Nerd Book Roll Call

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Posted by Rorie (5819 posts) -


I been reading a bunch of stuff lately and I figured I’d write some stuff down about it in case anyone was interested. Most of what I’ve been throwing on the Kindle lately has been in the vein of escapist sci-fi, which, you know, maybe it’s easy to forgive a little escapism right about now. I was a little surprised, actually, to find out that I had already read five of the six Hugo novel nominees before the list even came out; I’m generally a few years behind the curve with recent fiction. I generally liked all of the books on that list (the N.K. Jemisin one I haven’t tackled) and I’d firmly recommend any of them as a Kindle sample. Note that the Yoon Ha Lee book is the second entry in a trilogy, though, and would be really confusing to tackle if you go to it before The Ninefox Gambit, which in itself was a bit confusing to me until I realized that it wasn’t so much science fiction as it was “sci-fi with some magic thrown in.” Still a good book!

Anyway, I was thinking recently of sci-fi books with Big Ideas and have been trying to sample the recent literary landscape to see what popped up. I love a book that extrapolates current scientific thinking into something truly epic in scope (e.g. the purpose of the Inhibitors in Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space books) or has a great twist at the end (e.g. Ender’s Game). Maybe my favorite of all of these is Robert Sawyer’s Starplex, which I read serialized in Fantasy & Science Fiction maybe 25 years or so ago. In it, humanity has spread to the stars thanks to discovering a network of instant-travel wormholes. Imagine their surprise when stars start popping out of them! Like, whole stars, still burning. In the end they discover that the wormhole network was built by humanity billions of years in the future with the idea that if they sent enough mass back in time that they would be able to halt the expansion of the universe and send it to equilibrium. Now that’s an Idea.

In addition to all the below, I’ve recently re-read all of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series (since I had the paperbacks) and enjoyed them again, and I finished off the Culture series by going back to a book I had skipped the first time around (Matter, which starts off with a couple of extended sequences that make the book seem more fantasy-based until you get about a third of the way through). I can’t recommend the Culture stuff highly enough to anyone looking for some smart, well-written sci-fi, and as with The Expanse I’d read the books before the Amazon series gets started. Also pretty much everything that Alastair Reynolds has put out is great, with especial emphasis on that Revelation Space series.

At any rate, these aren’t really going to be book reports or anything; I like going into books without knowing much about them, but I figure almost everyone has the ability to get Kindle samples now whether via an actual Kindle or the phone app, so do your thing if these sound intriguing.

The Murderbot Diaries: All Systems Red

You ever read something and go: “aw yeah, I’m going to find everything else this person has written and read it all?” That’s happened with me a few times before: Kim Stanley Robinson Red Mars, Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, the first book of The Expanse (mostly relating to Daniel Abraham’s stuff, which is all pretty fantastic), and over the last couple of years I’ve absorbed pretty much everything Iain Banks and Alastair Reynolds have published. I got that itch when I read through this novella about a cyborg security bot trying to protect a group of surveyors on an uninhabited planet.

Martha Wells has probably written more than I’ll be able to get through in any reasonable amount of time, and most of it seems to be fantasy which I’m not the hugest fan of, but I really dug this short book (despite the silly name), and I’ve tracked down some of her other stuff to give that a whirl as well. I already checked out the first novella follow-up that came out, with two more (!) on the way this year. I’m also about halfway through The Death of the Necromancer since it was like three bucks on Kindle and I’m enjoying learning all kinds of old-timey words for carriages and furniture since it’s set in an essentially Victorian-era world except there are sorcerers. Like I said, not the biggest fan of fantasy stuff, but if The Expanse led me to the Dagger and the Coin series, which I loved, I figured I could give this a whirl. I realized after I started it that it was the middle book in a series, which I usually hate doing, but I’m too far in now to stop.

The Golden Compass trilogy

I never read these when they came around; I was reminded of them when this review in the LRB decided to go out of its way to trash Harry Potter en route to saying that the Pullman books were the ne plus ultra of modern YA fantasy. Bold words! I enjoyed the trilogy well enough on the surface level; things move along fairly quickly, there are armored bears and hot air balloons, unexpected deaths and sweeping battles, etc., etc. The notion of a YA fantasy series where the stated goal of one of the major characters is to kill God himself is a pretty bold one, to boot. (I assume some parents got to the more explicit parts of this in the third book and wondered what they were reading to their kids. I remember when I worked in a bookstore a parent asked me if we had anything “like Harry Potter...but without all that witchcraft.” These would not be the books for her.)

It’s an interesting tale and it’s well-told, with a bit of Tolstoy-ish flair to the inner thoughts of the characters, especially Lyra, who comes across as a bit of a Natasha as she wanders through various planes in search of her father. But I have to admit that the amount of symbolism is a bit wearying to interpret after a while. As a play on Paradise Lost (which I admit I’ve never read all the way through), it’s nice to know that Lyra and Will are based on Adam and Eve, but after a while I wasn’t sure what elements of the books were supposed to be religious references or symbols and what was just in there as part of the narrative, to be taken at face value. Like, what’s up with those mulefa? Is the intention craft supposed to be a play on something biblical? I feel like a failure even as a lapsed Catholic to not grok everything that I should be, but whatever; it’s decent reading in the end, but I’m not sure if I’m curious enough to go on to the recent new book he published in the series.

The Gone World

I tweeted about this recently, but you do really probably deserve it to check out a kindle sample of this if you’re at all interested in dark sci-fi. The prologue alone features the end of the world creeping backwards through time to end the world, as malevolent alien forces come to Earth and crucify the entire population on their own bodies, if they aren’t lucky enough to be forced into running into the ocean and drowning themselves. It’s some creepy shit from the get-go and it only twists further down the spiral before wrapping around to a truly weird climax. I would never even consider mixing a police procedural set in rural America with spaceships that time travel on quantum foam, but I guess it's a good thing I'm not Tom Sweterlitsch.

The publisher is really pushing a quote that describes it as “Inception meets True Detective,” which I get as a pithy way of summing up a complicated book, but more than anything it gave me the same kind of creeping dread as House of Leaves did (the “let’s explore a house that’s bigger on the inside than the outside” parts, not the “I banged so many girls I got the clap” parts). Highly recommended and I look forward to trying some more of Sweterlitsch’s stuff, even if he only has one other book available at the moment.

The Three-Body Problem

I realize everyone went to Bonerville when this came out, and the eventual reveal of what’s truly going on is pretty interesting, but it’s so stiffly written (or perhaps translated) that I had a difficult time getting through it. I realize a lot of contemporary Chinese writing is couched in code words and such to get by censors, but stylistically this just didn’t do much for me and I doubt I will continue on to the next two books.

Six Wakes

This is another one of those books that hits you with a great concept at the outset and just runs with it: a sleeper ship populated entirely by clones is hit with tragedy when they all wake up in fresh bodies, surrounded by the horribly mutilated corpses of the former iterations of their selves. No one has any idea what happened and, in fact, they’re all missing decades of memories. It’s a great setup that I wasn’t aware was influenced by FTL, of all things, until I read the afternotes. Some of the dialogue doesn’t always strike me as true-to-life, but then I guess life would be pretty weird if you were a clone that couldn’t figure out how your body got murdered.

Embers of War

Another good hard-ish sci-fi book that revolves around an intelligent warship that’s ordered to commit a genocide to end a war and then attempts to live out its life as a rescue ship. Will it be able to stick to the straight and narrow life, or will it be drawn back into war against its wishes? Spoilers: there are some great space battle scenes at the end of the book that are well worth making your way through the sometimes meandering storyline that leads up to them. Some of the interpersonal conflicts between the human characters also seem a bit forced, but I liked Trouble Dog and the overall plot well enough to compensate for that.

I’m just now learning that Gareth Powell wrote a book called Ack-Ack Macaque which is described thusly:

Life is good for Ack-Ack Macaque. Every day the cynical, cigar-chomping, hard-drinking monkey climbs into his Spitfire to do battle with the waves of German ninjas parachuting over the gentle fields of Kent. But life is not all the joyous rattle of machine guns and the roar of the engine, as Ack-Ack is about to find out…

Because it is not 1944. It is the 21st century, in a world where France and Germany merged in the late 1950s, where nuclear-powered Zeppelins circle the globe, where technology is rapidly changing humanity, and Ack-Ack has lived his whole life in a videogame.

I guess I know what I’m reading next.

Children of Time

This one rotates around another sleeper ship on a journey through the stars, carrying possibly the last remnants of the human race as they head toward a planet they thought had been terraformed to make way for their arrival. The characters enter and exit hypersleep multiple times as they attempt to survive, all while the planet that should be their inheritance is taken over by creatures that are somewhat inhospitable to their arrival. This is probably a little bit longer than it needed to be, and Tchaikovsky might have done a little too good of a job at making the planet’s denizens foreign to a human sensibility, as it’s a little difficult to care about their individual fates. But it’s still another good example of a book with a big scope to it.

And that's what I've been reading! I just started on the last book in the Yoon Ha Lee trilogy, so I have that going for me, and I very seriously just did buy the Ack-Ack Macaque book, so I guess I'm set on reading for a while.

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#1 Posted by jhevans51 (145 posts) -

If you’d like to read something funny, I highly recommend Space Opera by Catherynne Valente. Imagine if Eurovision determined the fate of planets in the solar system and you get the idea.

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#2 Posted by sparky_buzzsaw (8916 posts) -

I'm way, way behind on sci-fi from the last eight years or so (fantasy too, come to think of it), but these sound good. I did read the His Dark Materials trilogy and wound up very literally chucking the third book across a room - there's only so much existentialism-for-the-sake-of-existentialism I can handle in a book (see also: Catcher in the Rye, which I loathe, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). Didn't hate the writing style, though. Very evocative.

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#3 Posted by Rorie (5819 posts) -

I'm way, way behind on sci-fi from the last eight years or so (fantasy too, come to think of it), but these sound good. I did read the His Dark Materials trilogy and wound up very literally chucking the third book across a room - there's only so much existentialism-for-the-sake-of-existentialism I can handle in a book (see also: Catcher in the Rye, which I loathe, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). Didn't hate the writing style, though. Very evocative.

They struck me as being from someone who's obviously very smart and educated who couldn't help himself but embiggen everything with smartness. The endless dream sequences especially felt overwrought. They especially seemed overwritten compared to the Harry Potter stuff, which is accessible and page-turner-y for pretty much every age.

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#4 Edited by MerxWorx01 (873 posts) -

@rorie:I love the string of books you've posted, its literally my Amazon Kindle recommendations list. Still reading through the first Martha Wells "All Systems Red" and The Children of Time. The Three Body Problem looks incredibly dense and I don't think I have the gusto to get through it right now. I recall you mentioned Alistair Reynolds novels previously, loved most of the Revelation trilogy myself even if the third one was not exactly how I wanted it to end. If you are still looking for some good Reynolds stuff and haven't read everything he's done, I would try to check out "Pushing Ice" and "Century rain". Pushing Ice is like a blue collar drilling operation being run by two women; an engineer and a company manager who happen to drill and salvage resources from comets. They accept a job to mine the surface Saturn only to find they were conned into activating something on the planet and thrusting humanity as a whole into a massive conflict far from home. Century Rain is part noir story, part mystery somehow taking place in 1940's France and in 23rd Century earth. These are my suggestions and I will add that I would avoid "Slow Bullets" and "House of Suns" which in my opinion were a bit lackluster. I haven't read any Poseidon's Wake or Revenger but I will eventually get to it, both are supposedly pretty good.

Also just a tip that I'm just noticing now is that GoodReads is attached to Kindle and their Blurbs seem to hold some spoilers, I would try to avoid Book Pages till you've finished it's subject title.

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#5 Posted by Rorie (5819 posts) -

@merxworx01: I know I've read the ice-mining one but I don't think I've read Century Rain; I'll check it out! I actually liked House of Suns a bunch if only for the weird tech stuff going on. I think Alaistair Reynold's idea of most civilizations becoming gods when they get far enough advanced is a bit more compelling than Reynolds', though; I just can't imagine humanity running around in flesh-and-blood bodies when we actually manage to make it out to the stars, but I could be wrong.

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#6 Edited by sparky_buzzsaw (8916 posts) -

@rorie: Very much so. I'm reading American Gods at the moment and I like Gaiman's dream sequences, since they both seem to build character and introduce some interesting plot developments at the same time - plus they spare the reader a lot of the nonessentials. Dreams and hallucinations are tricky business.

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#7 Posted by jinxplayer (24 posts) -

Thanks for this @rorie. I too am of mind that Alastair Reynolds is the master of hard sci-fi these days.

I was looking for some similar things, and gave Stephen Baxter a try with the Raft. It was OK, but it felt more fantasy than it did hard sci-fi. I started in on the 2nd book of that series, and I don't think I have it in me to read more. I think the idea of Space Whales, while novel, is not really grounded in what some experts in the field call "reality"..

I gave 2001: A Space Odyssey a read, and finally understand what is going on in the movie in a lot of the sequences. Nice to have some narration to the exact things that the Obelisk had to offer the monkeys in the beginning.

I need to read all of Clarke, I say to myself more and more, when lamenting the lack of a modern day equal to him and Reynolds. I think the movie is even more brilliant now than I did before, but that is still mostly because of the cinematography and set design so long ago that holds up so well.

I also gave Philip K. Dick a try recently, with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and I really found myself enjoying that. Interesting the things (Mercerism, Penfold mood machines, the portion of the story dealing with his wife and personal dissonance when it came to retiring a Rachel unit after sleeping with her/it) they neglected to fit into Blade Runner, but I can totally see why. It is crazy the vision that some of these authors from earlier in the century had.

I think I will go back and read a few more Dick novels first, and then perhaps dive deep into the unreads on my Clarke list. I did the same for Stephen King and made it through about 12 of his novels in chron. order before going back to video games for my leisure time.

Thanks for writing this up, I am going to check out at least a few of the items on your list!

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#8 Posted by Rorie (5819 posts) -

@jinxplayer: I enjoyed going back through some of the classics of the genre in high school but now a lot of them are a bit tougher to go back to for me now. I love big idea sci-fi and a lot of the old masters were very good at that, but it feels like there's been a beneficial infusion of literary panache in sci-fi in recent decades. I read a lot of Asimov and Clarke books growing up and while I remember the plots I rarely remember the characters; it wasn't until Clarke added a co-auther for the Rama books, for instance, that I started finding them to be compelling for something more than the tech in them. That's not to say Rendezvous isn't a great book, but it feels a little barebones in the character department compared to the stuff that started to pop up in the late 80s. I think comics might have had the same kind of transition around the same time, as well.

As far as Dick goes I've always had a hard time getting into his stuff but I did read a biography of him a while back that was fascinating; I think it was this one? Might be worth digging into if you like the novels!

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#9 Posted by Sweep (10600 posts) -

I tend to lean towards high fantasy over sci-fi, but I've been looking for something new so I'll take a couple of these for a spin.

The Windup Girl might be something you'd enjoy, it's set in near-future Thailand where the world's crops have been tainted by GM-induced blights and people/animals have been spliced together to create all kinds of weird cyborg hybrid creatures. It bounces around between the perspectives of a corporation trying to find a new strain of crops that isn't diseased, to a "windup" oldschool cyborg prostitute, to the captain of the Thai police force who refuses to bend to corruption. I found it super refreshing, as there are very few books set in that location.

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#10 Posted by sparky_buzzsaw (8916 posts) -

@sweep: That sounds neat, and inventive.

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#11 Posted by Rorie (5819 posts) -

@sweep: If you like fantasy I can't recommend the Dagger and Coin books enough. It's a fairly low-magic setting but the character work is fantastic.

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#12 Posted by Sweep (10600 posts) -

@rorie: Nice, thanks! I'm currently eagerly awaiting the next of the Stormlight Archive books, which are fantastic. It's hard to describe the plot, but it's set in a world where emotions and thoughts are given physical form, called Spren, and all the creatures are giant crustaceans, and there's armour and swords which are these kind of futureproofed weaponry from a lost civilization which were designed to battle an army of demons and.... it's great. It's got the same epicness of scope that game of thrones has, the way it bounces between generals making sweeping decisions down to a single slave who gets to witness them on the frontlines of battle firsthand. It's really good.

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#13 Posted by Xealot42 (422 posts) -

Thanks for sharing Rorie, I've been getting back into sci-fi reading after The Expanse novels so I've put all these on my reading list.

I actually just started reading the Deep Navigation short story collection from Alastair Reynolds as I've never read any of his work and this seemed like a good overview of his style. I've had Six Wakes on my Kindle for a while so I'll have to move that one to the top of the list and check it out next.

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#14 Posted by PatODay (395 posts) -

I really enjoyed the Bobiverse series, I picked up the first one "We Are Legion (We Are Bob)" after hearing Vinny mention it on the Beastcast. Man, I was hooked. I read all three books in the series in about a week, it's a very fun, and mostly light-hearted read blending near-future technology with totally bonkers sci-fi premises.

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#15 Posted by tbk (293 posts) -


Blindsight and Echopraxia by Peter Watts, if you want to be depressed, he is offering Blindsight for free and you can convert it to a kindle friendly format with 3rd party software.

Saturn's children and Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross. Ignore the US cover of Saturn's Children.

Both are OK, second one, mostly deals with economy and pokes fun at the first one.

Stross also wrote Accelerando, which also deals with economy, mostly, its about the singularity and the economy.

The next are English translations of Japanese Sci-Fi.

The Yukikaze (Yukikaze and Good luck Yukikaze) novels by Chōhei Kambayashi. I can't really tell you how good the translation is.

Legend of the Galactic Heroes by Yoshiki Tanaka is basically what happens if a Japanese author writes about Space Prussia and Space Not-Prussia go to war in a Space Opera.

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#16 Posted by splodge (2779 posts) -

Im four books into the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Eriksson .

Its fucking intense.

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#17 Posted by miserywizard (50 posts) -

Watts' books are so amazing, so good, but pretty tough to get through! I felt like I really had to keep focused and be totally free from any distractions. Not easy, escapist reading IMO, but so wonderfully rewarding.

I just finished the Southern Reach trilogy myself, which actually got a little bit better as the series went along. If you're into clear story archs and explanations though, it might not be right for you. You get a sense of what's happening only through what the characters sense is happening, so it's a very limited view on what's going on in that world. But it's really exciting none the less.

I re-read Consider Phlebas and was surprised by how much I forgot about what happens in that book. It's still great! I have such a hard time getting into the 2nd book of the series though, and might just skip it.

I also re-read the Cities in Flight series, which is essentially a story about entire cities taking off into space and going from planet to planet to do jobs and whatnot, and was surprised by how much I didn't like it this time around. I loved this series as a teen, and was so mesmerized by it. But as an adult, it really turned me off.

Collapsing Empire is another one I read this year, and I thought it was just okay. A quick, fun sci-fi romp.

@tbk said:


Blindsight and Echopraxia by Peter Watts, if you want to be depressed, he is offering Blindsight for free and you can convert it to a kindle friendly format with 3rd party software.

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#18 Edited by ripelivejam (13205 posts) -

@splodge: Damn it, we had such a good streak going of not mentioning that... thing. *shudders*

Started The Way of Kings a third time as I feel I need to give it a solid chance but I end up grinding to a halt roughly a third in all the time. Will try to persevere.

Huge backlog as it's hard to find the time but also looking forward I've got Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell waiting in the wings which seems a really slow burn but I like the pacing and prose of it a lot so far.

Even with my backlog and apropos of nothing in this thread I'm also trying an Infinite Jest reread because I feel I'm in the right mood for it (which I probably shouldn't enable but whatever) and fondly recall the feeling of being lost within it for a few months.

To have eight more conscious and stress free hours a day...

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#19 Edited by craymen_edge (151 posts) -

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen

is an awesome novel about a young woman who is invited to join a famous elite writer’s society in a small Finnish town, discovering their weird games and past. It’s charming and Intriguing, full of creepy fantastical/folklore elements and dark humour. I really enjoyed it.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

The only other David Mitchell novel I have read is Cloud Atlas, which I loved, and I enjoyed this just as much. A gripping story following a few characters from the late 20th century to a near future where people are living a much more local, self-sufficient existence in a world of depleted resources with little access to modern digital technology. They are caught up in a conflict between two factions of near-immortals.

The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen

It’s an enigmatic, dream-like story of a girl, Minou, living on a tiny island with her father and 2 other eccentric neighbours, and of her mother, who walked out of the door a year ago and vanished.

I think this is one I like more for how it feels, than the story. It’s quirky, melancholic, and beautiful, with a great sense of the loneliness and isolation of this island.

The Unnoticeables / The Empty Ones / Kill All Angels by Robert Brockway

A funny, foul-mouthed, funny punk-rock urban fantasy/horror trilogy set in 1970s New York and LA in the modern day about a group of idiot misfits who discover strange attention-deflecting monsters who are disappearing their friends.

Under The Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

The premise - Victorian missionaries travel to ‘Arcadia’ (Fairyland), to try to convert the Fae to Christianity - instantly piqued my interest. It’s slow to get moving, but ultimately I enjoyed it. It’s weird, creepy and occasionally a little uncomfortable, but worth it.

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#20 Posted by MonkeyKing1969 (7612 posts) -

Like a few other I will give a shout out to Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space books. And I have been meaning to listen to The Three Body Problem. [ As I have said before after 40 years of reading books, I just gave myself permission to listen to downloandale book.]

Lately, I have been listening to three pop-scifi series:
Silver Ships series by Scott H. Jucha

Intrepid Saga series by M. D. Cooper

Expeditionary Force series by Craig Alanson

I series books because I listen to them so quickly, so I like to have a list of books ready to go. I might add, if you shy away from 'thick books' because you can never get through them...try THOSE books on audio.

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#21 Posted by BladeOfCreation (1377 posts) -

I recently finished listening to Leviathan Wakes, the first novel of The Expanse series. It's the first military sci-fi type stuff I've listened to in a while and it was excellent!

Before that, I listened to The Fifth Season, the first book of The Broken Earth Trilogy, and it was absolutely incredible. Aside from a fascinating world and a really cool system of magic, the writing and characterizations are just really raw and emotional in a way that's incredibly compelling.

I decided to finally get around to Red Mars, so that's next on my list once I'm done with my current nonfiction listen.

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#22 Posted by Humanity (18864 posts) -

I recently read The Quantum Thief and that was pretty interesting and reminiscent ever so slightly of Neuromancer.

Definitely dense with the techno talk. Thought after the first book I was prepared for the second one, but nope.

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#23 Posted by SnuffyMcGee (0 posts) -

The Human Reach series is fantastic so far. With the exception of the discovery of wormholes, tech is very plausible hard scifi territory. Fleets take weeks/months to close with each other and do battle in solar systems. The weapons are believable and horrifyingly deadly in the vacuum of space. It feels like Tom Clancy wrote a novel about warfare in the future after we discovered wormholes.

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#24 Posted by NoCookiesForYou (856 posts) -

@rorie: Nice list. I finished reading The Gone World this weekend and I absolutely loved it. I like that it doesn't shy away from being brutal and it can get pretty gnarly at times. There are couple of parts in the book that remind me of Event Horizon. Some of the the timetravel and alternative universe stuff gets a bit tough to keep track of and towards the end I had to re-read couple of parts to figure out what was going on. It's well written and it manages to keep the suspense going throughtout the book.

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#25 Posted by Rorie (5819 posts) -

@snuffymcgee: Sounds interesting! I'll check it out!

@bladeofcreation:The whole Expanse series is great. One or two entries that are rougher than the others but it's entertaining throughout. Also the Red Mars books are probably still the 80's sci-fi that have held up the best. Enjoy; KSR is one of the best character authors out there!

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#26 Posted by MonkeyKing1969 (7612 posts) -

Oh, man does someone want some hard science fictions reading material to chew on?

I just finished off the first two books of Ian Douglass's series "Andromedan Dark". It pretty good, but he citations a giga-ton of theory, so be prepared to keep your Matrioshka Hypernode straight from your Sun Lifting. To be fair, this is, Ian Douglas, so there is enough epic adventure and space marines to sink a ship too - but the tech and terminology are pretty hard. On teh other hand, you could say Mr Douglas just stuffed every possible sci-fi concept in the history of the genre into the book. Nevertheless, I think they overstuffed 'tour of the galaxy's wonders' story is pretty intriguing.

  • Altered Starscape: Andromedan Dark
  • Darkness Falling: Andromedan Dark