Reading List: Science Fiction

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Space, experiments, artificial intelligence, aliens, genetics: science fiction is a fascinating genre where almost anything can happen. We have both science fiction classics (like Jurassic Park) and new science fiction (like The Martian) available at the library. Skim through this list to find your next sci-fi read!

*book descriptions are from the library website and/or the publishers

 

2001, A Space Odyssey by Arthur Clarke

This allegory about humanity’s exploration of the universe and the universe’s reaction to humanity was the basis for director Stanley Kubrick’s immortal film, and lives on as a landmark achievement in storytelling.

 

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Through journal entries, sixteen-year-old Miranda describes her family’s struggle to survive after a meteor hits the moon, causing worldwide tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.

 

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

For twelve thousand years, the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Sheldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future–to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years.

 

Contact by Carl Sagan

Astrophysicist Rebecca Blake deciphers long-awaited signals from space, persuades world leaders to construct a machine that many consider a Trojan Horse, and journeys into space for an epochal encounter.

 

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Timeline by Michael Crichton

A Yale history professor travels back in time to 15th century France and gets stuck, unable to return to the present. His colleagues organize a rescue and upon landing in France become involved in the Hundred Years War.

 

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South.

 

Double Helix by Nancy Werlin

Eighteen-year-old Eli discovers a shocking secret about his life and his family while working for a Nobel Prize-winning scientist whose specialty is genetic engineering.

 

Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Charlie, realizing his intelligence is not what it should be, ponders over the possibility of an operation, similar to one making a mouse into a genius.

 

Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien

In a future world baked dry by the sun and divided into those who live inside the wall and those who live outside it, sixteen-year-old midwife Gaia Stone is forced into a difficult choice when her parents are arrested and taken into the city.

 

To find more science fiction books and movies, explore the “science fiction” subject through our library catalog.

Book Review: “Machines Like Me” by Ian McEwan

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I read Atonement a few months ago (you can read the review here) and fell in love with how Ian McEwan writes. So when his new book about an AI man came out this year, I had to get my hands on it. Machines Like Me is about an impulsive man, Charlie, who buys an AI named Adam. Their interactions grow increasingly strange and morally compromising as they navigate dilemmas with their mutual love interest, Miranda. The setting is an alternative 1980s England.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What Machines Like Me gets right:  I loved reading about the philosophy and morality behind AI versus humans, and Adam was fascinating to me from the beginning. It was hard for me not to read ahead to see what he would do next. I mean, he figures out how to make haikus! And his version of morals- well, let’s just say it doesn’t mesh well with his human companions.

There was a weird tone throughout the book- one of both curiosity and dread- that kept me interested even through some of the less exciting scenes. Everyone who Adam comes into contact with is a test- what will he say to them? Will they recognize him as an AI? And why did Charlie buy him in the first place? Machines Like Me will keep you guessing until the end. And the ending, while a little unexpected, is mostly satisfying.

What Machines Like Me does wrong: As usual, Ian McEwan’s writing is superb, and I was hooked on the premise from the beginning. However, I couldn’t help but think there was a lot of unrecognized potential. AI is such a controversial topic, but McEwan’s story sizes it down to make it seem almost pedestrian. I thought Adam could be a true villain, but I think his potential was ultimately unrealized.

Charlie and Miranda were both boring/frustrating people, so they were hard to read about at times (especially because Charlie narrates the story). Charlie makes the weirdest, most random decisions, which is entertaining but so annoying. It’s like he doesn’t think about any consequences, ever- which is dangerous to do when dealing with AI.

Who should read Machines Like Me: Readers who are interested in AI, science fiction, and history. The alternative 1980s setting would be especially fun to read about for fans of Alan Turing.

Who shouldn’t read Machines Like Me: Readers who don’t care for science fiction or don’t know much about the history of AI. This book will be a little confusing if you are not familiar with certain historical events.

 

Machines Like Me is not currently available at the library, but you can request it through Interlibrary Loan.

Content note: brief suggestive scenes, brief language. There is also a subplot that involves a terrible crime.

Matthew’s Monday Movie: “Blade Runner”

Director Ridley Scott has a long history of making epic and awe-inspiring films and Blade Runner has got to be at the top of that list. Its affect on the science fiction genre as a whole cannot be overstated. It has also heavily influenced both video games and anime for its style and futuristic prospects of what the world may evolve into in time.

The film is set in 2019 Los Angeles in a dark and dreary dystopia, where mankind has adapted to become a technocracy influenced by powerful corporations. Man has mastered interstellar flight and colonies are forming in space. The key to this success has been through the use of androids called “Replicants” who have become so life-like and self-aware that they are nearly indistinguishable from humans and as a result banned from Earth. If a Replicant manages to smuggle themselves to Earth, the police hire a “Blade Runner” to track down the android and kill it.

This brings us to our protagonist, Rick Deckard, a disillusioned former cop who was famous for his ability to eliminate Replicants. Deckard is played by Harrison Ford, who was just coming off the success of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Deckard is tasked to hunt down four Replicants who have committed several murders and illegally entered the city. They are led by Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer. Batty is a combat synthetic soldier with advanced tactical training and genius levels of intelligence.

Deckard travels to meet Eldon Tyrell of the Tyrell corporation, who is responsible for creation of the Replicants. While there, he learns there is a psychological test designed to trigger an emotional response in Replicants in order to distinguish them from humans. He also meets Dr. Tyrell’s daughter, Rachael (Sean Young), and soon becomes infatuated with her.

The next phase of the plot involves Deckard hunting the Replicants down one by one while also pursuing a relationship with Rachael.  The Replicant leader Roy Batty soon learns that he and the other Replicants have a built in half-life of a little more than three years. Realizing this, he seeks to meet his maker and acquire more time to live. In the final phase of the film we see Deckard battling the Replicants in a life and death struggle.

The themes expressed in this film are as numerous as they are profound.  In the end we are left questioning the very nature of humanity as the Replicants struggle to survive. They have hopes, dreams, memories, and the fear that all self-aware beings share: the fear of death.

Actor Rutger Hauer unfortunately passed away on July 19th of this year.  During filming, Hauer rewrote his character’s final lines in the film, and they have been praised ever since as one of the most moving speeches of all time in the sci-fi genre. In memory of the late great Rutger Hauer I’ll shall share it here:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Blade Runner has left quite a mark on pop culture and cinema and I do believe we will continue to see its influence in novels and films for years to come.

Blade Runner is available at the Union University Library.

* Please note it is rated R for violence, brief nudity, and some language.*

 

 

 

 

Book Review: “Brief Answers To The Big Questions” by Stephen Hawking

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Published after the death of the famous, accomplished scientist Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions is Hawking’s final words on the state of the earth and space. Throughout his career, Hawking was noted for his theories about black holes, time, and the universe. A film about his life called The Theory of Everything was released in 2014; star Eddie Redmayne provides the foreword for Brief Answers to the Big Questions. Like many others, Redmayne was both intimidated and awed by Hawking- who, in spite of his attempts to make science available to the general layperson, was still a formidable genius set apart from others. This side of Hawking definitely comes to light in Brief Answers to the Big Questions. In fact, I think Hawking unfortunately had a lower view of humanity which affected how he perceived the past, present, and future.

There are 10 questions asked of Hawking in this book:

  1. Is there a God?
  2. How did it all begin?
  3. Is there other intelligent life in the universe?
  4. Can we predict the future?
  5. What is inside a black hole?
  6. Is time travel possible?
  7. Will we survive on earth?
  8. Should we colonise space?
  9. Will artificial intelligence outsmart us?
  10. How do we shape the future?

 

I won’t give away Hawking’s answers, but many of them can actually be found in Hawking’s other books, like A Brief History of TimeIn general, Hawking does take a more negative view of how humans will handle some of these big questions. For example, in regards to surviving on earth, Hawking muses:

We can be an ignorant, unthinking lot. When we have reached similar crises [global warming and climate destruction] in our history, there has usually been somewhere else to colonise . . .  But now there is no new world. No Utopia around the corner. We are running out of space and the only places to go to are other worlds.

Yet Hawking believes that, if more people become interested in science and space travel, humans may be able to find a new way of sustainable living.

To leave Earth demands a concerted global approach- everyone should join in. We need to rekindle the excitement of the early days of space travel in the 1960s. The technology is almost within our grasp. It is time to explore other solar systems. Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves.

Overall, Hawking answers each question by explaining his research and that of others. He gives his opinion as a well-learned scientist without allowing for theological implications, since he believes that they are unnecessary. This can obviously be frustrating for Christians and other religious people.

Still, the special thing about Hawking’s writing is his ability to make large, abstract concepts make sense to people who are not scientists. I may not fully grasp every aspect of Hawking’s work, but I do understand Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle because of Hawking. Hawking made “the big questions” more accessible to people, and for that (along with his scientific discoveries and his inspirational life journey), he will certainly be missed.

 

*Read Brief Answers to Big Questions for an overview of Hawking’s theories and philosophy. It is available here at the library.