This summer has been quite a nerdventure. Last spring when Adam suggested science fiction for the next Reading With Hippos Challenge, I was fresh off a month-long journey through Middlemarch. I hadn't read much sci-fi at all, but I was so weary of Victorian manners and long sentences, anything written within the last century sounded good to me. Don't get me wrong, I was proud to finish Middlemarch, but I've found variety truly is the spice of my reading life. I was ready to move on to something totally different.

One of my primary goals in creating and maintaining this site is to encourage reading widely. Of course we all have our likes and dislikes, our go-to authors and genres, and there's nothing wrong with that. But if you spend all your time reading one Danielle Steel book after another, you're only experiencing a tiny sliver of the literary world. Macaroni and cheese might be your favorite food, but that doesn't mean you eat macaroni and cheese to the exclusion of all other foods. Can you imagine living like that? Someday you might decide you want dessert—or even some roughage, just to untwist your cheese-abused colon.

So I view the special events on this site as a way to introduce some much-needed diversity into my usual tastes. As much as I love literary novels about booksellers and librarians, I would grow quickly bored if that were all I ever chose to read.

Enter Adam and his sci-fi suggestion. It seemed like a solid plan—I had little experience with the genre, thus making me the ideal tour guide for readers who were also sci-fi virgins. Adam, as a longtime sci-fi fan, would be able to make suggestions as to which books should be on the list. In any case, this had to be easier than Middlemarch, right?

This was taken on our honeymoon four years ago, after I became overwhelmed by looking through guidebooks in an attempt to answer the question, “What do you want to do today?”

This was taken on our honeymoon four years ago, after I became overwhelmed by looking through guidebooks in an attempt to answer the question, “What do you want to do today?”

In hindsight, 12 books in 12 weeks was probably over-ambitious even for me. Lesson learned: in the future, if I want to do a multi-book challenge, I'll keep the list to 5 or fewer. The benefit, however, to essentially binging on sci-fi for three months was that it forced me into the mindset necessary to enjoy such literature. I was like a child thrown into a pool—I could either find a way to swim, or drown in tedium for the rest of the summer.

Ultimately I found there's a lot to like about science fiction. These writers know how to create suspense. They forced me to think about life beyond my Midwestern surroundings. They taught me about sophisticated scientific principles without making me feel like I was reading a textbook. Some of the books were sobering warnings about our culture's current trajectory; some were adventurous vacations from reality. It was fun reading books that weren't limited to strict realism.

Unfortunately, I don't think I did a very good job convincing other readers to give sci-fi a try. I had so many conversations this summer that went like this:

“Hey, how are things going with your site?”

“Great! I've been reading a bunch of sci-fi! It's been really fun!”

“Oh, I don't read sci-fi, maybe I'll check you out again in the fall.”

At that point I'd usually just smile and move along, but what I should have told the skeptics is that sci-fi may not be everyone's favorite genre—even after all this, it's still far from mine—but it has the potential to appeal to wide audiences. I've decided the keys to sci-fi enjoyment are exposure and suspension of disbelief.

As each week went by and I continued to forge my way through the pages, my brain adapted and the quirks of the genre felt less foreign. The first few books I read were difficult—I couldn't read as quickly as usual because everything was so new and strange. But the more I read, the more I got used to accepting bizarre premises, and the more I found myself enjoying the stories. So this character is part-human, part-machine? Sounds good! All of humanity has been wiped out in a mysterious plague? Can't wait to see what happens next! Before I acclimated to sci-fi, I would have been so hung up on these details I wouldn't have been able to settle into the meat of the story. Once I relaxed and learned to accept what the authors offered, I realized I was having a pretty good time.

Of course, there were some books that I struggled to get through. I can die a happy woman if I never lay eyes on Starship Troopers or Neuromancer again. Just for fun, here's a picture of all the books, ranked from my least favorite (bottom of the pile) to favorite (top of the pile).

Naturally Margaret Atwood is at the top. She's a magnificent, formidable genius. Alastair Reynolds was a nice surprise, and Hitchhiker's Guide was as fun and frolicsome as I'd heard.

Now that we've reached the end of the summer, I'm glad I read all the books, even the ones I didn't love. Just by being willing to try something new, I greatly expanded my tastes. Now sci-fi isn't this scary, hulking beast—it's just another genre I can sample and enjoy.

When I first met Adam, he was just a photo and profile on a dating website. His tagline was a quote, and he wrote that he'd give bonus points to anyone who could identify the source. The quote was totally unfamiliar to me, but I Googled it anyway because he was cute and smart and I wanted to impress him. Google informed me it was a line from the TV show Firefly, which I had never heard of, but appeared to be some kind of Western taking place in space.

A few weeks later, after we'd met in person and neither of us turned out to be a troll, I watched the first episode with him. I was...underwhelmed. Space travelers wearing fringed leather vests and saying “ain't”? I couldn't get past the weirdness, couldn't just accept the premise of the show, and therefore couldn't enjoy watching it. Firefly became one of those “agree to disagree” topics in our relationship, like whiskey and jogging.

Needless to say, four years and one Summer of Sci-Fi later, I can now admit I like Firefly.

Maybe if I do a Nicholas Sparks-a-thon, I can ease Adam into liking Zac Efron movies?

A girl can dream.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Summer of Sci-Fi Challenge, whether by reading posts or reading books or both. Thanks to the sci-fi veterans in my life for the encouragement to try this out, and to any sci-fi newbies who were open-minded enough to join me. Reading really is more fun when we do it together.

And for some good news—our next challenge is already planned out! We'll be hosting our first annual LiterScary Challenge this October. Click over to the Special Events page for details!


Find it at your library!

This is the 12th and final week of the Summer of Sci-Fi Challenge. To see the complete list of science fiction books we read this summer, click here.

So this book is about bees. It's not a book with a metaphorical title that's really about humans and how their lives and actions sometime resemble that of bees. It's just about bees. 

Again, to be perfectly clear: the characters are all bees. 

For some people, that might be a turnoff or a dealbreaker, but after spending the summer reading my way through the sci-fi canon, I wasn't intimidated, and I don't think you should be either. Paull's book is a well-written, highly interesting look inside the hive.

Flora 717 is a member of one of the lowest castes of bees: she's a sanitation worker, large and strong and ugly, tasked with unglamorous, odiferous jobs the fancier bees won't do. Flora wants to be a good sister, wants to do her best to please the Queen, but she keeps having impulses that get in the way. For one thing, sanitation workers aren't allowed to fly, but Flora's wings itch to be loosed on the wind. She's also not allowed in the Nursery near the little larval babies, but Flora has a strong mothering instinct and finds she's able to produce food for them just like the young, pretty nurses do.

One of the strictest rules of the hive is that only the Queen can breed. But that might be yet another way in which Flora bucks the stereotypes and makes her own rules. What's interesting about her is that she does it all seemingly against her will. She's not a strident opportunist attempting to destroy the hierarchy, she's just a simple bee who tries to be content in her role and finds over and over again that she can't.

It's obvious that Paull has done exhaustive research into bees and how their hives function. I found it fascinating, for example, how strongly scent controls the bees and how they relate to their surrounding world. Each caste of bee has its own distinct scent, and the Queen controls and calms the hive largely through scent cues. And of course scent is of paramount importance to the foragers, who have a more and more difficult time finding untainted sources of pollen and nectar. As I read, I thought more than once, “Wow, this author really knows what it's like to be a bee!” It's an incredible feat of imagination, when you think about it, to get so completely into the mind of an insect.

The book may be about bees, but it still deals in some weighty themes, many of them applicable to human life. Still, though, I'm not sure I'm comfortable claiming that the whole point of the novel is what it might say about us. Flora is a highly developed, complex character, and many of her motivations and struggles are tied up thoroughly in her bee-ness. I'm not entirely sure how to classify this book, but sometimes the best literature builds its own category around itself.

As always, I welcome your comments here or on Goodreads or Facebook. What did you think of The Bees? 

This is officially the final book in the Summer of Sci-Fi Challenge. We did it!!! Join me next Sunday for a wrap-up post, in which I'll be looking back through all the books we read and reflecting on how I feel about sci-fi now compared to when we started. In some ways it's been a long summer, but it's certainly also been an adventure and an education!