes. Allow me to list the reasons why.

1. Too often, a series’ only purpose to sell more of the author’s books

bookseries1A good book will prompt me to look for more by the same author. It doesn’t have to be a retread of the same book.

Sadly, my patronage doesn’t seem to be enough to keep most writers in business (possibly because I use the library more often than I buy). This could be a trend. So authors and booksellers find new, innovative ways to get readers to buy.

Among both Indie publishers and the big NY houses, a book series is the new black. Authors are taught that this is the path to success, just as they were taught 10 or 20 years ago that they must open their book with a bang to hook the reader, or 80 years ago that they should never end a sentence with a preposition.

Every author who’s ever read a bit of advice on a writers’ site or gone to a seminar knows that the current modus operandi for making money (by which I mean, of course, simply being self-supporting, not necessarily rich) is this:

  1. Write a novel, then a second novel with the same characters and setting, then a third and fourth -— as quickly as you can.
  2. Publish first novel.
  3. After 30 days (at which time it no longer qualifies for Amazon’s Hot New Release list), publish the second book. Make first novel free and advertise the hell out of it.
  4. After another 30 days, release third novel.
  5. Another 30 days, release 4th. By this time you’ve probably bundled novels one and two and are giving the set away.

That’s the way to do it, I’m told.

Never mind quality, editing, proof-reading, or any of those time-sucking dinosaurs. But DO pay for a sexy cover. That sells the book, after all.

These books often make money. They’re sold to people who just want a quick escape with familiar characters who will come out on top in the end. They’re not great literature. Pulp fiction has rarely achieved that status, but who cares?

2. Series volumes are predictable

Unless you are reading George R.R. Martin, you can be fairly certain that the hero of a series will keep escaping the bad guys. The heroine will not get her pretty self killed, the detective will solve the case, and the adventurous youth will grow in wisdom.

And if you are reading George R.R. Martin, you have nothing to do but brush up on your sigils and make bets with fellow readers about whether the book will follow the TV show plots, at least until the next book emerges in, well, whenever. May I suggest you pick up a classic by Robert Heinlein to pass the time?

I digress. The point is that little varies in the formulas of most series books, because the author doesn’t want to change a pattern that works. Most especially in mystery series. Readers supposedly like it that way. No upsets, no surprises . . . .

But a story is not real life! This is the world of imagination and drama! Books should keep you guessing and turning the pages. They should startle you. The last thing a book should ever be is predictable. That’s dull.

I admit, others disagree. My mother read and reread Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books till she died. She loved that they were all so alike, she was never quite sure if she was reading the same one over and over. I think the real reason she kept reading them was that she had a crush on Raymond Burr.

For myself: I DON’T have to know what’s going to happen in the end. In fact, I prefer to be surprised.

lr-short-33. You cannot recreate the wonder, charm, and surprise of the first book

The first time one reads about sandworms and bene gesserits, or Highland mists and romps in the standing stones, or even of societies that rank and order their citizens by whatever part of the color spectrum they can see (Joshua Fforde again), it’s mind-expanding. Magical. Exciting. Like falling in love. Ah, me.

Reading the second book is kind of like going back to the romantic glen that’s become a bit more damp and smelly over the years. The setting is just not as exotic as it was that first time. You’ve seen it, or at least you’ve imagined it all before. Whether it’s intergalactic smugglers, shape-shifting teachers, or romantic, sexual tension, by the second book we’ve been there already.

4. Lately, the first book in a series simply ends half way through (which brings us back to reason #1)

I paid for and downloaded one of the many books my Kindle advertises, even though I knew it was part of a science fiction series. It looked intriguing. What I got was half a book.

The story was fast-paced, the characters, for the most part, believable. I had minor complaints, like blank lines in the middle of scenes (clearly, I was meant to pause here) and hyphens where they didn’t belong, but nothing so awful that I was tempted to stop reading. One of the many characters was in great danger, and shocked by what he saw. Others, in different parts of the world, had barely started their dramatic journeys. Nothing was pointing towards an ending of any kind, but the book stopped. Just like that.

With a big ad for the second book.

That’s sleazy. I can’t think of a better word for it.

I will not buy the second or third book, out of sheer spite for the author. How dare he or she treat a reader that way!

Lord of the Rings, written 70-odd years ago, did stop each book in the middle of the story, though not at a cliffhanger. Resolution did not come till the very end. It was an epic tale told by a master, and really should be viewed as ONE book, too big to be bound. (One book to grab them all, one cover to bind them?)

But unless your last name is Tolkien, do not try this with your own work. It’s manipulative.

Summing Up:

Not all series are lacking in interest, but I don’t read most of them. Ever hear the phrase “So many books, so little time?” That’s the way I feel. There are millions of books out there, but I only have a couple of hours a day to read. I don’t want to waste my time with the second-rate ones.

I want my escapism combined with a story that enriches me. I want to read books by authors that took time with them. Years. If an author hammers out a novel a month, I will avoid him or her like the proverbial boil-producing plague.

I want to thrill over brilliant prose, not obsess over the constant typos, misused words and commas. I want  to feel a character’s angst, not marvel at its libido or derring-do. I want to learn something from each book. Maybe it’s about human nature and resilience, or maybe the author will take me to a world so different and spectacular that I’ll gasp, right there in Starbucks. Maybe I’ll cry.

Do me like that, baby, and I’ll tell all my friends to buy your books. Isn’t that what writers want?

 

00011060A picture-laden post on my other blog, History Los Angeles.

Since a multi-million dollar design was just picked to re-do downtown Los Angeles’ Pershing Square YET AGAIN (jeesh!) I posted a ton of pictures from its first century, the 1850s through the 1950s.

 

I’m watching an episode of Independent Lens on PBS titled.”My Nazi Legacy.”

The narrator/producer (who sounds uncannily like the late Alan Rickman), a lawyer named Philippe Sands, rolls out the story of two men, each born in 1939 to high-ranking Nazis. Both grow to be decent men as far as I can tell, each deeply ashamed of the atrocities their parents were part of.

From Jist News, http://jist.news/my-nazi-legacy-how-two-sons-of-hitlers-trusted-henchmen-and-a-british-lawyer-whose-entire

From Jist News, http://jist.news/my-nazi-legacy-how-two-sons-of-hitlers-trusted-henchmen-and-a-british-lawyer-whose-entire

One man, Nick, grew up hating his father. He carries, to this day, the last photo of his father, taken after the man was hung: a photo of his corpse. Nick has no problem repudiating his father as a killer and monster. In the top left photo, that’s Nick on the right, and his father is shown on the bottom right.

The other man, Horst, is more fragile, living in a fantasy world where his father remains good. Horst believes his father wanted to protect the people in Poland and the Ukraine and that he hoped Hitler would change his mind about the killing of Jews. Horst is sitting in the big photo, and his handsome father is on top right.

Narrator Philippe Sands is in the center of the top left photo. His family lived in the Ukraine. They were Jews. It doesn’t end well: 79 of 80 family members died before the end of the war. Sands’ grandfather, a child, is the only person who survived.

The stories of the two German men are interspersed with family photos and home movies, switching often to film of the home/lake/schloss/town as it is today. Effective and moving. And bleak.

One point of the documentary seems to be to break down Horst. He is so pitiable, trying to hold onto his image of his “good”  father without losing sight of the horrors committed. Sands is coming to grips with the destruction of his family in the Ukraine, and I almost have the impression that he didn’t foresee how deeply he’d feel his role in this story. Sands seems to be trying to keep his distance from his own tragedy, while pushing Horst to accept his.

Sands event talks about this: “When I hear him speak of his father’s good character and actions, I hear him to be justifying the killing of my grandfather’s entire family.”

One scene, filmed at what was the synagogue in Zhovkva, Ukraine where Sands’ family prayed, has much emotion held at bay. The centuries-old structure is empty. No Jews are left to fill it. They were all killed or driven out 70 years ago, and that includes Sands’ family. Horst insists that he can feel the place will be filled again. No one can break that protective image. But Sands is also keeping reality from crushing him, arguing with Horst like a lawyer.

It is Nick, so direct, who asks Sands what he is feeling here. And Sands answers by describing scenes he must have played in his mind over and over. Anger comes out, but still controlled. He is always the lawyer, putting words between himself and the darkness.

I really like Nick, incidentally. Nick has a bit of his hated father’s grandiosity, in a good way. He doesn’t mind the camera, the attention. He is self-confident, and despises the old man with an uncomplicated rancor that is almost refreshing.

No one could make these characters up. Their story eats at me.

Another Father & Son from Nazi Germany

untitledThey remind me a little of the son of a Nazi art dealer that you may remember. Hildebrand Gurlitt (right) was was the art dealer, one quarter Jewish. He nevertheless became a valued procurer for Hitler and his projected showplace of art in Linz. Gurlitt survived the war; he used his hidden Jewish heritage and played the victim after the war–poor me, I was only trying to survive. I lost so much because of the Nazis. I helped so many Jews by buying their art so they could get money to leave the country . . . but he made a HUGE fortune, paying pennies on the dollar (or franc) for valuable art, taking advantage of desperate families who had to get away from the Nazis.

Gurlitt died in the 1950s in a car accident. You can read about him here — actually, this is a review of a new book about him, but it lays out the bare bones of his story.

His son, Cornelius, barely a teen when the war ended, held onto his father’s art for years. He’s really the one I’d expect you to remember, even though Gurlitt was mentioned in books like The Monuments Men. (Now, of course, he is the topic of a couple of books for sale on Amazon.)

gurlitt_2902847bCornelius was “discovered” by the authorities and by the media around five years ago when he was on a train. He had a great sum of money. That’s not a crime but it is suspicious. He lived off the grid in Germany–got no pensions, no health care, etc. –I think he didn’t even had a bank account. So the authorities investigated. They were looking for tax evasion crimes. Instead, they found a cache of treasured art in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment worth around a billion euros.

Articles refer to him as socially autistic. For most of his 80 years, Cornelius protected, hoarded, and reveled in the art collection left by his father. Once he was discovered, he quickly sickened and died, broken perhaps. He insisted that his father had fairly paid for all the art, saving it, and that it was not looted.

I should mention that of the more than 1400 works of art, only four have been declared “looted.” Cornelius left it all to a museum, which is taking great pains to prove or disprove whether the art was stolen..

So what does that tell us? That the sins of the father continue to haunt, even cripple their children.

Like many kids, I used to pretend my Daddy was president. Cause I thought he was wonderful and I wanted to live in the White House like Caroline Kennedy. But what if your father was a Nazi? What if you were a fairly decent person who had to deal with that?

I feel for Horst and for Cornelius. Is it a crime to try and protect the childish image of your father as a good and praiseworthy man? To me, Horst and Cornelius just never grew up. I bet there are many men like them, who never grew out of idolizing their fathers. But we hear about these two men because their fathers accommodated Hitler.

My dad was a carpenter who never could have gotten elected to the City Council, let alone be president. Lucky me.

My Life on the Road and
Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles

Lookee! I read what Emma Watson read & You Can Too!

Lookee! I read what Emma Watson read & You Can Too!

Gloria Steinem’s new memoir, A Life on the Road, surprised me. All I knew about Steinem was her role as an early and eloquent, no-nonsense spokesperson for feminism, and the founder of Ms Magazine. I had no idea how she’d become one of the major faces of the women’s lib movement in the 60s and 70s. Now I do.

This book is not about feminism, though. It’s about growing up with a loving father who spent 3/4 of the year on the road – with his family, towing a travel trailer. It tells how Steinem became a touring public speaker, how her experiences shaped her and what she’s learned from them. She was present at Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and was involved in political campaigns for the Kennedys as a journalist and a volunteer. Mostly, though, she writes about brief encounters with college students and cab drivers—the small incidents that make up her life.

Steinem doesn’t drive. She says: “… being isolated in a car was not always or even usually the most rewarding way to travel. I would miss talking to my fellow travelers or looking out the window. How could I enjoy getting there when I couldn’t pay attention?”

And paying attention — listening — is important. I have a notebook page full of quotes from the book, but this one shows up in other reviews: “One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak.”

David Ulin reads his book at Vermin on the Mount.(gosrskypress.bandcamp.com)

David Ulin reads his book at Vermin on the Mount.(gosrskypress.bandcamp.com)

David L. Ulin is the former book critic of the Los Angeles Times and writes for many magazines. Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles is a collection of his own essays about walking in L.A. It is not about our city, but about the concept of our city; not about the streets and local history but about how we view those things. I felt as if I weren’t the target audience, in spite of my love for Los Angeles history. I suspect the book was written more for academics. For example, he sketches, very quickly, a few facts about  Angel’s Flight or the St. Francis Dam disaster, just a sentence or two to support his point about  L.A.’s changing self-concept. If you know the history already, that may be enough. If you don’t know it, though, the book is frustrating.

Ulin’s thesis is interesting: that streets in L.A. are private spaces masquerading as public spaces. We make them private because we travel them enclosed in our cars, never making contact with street life itself.

While he convinced me and I agree, it’s odd, isn’t it, that his presentation lacks personal contact, and keeps readers at a distance.

Steinem’s thesis seems to be that the road one travels keeps one human, no matter the vehicle.

Ulin’s book is about ideas: how do we define and experience our cities and roads? Steinem’s is about personal encounters that make up a life on the road.

Very different books, but with this message in common: You can’t know a neighborhood, a city, or a country by driving through it. You must get out of your car.

(This review — or most of it — was first published in the monthly newsletter LA Mentary)

This morning I saw two mockingbirds fighting a scrub jay above me. They were balancing on cables and tree branches. The mockingbirds would jump and lift off, the way they do when wanting attention, then settle back. The jay was like a bulldog, just ramming and shoving them.

I wonder what the birds thought of the fight?

Have you ever passed an accident and seen a kid, barely old enough to drive, standing on the curb, in acute distress? A girl, hands over her face, crying? Or a guy, hands on his head? OhMyGodMyDadIsGoingToKillMe! OhMyGodHowCouldThisHappen!  You know exactly how they feel. We’ve all been there. You ache for them, poor babies. Yes, honey, this is they worst day ever. You’ll survive.

Well, I wonder if those two mockingbirds are huddling together tonight. Was their nest destroyed? Are they thinking OhMyGodThisIsTheWorstDayEver? Do birds have context for those kind of thoughts? Do they remember this morning?

Just wondering.

Around three weeks ago, I put up my list of the classics of Science Fiction that all fans of the genre should read. I promised a Part II.

Was I nuts? It’s easy to look back a century or more, because time has winnowed the list of novels to something manageable. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; anyone would have come up with those guys! Then there’s Heinlein the Great,Neuromancer and Dune. Simple.

Gazillions of other SF books have been published. How on earth do I build a Part II?

WIth great trepidation and a bucket full of caveats. I haven’t read everything. I wasn’t always paying attention when I read. And what makes classic or great SF is hardly a settled definition; everyone’s got their own opinions.

This is not a list of my favorites, but rather the books that I think had the biggest impact on the world. These novels expanded our minds and pushed our self-imposed boundaries of what might be a little further.

  • 11984coversega8984 by George Orwell introduced us to Big Brother and the idea of mind control by a less-than-benevolent government. Orwell wrote it in 1949 when the title year seemed far away. As 1984 approached, post Viet Nam and post Watergate cover-up, the novel’s warnings began to look less crazy and more plausible. 1984  gave us concepts like newspeak, Big Brother, and thought police, and showed us how our horizons can be controlled, our history rewritten by media, and our lives shrunken to fit the boundaries set out for us.
  • 41ALV5fomnL._AA160_Atlas Shrugged is science fiction, a fact that many of Ayn Rand’s fans forget. Published in 1957 (though it took years to write) it’s set in a dystopian world, with this twist: instead of beginning her story after a cataclysmic, world-destroying event as most novels do, we are plunged into a the middle of the world’s destruction, following heroes that are trying to save it, one way or another. Rand’s world does not seem futuristic to us; Atlas Shrugged was written when trains, rather than planes, were the preferred method of travel, when smoking was fun, and when most women aspired to hook themselves to a strong, protective male, rather than strike out on their own. So it’s a period piece as well as an expression of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy — and a rollicking, imaginative story.
  • found1asIsaac Asimov’s Foundation, the first novel of a series, stands like a glimmering gateway into mounds of mid-century SF, where men are men and women are perky. Can the future be foretold based on the mathematical reading of trends? What can upset those readings? I was debating whether to include the Foundation Series in this book, wondering how to measure its influence, and then I read this 2012 quote by Nobel-prize-winner Paul Krugman:  “I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.” The fictional Seldon, of course, is the founding father of psychohistory, the science which guides the worlds in the Foundation Trilogy to survive the collapse of their empire and the ensuing Dark Ages.
  • left-hand-of-darknessUrsula LeGuin’s gender-bending The Left Hand of Darkness implied that physical sexuality might be expressed differently on other planets and that male and female were not the only categories. Released in 1969, when men and women were beginning to question what gender actually had to do with their choices and lives, and books were beginning to switch from using masculine pronouns for everyone (remember that?) The only explosions in LeGuin’s books were our stereotypes going “boom!” This book won the Nebula and Hugo and has always been highly praised.
  • 1125325The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy showed us that SF could be more than fun, it could be downright hilarious. It could be irreverent and satirical. We could laugh over the earth’s demolition for an intergalactic superhighway and the ridiculousness of life. Would we have been ready for the Disc World books by Terry Pratchett without the Hitchhiker series? Or any of Jasper Fforde’s wild tales? Dunno, and don’t want to find out. SF that makes me laugh out loud in a restaurant and not care how crazy I look is to be treasured as a giant step forward for all.

Shall I continue? I’m debating the inclusion of alternate history, but is that really science fiction? Probably not. How could I leave out Ray Bradbury? Andre Norton? Anne McAffrey? and on and on — but this list is for the books with the biggest impact, not the bodies of work by incredible authors.

If you want more (and why shouldn’t you?) just google “most influential science fiction.” I did, several times, and ended up with a huge to-read list. So maybe next year there will be a Part III.

 

 

12932884_1598507900468945_613133606886174276_nWhy do we act against our own best interest?

I could have gone to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this weekend. Like my friend Lynn to the right. See how happy she is?

I meant to go, but I didn’t volunteer to do booth duty anywhere, so I didn’t have a solemn commitment. And someone asked me to work for them somewhere else, and it was drizzly, and my daughter asked me to babysit, and my car is not so reliable that I just jump in and go like I used to . . .

Man, I’ve got a ton of excuses. Now, pictures of people I know having a great time are showing up all over Facebook and Twitter and I’m realizing I blew it.

Cfp7q9vUMAAHCS9I could’ve gone to one of these great panels that folks are tweeting about. Panels I would pay money for and they’re free and all I had to do was show up!

Last year I listened to John Scalzi talk about the new Red Shirts TV series. I remember in the 90s that I sat in while Tony Hillerman was interviewed, and another time I spent half the day in line to get an autograph from my daughter’s favorite author Dean Koontz. (That poor man signed every darn book for hours, and was gracious and funny the whole time, btw,) I had a blast.

CfqEcvKUAAASvhM

Robin Quinn tweeted these last two photos. That’s her on the left with fellow writer Esther Pearlman. See that big smile?

My big complaint about the Festival of Books is how crowded it gets, because it’s always on a sunny, beautiful weekend. This would have been the perfect time to go!

I have to learn this lesson every decade or so. Once I was invited to fly to France with a couple and share their vacation. I didn’t go because, well, I’d just taken a long vacation and I couldn’t rationalize the expense and I had all these responsibilities and blah-blah-blah. Then my friends returned with stories and pictures and bottles of Calvados, and I realized that a gift had been held out to me, and I’d turned up my nose.

I got it; I wrote about it: that lost chance was a lesson I’d never forget . . . but I do forget it, often.

Why are we not more opportunistic, in a good way?

I’d kick myself, but I’m averse to pain.

A long, long time ago, there was but one phone company.

One.

We called it Ma Bell, though there were names based on geography: Atlantic Telephone and Telegraph, Pacific Bell, Southwestern Bell, etc. But rest assured, it was one entity. In the 1970s, the courts decided that Ma Bell, in the guise of AT&T and Western Electric, constituted a monopoly under the Sherman Antitrust Act. The 1980s saw the break up of the phone companies, and consumers were vexed, verily.

We had to change! We hates change! We had to select a long distance company, of all things, and dozens of companies were charging multiple rates to different countries during night, day, and business hours. If you chose unwisely you threw your money away or were gouged for placing calls at premium hours. We moved from vexed to wroth.

We were wroth!

And in the midst of such turmoil I recall saying, to all who would listen, that we should have expected this mess. After all, we’d let the courts disable a perfectly good system, one that Ma Bell had set up over decades. It had been in The Phone Company’s best interest to keep equipment in good order and to invest in infrastructure, because they were the ones who’d reap the profits, right? Now, having to share equipment with a bunch of startups — well, what could you expect?

I’d just read Atlas Shrugged, and thought that stood to reason. Take away a company’s reason for operating efficiently, force them to share profits with the unworthy, and you have chaos. Chaos! Hell-in-a-hand-basket chaos!

We should have left Ma Bell alone!

Of course, a few more years passed. Bring on cable TV, underground fiber optic cable, satellite reception, the internet, computers in every home, cell phones in every pocket, and it’s clear: Ma Bell was monolithic block of granite standing on what was about to become the information superhighway. It needed to be dynamited, and dynamited it was.

Two things to learn from this anecdote:

  1. As a prognosticator, I suck. Do not ever ask me to predict anything.
  2. Big big companies can become so traditional and hidebound that they stagnate. It maybe easier, because we still hates changes, but in the long run we cannot just allow them to go on calling the shots. They may begin to rot from the inside.

And so … in Southern California, for the past couple of months, our local news has been dominated by the screw up of another hidebound monolithic utility, Southern California Gas, a part of Sempra Energy. As Angelenos have seen on TV each night, schools closed and thousands of residents have been forced from their Porter Ranch homes because of the worst gas leak in the nation’s history.

For weeks, the Gas Company did nothing. NOTHING. They insisted the gas was not harmful, and when they were forced to pay for housing for those who did not wish to breathe in noxious fumes that made them ill (namby-pamby complainers!) they finally roused themselves to work on stopping the leak.

Turns out they were not using their aging equipment in the safest way possible. Go figure. Turns out there are dozens of such aging containers, also being used in less than the safest way possible, all over the place. Hmph. Turns out the Gas Company doesn’t give a fig about public safety, and no one in the state bureaucracy is calling them to account for that … so why should they care?

Now, the leak has finally been capped. The Gas Company says everything is done, and please stop bothering them. Well, OK, they didn’t actually say that. They just act like that’s what they’re thinking.

This gigantic utility has tried to wriggle out of paying for any extra days to allow people to move back home. They’ve capped the leak, things are fine, trust us and stop lollygagging. They went to court to get out of paying for any extra days of housing for displaced residents. That battle is still being waged, because folks in Porter Ranch say they’re still getting sick and the Gas Company is being forced to conduct tests.

Forced? As in, they poisoned the air with 100,000 tons of methane (that measure is from the Los Angeles Times; I am not exaggerating for once) and made everyone sick and now they don’t think they should have to run any tests? That we should just take their word that the air is not filled with contaminants when said contaminants coat the surfaces of playground equipment?

And here’s what’s so unbelievably rich: The CEO of Sempra Energy just got a $3.17 million bonus!

‘scuse me?

“It’s an outrageous abdication of responsibility,” is the way one consulting firm put it. Now, that firm is probably representing the residents so their statement may be biased. But I don’t represent anyone, and I am biased. Being appalled is a bias, right? Being disgusted? Being indignant over the unethical behavior of the Gas Company biases me.

What is my dream outcome of this unwholesome drama? Well, I’d like to see some handcuffed suits do the perp walk from their lovely executive offices to jail. Seriously.

A public utility is supposed to serve the public. Being monumentally callous about the public health, about families getting sick and testing the air after an accident, and about the risks posed by aging containers seems criminally negligent to me. Or, as Michael Hiltzik puts it in the Times, One would think that operating safely is Job One at a gas utility and a major debacle that lands in the record books would be a major black mark for corporate management.

Maybe we shouldn’t have stopped with the Phone Company back in the 70s and 80s. Maybe all those big utilities should have been dynamited.

Thank you for letting me get that off my chest.

Don’t you hate it when you can’t sleep because your head won’t shut up? It’s my brain, in my body, so I should be able to exert control over it, right? It doesn’t work that way. Judging by the epidemic insomnia of my generation, no one’s brain works that way. Rude little buggers.

Since I’m so alert, I decide to read. Here’s what I see:

“Strictly speaking, you don’t think. Thinking happens to you. The statement “I think” implies volition. It implies that you have a say in the matter, that there is a choice involved on your part. For most people, this is not yet the case. “I think” is just as false a statement as “I digest” or “I circulate my blood.” Digestion happens, circulation happens, thinking happens.

“The voice in the head has a life of its own. Most people are at the mercy of that voice …

At last, someone gets it right. Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth.

320x240Here’s the second quote. It comes from Nog, the first Ferengi cadet in Star Fleet.

In Deep Space Nine, Nog tells Chief O’Brien that he must have faith in the Great Material Continuum. Nog follows up with a definition of the Great Material Continuum, the deep philosophy behind the Rules of Acquisition and Ferengi ethos.  It’s absolutely beautiful so I’ve included the YouTube link below the quote.

“It’s the force that binds the universe together … There are millions upon millions of worlds in the universe, each one filled with too much of one thing and not enough of another. And the Great Continuum flows through them like a mighty river, from have to want and back again. And if we navigate the Continuum with skill and grace, our ship will be filled with everything our hearts desire. 

“The river will provide.”

Better than The Secret, huh?

New science fiction is wonderful. I love John Scalzi, Joshua Fforde, Hugh Howey, and all the rest. But as with any genre, you get more out of a book if you know the classics that came before it.

John Scalzi, for example, makes old ideas fresh, with twists on themes that you never realized were old until he shined them up so pretty. Old Man’s War is even more fun if you know Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

from Sergeij Zwaan's design site: https://sergejzwaanid.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/futursitic-design-versus-science-fiction-design-1/

from Sergeij Zwaan’s design site: https://sergejzwaanid.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/futursitic-design-versus-science-fiction-design-1/

A second reason for reading the classics is that the authors of these books have literally shaped the future they write about.

Social barriers broke down and new ideas gained strength because readers discovered them in great books. Science fiction can play with our minds in a way that nonfiction can’t. It’s one thing to see a mystifying new feat of engineering announced on the news. We don’t even understand it half the time. But in a novel, we get to see what a new thought or invention could do. We can fly through black holes, meld with machines, or rebuild society from the ground up. And that gives us ideas for the real world.

FoodCardsLike Star Trek in the 60s with its little 3.5 inch square computer diskettes, or Deep Space 9 in the early 90s where everybody held a 5 by 7 inch computer that anyone today would recognize as an iPad .  . .  Yeah, that’s why those particular designs ended up in those sizes.  And that is Majel Barrett Roddenberry holding them.

So, this is my list of the best, most classic SF books, for all lovers of the genre. I do not include fantasy. I am inserting links to Amazon’s most economical editions, just in case you can’t wait. And these are not numbered, because that implies best to least, which is not true.

Jules Verne comes first, because he IS the Father of Science Fiction. He wrote wild adventures before anyone thought of calling them science fiction:a Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. . .  pick one, any one! In fact, you can download The Collected Works of Jules Verne: 36 Novels and Short Stories (Unexpurgated Edition) to your Kindle for $1.99. Think of it — all those great stories that you read in abridged, illustrated form when you were a child can be yours to enjoy for just two bucks!

If you’ve never read Jules Verne — or if you’ve only read the comics or seen movies based on his books — you’ll be surprised at just how engaging and exciting the books actually are. The man could tell a story. He sets a fast pace and throws in all the scientific jargon and measurements of his day, some real and some fictionalized. There’s a reason these books have enthralled generations of readers for over a century. They are GOOD.

So pick one of his stories and enjoy.

First US Edition. Clearly, flashy covers were not invented in the 19th century.

First US Edition. Clearly, flashy covers were not invented in the 19th century.

Next, The Time Machine (Dover Thrift Editions) by H. G. Wells. It’s 120 years old but I think it’s the first time travel book ever. Every such adventure since owes something to The Time Machine, because every author since has tried to either create the same Victorian thrill, or something completely different.  According to this Wired article, “Rise of the Machines: Why We Keep Coming Back to the H. G. Wells’ Version of a Dystopian Future,” all dystopian literature goes back to The Time Machine, which H. G. Wells intended as a warning against the unprincipled use of power that science and technology bring. So there.

Also, many TV shows, movies, and modern books — like the wonderful The Map of Time: A Novel by Felix J. Palma — make reference to it in a big way. To be truly well read, you should familiarize yourself with the book.

61bNxPgMY6L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Wells was no slouch; his The War of The Worlds (this link goes right to the .99 Kindle version) came out three years after The Time Machine, in 1898. This is the book behind Orson Welles’ famous Halloween broadcast of 1938 — the radio show that had all America believing that aliens had attacked Earth. Again, with so many movies, books, and TV shows drawing on the book for inspiration, it’s a must for SF fans.

Moving on.

In an early episode of MASH, Hawkeye coaches Radar on how to talk to a nurse who loves classical music. You know, Mozart, Bach, all the biggies. Hawkeye says,  “Bach is easy. If she brings him up you just smile and say, “Ah . . . Bach.” ”

So, “Ah . . .  Heinlein.”

81Nb2a+4epLTwo books from Robert Heinlein are on my list, although he wrote many more and all are great. The first, Stranger in a Strange Land (Remembering Tomorrow) would be tops to almost anybody. How would a human raised by aliens on Mars  react when he is finally brought to Earth? He understands so little, but his piercing insights into our quirks are profound, even troubling.

Since the novel is set in a future century, there are many innovations that I’ve been waiting decades to see — including a career path I’d love: that of a professional witness. In Heinlein’s near-future, all technology can be compromised; no system is hackproof. In the end, we’ve come to realize that only trained individuals of impeccable honesty can be trusted to relate the truth of so many events. I still want to be a professional witness when I grow up.

The book won a Hugo Award in 1963: Heinlein’s third.

Starship_Troopers_(novel)Stranger in a Strange Land lets us see everything through the eyes of a naive outsider, but not all of Heinlein’s work paints so broad and complex a picture. The second Heinlein book I’d recommend is Starship Troopers, another Hugo winner. In a way, this is just a straightforward account of a future soldier’s life. But through his eyes, we learn how a military force has become ensconced into a special niche, how it protects, how it must be separate from all other types of society. Heinlein goes deep, but he is always fascinating and entertaining.

And you cannot help but love his heroes.

Neuromancer_(Book)One book I did not love is Neuromancer by William Gibson. It’s got lots of violence, tough-guy talk, and the action takes place in a seedy, flashy, dog-eat-dog world. But doesn’t that describe a lot of video games? Neuromancer coined the word Cyberspace. The main character is a down-on-his-luck hacker who gets caught up in a web of corporate giants who have blurred the line between reality and the virtual matrix in their battles for control.

Won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick Award in 1984. So the fact that I had trouble caring about the self-serving central characters doesn’t mean diddly. This novel invented cyberpunk, and is well worth your attention.

tumblr_m589qrFffi1qbaom0The last must-read novel on this short list is Dune by Frank Herbert. Dune and its follow-up books knocked Lord of the Rings out of its long-held number one position on all lists of fantasy and SF. Blending mysticism and science in galaxies where science has become, in effect, magic, Dune presents flawed heroes, bloated villains, and concepts that I could not even imagine when I first read of them back in the early 70s.  Superstition is as big a factor as science, and corporate greed and feudalism (with noble houses on top) run the universe. Ecology and the wasting of worlds is a major theme.

George Lucas used a lot of the imagery and ideas from Dune in his own Star Wars movies, which gives readers an advantage when tossing out bits of trivia during screenings. “Sand worms — know where Lucas got that idea?” Now you do.

Stay tuned for Part II …