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Who're good speculative fiction writers who write fine prose?
December 24, 2010 6:20 AM   Subscribe

Who're good speculative fiction writers who write fine prose?

I want to compile a list of speculative fiction writers who write fine prose. I mostly want to do this because:

. I get engrossed in good sci-fi stories while most other genres are hard for me to get "lost" in
. I want to become well-read even while reading speculative fiction

A few good sci-fi authors I know of are J.G. Ballard, Roger Zelazny, Kurt Vonnegut and Jack Vance. Out of the aforementioned authors, I've never read anything by Vance, but pretty much anyone who's read his books will tell you that he's a fantastic writer. I'll take their word for it and am about to read The Demon Princes by him which I look forward to.

I'm more into sci-fi than fantasy, but you may suggest writers of either genre.
posted by GlassHeart to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
 
David Weber is one of my favorites (sci-fi). I don't recommend his main series, which is mostly space opera and has a lot of technical stuff in it, but In Fury Born is really good, for one.

I also love Terry Pratchett (humorous satirical fantasy), and Douglas Adams (humor sci-fi).
posted by saveyoursanity at 6:26 AM on December 24, 2010


Ooh, yay, a Zelazny fan! The best.

Nancy Kress.

Mary Doria Russell.

Duh, obviously, Le Guin and Atwood but you knew that.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:30 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm a big Zelazny fan, too! His work has been very influential to my own development as a writer.

I highly recommend Tad Williams (the Otherland series) and Dan Simmons (Hyperion series, Olympos and Ilium). They're both very engaging to read and very thinky.
posted by Andrhia at 6:36 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


You should check out Samuel Delany.
posted by maurice at 6:44 AM on December 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Felix Gilman's book The Half-Made World is half steampunk/half dystopian fiction but is quite well written.
posted by proj at 6:47 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Cordwainer Smith's prose reminds me peculiarly of Chekov, or James Joyce.

The majority of Cordwainer Smith's work is short stories, collected as _The Rediscovery of Man_.

Big tip: consider Gardner Dozois' various anthologies. He has a strong sense for good prose, and the anthologies will introduce you to a variety of strong writers.
posted by endless_forms at 6:50 AM on December 24, 2010 [5 favorites]


I suppose I should specify for clarity that Dozois is primarily an editor (though he has a Nebula as author as well.)
posted by endless_forms at 6:51 AM on December 24, 2010


Also, Iain (M) Banks would fall into this category.
posted by proj at 7:00 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm reading M. John Harrison's Viriconium right now, which is extremely well written. It's science fiction but with the feel of corroded high fantasy; it's set in the far future, in a struggling empire that uses salvaged technology that it doesn't understand. Harrison writes some more "traditional" science fiction, by which I mostly mean "with spaceships": as far as I know all of his stuff is pretty innovative.

China Mieville, too, although he's more fantasy. Jeff Vandermeer. Really, all of the authors on the Mievelle-Murakami Continuum. (Scroll down to the bottom of the third paragraph for the link.)

Are you just looking for novels or also short stories? If you want short fiction, Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons are consistently pretty great; I don't love of all their stories but they're all well written. Two of my favorite short story writers are Tim Pratt and Lavie Tidhar (they've both also written novels that I haven't got the chance to read). One particularly great story on Clarkesworld recently was The History Within Us.

Also, I wanted to echo Ursula K. Le Guin. Her prose is some of the most elegant I've ever read. She writes both science fiction and fantasy, and if you want to be well read in speculative fiction you simply have to read her. Also, how could I forget Hal Duncan? His novels Vellum and Ink are somewhere between science fiction and fantasy and mythology and ancient Greek drama and alternate history. They are amazing and beautiful and horrifying.

Okay, I should stop myself before I go on all morning.
posted by overglow at 7:02 AM on December 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Iain M (for scifi, without the M for creepy-ass "mainstream" fiction) Banks

Nancy Kress (her more recent stuff especially - loved Dogs)

Jasper Fforde
posted by ansate at 7:06 AM on December 24, 2010


Oh, totally forgot CAROL EMSHWILLER! Such a gorgeous writer. Everyone starts with The Mount, usually.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:15 AM on December 24, 2010


Many of the answers to my question looking for well-written sci-fi may be of use to you. I am still reading my way through the suggestions there.
posted by Forktine at 7:22 AM on December 24, 2010


If you like J G Ballard, you might try Will Self - the closest thing Ballard has to an heir (Self and Ballard were friends and Self considered him his mentor).
posted by wackybrit at 7:32 AM on December 24, 2010


Thirding Iain (M) Banks. He's just an incredibly beautiful writer, I would read his shopping list.

Also Ken MacLeod, I find his books hard to get into, but his writing is top notch.

China Mieville writes more fantasy/dark fantasy but is a very, very good writer.
posted by biscotti at 7:38 AM on December 24, 2010


Gene Wolfe. Everything he writes is worth reading, but the Sun books (~9). The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a personal favourite

John Crowley. Most famous for Little, Big. His Aegypt seris is great too.

James Morrow. Has done some interesting stuff with "Christian" mythologies. His collection, Bible Stories for Adults, is in my opinion one of his strongest.

Maureen McHugh. Sadly she wrote only a few books. China Mountain Zheng is the one she's most famous for. I liked Mission Child too.

Lisa Goldstein. Has also had a low output over the years, but she's always worth looking for. The Red Magician is very good, but she's also very strong in the short stories. Any of her collections would be a good introduction to her.

Jo Walton. Her best are her alternate WW2 books of Fascist Brittan, the "small change" novels: Farthing, Ha'penny, and Half a Crown. Her Tooth and Claw is a hoot as well, Trollope with dragons.
posted by bonehead at 7:41 AM on December 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Try Sci Fi by writers who are not known as sci-fi writers, "literary" writers and writers of other genres:

Margaret Atwood: "The Handmaid's Tale," "Oryx and Crake" and "After the Flood." (In my opinion, her best novel is "Cat's Eye." I'd go as-far-as saying it's one of the best novels of the 20th Century. But it's not SF. It's a sort of (non-supernatural) horror story about childhood.)

William Gibson: try his short-story collection, "Burning Chrome," to see if you like his prose style.

Michael Frayn (yes, the playwright): "A Very Private Life." You'll probably need inter-library loan for this one. It's almost unknown.

Ira Levin: "This Perfect Day." It's similar to "Logan's Run" and "1984," though I prefer it to both of those novels.

Having said that, Orwell is one of the grand masters of English prose, so you can't go wrong with "1984."

Going further back in time, try good old H.G. Wells. I recommend "The Island of Dr. Moreau," (my favorite), "The Time Machine" and "War of the World."

Cormac Mccarthy: "The Road."

P. D. James: "Children of Men."

Kazuo Ishiguro: "Never Let Me Go."

Russell Hoban, "Ridley Walker."

Good translations of Stanislaw Lem books.

Here's another tip: If you run out of sci-fi novels, try historical novels. That tip might not work for you, but I mention it, because, like you, I like the engrossment level of sci-fi. I like getting lost in a whole other world. But I often find it hard to do this with sci-fi (and fantasy), because so often the prose sucks. Not always, but often enough. And it's hard to get recommendations, because many hard-core fans don't care all that much about prose style. But a good historical novel can have that other-world feeling. In the end, what's the difference between a made-up planet and a made-up 17th Century Japan (if it's foreign to you)? And many historical novels have exciting plots.

My favorite is Larry Mcmurtry's "Lonesome Dove." AMAZING prose! In a way, it's similar to books like "Lord of the Rings." It's a big quest story. In my mind, it's one of the Great American Novels, right up there with "The Great Gatsby" and "Huckleberry Finn." It doesn't have a map in the front, but it easily could. I also got that sci-fi feeling when I read "Memoirs of a Geisha." I won't go on and suggest more, because it's a bit of a derail. But if you want to go in this direction, you could search for recommendations online or post to AskMe again. (Oh, actually, one more: "Pillers of the Earth," by Ken Follett. He's not the stylist that Mcmurtry is -- not even close -- but his novel is a really, really fun read, sent in a very immersive Middle Ages.)

Also try Magic Realism, the obvious title being "One Hundred Years of Solitude." You can't get much better prose than that!
posted by grumblebee at 7:54 AM on December 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Piggyback: does anyone know of a literary web or print resource that regularly reviews sci-fi of this sort -- sci-fi with high-quality prose? I used to count on the NY Times Book Review for that, but (grrr) they've cancelled their monthly sci-fi column. Now I can't find reviews I trust.

If a reviewer gets really excited about a sci-fi novel, it's often the ideas and the plot that grab him. Both are important, but they're not sufficient for me. I get all excited about reading a book that some sci-fi site has called a masterpiece and then discover the prose is clunky or awful.

Note: OP, beware of asking hard-core fans to recommend good stylists. Some fans DO care about style, but don't assume that they necessarily do. If they don't, they aren't going to be able to make good recommendations to you. If you ask someone who doesn't care about style to recommend a book with good style, he'll recommend a book that has NOTICEABLE style. Which usually means it has embarrassingly over-the-top, flowery, "poetic" prose.
posted by grumblebee at 8:03 AM on December 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Margaret Atwood "Oryx and Crake".
Octavia Butler.
posted by whalebreath at 8:09 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Samuel Delaney is a writer concerned with style (and his various critical writings are pretty neat too--he wrote a very good intro post-structuralism and he reads very widely. I read a bunch of his recommendations, of which Henry James and Goethe's Italian Journey really stuck with me.) Dhalgren is his famous "difficult" book, recursive, allusive, etc. But I think it's more fun to start with his short stories, in Time Considered As A Helix of Semi-Precious Stones, for example. I also really, really like his novel of gender, sexuality and interplanetary economics, Triton, but it took me about three reads to get it.

Hal Duncan, oh my.

Andrea Hairston is very difficult to describe.

If you're willing to accept something that is written a bit clumsily in places but very, very well-structured, anything by L. Timmel DuChamp (who is also a composer and who develops themes, parallels, etc very subtly) including her giant, peculiar Marq'ssan Cycle. Her The Red Rose Rages, Bleeding is a good, accessible novella.
posted by Frowner at 8:14 AM on December 24, 2010


Oh, hey, look, Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons is available online. It's one of Cordwainer Smith's classics; I recommend it.
posted by endless_forms at 9:00 AM on December 24, 2010


i'm going to throw my weight behind iain m banks as well. i seriously derailed the first year of an english literature degree by getting hooked on his novels, and i'm not normally into "genre" fiction at all.
posted by Ted Maul at 9:11 AM on December 24, 2010


Grumblebee, have you seen the reviews section at Strange Horizons? They might be a bit more "within-the-genre" than you want, but they tend to value high quality prose and other literary aspects.

Also, perhaps Torque Control? It's a blog, so not all the content is reviews, but I think it's along the lines of what you're looking for.
posted by overglow at 9:17 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the suggestions thus far.

Question: What's your opinion on Robert Silverberg's prose? I just finished reading Dying Inside by him and found it to be very well-written. This makes me want to read more of his stuff.
posted by GlassHeart at 9:48 AM on December 24, 2010


Check out Catherynne M. Valente. Very beautiful, dense prose.
posted by woodvine at 9:56 AM on December 24, 2010


Philip K. Dick. My favorite is The Man in the High Castle.
posted by sinfony at 10:02 AM on December 24, 2010


Connie Willis. Speculative fiction rather than sci-fi, often grounded in a specific historical period (e.g. To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday Book, Blackout, All Clear).
posted by rtha at 10:07 AM on December 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


CL Moore
Dan Simmons
posted by TheOtherGuy at 10:16 AM on December 24, 2010


For me, it's hard to suss out stuff I like vs. stuff that's written well. Here are a few:

Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem are both excellent authors that build fascinating worlds and write masterfully. Every few pages in Yiddish Policeman's Union I'd stop and pause to catch my breath and savor a paragraph or two. Same with Gun, With Occasional Music

And Delany's one of my favorite authors, but I'd suggest Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.
posted by Gorgik at 10:16 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Seconding Octavia Butler and Russell Hoban, my go-to lit/SF crossover writers. Philip K. Dick is great, but not for his prose (though there are moments of sparse beauty there).

Keep in mind, though, that a lot of the authors grumblebee names as cross-over writers are somewhat sneered at by the speculative communities because their ideas tend to be full of holes--the result of focusing on the prose, perhaps. Even crossover grand dame Atwood has been ridiculed for, say, naming corporations in her books "CorpSeCorps" and silly stuff like that. I think your reaction kind of depends on where you lie on the Spec-fic/literary continuum; The Road's utter lack of world building drew me out of the novel, and bugged me to no end.

Piggyback: does anyone know of a literary web or print resource that regularly reviews sci-fi of this sort -- sci-fi with high-quality prose? I used to count on the NY Times Book Review for that, but (grrr) they've cancelled their monthly sci-fi column. Now I can't find reviews I trust.

I think you really want Strange Horizons. We have a new review editor, but Niall Harrison, current editor and former review editor, had a strong academic/literary focus in the reviews he chose to publish, and it seems like that traditional will continue.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:25 AM on December 24, 2010


Thanks for the "Strange Horizons" recommendations! Awesome.
posted by grumblebee at 10:47 AM on December 24, 2010


All of these are famous folks, but I never read most of them until recently, so maybe you're in the same boat:

Ray Bradbury. He never does the expected thing, and the result is often beautiful if you like rich, baroque typewriter-spewing.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote a few things you could call speculative fiction, though I've never much liked his surreal dystopia Invitation to a Beheading, and I haven't read the alternate-history/parallel-worlds novel Ada, which are the two main examples.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller is totally worth it on a formal/prose level (among others). I particularly liked that the three sections are written in different styles, in a subtle and hard-to-quantify way, that reflect the time periods in which they're set.

Gene Wolfe's prose gets mixed reactions ("elaborate and beautiful!" "muddled and slow!") but I think it's brilliant and some of the best fiction I've read in my life. I totally second the recommendation above.

I also have to nth Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness is a good place to start. I kind of find Le Guin's prose a little quirky, a little more variable, than the monolithic prose of say Wolfe (high-styled descriptions, a certain down-to-earth wryness in dealing with character, touches of a humor which is distinctly fannish), but it depends on how close she places herself to the characters in a given book.

Joanna Russ writes outstanding prose if you are willing to jump deep into '70s feminist SF. The Female Man is where everyone starts.
posted by thesmallmachine at 10:53 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Seconding Nabokov (Ada, or Ardor, at least)

Also, nobody's mentioned Burroughs or Pynchon? Against the Day is as science-fictiony as anything else on my shelves.
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 11:09 AM on December 24, 2010


Lots of my favorites already mentioned; let me also suggest Tobias Buckell and The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer.

And I am shocked that nobody has suggested Neal Stephenson yet. So, Neal Stephenson.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:03 PM on December 24, 2010


Dan Simmons has some of the best prose I've read in my life. I heartily recommend his Hyperion Cantos. Not only is it great prose, but he throws away as many ideas in 10 pages as most writers have in their entire works.

Nthing John Crowley, simply amazing.

I used to like Gene Wolfe until I tried reading his latest dreck. The Torturer series is incredible, but the Long Sun series is indulgent, meandering, over-long, and bored the crap out of me. It felt like something only a "mature writer" could write, in that he needs fans to buy the books, and if he didn't have the popular name, no one would. I hated it sufficiently that I doubt I'll ever again pick up anything new from him.

Personally, I can't stomach Mieville, too obtuse, too muddled for me. His books feel like work to read instead of the immersion I'm looking for. His politics are interwoven, and get annoying as well.

I just finished "Surface Matter" by Iain M. Banks, and I think it is either his best Culture book so far, or at least in the running. He's simply amazing.

FWIW, I cannot stand most mainstream fiction, whether from popularly acclaimed "great writers" or not. I consider most to be not worthy of my time, finding them moribund and boring. For example, I thoroughly dislike the immensely popular Jonathan Franzen, who bored and depressed the crap out of me within a hundred pages of his second-most-recent book. While I couldn't be arsed to finish most mainstream books, I do like Cormac MacCarthy.
posted by Invoke at 12:07 PM on December 24, 2010


Gene Wolfe's prose gets mixed reactions ("elaborate and beautiful!" "muddled and slow!")

That's because it is so profoundly mixed in quality--Wolfe is one of the most inconsistent writers I have ever encountered in any genre. The stuff that's good is fabulous, amazing, beautiful, poetic; the stuff that's awful is horrible, embarrassing, you can't believe it actually got printed. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is one of the best books I've ever read; An Evil Guest is one of the worst books I've ever read.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:22 PM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ted Chiang and Paolo Bacigalupi.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 1:53 PM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Paolo Bacigalupi (The Wind-Up Girl)
posted by glass origami robot at 1:55 PM on December 24, 2010


Guy Gavriel Kay. In my opinion he is the best fantasy writer. I love everything he has ever done.
posted by bove at 3:24 PM on December 24, 2010


Gene Wolfe, when he's on, is easily the best writer I've read in the science fiction world. The Book of the New Sun, Peace, the Soldier series, The Sorcerer's House (his latest), and various short story collections (particularly The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories and Storeys from the Old Hotel) are all among my favorites.

The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun are also excellent, but it is a different type of book from New Sun and is primarily a rumination on religion.

rot13 if you want to read my spoilery thoughts on this:

frirevna va gobgaf vf gur wrjvfu zrffvnu; gobgaf vf uvf "tbfcry." fvyx va gobgyf, ol pbagenfg, vf gur arj grfgnzrag zrffvnu; ur qbrf abg pbzr 'ornevat n fjbeq' ohg nf n pbhafrybe naq sevraq. ubea va gobgff vf gur 'cebcurg,' nxva gb fg. wbua jvgu uvf genafpraqrag njnerarff. pbafvqre gurve anzrf: frirevna phgf; fvyx vf fzbbgu, xvaqurnegrq; ubea naabhaprf naq oevatf njnerarff. zhpu bs gur qvffngvfsnpgvba gung crbcyr srry sbe vaqvivqhny cnegf bs gur "fha plpyr" fgrz sebz gur snpg gung gurl rkcrpg zber bs gur fnzr sebz jbysr--nf gurl jbhyq sebz nabgure traer nhgube--jura ur vf, va snpg, jevgvat eryvtvbhf nyyrtbevrf va gur thvfr bs fpvrapr svpgvba.
posted by sonic meat machine at 9:13 PM on December 24, 2010


We've batted this about on the Blue a few times. Here's a list compiled from one of those threads:

Gene Wolfe
J.G. Ballard
Iain M. Banks
Thomas Pynchon
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ted Chiang
Doris Lessing
China Mieville
Michael Chabon
Theodore Sturgeon
Thomas Mann
Richard Powers
Don DeLillo (S.F. status debated)
David Foster Wallace
George Orwell (debated)
Avram Davidson
R.A. Lafferty
Thomas Disch
John Crowley
John Clute
Samuel R. Delany
Carol Emshwiller
Ursula K. LeGuin
Barry Malzberg
Paul Park
Christopher Priest
Joanna Russ
Geoff Ryman
James Tiptree, Jr.
Cormac McCarthy (debated)
Marilynn Robinson
Paolo Bacigalupi
Nalo Hopkinson
Anna Kavan (debated)
Octavia Butler
Italo Calvino
Russell Hoban
Walter M. Miller, Jr.
George R. Stewart
Kazuo Ishiguro
Donald Kingsbury
Greg Egan
Felix C. Gotschalk
Gregory Benford
Elizabeth Bishop
Clifford Simak
Tim Powers
H.G. Wells
Robert Sheckley
Mikhail Bulgakov
J.L. Borges
Ray Bradbury
Angélica Gorodischer
Roberto Bolaño
Anatole France
E.M. Forster
Cyril Kornbluth
Raymond Roussel
John Varley
Jonathan Lethem
Karel Čapek


Amen amen to Gene Wolfe, by the way. Peace is probably my own favorite.
posted by Iridic at 10:45 AM on December 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


And I am shocked that nobody has suggested Neal Stephenson yet. So, Neal Stephenson.

This is a bad suggestion. I like Stephenson, but his writing style is highly divisive and his writing is by no means widely regarded as excellent prose.
posted by proj at 11:34 PM on December 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


You asked about Robert Silverberg -- I think his writing has a transparency that I like in sf, and which tends to characterize better sf for me, but which may not be quite what you're looking for. (Or maybe it is, in which case the picture opens up rather a lot.)

Walter Jon Williams has a strong command of tone which is most obvious in his short stories (e.g., _Frankensteins and Foreign Devils_.)

BTW, the above list brings this to mind -- if you want sf and style, you may want to check out "If on a winter's night a traveler", by Italo Calvino.
posted by endless_forms at 8:18 AM on December 26, 2010


Jose Samargo.
posted by iamck at 1:09 PM on December 26, 2010


CaNNOT believe no one has mentioned John Wyndham yet. Hope triffids eat you all. The term speculative fiction was more or less invented for him and his prose is immaculate. Start with the Kraken Wakes as its v topical in a weird way which will swiftly become clear.
posted by runincircles at 11:07 AM on December 27, 2010


Lois McMaster Bujold writes well. Lots online - try The Mountains of Mourning.
posted by paduasoy at 11:47 AM on December 27, 2010


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