Scattered Science Fiction

The science fiction genre encompasses as much variety of content and style as any other, and I enjoy most of them. Here are three quite different examples I’ve read recently.


Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series (which treats its dragons as wild animals rather than Within the Sanctuary of Wingsthe sentient beings so popular in science fiction and fantasy) is set in a world comparable to our own in many ways but wildly different in others. I let Within the Sanctuary of Wings sit on my shelf for a long time, and took my time reading it, knowing it was the last of the series; I didn’t want it to end. This fifth volume of Lady Trent’s memoirs started a bit slowly, but in good time Isabella makes her greatest discovery, and with the help of her loyal supporting cast solves the problems that come along with it.


I wouldn’t recommend this as a stand alone–you want to read the whole series. In fact, I want to read them all again, one of these days, without the yearly wait for the next volume. My only complaint about the series is with Tor’s decision to print the books in odd-colored inks (brownish, reddish, or blueish) probably to better serve the wonderful illustrations, but a bit hard on older eyes.


If you’ve been following the action in Veronica Scott’s science fiction romance novels set in the Sectors universe, adventures on far flung star ships and colony planets, you’ll Songbirdrecognize some of the supporting actors in Star Cruise: Songbird, a novella originally published in the Pets In Space anthology, but the story works perfectly well as a stand alone. The pet in this tale is Valkyr, a telepathic Qaazimir war eagle bonded to Grant Barton, recently retired from the Sectors military and now working security on the cruise ship Nebula Zephyr. Grant finds himself handling ship-board security for celebrity entertainer Karissa Dawnstar, a famous and widely beloved singer. Not exactly what he signed on for, but his instincts—and Valkyr’s—take over in the face of developments. What is more dangerous, a mob of adoring fans, a lovelorn stalker, or a pair of strangely devoted monks?


I thoroughly enjoy Scott’s tales, and this one was no exception. Valkyr is as much a character as the hero and heroine, and even manages a bit of romance himself. I’m not sure I’d want to sign on for a cruise on the Nebula fleet—you never know what disaster awaits—but they certainly are fun to read about.


Lois McMaster Bujold’s long standing series centered around Miles Vorkosigan has been a favorite of mine for a long time. She writes of humanity (if sometimes genetically modified) spread widely through the universe, and the books vary from military science fiction to science fiction romance.


The Flowers of VashnoiThe Flowers of Vashnoi is a novella, a little gift from Bujold to her legion of fans. Set after Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, it follows Ekaterin Vorkosigan’s discoveries in the radiation-riddled Vashnoi territory and her attempts to bring about restoration of the land. Miles makes a brief appearance, but this is Ekaterin’s story. Someday I’m going to find the time to reread the entire Vorkosigan saga.


As the years go by (that is, since 2011, when I bought my first Kindle), I find myself reading more and more on e-readers. Along with the general ease of handling and reading, access to hundreds of books on a gadget that fits in my purse, and the instant gratification of downloading a book whenever I want it, I find the easy availability of novellas like Scott’s and Bujold’s to be a real benefit.


Visiting the Vorkosiverse

I’ve been a fan of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series since the early 1990s, and I have the old paperbacks of the first few novels to prove it. Somehow I let Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance linger on my TBR Captain Vorpatrilshelf for quite a long time, perhaps because it wasn’t about Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of most of Bujold’s Vorkosigan books. Miles’ cousin Ivan, a supporting character in the saga, takes center stage here, and he is a delight. So is the book. Space opera, romance, intrigue, a marriage of convenience, buried treasure, and two sets of crazy relatives! What more could one ask for?


Bujold provides a series chronology in the back of each volume, which is how I discovered the one Vorkosigan story I didn’t have and hadn’t read, the novella Winterfair Gifts, originally published in a romance anthology, Irresistible Forces, and also available as an e-novella. Told from the point of view of Roic, one of the Vorkosigans’ junior Armsmen, it tells how he and Sergeant Maura, a genetically engineered member of Miles’ old mercenary crew, foil a plot aimed at Miles and his fiancee, Ekaterin, and lets us attend the Vorkosigans’ Winterfair wedding. It’s a sidebar to the series, and a gift to fans.


Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is the sixteenth book in the Vorkosigan saga and picks up the story of Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan three years after the death of her husband, Count Aral Vorkosigan. Back on Gentleman JoleBarrayar, their son Miles has shouldered his responsibilities as Count (and as the father of a boisterous young family), but Cordelia remains Vicereine of Sergyar, where she has some surprising plans for her own future. There are no space battles or assassination plots this time; this is a novel about love, and family, and decisions that change lives. Bujold writes about a totally human future (despite a certain amount of genetic manipulation and reproductive technology), and even a few centuries down the road, humans haven’t changed much. Secrets only hinted at in earlier books are revealed, and events from the past are remembered. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is probably not the place to jump into the series, but it makes me want to go back to the beginning and read it all again.

Writer Wednesday: Naming Names

Our Writer Wednesday topic this month is “tell us you favorite character name,” but I couldn’t think of one, WW Octobereither as a reader or as a writer. But names are important, and for a writer they require quite a bit of thought, and sometimes just as much planning.

Many of my favorite keeper books are science fiction, because I enjoy the world building. And names are often part of that world building. Character names in books like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, or Marion Zimmer Bradley’s tales of Darkover often tell the reader quite a bit about family, social position, or occupation.

I find I can’t write about a character until I know his or her “true name.” From time to time I have realized that I simply can’t remember a supporting character’s name, a sure sign that whatever name I stuck the poor soul with is the wrong one. I like to play with names, and sometimes they take on an extra layer of meaning. In one of my manuscripts, the heroine is called Liz, short for Elizabeth, and the fact that the Spanish version of her name is Isabel becomes an important plot point. In another story, the heroine calls herself Charlie, but the hero, a European with a formal streak, always addresses her by her proper name, Charlotte.

Sometimes a character’s true name never shows up, suggesting that there’s something else about the Columbo & Dogcharacter that isn’t working. That thought reminded me of Lieutenant Columbo, who never had a first name, and his dog, who never had a name at all. Columbo tried out several names for the dog during the series, but none of them seemed to work, and the dog remained Dog. Come to think of it, Mrs. Columbo didn’t have a first name, either.

On the other hand, I’ve recently been reading a series of old-fashioned Regency romances, originally published in the 1990s, in which nearly all the male characters have at least three names, first, last, and title(s). How other people address these men speaks to relationships and social position. People in contemporary stories are generally casual about names, but in historical tales, arriving at a first name relationship may be a major romantic milestone.

Do you have a favorite character name? Or are there names that push your buttons and make you put a book down? For more thoughts on names, visit Wednesday Writers Sharon Wray, Lauren Christopher, Natalie Meg Evans, and Wendy La Capra (and be sure to check out Wendy’s upcoming release, Duchess Decadence).

Science Fiction for Romance Lovers

Romance lovers, I think, tend to be more interested in reading about people than about technology, which may lead some of us to shy away from science fiction.  Not me–I’ve been a science fiction fan far longer than I’ve been reading romance.  Many science fiction authors write as much about people and their relationships as they do about spaceships, computers, and laser cannon.

I’m not talking about Science Fiction Romance, which deserves another post to itself, but about writers who identify solidly with science fiction.  It won’t surprise you to hear that the five authors I’d like to recommend are women.  I readily confess that I don’t have nearly as much time to read as I did years ago, so I’m undoubtedly missing some newer writers.

DragonflightI fell in love with Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders of Pern series when the first novel, Dragonflight, came out in 1968.  In fact, I wore my paperback copies of the first novels out and splurged to replace them with hardbacks (still on my shelf) when they were reprinted.  Pern is a Lost Colony, and the books cover centuries of its history, including the romantic entanglements of its inhabitants, both human and dragon.  Yes, of course, dragons–not shapeshifters, but telepathically bonded to their human riders (causing interesting complications when the dragons mate) and the essential factor in the survival of civilization.  The novels were not written in internal chronological order–I’d suggest starting with Dragonflight.

McCaffrey also wrote several other series, some with collaborators.  The Freedom’s Landing series is my favorite of the others, but they all tend to feature romantic subplots.  McCaffrey’s son Todd inherited Pern at her death and has continued the series.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover is another Lost Colony, although in the later installments in this long series the Rediscovery by the Terran Empire adds new layers of conflict.  The paranormal element in this series is the telepathic power with which the ruling class maintains its position, and the many novels follow the relationships and fortunes of several families.  The series ranges from short novels written as paperback originals in the late 1950s to complex trilogies written in the 1990s.  After Bradley’s death in 1999, her collaborator Deborah Ross has continued the chronicles of Darkover.  (Jo Walton has written an interesting assessment of the Darkover series, “‘Culture clash on the borders of genres.”)

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series often does involve space ships, scattered as it is over a wide-spread human civilization, but it centers on the adventures, romantic and other wise, of Miles Vorkosigan and his family.  Shards of Honor and Barrayar include the courtship of Miles’ parents, who meet as officers on opposite sides of an interplanetary war, while in A Civil Campaign we find Miles himself finally ready to settle down and court a charming young widow.  There’s plenty of action, both military and interpersonal, in the rest of the series.  Bujold also writes award-winning fantasy.

While McCaffrey, Bradley and Bujold are long-standing favorites of mine, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series is a much more recent discovery, beginning with His Majesty’s Dragon (2006).  Yes, dragons again, telepathic, intelligent, and Temerairebonded with their partners.  But this is an alternate history series, in which His Majesty’s Aerial Corps fights the Napoleonic Wars on board enormous dragons, led by Temeraire, the rare black dragon, and his pilot Captain Will Laurence, who was perfectly happy as a Naval officer until the dragon’s egg he was transporting hatched unexpectedly.  Thanks to one species of dragon which will only bond with female pilots, there are a few women maintaining a low profile in the Aerial Corps, an interesting challenge given the early nineteenth century social structure.  I love these books.

I’m not sure how to categorize Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, but since I got the omnibus edition (there are five novels) from the Science Fiction Book Club, I’m going with it.  These novels blend the paranormal Soulless(werewolves, vampires and ghosts), alternate history, steampunk (mechanical ladybugs!), and romance (ah, that alpha werewolf).  I’ve only read the first novel, Soulless, which is definitely a romance, but my friend who carefully avoids paranormal gobbled up all five in a row.  Carriger is also writing a Young Adult series in the same world, beginning with Etiquette & Espionage, and has another steampunk series in the planning stages.

I have novels from all of these series on my totally-out-of-control shelves of books To Be Read, and the ones I have read remain on my keeper shelves.  But I’m always up for something new, so if you have favorite science fiction titles or authors, please share!

What’s on Your Keeper Shelves?

My house is pretty much supported by bookshelves.  When Jack and I moved in here in 1976, one of our first projects was finding a carpenter who could build adjustable floor to ceiling bookshelves.  By the time we finished, we had them in five rooms, along with assorted free-standing bookcases.  I remember once reading a description of a home decorated in “mixed book bindings.”  That about sums it up.

Of course there’s been a lot of turnover through the decades.  If there hadn’t been, the place would look like something out of one of those hoarder shows on TV, and I’d be squeezing between stacks of books to get to the bathroom.  And there’d be books in there, too.  My piles of unshelved books are small, and none of them are on the floor, but I don’t part with books until I’m really pushed.

The other day I saw some wonderful illustrations for Frank Herbert’s classic Dune, and they made me think of all the books, and series of books, that I keep on my shelves because I really want to read them again.  I don’t know when I think I’ll have time, since I have at least a couple of hundred unread books waiting for their turn, but I know I want to revisit so many of those worlds.

Science fiction keepers are what you see at the top of this page, the upper shelves of the floor to ceiling bookcase in my bedroom (where there are also four free-standing bookcases full of romance novels, and a unit built into the long-sealed window above my bed, divided between unread books and DVDs).  There are several series up there that I’d love to read again from the beginning, although the sequels to Dune (there were several) are not there.  I read most of them, but only kept Dune–for me, none of the others lived up to the first one.

But Marion Zimmer Bradley’s tales of Darkover are there, including a few I have yet to read, and the same for Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern.  I have them all, some still waiting on a To Be Read shelf.  I’d like to explore Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld again, and Harry Harrison’s Eden.

Current authors whose worlds stand in neat rows up there include Lois McMaster Bujold’s saga of Miles Vorkosigan and his family connections (the latest one is in a TBR stack on top of my seldom-opened jewelry box), and Naomi Novik’s wonderful Temeraire series.  I’ve been saving her Crucible of Gold because I wanted to have one in reserve (in the TBR stack above my bed), but now Blood of Tyrants is out, so I know there’s another adventure waiting.

And then down a couple of shelves I see J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, and next to those Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, in a lovely leatherbound slip-cased volume Jack bought me for Christmas one year after I wore out the original paperbacks.  And I haven’t even ventured across the room to the romance collection, much less down the hall to the mysteries.

I’ll continue the tour another evening.  Tonight I think I’ll go to bed early and read.

What books do you want to visit when you have a little quiet time?

The Bedroom Wall



The Influence of Books, Part 6

When I listed favorite authors from my reading past on a scrap of notepaper a few weeks ago, the three names I wrote on the science fiction line were Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Lois McMaster Bujold.  Known for long series, detailed world building, and complex cultures (Bradley’s Darkover, McCaffrey’s Pern, and Bujold’s Barrayar and its neighbors and colonies), these women added human elements that were missing from much of earlier science fiction: strong female characters, romance, even sex.

They aren’t the only women on my SF keeper shelf.  (Another sheet of notepaper here.)  I have single titles by quite a few female writers, and multiple books by C.J. Cherryh, Suzanne Collins, Charlaine Harris (although the Sookie Stackhouse series could be shelved with the mysteries), Elizabeth Moon, Naomi Novik (I’ve been saving the newest Temeraire book as a special treat), Jo Walton, and Connie Willis.  And there are books on my shelves (and on my computer’s hard drive) with one foot in SF and one in romance.  It’s been a long time now, thankfully, since SF took the “No Girls Allowed” sign off the club house door.

I don’t remember if I discovered Bradley or McCaffrey first, but Bradley began writing for the pulp magazines as early as 1949.  She wrote a a good number of series and single title books over the years, but her best known (and by far my favorites) were the Darkover novels, set on a planet colonized and then long forgotten by Terrans.  The series began in 1968, with The Planet Savers, and has continued past Bradley’s death in 1999 with novels written by various authors she mentored.  I’m pretty sure I have them all, although I haven’t read some of the later ones.  (I will never run out of books to read.)  The earliest Darkover novels were short and relatively simple, but they grew longer and far more complex as Bradley developed the culture and mythology of the planet (several of the earliest novels were later revised to fit).  Bradley not only built a world, she populated it with a variety of societies, families, and governments–just like a real planet.

McCaffrey began writing in the 1950s, but didn’t begin publishing novels until 1967.  She wrote a  stand-alone novels and a number of series, but she’s best known for her Dragonriders of Pern stories, which began with a novella in 1967.  Over the years McCafrrey moved up and down the time line from the original trilogy (Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon) to fill in the long history of a planet (like Bradley’s Darkover) colonized by humans and then forgotten, providing a surprisingly scientific explanation for time-travelling, telepathic dragons in the process.  Between my shelves (Keeper and To Be Read), I have all the Pern books, the four-volume Freedom series, and a few more.  McCaffrey began collaborating with her son Todd well before her death last year, and he has continued the Pern series.

Bujold has written two fantasy series, but she is best known for her Vorkosigan Saga novels, beginning in 1986 and happily continuing through the most recent novel, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, published a few weeks ago (the only one I haven’t read).  Most of the novels center around the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, a member of the ruling family of the planet Barrayar, and he’s had more than his share.  Bujold combines elements of military SF, a complex economic system and high technology paired with the almost medieval social structure of Barrayar, romance (that of Miles and his eventual wife Ekaterin, and that of his parents Aral and Cordelia), and mystery.

These three authors have entertained me as a reader and inspired me as a writer.  Writing this makes me want to go back and read all those stories again–if only I had the time.  If you haven’t read them, pick one up and jump in.  You will enjoy the adventure.