Lapsed sci-fi reader looking for a new literary love in all the wrong places.
February 20, 2011 9:11 PM   Subscribe

I'm getting back into reading for pleasure after years of avoiding it during college. I've found fantasy books easy to get back into, but have no idea where to start with sci-fi!

When I was younger I spent a good amount of time reading books, especially science fiction and fantasy. College happened and I read less and less for pleasure thanks to having reading assignments. Now I actually have the time and desire to read, and have easily plunged into the world of fantasy books. However, I don't know where to start with sci-fi.

When I was 10-18 I read and loved all the sci-fi books by Bruce Coville, read almost all of Anne McCaffrey's books (though her books have mostly lost their charm as I've gotten older), and liked Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy and Conquerers' Trilogy. Now I'm 26 and have recently struggled while reading Dune (I couldn't make myself care about all of the omniscient characters) and part of the Ender's series (I enjoyed the strategies, but the characters were all variations on the same archetype and I despise Card's politics). I gave up on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (I felt it strove to hard to be I lose geek cred if I say I didn't think it was funny?) and Pandora's Star (I think it needed an editor to cut out about 1/3 of the book). I have, however, enjoyed The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn and most of the SF short stories by George R. R. Martin. I'm currently reading The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, which I'm finding interesting, but very dense, and not quite as enjoyable as his Latro books.

I'm hoping that you can recommend books that will be more to my tastes. I like character development, grey morality, and political strategy. Good writing is a must (no purple prose), excessive technobabble and really bad genetics are the bane of my existence, and humor is a plus, but not a necessity. I tend to be more interested in the characters and plot in a series than in the intricacies of how the technology in it works. Epic doorstopper series, stand alone novels, anthologies, and short stories are all welcome recommendations. I'm curious if you think that I would enjoy the Culture novels by Iain Banks - they sound like they might be entertaining.

Some works I've really enjoyed have been Legend of the Galactic Heroes (the anime), Battlestar Galactica (before it got really weirdly religious at the end), A Song of Ice and Fire, and sillier things such as Galaxy Quest and Firefly.
posted by Logic Sheep to Media & Arts (39 answers total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
Name of the Wind
posted by moof at 9:21 PM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes on the Culture novels. Start with Player of Games, not Consider Phlebas. Grey morality abounds. I've just started reading them and have been very pleased.
Counting Heads by David Marusek and it's sequel have been very pleasing. Definite grey morality.
Old Guys, if you haven't already:
Alfred Bestor's Demolished Man and Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright.
Phillip K. Dick. Esp. The Three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

And, Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, does many things, including some Sci-Fi. It's an epic doorstopper novel, at least in hardcover.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:21 PM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like character development, grey morality, and political strategy.

I highly recommend Robin Hobb's Assassin series (fantasy). Exactly up your alley. After that, the liveship Traders series is also excellent, and highly imaginative.

In SF, I'd highly recommend Ursula Le Guin. She writes about people and culture - sci fi is just the setting. 'Story is the only boat we have for sailing the river of time'.

Kurt Vonnegut does some great work. Perhaps Cat's Cradle is a good start, and of course Slaughterhouse 5.

MeFi's own cstross is a personal favourite. His Laundry series is a rollicking good time.

I also like Cory Doctorow, although he is perhaps an acquired taste. His short stories are fun though.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:25 PM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I too read a lot of fantasy (actually opened a thread on here awhile back asking for recommendations) so I'm in the same boat as you.

I can tell you that Anathem by Neal Stephenson is one of the greatest books I've read in a long, long time. So enjoyable.

(Oh, and if you want another fantasy series to read, try the First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. Fairly similar to George RR Martin's stuff.)
posted by gchucky at 9:30 PM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny is a great mix of Sci-Fi and fantasy.

The Book of the New Sun is awesome by the way, but Amber is a very easy read.
posted by Dick Laurent is Dead at 9:32 PM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Ursula LeGuin. Very, very nice.

I also just finished a book by Greg Bear. The book is pretty much nothing but character development, so I would have high hopes for any of his books--I know he's written a ton of sci fi. I've only read this one book, but it's one of my favorites.
posted by eleyna at 9:36 PM on February 20, 2011

Ted Chiang is, IMHO, the best short story writer in science fiction today. I put together a collection of all his works that are available online in this post. They're all excellent, but "Story of Your Life" is particularly good in terms of character-driven story, and "Hell is the Absence of God" has one mother of a mindfuck ending.

Also, this is more iffy, but you might want to check out Peter Watts' Blindsight, which I devoured this weekend after it was recommended here on Mefi. In a nutshell, it's about a crew of mentally-altered people commanded by a member of a recently-revived and predatory human subspecies, one with incredible intelligence but absolutely no empathy, self-awareness, or consciousness. They're on a mission to investigate an alien ship on the edge of the solar system, and encounter something that thinks nothing like what they expected.

It has its share of technobabble, but it's not done for its own sake -- he uses it to set up a totally chilling look at the real-world implications of abstract concepts like the Chinese Room and the philosophical zombie. It ends up going to some pretty horrifying places. You can read the entire novel for free on his site here, so you don't have to waste money on it if it's not to your tastes.
posted by Rhaomi at 9:40 PM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Blindsight by Peter Watts: a few not-quite-humans sent to make first contact with a really alien entity, with lots of characterisation, and no real morality at all

Armor by John Steakley: explores the effect of doing and seeing violence on a soldier's mind, with good characterisation and grey morality. I'd recommend the first three "See also" links on that page, too. I haven't read the fourth.

Also, I know you're asking for sci-fi, but here are some fantasies you might enjoy:

Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson: slightly hamhanded, but thorough characterization, political maneuvering (and experimenting with several forms of government), and some tough moral choices

Black Company: Books of the North by Glen Cook: an epic fantasy (think Tolkien-level wars) told through the eyes of a grunt, with lots of grey and grey morality, and realistic (and often subtle) character development. More political maneuvering in the sequels.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:43 PM on February 20, 2011

I'd recommend checking out the most talked about SF books of the 20th century. Earth Abides stands out in my memory as a good one. Frederik Pohl's Heechee series is fascinating, which basically involves a colony of adventurers who take turns using a mysterious yet dangerous alien machine that transports people anywhere in the Universe and back; you'd want to start with Gateway. Also I'd suggest Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles (the novel), Dan Simmon's Hyperion, and Larry Niven's Ringworld.

Another good place to start is to look at ranked lists like these to research your next book picks.
posted by crapmatic at 9:45 PM on February 20, 2011

Ted Chiang - Stories of Your Life and Others
William Gibson - New Rose Hotel, Neuromancer, Count Zero
Neil Stephenson - Anathem, Diamond Age
Rudy Rucker - The Ware Tetrology (for free in ebook format)
Vernor Vinge - Deepness in the Sky, Fire Upon the Deep
H.P. Lovecraft - The Mountains of Madness
Charie Stross - A Colder War (for free online), Accelerando.
John Scalzi - Old Man's War, The Android's Dream
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:47 PM on February 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Commonwealth Saga (spoilers!) by Peter Hamilton (Pandora's Star, Judas Unchained) is my personal favorite series. There is a set of sequels which are not quite as good (void trilogy) (no spoilers)
posted by defcom1 at 9:50 PM on February 20, 2011

Yes on the Culture novels, although I think starting with Consider Phlebas is fine--just know that they're each very different books. I don't know that Ted Chiang fits your listed preferences, but I'll nth his stories as among the best idea-driven SF going. And I'll add votes for Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series, Dan Simmons's Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion (skip Endymion, etc.), Neal Asher's Polity books, and Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:57 PM on February 20, 2011

I like character development, grey morality, and political strategy.

Ken MacLeod's "Fall Revolution" books -- The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, The Sky Road.

Alastair Reynolds' "Revelation Space" books -- Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap, The Prefect.

Neal Asher's Polity books

Best read after reading a couple Culture novels. Both have a similar-ish setting and some similar tropes. But the Culture books are more brooding, psychological spy novels while the Polity books are James Bond complete with swinging one-handed from the chandelier whilst firing a laser rifle with the other hand.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:00 PM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Perdido Street Station (also, The Scar) by China Mieville.
posted by bibliogrrl at 10:01 PM on February 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Blood Music by Greg Bear or any of his other books for that matter.
posted by j03 at 10:17 PM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Vernor Vinge, Stephenson, Simmons and Banks stuff mentioned above. All some of my favorite Sci-Fi stuff. I'd also add The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell for most of the qualities you mentioned above.
posted by Jezztek at 10:32 PM on February 20, 2011

Most anything by Kim Stanley Robinson

Red Mars, Green Mars & Blue Mars
The Years of Rice and Salt

Lots by Joe Haldeman

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
posted by brookeb at 10:54 PM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

2nding Alastair Reynolds' "Revelation Space" books, and in fact I've liked everything else by him that I've read. Based upon my experience recommending him to other people, you will either love him or hate him, so if you pick one of his books up and really dislike like it it might not be worth going further.

Thumbs up to The Years of Rice and Salt.

They're getting "classic" now¹ but I've always loved Gregory Benford's Galactic Center Saga^ and David Brin's Uplift Universe^. Brin gives some nice freebie short stories away on his web site but if I recall they're geared towards people already familiar with the books.

1. Meaning that they're old but I refuse to consider myself old.
posted by XMLicious at 11:31 PM on February 20, 2011

Also interesting is Brin's novel Earth written in 1990, set in 2038, which I would say is so-so for entertainment value but makes some predictions about the development of the internet that have turned out to be disturbingly accurate especially if some of the other stuff he predicted turns out to be true.
posted by XMLicious at 11:39 PM on February 20, 2011

Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series
posted by kbuxton at 11:58 PM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Desolation Road - Ian McDonald. Firefly meets 100 Years of Solitude
The Centauri Device by M John Harrison. Anarchist space opera
The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R Delaney

A bit old, but pick up the Dangerous Visions and New Worlds anthologies. They're good places to start
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 12:45 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Stanislaus Lem - Solaris
posted by narcotizingdysfunction at 2:54 AM on February 21, 2011

Ender's Game and its sequel, Speaker for the Dead.

I can't vouch for whether the books will meet your criteria or not, but when I re-entered the world of Science Fiction, I used the Hugo and Nebula awards lists.
posted by Gorgik at 6:00 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ursula LeGuin has already been mentioned and I second that recommendation. Her characters really come alive and her writing has a kindness that I like. I recommend everything by her, I've never been disappointed.

If you like Iain M. Banks, you will probably be okay with Alastair Reynolds. He builds really interesting situations and places. The characters tend to be the weak spot, but the stories move usually so well that generally I don't mind.
posted by severiina at 6:01 AM on February 21, 2011

Seconding the original Black Company trilogy, although they're more fantasy than SF.
posted by immlass at 6:34 AM on February 21, 2011

I decided to get back into SciFi, but I didn't want to slip into reading old sci-fi books. Here's what I did:

1) Subscribe to one sci-fi magazine. I'd recommend Asimov's or Interzone. Analog is pretty shit, but that's my own personal opinion.

2) Do a search for the latest Hugo Award Nominees (e.g. 2010), and buy every book nominated on the list. I bought,
- Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor)
- The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan UK)
- Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Spectra)
- Wake, Robert J. Sawyer (Ace; Penguin; Gollancz; Analog) [AVOID THIS BOOK]
- The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade)

3) Follow the Authors you like via RSS, facebook and/or twitter. They will recommend other books to read.

4) Listen to sci-fi podcasts (e.g. starship sofa). Listen to the short stories, make a note of the authors you like and skim Amazon to see if they've released anything recently.
posted by seanyboy at 7:27 AM on February 21, 2011

BTW: I didn't want to recommend any book in particular, but I can't help myself. How to live safely in a science fictional universe is a great piece of Science Fiction. I haven't seen many people talking about it, but I thought it was excellent.
posted by seanyboy at 7:30 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I downloaded the "Cryoburn" ISO and am partway through Lois McMaster Bujold's novels about Miles Vorkosigan -- and they are so good that I haven't been to bed before midnight in quite a few days! It's big SF with excellent characters.

Baen is making the ebooks (and related materials) all freely available, so it's even legit! Look for the link on the lefthand side of this page:

(And The Incomparable Podcast just did an episode on the series, which was FULL of spoilers, but still a lot of fun.)
posted by wenestvedt at 9:27 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can't second the recommendation of The Sparrow and Children of God hard enough.
posted by WidgetAlley at 10:24 AM on February 21, 2011

seanyboy, I heard some pretty heavy criticism of " How to live safely in a science fictional universe." Did you really like it?
posted by wenestvedt at 10:55 AM on February 21, 2011

C. J. Cherryh's Cyteen has plenty of grey morality, as does Chris Moriarty's Spin State and Spin Control. For lighter reading, try Scalzi's Old Man's War and Agent to the Stars.
posted by tautological at 12:16 PM on February 21, 2011

I second looking for Hugo/Nebula Award winners and would start with this list of books that won both awards:

That is where I started when I decided to read SF again, I read all of them and I had the most satisfying experience.

Not a joint winner but a excellent read: A Canticle for Leibowitz.
posted by SweetLiesOfBokonon at 2:55 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm partial to the "softer," more literary science fiction of the 60s and 70s. Starting there might make for an easier transition from fantasy.

Some recommended short story collections:
Nine Hundred Grandmothers, by R.A. Lafferty (Taster portions: "Eurema's Dam," "Slow Tuesday Night")
Fun With Your New Head, by Thomas Disch ("Fun With Your New Head")
The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
The People Trap, by Robert Sheckley ("The Prize of Peril")
Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree, Jr.
The Avram Davidson Treasury
"The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" and Other Stories
, by Gene Wolfe
Terminal Beach, by J.G. Ballard
posted by Iridic at 3:57 PM on February 21, 2011

wenestvedt, it's not without it's flaws, but at least it tries and at least it tries to say something new in what can be quite a jaded field. I enjoyed it. I got the same buzz off it that I got from Rudy Rucker's White Light.
posted by seanyboy at 4:55 PM on February 21, 2011

I would recommend Stephen King's Dark Tower series, sounds like it hits on all the points you listed above.
posted by Term of Art at 5:54 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

The first three books in David Brin's Uplift series were very good:

Startide Rising
The Uplift War
posted by h00py at 3:57 AM on February 22, 2011

It is fantasy and not SF, and also an "epic doorstopper novel" but I've rarely enjoyed a book more than Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Also seconding, thirding and etc. Anathem, the Heechee books, anything by Kim Stanley Robinson, the Iain Banks culture novels and CJ Cherryh's Alliance-Union novels.
posted by lordrunningclam at 11:39 AM on February 22, 2011

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn has really diverse characters, a nuanced view of morality, and a plot that's mostly character-driven. I liked it a lot, and think you might too.

One caveat--the really good part of the story is the medieval storyline. The modern storyline is less interesting and not as well written, but it's worth getting through to get to the good part IMO.
posted by creepygirl at 8:41 PM on February 22, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you for all of the recommendations! As far as the fantasy recs go, I've read most of them, and those that I haven't were already on my to read list, so you guys were on target :)
I haven't heard of most of the sci-fi recommendations, so these should keep me occupied for quite a while. My next read will be The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, since several of you recommended her. I'll definitely check out the Culture books soon as well. Thanks again!
posted by Logic Sheep at 10:03 PM on February 24, 2011

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