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Worth Reading - Classics

I just read Chuqi's posting of recent reads and it reminded me that I wanted to post some of my favorite books here. It'll have a slant towards Scifi and Technology, not because I think there's nothing else worth reading, but because that's what I read most. Besides, I don't need to tell you that having read some of the Classics (like Faust if you're German, or any Shakespeare for Anglophones, or the Bible for pretty much everyone) is definitely something that'll make you a more rounded person in the end.

But of course, there are other books that I've read and enjoyed, and I think that others will greatly enjoy them if they just knew about them. So, I thought I'd prepare a few short 'book reports' and post them here. Let's start off with books that I consider classics, simply because they've either been around that long, or because everyone knows their titles, premise, or has seen the movie, or simply because I think they should be mentioned among classics (hey, it's my page...).

Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon
While most of Jules Verne's works have a certain naivete to them, all of them are guaranteed to be good reading, as well as containing wonderful Victorian-era scifi that spawned an entire subgenre (Steampunk). This is technology that you can actually understand, and which you can watch as it is growing and developing. From the Earth to the Moon is the beautiful exception to these conventions, and thus has gained its spot as my favorite Verne book.

And if your French isn't as atrocious as mine, do yourself the favor and read this in the original language. It is always better to read the original, if you can. Other books by Verne I recommend would of course include 20 000 Leagues Beneath the Sea (and its unknown but wonderful spin-off The Mysterious Island) and Around the World in Eighty Days, because they're even better than all the movies, and you owe it to the author to read the original. Oh, and in the 'unknown but great' list, there's also The Begum's Fortune.

Ray Bradbury's R is for Rocket
This is a collection of very odd short stories, all "rocket-themed". There is something for everyone in there, and Bradbury is such a wonderful writer who knows how to touch your soul with his insights into human nature. The titular story starts off innocently enough, but then you are taking a ride on a rocket through a thousand years of time, visiting everything from futuristic science to Fantasy to Utopic literature.

This book illustrates why Scifi isn't really a genre, but rather a device. And while you get this book, also get Bradbury's famous Fahrenheit 451. It's a whole book of more of Bradbury's strengths, combined with the mindset that still makes me want to hit someone who writes into books with a ball-pen. (Note: I couldn't find a link to this book at Amazon that could still be bought - you apparently need to go to the used books store for this one)

Robert A Heinlein's The Cat who Walks through Walls
The back says that this was 'a thinking man's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.' Now, this is fully true, but you just won't understand what was meant by that phrase until you've read it. This book is just as complicated and absurd as HHGTTG, but with a much subtler humor, and a much more grown-up story. Through the first couple of pages, it looks like a Scifi-thriller, but in the middle, you realize that you've been mistaken. It's confusing, but in a good way. Coherent, and consistent in itself. And yes, there seem to be more books, I just haven't read them yet.

Gordon R. Dickson's Dorsai!
This book is part of Dickson's Childe Cycle, and it demonstrates how you can write a story about a messianic, super-human person without sounding like the Bible or Dune. Apart from that, it provides a wonderful picture of Donal Graeme's mind, which works as clear as a clockwork, as well as offering a great portrayal of military tactics. This is not great, broad, galaxy-level tactics as in Card's Ender's Game, this is the footsoldier in battle, staying alive not by breaking bones, but by thinking ahead, being stealthy and letting surprise and convention work in his favor.

Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game
This is one of the books that you read, expecting one thing, to be completely surprised. It's the story of Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a third, a genius prodigy born in a world where usually two children are all that's allowed. He owes his life to the ingenuity of sister Valentine and his brother Peter, who were promising but didn't satisfy the government.

The government is fighting a war against the Hive Queen, leader of an insect people, and losing it. And they need their new genius general to do that: Andrew. Valentine was too compassionate, while Peter was too vicious. They hope to have found the perfect blend with Ender, and so they enlist him in battle school. But time is running out, and they have to hurry Andrew through school, cutting corners. Will Andrew make it through Battle School alive? And, once he's finished, will he be the savior they've been trying to create? And moreover, will there still be something left to save?

And is all of this even of importance at all?

Bram Stoker's Dracula
One of the most-copied, but least-read books in the whole genre of fantastic books. Not really Scifi, but a classic nonetheless. The bad part about this book is that it's written as a collection of letters between the people involved in the story. This makes it a little stressful to read and gives it a kind of in-your-face verisimilitude. Luckily, this book is so strong that, after the first switch in narrator at the latest, you won't even notice anymore.

The movie adaptation (and most other movies involving the 'Dracula' character) don't do it justice. Surprisingly, the best adaptations I've found so far were the parodies, in particular Polanski's Dance of the Vampires and Mel Brooks' Dracula somehow seem to have understood the original best.

You owe it to Stoker to find out about the "real" Dracula, who is more indebted to the futuristic intelligent villain than to the man-eating monster he's often portrayed as.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
The movie adaptation with Robert DeNiro manages to wonderfully cature the spirit of this one just fine. Frankenstein is a scientist, who performs a feat of hubris and creates a human, sinew by sinew, vein by vein. Shortly after his crude construct gains life, he looks at it and is shocked. His masterwork is a monster.

And that's where most adaptations or movies 'inspired by' this book usually derail: Frankenstein is The beauty and the Beast, not Freddy Krueger. It is the innocent that is hunted, until it is left with the choice to fight back or die. All the while looking for its humanity.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton's The Man who was Thursday: A Nightmare
This is one of those stories you'll think back to and go: It was great, but what was it really about? On the surface, it's the story of a police officer assigned to infiltrate a group of anarchists, which he achieves in a cunning and sometimes ironically hilarious fashion. But underneath the surface it's ... well, nightmarishly surreal, extremely well-written. I can't really do it justice. Just read it. It's a thin book, and Chesterton's wonderfully evocative style will paint pictures in your head, and Gabriel Syme will grow close to your heart.

Frank Herbert's Dune
By now, everybody has probably seen the David Lynch movie, or Scifi's new version. While, seen solely as movies, Lynch's is obviously the better and more innovative of the two, the Scifi Channel's movies are the more faithful adaptations (here, Children of Dune is a must see, while the first one can be skipped if you've seen the Lynch movie or read the book). In particular, Dune really doesn't have the happy ending Lynch makes it out to be, which is hinted at in Dune, but only really bears fruit in Dune Messiah and late in Children of Dune.

Sadly, the sequel, God Emperor of Dune isn't really that good a book. At least to me, the plot was rather thin and with the main protagonist being an almost inhuman worm, it didn't capture me as much, even though I'd felt for him in previous books. In addition, Herbert's philosophy (which I usually liked) runs away with him here and proves almost impenetrable as a mix of politics and economics.

 
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