A happy West Texas speed limit sign
A happy West Texas speed limit sign

Last night we got home from a little ‘get-a-way’ we’d been planning.  We drove out to the Davis Mountains in West Texas, which is about six hours from where we live.  Here are some of our adventures.

1.  On the way, we ate cold fried chicken I cooked the night before along with a batch of buttermilk biscuits.  This is way better highway eating than you’ll get from a fast food place or a gas station!

The sprouts, after cold fried chicken at the rest area
The sprouts, after cold fried chicken at the rest area

2.  We visited the McDonald Observatory.  Tuesday night we went to the star party and looked through telescopes at nebula, clusters, the moon, Saturn and other phenomena as well as saw a tour of the constellations.  We came back the next day to look at the sun and learn about it, and then toured the gigantic telescopes under the domes.  Nerdfest.

No selfie sticks were harmed in the taking of this picture
No selfie sticks were harmed in the taking of this picture

3.  We stopped at Fort Jefferson Davis, which is one of the pioneer forts.  It was established to protect the mail running from San Antonio to El Paso in the 1850s and was named for Jefferson Davis, who was then the Secretary of War.  I had a long conversation with the National Park Services Ranger about why they never changed the name, especially right after the Civil War, because as most people know Jefferson Davis went on to serve as the President of the Confederate States of America.  She told me they just didn’t care that much about it, because the fort was so far removed from civilization.

The most interesting parts of the fort are that this is where many of the black soldiers, or Buffalo Soldiers, were stationed as they fought the Apache.  I talked to some archaeology students from UC Berkley who were digging around the ruins of an old barracks house.

We also toured the hospital, and saw all the different bone saws they used to amputate people’s limbs.  The doctor was not a source of comfort in the 1870s.

3.  We drove to Valentine, Texas and saw the Prada store in the middle of nowhere.  It is actually an art exhibit, but, boy is it strange.

The Devil wears Prada, in Marfa
The Devil wears Prada, in Marfa

4.  That same evening, after eating a burrito in a questionable establishment, we saw the world famous Marfa Lights.  And yes, we did see them.  It was truly fascinating.  The Marfa Lights are so prevalent the town of Marfa has built a viewing area about nine miles out of town.  Sure enough, just as the sun went down, the lights came out and danced over the desert.  The mystery is that there is no apparent explanation for them.  I know that some people claim it is car headlights, but there is no way what I saw was car headlights.  I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t headlights, airplanes, flashlights, or anything of that sort.  They simply twinkle into existence, get bright, move around a bit in different directions, change colors, and then fade.  Very interesting.

5.  Oh, and we listened to the audiobook A Canticle for Leibowitz (for more on this, click here) to and from, because Mrs. Greenbean and the sprouts haven’t read it.


The first book I ever read, from cover to cover, was H. G. Well’s War of the Worlds.  From that moment on, I was hooked.

It is dangerous to compose a list of favorites for science fiction because sci-fi readers are the most opinionated and passionate of enthsiasts.  I’ve seen near-death blows exchanged as people argue over the right genre category for something.

“It’s dystopia, you idiot,” he replied.

His friend, undaunted, said, “Moron.  Any fool can clearly understand that this is science fantasy.”

Their co-worker called out in an angry voice from across the room, “Both of you are unlearned Philistines.  This bit of speculative fiction is neither.  It is quite simply superhero fiction.  There is nothing science about it, I will admit to a layer of fantasy, but that is merely an homage to Tolkien.”

These divisions can be as angry and emotional as theological debates between Calvinists and Arminians.  I’ve never seen Sherlock Holmes fans go after Harry Potter fans fans like that.

Complicating it even more, most people have their favorite work or writer to whom they are loyal.  Stalwarts will point to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and say that after them, everyone else is just a copycat.  People who love Frank Herbert’s Dune will never back down from the opinion that it is the greatest science fiction ever, just as those who think that Authur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the best ever will never admit anything other than that could possibly be worthy of honor.  Into this contentious field, I now submit my three favorite science fiction books.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury
The cat in this photo creeps me out

Fahrenheit 451 is not the most enjoyable Ray Bradbury book for me. That distinction goes to The Martian Chronicles.  I really enjoy The Martian Chronicles, they are fun and playful. However, Fahrenheit 451 is rated above it because deep in my gut I appreciate the societal commentary and meaning of it.  Fahrenheit 451 is therefore a better book than The Martian Chronicles and bumps it up on my favorites list.

A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller
A Canticle for Leibowitz
A Monk in Texarkana

I love this book for three reasons.  The first reason is that it seriously deals with the tension, in metaphor and in plot, between science and faith.  The second reason is that as a historian, the book credibly and I might add, persuasively, creates a historical timeline of societal progress.  The third reason is that the name of the kingdom that emerges from post-atomic war America is called Texarkana.  As an East Texas boy, all I can say is that is very cool.

Nightfall, Isaac Asimov

Okay, I’m cheating here.  Nightfall is not a book.  It is a short story that Asimov wrote in 1941.  Fifty years later it was turned into a novel, but I’m not interested in that.  The short story Nightfall is perhaps the most fully developed and well-told short ever.  In that single work we can find all of the themes that later will find their way into Asimov’s Robots and Foundation novels–the tension between science, belief, and the dysfunction of human society.  Nightfall is sometimes referred to as the greatest science fiction story every written.  I do believe that given the body of work, Asimov stands head and shoulder as the greatest science fiction writer ever.

As you can probably tell, I have a specific taste for science fiction of the mid-20th century.  There was something about the intensity of the writing during that time period that was fresh, innovative, and if I may be so bold, prophetic.  It was as if these writers, with one foot in the pre-technological world before mass communication and atomic weapons and one foot in it, are giving scalding commentary on the modern life we now live.  We can’t see ourselves today as clearly as they saw us 60 years ago.

The Most Influential Books

Top Three Books:  Classic Fiction

Top Three Books:  Contemporary Fiction

So these are my top three science fiction books (well, two books and one short story) and I would love to know what yours are.


images from and wikipedia