The Future is Now
July 9, 2005 10:53 AM   Subscribe

SciFiLit: I don't get it. Help me to.

I read Stranger in a Strange Land about 30 years ago and was almost enjoying it until the second half came along with - it seemed to this callow youth - a heavy-handed Saviour/Redeemer allegory. Stanislav Lem's Return from the Stars was kinda fun in small doses. Brave New World and 1984 were good but obviously of their time. Vonnegut had his moments. The Stainless Steel Rat was just plain nuts. A few months back I tried once again to get into the genre with Red Mars. I struggled through 100 pages, but while it was interesting in a "gee whizz - a synthetic bubble to keep the atmosphere in!" kind of way, I found I just did not care about the people. The characterisations were ludicrously one-dimensional – I'll take Fleming's James Bond any day if I want one-dimensional characters.

What SciFi books have the all-important trinity of rollicking story, fascinating technical detail, and characters I want to cry over?
posted by TiredStarling to Media & Arts (79 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Chuckles at 11:13 AM on July 9, 2005

Try some other Heinlein. Stranger was influential in the 60's, but I don't consider it a really great read today. I'd recommend Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Although they will probably seem dated and heavy-handed as well, they are very entertaining stories, and might change your mind about Heinlein.

Red Mars... yep, that's pretty dull. Try Robert Charles Wilson's Chronoliths or Blind Lake. Give Dan Simmons's Ilium a try if you don't mind a bunch of literary references. Or how about Joe Haldeman's Forever War?
posted by agropyron at 11:13 AM on July 9, 2005

Anything by Iain Banks; start with The Player of Games. Banks does space opera with a very left-wing twist, does great characters, and gives his superintelligent spaceships wonderful names.
posted by localroger at 11:15 AM on July 9, 2005

Yeah, Iain Banks. Seconded.

You might try Dan Simmons' Hyperion books. I seem to remember them having good characters.

I find it hard, reading your post, to figure out what kind of books you'd enjoy. Maybe give us a couple of examples of novels you really like?
posted by selfnoise at 11:24 AM on July 9, 2005

I'd recommend Ender's Game. I've tried a couple of other sci-fi novels but found them boring too, Dune inlcuded. This is the only one I've really gotten caught up in.
posted by orangskye at 11:32 AM on July 9, 2005

Try some Neal Stephenson, particularly Snow Crash.
posted by pikachulolita at 11:40 AM on July 9, 2005

Heinlein varies - but when you take Stranger in the context of the time- late 60's, free love; certainly has resonance. Yeah, it's a christ is Star wars, matrix and many other Sf/Fantasy films.

But, for starters.

Card's Ender's Game.
Ellision's Mephisto in Onyx (novella)
Door into Summer (heinlein)

First book moves, later books slow down - Nine Princes in Amber (Zelazny - actually Magical Realism).

Niven's Ringworld (if you want sci/tech/space that's believable)
posted by filmgeek at 11:40 AM on July 9, 2005

It's a step out of line, but Neil Gaiman's American Gods is a rich, care-for-the-protagonist fantasy/myth novel.

I second Ender's Game.
posted by NickDouglas at 11:43 AM on July 9, 2005

Dune is fantastic. I've never read the sequels as I'm a little afraid they won't come close.

A Canticle For Leibowitz was also great.

I'm currently reading The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. It's very good so far.
posted by 6550 at 11:46 AM on July 9, 2005

If you want something with some emotional impact, try "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro - which you won't find in the Sci-fi/Fantasy aisle but nonetheless has a scifi premise. Disclaimer: does not contain fascinating technical detail.

On a more general scifi level, I'd second the Iain Banks recommendations, though I have to say none of his SF work really has characters worth crying over. That last part is pretty hard to find in SF.
posted by pascal at 11:47 AM on July 9, 2005

Motorman, by Dave Ohle.
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany (magical realism, but he's definitely considered a sci fi author)...
The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe (actually, what, four books, plus a coda? The number of actual volumes depends on the publisher, I guess).

The first is just pretty damn surreal, and very difficult to explain. The last two are fantastic writing in settings that don't really fall into any other genre. y2karl has a great Gene Wolfe post lurking in the front page archives somewhere...

Also, you really need to read Dune. I think the consensus is that the series declines sharply after that first one, but the next two are also good.
posted by hototogisu at 11:51 AM on July 9, 2005

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. (amazing, classic, perfect)
Noir, by K.W. Jeter. (gruesome, awesome)
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. (hilarious and epic and absolutely fascinating)

P.S. Stanislaw Lem is one of my favorite writers. He is absolutely unique but definitely an acquired taste, it took me a long time to realize how heavy some of his books are (like Eden). He's super cerebral, like some crazy disembodied brain, lol. If you're willing to give him another shot try Cyberiad or Tales of Pirx the Pilot or Travels of Ijon Ticky, all of which are rather funny.
posted by 31d1 at 11:53 AM on July 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Also, William Gibson might be worth checking out. It's definitely pop, but Pattern Recognition was certainly worth the five hours it took to read...

6550: didn't catch your Wolfe recommendation, so let me just pretend I've seconded yours and am not proffering something new...
posted by hototogisu at 11:57 AM on July 9, 2005

I'm afraid I have to differ from some of the opinions stated above. If you want character driven fiction, Dune would not be my first choice. Starship Troopers? Are you kidding me? TS'd never pick up a SF title again!

Character is really not Heinlein's forte, but bearing in mind I stop reading him afer Moon/Mistress, I'd say his best shot would be Podkayne of Mars.

Nor on that basis would I recommend Haldeman's rather overpraised Forever War (but would his Worlds, Worlds Apart, and Forever Peace.)

I'd recommend George R.R. Martin's Dying of the Light (maybe OOP, tho) William Gibson's Virtual Light (and Pattern Recognition, but it's not SF) and William Patrick Kelly's short fiction.
posted by mojohand at 12:00 PM on July 9, 2005

Here's a good list of 15, and here's a much longer "basic library"; I haven't read all the books on either list, but those I have read are very good. For what it's worth, I hated both Dhalgren (though I love Delany's earlier novels) and Lem.
posted by languagehat at 12:00 PM on July 9, 2005

Dune is my favorite book, so I'll add to the chorus on that one.

If you like Dune, try Cyteen. They aren't the same story by any stretch, but they resonated with me in the same way.

Give The Sparrow a shot too. I found the beginning to be a bit slow, but I was completely hooked by the end.

I don't remember if Hyperion was character driven or story driven, but that would be one to try as well.
posted by willnot at 12:02 PM on July 9, 2005

Hyperion was a swell mix of both that was badly in need of a bitchier editor.
posted by hototogisu at 12:06 PM on July 9, 2005

Sigh. It's James Patrick Kelly. And here's a great story of his so you can calibrate if our tastes align: "Itsy Bitsy Spider."

[Dune? For "...characters I want to cry over?" OK, if you say so. Maybe I've forgotten something.]
posted by mojohand at 12:17 PM on July 9, 2005

I nth the suggestions for Dune and for Neal Stephenson's work. Tad Williams' Otherland series is, so far, fantastic.

I have to say this, though: Not Card. Don't ever buy any of his books. The man is a foaming at the mouth homophobe, and I personally hate the idea of any money going into his rabid little pockets.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:22 PM on July 9, 2005

Philip K. Dick.

There is no comparison.
posted by johngoren at 12:23 PM on July 9, 2005

One tip: Don't use "SciFi". Lots of readers of the genre will be immediately turned off if they hear/see you using it as it has long been considered rather derogatory. Think ray guns and giant ants.
posted by Justinian at 12:24 PM on July 9, 2005

[R]ollicking story, fascinating technical detail, and characters I want to cry over.

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson.

The Young Wizards series, by Diane Duane — although billed for teens, this is most definitely one of the most enjoyable fantasy/SF series I've read: (Also her books The Book of Night with Moon, To Save the Queen, and most definitely Stealing the Elf Queen's Roses.)

The latter of the three ESPECIALLY fulfills your thoughts. Do not miss that one.

Mmmm ... not so much the technical detail, but let's not ignore Madeleine L'Engle Time Quartet. Chronicles of Narnia. Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.
posted by WCityMike at 12:34 PM on July 9, 2005

I'm with mojohand on this. I love Dune (though not the sequels), and think Iain M Banks is amazing and Neal Stephenson is lots of fun and Lem is fascinating, but I think they're focused on the ideas, not the people.

For characters, try Lois McMaster Bujold. Maybe start with The Vor Game. It's more space opera than hard SF, but it's great for plot, and she makes you feel for the characters.

Vernor Vinge: A Deepness in the Sky (and its predecessor/sequel A Fire Upon the Deep).

I liked CS Friedman's This Alien Shore.
posted by aneel at 12:34 PM on July 9, 2005

I second Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz, and for another interesting, well-characterized sci-fi book with religious themes, try The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell. Though Orson Scott Card is a nutcase, and most of his other books aren't as good, almost everyone enjoys Ender's Game. [Buy it used, or get it from the library.] Neal Stephenson's books Snow Crash and The Diamond Age aren't high literature, but they're downright fun. I enjoyed Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain, which deals with the social effects of genetic engineering [particularly something which eliminates the need to sleep], and also focuses more on people than technology. American Gods is more myth-based fantasy than sci-fi, but it's damn good. Brin's Startide Rising and The Uplift War are worth checking out, though the following trilogy is spoiled by the appearance of Cute Alien Kids [very annoying.] If you can stomach fantasy, you might want to look at George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. His characters tend to be pretty complicated and realistic, and I'd say the stories go way beyond the regurgitated Tolkien that too many fantasy-writers limit themselves to. It's an epic story though, and still in progress - if you enjoy the books, you'll find yourself frustrated by the fact that the story is only half done.

I rather suspect you might find Dune hard to get into - it's a bit like Robinson's Mars trilogy, in that politics and the planet are more important than pretty much any individual character. I don't think the Heinlein suggestions are really on-target. His stuff isn't really very character-driven. Gibson's stuff is good, but I don't think it's a good place to start for someone who's not quite sure that they like science fiction.
posted by ubersturm at 12:34 PM on July 9, 2005

"What SciFi books have the all-important trinity of rollicking story, fascinating technical detail, and characters I want to cry over?

Very few SciFi books meet this criteria for me:

Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert (second in the Dune series, stop at #4)
Gateway by Frederick Pohl
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (second in the series, stop at #2)
Midshipman's Hope by David Feintuch (sequels are equally good, stop at #4 or so)
Blue Champagne by John Varley (Short stories that you will cry over, probably the best of my selections)
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin
The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Brightness Falls from the Air by James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon)

If fantasy were allowed I could add a few more. For the most part, older scifi simply doesn't cut the "fascinating technical detail" as the technology is generally outdated.
posted by Manjusri at 12:39 PM on July 9, 2005

What about Ray Bradbury? (haven't read him since I was a teen, so not sure how age dependent he is)
posted by vronsky at 12:40 PM on July 9, 2005

Seconds on Ursula LeGuin and Vernor Vinge.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:46 PM on July 9, 2005

Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio and Darwin's Children both of which detail how the world [and the US in particular] deal with some rapid developments in human evolution over a very short period of time. Bear writes a lot of science-y science fiction with a ton of detail and good character development. I'm not sure if you would call them rollicking, but there's definitely plot movement and development. I recently read another by him The Forge of God, which is one of the better end of the world scenario books I've ever read.
posted by jessamyn at 12:52 PM on July 9, 2005

Hello, have you met Isaac Asimov? You would find anything he wrote to fit your criteria, I should think. especially the robot stories and the Foundation Trilogy. Another author who fits the bill for me is C.J. Cherryh. BTW, I have read everything posted above and agree that it's all wonderful (except I think Hyperion needed an editor with a weedwhacker!). Oh and in the Diane Duane realm, "The Book of Night with Moon", please - one of my faves.
posted by Lynsey at 12:55 PM on July 9, 2005

Oops, link to Asimov works here and to C.J. Cherryh here.
posted by Lynsey at 1:00 PM on July 9, 2005

Try Alfred Bester's two (good) novels, The Stars my Destination and The Demolished Man, and do your best to avoid spoilers until you've read the books.

I also highly recommend digging into some of Ted Sturgeon's stories.

And why not add a little bit of Harlan Ellsion to round things out?

I've almost always liked my science fiction better in stories than novels. Belatedly discovering Sturgeon and Ellison really made me fall in love with the genre again.
posted by Wolfdog at 1:15 PM on July 9, 2005

I'm reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress now, and at over halfway through, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone without a sophisticated taste for SF, unless they had an affinity for Heinlein in particular.

I'll second any recommendation of Stephenson. Some of my greatest enjoyment of SF comes from short stories. I've found a great collection by Russian authors compiled by Asimov at a used book store.
posted by ijoshua at 1:27 PM on July 9, 2005

Well, I'll third Iain M. Banks but there really isn't any technical detail - it's social-science fiction. But, brilliant. (And don't start with books by "Iain Banks" - the books he doesn't put the "M." on aren't science-fiction.)

It's shelved with the "young adult" books but M. T. Anderson's "Feed" knocked me out.
posted by nicwolff at 1:47 PM on July 9, 2005

Philip Pullman "The Dark Materials"
Richard Morgan "Altered Carbon"
Greg Egan "Permutation City "
posted by alteredcarbon at 2:02 PM on July 9, 2005

His Dark Materials, please.

Lots of good stuff to mention.

John Wyndham: Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, Trouble with Lichen, The Chrysalids.
Franklin Pangborn: A Mirror for Observers, Davy
C.L. Moore's "best of" is worth it for the novella "No Woman Born" and the sheer brilliance of "Vintage Season"
Heinlein's best work is in The Past Through Tomorrow (short stories and a novella)
Anything at all by Cordwainer Smith, who creates worlds and moods and characters like nobody else - mostly stories, but also the novel Norstrilia
Seconded: Banks, Delany, Stephenson
I'm also a big fan of Peter F. Hamilton - the Night's Dawn trilogy and the more recent Fallen Dragon and Pandora's Star have action, character, invention.
posted by zadcat at 2:30 PM on July 9, 2005

Rollicking story, fascinating technical detail, well-drawn characters whose fates'll make you sob? Seconding Cyteen and anything else Cherryh.

Also thirding The Sparrow, and recommending Parable of the Sower and its heartbreaking sequel Parable of the Talents.
posted by ellanea at 2:54 PM on July 9, 2005

zodiac- neil stevenson
Lite early work remember laughing my ass off. Snow Crash had people I cared about and interesting ideas on language and consciousness. Ny computer programer brother had no patience for it. Cryptomicon was brilliant.

raising the stones- sheri s tepper
feminist slant on religion and fanaticism. probably too touchy feeling for metafi

holy fire-- Bruce Sterling
85 yr old rich woman gets rejuv. tx that works. Starts acting like a 19ry old- Not acceptable to the powers that be. Told in the first person. Thought he drew her well.

Baby Makes Three- ted sturgeon
anything by him. wrote most of his stuff in the 50's.

Valis- Phillip K. Dick semi auto-biographical I think.
posted by pointilist at 3:01 PM on July 9, 2005

On reflection the criteria you've set is, unfortunately, pretty difficult to meet. You want great science, story, and characters, it sounds like. Most of the books mentioned, while great, fall short in one of those areas.

A Canticle for Leibowitz: great story and characters but the science is mostly rediscovery of contemporary technology. I found it a fantastic and tragic story of mankind repeating mistakes.

The Sparrow: great story and characters but pretty weak science.

Dune: great but the characters you probably won't cry for.

I think Otherland hits all three but those who don't love it, like I did, seem to find it tedious as it's four long books.

Ender's Game is a sf must read. The book is fantastic even if Card as a person is not.
posted by 6550 at 3:52 PM on July 9, 2005

Here's the thing - you're looking for subtle characterisation and depth in a genre aimed primarily towards 15 year old boys.

I mean, someone up there seriously suggested Asimov. Asimov, for crying out loud! I could go on (John Wyndham? Philip Pullman?), but I won't.

You're going to find that 90% of the stuff recommended to you is ideas-driven rather than character-driven - unfortunately, if you want to write stories about big ideas your characters will inevitably get that off-the-shelf, pared-down look.

I'm going to suggest a different approach - short fiction. Pick up some of Gardner Dozois' anthologies (example) and work your way through them. I know you're not going to get great characterisation in a short either, but you can pick authors that you think show promise, and try full-length novels by them. If you don't find anything you like by the end of the first anthology, give up on the genre for good, it's not for you.

(Amazon now have AUDIO ads on their front page? What the hell?)
posted by Leon at 4:02 PM on July 9, 2005

Oh, Lordy. I was going to comment on suggestions already made, but I just don't have the time to read them all.

In the time I do have, let me suggest you give Red Mars another read. The characters do fall short, it's true, but the story is grand and Robinson addresses some key issues that we, as a human race, need to face in the near future. Its sequel, Green Mars, elaborates on some of these points in interesting ways. (Blue Mars, the final book in the trilogy, is not very good.)

Parts of Dan Simmons' Hyperion would meet your criteria. (I'm particularly thinking of the story of the woman who lives backward in time — awesome!)

I just finished Cloud Atlas. The first two sections left me ready to quit the book, but about two-thirds the way through, I was in awe. Some great stuff there.

I find Ursula LeGuin's most famous works — Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed — to be filled with great characters and great ideas.

The problem with most of the books I've just mentioned is that they're mostly in the "characters I want to cry over" section of your requirements. Few of them have rollicking stories.

Dune has a rollicking story and interesting technical details, but mostly flat characters. Vernor Vinge has AWESOME technical details (IMHO) and rollocking stories, but again his characters are a little thin. (Vinge has created two of my favorite alien species in all of sci-fi: the tree-dudes in A Fire Upon the Deep and the spider-dudes in A Deepness in the Sky. Many people love his packmind dog-dudes, but I thought they were just okay.)

A lot of people love The Sparrow, but it just didn't move me. (Maybe it's a Catholic thing?)

The real problem with your holy grail is that, for the most part, you can have either great characters you can cry over or good technical detail and a rocllicking story, but in general you can't have both. In fact, as this rambling batch of recommendations demonstrates, though I'm well-read in the genre, I'm hard-pressed to name any book that meets your criteria. I tend to prefer the "social science fiction", the stuff with strong characters, but mostly this type of science fiction uses its futuristic trappings as window-dressings or as a convenient way to relate a parable rather than as an end in and of itself.

I look forward to reading this thread later in the weekend to pick up some good suggestions.

(On preview: somebody suggest Asimov? That makes me want to cry. Asimov has good stories, but that's it. His characters are worse than one-dimensional; they're non-dimensional. And his later books are so poorly written (and/or edited) as to be nearly unreadable. To me. Prelude to Foundation is the nadir of my life as a science fiction reader.)
posted by jdroth at 4:13 PM on July 9, 2005

(sigh I just asked my wife, "Can you think of any science fiction that has good action and a good story, has science fictional technical details, and great characters?" She looked at me as if I were stupid and said — in her best Valley Girl voice — "Duh! Dune." She's pretty well-read in science fiction. And I have a mantra: "Kris Gates is always right." So change my previous dismissal of Dune's characters. They must be great!)

Always happy to demonstrate the superiority of the opposite sex...
posted by jdroth at 4:25 PM on July 9, 2005

you're looking for subtle characterisation and depth in a genre aimed primarily towards 15 year old boys.

I think this is basically a troll, but some clarification is in order. The genre _originated_ out of magazines aimed at 15 year old boys, around 50 years ago. It is misleading to identify the current state of the genre with its roots. Asimov may come squarely from that era, but the vast majority of books recommended in this thread do not, and I don't think that most of the things being recommended are nearly as juvenile as implied.
posted by advil at 4:43 PM on July 9, 2005

I love Iain Banks's non-SF stuff but I'm less convinced by his SF. Having said that, "Consider Phlebas" is far and away the best and admirably meets your criteria.
posted by Decani at 5:07 PM on July 9, 2005

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. And then the other two in that series (to date), Broken Angels and Woken Furies.

Queen of Angels by Greg Bear.

And I disagree that Iain M. Banks doesn't have much technical detail (depending on what you call technical detail I guess). For absolutely rollicking story read his Against A Dark Background.
posted by biscotti at 5:07 PM on July 9, 2005

But "science fiction" can be so much. It's a tradition that encompasses anything from the juvenline adventures of Tom Swift, to the complex sociotechnological ponderings of William Gibson.

Cutting through "science fiction" are a number of very different genres -- you would not compare dime-a-dozen Tolkien copyists to Gene Wolfe any more than you would compare Gibson and Heinlein; chances are that a person who likes one of them is not going to like the other.

Plenty of posts in this thread are ignoring the basic question:

What SciFi books have the all-important trinity of rollicking story, fascinating technical detail, and characters I want to cry over?

Really, would you suggest that Theodore Sturgeon or Walter M. Miller Jr. has an eye for "fascinating technical detail"? Or Gibson, who hadn't ever used a computer when he wrote Neuromancer?

Personally, I don't appreciate hard science fiction, so I'm not qualified to answer the query; the kind of sf I grew up really deserves the moniker "speculative fiction", because there's really no science to it. Sturgeon, Bester, Ellison, Dick, the amazing Strugatsky brothers -- they write about humans, not technology. In my experience, technological detail and depth of character are pretty mutually exclusive.

That said, if you don't mind about the technology requirement so much, the only novel I will recommend is Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. (You may know the book from its largely unrelated movie adaptation, Tarkovsky's Stalker.) This pair of Russian writers produced some of the finest speculative fiction ever written, and it has been mostly ignored in the west.
posted by gentle at 5:15 PM on July 9, 2005

Advil: not trolling, exaggerating for comic effect. I'd bet that most of the people recommending Heinlein or Clarke or whoever first read them before the age of twenty (as I did). These books sunk into my teenage brain like bricks into jelly, but when you come back and evaluate them with a fresh, adult eye... or to answer TiredStarling's question... a lot of them maybe aren't as great as we remember them.

Asimov (who was my introduction to SF, aged 11 or 12) is a case in point - The Last Question is maybe the best SF story ever written, but I wouldn't recommend it in this thread.

Has anyone suggested Iain Banks' Inversions? It has the most well-drawn characters of any of his books and a good story, but the technical detail is almost completely absent (which makes the book, IMO). Also second votes for Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (which is dated but cool, much like James Bond), Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (which is aging rapidly, read it before it's completely redundant) and Greg Bear's Queen of Angels, which may just fit all the criteria, though it's not the easiest book to read.
posted by Leon at 5:57 PM on July 9, 2005

What about Ray Bradbury?

I love Ray Bradbury (currently reading some of his short stories, in fact), but he doesn't have the technical details and not always the rollicking storyline you're looking for. But, he does write great stories, so if you want to give him a try, I'd recommend starting with The Illustrated Man - it's my favorite :)

My suggestions pretty much line up with what everyone else has recommended, especially Neal Stephenson's Cryptonimicon and Card's Ender's Game. You might also try Stephenson's Diamond Age.

Dan Brown's Digital Fortress isn't a life altering book, but it's a fun read that gets pretty detailed about cryptography (though it is wrong on some points). It has ok characters and the "rollicking" story line you desire.

In the non-fiction realm, I enjoyed reading Simon Singh's The Code Book about the history of cryptography - it's not as dry of a read as it sounds, plus it goes into plenty of technical detail.
posted by geeky at 5:59 PM on July 9, 2005

In some ways similar to the Iain M. Banks stuff are Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross. Certainly stuffed with technical detail and rollicking stories and the characters are pretty well drawn, if not always explored in massive depth. Accelerando can be downloaded for free if you want to see if you get on with his style.

I second Wolfdog's Bester recommendations.
posted by drill_here_fore_seismics at 6:08 PM on July 9, 2005

From out in left field: Farmer's Riverworld series. The books are populated by everyone who ever lived, plus a few who didn't. Farmer is not a great wordsmith, but his ideas are provocative, the series does rollick, and some of the characters are fascinating. These were the basis for the very bad SciFi Channel miniseries, but they're far better than that.

Gene Wolfe, yes. I especially liked the Shadow of the Torturer and its sequels. (Someone I knew who had been tortured was not so favorable.)

Sturgeon, yes.

Ender's Game, yes. Some of Card's other books are very affecting. I did not notice any homophobia in his writing, but then, I don't have that filter.

Give Gene Wolfe a try. His best might be the Demon Princes series, featuring (cough) Kirth Gerson.

Heinlein? Probably not. Most of his later protagonists were repellent egotists. Zelazny might be a better choice.

Asimov? Please, no. I read the Foundation series when I was young and impressionable. A couple of years ago, I tried to read it again, but it's just too badly written. As jdroth says, there are no characters in it.

posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:37 PM on July 9, 2005

The Speaker trilogy by Orson Scott Card. You have to read Ender's Game first, which is much less character-oriented (I'd say), though.
posted by abcde at 6:40 PM on July 9, 2005

China Mieville's Bas Lag novels? (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council). Interesting characters, weird world, heavy on the ideas.

Second the Gardner Dozois anthologies--Dozois has interesting taste and usually picks high-quality fiction.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:56 PM on July 9, 2005

Here's a recommendation that I think ABSOULTELY fits your criteria, and hasn't been mentioned above: Saga of the Pliocene Exile, a four-book series by Julian May, commencing with The Many-Colored Land. Dozens of characters, and endless variety of cool (psuedo)scientific things happening, tons of rollicking plot, a vast and reasonably fascinating SF "universe," writing which is actually pretty good, etc. Buy these four books (you can pick up the set of used paperbacks off eBay for $15, I'm sure) and you could while away a couple weeks worth of quite pleasurable evenings. (Note that the four books in the same universe May published after the "Saga" are decent, but skippable unless you've got to fill in every blank.)

Now, more generally:

[Manifesto]Science fiction was, is, and always will be a genre fundamentally-oriented to smart 15 year old boys, in the same way that fashion was, is and always will be a genre oriented toward 25-year-old skinny women and 40-year-old gay men. That doesn't mean it can't be spectacularly relevant and interesting to other people, but that it weakens when some deliberately tries to forget about its essential being.

I'd contend that there's really no great science fiction that wouldn't absolutely thrill a bright 15 year old, even if sometimes despite (or even because) it addresses themes and situations which he doesn't have the maturity or experience fully to understand.[/Manifesto]
posted by MattD at 8:10 PM on July 9, 2005

Really, would you suggest that Theodore Sturgeon or Walter M. Miller Jr. has an eye for "fascinating technical detail"? Or Gibson, who hadn't ever used a computer when he wrote Neuromancer?

This line of thought is greatly in error. Would you suggest that Robert A. Heinlein's "Waldo and Magic, Inc." is somehow diminished by the fact that Robert Heinlein had never used a waldo? (The subsequent inventor of the devices now commonly called "waldoes" named them in honor of Heinlein's story.)

I've read every author and most of the specific novels named above; they're all good. I suggest you read them all, in the spirit of 'speculative fiction', which simply stated is: "What if?"
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:33 PM on July 9, 2005

I somehow transformed the author of the Demon Princes series above into Gene Wolfe. It's really Jack Vance.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:40 PM on July 9, 2005

After a long absence from SF, I eased myself back in with short fiction, particularly the yearly anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois. However, I'd focus intently on Michael Swanwick, for my money the best short fiction writer in SF today.

I second agropyron's Robert Charles Wilson recommendation, though I'd swap The Chronoliths for Darwinia. His newest novel, Spin, is very character-driven while discussing some great speculative ideas.

Jonathan Lethem crosses genre boundaries, but frequently incorporates SF into his fiction. Try The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye or As She Climbed Across the Table.

Finally, Steven Gould's novels Jumper and Reflex are believable treatments of the subject of teleportation.
posted by nightengine at 8:44 PM on July 9, 2005

Bradbury is good as far as short stories go; they are usually neat little capsules you can't get tired of too easily, although his short works tend to slant toward fantasy rather than "hard" science fiction, which is what it sounds like you are looking for.

I therefore recommend Asimov; his characters can be a little flat sometimes but usually are not bad at all, and the guy had a good head for science. His fantasy stories kind of make me yawn.

Am I the only person who enjoyed Asimov's short "paper" The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline—the hardest science fiction I have yet seen—which was at first glance an impenetrable scientific journal article? It seemed entirely bland and boring, but then you started getting into it and reading this structured account of a compound that dissolved so readily, solvation occurred before solvent was added. Full disclosure: I am big on chemistry, so the story pushed a lot of the right buttons for me.
posted by jenovus at 8:56 PM on July 9, 2005

Thanks gentle! I had no idea Stalker was from a book. I can't wait to check it out.
posted by 31d1 at 9:16 PM on July 9, 2005

You and I might be kindred spirits. I don't particularly like science fiction -- I just like (love!) FICTION. I hold all fiction to the same standards. So when I read a genre novel, I expect the prose and characterization to be as good as something by Updike or Anne Tyler. Having said that, I love to escape into other worlds, which is naturally something that SF and Fantasy does well. If this is one of your motivations, you might also look into good historical fiction. A couple of years ago, when I read "Memoirs of a Geisha," which was expertly written, I got the same feeling I get reading really good SF. It was set a hundred years ago in Japan, and the world was so alien to me, it might as well have been SF. Also look into Patric O'Brian.

In any case, below I've listed some SF and Fantasy that I like. Some (not all) is written by writers that don't generally write SF, but have dabbled in it for one or two books (i.e. Atwood). I often like these books. Updike has one, though I forget the title and haven't read it yet. Also, the mystery writer P.D. James has one. I also forget the title.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

"The Divide," "Bios," and "The Harvest" by Robert Charles Wilson

and City on Fire by Walter Jon Williams

Riddley Walker
by Russell Hoban

"Becoming Human" and other books by Valerie J. Freireich

This Perfect Day by Ira Levin

George R. R. Martin

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
posted by grumblebee at 9:29 PM on July 9, 2005

I disagree with grumblebee (whose opinion I respect); Gaiman's Neverwhere possesses only the "good story" element that you've specified. Many people love the book, but I think it's unremarkable.

Several people have made an excellent suggestion: try well-regarded scifi anthologies. Whereas I find even the best science fiction struggles to hold its own with mainstream literature, short science fiction can be extremely powerful. Something about the short story form forces scifi authors to stay on task, forgo the extraneous stuff, build tight character-driven stories. (Obviously this isn't always the case, but it's easier to find great scifi short stories than great scifi novels.)

Look for anthologies of Nebula- and Hugo-award winning stories. Look for anthologies with well-respected editors. For some reason, I'm drawn to a series put out by Daw Books in the seventies called The 197_ Annual World's Best SF. My favorite volume (1979) has some great stories like "Come to the Party" by Frank Herbert and F.M. Busby, "Creator" by David Lake, the marvelous "The Persistence of Vision" by John Varley, and the even-more-marvelous "We Who Stole the Dream" by James Tiptree, Jr. The latter is truly one of the best scifi stories I've ever read. (Actually, a Tiptree (a.k.a. Alice Sheldon) anthology would probably fit your requirements perfectly, now that I think about it.)

Seriously: consider scifi short stories.
posted by jdroth at 10:36 PM on July 9, 2005

short fiction

For recent writers in this vein, you want Ted Chiang and Greg Egan, probably. For novel-length Egan you want his first, Quarantine, not anything else. (Chiang hasn't written anything but shorts.)
posted by kindall at 11:14 PM on July 9, 2005

I just thought i'd link to one of my favorite sf short stories: Light of other days, by Bob Shaw. I tend to suggest this story to friends who "don't like" SF.
posted by dhruva at 3:19 AM on July 10, 2005

I love Asimov but he scores nil on characterisation. Philip K Dick is definitely worth a look for you.
posted by nthdegx at 6:36 AM on July 10, 2005

I disagree with grumblebee (whose opinion I respect); Gaiman's Neverwhere possesses only the "good story" element that you've specified.

I should specify that the characterizations in Neverwhere -- especially the wonderul bad guys -- remind me of Dickens. Neverwhere's characters, like the people in, say, Nicholas Nickolby, reside in that kingdom somewhere between real people and expertly-drawn cartoon characters. But I would agree that they are not like John Updike or Ramond Carver people.

I forgot to add the best fantasy novel I've read in years: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. This is also like reading a Dickens novel, though the characters have more depth than Gaiman's. When I say it's like reading a Dickens novel, I mean that really literally. It's as if you've discovered a lost Dickens novel in which the characters happen to be wizards.

Another additon should be One Hundred Years of Solitude. It's "magic realism," which as-far-as I'm concerned is the same as fantasy. If you read the first page, it will make you want to read more.
posted by grumblebee at 8:48 AM on July 10, 2005

This line of thought is greatly in error. Would you suggest that Robert A. Heinlein's "Waldo and Magic, Inc." is somehow diminished by the fact that Robert Heinlein had never used a waldo?

You misread me. I'm not saying that, say, a confirmed luddite can't write rollicking science fiction (case in point: the amazing Robert Rankin; or, if you think fantasy is sf, Tolkien), I'm saying that you wouldn't go to a non-technological person for technical detail. Gibson didn't know computers, and that's the reason why there's no technical detail in, say, Neuromancer; it's almost as soft as sf can go, and not what the original poster is asking for.

In terms of the original question, very few responses here are to the point. TiredStarling's requirements clearly eliminate Heinlein, Sturgeon, Ellison, Miller, Dick and others mentioned here, when other obvious hard-sf choices would be Bear, Benford, Egan, Clarke, Baxter, etc. People love to push their stuff; a lot of good stuff, to be sure, but if ask AskMeFi what the best brand of dishwasher is, I wouldn't expect people to recommend me toasters.

Oh, and I must respectfully disagree with Grumblebee; Atwood's Oryx and Crake is an execrable piece of crap. I was amazed at how amateurishly written it was, how blindingly obvious it was, and how trite its observations were. The book is essentially all exposition of the "tell" (as opposed to "show") variety, wrapped in a pretentious, reader-cheating and awkward flashback structure. Bleh.
posted by gentle at 9:15 AM on July 10, 2005

RE: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and One Hundred Years of SolitudeAMEN! Those are two masterpieces of fantasy. No science fictional elements, but both are great reads. Jonathan Strange matches your parameters exactly except that it's "technical details" involve the restoration of English magic rather than spaceships, robots, or ray guns.
posted by jdroth at 10:57 AM on July 10, 2005

Despite gentles's disagreement with me about Atwood's book (and how DARE he disagree with me?!?!), I share his critique of the answers in this thread. I'm not blaming the people responding. I'm blaming the state of science fiction.

If you aren't a SF fan, but love good literature in general, you generally won't get very far asking the average SF fan to recommend books for you.

SF fans have different criteria for what makes a good book than general readers. As the SHOULD. They are SF fans. So their starting point is that the book must be SF. They love SF so much that, though many of them don't like bad writing, they will forgive bad writing if they have to -- if bad writing is the only sort of SF writing they can find. The bottom line is, good or bad, they want to read SF.

And many SF fans pretty much only read SF, so they can't really compare it to anything else. They can only tell you what's good from within that world.

I've had similar problems when asking people to recommend graphic novels. When I say that I want to read a good graphic novel, I mean good when compared to a story by John Cheever or a movie by Martin Scorsese. I don't mean good as compared to Spiderman. I don't mean that I expect a comic book to be like a movie or a novel. I mean that regardless of the genre, I expect the same level of workmanship and quality. And I'm continually disappointed.

I can't seem to find the Jane Austin of SF. When I ask SF fans to recommend good novels, they generally take "good" to mean better than the crap with the bug-eyed monsters and the ray guns. But that's not good enough. Where is the SF equivalent to Shakespeare?

I have a need for SF, because I like other worlds, but I need it to be GREAT. I need really really good writing (style), I need expert plots, I need realistic dialogue, I need characters that I fall in love with. There are exceptions, of course, but most of the people who are best at this sort of writing aren't writing SF.

Which is why I look for non-SF writers who dabble with SF. Gentle may disagree about Atwood's attempt, but Atwood is a masterful writer. She's just not usually an SF writer. So when she published an SF book, I got excited.
posted by grumblebee at 11:01 AM on July 10, 2005

To be fair to the SF writers, people like me are really asking a lot of them. It's REALLY hard to be a Jane Austen. You have to be an expert observer of people, and you have to be a master of prose and dialogue. To expect such a writer to also be a master of creating believable alien world AND to have a degree in physics is a bit much. But that's what is needed.
posted by grumblebee at 11:05 AM on July 10, 2005

I don't really care for the SciFi genre either, for more or less the same reasons grumblebee articulates. But if what we're looking for is someone who writes good stories with a certain mastery of science & technology, while retaining some crucial element of the human thing, you'd do a lot worse than Richard Power's books, particuarly "Plowing the Dark," which I'd insist is science fiction, even if it's not so very futuristic.
posted by .kobayashi. at 11:56 AM on July 10, 2005

Am I the only person who enjoyed Asimov's short "paper" The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline?


I think that grumblebee has a point. One of the things I love about SF is that it's written by and for people like ME. I read, for instance, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections not too long ago, and honestly it struck me as a nuanced, careful piece of xenoethnography. I don't know anyone like those people, and I don't really care to. And that made it dull to boot.

I imagine that somewhere in the world there must be people who find SF dull for the same reason - because exploring the possibilities of speculation and imagination is just not part of their worldview.

You people are on your own, as far as I'm concerned. Read whatever you damn well please. Just don't read Kim Stanley Robinson, especially not RGB Mars. Those books are exactly an example of what happens when someone who doesn't care about people at all writes about interesting ideas. And that's never been what SF has been about.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:57 AM on July 10, 2005

Returning to this thread, I have to second all the people who mentioned Ursula LeGuin [The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness], Greg Bear [Slant, Darwin's Radio, Queen of Anges], Octavia Butler [the two Parable books and the Xenogenesis trilogy], Cherryh [though Cyteen might be a little slow-moving to start with; I really liked her Rider at the Gate & Cloud's Rider], Pullman [His Dark Materials trilogy], Duane [The Book of Night with Moon & To Visit the Queen aren't particularly meant for kids, unlike the Wizard series, so you might want to start there], and Vernor Vinge [Deepness in the Sky, Fire Upon the Deep]. Great books, worth reading. Some of them fit your guidelines more than others, but all of them are enjoyable, and none of them [in my opinion] focus on technology more than characters. I just remembered another author worth adding to this list - Connie Willis. Check out her books Doomsday Book and Passage - as with Ursula LeGuin, the focus is a little less on "fascinating technical detail", but Willis' characters are people that you can [and possibly will, in The Doomsday Book] cry over, and the stories are pretty gripping.

I do have to disagree with grumblebee on Atwood's latest - at her best, she's still a little preachy. Oryx and Crake isn't her best. The characters are cartoonish and unengaging, the world she creates is the same [the company and brand names don't help. wolvogs? AnooYou? BlyssPluss? ReejoovenEsense? Paradice? Watson-Crick University and Martha Graham Academy are similarly ridiculous due to their reliance on stereotypes of semi-autistic MIT-style nerds and bleeding heart hippie English majors, and the whole spiel about how in that future world no one has any interest in the arts anymore simply doesn't ring true to me.] The main theme of the story - genetic engineering is morally ambiguous, can be used for destructive purposes, news at 11!!! - isn't novel in conception or investigation, the characters are wooden and [barring Jimmy] barely fleshed out, and the setting is so cartoonish that it really detracts from the story, and from Atwood's point. I like satire, I like dystopian stories, and I've liked some of Atwood's other stuff, but Oryx and Crake is a slight work, with little to offer in either social commentary or literary value. Sorry to go on about it; the book really disappointed me.
posted by ubersturm at 1:15 PM on July 10, 2005

I'm with grumblebee -- the "Jane Austen of SF" categorization is spot-on.

However -- are there giants in the SF field whose work is on par with the best of literature? Sure there are. Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Aldous Huxley, Franz Kafka, Haruki Murakami (what, A Wild Sheep Chase isn't sf?), Stanislaw Lem, Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick. The list is short, but there's a list. One reason we don't think of all of these as sf, of course, is that good writing elevates it from genre. Even Voltaire wrote sf.

And there's a whole bunch of writers that are, or produced works that are, nearly there -- writers who are damn good writers but haven't been able to consistently transcend genre boundaries: Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, William Gibson, Eric Russell, Thomas M. Disch, R. A. Lafferty, Tim Powers, James Blaylocke, to mention a few. And I wholeheartedly second the recommendation for Connie Willis.

Also, grumblebee, I would like for you to check out the Strugatsky brothers. Their writing is consistently intelligent and philosophical. Roadside Picnic, Definitely Maybe and Far Rainbow are among the best works in the genre. Their Noon series of loosely connected novels are fun, intentionally pulpy adventure novels with no pretensions of transcending anything, but nevertheless involves plenty of serious and mature themes.
posted by gentle at 7:40 PM on July 10, 2005

For a Heinlein, a rollicking story with great characters, "Glory Road"...but no tech detail, it crosses into fantasy. But damn, Star was so beautifully described, I almost wanted to become straight!
posted by Goofyy at 11:10 PM on July 10, 2005

At the risk of raising the ire of devoted fans, I see Dune as a "heavy-handed Saviour/Redeemer allegory." And really, once you go past the guerrilla Fremen co-opted by the Empire, you are left with a bad taste in your mouth. Regarding Ender's Game (and invoking Goodwin), John Kessel wrote an essay about the author ulterior motives in writing a justification of some evil character in recent (WWII) history. Google it yourself.

Much better are the China Mieville books, already mentioned; Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is fascinating, and Diamond Age is engrossing. Go get Lem's Cyberiad, which is a highly political book, although veiled, and surprisingly entertaining group of short stories (although there are no characters to rock your world).
The Ian M. Banks Culture books are amazing, and you will love Excession and The Use of Weapons. Finally, Ian McDonald's Terminal Cafe.

One Hundred Years Of Solitude is quite real, and very political, although absolutely gripping. But what is fantastic about having yellow butterflies following you everywhere?
posted by kadmilos at 12:57 PM on July 11, 2005

Lots of haters on the Mars Trilogy. It's a daunting work, and in some circles it's as praised to holy high heaven as the Dune series, which will put people off. But it was pretty awesome when I read it as a teenager, and the whole conception of how a Martian utopia might exist beside a strained Earth still serves as food for thought today. That said, it's been labelled a "hard scifi" story because it is very much idea-driven. So off your radar.

I'll echo kadmilos in offering up The Diamond Age as something to read. Snow Crash, while a very cool book, is very much a cyberpunk novel, and thus feels a) dated and b) confined by its narrow genre. I'd argue that the Diamond Age is more novel (even though steampunk is, in itself, a well-travelled genre) and has more compelling characters to boot. Plus the descriptions of nanotechnology are cooler than what most nanotechnological advocates of the present day put forth. It easily hits the magic triple you're looking for.
posted by chrominance at 1:32 PM on July 11, 2005

A feeble nomination, because this isn't my genre and my consumption of SciFi novels must total about 4 but I really enjoyed:

Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland

I guess it could be described as old school and maybe its a little pulpy (the cover certainly is), but it managed to grab me with its relationship between the main character and her ship's AI
posted by handybitesize at 6:37 AM on July 12, 2005

Someone mentioned Sheri Tepper's Raising the Stones earlier; I agree with that, with the note that it if you read her novel Grass ahead of it, not only do you get an additional bit of background information, you've also read one of the better (if underappreciated) science fiction novels in the last couple of decades. Tepper's work in general is very good, and you don't actually have to be a raging feminist to enjoy it (although it does help to be comfortable with female lead characters).

Among the Heinlein books, I'm partial to Time Enough for Love, although I suspect it helps to have read other Heinlein, too, before getting to that one. Heinlein's tech is necessarily becoming dated, but I enjoy his characters and his feel for the use of dialogue.

The main problem here is the phrase "rollicking story" -- contemporary science fiction is many things, but "rollicking," alas, tends not to be one of them.
posted by jscalzi at 6:06 AM on July 13, 2005

If I may, I'd like to throw in my two cents...I'd suggest John C. Wright's "Golden Age Trilogy", The Avram Davidson Treasury: A Tribute Collection, Sewer, Gas and Electric : The Public Works Trilogy by Matt Ruff and just about anything by Greg Bear.
I also enjoyed (to a somewhat lesser extent) Metaplanetary: A Novel of Interplanetary Civil War and its sequel, Superluminal by Tony Daniel.
posted by black8 at 12:45 PM on July 13, 2005

Neal Asher - Gridlinked. Some cool characters who seem to have *gasp* motivation - look out for the sequels as well; Line of Polity and Brass Man.

Iain M Banks - Use of Weapons (Zakalwe is 10 times more interesting than our changer friend from Consider Phlebas). I'd also recommend Look to Windward and Against A Dark Background. Excession is a bit "all guns blazing" in comparison whilst Inversions is more character based but without so much of the sci-fi aspect. The Player of Games is usually my recommendation to start with the Culture novels.

Peter F Hamilton - Nights Dawn Trilogy. There are so many hundreds of characters that the series has a companion book (and a prequel novella) but you will find yourself identifying with even the minor characters. The first book is probably the best of the three.

Richard Morgan - Altered Carbon is excellent - hard boiled detective noir with some interesting futuristic ideas.

I'd also agree with any Neal Stephenson recommendations - particularly The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon. Snow Crash is an awesome book but is a bit po-mo for some peoples tastes.
posted by longbaugh at 2:51 AM on July 14, 2005

Here is a good list. I've read all fifty of them, and many have been mentioned in this thread. You can read my thoughts on 'em here [self-link].
posted by sciurus at 7:47 AM on July 14, 2005

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