Going Past Genre: Brain Food For Academic Anorexics

All Techies ain’t necessarily Trekkies as well. There’s a softer, more thoughtful side to sci-fi and other genre fiction that escapes most readers. Beyond Star Wars and Star Trek, Middle Earth and The Matrix, Harry Potter and Robert Langdon, there’s an entire galaxy of cool, challenging literature out there. These are books to test your central processing unit with, get you to boot up your brain a bit and gain an IQ point or two.

Cover of "Shadow & Claw: The First Half o...

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Like a really good decadent chocolate cake, Gene Wolfe’s writing is so dark it can get you dizzy and so dense it can cause indigestion. Wolfe churns out strong stuff that should come with guidelines describing how well they go with your choice of chemical stimulant. The four-volume Book of the New Sun is his magnum opus, an unclassifiable and unsummarizeable work that has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses (but is much more fun to actually read). The saga is set in a future so far ahead that everything has been rendered unrecognizable by entropy. If you can get past the fantastical cover art, tricky vocabulary, and murky starting chapters you may discover a work of literary genius that is not entirely what it seems. Imagine the creepy allegories of C.S. Lewis layered with the convoluted semiotics of Umberto Eco, all presented in glam rock trappings. Coming to understand The Book of the New Sun is like playing a game, solving a meticulously constructed puzzle that rewards the vigilant with an unforgettable reading experience and an overwhelming knock-out of a story.

Iain Banks’ novels of The Culture show how space opera can be upbeat and funny yet still profound and intelligent. The series reads like Douglas Adams with depth or Ursula Le Guin with a sense of humor. Somehow, Banks makes Objectivism accessible and downright engaging, Ayn Rand would be very happy. The Culture is an intergalactic society sustained by principles of both anarchy and elegance. Where nobody has to do anything and everybody wants for nothing, but people still get into trouble anyway. Having honed his chops in conventional literary fiction, Banks spins sarcasm, comedy, violence, and philosophy together in a cavalier, laid-back style that’s sure to entertain and impress even those most resistant to the science fiction genre. The Player of Games is his most straightforward and accessible book, while the vertiginous Use of Weapons is widely considered as his best (although not recommended for the faint of heart).

Cover of "In the Garden of Iden: A Novel ...

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Sky Coyote

Sky Coyote (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Company series by Kage Baker deals with two favorite punching bags of angsty genre fiction – immortality and time travel. Baker transcends the usual whiny clichés of these themes by bombarding us with a troupe of distinct and colorful characters and a delectably meaty back-story to chew on. Think of the Highlander movies or Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles stripped of much of their existential moralizing and supernatural mumbo-jumbo, plus the across-the-ages romantic passion of Somewhere In Time crossed with some Alias-style covert action. Baker treats time and history like an interactive tollway with many secret off-ramps, gleefully ignoring the issue of paradoxes and liberally sprinkling anachronisms as background flavor. The first two books, In The Garden of Iden and Sky Coyote, are required reading to really get into the subtleties of the whole series, but like a loaf of Gardenia bread, they’re both good enough on their own (Sky Coyote in particular is a hilarious page-turner). The Company’s cyborgs are immortal beings suffering from a refreshing lack of ennui, indestructible and ageless freaks who actually like who they are and what they’re doing. We get to know their fetishes and foibles as we’re treated to a rollicking adventure stretching across the width and breadth of humanity, from prehistory to the end of the world as we know it.

The Diamond Age

The Diamond Age (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A montage showing author Neal Stephenson and f...

A montage showing author Neal Stephenson and four historical characters from his book series The Baroque Cycle: (counterclockwise from top left) Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Electress Sophia of Hanover and William of Orange (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neal Stephenson’s blockbuster novel Cryptonomicon is worth the price of purchase based on his strikingly accurate depiction of Manila alone. He nails the nuances of our very own city both in its prewar Pearl-of-the-Orient glory and current state of modern semi-decay. Take that Alex Garland! Part high-tech treasure-hunting caper, part mathematical treatise, and part sweeping war-torn epic, Cryptonomicon acts as a prequel and warm-up of sorts to Stephenson’s most ambitious creation, The Baroque Cycle. This series consists of three best-selling nine-hundred-page novels, all focused on obscure topics of cryptography, monetary theory, and philosophy. Stephenson even wrote them with a fountain pen to get himself into the mindset of the eras in which the books are set. While the Baroque Cycle makes for more interesting than enjoyable reading (his other books are more entertaining), Stephenson’s radical concepts never fail to pack a punch. The Matrix movies heavily borrowed their core mythos from his seminal cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. But his most subversive ideas may be found in The Diamond Age, where he envisions a world transformed by nano-technology, with citizenship defined by philosophical affiliation and not by nationality. The closest he’s come to a conventional potboiler is the political thriller Interface, in which Big Brother takes over the US elections. After this expedition into the Baroque, who knows what realm Stephenson will subvert next?

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manual, 2005

Corpses and Coincidence

first published 2002

Cover of "Death du Jour (Temperance Brenn...

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Kathy Reichs‘ novel Death du Jour has a B-movie thriller’s plot and an art film’s production design. Every year, forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan commutes between Quebec and the Carolinas, teaching in two universities and helping solve crimes in laboratories thousands of miles apart. What most distinguishes this quite satisfactory detective novel are its exceptionally refreshing locales. The author’s bracing depictions of murder and corpses in Montreal and the chillier regions of French Canada go down like ice water. Whereas her scenes set in the antebellum American South emanate a honeysuckle-perfumed charm. Because of Ms. Reichs’ deft descriptive abilities, I readily forgave her for asking me to swallow the first obvious coincidence she throws at us. But by the second coincidence, one may start raising one’s eyebrows. When she finally slaps us in the face with lights-a-blazing coincidence number three, one can’t help but maybe feel a little resentful of the plot’s disingenuousness. Admittedly, there is enough suspense to keep the story moving at a functional pace. And yet mystery aficionados might be able to predict the revelations while they’re still whole continents away. But in this genre of fiction, even though there may be few legitimate surprises and the grand dénouement rings artificial, it’s the shivers and goose bumps along the way that count.  And this book can sure bring them on, at least as effectively as a pack of frozen tarantulas.

In her heroine Temperance “Tempe” Brennan we get the familiar patented feisty, noble, divorced, unconventionally attractive wonder woman. Tempe feels a lot like an idealized template of the author’s own fantasy persona. She’s so decent and proficient she could be an action figure. And for accessories she even has a beautiful, intelligent daughter and a gruffly sexy Canadian detective lover.  We also must not forget the family cat, who even gets the spotlight for a couple of chapters. In fact, it is in this cat subplot where Reichs effectively milks some genuine distress, grief, and subsequent relief.

Reichs parades most of forensics’ tricks and stunts for maximum reader awe and titillation. We get whiz-bang demonstrations of anthropometrics, genealogy, DNA analysis, and entomology. And of course there’s sure to be lots of autopsy action. The good thing going for Ms. Reichs, a real-life forensic anthropologist, is that she can write about these specialized subjects with convincing authority. The jargon and science sound real and practical. She’s rather skillful with the guts and gore too. Her descriptions of some of the unfortunate victims will definitely affect the squeamish. If character interaction is what you’re after, then Tempe’s flirtations with rugged detective Andrew Ryan are something to look forward to. Reichs is actually a very good writer whose plots and characters may just need a smidgen more artistry in their construction. Her prose is crystalline and her dialogue textured. I believe that fans of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta books may find her work a welcome alternative. And if you’re at all interested in morbid details then you’re in for a treat with this one. For our post-mortem findings, Death du Jour is a book full of fascinating elements suspended within an incongruous framework. It’s enjoyable enough, even potentially thrilling, if you don’t analyze the plot too much. Sticking true to the theme, that makes this novel a lot like a dead body. It looks a lot better when it hasn’t been dissected. Well, in forensic fiction, wouldn’t that be a relief?

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

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