Five Golden Things–Karen Burnham

In the wake of the recent Locus All-Centuries Poll results, there’s been a lot of conversation about lists. It seems like there are more lists out there than you can list: Best of the Year, Award Winners, Award Nominees, Best I Read Last Year, Most Popular, etc. Now that we’ve wrapped up a popular voted-on list, I thought that I’d make some space here for quirky lists curated by specific individuals. If you have an idea for a list you’d like to write or a list you’d like to see, please get in touch and I’ll see what I can do.

To kick things off, here’s a list from me:

Five Science Fiction Novels that I’ve Read that Handle Character Really Well

To get on this list a story had to be definitely science fiction (apologies to Daryl Gregory’s Pandemonium), a full novel (sorry Daryl’s “Second Person, Present Tense”), and have characters that stood out as memorable long after the book was shut. Intersectionality matters a lot here: real people have a lot of different things going on in their lives and backgrounds, all of which combines to make a person with richness and depth. That’s the sort of thing that makes a character or set of characters last in your mind when other details have been forgotten.

1) The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I’ve raved about this book on several platforms, including review and podcast. One main character gets an incredible amount of depth here: Emilio Sandoz is a Jesuit from the slums of Puerto Rico, a brilliant linguist who comes to believe that he has a destiny and ends up completely shattered: we get to see both the beginning and the long, painful denouement of this experience. But even the supporting characters are fleshed out. Sofia Mendez came from a Jewish family who lost everything in war, her family was killed, she had to prostitute herself to survive before she was picked up as an indentured servant for her intellectual abilities. She is very proud and distanced and has serious trouble with Emilio’s casual and charming demeanor. Anne Richards is a warm and friendly athiest, a medical doctor with an post-retirement interest in Latin. Not all the characters get the kind of in-depth characterization these three do, but all of them are clearly from somewhere, they don’t simply exist at the convenience of the story. And where they’re from matters to their characterization and worldviews–no one here is just a collection of stereotypes. The Jesuit priest from Waco, Texas sees things quite a bit differently than the Jesuit from Montreal, even though they share faith and training. The Sparrow is one of the incredibly rare books that is able to spread out rich characterization among a cast of characters.

2) Warchild by Karin Lowachee. The main character, Jos, was orphaned when pirates attack his parents’ ship, he is then adopted by the pirates. His life holds many turns of fortune, but is overall unstable and violent, and he is often being used for someone else’s ends. He ends up an incredibly messed-up young man, and finally is able to come to terms with just how victimized he’s been. This is a really powerful book that reminds us that in real life people don’t just get over being exposed to traumatizing violence the way characters in most adventure novels seem to.

3) Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon. This is a one-woman show starring Ofelia, an older woman who chose to stay behind when a sponsoring corporation transfers the rest of her fellow colonists off-planet. She is cranky and stubborn and menopausal and eventually instrumental in making contact with a sentient species. It’s been a long time since I read this, and looking back there may be some troubling attitudes towards the native species. However, Ofelia is one of the few post-menopausal heroines I have encountered, and I have always appreciated her. I could also have chosen Speed of Dark by Moon for its portrayal of an autistic protagonist.

4) Timescape by Gregory Benford. I didn’t love Timescape as much as I thought I would, being a hard-sf afficianado. But I have to admit that Gordon Bernstein, the young Jewish physicist from New York working at UC La Jolla in California in the 1960s is a really well-drawn character. He struggles with his relationship with Penny,  a California girl who is getting into the cultural revolution and not happy to put up with his casual sexism. He struggles with her friendship with a Vietnam vet, and he struggles with his Jewish family back home. Even the office politics in the physics department struck me as believable.

5) Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson. This was the first of Wilson’s novels that I read, and I’ve enjoyed just about everything I read from him. I was incredibly impressed by the way that this novel, while having a world-shaking series of time-traveling monoliths popping up all over the place in the background, foregrounded the relationships. There are romantic entanglements, but also issues between parents and children as the children grow up and rebel. The romances are primary at times and the parenting is primary at times, and striking a balance between all of that and the plot is a tricky balancing act, which I think Wilson manages beautifully. I could have picked almost any of his books, including Julian Comstock, Blind Lake, or Spin.

2 thoughts on “Five Golden Things–Karen Burnham

  • January 10, 2013 at 2:28 am

    Wow, thanks for this comment.
    I dis less characterization in later novels of the suite that teats how scientists work. They all have single word titles: TIMESCAPE, ARTIFACT, COSM, EATER. Or rather, I did it in other ways, not the method of TIMESCAPE. In COSM I portrayed an anxious research woman riding the waves of a discovery of immense significance. EATER has a portrait of my wife written while she was dying. Writing works for many of us as therapy.


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