12 Science Fiction Books to Help You Escape Earth for Awhile

There is nothing quite like exploring the universe. Since we can’t physically go take a vacation among the stars, here are some books to let you do so from the comfort of your own home.

The Martian

Andy Weir’s The Martian is a great getaway, even if it means being stranded on Mars. Despite the serious predicament, Mark Whatney keeps a fun attitude as he tries to survive. If you liked the movie and prefer another story by Weir, he does have another novel titled Artemis that is also a fun read. It takes place on a colonized Moon and is also filled with fun, scientifically plausible events.

The Forever War

Joe Haldeman’s story of intergalactic warfare against an unknown enemy includes the realistic effects of time versus traveling near the speed of light. This story follows William Mandella as he tries to survive the war, and learns to survive with how the war has changed him.

Dune

With the new Dune movie set to release at the end of the year, I suspect many people will read this book for the first time within the next several months. Unfortunately, some people will also forego reading the book and only watch the movie believing it will be just as good. The book is almost always better. I have high hopes for the new movie, but I know how good the book is. I only read the first book since it can be read as a standalone story. I am uncertain if I will read the entire series, but there is more story out there if you find yourself wanting more after the initial book. The first six books were written by Frank Herbert. All other sequels were written by his son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson. Though this book came out in 1964, it reads like it could have been written last year.

The Princess of Mars

This is the first book in a series most commonly known as John Carter of Mars. I discovered these books after watching the movie John Carter back in 2012. I thought the movie was entertaining but it differed greatly from the books. Interesting fact, the movie was released exactly 100 years after the first book/story was published. They were written by Edgar Rice Burroughs who is best known for his Tarzan books.

Ender’s Game

This is another series of which I have only read the first book. Orson Scott Card wrote plenty of sequels to keep you satisfied if you are left wanting more, but I was okay reading just the first one. I may try more of the series at another time. I first read this book when the movie was set to release in 2013. I thought the movie was a great adaptation of the film.

The Hunger Games

Okay, this one technically takes place entirely on Earth, but it is an interesting series. Suzanne Collins’s dystopian trilogy recently had an addition, released last week, titled The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes which takes place 64 years prior to the events of the original The Hunger Games book.

Solaris

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem is a psychological ride originally published in 1970. It takes place above the planet of Solaris which contains a sentient ocean. Kris Kelvin is sent to the planet in an attempt to understand what this alien life, which envelopes the entire planet, could be and what it can do.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

What’s better than an escape? An escape that let’s you laugh. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an absurd journey that will not only get you away from current events, it will remind you how crazy things can be when viewed objectively (and at a slight angle). The Earth is destroyed to make way for an intergalactic bypass? What? Douglas Adams was a treasure.

All System’s Red

All Systems Red is the first book in The Murderbot Diaries. Murderbot, as it calls itself, is a machine/human construct designed to protect humans who are surveying new planets. Murderbot would rather watch TV than even be around humans, but it must do its job so the company that owns it doesn’t find out that it hacked its governor module (the thing that makes sure it follows every order). The first four books are novellas. The fifth book is a full novel and was released earlier this month. There will be another novella continuing the series slated to be released next April. I adore this series.

The Shadow of the Torturer

Gene Wolfe’s series The Book of the New Sun begins with The Shadow of the Torturer. This series is unlike anything I have read before. Once you get into it, you can’t help but keep reading to know where Severian’s adventures will lead him. Each chapter gives a better glimpse into the world Severian inhabits. But is it a distant future version of Earth, or is it perhaps one of a distant past, or is it Earth at all? It could be any of the three. The real question is, how did humanity end up like this?

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

I recently saw some posts floating around stating that the book version of the third Star Wars film is actually superior to the film itself. I read the book a long time ago, shortly before the film released, and I remember it being great. Matthew Stover did a great job bringing the characters to life and the book delves more into the psyche of Anakin. I read a lot of Star Wars books when I was younger and there are some great stories. Yeah, I know, most of the books are considered non-canon now because of the new movies and stuff, but who cares if they are/aren’t cannon if they are good. Some of my favorite Star Wars stories are technically still cannon and they are in book format. These being the Republic Commando series. If you like Star Wars at all, and haven’t read any of the books, check some out.

Neuromancer

William Gibson gives readers an amazing ride with Neuromancer. Published in 1984, this book has influenced many other science fiction stories. This is the The Matrix meets The Ghost in the Shell before either existed. Though the iconic first line has already become dated, this book remains a great read for any science fiction fans.

Writing is Like Baking a Cake

This may seem like a weird analogy, but hear me out because I think it has a lot of merit. Writing is like baking a cake, in many ways, with books being the end result. Books are cake. We have all eaten some cake well before trying to bake one and therefore are exposed to what cake is and how delicious it can be before we even think of making our own. Many people enjoy cake without ever having the desire to make one. This is why I am comparing the consumption of cake to reading.

Eating Cake

We learn to read before we learn to write and all writers fall in love with storytelling through reading before they ever desire to create their own stories. Reading is kind of like research, just like eating cake can be research. You can of course simply enjoy the cake without making note of anything, but bakers will look for what makes the cake good or bad or figure out why they or others like it. The same goes for writers. We read extensively and often will break a book down to figure out how it works. We read a lot of different authors, genres, etc. to better know how to craft a good story. Bakers try different cakes to experience the different flavor combinations, density, icing styles, etc.

Through eating cake, bakers can study and learn all there is to know about cakes and what makes them great. They will know why some cakes are more popular than others but they also have their own taste. They may think a chocolate cake combined with chocolate icing is too sweet. They may prefer a white cake with fruit filling. There are cakes for different occasions or moods and, though we do have favorites, it is very hard to eat the same thing over and over without mixing things up every once in a while.

Exploring the possibilities of cake through eating is essential and can be done without ever having learned what a recipe is.

Finding the Best Recipe

Recipes are great. They are structure and, if followed correctly, will produce what they promise. It is best to follow a recipe when first learning how to bake a cake because you learn the basics. After several attempts, there will likely be a few mistakes such as adding too much flower or forgetting the butter or accidentally using baking soda versus baking powder. You learn what each ingredient adds to the cake and how to tweak recipes to get the kind of cake you are wanting. After many attempts, you’ll have the basics down and may start experimenting. You’ll also know exactly how long to bake the cake to make sure it doesn’t dry out.

This is where many essential lessons are learned. First, not all cakes will come out exactly as you plan. You may picture a perfect three-tier cake with a cool icing pattern but may end up with some distorted Leaning Tower of Pisa. Secondly, baking cakes is a lot of work. Because you realize the hard work that goes into baking cakes, you now better appreciate the great cakes you get to eat. You are also able to determine why you don’t like some cakes. Not just the easy reason, such as the icing and cake combo or ratio doesn’t seem right, but specific reasons like they didn’t use enough eggs. You realize that a lot of the early work in learning to bake ends up with a lot of cakes in the trash. Many aspiring bakers may give up at this point. They realize the work needed to become a master of this craft, and they either are too impatient or too lazy to perfect their practice. Those who stick with it will eventually be able to make the cake they always dreamed of, and you are still baking.

This is when you move to the fun stuff. You have learned recipes and know exactly what is needed to bake the cakes you want to make. You are free to deviate from the recipes or make your own. After all, following a recipe is simply baking a cake someone else created. You can start experimenting and bake some really good cakes. Sometimes you will try things that don’t work and need to start over. You may try making cupcakes and venture into a few baking items outside of just cakes. You will explore and continue to learn. The important thing is that you are still baking. You are still creating and are learning how to make great cakes.

You are now a baker in your own right. You love baking and you want to make cakes forever. But that isn’t enough. Baking takes a lot of time and effort and you want others to eat and enjoy your cake.

(I could go into choices of ingredients and cake pans and styles and icing and prolong this analogy forever, but I’ll wrap things up soon.)

Serving Cake

Some bakers are okay making cakes out of a box instead of really getting into it and learning how to bake from scratch. Some bakers perfect their recipe and make the same cake over and over. Both of these bakers do well and many people eat their cakes. But you want to make many different cakes and you want people to eat them. Letting others eat the cake can be hard at first because you put a lot of work into it and want people to enjoy it.

You may try a local bake sale. You may send some cakes out to shops to see if they are interested in selling your cakes in their stores. you may get responses like “this cake is good, but it just isn’t right for our store” or “we are interested in your cakes, can you send us another sample”. You may get a few irrational responses like “this is the worst cake I’ve ever eaten” and even though you know your cake is good, and everyone’s taste buds are different, that response will dig in a bit and try to convince you that you are not a good baker. This fear of rejection may prevent you from getting into the kitchen, but you will later realize that you actually make great cakes and, yeah, some didn’t turn out perfect, but you know your efforts aren’t wasted and that one prick is an outlier. Your cakes have value and you will persist, because you know that you will eventually bake a cake that will change someone’s life.

You keep baking and make several cakes that you know are phenomenal, but for some reason no one wants to buy them. You keep baking and keep trying to find the people who will like these awesome cakes you made. You start to wonder if your cakes will ever get the appreciation they deserve. You know a lot of people will love them if they only give them a try. But also, in the end, even though you have tasted your own cake thousands of times, you will be happy knowing that you made that cake. It was the cake you needed and no one else will make that exact cake.

Then the dream happens. Someone has tried your cake and they like it. They commission you to bake a cake. Not just any cake either, but a wedding cake. You accept because it is something you always wanted. You bust your ass and make the perfect cake. It gets served and a majority of the guests like it, some don’t, and a few rave about it which lands you with a new request. You are ecstatic and accept. Then you realize you have to repeat all of that hard work to make that great cake. But it can’t be the same cake because this is for a different wedding. They want some of the same flavors, but they want some new ones. They want a unique cake. So you begin again.

Every so often, while working hard in the kitchen, you realize that you are now baking cakes for a living and fully appreciate this. Other times, you see other cakes or eat a cake that is so good that you realize you are an amateur who will never become a master cake-maker. You still compare your cakes to those made by people who have been baking for decades, and you need to remember all the trashed cakes and mistakes you made in the beginning in order to realize how far you have come.

You continue baking because you love to bake cakes. Even if you don’t sell many or even any, you will keep baking because you love it even when you curse your passion while standing over a ruined cake or dropping an egg on the floor. You keep baking and you keep eating cake.

My Cake

Now I bring the analogy home and use it against myself. I have been eating cake for years. I first enjoyed cake when I was a wee lad and have devoured hundreds of cakes since. Large cakes, small cakes, trays of cupcakes, you name it. I’m still trying different cakes. I started looking at recipes at a fairly young age, but I never really started baking cakes until I was older. Even now, I have not made a full cake. I have part of a batter made. I need to determine what else it needs before I put it in the oven. I’ve started a new cake and hope to finish it in a reasonable time. I hope it turns out well and that a few people will try it. I have made one cupcake that I am proud of which did get sold to a store.

I spend a lot more time eating cake than I do in the kitchen, but I will one day make a great cake that others will enjoy. Hopefully, I will get to make many. I only need to ignore my doubt and just start baking.

MasterClass

I love learning. I love learning about anything and everything, but (like everyone else) I love learning about the things I’m most interested in. I was fortunate to have been gifted an all-access pass to MasterClass for my birthday last year by my incredible wife. I originally wanted to take the class offered by Neil Gaiman, which I did, but then I began taking classes by other authors then by other professionals in different fields. I have had nothing but great experiences with every class I have taken, so I thought I’d share them here.

What prompted me to write about MasterClass is the class I am taking right now: Space Exploration by Chris Hadfield. This class has proved extremely beneficial and I seem to have started it at the perfect time. With all the weirdness happening now on Earth, escaping into space (or learning how humanity has been able to do it) has been a huge help in maintaining my flickering flame of hope in humanity. The class has been a reminder of how humanity continues to dream and is trying to better understand our place in the universe. This, I think, is easily forgotten when we are squabbling among ourselves or worrying about the day-to-day. It’s always great to be reminded that we are striving for greater things. I just hate that I have to need the reminding. 

Space has always interested me. In fact, I began my university years studying physics and engineering. I ended up with a degree in English Literature and proceeded to get an advanced degree in Writing, but I’ve maintained my interests in the sciences and other fields which is why I like to read and write science fiction.

MasterClass offers a plethora of subjects including film-making, cooking, music, writing, and business to name just a few. I have completed all classes related to writing. These were taught by Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown, David Baldacci, Malcolm Gladwell, James Patterson, Judy Blume, David Mamet, R. L. Stine, Joyce Carol Oates, Aaron Sorkin (screenplay writing), Billy Collins (poetry), and the latest to be added being David Sedaris. 

I’m ashamed to admit that I discovered two of these authors specifically because of their courses. These two being Malcolm Gladwell and Margaret Atwood. I was aware of Atwood’s work, slightly, without knowing about her or being able to associate her name with that work. This work being the television adaptation of her novel The Handmaid’s Tale which I have not seen but I have since read the book. I find Margaret a delight as a person. In the past six months or so, I have listened to all of Gladwell’s books (he reads the books himself which made the audiobook more appealing). David Sedaris’s class was only recently added and I was hesitant to try it. I had read a short essay of his in a college course and liked it. I tried a book of his last year in audio format, also read by the author, and I was dismayed to come away from the book simply thinking of him as an asshole. But I took his class and my perspective changed. I learned more about the craft and about how David comes to it in a way that attracts so many people. He is, like most authors, an observer of human behavior, and he puts his own unique spin on things. I’m happy to say I “understand” how he operates and can therefore better appreciate his work.

There are several authors whose classes I have completed but still have not read any their work, but I plan to read something by them soon(ish). The most surprising one may be Dan Brown. I initially took his class just to learn about writing in general and not specifically about thrillers since I don’t read or write thrillers. I believe you can learn important things from areas you would otherwise not consider even if it falls in the same field. I was thoroughly surprised and elated to find his MasterClass to be one of my favorites. Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting class is another of my favorites. I’ve dabbled a little into writing for the screen and I learned a lot from him.

I’ve only taken a few classes outside of the ones focused on writing. The first was by Hans Zimmer simply because I am a fan of his work and it is related to film. I will never be a music composer, but it was fun learning more about that field. I have started Itzhak Perlman’s class since I’ve always been interested in learning to play the violin and I hope to at least learn the basics some day.

I plan on taking Neil Degrasse Tyson’s class soon and then delve into other areas. Perhaps I’ll try Penn & Tellers simply because magic is fun. I’ll likely try some classes from actors and directors to learn more about film. Ron Howard, Samuel L. Jackson, and Helen Mirren are ones I am currently wanting to see. Perhaps I’ll try Gordon Ramsey’s cooking classes. I could definitely expand my knowledge to become a better cook.

But for now, I am continuing to learn about space from Chris Hadfield. I’m loving every second of it and am learning a lot about how we are actually doing things outside the atmosphere. I’d never thought of orbiting the earth as being a continuous free-fall over the horizon. I’ve had several little changes to thinking like that so far and I look forward to the upcoming classes on spacewalking. 

If you find yourself interested in MasterClass, I highly recommend it. Perhaps it is the very thing you have been looking for during these uncertain times.

8 Short Story Collections

I’m just in the mood for lists, because I’ve created yet another one. This one is about short story collections. The short story is often considered an underrated form. It is also considered (incorrectly) to be dying out. The form is still strong, but it remains more on the fringes of most readers considerations. Here are several collections I’ve enjoyed.

Our Story Begins

Our Story BeginsThis collection by Tobias Wolff includes 31 stories. Several have appeared in other collections but there are 10 that were newly published in this one. Some of my favorites are “Bullet in the Brain” or “In the Garden of North American Martyrs”. I consider Wolff to be one of the best short story writers America has produced. Most of his work is in the short story form and he has several collections available.

Exhalation

ExhalationExhalation is Ted Chiang’s newest collection of short fiction, and it includes a novella length piece titled “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”. I really enjoyed “The Merchant and The Alchemist’s Gate” (I enjoyed all of them really). This collection was released just last year and is Chiang’s second collection. His first was Stories of Your Life and Others which I also recommend. I’ve become a huge fan of Chiang’s work and I look forward to whatever he releases next.

The Philip K. Dick Reader

Philip K Dick ReaderI consider Philip K. Dick (PKD) one of the best science fiction writers of the past century. He is probably best known for his stories that have been adapted into film. Many of these were short stories that were adapted while others were novels. A few of the films based on short stories are Minority Report, Total Recall, Paycheck, and The Adjustment Bureau. Ted Chiang admits that some of his writing has been influenced by PKD, and I think both writers have crafted stories that keep you thinking long after you finish reading, which is what I love most about them. PKD has written approximately 121 short stories and you can get all of them in about five collections with this being one of them.

Trigger Warning

Trigger WarningNeil Gaiman is better known for his novels, but he has dabbled in/mastered several genres/fields. He has a few collections of short stories with Trigger Warning being the most recent. His sense of magic and wonder are as prevalent in these shorter works as they are in his longer forms.

Rogues

RoguesRogues is a collection of stories by various authors. All the stories focus on a character considered to be rogue themselves hence the title. This collection includes a story by Neil Gaiman (but it’s not a story included in Trigger Warning). I must admit that I have not read this entire collection. I primarily got it in order to read the short story by Patrick Rothfuss which is a fun, supplemental story to his book The Name of the Wind.

The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen PoeEdgar Allen Poe is known for several of his short stories. I’ve seen a lot of mentions of “The Masque of the Red Death” going around recently. I have yet to read that particular story, but I will likely do so soon. My personal favorite that I’ve read by Poe is “A Cask of Amontillado”. His stories are more on the darker side and include death in some form (but not all). He is known as a master of the macabre after all.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

What We Talk About When We Talk About LoveRaymond Carver is known primarily as a short story author. The title story is probably his best known or most referenced. It also happens to be my favorite. “Cathedral” is probably my other favorite, but it is not included in this particular collection. You can likely find a few of these stories online including the two mentioned. Carver is considered one of the best at the short form and I have to say that I agree.

I’d Die For You

I'd Die For YouThis collection of stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald is unique because it was released in 2017 and consists of all his work that had remained unpublished. These 18 stories were considered “lost” and had been recently found/discovered, collected, and published in this volume. I bought the collection back when it was first published and have read through about half of them. I was working on my MFA at the time and had to put the collection aside for a bit and haven’t picked it back up, but now that I’ve talked about it, I will probably go back and finish it soon.

If you like short stories and have a favorite story or author not on this list, let me know. I’m always open for new recommendations myself.

I hope that you give some of these a chance if you are not a regular short story reader. At the very least, I hope you go out and read a short story sometime soon. You can find many online for free. I even have several of my own on this blog you can check out (my favorite might be Children of Changyang Mountain).

Happy Reading.

12 Memoirs & Biographies

This time I’m listing memoirs and biographies I’ve read these past several years that I enjoyed. Several of them are about authors or actors I like, but some are simply ones I found or heard about and eventually read.

This Boy’s Life & In Pharoah’s Army

This Boy's LifeThese first two are by Tobias Wolff. The first recounts his unexpected childhood while the latter covers much of his time serving during the Vietnam War. I’m a big fan of Tobias Wolff and enjoy all of his fiction, but his memoirs are equally intriguing and entertaining. This Boy’s Life was actually adapted into film and won the Ambassador Book Award.

The Princess Diarist

The Princess DiaristThis memoir by Carrie Fisher covers her time during the filming of the first Star Wars movie and her eventual launch into stardom as the iconic Princess Leia. It includes a section that reprints her original diary entries from her time during filming including her affair with Harrison Ford. What I found most interesting was Carrie’s admission that she did not plan to enter the field of acting, and then her discussion of what it was like interacting with fans who only saw her as Princess Leia. She had to almost live a double life from the time of these events through the end of her life. I know she has several other memoirs and I plan to check them out sometime.

Robin

Robin WilliamsDave Itzkoff’s biography of Robin Williams was released in 2018 and is a great, detailed account of his adult life. Most of the book events discussed are supplemented by accounts from Robin’s friends and family. The book covers his early years briefly, goes into how he became an iconic comedian and actor. It then ends briefly after his death to tell an all-encompassing account that gives us a holistic view into who he was and what he faced. I learned a lot about about him and I am glad I did.

 

Amazing Fantastic Incredible

Stan LeeAmazing Fantastic Incredible is a graphic novel memoir of comic icon Stan Lee. This account is beautifully illustrated and shows a great history of the comic industry. It gives us an overview of Stan’s life (including his real name) but don’t look for any in-depth details of his life here. A full biography would be better if you want to know more about the man. However, this does give a great insight to the man who was behind many of the hugely popular characters in the Marvel Universe, and it is in his own words and his own style.

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography

J.R.R. Tolkien BiographyThis biography of J.R.R. Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter is, as far as I am aware, the best biography of the man behind The Lord of the Rings. I at least think it is the only authorized biography. Carpenter actually met Tolkien and had access to many materials and resources surrounding the author’s life prior to his passing in 1973. I, of course, greatly enjoy Tolkien’s works and enjoyed learning more about the man himself. If you read this and want a little more, I suggest watching the recent biopic titled Tolkien starring Nicholas Hoult. It only covers a brief part of his childhood and ends shortly after his time in the war, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

What if Our World is Their Heaven? The Final Conversations of Philip K. Dick

What If Our World Is Their Heaven?This “book” is unique as I’m not sure it would be considered memoir or biography. It is a transcription of the last interview with Philip K. Dick. I randomly came across this book in a used book store and picked it up as I am a fan of PKD’s works. The interview covers a lot of areas, including the unfinished book PKD was working on at the time and his excitement at seeing early footage of the film Blade Runner which is an adaptation of his book Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? Unfortunately, PKD died of a stroke months after this interview. I haven’t read a full biography of PKD, but I will likely do so in the future. However, I think this interview proves to be a great insight into who he was.

Educated

EducatedThe most recent memoir I’ve read is Educated by Tara Westover and it is captivating. This book details Tara’s childhood through her eventual pursuit of a college education. She grew up without access to school but was always a highly curious child. Her father did not believe in education as he believed it indoctrinated people. He didn’t believe in modern medicine either. Both stem from his religious and personal beliefs. The events of Tara’s life are both shocking and, from an outside view, infuriating at times, but I think this book is important because it highlights more than the importance of knowledge. It highlights the importance of family and doing what is best for yourself.

Tesla: Man Out of Time

Tesla Man Out of TimeMargaret Cheney may be the best biographer of Nikola Tesla. She has written a few, but this one is a great resource if you are wanting to know more about the man who rivaled Edison and became an important figure in the development of electricity. Yes, he is also the person the Tesla Company is named after, but Nikola Tesla never had a company all of his own. I’m glad to see that he has not been lost to history since he is an important contributor to much of the technology we have today, and he continues to inspire and influence research into new technology.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride

As You WishIf you are a fan of The Princess Bride, you will greatly enjoy this memoir by lead actor Cary Elwes. He recounts his time on the set and the making of the film and tells many stories that only make the fellow actors and the film even more lovable. Especially Andre the Giant. I recommend checking out the audiobook version because Cary narrates it himself and it includes snippets from fellow actors and production crew who give their accounts of events as well. This book adds to the film and will make you likely make you want to rewatch it while you read.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Man's Search for MeaningVictor Frankl’s memoir/psychological novel is small but powerful. This insight into Victor’s time inside a concentration camp during World War II not only gives us a glimpse into history and some of the worst things humans have done to each other, it analyzes the human psyche during such harsh conditions. However, I believe this little book is an insight into the human condition and provides a bit of hope through all the sadness. The first part is the memoir of his time during the war while the second goes into his own psychological theories.

A Moveable Feast

Ernest Hemingway’s book telling of his times in Paris during the 1920’s was fun and insightful. I think it is a great glimpse into a bygone world as we are now almost exactly 100 years removed from the time it took place. I’ll admit my favorite part includes F. Scott Fitzgerald and a broken-down car, but this book gives a look into the life of the iconic author and the world he knew.A Moveable Feast