Ripping Good ReAds

So what kinds of books do authors read? All kinds, if you ask most of them. Bennett R. Coles is no different, but here are some of his recommended reads in the Science Fiction, Arthurian and Military genres.

Science Fiction:

2001: A Space Odyssey (Arthur C. Clarke)

Often touted as one of the landmark sci-fi novels of the last century, this story starts with the first encounter between humans and an alien intelligence – when humans had barely separated from apes on the evolutionary tree. It then picks up at the turn of the last millennium and describes, with Clarke’s usual knack for scientific accuracy mixed with a dash of scientific mystery, the re-emergence of the alien intelligence on the moon and the subsequent first manned mission to Saturn (yes, Saturn – the movie changed it to Jupiter). Exploring the frightening possibilities of computer programming leading to madness and the evolution of humankind to another level are just two of the ground-breaking concepts brought to life in this story.

2010: Odyssey Two (Arthur C. Clarke)

After years of saying there would never be a sequel to 2001, Arthur C. Clarke finally produced a triumphant sequel that picks up a decade after his original. Taking his inspiration from the movie version of 2001, Clarke set the book amongst the moons of Jupiter as a joint Soviet-American mission return to the site of the mysteries left behind by the original journey nine years earlier. Clarke is at his finest with rich planetscapes, subtle politics and, as always, excellent hard science as the heroes of the book uncover some answers but also more questions. The climax of the book is both bold and unexpected, and just enough of the original mystery is solved to leave the reader feeling intensely satisfied.

Rendezvous with Rama (Arthur C. Clarke)

When a strange, artificial object – dubbed Rama by astronomers – is detected entering the solar system, the nearest vessel of Spaceguard is sent to rendezvous with it. The crew discover a world unlike anything ever seen by humans, and they race against time to learn as much as possible before Rama’s growing proximity to the sun forces them to evacuate. This is a novel that would probably never get published today because not enough “happens,” but it is a beautiful example of a more leisurely age in science fiction when a thoughtful and detailed exploration of a strange setting could be expertly employed as the driving element of an entire novel.

Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein)

Considered by many to be the grand-daddy of all military science fiction, this controversial novel follows the career of Juan Rico in the service of the Earth-based Federation. Rico’s time at boot camp is one of the most realistic portrayals ever written in fiction of a young recruit and his mental and emotional state as he battles to survive the ordeal. Although it does have some excellent action scenes (most notably in the opening chapter), the book is far more cerebral than most of its descendants in this genre. The action sometimes takes a back seat to long monologues by characters on the nature of society and the human condition. Sometimes criticized as being subtly pro-fascist in its philosophy, the book has certainly provoked thought and discussion over the past fifty years.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert Heinlein)

The early section of this book takes the reader on a long and detailed tour of a carefully-imagined society based entirely on Earth’s moon. However, Heinlein isn’t content to offer social commentary, and as the plot of the book develops into a social and, ultimately, physical confrontation between powers, it turns (almost surprisingly) into an action-packed thriller.

Old Man’s War (John Scalzi)

Bursting onto the literary scene with his first novel, Scalzi introduced one of the most imaginative ideas for how an army can produce well-rounded soldiers. Told in the first person, the easy pace and frequent humour soften what is actually quite a dark tale of interstellar warfare and vicious politics. One of the best books of the past decade.

The Ghost Brigades (John Scalzi)

A pseudo-sequel to Old Man’s War, this story is told from the point of view of one of the supporting characters in the original. Although still a military story in virtually the same setting as Old Man’s War, it covers almost entirely new ground and greatly expands one of the fascinating concepts that was mysteriously peripheral in the first book. Excellent characterization and further enrichment of a fascinating sci-fi setting make the Ghost Brigades a worthy successor to Old Man’s War.

Trading in Danger (Elizabeth Moon)

When the daughter of a notable merchant company is expelled from the military academy, she is left with few options but to go and work for the family business. Her first task is to take command an old freighter and deliver it to a scrap yard, but on the way circumstances, and choices, propel this novice captain and her skeleton crew into multiple worlds of politics and warfare. And profit – always profit.

Arthurian:

The Warlord Chronicles (Bernard Cornwell)

Split into three books (The Winter King, Enemy of God, Excalibur), the Warlord Chronicles follow the life of a boy who grows to be a man during the legendary times of King Arthur. Cornwell weaves his own unique version of the Arthurian legends, but does so with more skill than many other authors of the genre. His characters are vivid and real, and while the political events of Dark Ages Britain are the landscape upon which the story unfolds, it is the personal triumphs and failures that draw the reader in. One of Cornwell’s greatest abilities is to move seamlessly from the extremely close third person narrative (where you can feel every bead of sweat on the character’s face) to the highest of grand perspectives, where he summarizes entire wars and seasons in a matter of paragraphs, before dropping once more to the personal tale. This ability to flawlessly weave together into a single, continuous narrative multiple scenes often separated by great distances in time and space is phenomenal.

Road to Avalon (Joan Wolfe)

Another re-telling of the Arthurian legend, this wonderful story is very much softer and more subtle than many in the genre. Centered around the love between Arthur and Morgan, the story describes their growth from childhood friends into star-crossed lovers, pawns caught in the violent events of their time who both have to draw on their unique strengths to survive. They are both very successful in forging a new Britain, but circumstances conspire to deny them the one thing they really want: a life together. Wolfe’s ability to evoke both the joy and agony of love in her characters is unmatched.

The Once and Future King (T.H. White)

One of the 20th Century’s greatest Arthurian works, this grand tale was originally published in four parts. Throwing off any attempts at the historical accuracy or realism so favoured by more recent Arthurian authors, White presents a fantastic, often whimsical, world where magic is real and heroes abound. This is the story many fans of the genre wish was the truth, with all the trappings of chivalry, glory and nobility so noticeably absent in real Dark Ages Britain. Suitable for readers of all ages (especially Book I – The Sword in the Stone) this novel is a must-have for any die-hard Arthurian.

Military:

Red Storm Rising (Tom Clancy)

Not the first book ever written to described a conventional war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, nor the last – but definitely the best. Even twenty-five years later, with most of the technology described now obsolete and many of the countries involved no longer even in existence, Red Storm Rising stands as a pillar of the military genre. Vast in scope and meticulous in detail, the story unfolds in a dozen or more subplots ranging across the entire Atlantic and European theatres of war. While current events have long since left it in their wake, Red Storm Rising remains a realistic story of what might have happened had World War III ever come to pass.

The Sum of All Fears (Tom Clancy)

Undoubtedly the best Jack Ryan book, this novel follows the ever-more successful American intelligence guru as he struggles to uncover the plot of a terrorist cell. Clancy’s technical knowledge is impressive as always, but in this book he strikes home with very real and compelling characterizations of Ryan and his political opponents. The terrorist plot is bold, but not as bold as Clancy as he drops perhaps the biggest surprise twist in any of his books as the plot screams to a climax. In the post 9/11 world, The Sum of All Fears is a chilling tale of what could happen today.

Cryptonomicon (Neal Stephenson)

Some books are hard to grasp, either due to their complexity, their scope or the technical knowledge required of the reader. By rights, Cryptonomicon should baffle readers on all three counts, but due to the sheer genius of Stephenson's writing, the reader is swept almost effortlessly through the intricacies of computer data systems, psychology and cultural clashes – with all three elements presented BOTH in the modern day and in World War II. These ideas are explored through multiple stories in different time periods and different parts of the world, some connected as they evolve and all brought together in a surprising finale. If any book has ever deserved the over-used descriptor "a roller-coaster of a ride" this is it – so hang on and enjoy.

I have read considerable military SF by master authors like David Weber, Michael Z. Williamson, David Drake and others, and Virtues of War is at least their equal.

Fred Patten
AmoXcalli