Category Archives: Top 50

The list and reviews of the top 50 books of all time

Infinity Beach

In the far future, humanity has spread to several planets but not yet encountered any aliens. Our protagonist, Kim, is one of those involved in actively searching for alien life. So was her sister, Emily, until her mysterious disappearance a few years ago. A clue starts Kim looking into her sister’s death, where she finds more than she bargained for.

The worldbuilding is well done and the plot is superb. It has an excellent balance of twists and foreshadowing, so while it is obvious that aliens will make an appearance in the book, the details of how that will happen remain a surprise.

My main objection to this book was the Mary Sueishness of the protagonist, especially in the last third of the book. She singlehandedly outwits the entire government, which has not bothered to have her followed even after the initial clash. McDevitt includes an acknowledgement that Kim has taken it upon herself to make decisions for the entire human race which she has no authority to do, but he doesn’t mention how unlikely it is that she is so successful at this.

Machinehood

This book is set a hundred years in the future in a world very like ours. The major differences are the many bots doing various jobs in society and the common use by humans of performance enhancing drugs. The world building concept is interesting, but the details do not quite mesh, it is not clear to me how the economy of this future works.

The main character is a private security guard. Her job usually consists of ‘made-for-camera’ conflicts with protestors in which both sides try to gain public sympathy through cinematic moves. So it is a surprise when there is a serious assassination attempt on her client.

The plot is exciting, with various surprises. The characters are compelling, I was easily drawn into their lives. The ending was unsatisfying though, nothing really seemed to be resolved.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within

This is space opera set in the far future in the multi-species Galactic Commons. This book is listed as fourth in a series but can be read independently. Gord is an uninhabitable planet located at the juncture of several travel lanes, where several facilities catering to travelers have sprung up. This book is set in a small inn. Three sentients are stuck there for five days with the innkeeper and her child when an accident prevents travel.

This is a slow book, focused on the characters and their relationships. There are no humans in the books, just four different aliens. We get to know the aliens on several levels – we see how their basic physiology affects the things they can do, how their cultural background affects how they think and interact with others, and how their own individual personalities matter. It a beautiful, loving book.

Wherever Seeds May Fall

In the near future, an alien spaceship appears near Saturn. We follow an astronomer and a military commander as they try to learn about it and prepare for its arrival on Earth.

The first contact scenario is extremely interesting. The long time lag before the alien gets to Earth allows for the humans to work through various problems, this is primarily a novel about people not aliens. There is a surprise reveal at the end that ties everything together and points out that the flaw in assuming that aliens can be predicted on the basis of human behavior.

The characters are well drawn and the dialogue is well done. A lot of information is conveyed without feeling info-dumpy. The one strange thing is how the commander’s wife disappears from the story once he moves to Washington, it seemed that she was only introduced to establish that there would be no romantic relationship between our leads.

The politics in the book are sometimes absurd. The Russians are the first to realize its aliens, but they decide not to tell anyone for some unknown reason. Later, when the Chinese detect a change in trajectory, they send a note to the astronomer in a fortune cookie. Because they can’t hold press conferences and don’t have phones?

This book was written recently and the author clearly has strong feelings on recently circulating conspiracy theories. He takes a couple of pages in the book to explain why 5G does not cause COVID and ends with a speech on how conspiracy thinking will destroy human civilization. I’m not sure what I think about this. Its totally irrelevant to the plot, but it helps make the world more real and gets us out of the White House environs.

The Grumpy Hero

This is a lighthearted fantasy. The evil god Jebisk seeks to control the world by destroying all music. Undergraduate TJ is left with the only remaining music collection and must transport it to the only remaining music copying machine in the monastery on a distant mountain. He is accompanied by his roommate and a government agent.

They pass though various strange lands and ridiculous situations on their way to their goal. Nothing is too over the top, I found the weird-o-meter to be set at just the right level. It is a fun read.

The Station

When a war engulfs Earth, the astronauts on the space station are left to fend for themselves. Eighteen years later, the space program begins again and makes contact with a survivor on the station.

This book reminded me of the Martian, especially the portions about being alone and then being able to talk with others. A lot of the initial emotions described here are obviously the same. Later this book diverges, adding a romantic element to the story.

Like the Martian, this book has lengthy descriptions of the science of space travel, but is not as math intensive. It tends to explain the problems conceptually, eg. air drag slows down the station. We get to know a lot of the problems that need to be solved to keep the station operational.

The characters are well drawn, the girl on the station is very sympathetic. I have a little trouble accepting that the background that she was able to do everything needed on the station for years by herself, but once the story begins, her skill level seems realistic.

The plot begins slowly, with a good amount of space given to explaining the background. It picks up later in the book, as obstacle after obstacle crops up to her descent to Earth. It ends with a clear setup for the next book in the series, which will deal with the political complications of the situation.

Vlad Taltos series

This is a high fantasy series set in a feudalistic world. Vlad Taltos is a member of a minority group who ends up joining the mob, due to the usual social forces. He rises in the mob organization, at the same time he meets some of the powerful nobility of the Empire, and has adventures with them which involve finding the lost heir, discovering a powerful missing sword, and saving the world from demons. In later books, he questions his life decisions regarding crime.

Each book can be read independently. The author enjoys playing with structure, so books will have mixed timelines, horror tropes, clues in the chapter titles etc. Some books will work better than others due to this for different readers, I personally hated the Dumas-style section in Tiassa.

The books contain plenty of sarcastic dialogue and asides. They are a lot of fun to read.

At some point in the series, Vlad gets married and then divorced. I found the description of the divorce, so rare in genre fiction, to be very well handled.

Xenogenesis

Aliens arrive just as humans are destroying themselves in a nuclear war. They save some humans, but will people be able to adapt to living in this new world? Lilith is the first human to be awoken, she gradually learns about the aliens and teaches other humans.

The aliens are not totally benevolent, they have their own reasons for saving humanity. But cooperating with them will lead to a win-win situation. So is cooperation the right choice, or should humans try to fight a hopeless war with the aliens as they do in most other books?

This is a disturbing book, pointing out that sometimes you just need to admit defeat and accept a future you would not have chosen. Freedom isn’t everything, you can choose riches and material comfort instead.

Halfway Human

This is a haunting story about power and discrimination. Tedla is an asexual person on a planet where such people are considered to be less intelligent and properly treated as slaves. Val finds Tedla on a planet far from home, and learns her life story.

This is a powerful, heartrending book. It examines how people can justify brutal treatment of others, how the powerful never feel constrained by their own rules, how education and culture can be designed to reinforce inhumanity.

Startide Rising

Startide Rising is book two of the uplift series, the link above is to book one. The Uplift books are in the future, where humans have genetically engineered dolphins and monkeys to make them intelligent – to ‘uplift’ them. When they encounter galactic civilization, they find species all over the five galaxies are doing the same, uplifting others. Not all the aliens are satisfied that humans are themselves intelligent enough to be considered independent, some would like to see them assigned to another species for further uplift, some would like to see dolphins and monkeys reassigned to a more responsible species.

The first book sets the stage for this universe, the second has humans dealing with a political attack. Later books continue the story with new settlements and discoveries. The second book has the characters I found most sympathetic, which makes it my favorite.

This book addresses a lot of moral questions about the aims of uplift. For example, what amount of aggression in a species is an appropriate goal for the end of uplift? And who gets to decide, how much should say should the species being uplifted have? The same questions can be asked when we talk about cultural change in humans and it is fascinating.