Category Archives: demanding sf


Foreigner / C.J. Cherryh

Foreigner is the first book in a series that as far as I can tell is just called “the Foreigner series”. Each book is usually described as the sequel to the one before it which makes figuring out the order somewhat time consuming if  it never occurs to you just to look it up online.

That’s something of a problem because Foreigner is less the first book in a series and more the first chapter of a huge romain fleuve, so reading them out of order is less desirable than usual.

It’s also one of my favorite books/series.

Plot summary

Foreigner tells the story of a colony ship knocked hopelessly off-course. In need of supplies and with no idea how to get home, the three major factions (officers, crew, and the colonists themselves) are unable to agree on the best course of action. Eventually, a space station is built around a habitable planet, home to a species, the atevi, that has just discovered the steam engine.

Over 100 years later, the human colonists are limited to a single island and only one human, the paidhi, is permitted to interact with the atevi. The paidhi is responsible for regulating the transfer of technology from the humans to the atevi, using years of study and immersion in the alien culture in order to avoid potential cultural destabilization. Bren Cameron is the newest paidhi and quickly finds himself the target of what appears to be an assassination plot. Bren is forced to decide who to trust in a culture that lacks even the concept of friendship as he attempts to make sense of the volatile political situation.

So how is it?

If you’d asked me that question two years ago, or even last year, I’d have said it was one of my favorite books. Now I’m les sure of that. It’s still great, and it is one of the most effective elucidations of Cherryh’s themes of cultural disconnect and the resulting challenges thereof, but it’s so long now that reading the whole thing is a major commitment.

For the average US reader, getting through this series would take years of reading nothing else. That’s a tall order, and to be sure the same is true of Aubrey-Maturin and sf readers, like romance readers, tend to read far more than the average, but still, for me, who generally reads at least 150 novels a year (more if you count comics and nonfiction) it ended up being excessive and I had to take a break. Which leads to the second pair of issues:

1) It’s really hard to tell what order these books are supposed to be read in

2) bookstores are horribly inconsistent when it comes to carrying the whole series, or even just a selection of consecutive books

For number 1, the internet makes this a little easier, and some libraries have taken to numbering the books themselves, but as it stands the only indication of the order of the books is generally a line on the cover that says “the sequel to [title]”. This led me to an entertaining reverse journey as I tried to find the first book in the series from the 7th or 8th. Some printings do feature a list on the inside, but as with historical romance novels that list isn’t always easy to find.

For number 2, this is where you’re better off checking your library. I have the advantage of living in an urban area with lot of public libraries. The libraries seem to have collectively decided: some will carry the entire series and some not carry the series but will carry all of her other books. We have a highly efficient ILL system around here so that works pretty well. Bookstores are really bad at it though (especially, I am going to call out the Oakbrook Barnes and Noble , for having one of the worst sf selections larger than 24 linear feet).

Now ow that I’ve wasted several hundred words on administrative junk I’ll talk about the book/series itself.

It’s really good. It features an incredibly complex storyline with close to a dozen different factions but no clear “bad guys”.  The length is a big advantage here, as no single book is tightly focused on a few events. Most books only cover a couple of days as Bren attempts to navigate the Byzantine power structures of atevi society. Anyone who has been an immigrant, or at least lived abroad for any length of time, will recognize the challenges he faces here. Returning  home is just as difficult, as Bren discovers that the changes he has made in order to succeed amongst the atevi have made him an outsider in his own culture as well. Many of the oning conflicts in the series stem from problems of translating between languages that don’t even share a biological context, let alone a cultural one.

It’s one of the most effective portrayals of a convincingly alien culture I’ve ever encountered, even if Cherryh isn’t always successful at completely hiding her inspirations (not that that’s exactly necessary). It truly is a work of anthropological science fiction in the best  sense of the label. Bren ends up attempting to balance the interests of half a dozen human factions and at least as many atevi associations. It’s a thoroughly complex work that does a good job of respecting the reader to be smart enough to figure out what’s going on, since the plots of each book are rarely explicitly laid out.


It’s a great book and series but to get the most out of it requires a pretty significant investment. As a result I’d probably recommend Cyteen or Downbelow station over this unless it was a really hardcore reader. The series is more or less broken up into trilogies that are more or less complete, so those who have already read those other books or who wanted to give this a try could assign themselves a “stopping place” at the third or sixth book and still experience some resolution.

As I mentioned above, Cyteen or Downbelow station are probably more accessible, so I’d recommend those first unless someone was explicitly looking for something lengthy.

The telling

The telling / Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is widely known for things she’s done in the past – The left hand of darkness,

Brief plot summary

Sutty has been assigned as an Observer to a prospective member of the Ekumen. She arrives to discover a world controlled by a massive corporation bent on purging its own past.

Continue reading The telling

Planet X

I need to preface this post by saying yes this book actually exists and no I have no idea who thought it would be a good idea
Planet X / Michael Jan Friedman

Seeing the author’s name you may or may not have an idea what this book is, if you aren’t familiar with the title.

But here’s what it is:

A Star Trek TNG novel featuring THE X-MEN.

This was a real book, published by Simon & Schuster, and sold to real people, who presumably bought it.

I found it on the shelf at the library where I worked at the time and had to read it, if only to provide circulation statistics and keep this weird masterpiece on the shelves. It appears to have been donated to the library booksale and some weird selector (not me) decided to keep it in the collection.

And now I’m going to share it’s glory with you.

Brief plot summary

So, there’s like, the X-Men, right? And they’re all like WHOO WE HAVE SUPER MUTANT POWERS!

And then there’s like, the cast of the Enterprise and they’re all like LET US GO EXPLORE MAKE IT SO ENGAGE.

There’s also this totally awesome planet whose name is Xhaldia (I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be pronounced “Liefeld“) and, like, some of the people there keep changing in mysterious and bizarre ways… one could almost call them MUTANTS?

In a shocking twist, the mutated natives of Xhaldia are treated with fear and distrust by their “normal” brethren. Obviously this is a job too big for the Enterprise crew to handle, but luckily a random assortment of X-Men have somehow been teleported into the Star Trek universe to use their special brand of 1990s comic book diplomacy to solve this problem.

Did I mention that this is not the first time that the crew of the Enterprise has encountered the X-Men?

Yeah. The Enterprise crew was transported into the world of the X-Men in a miniseries called SECOND CONTACT that I have never read but it was written by Dan Abnett, better known as the author of approximately 50,000 Warhammer 40K novels and also that unsuccessful movie from this past summer, Guardians of the galaxy.

There are also several jokes about how Professor X looks so much like Captain Picard. Here’s the twist: this book was published in 1998, two years before Patrick Stewart (who played Captain Picard on Star Trek TNG as if you didn’t actually know that) would play Professor X in the 2000 live action X-Men movie.*

So not only does this book have THE MOST AMAZING SETUP EVER it also accurately predicts the future.

*Wikipedia tells me he was approached by Singer in 1997 so maybe Friedman had inside knowledge but that’s less fun.

Continue reading Planet X

Self-reference ENGINE

Self-reference ENGINE / Toh EnJoe

Why do you keep so many Freuds under the floor?

So. Now we come to Self-reference ENGINE, the final book in this series of posts (for now?).

Self-reference ENGINE is a novel

Self-reference ENGINE is a book of short stories

Self-reference ENGINE is an incoherent mess

Self-reference ENGINE is a blueprint, a literary virus that will infect the reader and as it propogates itself our world will become overwhelmingly strange

This post is gonna get pretentious.

Brief… summary

Self-reference ENGINE is structured as a series of… chapters? short stories?

I’ll call them vignettes. There are a couple of recurring themes, and some characters appear in multiple vignettes.

There are a number of possible reading orders. The book would probably make just as much sense following any of them. There’s a diagram at the beginning of the book that shows these.

Some of the recurring elements:

“self-organizing corpora of knowledge”

a nameless narrator who appears to be living backwards, or who is somehow unstuck in time

an invasion of furniture that grows from the ground and must be constantly pruned back

Continue reading Self-reference ENGINE

The quantum thief

The quantum thief / Hannu Rajaniemi

What did I just read?

The quantum thief is a quantum sf heist novel starring a futuristic version of Arsène Lupin. Rajaniemi has a number of fancy degrees in complicated fields, and this book (first in a series) almost requires a graduate degree to decipher.

Brief plot summary

Legendary thief Jean Le Flambeur is in prison. This prison takes the prisoner’s dilemma and puts it into literal practice: prisoners are confronted with each other and given the choice to attack or to cooperate. If a prisoner attacks and “kills” the other prisoner, they are rewarded. If the prisoners cooperate, they are both rewarded. A prisoner who is “killed” receives nothing.

Broken out of prison by a relatively human woman and her sentient ship (possibly also her lover) acting on behalf of the Sobornost, Le Flambeur travels to Mars where his task is to reconstruct his missing memories as the first step in a larger mission.

Continue reading The quantum thief

A highly unlikely scenario, or, A Neetsa Pizza employee’s guide to saving the world

A highly unlikely scenario, or, A Neetsa Pizza employee’s guide to saving the world / Rachel Cantor

In which things start to get complicated

A highly unlikely scenario, or, A Neetsa Pizza employee’s guide to saving the world starts a new phase of my “slightly more demanding sf” series. Specifically, it starts the phase of books by people whose personal qualifications are pretty daunting.

To say that this colours their writing would be something of an understatement.

Brief … “plot” summary

A highly unlikely scenario, or, A Neetsa Pizza employee’s guide to saving the world follows Leonard, a customer service rep for a pizza chain in a world largely controlled by fast food companies. He spends most of his days taking calls and taking care of his nephew. His sister disappears regularly on trips with her “book club”, which may or may not be a Maoist revolutionary organization.

Leonard enjoys his life, but things take a turn for the bizarre when he starts to receive calls from Marco Polo …

So how is it?

If the title of the book or the plot introduction above didn’t clue you in, A highly unlikely scenario, or, A Neetsa Pizza employee’s guide to saving the world is a weird book.

It’s also probably my favorite on this list. It packs a complex plot with a heavy dose of silliness. It’s like the best part of Snow crash climbed in a blender with A brief history of time and The adventures of Menahem-Mendel and made a delicious sf smoothie.

Mmm… smoothies.

I think I may have gotten slightly off topic here.

Anyways, it’s a good book that starts slow and ends up frolicking in a field of flowers made of Kabbalistic revisions of quantum mechanics textbooks.

This is a book where Scottish tapas is a thing.

This is a book with a protagonist who is a devout Pythagorean (anti-beans and all), another protagonist who is a follower of Roger Bacon, and everybody has a brightly coloured ‘fro.

If you are pulling a Sam the Eagle face right now, this book isn’t for you.

If you need “justifications” in your books, then this book will probably make you angry.

If you have no background in Jewish mysticism or Gnosticism this book might be a little confusing.

It’s a book where time travel is one of the central plot devices, which is something I usually don’t care for. In this case, it works, partially because Cantor’s universe is so delightfuly absurd that the time travel elements are one of the more mundane aspects of the story.

It’s a book that can be read on multiple levels. If you try to read it as a straight sf adventure you’ll probably leave disappointed because the absurdity that works on the other levels makes the base-level reading incredibly disjointed.

It adopts the satire of commercialism that makes the beginning of Snow crash so much fun, but maintains that tone throughout instead of getting sidetracked by the sudden appearance of an action movie. It works on that level. There’s a heavy dose of old-school mysticism here as well and enough namedropping that if you’re not already familiar with them it’s not going to be an enlightening experience. That’s the source of the “more demanding” aspect of this book, moreso than complex scientific/technological concepts like the next two books in this series.


I loved it, but it’s definitely not for everybody.  I’ve never actually recommended it to anybody (in my defense, I read it right about the time I quit my public library job). This is dystopian sf as portrayed by the Muppets. If that sounds interesting to you, then this is the book for you.

If you hate the Muppets, stop reading this blog immediately because I can’t believe you hate the Muppets seriously that’s like hating joy.

Specific recommendations:
Snow crash / Neal Stephenson
The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy
Moonchild / Aleister Crowley
The Illuminatus! trilogy / Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
And the generic recommendations from this series:

The world of the end / Ofir Touché Gafla.
Annihilation / Jeff VanderMeer. First published 2014.
Man in the empty suit / Sean Ferrell.
The quantum thief / Hannu Rajaniemi
Self-reference ENGINE / Toh EnJoe


Annihilation / Jeff VanderMeer. First published 2014.

Here’s the next in my “slightly more demanding sf” series. Annihilation is the first book of the Southern reach trilogy by weird fiction author Jeff VanderMeer. It’s a little bit different than the other ones on the list, as it’s an expedition novel with touches of Lovecraft and Cronenberg.

Brief plot summary

Area X is a mysterious part of what is probably the North American continent. For years it has been completely cut off from the rest of the world. The first expedition reported that Area X was a veritable Garden of Eden. The second expedition ended in mass suicide. Every expedition since has met with an unhappy end. Annihilation follows the members of the twelth expedition (all unnamed): an anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and a biologist. Narrated by the biologist, the book tracks the twelfth expedition as they make a series of terrifying discoveries about Area X and the previous expeditions.

Continue reading Annihilation

The world of the end

The world of the end / Ofir Touché Gafla. First published in 2004; first English publication 2013.

As promised in my previous post, here’s the next one in my series of “slightly more demanding sf” books.

It’s worth noting that 3 of these books are written by people with post-graduate degrees in the hard sciences (Quantum thief, Self-reference ENGINE, and A highly unlikely scenario, or, A Neetsa Pizza employee’s guide to saving the world*). Sean Ferrell, author of Man in the empty suit, apparently developed a BBS-based MUD in the 90s. So lots of STEM expertise here.

Anyways, back to The world of the end.

First things first: this is a book about suicide. Suicide is a major thematic emphasis here so if you find that upsetting then this isn’t the book for you.

*I am going to continue to write out this title in its entirety because I like it and it’s probably my favorite of the books in this series of reviews.

Brief plot summary

Ben Mendelssohn specializes in writing the endings for other people’s work. Overcome by grief at the loss of his wife, he stages an elaborate suicide in order to join her in the afterlife.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the afterlife’s a bit crowded.

Perhaps surprisingly, the afterlife is full of beaurocracy.

The story of Ben’s search for his  wwife is intercut with a series of chapters set in modern Israel following various lives. One chapter focuses on the birth, life, and death of a photograph. Many of these chapters deal with the online correspondence of a group of Salman Rushdie officionados. The connection between these chapters and the main narrative are left ambiguous for the majority of the book.

Ben is forced to hire a private detective to assist him in locating his wife. Their journey takes them from the city of Gaymorrah (populated entirely by gay men) to the mysterious forest of family trees.

Continue reading The world of the end

Man in the empty suit

Man in the empty suit / Sean Ferrell. First published 2013.

Man in the empty suit is a Vonnegutesque book about time travel, identity, and some other things.


It’s also a murder mystery, kind of.

It’s kind of confusing.

Brief plot description

Every (subjective) year Hiro Protagonist a time traveler attends his birthday celebration, held in an abandoned hotel in the year 2071. While en route to “The Convention”, the 39 year-old version of the time traveler discovers something shocking: the murdered corpse of the 40 year-old version of himself. Encouraged to solve the mystery by his older versions, the time traveler has one (subjective) year to solve the mystery of his own murder, or else he will become the victim.

Continue reading Man in the empty suit