Growing up, summers were the time when my favorite TV shows aired repeats of the previous season, allowing you to catch-up a bit , visit again with old friends, or discover a new favorite. Today with streaming, repeats have become a thing of the past and it’s all about new, new, new content.
This summer, I’ve been visiting a few old friends on the printed page — both through re-reading of physical copies and audiobooks. It’s been an interesting journey and I’ve been struck by a few things.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
It’s probably been twenty-plus years since I read Ender’s Game, so I figured it was time to visit this one again. I did wonder how knowing the twist at the end of the story might change my reaction to certain scenes and characters.
While knowing where it’s all leading certainly lends a different light to certain portions of the story, it still didn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the novel this time around.
Like many of my re-reads this summer, what struck me most were the details of the story that have slipped my memory. One is how brutal Ender Wiggin actually is — backed into a corner with two bullies, Ender kills them both, though the powers that be don’t tell him that. Another is some of the future technologies that Orson Scott Card has predicted. Sure, we don’t have a battle school just yet, but at this point, it’s probably only a matter of time. And don’t get me started on the thread of Peter and Valentine hiding behind pseudonyms to whip up public support and opinion to various causes.
But what also strikes me is still the strengths of this story. It’s a page-turner and one that still intrigues me.
That’s not to say that it’s necessarily perfect. I’ve become a father since I first read it and I’ve got to admit some of Card’s dismissing of females strikes me as a bit out of touch and out of step. Even with potentially strong female characters like Petra and Valentine, Card is still dismissive, treating them as outside the norm. I do feel like when I eventually get to the point that I introduce this novel to my daughter, we will have to have a conversation or two about Card and his particular beliefs and how they influenced his writing.
The Caves of Steel by Issac Asimov
In many ways, Issac Asimov is my sci-fi comfort food — when it feels like the world is going crazy around me, it’s nice to visit one of my first entry points to the genre and “discover” new things about my old favorites.
In anticipation of the upcoming Foundation, tv series, I’ve re-read a couple of entries there. But it was while re-reading Prelude to Foundation that I was reminded that it’s been a decade or so since I read the Lije Bailey novels. So, I immediately jumped over to my local library and checked out the audio version of The Caves of Steel.
Like much of Asimov’s other output, I was struck by how timely this novel was in many ways — and how it wasn’t quite so timely in others.
Reading about vast cities with polarized groups of people on the side of an issue (in this case robots) echoed a lot of what’s happening now when it feels like we have to choose a side or a tribe and can never think beyond that choice or group. The overall arc of an empire that may be in its final moments and ready to plunge the universe into chaos was leaders try to use various situations to hold onto the power they’ve acquired for themselves also rings eerily like something that might be happening today.
And while the big ideas were floating around, I also found myself enjoying this novel a great deal, yet again. The mystery struck me as not quite as sophisticated as it had upon previous readings, but the world-building that Asimov does is nicely done. His male characters also come off very well — especially Bailey as he’s forced to confront his prejudices and maybe make a change to his worldview.
That said, Asimov’s female characters don’t come across as well. Bailey’s wife, Jessie, starts off well, but her character seems to regress as the novel goes along. Again, I feel like I am going to have to have a conversation with my daughter about this novel when she eventually reads it.
Still, I enjoyed this one and I’m eager to visit the rest of the series again.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
How does one review The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without the review being a long series of witty or hilarious (or both) quotes from the book?
This is a seminal book in the sci-fi genre, if only because it’s so darn well known and because a lot of “funny” sci-fi writers since that time have tried to do what Douglas Adams makes look so effortless — be devastatingly funny.
Like many, I’ve experienced multiple versions of Adams’ famous story — radio show, TV show, movie, video-game, novel. The interesting thing is that while Adams starts from the same point, he often diverges wildly in where the story goes along the way. Yes, he will still hit some of the same notes and build to the same jokes, but he doesn’t always follow the same path to get there. It’s why I can enjoy the movie without being mad that they changed things — Adams never told this story the same way twice, so why should the movie be bound to tell it religiously tied to the book?
The first entry in the series is a light, fun read that often gets brought up as a good starting point for sci-fi/fantasy book groups to start out reading. I feel like this is a mistake because, again, you just end up quoting favorite passages to each other.
That said, this time around I was struck by just how masterfully funny Adams is — and how observant. His pointing out the absurdity of things (say, for example, our fascination with digital watches (ask your parents, kids!)) is nicely done. The asides for entries from the guides are well observed and help fill in gaps (it’s almost like having a companion ask the Doctor for an explanation…and since Adams worked as script editor for Doctor Who, it’s easy to draw this comparison). The plot, such as it is, moves along from funny showcase to funny showcase.
Look, if you haven’t read this yet, you probably should. And if you haven’t read it in a while, it’s a fun book that will distract you from how cruddy the world can be sometimes. That alone puts it on my list of favorite books of all time — even if I think the radio version is just a bit funnier.