The Books of Summer, 2008

Paul R. Potts

Update: since writing this, I have read all the Culture novels by the late and Iain M. Banks. They are all interesting. Some are a bit better than others; some are more suitable for Culture beginners, while some will appeal only to people who already understand Banks’ world.

The Player of Games would make, I think, the best introduction to the series, even though it was not the first one published. After that one I suggest reading Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward. If you enjoy those, go back and read the rest in order. Inversions is the odd book out, in that it is a Culture story told from the point of view of a culture encountering the culture as outsiders. Excession is also a little odd in that most of the characters are powerful artificial intelligences, and this can be a bit off-putting. Matter is interesting, but expect to be frustrated by the ending.

While they are not strictly Culture novels, I also recommend Against a Dark Background and The Algebraist, as they are at least compatible with Banks’ world-building in the Culture books. I have never managed to finish reading Feersum Endjinn. The last Culture novel is The Hydrogen Sonata, and it is a wonderful elegy for the series, beautiful and melancholy.

Banks also wrote a number of non-science fiction novels under the name Iain Banks (without the middle initial). I am only just beginning to read these. We lost Banks, who died of cancer at age 59 in 2013, far too soon.

The Library of America’s second volume of Philip K. Dick novels is out, and I bought five copies. Three of them will be given away to friends. I’m tremendously excited to see these novels getting recognition. I’m currently reading Martian Time-Slip. Technically, I’m re-reading it, but it was many years ago and I don’t remember the story very well.

So, what else? I do manage to read, although because I only get occasional bite-sized chunks of time, enough to read perhaps 5 pages, it is slow-going. Finishing novels this way makes them feel slightly disjointed, but it’s what I can manage.

Not long ago I plowed through The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, since it seems like the kind of book I should have read back in middle school. Hugely successful upon release, this book has been largely dismissed as a Tolkien ripoff.

It is definitely that, although there are the seeds of some originality present as well. The biggest problem is that the things it borrows from Tolkien, it robs of significance. When the Gandalf-like character apparently falls to his death, only to reappear later, there’s a prosaic explanation for what happened to him. There’s no real dramatic tension established by this. Most of the Tolkienesque elements are like that. I think most readers and critics would be quite forgiving of a book that borrowed heavily from Tolkien if it did so artfully. I am undecided as to whether I want to dip into any of the later books in this world and see how Brooks developed as a writer. The first one is not a keeper, though; it’s on my giveaway pile.

I wrote a while back about Iain M. Banks and his novel Matter. I vowed to try another of his books, and so I did: I read The Algebraist. That book was notably better, enough so that I’ll consider reading more Banks in the near future. It still suffers a bit from the author’s apparent propensity for setting up very interesting characters and then forgetting about them until he finally gets around to killing them off without much fanfare at the end of the book.

I’m partway through The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds. This is a gothic police procedural set in the Revelation Space universe, and the nice thing about it is that in following the detective format, the storyline is stripped down and much tighter and shorter. I’m a big fan of Reynolds’ sprawling space operas, but it is nice to have a shorter read. I haven’t finished it, but I imagine this would make an excellent introduction to the Revelation Space books, and I’m looking forward to more by Reynolds.

On my pile: Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross, and John Scalzi’s The Last Colony.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
August 4, 2008

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