Contemporary SF for someone who liked Philip K Dick?
May 28, 2009 10:00 AM   Subscribe

Science fiction - filter: I used to read and love Dick, Farmer, LeGuin, and others who coupled great writing with directly confronting sex, violence, and societal change. What contemporary authors might I like?

I mostly stopped reading science fiction almost twenty years ago. I just reread some old favorites, and have be re-bitten by the bug -- I want to read some newer authors, but I'm not sure where to start.

I really liked authors like Dick, Farmer, Atwood, Ellison, LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Bruce Sterling, and the post-apocalyptic series by KS Robinson, for example. These were books that contained sex (and not always nice sex), violence (ditto), and big-picture ideas about society, as well as being well enough written to blur the line between genre fiction and "real" literature. That is, science fiction-y books, written first and foremost for grown-ups, and dealing with grown-up themes.

I don't want to get into a "your favorite band sucks" direction, but in case it clarifies things: I liked the original Dune book well enough, but bogged down in the sequels. I have read, and didn't at all like, Neal Stephenson and Niel Gaiman. And Asimov and Pratchet are (in their own separate ways) absolutely the opposite of what I am hoping for here.

(I looked through some old AskMe's, finding this and this which were helpful but didn't quite get at what I was looking for.)
posted by Forktine to Writing & Language (39 answers total) 119 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: *have been re-bitten*
posted by Forktine at 10:03 AM on May 28, 2009

It is hard to go wrong with Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos series. Multiple award winning, excellently written, huge-picture books.
posted by Invoke at 10:13 AM on May 28, 2009

I've liked Greg Bear's books especially the combination of Darwin's Radio and Darwin's Children that is not only about a genetic mutation but about how this affect both society and families. Some people find him a bit hard-science wonky but I've pretty much enjoyed everything he's written. His older stuff is more space-scifi oriented and might not be as much what you're looking for. FWIW, I like most of the other authors you've mentioned except that I find Butler too bleak and rapey.
posted by jessamyn at 10:13 AM on May 28, 2009

Best answer: Banks.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:17 AM on May 28, 2009

Best answer: Iain M. Banks' Use of Weapons fits your criteria pretty well; have you tried any of his books that were mentioned in those previous answers? (Use of Weapons isn't the first book of his in the "Culture" universe but the connections between the books are tenuous and it's not really a series/set of sequels per se.)
posted by bcwinters at 10:18 AM on May 28, 2009

Best answer: The James Tiptree, Jr. Award was created to celebrate authors who do exactly what you're talking about. They have a really extensive awards page that I have personally found really helpful.

And I know you said contemporary authors, but if you haven't read any Tiptree, you are missing out. The Screwfly Solution (by one of Tiptree's other pen-names) still reads like a contemporary story about gender, sex, and violence with some excellent science thrown in.
posted by emyd at 10:18 AM on May 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I can't recommend Vernor Vinge enough. I really liked "Rainbow's End". It's the bend kind of scifi. "Fire upon the deep" and "A Deepness in the sky" are also magnificent, but in a different, space opera-ish way.
posted by aeighty at 10:18 AM on May 28, 2009

Best answer: Heres the big Banks post I did a while ago, it does sound like he might be what you're after. You might also want to check out Ken McCleod, Charles Stross or Alastair Reynolds.
posted by Artw at 10:20 AM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and seconding Vernor Vinge, particularly those two space opera-ish ones.
posted by Artw at 10:21 AM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not a contemporary author, but one who should compliment your classics well: Stanislaw Lem
posted by Artw at 10:23 AM on May 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have tastes similar to yours, and I love Samuel R. Delaney.
posted by pullayup at 10:24 AM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Maybe John Varley? I quite enjoyed his Gaea trilogy, and it has no shortage of sex, violence or big ideas.
posted by MagicEightBall at 10:25 AM on May 28, 2009

William Gibson, maybe?
posted by trip and a half at 11:05 AM on May 28, 2009

Best answer: Nicola Griffith writes great, very grown-up books that deal frankly with gender, sex, violence, and big themes. She reminds me a bit of LeGuin -- especially Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. I love Slow River, which is a noir story in a very believable scifi world. Ammonite, her first book, is also great (though it's got a little less hard scifi and a little more fantasy).
posted by ourobouros at 11:16 AM on May 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Sterling's still writing and his Distraction is one of my favorite novels of recent years. Kim Stanley Robinson, too; I'm a big fan of his Mars trilogy, and his recent trilogy beginning with 40 Signs of Rain is high on my list of things to get to.

Speaking of Tiptree winners, try Matt Ruff's Set This House in Order (not actually science fiction, but still having a science fictional sensibility.)

Based on your preferences, I think you'd hate Vinge, but agree with the recommendations of Banks and Varley. There was a recent complete collected short stories of Varley -- you're in for a treat if you haven't read them.

John Barnes' Kaleidoscope Century is a good book with Clockwork Orange-ish sex and violence.
posted by Zed at 11:25 AM on May 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

He isn't nearly as heavy on the social commentary or political science end of things as some of the other authors here, but Alastair Reynolds is one of the best hard sci-fi authors currently writing. Unlike, say, Asimov, who writes stories where vast technological advancement has little to no effect upon actual society, Reynolds takes things like nanotech, cloning, genetic engineering interstellar travel, and mind-machine interface and attempts to extrapolate the sorts of effects those changes might produce in society. A common element in his stories is the emergence of factional lines drawn along varying degrees of adoption of certain technologies. A group which verges too far towards, say, machine intelligence, might wind up being shunned by the rest of society for a variety of reasons, some cultural, some religious, some aesthetic. He's one of the only authors I know who treats technology this way.

Granted, Reynolds writes space opera before anything else. Unlike, say, Gibson, for whom atmospherics and social commentary can turn a fairly basic detective yarn into genre-defining work, Reynolds does concern himself with galaxy-spanning conflicts and epic events. In the book I'm reading now, House of Suns, most of the main characters are in excess of six million years old, having used stasis and time dilation to radically expand their life spans. It's fun to watch him play with environments and societies so radically removed from our own, but that may in turn mean he's not exactly what you're looking for.

Still, he's definitely worth a read in any case. I'd start with Revelation Space, the first novel of his main series. His new one, the aforementioned House of Suns, is turning out to be quite good too.
posted by valkyryn at 11:38 AM on May 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

Justina Robson might be worth a look.
posted by Artw at 11:50 AM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Speaking of Stirlings, you might consider S.M. Stirling.

He's branched too far into pseudo-fantasy [1] lately, but a lot of his earlier stuff sounds like it might be right up your street. If you're after more traditional SF try the Draka series, if you like alternate history you might try the Peshawar Lancers, and for annihilist rebuilding civilization after a cataclysm you might try Island in the Sea of Time.

I didn't much care for The Sky People, like the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the premise (modern SF writing set in a golden age SF setting with atomic ships, Venus as a jungle with dinosaurs, Mars as a desert with bold barbarian natives, etc) sounded excellent, but the execution left me cold.

Also seconding Vinge, he's fantastic.

[1] His "Dies the Fire" series, which revolves around Earth circa 1998 after an unexplained event prevents all energy use beyond muscle power from working. The premise is a bit weak for me, and the "hey, we don't have guns or electricity anymore so we'll instantly start liking kings and all that monarchist crap again!" bit totally turns me off.
posted by sotonohito at 11:56 AM on May 28, 2009

She may be too fun and not serious enough for you, and I believe the science is mostly invented, but Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan novels are exceptionally enjoyable and worth checking out. They are very character-driven, exciting, and highly imaginative. I suggest reading them in internal chronological order, beginning with the books about his parents (Shards of Honor is the first one, but I warn you it's a little less tight than the others, as it was one of her first novels) and going straight through. This chronology is usually listed in the back of the books, but beware of reading the accompanying text, as it contains spoilers.
posted by sumiami at 11:56 AM on May 28, 2009

check out Karl Schroeder, he has his first novel available for free on his website, but the current Virga series is quite good.
posted by jrishel at 11:56 AM on May 28, 2009

Eileen Gunn has some neat short fiction which might work for you.
posted by Artw at 11:59 AM on May 28, 2009

Best answer: Seconding John Varley. I think he'd be right up your alley.

Tamara Siler Jones writes very dark fantasy dealing with adult themes. Fantastic books, I can't recommend them highly enough.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Retrieval Artist series also has a lot of big picture ideas and darker, adult themes though the books themselves aren't extremely dark.
posted by thekiltedwonder at 12:05 PM on May 28, 2009

K.W. Jeter - 'Dr. Adder', and 'Noir'. He is PKD's official protege.
posted by [@I][:+:][@I] at 1:02 PM on May 28, 2009

Best answer: John Barnes' Kaleidoscope Century is a good book with Clockwork Orange-ish sex and violence.

John Barnes in general is underrated. Kaleidoscope Century actually leads into several much better loose sequels - particularly Candle, and The Sky So Big and Black. I also like his "Thousand Cultures" series that starts with "A Million Open Doors" Barnes likes to do this thing where his books seem like a Heinleinian young adult story but then develop some very intense non-YA themes. The Jak Jinnatka (sp?) books are the best example, I think the first of those is The Duke of Uranium.

Gene Wolfe is one of the best sf writers alive, but he uses subtle narrative tricks in his stories that give some readers the fits. (Sometimes more is going on in a scene than is apparent on first or second read.) His most famous books are the "Book of the New Sun" series (and there are two other series that loosely connect to that as well).

Others have mentioned the best fits for what you seem to be asking for: Iain M. Banks (books with the "M." are science fiction, without are non-sf), Alastair Reynolds, Charles Stross, Ken McLeod, Karl Schroeder, and Justina Robson - all very good.

Two I didn't see mentioned who are great are Ian MacDonald - his recent River of Gods (set in future India) and Brasyl (set in near-future and past Brazil of course) are both wonderful and Robert Charles Wilson (any of his last half-dozen books are great).

If you don't mind violence and like a fast moving plot, check out Neal Asher and Richard Morgan. I just read Morgan's latest, Thirteen, and it was very good. I liked some of Adam Roberts' books a lot (Gradisil, Polystom, Splinter, Salt, On). Even if you disliked some of Neal Stephenson's books you might like his latest, Anathem. The very prolific Stephen Baxter has some really good books, particularly the ones set in the XeeLee series. Try Jon Courtney Grimwood (Effendi series and a couple standalones after that). Maureen McHugh's books, all of them (China Mountain Zhang is a classic but I really like them all). I've been liking Robert Reed's books the last decade or so. Wil McCarthy's series of books that starts with The Collapsium. Paul MacAuley, pretty much all of his work. Melissa Scott's novels Dreamships, Dreaming Metal, Night Sky Mine, Shape of Their Hearts. Geoff Ryman's The Child Garden and Air.

I'll throw in Ted Chiang as well, though he only writes short stories, they are some of the best in all the genre. See his collection "Story of my Life and Other Stories."

Lots and lots of good stuff to read in current sf, and don't let anyone tell you differently (some people like to preach the doom of the genre).
posted by aught at 1:07 PM on May 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have tastes similar to yours, and I love Samuel R. Delaney.

Delany has written amazing sf -- Dhalgren, Nova, Triton, and Stars in My Pocket are all essential reading -- but has pretty much only written mainstream novels and essays for the last 25 years, and doesn't seem inclined to come back to writing sf either (he has a job teaching at Temple and I think he's comfortable in academia now - more power to him really since he struggled for decades to make a living writing great sf he got paid little for).
posted by aught at 1:14 PM on May 28, 2009

Oh! Peter Watt's Blindsight.

I like most of the authors/books aught mentions -- Maureen McHugh's Nekropolis occurred to me after my original comment. I liked Wil McCarthy's "Queendom of Sol" tetralogy (the series beginning with The Collapsium) a great deal, but I'm not sure it would be to the OP's tastes. Robert Reed's recent novella "A Billion Eves" ought to be up the OP's alley, though (and he's a consistently good writer.)

If you try Stross, I think Glasshouse has the best chance of appealing to you.

Jonathan Lethem's And She Climbed Across the Table, and his collection The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye.

Ted Chiang's fiction doesn't usually have much in the way of sex and violence, but it is some of the best short fiction around. Same with Howard Waldrop.

I'll also recommend the short fiction of Nancy Kress, James Patrick Kelly, and John Kessel.
posted by Zed at 1:55 PM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not sure if Ted Chiang really meets the criterea, but you should definately read his tsuff because (A) There's not that much of it and (B) what there is of it is pure concentrated awesome.
posted by Artw at 2:08 PM on May 28, 2009

Response by poster: These look like some really great suggestions. I'm going to start pulling stuff in from the library this weekend, and will update with "best answers" and so on as I work my way through. Thanks all, and of course feel free to add more suggestions as they come to you.
posted by Forktine at 5:33 PM on May 28, 2009

Orson Scott Card wrote a book called Songmaster that matches your criteria and I compare it in tone and execution to LeGuin's more lyrical work. Also, his series starting with Ender's Game covers lots of territory in violence and social change.

I second the Dan Simmons series starting with Hyperion. The writing is clear and compelling. The first book picks up quite a bit after page 40.

My recommendations are books that I enjoy rereading. These books have sufficient complexity to visit more than once.
posted by rw at 6:00 PM on May 28, 2009

I think Mysterium by Robert Charles Wilson will work.
posted by wittgenstein at 6:28 PM on May 28, 2009

Blindsight is free online, and probably worth a twenty minute try even before the library.
posted by talldean at 7:15 PM on May 28, 2009

Shelter by Susan Palwick, and Eifelheim by Michael Flynn are a couple of novels that you might like. Both of them start sort of slowly, and Eifelheim in particular gets a lot better once you get past the initial framing part and into the real story. Also, Elizabeth Bear writes a lot of of SF that you might like as well: the Jenny Casey series (Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired), Carnival (a standalone novel) and Dust (first in another series of books).

And I agree that Ted Chiang is well worth reading, even if he doesn't quite meet your criteria.
posted by creepygirl at 8:27 PM on May 28, 2009

Check out this other askme thread about 'big ideas' sci fi.
posted by jzed at 1:31 AM on May 29, 2009

Best answer: I am a fan of Dick, and when I was reading a lot of his works a friend gave me Haruki Murakami's "Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World". Its a little more psychological than social, but having now read several other of Murakami's works, I think this book is a good introduction for someone who enjoys PKD.
posted by cotterpin at 3:52 AM on May 29, 2009

Best answer: I recently re-read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, and it was just as good as I remembered. The theme centers more on religion, but includes other adult themes, including sex and violence, all wrapped up in a nice character-based sci-fi story. I haven't read the sequel to it, Children of God, but it will most likely be included on my next Amazon order.
posted by mysterpigg at 7:34 AM on May 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

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 11:48 AM on May 31, 2009

Response by poster: Ok, here's my first update, with a couple of answers ticked "best."

Marusek: This is definitely great stuff, in the vein of Dick et al. A++, would read again. Like Dick, it skirts the line between genre fiction and literature; the author is smart and assumes that the reader has the brains to follow along. This is exactly what I was looking for.

Barnes: Solid, good, fun to read. Great suggestion, and really enjoyable.

Stirling: This is fun, silly, B-grade post-apocalyptic fantasy, which is a genre I love. It's not great literature -- he's sort of a kazoo compared to Octavia Butler's full orchestra, if you will -- but it's enjoyable and more or less internally consistent, which is enough for me. (Actually, there must be an entire genre of SCA/Renn-Faire revenge fantasies, where all the people who laughed at your costumes get their comeuppance.) I'll definitely read more, and would recommend this to anyone looking for a summer read.

(I'll update further as I have time to read more. Although the overall SF section still seems aimed at 13 year old boys, it's heartening to see that there is still really good writing coming out there.)
posted by Forktine at 9:55 AM on June 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm so glad you asked this question because it would seem, from the books you listed at the top, that we have extremely similar taste in books, and I've been looking for recommendations too!
posted by Cygnet at 6:23 AM on June 17, 2009

Tiptree is just too good to skip. Try and find Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, a collection of Tiptree's best short stories. It was just reprinted a couple of years ago, so it shouldn't be too hard to find. The short stories are definitely the place to start with Tiptree, as her novel's are not as strong.
posted by pwicks at 10:33 PM on July 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

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