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Classic Science Fiction

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Whether readers think they do or do not like science fiction, these are worth reading for the entertaining stories and the power of their ideas.

Rachel Maderik recommends A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller. She writes, "After a massive nuclear war, there was a global backlash against the two groups of people that were considered responsible for the apocalypse: politicians (for causing the war) and scientists (for developing the weapons). This expands into a "Simplification" period, where all books are destroyed, anyone considered learned is murdered by mobs, and the world is plunged into a new Dark Age. The novel follows the re-development of civilization from the point of view of a monastery founded by a Jewish electrical engineer named Leibowitz, who became a monk as a cover for smuggling books and preserving knowledge during the Simplification.  The story spans a 1200-year period which essentially re-enacts the development of Western culture from the medieval period (with monks illuminating "ancient" manuscripts of electronic circuits instead of biblical texts), to the Renaissance (with complex political dealings between the nation of Texarkana and the empire of Denver), to (yet another) nuclear age, with the world coming to the brink of destroying itself once again.  Although this book deals with serious, thought-provoking issues, the overall tone is relatively light, and it has enough humor and likable characters to make it an enjoyable read. Brother Francis, the main character in the first section of the book, is one of the most appealing characters in all the stories I’ve read. A good-natured but bumbling novice, he has a penchant for fainting whenever things get too intense. His habit of unintentionally aggravating his elders with his naiveté and unceasing questions has made me laugh out loud more than once while reading.  ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ won the Hugo Award, the most prestigious award for science fiction literature, and it’s easy to see why. The book does an excellent job of making you think about why civilization has developed the way it has, and whether humanity has a chance of ever learning from its past mistakes."

Rachel writes that "Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow follows the story of Bean, a young orphan who is the result of an illegal genetic experiment that left him with unusually small stature but extraordinarily high mental capacity. Bean's precociousness brings him to the attention of an international government body that has set up a military school to train talented children to serve as officers in an ongoing war against alien invaders. On the surface, the novel is an entertaining school story that deals with Bean's experiences in Battle School and his development from a toddler living on the streets into a respected military commander. However, it also investigates Bean's personal struggles, particularly his inability to connect with the other children at the school. Because he was ‘made in a lab’ and behaves so differently from the other students, Bean begins to doubt whether he is actually human. While on the outside, Bean appears to be a cold and insensitive character, the author does a really good job of making you empathize with him as he comes to terms with his own strengths and weaknesses, and he figures out what it means to be ‘human’."    

Rachel also recommends Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, "a series of stories following a theoretical development of robotic technology in the 21st century. The earliest robots are crude boxes of metal, unable to speak, yet advanced enough that people use them as babysitters, entrusting their young children with these strange machines. Soon, scientists build robots that can talk (employing such classic 1940s expressions as ‘golly!’ and ‘holy smokes!’). The technology eventually becomes sophisticated enough that the robots are indistinguishable from humans, resulting in a story where a certain politician has never been seen eating in public, leading the main characters to debate whether he is secretly a robot sent by a rival political party. What really makes these stories fascinating is Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics’. These laws govern all robots’ behavior, and they are scientifically impossible to break. The laws are: 1.) A robot may not harm a human, or through inaction, allow a human to come to harm. 2.) A robot must obey all orders given to it by a human, except when the orders conflict with the First Law. 3.) A robot must protect its own existence, except where this conflicts with the first two laws. These laws turn what appear to be simple science fiction stories into deeply-woven logic puzzles; for example, if a robot is disobeying its orders, it can only be because the First Law of Robotics is in effect, so the scientists must figure out how their plans might be putting human lives at risk."

"Incidentally, ‘I, Robot’ was also a 2004 movie starring Will Smith, but don’t let that fool you. The film borrowed the Three Laws of Robotics and a few characters, but the plot of the movie had nothing to do with the book. So even if you’ve seen the movie, check out the book! You’ll probably be surprised."

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