Plot? Who cares? But thanks for the Ringworld I'll keep it.
March 25, 2009 2:39 PM   Subscribe

Wanted: Science Fiction Books moved by a great central idea such as: Ringworld by Larry Niven or The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

The common trait of both of these I would argue is that the central concept is way more interesting than the plot. I don't even remember the plot of Ringworld even though I'm still fascinated by the concept of that kind of massive world. And could a war possibly be more boring than the one depicted in the Forever War? What is really interesting is the notion of "Time Travel" and the subsequent loss of home, family, lover, identity etc. due to extensive travel at relativistic speeds.

This Question is out there, but it degenerates into debate and its from 2006. If you think my question is flawed, do me a favor and just keep moving along. I don't need you to tell me how I should appreciate sf/scifi/science fiction or any of that.
posted by MasonDixon to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
This may or may not be helpful, but sci-fi author and all around awesome guy John Scalzi has a long-running series at his website called The Big Idea, which, among other things, discusses major central themes and/or inspirations for a lot of sci-fi (and other) books, as told by the authors themselves.

You can find these blog entries here.

Note that the series is spawning a spinoff website: (not yet active)

The original series of Big Idea pieces is hardly a complete sample of big ideas from science fiction, but it's a fascinating peek behind the current into what certain authors consider to be the core of their works, which may or may not be explicitly discussed in the book itself.
posted by socratic at 2:53 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, and for a more specific level, if you're not familiar with him, Ian M. Banks' "Culture" series discusses the implications of a society that is, superficially, completely free from want and, superficially, obsessively libertarian/anarchic and permissive (not really a complete description, but we're talking about a gigantic community here, heh). This comes completely down to personal preference, but most of Banks' "Culture" books are, to me, less interesting than the underlying concept and the largely unexplored society (including some foreign societies) in which the events of the stories take place.
posted by socratic at 2:57 PM on March 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

"Downtiming the Night Side" by Jack Chalker is a different take on time travel, with a unique answer to the question of the grandfather paradox.

The "big idea" in the book is a war between two powers, both of which have time travel, who are trying to change the past so that the other side loses the war.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:58 PM on March 25, 2009

Anything by Michael Crichton, who wrote treatments based on a single concept and passed them off as full-length novels. See: Jurassic Park. Congo. The Andromeda Strain. Timeline.
posted by zarq at 3:01 PM on March 25, 2009

Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space trilogy.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:02 PM on March 25, 2009

I've mentioned this before, but Julian May's collection of series (Saga of Pliocene Exile, The Galactic Milieu) has as its central focus the mental evolution of man (ie, so-called metapsychic powers), drawing quite a bit from some writings of the scientist-philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I would argue, however, that her novels are really quite good and not "supported" by a concept greater than her writing. Big epic scope. Recommended.

And as a side-note, you might also like 'The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect' - available online. Awesome concept. I'll leave it to you to critique the authors wordsmithing, if that is your intent.
posted by elendil71 at 3:06 PM on March 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Blindsight, Peter Watts - Intense discussion of the nature of consciousness (and, for an added bonus, explains why vampires don't like crosses, even though it's solidly, almost excruciatingly, sci-fi). I almost can't remember what the book is about re: plot, but it was a rewarding read.

Gene Wolfe's Long Sun books - The story sometimes seems overwhelmed by questions about semi-collapsed societies, closed environments, artificial life, etc. Oh, and if you haven't read Gene Wolfe's books, please do so. His Book of the New Sun series is outstanding.
posted by socratic at 3:09 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Foundation Series?
posted by mohrr at 3:18 PM on March 25, 2009

Best answer: A couple ideas:
  • Iain M. Banks's Culture novels (Seconding, for the same reasons as socratic.)
  • Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld novels (What if everyone who ever lived was transported to the same place, a giant river, and met each other? Hey, no one said it couldn't be weird.)
  • Asimov's Foundation novels (What if you could predict the flow of history?)
  • Larry Niven's Smoke Ring novels (What would life be like in a gas cloud around a star?)
I think Niven is better at coming up with big ideas than writing stories around them.

On preview, mohrr got there first with Foundation.
posted by Upton O'Good at 3:24 PM on March 25, 2009

Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky has a fantastic central premise surrounding a time-shifted spacefaring culture, known as the Qeng Ho. He goes to considerable detail describing how the various ships of merchants that comprise the culture - in sleep-stasis most of the time while traveling between star systems - synchronize their ship's databases and such during stopovers to maintain a coherent cultural and technological base. And the story of the book is cool, too.
posted by dammitjim at 3:31 PM on March 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Arthur C. Clarke's Childhoods End and Rendezvous with Rama

posted by ian1977 at 3:33 PM on March 25, 2009

How about EON by Greg Bear -
the central idea is revealed bit by bit as you go along, is utterly unforgettable, and involves some really hard science that I had to work to follow but was gripped by....

(and although it's not really your question, I still think that it's amazing just how many utterly stunning scientificky ideas and concepts the Hitchhiker books made reference to, nodded at, flirted with, gargled with and played tunes on, and how much those ideas have stuck in people's minds)
posted by runincircles at 3:35 PM on March 25, 2009

Best answer: Also by Larry Niven, The Integral Trees and its sequel The Smoke Ring involve a huge central concept like the Ringworld.

I'd also recommend Eon, by Greg Bear.
posted by lucidium at 3:37 PM on March 25, 2009

Best answer: Kim Stanley Robinson's Red/Green/Blue Mars, chronicling the terraforming and settlement of, well, Mars.

Karl Schroeder has two series that works for this.
Sun of Suns and the follow-ups are about a world that is really a giant sphere made of carbon nanotubes, with the people living inside.

Lady of Mazes has the concept of a whole world based on spheres of interest - where one only sees the community they're interested in.
posted by Lemurrhea at 3:44 PM on March 25, 2009

Best answer: Damn, that'll teach me not to preview.

Let me suggest reading the short story collections from Stephen Baxter and Larry Niven as well then. N-Space (Niven) and Phase Space (Baxter) are two oddly similar sounding collections that I think are treasure troves.

I enjoy the fundamental ideas those two authors come up with immensely, but reading a whole novel about it often gets tedious. Their short stories however work perfectly to introduce the idea and then, as Niven says, leave you playgrounds for the mind.
posted by lucidium at 3:48 PM on March 25, 2009

Um, not at all sci-fi but for an author who is an appalling writer (I mean, ending a story with "here it comes! Argh!". Really.) but who has some amazing ideas, and a real grasp on some of the monsters that lurk within your psyche, try H.P.Lovecraft.
Nowhere is the gulf between concept and ability wider.
posted by BadMiker at 3:49 PM on March 25, 2009

Best answer: Christopher Priest's Inverted World
posted by tylerfulltilt at 4:06 PM on March 25, 2009

Best answer: You might enjoy the Chung Kuo series. It's mostly about super-cities of the future in a world government run by the Chinese who have edited western culture out of history.

It's thoughtful and involves the rise of a pro-west group that seeks change, but it's doesn't come down firmly on one side or the other.
posted by lumpenprole at 4:11 PM on March 25, 2009

Best answer: C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner Universe novels have the Big Giant Vision thing, plus really good writing.

Nancy Kress's Probability Trilogy has Big Ideas aplenty in astrophysics, quantum physics, anthropology, and linguistics.

Kage Baker's Company Series has only one Big Idea, but it's a doozy.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:35 PM on March 25, 2009

Best answer: Nightfall by Isaac Asimov is about a planet with multiple suns - is is always daylight everywhere. Scientists discover that once every few thousand years a freak planetary alignment happens and the planet goes dark. Every time it happens, civilisation collapses. And it's about to happen.

The Helliconia books by Brain Aldiss deal with a planet that has incredibly long seasons, lasting hundreds of years - an empire rises and falls over the course of a single year.

A lot of the suggestions above are great - I love Eon, the Culture books, and the Chung Kuo books - but I would say are rather too good to meet your idea-led requirements!
posted by WPW at 4:41 PM on March 25, 2009

Actually, thinking about it, most alternate history falls into your requirements - big ideas, not much plot. Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series spring to mind, a brilliant idea drearily realised at colossal length.
posted by WPW at 4:48 PM on March 25, 2009

I really liked "Kiln People" by David Brin. The concept is that people can make temporary clones of themselves out of a special clay substrate.

And not sure if these exactly fit your criteria, but "Anubis Gates" by Tim Powers and "The Time Traveller's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger are some dang good time travel books.
posted by gnutron at 4:56 PM on March 25, 2009

Houston, Houston, Do You Read? by James Tiptree Jr. (Spoilers in Wikipedia article)
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 5:13 PM on March 25, 2009

Robert Charles Wilson: Spin.

Lots of good sci-fi has "one central idea," so I'm not sure exactly what you mean.
posted by yesno at 5:35 PM on March 25, 2009

John Varley's Gaea trilogy (Titan, Wizard, Demon) has a good plot and interesting characters, but hopefully you'll consider it anyway. Gaea is a sentient world with sentient creatures living in it. Problem is, Gaea is very old and getting quite dotty, in a rather unpleasant way.
posted by Quietgal at 5:41 PM on March 25, 2009

Not trying to be a smartass but pretty much every science fiction story I have ever read has a "central idea". That's how the authors come up with the story, after all. "What if you could read minds?" "What if the aliens don't care about us?" "What if you could teleport?" "What if there was a big meteor coming for us?"

But for what it's worth: The Planiverse by A. K. Dewdney.
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:53 PM on March 25, 2009

Some hard SF is unapologetically focused on technical exposition, with the plot almost as an afterthought. Dragon's Egg by Robert L. Forward is about contact with an alien race that lives on the surface of a neutron star; the author called it "a textbook on neutron star physics disguised as a novel." Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity has a similar feel.

Many of Greg Egan's novels and short stories are like this as well, to some extent, but oriented towards exploring the implications of technology instead of natural phenomena. They're great if you're interested in physics and AI; I particularly enjoyed Diaspora, Singleton and Glory.
posted by teraflop at 10:38 PM on March 25, 2009

These might meet your criteria: Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos, Stephen R. Donaldson's Gap Cycle, and Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy (sorry, I find it hard to determine whether a book is light on plot when it comes to sci-fi because there's usually a lot of exposition whether there's a lot of plot or not. Unless it's William Gibson). And seconding Iain M. Banks' Culture novels (which are sometimes narrated or partially narrated by characters who hate the Culture, which is a really cool approach).
posted by transporter accident amy at 1:07 AM on March 26, 2009

Best answer: To borrow a film term, I think this type of SF can be referred to as 'high concept', where the idea is more important than the characters. Adam Roberts writes a lot of these type of books (I'm thinking of On particulary). And I'd second a vote for Greg Egan as well.

Turgid Dahlia - I think this category of SF books is actually quite discrete from the 'space opera' subgenre.
posted by jzed at 3:07 AM on March 26, 2009

A second vote for Chritopher Priest's Inverted World.
posted by lpsguy at 7:04 AM on March 26, 2009

A lot of HP Lovecraft's writing is crappy and crufty, but his cosmology built around the idea that man and its ideas are insignificant are pretty striking in certain stories, like The Shadow Out of Time and, of course, the Call of Cthulhu.
posted by ignignokt at 7:43 AM on March 26, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks jzed for helping make the distinction.

Lots of Good Suggestions, best answers are a little arbitrary to avoid marking virtually everything best answer, sorry if you got left out.
posted by MasonDixon at 7:52 AM on March 26, 2009

Te first 3/4s of Poul Anderson's "The Boat of a Million Years" might also work. Basically it's a series of vignettes centered around a handful of characters who (rarely) die. Think Highlander done right(tm).

Also worth mentioning is a novel I'm always reminded of by mention of "The Forever War" - "Tomorrow and Tomorrow".

You're also obviously familiar with Niven but I wouldn't miss his collaborations with Jerry Pournelle either. Specifically "Oath of Fealty" and "The Mote in God's Eye".
posted by mce at 8:41 AM on March 26, 2009

I also highly recommend Neal Asher, and would like to add an addition -- Peter F. Hamilton.. Amazing British SF author. Has everything from multi-thousand-page space operas (the Night's Dawn Trilogy, with strong themes of eugenics, nanotechnology, and posthumanism, to the stand-alone Fallen Dragon, which explores the themes of space travel that is possible, but not affordable-- Corporations send out 'asset-realization parties' of ships to go grab the 'assets' from the colonies they have started (or acquired later on) in order to enhance the (mega-corp/zaibatsu/chaebol) company that now owns the planet. He's a very talented and diverse writer.
posted by SeanMac at 12:09 PM on May 31, 2009

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