Archive | Science Fiction

The Discourses | Symeon the New Theologian

The cover of Symeon's The DiscoursesThe man was intense!

One the eve of a rebellion, when the monks under his supervision ran to the Patriarch of the city to get relief from their severe Abbot, Symeon spoke to them:

I cannot endure to be silent about the things I have seen, about the wonders of God I have known by fact and experience. Rather, I testify of them to all others as in God’s presence, and say with a loud voice, “Run, all of you, before the door of repentance is closed to you by death. Run, that you may take hold of it before you depart this life; make haste that you may receive it, knock, that your Master may open to you before you die, and that He may show himself to you.” (349)

Symeon was not only severe. In a compassionate moment towards those who insufficiently fasted during Lent, he said:

[God] it is who in great generosity gives crowns to the zealous and duly rewards their labors, and also in mercy and loving-kindness grants forgiveness to the weaker. (181)

Symeon was driven by a vision of God that would not let him relax. Having experienced the inexpressible light of God, he was compelled to urge the people around him to press on towards that light.

My biggest struggle with Symeon (and all the ancient Orthodox saints) is their spirit-flesh dualism and extreme asceticism. They are constantly preoccupied with escaping the material world which God deemed “very good” and validated by becoming incarnate. That said, Symeon’s passion and insight into the spiritual condition made the struggle worthwhile!

Symeon’s Discourses are deep devotional material. Written for those in a monastic life, they are still relevant today for those with a passionate commitment to Christ.


Symeon the New Theologian. The Discourses. The Classics of Western Spirituality: A Library of the Great Spiritual Masters. Translated by C. J. deCatanzaro. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.

Area X | Jeff Vandermeer

The cover of Vandermeer's Area XThe Southern Reach Trilogy begins with what sounds like the set-up for a joke: a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist walk into … but this story is no joke. These four people comprise the twelfth expedition into Area X, a place cut off from the rest of the world, accessible only through a “doorway” in the Southern Reach.

I paused before selecting a genre for this review. It’s equal parts science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopian fiction, and mystery. The first book in particular, Annihilation, keeps you revising your views as more data comes to light. This is page turning fiction at its best.

As I read, H. P. Lovecraft kept coming to mind. Both Lovecraft and Vandermeer wrestle with the idea of an unspeakable, incomprehensible horror from outside any human frame of reference. How do we come to grips with something wholly other? Area X represents an existential threat to humanity.

Area X is one of the most unique and gripping trilogies I have ever read.

—Jeff Vandermeer, Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014).

Seveneves | Neal Stephenson

The cover of Stephenson's Seveneves“Five Thousand Years Later” (569).

Stephenson is no stranger to epic stories. Consider his three volume, eight book, 3,000 word Baroque Trilogy! Still, how do you write a unified story that hinges on the words, “five thousand years later”? Stephenson accomplishes it with style.

He begins the story with these words:

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. (3)

The book tells the tale of what that explosion would entail and how humanity would respond in the ultimate survival situation.

Seveneves is a science-fiction book with a strong emphasis on science. Much of the sprawling page-count is devoted to explaining theoretical technology. Don’t let that dissuade you, though. Stephenson instructs in the context of the narrative without making the dialogue feeling forced or artificial.

This is simply the best science fiction book I have read in over a decade. (I don’t say that lightly either—I checked my archived reviews!) Seveneves is a page-turner with enough substance to hold the readers mind over many late nights.

—Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (New York: William Morrow, 2015).

Twelve Tomorrows (2016) | Bruce Sterling

The cover of Sterling's Twelve Tomorrows (2016)When I think MIT, I don’t think fiction. Science and technology to be sure, but fiction? Once per year MIT’s Technology Review puts out a science fiction annual showcasing a diverse cast of important authors like Annalee Newitz of Gizmodo.com and Hugo award winning Charles Stross.

As with most short story collections, this year’s Twelve Tomorrows is a bit of a mixed bag but the balance skews definitively toward the positive. Highlights include the lead story, “Boxes” by Nick Harkaway on death and external memory as well as a bizarre but gripping dystopic vision by Pepe Rojo called “The New Us.”

The best of these stories use language in new ways. Often the first few pages feel confusing—like you’ve entered a new world. It’s only once the story begins to sink in that you realize what was going on in those early paragraphs.

On the other hand, Ilona Gaynor’s offering, “The Lexicography of an Abusive but Divine Relationship with the World” played with language and genre to the extent that the text read like 14 pages of nonsense!

The editor for the second year in a row, Bruce Sterling, closed the volume with a twelfth tomorrow from the past. While the story was engaging, it didn’t seem to fit in this science fiction collection. I suppose that’s what you can do when you’re the editor!

All in all, Twelve Tomorrows is a fascinating collection of stories that will expand your mind with big ideas—just sort of ideas you would expect MIT to put their name behind.

—Bruce Sterling, Twelve Tomorrows: MIT Technological Review of SF Annual, 2016 (Cambridge, MA: Technology Review, Inc., 2015).

Robopocalypse | Daniel H. Wilson

The cover of Wilson's RobopocalypseWith a portmanteau like Robopocalypse, how can you go wrong?

The setting is the near future. An AI researcher has made a mistake and his electronic child, Archos, has become sentient.

The author has serious credibility. Wilson holds a Ph.D. in robotics and has already written a non-fiction book on the topic, How to Survive a Robot Uprising. The grounding of his imagination is strong.

The structure of the book is also unusual and interesting. The major parts of the book are chronological, beginning before the robot uprising and continuing to the climax. Within each part, however, the chapters follow seemingly discrete characters whose plot lines grow and merge over time.

Stephen King called this book “terrific page-turning fun” which is precisely what it is. Robopocalypse is pure science fiction candy.

—Daniel H. Wilson, Robopocalypse (New York: Vintage Books, 2011).

All Tomorrow’s Parties | William Gibson

The cover of Gibson's All Tomorrow's PartiesWilliam Gibson’s books are a window into a disconcerting future. His future isn’t the shiny clean tomorrow portrayed in countless Apple ads—his future is full of grit and blood. Even the virtual worlds he envisions are tagged and twisted by hackers.

In All Tomorrow’s Parties, the main story takes place on the Golden Gate bridge which has been deemed undriveable since the earthquake. It has become makeshift city of people living in hand-built cubicles. The police leave them alone. They are a social experiment unto themselves. Meanwhile, in a cardboard box on the other side of the planet, a dying man has developed the ability to interpret raw information as it’s funneled to his body through his eyephones.

All Tomorrow’s Parties is Gibson’s third book in the Bridge Trilogy. You don’t have to have read the first two to follow the third, though. Trust me—I started at the back end of this trilogy.

You might call Gibson’s future post-apocalyptic, except there was no worldwide apocalypse. Everything he writes seems like the disturbingly plausible consequences of our own technological ambition.

—William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1999).

Dune | Frank Herbert

The cover of Herbert's DuneDune is one of those epic stories that science fiction fans have to read at some point in their life. Like Asimov’s Foundation series and Clarke’s 2001, this story has staying power.

You can approach the story from a variety of angles.

  • It’s a ecological tale (written in 1965!) about the desire to work with a planet’s environment to create a healthy future.
  • It’s a political tale about the endless subterfuge employed by the power-brokers of the world.
  • It’s a religious tale about the results of spirituality on a culture.
  • It’s a philosophical tale about determinism and destiny.
  • It’s an action adventure story (with a dash of mystery) set in a fully realized alternate universe.

It’s simply engaging on every level.

Fortunately, Herbert went on to write a number of follow-up novels. Other authors have continued after him to write in his world. I’ll be able to take plenty of trips back to Arrakis.

—Frank Herbert, Dune (New York: Berkley Books, 1965).

Stowaway to Mars | John Wyndham

The cover of Wyndham's Stowaway to MarsI love John Wyndham’s science fiction. I have been a fan since my college days when I read The Chrysalids (in an effort to read all the books I was supposed to read in High School).

Wyndham first published this work with the title, Planet Plane in 1936 under the pen name John Beynon. It was later published as a serial novel under the names The Space Machine and Stowaway to Mars. Stowaway is one of his first works, and it shows. The plot lacks the drive and balance of his later efforts.

The story centres around one person’s drive to be the first to reach Mars and return. Of course, there is a stowaway—a woman named Joan.

It’s interesting to see how Wyndham handled gender issues. On the one hand, Joan is portrayed as a tough woman who is determined to break free of preassigned roles (in contrast to the protagonists’s earthbound and pregnant wife). Her iconoclastic role is undermined, however, as the story continues.

The philosophic role of machines and technology in society is the most interesting part of the book. The protagonist is enamored with his machines and the accolades they have won him. His wife, on the other hand, is threatened by them. Martian society has fully accepted and allowed machinery to flourish. Joan, in a conversation with the Martian Vaygan questions his acceptance of them:

‘The Machines?’ Joan repeated. ‘What are the Machines? They are the puzzle which brought me here.’ She told him of the machine which had somehow reached Earth. ‘I felt nervous of it,’ she owned, ‘and I felt nervous of your machines last night. I think that is the first reaction of all of us to our own machines. Some never get beyond it, others get used to it, but when we think of machines we feel that in spite of all they have given us and all they do for us there is something malignant about them. Their very presence forces us down ways we do not want to go.’ (149)

Joan continues to question the Martian’s apparent subservience to their machines. Vaygan later admits:

‘In a sense the machine must rule from the moment it is put to work. One surrenders to its higher efficiency—that is why it was made.’ (168)

These thoughts anticipate the work of Jacques Ellul!

Stowaway is not one of Wyndham’s great stories, but it’s still a thought-provoking read.

—John Wyndham, Stowaway to Mars (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977).

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