Non-libertarian SF recommendations, anyone?
April 22, 2011 2:34 PM   Subscribe

Help me find awesome SF books that aren't libertarian screeds, y'all. What are your favourite Science Fiction books that aren't just swimming in libertarian ideology?

A bit of context: I've recently gone through a phase of reading (and re-reading) classic SF books (Asimov, Heinlein, P. Anderson, Herbert), and I'm kinda sick of endless preachy monologues about heroic individualism, perfect meritocracy, and market fundamentalism. (Herbert and Asimov less so, admittedly.) So, any suggestions? Bonus points if it doesn't have completely fucked up gender politics, too.

p.s. I've already got Ursula K. Le Guin, on my list.
posted by LMGM to Writing & Language (56 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
Octavia Butler. From her Wikipedia entry:
Butler used the hyperbolic reach of speculative fiction to explore modern and ancient social issues. She often represented concepts like race, sexuality, gender, religion, social progress, and social class in metaphoric language. However, these issues were not relegated only to metaphor. For instance, class struggle is an overt topic in the Parable of the Sower series.
posted by bcwinters at 2:36 PM on April 22, 2011 [13 favorites]

…Ken Macleod?
posted by hattifattener at 2:36 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. Modern-day researchers piece together the fate of a 14th century German town; meanwhile, the story of what crash-landed in that town unfolds.
posted by cadge at 2:39 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you like new space opera/hard SF, I really love Alastair Reynolds, especially his "Revelation Space" works. I'd also recommend Karl Schroeder, who does both space opera and more unusual stuff (specifically, his Virga series). (Here's a sample blog post from Schroeder... but don't worry, his works are not "political" like this at all, in case that's a turn off.)
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 2:40 PM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Are you looking avoid gender politics in general, or just the ones that tend to go hand in hand with market fundamentalism etc? Because Sheri Tepper is pretty fascinating.

(And this is probably too much to ask, but Tanya Huff's Valor series starts out as pretty standard (if cheerful and queer) hoo-rah military scifi and then goes somewhere else entirely. But you kind of have to read four books to fully appreciate it.)
posted by restless_nomad at 2:43 PM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm fond of the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. It's been a few years since I read it, but I don't recall it being libertarian in flavor. It's definitely more of a "hard" SF story.
posted by Fleebnork at 2:53 PM on April 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Red, Green, and Blue Mars.

Also, Woman on the Edge of Time.
posted by -->NMN.80.418 at 2:57 PM on April 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Are you looking sciency-hard sf-space opera, or more just science coated awesomeness (I love both for the record)?

More towards the hard side I'd recommend Vacuum Flowers by Michael Swanwick
More towards the awesome side I'd recommend Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Both take place in the context of science but don't really focus on the science parts so much as the larger issues of humanity.

If you want giant explosions in space the Culture novels by Iain Banks are pretty great. They are somewhat "screedish", though I'm not sure if I'd describe them as libertarian or communist, maybe more like "post-economics"
posted by Chekhovian at 2:57 PM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: thanks to all the suggestions so far! Yes, I should clarify; what I meant but "fucked up gender politics" is "the celebratory depiction of gender asymmetries, the naturalization of gender stereotypes (see Herbert, for example), and the ascription of queer genders/sexualities to bad/sick/doomed societies." I'm totally OK with SF that focuses on gender/sexuality or presents alternate societies where that plays an important role. I'm even cool with depictions of rather oppressive gender politics, so long as the narrative isn't endorsing it…
posted by LMGM at 2:59 PM on April 22, 2011

Best answer: Maureen F McHugh (China Mountain Zhang especially)

Nicola Griffith (Slow River)

mefi's own Charlie Stross rates pretty high on the social awareness/gender awareness scale. Saturn's Children, written specifically in reference to late-period Heinlein is fairly entertaining (though the cover of the book does not particularly well reflect the author's views on women, FYI)

Lois McMaster Bujold. Shards of Honor is an excellent starting place, and substantially darker than most later books in that series. There's also a gleefully awful libertarian strawman society (Jackson's Whole) which the (monarchist) characters in later books look down their nose at.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 3:01 PM on April 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

Does alternate history count? "Years of Rice and Salt" isn't sf - it's alternate history where the plague was more virulent and knocks out most of europe - but it's a good read.

If you like NSFW themes in your sf, circlet press* has some books and a bunch of anthologies (hardcopy and ebooks) that are hard sf and their stuff definitely passes your gender-related criteria.

* disclaimer: I'm a circlet stockholder. I invest in smut!
posted by rmd1023 at 3:03 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

James Tiptree (aka Alice Sheldon). She wrote some novels, too, but all my favorites are short stories, nicely collected here.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 3:05 PM on April 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Nthing Kim Stanley Robinson.
CJ Cherryh.
William Gibson.
posted by rodgerd at 3:06 PM on April 22, 2011

Nthing Ken MacLeod.

And Iain M. Banks, who writes 'contemporary fiction' as Iain Banks, and adds an M. for Sci-fi.
posted by Sustainable Chiles at 3:07 PM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh God yeah, Tiptree.

And if you want a dose of kind-of-juvenile steampunk rollicking fun, there's Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series (two of the three books are out now).
posted by rmd1023 at 3:09 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This seems like a no-brainer, and maybe I'm misreading what you want, but if you've never tried Philip K. Dick, then you might want to. He's one of the giants of the genre, and a good place to start are his short stories: I think I started with this one. Dick is sort of apolitical, in a way, and more concerned with what it means to be human. If you're looking for space operas, then that's probably not what you're looking for.

J.G. Ballard is a more political writer, and he seems to come mostly from the left spectrum of ideology. Once again, short stories will let you know if you're in to him or not: I've read about half of these and like most of them. Once again, he's not writing space operas, but it is science fiction (for the most part).

I usually come at SciFi from the drug-fueled-late-20th-century perspective, so I'm not as familiar with the canon, but if you're tired of manly men doing heroic individualistic deeds, then that might be a good angle of approach.
posted by codacorolla at 3:11 PM on April 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

If you like the lulz too, Harry Harrison's "Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers" just flat out demolishes the "space bravery" nonsense. It's a bit dated in its attitude, mind.
posted by scruss at 3:12 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing Banks' Culture novels. I would describe them as "post-scarcity." There's a lot of up-ending of libertarian SF tropes, in that most of novels I've read feature at least one character who is SUCH an individualist that living in a society which is totally permissive frustrates them. Things sometimes don't turn out so well for those characters (though sometimes they do).
posted by KingEdRa at 3:12 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

John Scalzi's Old Man's War (and sequels)... Feels extremely classic except that women are equals and the characters are dubious about whether their government always makes the right choices.
posted by anaelith at 3:20 PM on April 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

One more recommendation along the lines of Ballard and Dick, John Brunner. He was featured in a FPP about a year ago, and he's a sci-fi writer that mostly works in dystopian worlds that come about as a result of human greed and arrogance. The afore mentioned FPP explains it better than I could.
posted by codacorolla at 3:24 PM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

You might like Solitaire by Kelley Eskeridge. It's about a corporate citystate throwing an individual under the bus to preserve the bottom line.

Also Octavia Butler, Sherri S. Tepper, and maybe Joanna Russ.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:34 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would recommend anything by Samuel R. Delany, particularly "Dhalgren"
posted by Marky at 3:36 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maria Doria Russell's The Sparrow is one of my favorite SF novels. I am not sure where it falls on a political spectrum, per se; I consider it an humanitarian book more than anything else.
posted by thebrokedown at 3:40 PM on April 22, 2011 [6 favorites]

Dream Park, by Niven and Barnes.

High tech LARP in parallel with a murder investigation. It's amazingly good!
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:47 PM on April 22, 2011

Any chance you could narrow down what you're looking for a bit? Right now you're basically just asking for a very slightly winnowed down list of "good SF novels" and it's hard to know where to start. Near future? Space Opera? Golden Age stuff? New Wave? Cyberpunk? New Weird? And so on.
posted by Justinian at 3:49 PM on April 22, 2011

They've already been mentioned, but let me cast another vote for James Tiptree, jr. and C.J. Cherryh. I've got Cherryh's Downbelow Station sitting right next to me as I type this, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.
posted by lekvar at 3:50 PM on April 22, 2011

There are anthologies available of the Tiptree Award Winners, if you want to go the "deliberately exploring gender issues in a productive or at least interesting and original manner" route. 1 2 3
posted by endless_forms at 3:54 PM on April 22, 2011

I've been reading Frederik Pohl for the first time recently, and he's great. The Space Merchants and Gateway are both vicious debunkings of perfect meritocracy, market fundamentalism, etc (Merchants is an early, broad, but very funny and relevant satire about a world run by advertising companies; Gateway is a psychological horror story about "prospectors" who use poorly understood alien technology to explore the galaxy under the aegis of an exploitative corporation).

His politics regarding gender and sex are quite progressive, though in a way that often feels like a product of its era, and complicated by a tendency towards flawed and biased male narrators who don't fully acknowledge the women around them.
posted by thesmallmachine at 4:02 PM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

China Mieville goes just about the opposite direction from libertarianism.
posted by tdismukes at 4:11 PM on April 22, 2011

I can't believe no mention of Matt Ruff's Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy which riffs off of both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged to a great degree without necessarily ripping in a mean spirited way on them. This is achieved through a very interesting use of Rand as a character in the book in the form of a lantern. She's taken to tasks repeatedly by Joan Fine, the heroine of the book. If you're sick of the serious screeds you've hit in some of the classic books, you'll at least enjoying the goofy skewering of that stereotype in this book. Also, giant pink pirate submarine with lemurs on board and a walking (possibly flying) man eating shark (very much in the vein of the crocodile in Peter Pan). It's a great, goofy satire of all things Rand while also being very much a scifi book.
posted by smallerdemon at 4:12 PM on April 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Recently I've enjoyed Spin by Wilson, Stories of Your Life by Chiang, and House of Suns by Reynolds. All blessedly libertarian-free. The Chiang book is a book of short stories, and they are all pretty much uniformly excellent. The Reynolds book starts off strong, gets a little slow in the middle, but ends the last third or quarter very strong.
posted by zachawry at 5:05 PM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Elizabeth Moon's space opera series are fun light reading.
posted by equivocator at 5:18 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Totally seconding Maria Doria Russell's The Sparrow and it's sequel, Children of God. It's probably the sci-fi novels with the most heart, soul and intelligence that I've ever had the pleasure of reading.
posted by ninjakins at 6:02 PM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

You probably just want to start giving extra-weighting to UK Science Fiction authors, where being left wing seems to be the default setting as opposed to (apprently) libertarian in the US - many good examples of this are already listed.
posted by Artw at 6:40 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, I haven't read anything by Nalo Hopkinson yet, but have heard she's very good; and Larissa Lai's Salt Fish Girl is excellent (not hard SF, it integrates mythology).
posted by equivocator at 7:13 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Excellent Speculative Fiction.
posted by ovvl at 8:18 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pretty much everything by Stanislaw Lem.
posted by cog_nate at 8:22 PM on April 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I would second, third and nth Lois McMaster Bujold to the farest star (as you can see from my own recent question). Her SF books have some very good ruminations on politics and good rule, and present several different political organisations, but aren't bogged down with politics and are most definitely not libertarian - as noted above, she makes fun of extreme libertarianism through the depiction of Jackson's Whole, which is a hellhole. But mostly I love her books for the strongly written characters.

Second-best SF I've read lately was by Kate Elliott - she makes much more money off of her fantasy novels, but I think that her SF series, called the Jaran series, is much better. Again, lots of interesting and very different politics (empire building, mysterious alien polities).

I'm more of a planetary romance fan than a space opera or hard SF reader, so my tastes lean that way. In that genre, I've always enjoyed Anne McCaffrey (Pern, the Crystal Singer Series - the earlier stuff is stronger), and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series - like Bujold, Bradley has some very interesting and sophisticated politics, and great (though now dated) material on gender.

I've also really enjoyed what I've read from Robert Silverberg - particularly Lord Valentine's Castle.

And, of course, there is the deservedly classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, which won the Hugo in 1961. Indeed, you could do much worse than going through the Hugo and Nebula award-winners.
posted by jb at 9:57 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nth to the Mars trilogy by KSR. And I was wondering whether Canticle qualified. (I'm horrible at figuring out what 'libertarian scifi' means.) Those two are, however, some of my favorite books.
posted by Heretical at 10:48 PM on April 22, 2011

Canticle is definitely not libertarian. Kind of Catholic, actually... but mostly just pro-peace, and books.
posted by jb at 11:10 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'll recommend Ted Chiang, whom I heard about here on Metafilter. In particular, "Seventy-Two Letters" takes a decidedly anti-libertarian turn, and "Liking What You See: A Documentary" explores the advantages and disadvantages of a radical "leveling of the playing field".
posted by alexei at 12:28 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Iain M Banks' Culture series.
posted by maybeandroid at 1:09 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thats a pretty wide net you're casting there. Just stay away from Heinlein, Niven, Pornelle, and pretty much anything published by Baen books and you'd pretty much cut away 90% of the libertarian ideology screeds.
posted by Greald at 6:13 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is the moment when a few of us always recommend The Mount, right after The Sparrow.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:38 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm going to recommend a few more things along the lines of what I've posted before:

Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: I haven't read this one, but Murakami is a terrific writer. This novel takes one part post-apocalyptic fiction, and one part virtual-reality fiction, and combines them together into a surreal storyline about identity. Murakami is fairly apolitical.

William Gibson (he's been mentioned before), Burning Chrome: This is Gibson's first major work, and is a collection of short stories. It's a good primer for the rest of his material, and will let you know if you'll like it (I'd recommend Neuromancer next, and then maybe one of his post-2000 novels). There's even some hard-sci-fi in there. Gibson is commonly seen as one of the founding fathers of cyber-punk, and his early work concerns the effects of high-technology on humanity. He writes in a pulpy, neo-noir style... essentially detective stories within a sci-fi setting. Gibson's politics are left leaning, but this is something that's presented more through inference than screed. Corporations rule his universe's, and by extension they're usually dystopian.

Neal Stephenson, Snowcrash: I'm not a huge Stephenson fan, and I've heard that his other books might be better than Snowcrash, but I figure he's still worth mentioning. Stephenson also writes within the cyberpunk genre. Snowcrash is about a pizza delivery boy named Hiro Protagonist (it's pretty light hearted, in case you couldn't tell) who falls into a dangerous game of political intrigue involving the immersive simulation known as cyberspace. Stephenson is sort of like Gibson, in the way that his politics mostly show through in the connection between corporate control and dystopia.

A lot of this stuff seems like common sense to me, but then again I'm not sure what you've already read, so I feel like I have to recommend...

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Yeah, it's comedy. But it's also terrific Sci-Fi. A sprawling five book epic. It's pure space-opera, with nods to the other writers of the cannon. The politics are a mixed bag, but I would say overall left leaning. The characters are often caught up in the insane plots of more powerful institutions, mostly just trying not to die. It's funny as hell. Chances are you've already read it, but if you haven't then you should. It would be a nice counterpoint to the stony-faced heroic individualism of someone like Asimov.

As a side note, if Starship Trooper's bizarre militarism grated on your nerves, I'd recommend the 1997 film adaptation. It takes the same basic ideas of the book and, ummmm... flips them a little bit.
posted by codacorolla at 8:25 AM on April 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Pure escapism: "The Star Diaries of IjonTichy" by Lem. He's also got plenty more like that, like "The Cyberiad", and some other stuff that would appeal to the Borges/Calvino fan inside you, like "Memoirs found in a Bathtub".

Hard SF: I like Greg Egan, though he doesn't seem to get mentioned by the serious SF fans on Metafilter. He really hits the science hard (math and physics), but I like that he takes technology seriously -- every "what if we could..." has implications beyond the fun stuff. As for politics and gender politics - you should expect anarcho-syndicalist penta-sexuality, where one of the five sexes only exist as an abstract being in silicone. Wheeeee!
posted by benito.strauss at 8:43 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! I'm handing out favourites like candy for all of your responses. The few replies that recommended several books are getting "best answer" markings, but everyone's answers are really helpful. Now I have the enviable task of deciding where to start…
posted by LMGM at 8:46 AM on April 23, 2011

Seconding the Brit sci-fi recommendation. I recently finished Paul McAuley's The Quiet War and the sequel Grdens of the Sun and quite enjoyed them. He doesn't seem to be that well known in American SF circles, I'm not sure why.
posted by aspo at 8:49 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just remembered Joan Vinge - I had read her Cat books (Psion, Catspaw) when I was a kid and they were good, but her other series - The Snow Queen, World's end and The Summer Queen - are astounding - epic stories but with very personal hearts.
posted by jb at 9:47 AM on April 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would also recommend Karen Traviss' Wess'har novels.

I totally didn't realize until I found her page that she wrote Halo novels
posted by fiercekitten at 10:42 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am enjoying Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe quite a bit. No libertarianism there.
posted by everichon at 11:28 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

N'thing Iain M. Banks. His SF novels (and, not coincidentally, his personal politics) are about as far removed from libertarianism as you could get. Heinlein he ain't.
posted by Decani at 3:03 PM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: nthing Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, and Snow Crash.

Joan Slonczewski might be someone who'd interest you. She's a biologist and explores gender themes in her SF. The book that got me hooked was A Door into Ocean, and I read the rest of her output soon after during high school. It's been a while since then, so they might be more didactic than I remember, but it didn't trouble me at the time when I hadn't put much thought into what feminism meant, other than a generally good idea.

I've always appreciated Robert J. Sawyer's account of public research institutions and research personalities as settings and characters for his sci-fi soaps. They run towards the pulpy end of the spectrum, and while he's not atrocious on gender issues, he's not super amazing either. My favourite is probably Calculating God, and The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy is fun for how awful and soap opera it is.

Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter Duet was marketed as YA in North America, but stacks up well, if not much better, against a lot of "adult SF." I read the first book in one setting and decided to commute by bus to another library branch to get the sequel because I didn't have the patience for an inter-library loan. It was that good.

I know you asked specifically for non-libertarian SF, and I'm as anti libertarian politics as they come, but I got sucked into Kage Baker's novels of The Company. She's not out and out libertarian, but I noticed occasional twinges of an anti(-nanny) state characterizations. The novels are about time traveling immortals, so it's kind of hard to avoid heroic exceptionalism, super genius cyborgs know best and all that, but she manages to spin such an engrossing story that I can't help but love the novels despite the turn-offs. I think it's one of those rare cases where the strength of the narrative is far and beyond whatever ideological motivations the author intended consciously or unconsciously.

From the list of 2010 Nebula short story/novella nominees, I really liked Rachel Swirsky's The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window. A fantasy/SF hybrid, with interesting gender politics.

Finally, Sharon Astyk's Post-Apocalyptic Novel Reading Club post (both iterations) garnered a lot of good suggestions and I've been using it as a casual reading list for the last few years.
posted by dustyasymptotes at 11:26 PM on April 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Vonnegut, maybe?
posted by clark at 2:27 AM on April 24, 2011

Oh another UK author (this is where I admit I'm not sure what exactly British means, he was born in Manchester and lives in Belfast, is that British?), Ian Macdonald, is very much worth checking out. Brasyl and River of the Gods are both quite good and don't tell the same sci-fi story you've read 100 times before.
posted by aspo at 11:47 AM on April 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ursula K. LeGuin - The Dispossessed
Seconding: Stanislaw Lem, e.g. The Futurological Congress
Vonnegut, for sure.
posted by yoHighness at 5:16 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

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