Why Do We Read Science Fiction?

Why Do We Read Science Fiction?

This episode of the Coode Street Podcast starts with some comments on American politics, then quickly segues into asking why we read science fiction. The point that Gary Wolfe uses to pivot these topics is in itself fascinating, and indeed is one answer to the title question, but the entire discussion sparked a mental thunderstorm here at Two Dudes. It forced me to take stock of my reading habits, the reasons underlying them, and the ways in which these habits ripple through my world view. The answers I arrive at suggest that SF fandom stretches far beyond an escapist enjoyment of exploding spaceships and weird aliens. It does, at least, for me. I don’t presume to speak for others.

There are two superficial reasons that I have often given for my taste in SF. First, I love Outer Space and always have. Even before I discovered Star Wars, I was looking up in the sky, then finding books on the Solar System at the library. This is a pretty obvious reason to read what I do. Second, I tend to shrug off questions about my books by explaining that I have enough worries already and just want to read for fun. This is generally directed to people who wonder why I don’t read Booker Prize-type stuff, if I’m going to spend so much time with critique and analysis anyway.

Until now, these answers have sufficed. But listening to the podcast, I started to unpack them a little more, particularly the second. After all, if I’m just looking for light reading, I could be digging into mysteries, comedies, thrillers, or any number of best sellers. Is an interest in Outer Space really the only thing separating me from a James Patterson addiction? Further, it’s not just that I read science fiction, but the sub genres wherein I spend my time: Hard SF, cyberpunk, New Space Opera. I don’t even read all that much fantasy, though the proportion has increased a bit recently (and the fantasy I read tends heavily towards science fictional tropes). What does this say about me?

In the podcast, Wolfe tries to explain to his Australian friend that the current political mayhem here is, among several other questions, a science fictional argument about the nature of the future. On one side, he explains, are people that think the past and present can be measured, ordered, and comprehended; thus the future can be predicted and influenced. On the other are those that feel that the future, in God’s hands, can only be revealed. Climate change is the most obvious front line in this battle, but something like the debt ceiling question is analogous: experts from economics, finance, and big business lining up to invoke a monetary cataclysm, while people who have no real idea what they’re talking about assure us that a national debt default is no big deal. Not everyone I know automatically takes the opinion of a Nobel Prize winner over that of a radio personality.

Why is this science fictional? The answer lies in the purpose of science fiction, which I would define as using the present to extrapolate an internally consistent future for storytelling purposes. (Note that I do not use the word “predict.” SF is about speculation, not prediction.) SF writers must, by necessity, tend towards that first group of people Wolfe describes, all the moreso those authors working in the more rigorous sub genres. I am sure that some fall more readily into the “revelation” camp, but I am guessing that they write in the more forgiving areas of tie-ins, Baen-style military SF, or neo-pulp. After all, why write about a seriously considered fictional future if one is not seriously considering our own future? (Last parenthetical before I move on: this is not to say that all SF authors are Democrats, merely that most SF authors are likely to reject the mindset that says intellect does not matter because the future will come as God/Allah/whoever wills it. This axis is applicable to more cultures than my own, regardless of political and sociological orientation, I merely draw on what I see around me to explain a point.)

We’re taking the scenic route here, but this mirrors the paths my brain trod to find an answer. I should admit right now that I am not good at science. I struggled through high school physics and chemistry, then completely melted my brain in calculus. My daughter’s 4th grade math occasionally stumps me. I am, in the end, a musician. On the other hand, I have a fierce loyalty to the Western empirical tradition and the dreaded Scientific Method. I am suspicious of natural healing, New Age anything, the supernatural, the anti-vaccination crowd, and, despite my own convoluted religious background, organized church. (Again, this cuts across US political lines. I am equally enraged by both the “Jesus rode dinosaurs” Creationists and the crazy hippies in my neighborhood that would choose acupuncture over the hospital, even if they were losing limbs in a horrible Roto-Rooter accident. “Keep them doctors away from me, Moonbeam. Just stick a couple of needles in my shoulder and pass me that crystal.”)

What does all of this have to do with my fiction bookshelf, 90% of which is Hard SF? At the risk of parroting a hoary chestnut, I confess to reading SF for the rush, the, dare I say it, sense of wonder. I enjoy other genres, especially spy novels and literature, and am generally happy when I step out for something new, but almost nothing else gives me the buzz that the best SF can. I couldn’t say if my love of SF comes from my scientific world view or vice versa, but I think them to be inseparable. The same part of me that rejects political fantasy also rebels at unconvincing plot development. (Hello, Hollywood!) Likewise, statistically sound economic policies tickle the same part of my brain that devours a four page FTL drive infodump. I have to think that many in SF fandom feel the same. There are certainly other ways to sense wonder, but for me, Alastair Reynolds is much more convincing than Avatar. I am finally understanding why.

So this is a long way to say something that may be painfully obvious to everyone else, but was a bit of a revelation to me. I have a better answer now if someone asks why I read what I do. Somehow, “Rigorous science fiction aligns with my empirical perspective of the world,” sounds better than, “I like it when spaceships blow up.” I suppose that it is my small contribution in the war against entropy, fought this time on the intellectual front.

Broken Blade

Broken Blade (Anime)

Today’s post digs back into that favorite of topics: Giant Fighting Robot Anime. (Properly called “mecha,” but I much prefer the other.) I finally, two or three years after starting, wrapped up the six-part series Broken Blade and can bring my impressions to all. I was hipped to this back in my movie business days; it was a big new release from Bandai and they were eager to get it into heavy promotional rotation. Curious what I was pimping to my unsuspecting customers, I started watching fan subs online. More recently, the library happened to have the now-available-in-stores DVD set, so I was able to see this through to an officially sanctioned end. As always, I watch my anime subtitled, because the English dubs just never work for me.

Broken Blade started life as a manga than ran for a couple of years before being optioned as a movie series. In Japan, both are known by the more grammatically tortured name Break Blade (ブレック・ブレード). The manga appears to have been translated part way into English, but the publisher went out of business before finishing the series. The movies are backed by slightly more capital, so there was no risk of getting stranded part way. Despite being short, 50 minutes each, all six Broken Blade episodes saw limited theatrical release in Japan, making these “movies” rather than “OVA” (original video animation, I think). I haven’t seen the manga in either language and have no idea if the story has since carried on.

The world shown in Broken Blade is a mix of fantasy and SF, with a sheen of originality painted over a solid collection of tropes. (We will see this technique again later with plot and characters.) Most people in the world of Broken Blade are born with the ability to telepathically manipulate quartz. Our hero, Rygart, was not, and thus is a loser. He has to use actual hand tools to accomplish things, which really sucks when everyone else around him is waving their arms and causing quartz to fling itself through the air. The highest form of quartz manipulation is, naturally, the act of piloting colossal robots in combat. Most of the fantasy stems from the still feudal economies powering the castle towns that everyone lives in and a basic inability of certain rulers to understand trade. The former leads to the requisite kings, warriors, and peasants. The latter drives the conflict, as the Athens Commonwealth invades the Kingdom of Krisna in a bid to get at Krisna’s bountiful quartz mines. (See? We can tell that they’re being subversive because Athens is the bad guy! Get it?) Apparently nobody told Athens that they could just offer to buy some quartz, or maybe swap grain or chickens or something. Much more cost effective over the long haul.

Science fiction makes an appearance when Krisnans discover the “Delphine,” an ancient relic of a battle mech. We all learn what it is when, as is tradition, Rygart falls into the cockpit at a battle’s most desperate hour and miraculously activates it. For whatever reason, nobody but “unsorcerors,” the Special Ed kids of Krisna, can pilot the Delphine. There is no explanation given of whatever fallen nation created the Delphine, but it fills in admirably as the obligatory lost, high tech civilization. This is about the extent of the world building; it’s a bit of a ramshackle collection of cliché and plot convenience, but more or less holds together. I have to keep myself from thinking too hard about the economics of it all and instead just be grateful that the writer at least made an effort. (I realize that it’s not entirely fair to bring my Hard SF-appreciating, Policital Science-oriented brain to bear on what is basically just entertainment for adolescents, but somebody has to do it. Cue the plaintive voice pleading, “Who will think of the electoral systems?”)

Broken Blade is really about the characters though. Rygart, of course, is the focus of things, with his quartz handicap and affinity for a butt kicking giant robot. We are also treated to numerous flashbacks of “high school,” (thanks Japan!) when Rygart attends military school with three people who just happen to become the king of Krisna (Hodr), the queen of Krisna and head giant battle robot engineer (Sigyn), and a military leader in Athens (Zess). Rygart and Sigyn have an unacknowledged, unrequited Thing, Sigyn and Hodr are married, and I have no idea why Zess is even a part of this. In fact, he fades into the background in the second half of the series. Maybe he isn’t important after all. There is also a standard assortment of archetypes: the loyal troops and cannon fodder, the brilliant but unstable ally (or is he??), the do whatever atrocity it takes to win bad guy, the wise mentor, and others. The wise mentor, Baldr, is really the only one who matters, because he looks like this. I would bear Baldr’s children if, you know, he wasn’t animated and if I was a woman. That’s a couple of big ifs.

The love triangle bit has some teeth, though fortunately restrains itself from dripping all over the place. (Perhaps learned a lesson from Macross?) Some of the relationships and conflicts show a surprising depth for this sort of thing. On the whole though, we end up with a lot of angsty teenagers piloting huge and impractical bringers of death. It’s rather like the cast of Dawson’s Creek running an epic Battletech campaign. (Whoops! Just dated myself with that sentence! On the other hand, the thought of James Vanderbeek behind the controls of a battle mech is pretty funny.) The leaders seem totally shocked when the introduction of veteran troops swings the course of the war widely in one or another direction, though in this case, “veterans” means adults more or less in control of their hormones and having a passing knowledge of battlefield tactics, I will give some credit though: the movies are at least sufficiently self-aware to mock Rygart once in awhile for his clueless attempts at fighting.

I’m not being entirely fair I think. The war scenes are visceral and violent; like much of the anime in the Gundam tradition, this is an unflinching look at war. There is very little glory here, just death and pain. Broken Blade is a fairly dark series, with little fun or sunshine to ease the tension. On the other hand, I would prefer to not yell at the screen, “CAN YOU PLEASE JUST STOP FEELING FOR A SECOND? I’M GETTING A HEADACHE FROM THE EMOTING!” If I were fourteen, maybe this would be about right. Hard to say. At least people die here, even if the deaths are telegraphed pretty clearly. No Storm Troopers and their legendary blaster accuracy in this movie.

Speaking of being fourteen, I’m still trying to puzzle out the messages about women here. There are almost as many women in the robots as men. In fact, some of the strongest warriors are women. And then there is Sigyn, who is clearly the smartest person in the room and the only reason Krisna isn’t completely flattened by the more powerful Athens. At the same time, the women in this world have strangely massive and buoyant chests. All of them. Do I really need to say that the fan service is exceedingly awkward? I should hope that’s a given by now. And finally, a little bit of my soul died when one character said to another, “Even if you have giant boobs, you’re still only twelve, so stop acting so old!” Japan, just between me and you, I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish, but this whole pederasty thing just makes you look creepy. Also, breathe through your nose sometimes, too.

So, yeah. Two steps forward, one step back, ladies.

How to sum up? The production values here are fantastic – clearly they had a budget to work with. The art and music are both top notch, to my uneducated eye. (I wouldn’t buy the soundtrack necessarily, but it was very functional and professionally done.) If someone were to ask me where to start with Giant Fighting Robots, I probably wouldn’t start them here. I suspect that Broken Blade is better appreciated by those who will spot the tropes and enjoy the tweaks. Still, it’s a decent enough story, with just enough in the tank to give the appearance of being smart. The emotions are a bit overwrought and it certainly has its flaws, but everything holds together. While I doubt it will be remembered decades later as a masterpiece, neither is it an unworthy addition to the mecha canon.


Yamada Masaki

I continue my slow march through Japan’s SF canon. The most recent conquest comes in at #6 on the list of all-time best Japanese SF: Kamigari (God Hunting) by Yamada Masaki. (This is from the the 2006 poll in S-F Magazine. Kamigari is not #6 every year in the poll, but is generally found in the top ten.) Kamigari is part of my small Japanese language collection; it has not been translated despite its renown inside the motherland. The book seems like a possible target for English language release though, particularly as Haikasoru already has three of the above list in their catalog, so I think it wise to keep this review away from serious spoiler territory. Any reader wanting to hear greater detail is welcome to bring things up in the comments, but in the main post I’m going to keep this in a more traditional critical style.

Let’s start with some thoughts about the Japanese language. First of all, because I read this untranslated, my usual caveats apply. I am a slow Japanese reader and lack the patience to plow through these on consecutive morning commutes, so each novel takes a couple of months to read. At most I generally get through 50-60 pages before jumping back to something in English. This naturally leads to a certain amount of discontinuity, name forgetting, plot detail ignoring, and other bad habits. It also means that the page turning momentum is considerably lower than in my easier reads. I don’t ding books for this in my final assessments. Additionally, because I am too lazy to look up every word I don’t know, I am occasionally more confused than is proper. I know what happened, but some of the finer points escape me. This is also computed in my final score, since it’s hardly the author’s fault if I didn’t get the full impact of a novel due to my own incompetence.

That said, I noticed early on that Yamada is much more of a stylist than some other authors I have read. I don’t claim enough expertise to judge the quality of writing, but where some books are dry reports, Kamigari is full of rich, descriptive prose. This is pleasant both because we all prefer interesting writing, but also because it challenges the language student. Yamada also digs into a varied set of disciplines for his infodumps, rather than the usual physics and astronomy. Things start with Wittgenstein, wander in and out of linguistics, take a side trip through religion, dip a toe into metaphysics, and end up grounded in a combination of NASA and psychics. This is challenging in a whole different way than naval battles or spaceships.

Getting back to the mundane, Kamigari was originally published in 1974, with large parts of it appearing in S-F Magazine. The book was was expanded and released in 1975, when it promptly won a Seiun Award (Japan’s version of the Hugo). It was Yamada’s debut novel; he has gone on to long and productive career. The influence of the New Wave is everywhere, and a Phillip K. Dick-ian atmosphere hovers over the entire affair. It also appears to take place in the late 1960s, a fertile backdrop for Japanese fiction, with its student protests and tense relations with US military bases. I have no idea who Yamada’s literary heroes are or what he was reading at the time, but this is not some sort of Golden Age retread. In fact, it is often only tangentially science fictional, something we will look into further.

Our window into the god hunting world is one Shimazu Keisuke, a linguist extraordinaire and generally unpleasant person. He is examining “Ancient Writings,” always written in quotes just like that. (It isn’t capitalized, because there are no capital letters in Japanese, but it probably would be in English.) He has been invited to look them over because of his linguistic expertise, since nobody has any clue where they come from or what they say. Within a couple of pages, there is a terrible accident, his guide is killed, and some strange luminous man-figure is talking to Shimazu. This is pretty weird.

Before we know it, Shimazu is swept up in a worldwide conspiracy-type plot, working in a secret room with a joint US-Japan team to decipher the ancient writings. Kamigari takes a turn into spy fiction in this section, with agents, intimations of past Nazi plots, interrogations where people demand to know “what Odessa is after,” whatever that means, and other shenanigans that our university-bred Shimazu is wholly unprepared for. Apparently these ancient writings have some sort of power about them, though nobody knows quite what. Shimazu tries bravely to translate, but mostly just figures out how many participles the language has.

It isn’t until the second part that we start to get a hint of what is really going on. Shimazu falls in with a motley group led by an old man named Yoshimura. The middle section of the book is spent in their company, arguing theology and actually hunting gods. Yoshimura explains that the ancient writings are a product of a “god” who has tormented humanity for his (its?) own amusement over thousands of years. They are on the god’s trail, pledging to hunt him (it?) down and do away with him (it?). I was never totally clear on how they planned to do this, but it had something to do with tracking the god’s minions with the aid of psychic powers. I thought it sounded pretty dodgy, but Shimazu goes all in.

This is roughly the lay of the land. Saying much more would spoil things, but even this brief summary may explain why the genre assignment is so tricky. Is this supernatural horror? A sort of urban fantasy? Paranoid magical realism? Some explanations in the last quarter of the book start to push this more towards traditional SF, but it remains hard to classify. Certainly the psychic stuff and the contemporary setting would be out of place in an issue of Analog. In the end though, the book claims to be SF, SF fans embrace it as their own, and I am loathe to call it anything else. It feels to me like a Japanese version of a Dick novel, as mentioned at the top, with the sinister conspiracies moving the background and a mostly naïve protagonist. I don’t know that there was any room for gods in Dick’s cosmology, but the powerlessness and pervasive unease are right out of his playbook.

I don’t really know how to sum it all up. My wife is reading the book right now, so there may be a follow up post wherein we discuss how a Japanese reader interprets it. Kamigari was a unique reading experience and something I would very much like to share with US SF fans. Shimazu is never likable and I don’t really understand the nuts and bolts of gods and hunting, but something about the book is hypnotic and addictive. I would recommend it without reservation, except that the majority of my readers will probably have to wait for a translation. For now, I’ll just have to be happy with saying, “Kamigari exists and this is what it’s about. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.”

Throwdown! Two Lady Writers

Trading in Danger
Elizabeth Moon
Primary Inversion
Catherine Asaro

As part of my belated effort to support gender equality in genre fiction, I’ve started seeking out books by female authors that I already knew about, but haven’t yet read. There might end up being enough here to fulfill the Worlds Without End challenge, twelve new female authors during 2013, but I didn’t want to tie myself down to the “new authors” bit. Today’s duo also brings back a post idea I wanted to do more of, but never had the chance: Throwdown! (In fact, this is the first Throwdown! column in 18 months, and just the second I have written.) Our duelists are the first volumes in career-defining series written by women: Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War books and Catherine Asaro’s Skolian Empire Saga. The books have little in common thematically, but have enough outside similarities to make for an intriguing Throwdown!

The largest in-story similarities are of course the female main characters and their military backgrounds. Kylara Vatta is on her way out of the military when we meet her, while Soz Valdoria is a high-ranking veteran. Both fit the Honor Harrington archetype of competent, brave officers with a surfeit of integrity, but a penchant for either taking initiative or going rogue, depending on who is reporting. Both have built their identities around their chosen career as navy space pilots; these identities drive large portions of the plot in each book. The identities in question, of course, are influenced heavily by gender roles, as both stories rely primarily on conflict driven by the fact that the women are, well, women. Society hundreds of years from now may have solved some of our current equality issues, but there are questions that will probably never go away.

The initial divergence comes from real world circumstances surrounding each novel. By the time she published Trading in Danger, Moon had several books to her name. I have nothing here but my own speculation, but Vatta’s War feels like a series that was contracted all at once, with author and/or publisher hoping for something along the lines of Miles Vorkosigan or Honor Harrington. I suspect that Moon knew that other books would follow, so Trading has the luxury of basically just setting everything up. There is a noted lack of urgency throughout, though this is not necessarily a bad thing. Primary Inversion, on the other hand, is Asaro’s first novel. It feels it, too. Inversion is jam packed with detail, world building, characters, action, and science, as though Asaro worried that she’d never get a second chance to say everything in her head. Again, this is not necessarily bad, just different. Despite both being openers for a long series, Moon writes at a relaxed, nearly complacent pace; Asaro is almost frantic in the push to get everything out in the wild.

Things inside the story are different too. While both of the protagonists face challenges related directly to gender, their respective ages and positions are distinct. Kylara is trying to escape the benevolent dictatorship of loving and sheltering parents. Her first recourse was the military, but, losing that option, spends the book attempting to prove her worth as a merchant captain. Soz, on the other hand, is a bit further on in life. She is focused more on problems of family and succession, while the question of marriage rears its ugly head early in the book. For reasons too complicated to go into now, Soz eventually requires a partner, but it must be the right person. Despite being one of the best of an already elite fighting group, we actually end up learning more about her desire for work-life balance than we do her skill at blowing things up. Kylara needs her success to avoid forever being the coddled baby daughter. Soz needs a man, and eventually children, but also needs to be a butt kicking senior officer.

In the end, the core of the differences between the books is found in the genre conventions they elect to follow. Oddly enough, these tend to run in the opposite directions than one might expect. Despite Kylara’s unfortunate expulsion from the navy and the book’s subsequent jaunt through interstellar commerce, Trading is essentially Military SF. Kylara faces and overcomes her challenges with discipline, honor, and grace under fire. There are hints that she is not cut out for business and may one day end up in a mercenary company. Her leadership abilities are highlighted repeatedly. There is very little separating Trading from typical Baen Books fare except some missing right wing boilerplate. (Del Rey published this one, something that surprised me when I checked last night.)

Asaro takes the opposite path. Soz is in the military, Soz stays in the military, most of Soz’s conflicts are rooted in her identity as a high ranking member of the military, but Asaro is writing about interstellar empires, war raging across the galaxy, the destruction of whole planets, emperors and heirs, and love of the most rare and pure form. This is nothing but space opera, and, like Texas, everything is bigger in space opera. The exaggerated size includes feelings, of which there are a metric crap ton. Emotions everywhere, leaking out of the book and sloshing onto the floor. Love of every variety: unrequited, tragic, passionate, lusty, and pure. There are also infodumps of epic proportions, many about math that I will never understand. This is a unique book, coming from a unique person. Asaro’s background as a physics and math PhD gives her Hard SF street cred, while her push for romance and family drama turns this into a bodice-ripper. I’m not sure how I feel about it all, because I am a cold-hearted and emotionless man, but the space battles were pretty cool.

What is my critical reaction to these? Well, I will probably read at least a few more in each series. I am more likely to finish the Vatta books, since MilSF is my go to guilty pleasure. I’m curious where the Skolian books lead, but commentary implies that things drift even further into soap opera territory as the story progresses. If this is the case, I probably won’t finish it, just because I have enough of love and family in real life. Inversion was the more intense, harder to put down of the two, feelings or no, just because of the obvious care Asaro has invested in it. Trading was fun, but shallower. It sounds as though the stakes are higher in later books, so it may gain a bit more gravitas as we go. Both end with qualified recommendations, especially since I am probably one of the least sympathetic readers out there for these sorts of things, though it wouldn’t hurt for prospective readers to know what they’re in for.

Sixteen Series to Finish

Sixteen Series to Finish

While keeping tabs on my 2013 To Read list and planning for the 2014 edition, I’m starting to build a list of series I have started. I don’t necessarily plan to finish every saga that I’ve begun, but there are some that definitely deserve more attention. Here are the most blatant offenders, in no particular order. Ideally I would knock out another book in each over the coming year or so.

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. – Recluce Saga
I’ve only read the first book (of sixteen?), but it was one of my favorite fantasies of 2012. I have several follow-ups in my home library that have slowly risen to the upper reaches of my To Be Read pile. My fantasy reading time is somewhat limited though, and other books muscled their way ahead during 2013.

Mike Resnick – Starship
I’ve taken down four out of five in this series; so close to wrapping it up! Unfortunately, a recent flap in the SFWA over needlessly misogynistic comments from Resnick has soured me a bit on reading his stuff. I’ll get over it eventually I suppose, since the guy has enough Hugos to sink a proverbial battleship and I feel obligated to see what the fuss is. The Starship books are light and funny, never quite deep enough to be favorites, but sufficiently entertaining to want to finish.

Dan Abraham – Long Price Quartet
I really have no excuse for not finishing this. I’m a big Abraham fan, but somehow I’ve let the remaining three books linger far too long.

Steven Erikson – Malazan
Book Five of this insanely long epic is on tap for later in the month. I’ve been hitting these at about a one per year pace; at this rate I should wrap up the series by 2020. The Malazan books are arguably the best fantasy out there right now, in my humble opinion.

Poul Anderson – Polesotechnic League
Nicholas Van Rijn is a fairly disgusting character, but somehow this is one of Anderson’s more readable series. Baen has edited the whole of the Van Rijn sequence into sequential volumes; much easier than pulling the stories out piecemeal from ancient, fragmenting collections. The Flandry books are also classic, but some of Anderson’s less savory politics seep heavier into those.

Steven Baxter – Manifold
I read the first book in this dense, Hard SF trilogy, while the second sits glowering on my bookshelf. My only excuse for not reading it is that hardbacks are heavy and I don’t like taking them on the bus. I shall have to man up soon.

Greg Benford – Galactic Center
I’m three books into this one, but have yet to really catch on fire. Sometimes Benford works for me, sometimes he doesn’t. Still, this is listed as a must-read, far-future, space war on a massive scale. One or another of the books ought to grab me.

Edgar Rice Burroughs – Martian Tales
This is more for a history lesson than anything else, though the first two books were fun.

George Alec Effinger – The Audran Sequence
When Gravity Fails is the book everyone talks about, but there are two more set in the Budayeen. My ongoing cyberpunk reclamation project demands that I read them.

Eric Flint – 1632
I have read far more in Flint’s signature universe than is perhaps healthy, yet am still just scratching the surface. My enthusiasm for the whole affair probably peaked in the second book of the main sequence, 1633, but I remain impressed by the work Flint has done with his alternate history. I’m also amazed at the fan community and their constant outpouring of fiction and research. It would probably take a month at least for me to catch up on everything that Baen as published in this universe.

M. John Harrison – Kefahuchi Tract
I still haven’t written a review of Light. Something about it defies my ability to create a witty summary. There are two more following, including the Coode Street Podcast’s choice for best book of 2012. If it beats out my pick, 2312, I’d better read it.

Jack McDevitt – Academy
I’ve read all but the newest Alex Benedict book, so have dug into the Academy series for a change of pace. The first two books were good, but he’s just hinting at the deeper potential in this “implacable menace from deep space” concept. I have high expectations.

Neal Stephenson – Baroque Cycle
Oh my. I read the first of these back in 2007 or so. Stephenson’s books are intimidating, much as I enjoy them, so I somehow keep putting this off. Ebooks should help, since my Kindle doesn’t weigh nearly as much as the dead tree tome. 2013 had a lot of dense paperweights on the Reading List; Stephenson may take his turn in 2014.

Timothy Zahn – Quadrail
Zahn’s stuff is more of a light snack between meals. I enjoy his books, even if I don’t remember much about them afterwards.

Dan Abnett – Eisenhorn
I don’t read many tie-ins. I make an occasional exception for Warhammer 40,000 though, just for old times’ sake, and I definitely make an exception for Eisenhorn. I think these are the consensus pick for Best Warhammer Books Ever.

Brad Beaulieu – Lays of Anuskaya
Winds of Khalakovo was one of my favorites of the year (so far). I was going to read the next books anyway, but Beaulieu was kind enough to send review copies to me. Now I’m definitely going to read them (soon) and probably say glowingly positive things after.