Monday reading: classic sci-fi

Well I am discovering all sorts of fun memes here in bookblogland! Sheila from Book Journey wants to know: what are you reading?

Heh, I am reading Beginning Operations by James White. Beginning Operations is actually a collection of the first three novels in his Sector General series. I read one of these novels years ago and never forgot it. I don’t know why they aren’t more widely known because they sure are fun.

Do you remember the cantina scene in the original Star Wars movie?

Sector General is kind of like the cantina, except that it’s a HOSPITAL. And there are thousands of different alien species in this hospital, both patients and staff. Some of them breathe water or chlorine; others don’t breathe at all. Some of them require 4 Gs of gravity; others must float. Some of them must be kept at near-absolute zero temperatures; others are radioactive and hot. Some weigh several tons; others are microscopic. And the stories are basically about all the different accommodations that must be made for all these different species. Yes there is plot, but really it is all about the setting. And my favorite thing about it is that whenever a new species is mentioned, the author invariably includes a bit of info about the alien’s home planet conditions to explain why they have those particular characteristics; it is never random. I have a long-standing interest in biology, and particularly evolutionary biology, and this feeds right into it.

These stories probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, though. They are quite typical of pre-1970s hardcore sci-fi. The doctors are all male and the nurses are all female — at least, for the species that actually have gender. The “futuristic” technology is dated (they use “intercom mikes,” for example, and educational “tapes”). But the prose is rock-solid and unobtrusive; the aliens are brilliant; and the scrapes they find themselves in are hilarious. Classic science fiction just doesn’t get any better than this.

What are you reading today?

Philip José Farmer: To Your Scattered Bodies Go

I’m tagging this one Quit Lit. I made it as far as page 86. Alas, this thing is unreadable.

The reason I picked this book up in the first place is because my sweet geeky husband posted NPR’s list of the top 100 sci-fi and fantasy books on his facebook. I’ll be honest: I voted in that poll. I do like sci-fi. Quite a bit. So it was very entertaining to watch this big long thread develop on his page, with all his geeky buddies arguing and reminiscing and all. And this one guy was all up in arms because Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series was not on the list. “All these dead people get resurrected on another planet,” he enthused. “People from all periods of history mingled together, including Sir Richard Francis Burton as the protagonist. Riverworld is awesome!” So awesome that hubby rushed right out to the library and checked out a copy of the first book in the series, To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

I have been burned before by enthusiastic book recommendations from my husband’s pals in the past (*cough* The Drizzt Do’Urden series, which, unbelievably, did make the top 100). But this was a different pal, and I love historical fiction as much as I love sci fi; I mean they don’t make ’em much cooler than Sir R.F. Burton, right?

Well. It is true that all these people get resurrected on this mysterious planet, and the idea of all these historical figures being thrown together is a fun starting point. But unfortunately this book turned out to be nothing more than an adolescent male fantasy. See, they all wake up naked. And all the women have “great figures” and “exquisite features.” And there are psychedelic drugs which cause them to throw off all inhibitions and act according to their deepest desires… Now, I don’t mind sex and violence if it serves the story, but in this case it just seems self-indulgent.

And what’s even worse than the self-indulgent adolescent male fantasy is the schmaltzy pretentious writing. Random example: “Lev Ruach climbed out of the water and ran his hands over his skinny body to take off the drops.” Eh? People don’t “take off drops” — they dry themselves. Bizarre! Another example: “Frigate continued, ‘I’m so timorous and queasy because I am afraid of the anger, the desire to do violence, that lies not too deeply within me. I fear violence because I am violent. I fear what will happen if I am not afraid.'” Ugh, spare me the melodrama.

Yep, this is Quit Lit.