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.

Australia And Friday 13th – A Skeptical Viewpoint
Round-Up Of Press On Robin Ince’s Forthcoming Australian Tour
Unholy Trinity Melbourne Review (AKA From Up The Gods Without God)
Because, Ultimately, Everything Wrong Is Due To Atheists From Divorced Families
About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • http://thecanberracook.blogspot.com Alethea H. Claw

    I find I can’t read anything too challenging after the first 8 hours or so.

    My usual plan: load up the ipad with ebooks of many varieties. Take/buy a throwaway book of the light reading kind. Take a puzzle book – crosswords, sudoku, whatever your fancy. I like cryptic crosswords and kakuro. These are easily obtainable in airport bookshops – though not the hard cryptics, only very easy ones.

    For takeoff and landing, when you have to turn off the electronics, there’s the puzzles. Hard when you’re starting, easy when you’re landing. In between, start by getting stuck into a good meaty book. Then it’s movie time, if there’s a decent one. Finished by dozing and/or light easy novel, or a reread of an old familiar. Pratchett’s good for the old familiar; pick up a second hand one and then abandon it in a youth hostel or coffee shop to gain karma points and save weight on the way home.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    I was unimpressed by Altered Carbon. For instance, at one point the protagonist, Novacs, goes on a pointless killing spree, knowing that he’s under close surveillance by the police. Novacs doesn’t worry about taking any sort of precautionary or evasive action. Maybe Novacs is just being stupid because he doesn’t even look over his shoulder, but he also isn’t worrying about surveillance systems (which are shown to be improved over what we have today). Morgan is aware of this problem as there’s an attempt to paper over it when it’s later revealed that the police lost track of Novacs. However Novacs had no way of knowing that when he set off on his rampage. If this sort of authorial device is employed sparingly, I’m pretty forgiving, but if the writer indulges often, then he’s disrespecting my intelligence.

    • GAZZA

      That is not my recollection. Considering that Kovacs knows that a certain cop will go out of their way to cover for his sleeve, and also that he was hired by someone he has every reason to expect can cover up anything he does, I do not believe it is accurate to describe him as stupid (though certainly I could not argue with overconfident). I would also not regard his spree as pointless – it is important to establish Kovacs philosophical leanings as imparted to him by his mentor – and really, it’s not even pointless in the sense that it doesn’t achieve anything.

      But, obviously, to each his/her own.

      • aporeticus

        I did enjoy Altered Carbon. I thought the pointless killing spree was actually the sequel, Broken Angels.

        • GAZZA

          Does it say bad things about me that I really liked Broken Angels, pointless killing spree and all? :)

  • gillyc

    You didn’t mention Iain (M) Banks!

    • Kylie Sturgess

      I had nightmares after The Wasp Factory.
      A feersum ennjin indeed.

    • Eric Riley

      Yay! I was going to say the same thing!

      Kylie – while I liked “The Wasp Factory”, I can see why it would give you nightmares – and “Feersum EEnjin”… Well, not my favorite (trying to get through the argot was difficult at times. But – “Consider Phlebas” and “Look to Windward” or “Player of Games”. “Use of Weapons”, and the latest (Culture) “Surface Detail” – all very good! If you are interested in other than his Culture novels (which do not need to be read in any particular order) “The Algebraist” and “Transitions” are both excellent – and he also writes books that aren’t SF – “The High Road to Garibaldi” (yes, and “The Wasp Factory”). So far, I have found that I like almost all of his writing very much, and while there are a couple that I didn’t *love*, I didn’t dislike them.

  • Nadeen

    I am curious to know where you think Pratchett went middling and what books redeemed him for you. I have not much liked the last three or four (though I have not read Snuff) but the preceding gazillion were pretty consistently well written, in my opinion.

    Thanks for the recommendations. I am always on the lookout for entertaining books.