Where's the sci-fi with actual characters?
August 18, 2009 2:04 PM   Subscribe

What are some or how can one best find science-fiction novels that are good by general literary standards?

Bemoaning the disappointment I've repeatedly endured at the hands of science fiction is, to those who know me well enough, a well-worn leitmotif. You'd think I'd be at least as smart as children who refrain from touching red-hot burners twice, but no: I pick up a sci-fi novel, more often than not get burned by it, and no sooner have the blisters subsided than I'm back at the shelf. My problem perhaps reduces to desire for speculative stories featuring actual characters. It's not that the sci-fi novels I've read are literally missing invoked human (or alien, or robot) entities; it's that they present these entities as lists of traits rather than as nuanced, thinking (as distinct from simply speaking), changing beings whose lives extend beyond the page.

I've found this disease pervasive in and crippling to the genre, but the diehard fans I talk to don't seem to notice it. And if they do notice it, they don't mind. I once read a forum-dweller grumble about his wish that sci-fi's lack of character depth just stop being considered a weakness already. At a panel, I heard one veteran sci-fi novelist pronounce that, in the genre, character is necessarily subordinated to speculation. But can't character and speculation sit on the same tier? This may seem a matter of wanting to have my cake and eat it too, but I'd say I simply want to eat my cake in the context of an actual meal. Isn't complaining that weak characterization is regarded as a flaw like complaining that a computer's inability to accept input is regarded as flaw? You can junk speculation, plot, aesthetics, form, comedy and tragedy and your work will still come out a lot better than if you'd played loose with character.

Beyond science fiction, I suppose I'm generally long for novels of ideas whose ideas don't displace their people. Perhaps no genre is flexible enough to provide this combination, and I'd do better to camp out in the categorical borderlands.
posted by colinmarshall to Media & Arts (75 answers total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
Ender's Game.
posted by lazaruslong at 2:05 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ballard, Bradbury
posted by matteo at 2:09 PM on August 18, 2009

Generally Hugo Award winners are respected not only by the science fiction community, but also by the broader literary community.
posted by Aanidaani at 2:10 PM on August 18, 2009

DUNE! Read the Frank Herbert originals, not the cash-in prequels!

NEAL STEPHENSON! Just throw a dart at a list of his oeuvre - you absolutely can't go wrong!

The MARS TRILOGY by Kim Stanely Robinson! Jam-PACKED w/ fully realized characters!
posted by EatTheWeek at 2:10 PM on August 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

You probably want science fiction written by authors who also write what is generally called "literary fiction" -- say, _Gun, with Occasional Music_, by Jonathan Lethem, or _Handmaid's Tale_, by Margaret Atwood, or _Galatea 2.2_ by Richard Powers, or the oh-so-often-recommended-here-but-with-good-reason _Cloud Atlas_.
posted by escabeche at 2:11 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Very similar question with lots of good answers here: http://ask.metafilter.com/37305/Pick-the-best-science-fiction-book-for-the-uninitiated.
posted by roofone at 2:14 PM on August 18, 2009

You could try Gollancz's SF Masterworks series, but I don't tihnk you're necessarily going to find nuanced characters there. Off the top of my head, Margaret Atwood, Iain M. Banks, A Canticle for Leibowitz, A Case of Conscience and Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (which I recommend every time an SF question comes up).

All with a guarded "maybe". I'm not sure I'd know a nuanced character if it bit my ankle.

Ian McDonald. He doesn't get a maybe, he can write people who drive the story, rather than stories that drive the people.
posted by Leon at 2:16 PM on August 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

The name of the genre you're looking for is "soft sci-fi", where character and plot are of equal importance to speculation. I'll second Frank Herbert's original Dune series (also his novel The White Plague, Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Margaret Atwood. I'll add China Mieville to the list.

John Scalzi is usually better reading than just as straight hard science fiction, largely because the sci-fi genre as a whole seems to be paying more attention to broader literary concerns, so the young generation of authors is less willing to write solely from the perspective of their PhD in physics.
posted by fatbird at 2:18 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Er... I'm going to disagree with Aanidaani. The Hugo awards are selected by the attendees of WorldCon, and are a better gauge of popularity among fandom in general than anything else; the Nebula awards are given by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and, in this SF fan's eyes, are a much better guide to 'literary respectability.'
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:18 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I Am Not A Literary Critic but I'm going to vote for the books of the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons.
posted by dreadpiratesully at 2:19 PM on August 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Can you tell us some novels that you've been disappointed with (and, if possible, one or two you've liked--or even non-scifi, but with the "feel" you're looking for)? I totally get everything you said in your post and I feel like I might have some suggestions, but I don't want to start spouting off things you've read (and hated) and turn you off sci-fi forever ...
posted by alleycat01 at 2:23 PM on August 18, 2009

Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold. And I think her fantasy series is absolutely wonderful as well, definitely not typical of other fantasy I've read.
posted by Mouse Army at 2:25 PM on August 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Robinson's "Years of Rice and Salt."
posted by rodgerd at 2:25 PM on August 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

Michael Swanwick and Michael Marshall Smith are both worth a look.
posted by fearthehat at 2:30 PM on August 18, 2009

Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin.
posted by EvaDestruction at 2:37 PM on August 18, 2009 [9 favorites]

Iain M. Banks has already mentioned, so I'll just second that.
posted by knapah at 2:38 PM on August 18, 2009

I don't mean to turn this into "what is your favorite SF book" (because this isn't), but I like to recommend Wreck of the River of Stars because it's so damned nautical. It's a good book on its own merits, but it reads (certainly not accidentally) like a recounting of a disaster on an old sailing vessel. Oh, and I'm not giving anything away, what with the title and all.

There's also the matter of what kinds of characters you want. Ian M. Banks often has well-constructed characters who are quirky. Dune is a fully realized world, but none of the characters is terribly pleasant. John Scalzi writes a wicked alien fart joke but his writing is not deep (it's good but not deep).

I'm like you in that I find novels with one dimensional characters unbelievably frustrating (and it's not just scifi: some "must read" modern lit has characters who are searingly predictable and one dimensional ... but I digress). The problem is compounded when the issue becomes the book, and the characters are just props to move the issue to resolution.

Alastair Reynolds is a great writer, but I particularly enjoyed his collection Zima Blue, mainly for one story - "Cardiff Afterlife" - which almost made me cry. And that's not something I do.

Anyway, it's not all vooom zoom pew pew pew. :)
posted by socratic at 2:45 PM on August 18, 2009

Ok, apparently the name of the story I liked was "Signal to Noise." woops.
posted by socratic at 2:46 PM on August 18, 2009

hugo, nebula, and the phillip k. dick awards are good resources all.

i am not a sci-fi fan and i love, love, love stephenson.

the boyfriend suggests william gibson - start with burning chrome and neromancer
posted by nadawi at 2:47 PM on August 18, 2009

Best answer: I actually don't think Herbert does character particularly well. His real talent is providing a sense of place; creating a convincing, complete, immersive world, full of big ideas about not science or technology, but about history, society, and the nature of humanity. His characters, frankly, are a little flat.

And what Bradbury does well is atmosphere and language. He has the most poetic voice of any of the great men of the genre. Are there really even any fully formed characters in The Martian Chronicals?

For someone who can write a rollicking traditional sci-fi story populated with interesting, convincing characters, I'd recommend Iain M. Banks.

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is probably this century's leading contender thus far for English-language taken-seriously-by-literary-types science fiction. It's only 2/5 sci-fi, though.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:47 PM on August 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sorry. 1/3.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:50 PM on August 18, 2009

A lot of people don't mind crappy writing/ character development so long as the story/ ideas are good. Personally, I can't take too much of it, so I don't read much that would be called sci fi. However, some writers write stuff that deals with the same ideas, but isn't called sci fi, because everyone likes it, not just science fiction readers.

Kurt Vonnegut is a good writer and some of his books are sci-fi ish. Richard Powers isn't bad. But for stuff like Philip K Dick, you just have to think of them as "idea books" not "story books" - it isn't about the characters, and they're such quick reads that you just go through 'em for some neat thoughts between more substantial books.

There are plenty of well written books that deal in ideas, but that don't use the structure of technology to lay them out. Surrealist fiction, philosophical fiction, poetic fiction, etc... But that's a bit of a different angle (though surrealist fiction is sort of a right angle to sci fi, in a way, and usually very well written).
posted by mdn at 2:57 PM on August 18, 2009

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is probably this century's leading contender thus far for English-language taken-seriously-by-literary-types science fiction. It's only 2/5 1/3 sci-fi, though.

Yeah, plus it sucks.

To the original poster, I recommend you check out Gene Wolfe, especially his Book of the New Sun series. The quality of both his prose and the ideas he presents is fantastic.
posted by prunes at 2:57 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

One of the classics: Alfred Bester, especially The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 3:06 PM on August 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

Try Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro for SF by a "literary" author. Or Air by Geoff Ryman, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, or China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh, all of which combine good SF ideas with well-developed characters. I second the above recommendation for books by LeGuin and Butler.
posted by penguinliz at 3:09 PM on August 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Give Connie Willis a shot. I'd particularly recommend To Say Nothing of the Dog and Passage.
posted by doteatop at 3:10 PM on August 18, 2009

Several years ago I read, in consecutive order, all the books that had one both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and then the books which had won only one or the other of those awards. I didn't love every book I read, but they were all good, at least as defined by some experienced and respected group of people. I learned a lot and got a great look at the breadth of science fiction that's out there.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 3:13 PM on August 18, 2009

Best answer: As a rule, good scifi gets filed with the literary fiction instead of in the scifi section. Cloud Atlas, mentioned above, is a good choice, but also, if you haven't already, check out Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest can be read as scifi, I'd argue, but you'll have to have a few free months to read it.

As far as stuff that's (often) filed under scifi, you could do worse than checking out Philip K. Dick's VALIS or Transmigration of Timothy Archer. The stuff he wrote over much of his career would probably drive you nuts, even though I'm a fan -- his schtick was to write overtly cardboard characters that explicitly represented archetypes rather than people, and then do weird things to them. It's different than the way most scifi writers do cardboard -- I think he's using his characters to question the idea of individuality and subjectivity -- but it's still cardboard. However, in the two I mentioned above, written very late in his career, he takes an intensely autobiographical turn, and due to that his characters get a lot, lot more real. "But wait," you ask, "if it was autobiographical, how is it still scifi?", to which I reply "dude was so nuts."
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 3:21 PM on August 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'll put in a specific referral to Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake.
posted by fatbird at 3:30 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'll second Ryman and third (?) Mieville. I'd also suggest looking for Nalo Hopkinson's fiction, as well as Ted Chiang's short stories.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:40 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Other people have covered some real meaty literary science fiction, so I will say: How about Vernor Vinge? He navigates the treacherous border between entertaining, actiony pop scifi and fully formed characters. I'm specifically thinking of A Deepness in the Sky.

Also, The Goneaway World is the best book I've read in the last year, period, and it could be described as one long, amazing character study. Try not to read too much about it before you actually read it, though - some reviews give away too much.

Disagree with the recommendations of Kim Stanley Robinson (hello Mary Sues) and Bradbury (literary but not character-based). Agree with the recommendations of Willis, Russell, Murakami, Mieville, and ohgodyes Bester).
posted by emyd at 3:44 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lots of bad suggestions in this thread, OP. Please don't pick up a couple Hugo winners and wonder what the heck people are thinking.

I do disagree with YCTaB's statement that "as a rule" good science fiction gets filed with literary fiction even though you marked it as best answer. Books by an author known mostly for his or her non-genre work will, as a rule, be shelved in literary fiction. But great, literary science fiction by science fictional authors are not, as a rule, shelved outside the genre section.

Case in point: Gene Wolfe. His BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is perhaps the greatest literary science fiction ever written but it's always shelved in the SF section because he's an SF author. Conversely, mediocre SF by non-genre authors will often be shelved in literary fiction.

Can you list some science fiction you consider to be sufficiently literary, colinmarshall? That would help me calibrate my suggestions, of which I probably have many depending on what you're looking for. But I need to know exactly what you're after: As you can see from this thread, some people have, uh, interesting viewpoints on general literary characteristics.

If there are no SF novels you can think of that meet your criteria then might I humbly suggest that the fault lies not in our stars, dear Brutus, but in ourselves?

In any case, please list a few examples of the kind of books you are looking for (SF novels with good literary characteristics). Until then I suggest Gene Wolfe's BOOK OF THE NEW SUN. If that doesn't meet your criteria nothing will.
posted by Justinian at 3:46 PM on August 18, 2009 [5 favorites]

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, and The Many Colored Land series by Julian May. Both have quite a bit of psychological depth and are all about the characters.
posted by dacoit at 3:47 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I actually don't think Herbert does character particularly well. [...] His characters, frankly, are a little flat.

Generally true, particularly for the Dune series, but The White Plague would be an exception.
posted by rodgerd at 4:15 PM on August 18, 2009

While I found it a little too relationshippy and femme-lit in style, Wild Seed is nothing if not SF of personality an character. It's definitely a pleasurable little book. More Speculative Fiction than Science Fiction, though.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 4:26 PM on August 18, 2009

Thirding Connie Willis, and she can be very funny as well (Bellwether, To Say Nothing of the Dog).

I've found the reviews at The SF Site very helpful in picking books.
posted by gudrun at 4:35 PM on August 18, 2009

Best answer: Here are some more that should fit whatever your definition though, again, I can be more specific if I know what you are looking for.

John Crowley: LITTLE, BIG
Samuel R. Delany: DHALGREN
Stanislaw Lem: SOLARIS
something by Jonathan Lethem though I'm unsure which to recommend
M. John Harrison: NOVA SWING
posted by Justinian at 4:56 PM on August 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Ken MacLeod creates wonderful characters in The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division.
Samuel Delany's got some complex characters who very much belong in the worlds he creates and about the best is the Kid, in Dhalgren.
posted by jet_silver at 5:01 PM on August 18, 2009

shoulda previewed. Nice one, Justinian.
posted by jet_silver at 5:02 PM on August 18, 2009

Seconding Oryx and Crake.
posted by Staggering Jack at 5:33 PM on August 18, 2009

Gene Wolfe's Peace is also excellent. It's one of the weirdest books I've ever read.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:42 PM on August 18, 2009

Best answer: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is probably this century's leading contender thus far for English-language taken-seriously-by-literary-types science fiction. It's only 2/5 sci-fi, though.

Pick up Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, which is what Mitchell was ripping off (sorry, "inspired by") in one of the sci-fi sections of Cloud Atlas. I recommend it on metafilter, and in life, every chance I get (in fact, someone just memailed me thanking me for suggesting it this morning!). It's stylistically challenging, but the characters are also very interesting. Beautiful book.

Octavia Butler's gotten a few nods here. I'd like to specifically recommend the Lilith's Brood series. The first, Dawn is particularly amazing in terms of style and pacing. The second and third are character studies of characters who are partially aliens, and she's skilled enough to make this convincing. The Parables books are also good.

I actually thought Oryx and Crake was just ok, as these things go. Ditto Never Let Me Go. Well enough written, but conceptually pretty weak--the premises didn't always make sense. Handmaid's Tale, on the other hand, is an amazing book, and tight on every level.

Oh, and the sci-fi part of Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days is really, really gorgeously done.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:46 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nobody's mentioned Charlie Stross? He is brilliant, and I think you'll find he has the kind of characters you consider real enough. Plus he's funny.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:18 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing Wolfe and Delany, and I'll throw in a recommendation for Lewis Shiner's largely forgotten Glimpses, a novel about a man who is able to travel to alternate worlds and bring back lost pop albums like the Beach Boys "Smile" and the Beatles "Get Back". It's a beautiful book about art and music and love and loss and all that good stuff.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 6:21 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, you HAVE to read The Disposessed and/or The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin. Both totally amazing.

I have the same problem with flat characters in sci fi- I didn't finish Foundation because of it, even. I will be saving this thread!

BF recommends Canticle for Leibowitz.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:24 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Beyond science fiction, I suppose I'm generally long for novels of ideas whose ideas don't displace their people.

Missed this part. Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami is more surreal than sci-fi, but it's great and has many fascinating characters.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:28 PM on August 18, 2009

Best answer: Tatyana Tolstaya--The Slynx
Christopher Priest--Inverted World
Doris Lessing--Canopus in Argos: Archives (if you can find it--may still be out of print)
Vladimir Nabokov--Ada, or Ardor

Seconding Neuromancer--William Gibson is one of the best stylists to ever write SF. Also seconding Riddley Walker, which someone begged and begged me to read after I read Cloud Atlas, and then once I did, I understood why.

The Library of America has a three-volume hardcover series of Philip K. Dick's works, edited by Jonathan Lethem--there are a total of thirteen novels in the three volumes. Dick is hit or miss, and as said above, Dick's characters can often be more a matter of archetype than anything else, but that's not always true: The Man in the High Castle has strong characterization, I'd say. And to date Dick is the only career SF writer to get a reissue in the LoA series, for what it's worth.
posted by Prospero at 6:47 PM on August 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky was mentioned above, but as much as I love the book, I don't think it's a particularly good choice for your criteria. I'd be very curious to know what books you didn't like because of flat characters. Writers like Arthur C Clarke and Vernor Vinge take on heavy and deep ideas, but the characters are just a vehicle to raise questions and expose concepts.

1984 and One Hundred Years of Solitude are sci-fi and fantasy. You've read those, right?

I'll second Ridley Walker, The Left Hand of Darkness, and A Canticle for Leibowitz. And since it hasn't been mentioned, Earth Abides by George Stewart. All of them are well written and I don't think any of them make characters subordinate to the ideas.
posted by Loudmax at 6:51 PM on August 18, 2009

Alan Lightman -- The Diagnosis
posted by bluefly at 7:54 PM on August 18, 2009

Nobody's mentioned Charlie Stross? He is brilliant, and I think you'll find he has the kind of characters you consider real enough. Plus he's funny.

See, here's the thing. Charlie is awesome. But he strikes me as exactly the type of SF the OP is specifically not looking for. Like if you looked up "SF the asker doesn't want" in the dictionary there would be a picture of Charlie Stross there.

Which is why I asked for examples. Otherwise it just turns into a "name your favorite SF author" thread. I mean, Vinge is one of the greatest SF authors, well, ever but literary he most certainly is not. He comes more from the pulp tradition. And so on.
posted by Justinian at 8:10 PM on August 18, 2009

I really liked Vonda McIntyre's Starfarer series for the characters. Out of print, but I see lots of copies are available cheap cheap cheap on Amazon. Years after reading them (and I did read them more than once), the characters have really stayed with me. My partner and I both reference characters from the books from time to time.

Warning: the series was never finishes, so if you're the kind of person who will go insane if you read four really engaging books and then never find out what finally happens...well, you know yourself best. I think they're worth it.
posted by not that girl at 8:33 PM on August 18, 2009

Sheri S Tepper. Start with Beauty. Then read the Arbai trilogy or any of her non-series books.
posted by IndigoSkye at 8:42 PM on August 18, 2009

Christ on a bicycle, "anything by Stephenson"? Mercy.

Gene Wolfe, Gene Wolfe, Gene effing Wolfe.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:05 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Tepper is so good with character, but I find she's awfully reliant on deus ex machina to resolve her plots. I don't recommend doing what I did, which is reading a ton of her stuff all at once - if you like it (and I do), I think parceling her books out is the better approach. Personally, I'd recommend Grass over Beauty.

Seconding China Mountain Zhang. I don't remember much about it, but I do remember that it was a challenging and involving read, and that it was the characters that really drew me into it.

I kind of want to recommend Dreaming in Smoke by Tricia Sullivan because I can't decide whether its brilliant or just impenetrable. But I find the characters very real (meaning often frustrating or off-putting), and the premise fascinating.
posted by EvaDestruction at 9:07 PM on August 18, 2009

Someone mentioned the Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold and I just wanted to second that. The first three Miles books are fun and interesting, but it really takes off with number 4, Mirror Dance. It's not terribly heavy stuff, but the characters are complex, engaging and recognizable despite the sci-fi settings.

I've also enjoyed the Foreigner series by CJ Cherryh.

Not sure I'm much of a judge of general literary standards, since so many highly recommended books leave me cold, but I'm also pretty impatient with the low quality of so many VERY popular Sci-Fi series.

Just for reference, Patrick O'Brian ruined me for average historical fiction. (If you're looking for characters... that's definitely a series not to miss.)
posted by Noon Under the Trees at 9:40 PM on August 18, 2009

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell.
posted by mollywas at 10:47 PM on August 18, 2009

Seconding Alfred Bester, Gene Wolfe and William Gibson.

Plus Clifford Simak (and going waaay back): H.G. Wells.
posted by Rash at 4:07 AM on August 19, 2009

Ooh, seconding Tepper, though I definitely agree that her books tie up too easily. Grass is a beautiful book, with strong characters, particularly female characters.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:45 AM on August 19, 2009

Best answer: As Justinian points out there are some really bad suggestions in this thread, people are just listing their favourite authors despite a lot of them have the very problem the poster is complaining about. There are good suggestions from escabeche, penguinliz, Justinian and PhoBWanKenobi though.

Not all good literary science fiction is published by non-genre authors. However, there has been an increase in the amount being produced over the last and some of it might well fit the bill. Here is a partial list of the last decade:

Oryx And Crake by Margaret Atwood
The Cryptographer by Tobias Hill
Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey
The Flood by Maggie Gee
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
Clear Water by Will Ashon
Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham
The Possibility Of An Island by Michel Houellebecq
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millett
The Island of Lost Souls by Martyn Bedford
The Eagle's Throne by Carlos Fuentes
My Dirty Little Book Of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Ascent by Jed Mercuio
Hav by Jan Morris
Cold Skin by Albert Sanchez Pinol
Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon
Surveillance by Jonathan Raban
The Book of Dave by Will Self
The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas
High John the Conqueror by Jim Younger
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
The Pesthouse by Jim Crace
The Red Men by Matthew de Abaitua
The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
The Weight of the City by Will Rhode
Resistance by Owen Sheers
The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson
The Heritage by Will Ashon
Sputnik Caledonia by Andrew Crumey
The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway
The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt
Everything is Sinister by David Llewellyn
Pandora in the Congo by Albert Sanchez Pinol
The Butt by Will Self
God is Dead by Ron Currie
Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
posted by ninebelow at 4:46 AM on August 19, 2009 [11 favorites]

Issac Asimov's original Foundation trilogy is high on my list. It was the first SF I remember reading and still one of my favorites.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 5:02 AM on August 19, 2009

I was tempted to post at the top with "the first person to recommend Asimov is going to a slap". There's always one...

On reflection, I withdraw James Blish's A Case of Conscience and substitute Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside. I'm not sure if it contains first-rate characters, but it is all-character SF, rather than all-plot SF. If anything, it reminds me of John Fowles' The Magus.
posted by Leon at 5:33 AM on August 19, 2009

I'm going to second the Hyperion books by Dan Simmons.

I just finished the second of the series, and the way the story is told, especially the
first book, is driven entirely by the character, history and motivations of the participants in
the story.

Very, very moving first book.
posted by exparrot at 7:03 AM on August 19, 2009

Yeah, Asmimov is probably not what you want.

Having just gotten into an epic, 2-day flame war that spanned several blogs on this topic (see: here), I do think it's worth noting that many literary readers might tell you that the books on ninebelow's list aren't science fiction because they're also conspicuously literary, because they're good, or because the authors and publishers don't consider them science fiction (I'm looking at you, Margaret Atwood). And some of these books, in turn, get minor eye rolling from more dedicated genre readers because the science fiction conceits aren't always quite as well thought out or tight as they would be expected to be in novels marketed as science fiction. Not to say that any of these people are right, and I don't want to derail this thread or, certainly, argue about the topic more--because I really don't--but I think the troubles with these categories is something to acknowledge if you want to bite your teeth into some good sci-fi.

Through that argument, I did discover this Times article on Jack Vance, who I've never read, but sounds pretty awesome. He might be up your alley, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:15 AM on August 19, 2009

John Varley's awesome. Great characters and really interesting concepts, as well. I highly recommend the shorty story "Equinoctial" and the novel The Ophiuchi Hotline in particular.
posted by infinitywaltz at 8:40 AM on August 19, 2009

Oh, and to reiterate what finer minds than mine have already stated: Gene Wolfe.
posted by infinitywaltz at 8:41 AM on August 19, 2009

Having just gotten into an epic, 2-day flame war that spanned several blogs on this topic

Man, the Genre Debate of Doom never gets old.

Great literary SF published this year:

In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield
The City & The City by china Mieville
posted by ninebelow at 8:47 AM on August 19, 2009

ninebelow has a pretty definitive list of literary SF by non-SF authors there. Kudos. Obviously I've been trying to give you some examples of literary SF by primarily SF authors. The emphasis in the books between these two distinct groups is a bit different. I do prefer my SF a little more science fictional so I do prefer Gene Wolfe's SF to, say, Atwood or whoever. But your mileage may vary.
posted by Justinian at 12:23 PM on August 19, 2009

Am I the only person who find's Stephenson's characters wholly unconvincing?
posted by bone machine at 1:30 PM on August 19, 2009

No, bone machine. Stephenson is more about style than substance, in my experience. If you buy into the style, it's beautiful; if not, well...
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:25 PM on August 19, 2009

Best answer: One of my favorite ask mefi exchanges occurred in a very similar question and also illustrated the tendency of many science fiction fans (the demographic that obviously dominates mefi) to not understand what people mean when they talk about science fiction's lack of characterization or literary style. I think it may be useful to quote it again for this thread.

1. Willnot argues that DUNE has great characterization by opening it at random and quoting a passage that, even to my ears, the ears of a man who spent his high school afternoons biking to a science fiction specialty shop everyday, sounds awful. The passage has the following sentence: "But he could feel the demanding race consciousness within him, his own terrible purpose, and he knew that no small thing could deflect the juggernaut." Willnot concludes by saying, "Say what you will about the book, but the last thing I would ever have expected to hear from somebody is that we aren't really let in on Paul's inner struggle. Vast chunks of the book center around his inner conflict and character development."

2. Responding to that passage, grumblebee writes, not untenderly:

Are you talking about me, willnot? Actually, I said, "It's been years since I've read Dune, so I can't comment on Paul's complexity, but in general, sci-fi isn't know for complexity of character."

Still, given your example, it doesn't seem like with Paul's "responses to what happens are nuanced, complicated, varied and sometimes mysterious." Compare it with the following (random) passage from "Amy and Isabelle," by Elizabeth Strout. (I'm not trying to get into a pissing match about which type of book is best. I'm trying to make clear the sort of character development that some of us like.)

I'm not going to quote the passage, but you get the idea.
posted by johnasdf at 6:36 PM on August 19, 2009

Seconding The Sparrow.
posted by bmosher at 8:53 AM on August 20, 2009

The problem is that many people don't have perspective. Dune is a great science fiction book because of its ideas; I would not, however, say that Frank Herbert was a great author or a particularly skillful prose stylist. The same goes for, say, Snow Crash, whose originality spares it where its characterization lets it fall. There are writers like Gene Wolfe, Stanislaw Lem, Samuel Delaney, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick (at times), and Ray Bradbury (at times), however, whose short stories and novels are powerfully written and are of sufficient merit that they should be taken just as seriously as their mainstream counterparts.

This is one of my favorite passages from any book:
We talk of strong personalities, and they are strong, until the not-every-day when we see them as we might see one woman alone in a desert, and know that all the strength we thought we knew was only courage, only her lone song echoing among the stones; and then at last when we have understood this and made up our minds to hear the song and admire its courage and its sweetness, we wait for the next note and it does not come. The last word, with its pure tone, echoes and fades and is gone, and we realize—only then—that we do not know what it was, that we have been too intent on the melody to hear even one word. We go then to find the singer, thinking she will be standing where we last saw her. There are only bones and sand and a few faded rags.
I particularly hate, though, that non-“science fiction” authors write science fiction and have their work lauded for its “vision” and “originality.” Take Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Now, I am a huge fan of McCarthy. His Blood Meridian is one of my favorite modern novels. However, The Road is at best a minor effort. Its mysterious apocalypse is a pedestrian, overused sf trope. Its sentimental theism was done to death before the Seventies were through. It's popular only because it's written by a mainstream author. McCarthy clearly had little understanding of science fiction; the readers who made it a bestseller (hi, Oprah) have probably never heard of the “post-apocalyptic” sub-genre; and, had it come out with Lois McMaster Bujold's byline it would have been shelved among the SF&F and quickly forgotten.

Sf doesn't lack characterization and literary style, nor are its authors more untalented than mainstream writers. Instead, we should say that science fiction tends to be judged by the body of its output rather than by its best, as seems to be the practice when it comes to anything shelved under the “Literature & Fiction” signs in Barnes and Noble. I went to Borders with a friend when I was picking up Gene Wolfe's The Knight and The Wizard. She seemed almost offended; she picked up some EFP crap and pointed at the mostly-naked, busty woman on the cover and asked: “How can you read this?” I said, “I can't. That's why I'm buying this, and not that.”
posted by sonic meat machine at 2:52 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

o not understand what people mean when they talk about science fiction's lack of characterization or literary style

True, but as sonic meat machine points out, there also tends to be trend to judge genre by its mediocrity more than "serious literature" (practically a genre in and of itself). There are shelves of turgid, uninteresting navel-gazing tedium published as modern lit, so it's important to compared like for like. There may be only so many novels I want to read about interesting gadgets, but there's a limit to the number of young women discovering the...zzzz

Sorry, I seem to have nodded off.

There's validity in the point that great works tend to get reclassified as modern lit. Brave New World and 1984, the latter particularly, tend to be classified as literature because they are serious works by serious authors, but there's no particular reason to consider them anything other than science fiction, to my mind.
posted by rodgerd at 3:52 PM on August 20, 2009

Sf doesn't lack characterization and literary style, nor are its authors more untalented than mainstream writers.

But a lot of people, myself included, think it's a mistake to want science fiction to turn into a counterpart of literary fiction except set in the future or with clones or whatever. That isn't to say that I wouldn't like to see an improvement in the average literary quality of F&SF novels but that doesn't mean I want everyone to be Gene Wolfe or Stanislaw Lem. The greatest strengths of SF and the greatest strengths of what we refer to as "literary fiction" aren't necessarily the same.

I'd consider Vinge's A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY to be one of the greatest SF novels ever written. It's brilliant on many levels. It would also, generally speaking, be considered mediocre at best if judged by the same criteria that you'd judge the best literary fiction by. Vinge is a only a workmanlike stylist. His prose isn't beautiful or even noteworthy. His books tend to be plot driven to a greater degree than most readers of literary fiction would accept.

So I don't accept the idea that you have to write like Wolfe, Delany, or Butler to be great science fiction. They are great, no question, but they're great in a certain way that is more palatable to some demographics. Vinge is also great. Iain Banks is great. And so on.

Obviously the OP is looking for the kind of great science fiction that Wolfe, Delany, and Butler write, which is why I proposed the books I did. But I do want to register an objection to the idea that those types of books are the pinnacle to which other science fiction should aspire to.

Okay, except for Wolfe. 'Cause he's so incredibly brilliant that everyone should strive be like him even though they will fail utterly. He's the only author I've read who makes me feel stupid.
posted by Justinian at 5:20 PM on August 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh, man, you are missing out if you don't listen to J. Daniel Sawyer's Antithesis Progression, a series of free audiobooks. Start with book one, Predestination and Other Games of Chance (NSFW cover art). He's just started releasing Book Two, Free Will and Other Compulsions, on jdsawyer.net.
posted by JDHarper at 9:55 PM on November 14, 2009

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