The end of the year is the time for lists. And as someone who lacks the ability to think and act outside the mainstream and bows down to my trend overlords, I thought I’d provide my own thoughts on this topic, specifically, book series that I read in 2014 (not books necessarily from 2014 mind you.)
I’m an unabashed reader. I have been my whole life. In particular, my go to genre is Science Fiction (particularly the sub-genre military sci-fi) or what I will call “super entertaining fiction.” Though there have been a number of exceptions over the years (Cold Mountain, The Kite Runner, A Prayer for Owen Meany) when something is considered “literature” it is generally not my cup of tea (or glass of wine). Nor are most non-fiction books (again, I hedge that with exceptions like Peter Thiel’s excellent book Zero to One). Non-fiction just seems like a homework assignment to me. I read industry shit all day long, my brain hurts sometimes and needs a break.
(Aside: is that cinnamon I smell? I am definitely smelling cinnamon. That’s like tumor warning signs shit, right?)
When I read books it replaces the time that would normally be spent on other activities – like watching TV or catching up on movies or paying attention to my family. Reading is a true leisure activity for me. It provides my mind with stories relaxes me. I’m busy at work and life and shit and normally a stress case – books are my reprieve and escape. They quiet my mind. And make the voices in my head go watch TV or movies instead (but hopefully not talk to my family.)
All of that is to say, these books may not be for you, but I enjoyed them. And if you and I happen to share similarities in tastes – for whatever random reason – read my quick summaries and check the below out.
Summary: Student loan debt politics + military science fiction + great characters + action and violence + … ruthless space pirates.
I really, really liked both of these books. And the second – Rich Man’s War – is actually better than the first in my estimation. Like many books in a series (or even movies) the second one tends to be stronger than the first because the world has already been built and the characters, at least loosely, defined.
Tanner Malone is the main character, a young man who like most everyone else in this particular universe, is very nervous about the “The Test.” It is an computerized series of questions and resulting answers that once calculate determines the amount of student loan you take on when you graduate. Do very well, and your debt is low or negligible…do poorly, and you take on a crushing amount of debt that limits your post graduation options. And most who do poorly choose the Space Navy / Military.
With that set up the direction Tanner goes is obvious. What is less obvious is the intrigue and politics that overlay the story, the description of boot camp (necessary to most great military sci-fi novels), the ruthlessness of the instructors and just the general writing and style. At first it seems like the Navy is being trained to take on the “pirates” who are hijacking ships, killing civilians and generally behaving like shit. But as the novels advance you find out there is much, much more at stake.
Though Tanner becomes something close to John McClane at a certain point these are highly entertaining books with lots of surprises, violence, a point of view and mostly, just really fun to read. (Again, the point of reading.) On top of that it has some of the best space battle descriptions and action I’ve ever read. These books hit me at my nerdcore and floored me.
Calvin Stringel, better known as his “supervillian” name Mechani-Cal, has had a bad run. He was fired by Ultraweapon – a superhero similar to Iron Man in wealth and ego but without any of the redeeming qualities. Cal is broke, under appreciated and full of piss and vinegar. Luckily he is ingenuivative and an excellent engineer, and through side jobs like building weapons for other villains begins to build and upgrade his own suit with the goal of eventually taking down his mortal enemy Ultraweapon.
His origin story is told in the second book and his fight against a power unleashed accidentally by a supervillian covers much of the first. Both books are very funny, sarcastic and quick reads. Some of the “heros” and “villians” and their respective superpowers made roar with laughter. The writing is light and loose and Calvin is a great, relatable character. Though it’s not required to be a fan of the superhero genre per se to draw enjoyment from the books, the author does take pleasure in turning many current superhero tropes upside down. There is also an underlying darkness and realism here that made the book more unpredictable than most superhero stories.
Overall, the books are about a morally complex and confused hero/villian at the bottom of the food chain, doing what he can do to make a mark. And get talked about in the press. And maybe…get the girl and the save the world.
To be honest, I’ve only read the first two books in the series (the third is queued up in my Kindle), but they all relate to a very straightforward theme. And with all due respect to Mr. Clines I will relay thusly:
Superheroes + Zombies + Superheroes that turn into superhero zombies when bitten
You are either in or you are out after reading the description.
The Silo Series (Wool Omnibus Stories 1-5) by Hugh Howey
Wool has been one of the big self-publishing successes of recent years. It tells the stories of a post apocalyptic world where the remains of humanity live in an underground “silo.” Outside is a toxic wasteland, and uninhabitable. But from time to time folks for various indiscretions are exiled and are forced to perform a “cleaning” on the outside sensors that project into the silo the view from the outside world. Over time residue builds up on these sensors making the view blurry for those inside, and these cleanings are the only way to keep that small portal into the outside world open.
It’s also lethal to those doing the cleaning.
I’d recommend reading Wool – Part 1. It’s a wonderful short story. Very quick. Very impactful. I would say an almost perfect short story in that regard. The story itself became a real sensation and the author built out the world further through a number of other chapters, as well as additional stories under the Silo Saga umbrella called “Shift” and “Dust” (which I haven’t read).
Reading a short story is low commitment, so I recommend checking out the first Part and if it really grabs you, continuing from there. Regardless, the world Hugh Howey creates is unique and very vivid. And the mysteries on what is going on outside (and inside) are revealed piece by piece.