Skip Williams’ 7 of the Best

Written by Skip Williams

A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, by Madeleine L’Engle

Written as a kid’s story with a young, teenaged girl as the protagonist, A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels deal with some pretty heavy stuff. Meg Murry is 13 years old and the awkward child in her family. She has trouble in school not because she’s lazy or stupid, but mostly because she’s really bad at being a student. I could relate to that when I first read this book at age eleven.

In addition to Meg’s everyday troubles, she has a whopper of a problem. Her dad, a government scientist, is missing and nobody is saying anything. Her mom, a brilliant microbiologist in her own right, is widely regarded in their small town as an abandoned woman who doesn’t know when to give up looking for her husband.

Meg soon picks up a clue to her dad’s whereabouts, and the discovery leads her on a journey through space. Along the way, Meg discovers that the battle of good and evil is real and ongoing. In fact, the universe is under attack by an entity known only as the “Black Thing.” L’Engle gives us one close look at what happens then the Black Thing takes over: Meg visits the planet Camazotz, which has given in. There’s a menacing conformity in the society and no joy or spontaneity.

In the end, Meg manages to rescue her father, but the battle against the Black Thing rages on.

A Wrinkle in Time showed me that I need not always accept other people’s negative assessments of me. Forty years after I first encountered it, the book serves as a reminder that we are not well served by anyone who seeks to force uniformity, compliance, or subservience on us.

A Wrinkle in Time has been continuously in print since its first publication in 1963. It also as been banned now and then, most notably because some of Meg’s allies use some decidedly occult (or at least New Age) gear, such as crystal balls. So, if you have ever had the urge to read a banned book, you could do worse than starting with this one.

Ringworld, by Larry Niven

My first encounter with the concept of alien mega structures came in the form of the novel Ringworld, a work that later spawned a host of sequels and prequels.

When the novel opens, humans are routinely living well past age 200, mostly though the marvels of futuristic medicine boosted by extraterrestrial drugs, and the population is strictly controlled through regulating the birthrate.

Louis Gridly Wu is 200 years old and bored enough to yearn for a journey beyond Known Space. Louis gets his wish when he joins an alien expedition to investigate an object both enormous and anomalous, a massive ring around a sun-like star. This “ringworld” is about the diameter of the Earth’s orbit and a whopping million miles wide.

When the expedition arrives at the structure, the spacefarers are immediately marooned there, thanks to the ring’s automated defense systems. Once they begin exploring the ring, the group discovers that a human-like race inhabits the ring, but that they have descended into post technological savagery. They later discover that the civilization fell when a microorganism that destroys superconductors was introduced into the ring.

The spacefarers eventually jury-rig a ride off the ring and vow to return, better prepared, next time.

Ringworld is a great cautionary tale about the dangers of over reliance on technology and it’s not heavy handed about it. Niven also slips in a few digs at centralized social planning and over caution. All in all, a timeless tale.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Thanks to three blockbuster movies, followed by three more pretty, but not so blockbuster movies, everyone in the Western world has become familiar with the Lord of the Rings, and with much of its prequel material, most notably The Hobbit. I had a chance to read and own a copy of The Hobbit at a fairly young age, when the book would have been perfect for me. Alas, I passed up the opportunity in favor of something else that I’ve completely forgotten now.

I did not pick up Tolkien’s classic tale until some years later, when a teacher suggested it to me as a fix for the voracious reading habit I developed by junior high (that’s middle school, for you youngsters). The first volume of the tale: The Fellowship of the Ring, was the first not the novel I read that was not intended for kids. Nevertheless, I was at once enchanted and intimidated. The story of Frodo’s flight from the Shire, with the ring wraiths in pursuit sent, chills down my spine, but the poetical interludes flummoxed me at the time, and I found the work’s sheer length daunting.

Not long after that, the D&D bug bit me, and I was back at the tale, devouring the hobbit and the remaining volumes of the main tale. The Lord of the Rings, along with The Hobbit became the de facto bible for my high school D&D group. Those poem and songs that flummoxed me just a couple years earlier became keys to power in most of our campaigns. (Some players turned to divine intervention when backed into a corner, we quoted Tolkien.) I still read the books every year or two, just to visit Middle Earth again for a little while.

The Incarnations of Immortality (On a Pale Horse), by Piers Anthony

Author Piers Anthony is perhaps best known for his pun-filled Xanth books. The Incarnations of Immortality leans heavily on Anthony’s wit, but represents the author’s philosophical side. The first volume, On a Pale Horse, follows the adventures of Zane, an unemployed photographer who is driven to the brink of suicide after he makes a bad deal for a treasure-seeking gem. As he prepares to shoot himself, he sees Death—skull, scythe, and all—approaching. Zane puts a bullet into Death’s head instead of his own and finds himself taking over the job.

In Zane’s universe, various elements governing life are not only personified, they’re offices filled by normal mortals. These include, Death, Nature, Fate, War, and Time. Later it is revealed that Evil (Satan) and God are office holders as well. As Death, Zane soon finds himself entangled in a battle between a family headed by an elderly magician and Satan himself. Zane eventually prevails, but the struggle continues as Satan attempts to work his will by interfering with the other office holders.

Throughout the series, Anthony explores common beliefs about the nature of ethics and morality and spins subplots that reveal the kinds of consequences these beliefs might have if they’re absolutely true. It’s quite a journey.

The Terminal Man, by Michael Crichton

Author Michael Crichton has a talent for spotting emerging trends in technology and spinning tales about what happens when people push the technological envelope without understanding all the potential consequences. His novel Jurassic Park and the movies derived from it show his talent for this sort of work. The Terminal Man is an earlier work and, at least for me, a profoundly more creepy tale.

The Terminal Man deals with the ramifications of behavior modification through neurostimulation. The story involves one Harry Benson, who suffers from epilepsy after an automobile accident. When Benson has a seizure, he blacks out and becomes violent (sometimes with lethal effects). Two neurosurgeons propose to treat Benson with a neurostimulator (which they call a “brain pacemaker”) implanted inside Benson’s head.

The doctors good intentions go awry when Benson turns out to be a raging psychotic who believes computers represent humanity’s most dangerous rivals. The neurostimulator is initially successful in controlling Benson’s seizures, but things go bad when Benson finds having his seizures suppressed pleasurable, and he learns to trigger a seizure whenever he likes.

I find myself recalling Crichton’s cautionary tale whenever I encounter a discussion of creating interfaces directly between a human brain and a computer. (Just how much would it hurt if a computer wired into your brain crashed?) Or when I hear talk of forcing gross changes on anyone’s behavior through any kind psychological or medical technique.

The Discworld Series, by Terry Pratchett

There just a few Discworld books–a mere 40 of them or so–and I’ve only read about 28 of them. I expect to enjoy fresh Discworld experiences for some time to come. (Author Terry Pratchett passed away in 2015.) Pratchett’s work defies easy categorization. One critic described Pratchett as Tolkien with a satirical twist. I think that’s about as close as anyone is likely to get.

The Discworld feature bizarrely convoluted plots in which several groups of characters navigate a series of misadventures that put them on a collision course. Along the way, Pratchett drops in a host of sardonic, real-world references. Pratchett lampooned just about everything, but politics, war, international business, bureaucracy, and technology were favorite targets.

Many great characters inhabit Discworld, but my favorites include Sam Vimes, who’s the chief cop in a city where thievery is not outlawed, but regulated. Vimes nevertheless stays busy just about all the time. Another personal favorite is Death, who always SPEAKS IN ALL CAPS and spends time pondering the nature of life and reality. Death makes his way through the world spending a near endless supply of copper coins (presumably lifted from corpses’ eyes) and occasionally taking time off to try something new—he was remarkably successful as a short order cook and once stood in for awhile as Discworld’s equivalent of Santa Claus.

The Dying Earth Series, by Jack Vance

The Dying Earth is a fantasy series spiced with just a little science fiction. The setting is planet Earth in a distant future where the sun is cooling and expanding into a red giant. Seemingly everyone on the doomed planet is aware that the sun is going dark, but they carry on with their lives each day.

Demons, wizards, and monsters of all kinds inhabit the Dying Earth. The wizards are of particular interest to anyone who plays the D&D game, because it’s Vance’s take on magic that forms the basics of the game magic system. Vance describes wizards poring over their books, studying their spells and laboriously constructing each magical effect inside their minds, much like an extended pattern of mental dominoes. When triggered, the whole edifice collapses as the spell’s effects manifest, and a wizard must labor to create it all again to cast it again.

One recurring character in The Dying Earth series is Cugel the Clever. Cugel is the prototypical D&D rogue. He’s dexterous and has a modicum of talent with magical devices. Cugel does not always live up to his name, but he forever has some sort of scheme in motion. His avarice and opportunism often leave him backed into corners, though Cugel never seems to notice that he’s his own worse enemy. I know people like that.

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