18,100 Miles In The Air, With 438 Pages To Read

I’m on the road again. Since I just finished a few days at the Perth Writers Festival (and I promise to blog about how great it was catching up with authors Alom Shaha, Leslie Cannold and Jane Caro – by the way, get their books), what to pack for the plane trip to Sydney and Melbourne (and back again) is on my mind.

This is a revised post from a few years back. Many of the recommendations still hold, although for this trip I have packed Anna Funder’s Stasiland: True Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall, since I’ll be doing a few historical tours during the Berlin Skeptics Congress.


I’ve traveled a lot over the past seven years – around the world three (four?) times; three times to Melbourne from Perth in one year for university studies; school trip around Japan; many trips to the USA for Dragon*Con; a wonderful time in Manchester for QEDCon and even juggled some very odd flight combinations to get to Wagga Wagga. As Ford Prefect might well say, you’ve got to know where your towel is – AND your paperback novel. Or novels, if you plan to do the whole Hitch-Hiker’s series.

So it was a pretty nice compliment to get an email from a friend asking what to do when heading on a particularly long stretch of airline flight – particularly if you’re a fan of science fiction and most of the airline bookshops are packed to the earplugs with bestseller pulp.

Since I’m heading

a) overseas later this year and

b) currently typing this in an airport lounge on my way to an Australian conference

I’ve been researching in preparation. One of the things I’ve noticed is that a good read that can take you out of the real world of turbulence, squished seats and rumbling stomach of the seat-mate next to you. A bad read can just mean more sodding bulky hand luggage and a lump in the back pocket of the seat-mate in front of you. So get into the bookstore with time to spare if you haven’t loaded up your computer carry-on with some selections, in order to flip through and find out if you’re really going to enjoy the trip with your reading.

First, science fiction. This is with the expert help of my partner, who has never really let me down in this genre with his suggestions. Despite this, do get flipping ahead of time to see if it’s your complimentary cup o’ tea.

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. If you choose nothing else from this list, choose that – the only excuse for NOT reading that is if you have already done so. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson; you might also like to start on the The Baroque Cycle, in preparation for Anathem. I would first suggest trying his Cryptonomicon, though, but if you don’t like it, that’s cool – it’s not to everyone’s taste. If you DO like it, then the Baroque Cycle is kind of prequel – is hard going in the middle but still pretty decent. Try Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny – also a “must have”. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon are already firm favourites – if you can, see if you get into Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and other novels that aren’t science fiction but well worth finding on the book carousel at the airport terminal.

Unfortunately, many of the best books are past of a series. The above are a few that spring to mind as “teh awes0mmeee!!” that aren’t in a series – and technically, I’m cheating with Altered Carbon (though it stands alone). If series are OK, then try: Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny; the Lensman series by E. E. Doc Smith is worth a shot but difficult to find. There’s also the Foundation trilogy (Isaac Asimov – there are more than the three books, but stick to the first three or prepare to be a bit disappointed).

Speaking of Asimov, I once sent a copy of Asimov’s The Complete Robot series to a ‘friend’ – although she turned out to be more fair-weather than fair-minded, it’s a great book if you enjoy science fiction short stories and novellas and I certainly don’t regret getting my own copy. I have revisited Frank Herbert’s Dune recently and wasn’t disappointed. Another series that I have found here and there (usually in second-hand bookstores) – The Stainless Steel Rat series by Harry Harrison.

There’s A Song of Ice And Fire by George Martin; Peter Hamilton has a couple of series that are both pretty good – grab anything of his that says “volume 1″ and see if you like it. And of course Terry Pratchett. Pratchett has gone from great to middling and back to pretty great… sadly he has been reported to have early onset Alzheimer’s. Do see if you can catch some stage versions of his books if you have the chance. If you don’t have his co-authored book with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, then go no further – go forth and get it.

Neil Gaiman is, of course, de rigeur – if you’re the sort to enjoy a good graphic novel read, then you should be tucking copies of books by Alan Moore into your inflight pockets. Although From Hell is rather bulky in that case, Watchmen and V for Vendetta is good escapism when stuck with in-flight films you wouldn’t pay to see on dvd.

Which brings me to the issue of explicit books – would I take Moore’s Lost Girls with me on a flight? Honestly, I’ve picked up left-over broken-spined books of more luridly written and less intellectual content (usually by King, Collins or Krantz), stuffed down the sides of chairs and abandoned in the seat pocket by previous passengers. Yet although I’ve yet to be asked by fellow passengers ‘what are you reading??’, it might be a little awkward trying to explain just why you’re engrossed in the likes of Belle DeJour’s latest adventures, Diablo Cody’s work before she dreamed-up Juno, or even the more graphically Australian heroin-addict-turned-sex-worker-turned-novelist Kate Holden’s In My Skin. I’d say if you can handle the risk of having someone double-take at the title you’re holding, then they’re a quiet escape when you’re stuck en transit. 

Which then takes me to general fiction – Mil Millington is a god with fake red hair and even if you’re not on his sporadic mailing list then you will still love his book Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About and others, regardless of your sad deficiency of what is da shiznit. Ben Elton is also a staple of the pulp-fiction section, but at least his heart and mind is in the right place and he certainly knows how to hit every modern issue and international concern that pop culture magazines cover. As for Blind Faith – I reviewed that earlier this year here.

I admit that I got into studying Classic Philosophy and read Ezra Pound cantos in the rain for about two years of my University career because of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and its successor is Special Topics In Calamity Physics – A Novel By Marisha Pessl. Pretentious tales of brats in New York only wish they could be half this literate when it comes to school-yard politics and murder. Speaking of which, Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight is a glass full of absinthe with a chaser of insanity. Go crazy.

Australian author Matthew Reilly has his own legendary story behind the publishing phenomenon of thriller-meets-sci-fi and he’s onto his next homegrown blockbuster at a rapid pace – so a lengthy airline flight is a great way to get into his Michael Crichton-with-less-of-the-highly-unlikely-technological-fidgeting books. Susanna Clarke’s fantastical Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is weighty but wonderful and I was lost for at least a thousand miles because of it.

If you’re able to enjoy non-fiction books whilst on a lengthy trip, I’ve written about several great reads before – they include the works of Mary Roach, Richard Wiseman, Rose Shapiro and more than a dozen books in the ‘children’s section‘ that could just as easily make for a good read on a long trip.

At this point I better stop before I start going through the second of my twenty-five bookshelves – and they’re calling my flight. Now. No, I’m not kidding. Enjoy the trip.

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