Who are the best prose stylists in science fiction?
March 21, 2012 2:14 AM   Subscribe

Who are the best prose stylists in science fiction?

I like science fiction but am often surprised by how clunky the writing is, even from the "big three" (Asimov/Heinlein/Clarke) or the more recent thousand-page-novel-of-ideas types. I'm currently in the middle of yet another sci-fi "classic" (The Forever War) with a clumsy turn of phrase every ten pages that drops like lead and distracts me from the story.

The genre I know better is crime fiction. Although there are plenty of hack crime writers, I find that with the best, like Chandler or Ross MacDonald, I would read them just for the sheer pleasure of their prose style, their descriptions of people and settings -- even when I can't keep track of the convoluted plots. And some foreign crime writers, like Simenon, were good enough that they have this effect even in translation.

By contrast, it seems like the most respected sci-fi writers are often those who "wrapped mind-blowing ideas in really bad prose," as Peter Watts says here about Philip K Dick. And the most engaging ones I've read are those who know how to keep the plot moving briskly even if you can tell they're not exactly sweating over every adjective (like Harry Harrison or Jack Finney).

Anyway I realize this is a somewhat unfair question -- SF by its nature requires a lot more exposition than crime fiction, and it has other virtues than style. But I'm hoping there are a few novelists out there for whom the writing comes before the ideas, or at least isn't dragged down by them. Who's the Raymond Chandler of science fiction?
posted by pete_22 to Media & Arts (68 answers total) 108 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz is beautifully written.
posted by Paragon at 2:18 AM on March 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Not going to lie and say this isn't totally subjective, but:

Charles Stross is the man. He does the hardest of "hard" sci fi (technically possible, intricately imaginative) but he also does great characters. For me, this is the great flaw of a lot of contemporary sci. fi. -- cool ideas, but crappy characterization. Also, he's funny as hell even at his most bizarro moments (and man, there are a lot of them). I'd recommend Singularity Sky or Accelerando to start with, but his newest is supposed to be great.

A lot different but equally great is China Mieville. His early stuff is more likely "weird" or "distopian" than science fiction, but I think he counts. His more recent work is more "mild" if that makes sense. Perdido Street Station is a stone-cold modern class.

And PKD had "bad prose"? Not at all. No sir. He was, among other things, a comic genius who happened to masquerade as a distopian nut-ball. In a good way.
posted by bardic at 2:23 AM on March 21, 2012 [10 favorites]

stone-cold modern classic, even
posted by bardic at 2:24 AM on March 21, 2012

Best answer: I've always loved Andre Norton's early to mid career writing: definately a distinctive voice. I can only honestly recommend her stuff from the '50s and '60s, plus some of the '70s. (I'm sorry to say NOT her '80s or later work; none of the co-authored stuff is as good, and I strongly believe the last several books under her name were NOT written by her at all --- the lady died quite old, she had dementia, and those last years' books are in totally different styles.)
posted by easily confused at 2:34 AM on March 21, 2012

He is arguably more speculative fiction than true sci fi, but oh my, nobody styles prose like Ray Bradbury. Nobody. He is such a pleasure to read. Are you looking more for hard science fiction, though?
posted by anonnymoose at 2:47 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

A good question. China Mieveille and Charles Stross are decent writers, in that they do not have the obvious limitations of a Doctorow or Egan - but they are hardly sparkling masters. I am honestly not that sure.

Ian McDonald seems to be becoming a better writer with every book - The Dervish House had sparkling prose from what I remember of it.

I remember Life by Gweneth Jones as being very well written also (though not Hard sf by any stretch)
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 2:52 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Chandler is your standard for prose? Um.

Gene Wolfe has been called the best writer in the English language today. Not SF writer. Writer.

Gardner Dozois is better known as an editor, but his stories have been accused of having very, very good prose.

Others in this category that I haven't read very much of, but have a reputation along these lines: Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny. A lot of writers who came of age in the 1970s and early 1980s would fit into this category as well, only most people have never heard of them unless they subscribe to Asimov's Science Fiction or F&SF or read Locus.
posted by mcwetboy at 3:01 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can sympathise. Nothing turns me off an SF book more quickly than clumsy writing, however good the ideas might be.

I'm also quite partial to Ian McDonald's writing. Nothing remotely clumsy about it. I'd also second Gene Wolfe and Samuel R. Delaney.

Michael Moorcock is a another really accomplished writer, particularly in terms of his work from the past couple of decades, although the SF themes in his novels are somewhat incidental.

Geoff Ryman writes really well.
Adam Roberts, although something of an acquired taste, is another writer who in my mind has improved markedly of late.
Jeff Vandermeer is pretty great. I prefer his writing to that of Miéville, although the latter's prose is becoming less purple with the years.
Christopher Priest is another good one, although I probably wouldn't recommend 'The Islanders' as an introduction.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:10 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: And PKD had "bad prose"? Not at all. No sir.

Chandler is your standard for prose? Um.

Gene Wolfe has been called the best writer in the English language today.

To clarify: I'm not talking about "dense, allusive" prose (from the Gene Wolfe wiki entry) or postmodern or complex writing. I have nothing against that kind of writing (I actually like PKD) but it's not what I mean here. David Foster Wallace, for example, would not be a great "prose stylist" in the sense I mean, although he was definitely a great something. I'm talking more about clean, direct, polished, the style you find in "writers' writers" like William Maxwell, Richard Yates or Marilynne Robinson. I don't expect that anyone in genre fiction writes quite like that, but some come closer than others.

(And I actually like MacDonald even better than Chandler, but he doesn't seem to be as widely known anymore.)
posted by pete_22 at 3:19 AM on March 21, 2012

I think Iain Banks writes good prose. Sometimes it sparkles a little. Even at worst it never jumps out at me as clunky the way many other scifi authors' prose can.
posted by lollusc at 3:19 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "Lyrical" is the other word I was looking for. Clean, polished, lyrical. I'll get out of the way now.
posted by pete_22 at 3:29 AM on March 21, 2012

A few more suggestions (that I haven't read) taken from my "reading ideas" text file where the recommendation specifically mentions the quality of the prose:

Osama by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing) – Subtle, forceful, and beautifully written, this nuanced and fascinating novel is at heart a compelling alt-world mystery. In a milieu without global terrorism, Joe, a private detective, is hired by a mysterious woman to find a man: the obscure author of pulp fiction novels featuring one Osama Bin Laden. The short chapters that comprise Osama waste few words while still featuring some beautiful writing. The word “haunting” is over-used as a descriptor, but it fits here: the novel haunts, it echoes, and it ghosts in a hypnotic, slipstreamy, and evocative way. Tidhar’s progress as a writer has been swift and he’s rapidly becoming one of the field’s best and most flexible stylists.

Coelestis, Paul Park (1993), was once described by John Clute as “Third World sf”, but I prefer to think of it as “post-colonial sf”. But not “post-colonial” in the same way as Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. I was an expat until only a few years ago, so it’s no surprise I’m drawn to fiction which documents the British expat experience abroad – hence my admiration for Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. While Park is an American, Coelestis is infused with that same atmosphere. Plus Park is one of the best prose stylists in this list. Why has this book been allowed to go out of print? Someone publish a new edition, please.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 3:40 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

A others have pointed out, prose isn't Charlie's strongest point (although his is perfectly readable, unlike some SF authors I've read).

M. John Harrison writes well. Iain (M) Banks' prose occasionally rises to the lyrical.
posted by pharm at 3:44 AM on March 21, 2012

Clean, direct, and polished: Mefi's Own John Scalzi?

I was going to suggest Neal Stephenson, whose prose I enjoy thoroughly, but "direct" is not an apt description. Unless you read Zodiac, which is excellent.

I also enjoy Kage Baker's prose, and her books are terrific.
posted by pie ninja at 3:50 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I came here to mention Delany, but I see he's already been mentioned, so I'll mention William Gibson. Joanna Russ is also quite good.

Of the old school Theodore Sturgeon is good.
posted by Kattullus at 3:53 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For writing that's as expressive and ingenious as the big ideas (and humor) it imparts, you can't go wrong with Douglas Adams. He had a real zeal for language, and the first two Hitchhikers books especially are just full of fantastic descriptions of fantastic people, places, and concepts -- every page is a joy. Random excerpt:
The great ships hung motionless in the air, over every nation on Earth. Motionless they hung, huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds tried to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.

* * *

The suns now stood high in the black sky, the pyrotechnics of dawn were over, and the surface of the planet appeared bleak and forbidding in the common light of day --- grey, dusty and only dimly contoured. It looked dead and cold as a crypt. From time to time promising features would appear on the distant horizon --- ravines, maybe mountains, maybe even cities --- but as they approached the lines would soften and blur into anonymity and nothing would transpire. The planet's surface was blurred by time, by the slow movement of the thin stagnant air that had crept across it for century upon century.

* * *

The wall defied the imagination --- seduced it and defeated it. The wall was so paralysingly vast and sheer that its top, bottom and sides passed away beyond the reach of sight. The mere shock of vertigo could kill a man. The wall appeared perfectly flat. It would take the finest laser measuring equipment to detect that as it climbed, apparently to infinity, as it dropped dizzily away, as it planed out to either side, it also curved. It met itself again thirteen light seconds away. In other words the wall formed the inside of a hollow sphere, a sphere over three million miles across and flooded with unimaginable light.

At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, while not strictly science fiction, is suffused with artful and poetic vignettes of visionary, impossible places. It's the first thing I thought of when I read your "good enough that they have this effect even in translation" (Calvino wrote in Italian).
With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.

Lastly: the tone of his stories vary from biblical to clinical, so I can't recommend them all on that basis, but many of Ted Chiang's stories have a pleasing, measured lilt to them. Some examples:

"Tower of Babylon", a workmanlike travelogue:
None of them had seen the tower before. It became visible when they were still leagues away: a line as thin as a strand of flax, wavering in the shimmering air, rising up from the crust of mud that was Babylon itself. As they drew closer, the crust grew into the mighty city walls, but all they saw was the tower.
"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", with archaic language arguably modeled after translated fables like 1001 Arabian Nights:
He offered an explanation, speaking of his search for tiny pores in the skin of reality, like the holes that worms bore into wood, and how upon finding one he was able to expand and stretch it the way a glassblower turns a dollop of molten glass into a long-necked pipe, and how he then allowed time to flow like water at one mouth while causing it to thicken like syrup at the other. I confess I did not really understand his words, and cannot testify to their truth. All I could say in response was, "You have created something truly astonishing."
And while the main storyline is prosaic ("heptapods"?), the flashback interludes in "Story of Your Life" are some of the most charming and heartfelt I've read in a science fiction story of its caliber:
Your father is about to ask me the question. This is the most important moment in our lives, and I want to pay attention, note every detail. Your dad and I have just come back from an evening out, dinner and a show; it's after midnight. We came out onto the patio to look at the full moon; then I told your dad I wanted to dance, so he humors me and now we're slow dancing, a pair of thirty somethings swaying back and forth in the moonlight like kids. I don't feel the night chill at all. And then your dad says, "Do you want to make a baby?"
posted by Rhaomi at 3:56 AM on March 21, 2012 [14 favorites]

Ursula Le Guin. "The Left Hand of Darkness," "The Dispossessed." I read her and think that is what writing should be like: prose that is elegant without drawing attention to itself, prose that knows the right detail to use.
posted by Jeanne at 4:09 AM on March 21, 2012 [19 favorites]

I'm not much of an SF guy anymore, mostly for the reason you've pinpointed, and the recommendation I'm about to make isn't by a canonical SF writer. But Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" is SF. It's also beautifully human in ways that the SF that I used to read almost never was.
posted by .kobayashi. at 4:59 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

2nding Ursula K. Le Guin. And Gene Wolfe. Ted Chaing has precisely one excellent collection of short stories so far, and we're all waiting more from him. Alfred Bester for the old school stuff. Samuel Delaney for more abstract and stylized stuff.
posted by zardoz at 5:09 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Thirding Jeanne above for "The Left Hand of Darkness" recommendation, although it's the only Le Guin I've read so far, and I've yet to read the Dispossessed. I've read hard scifi for years without realizing there was a "soft" scifi to go with it. As some will doubtlessly ascertain from my username, a certain character from The Left Hand of Darkness is a beloved favorite of mine.

I do very much enjoy Asimov/Heinlein/Clarke, but I know what you mean about their prose. Golden Age scifi definitely has its own style, which can either be your thing, or not so much your thing. Those of us who love it don't really have much fresh material, sadly. :( There's good scifi nowadays, of course, but it doesn't really have the same sort of (vaguely archaic?) voice.

For what it's worth, I didn't really like PKD much either, although I've only read Sheep.

At any rate, if you're looking for something more melodic, you could try one by Margaret Atwood. No matter what the author might think about the genre, Oryx and Crake is definitely dystopian scifi with a lot of singing sentences and alluring allegories. I feel like O+C is very different from her usual novels, though (perhaps because it focuses on men, whereas she normally writes about women), so if you like it, be aware that the rest of her (rather large) body of writing can be a bit different.

You could also look into HP Lovecraft if you've not sampled his work already. Really definitive horror scifi that surprisingly few people have actually read, given the pop culture prevalence of some of the creatures that inhabit his universe (re: cthulhu). All of his work is available online at this point, so it's easy access at the very least. A lot of people find his prose clunky, which I can totally understand, because he likes to take what should be 10 sentences and stubbornly fuse them into one. (A lot of this is atmospheric though, because his protagonists are usually in the beginning stages of progressive insanity.) Some of his stories are duds, and sometimes his sentences barrel on and on with about as much sign of stopping as a toyota with a brake recall, but there are some real winners in there too:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
posted by Estraven at 5:18 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's not hard sci-fi in the slightest, but Margaret Atwood writes gorgeous prose, and a lot of her work tends toward dystopian near-future sci-fi. I would start with 'Handmaid's Tale,' with the caveat that it will seriously alter the way you look at the Republican primaries.
posted by Mayor West at 5:19 AM on March 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Walter Tevis's Mockingbird and The Man Who Fell To Earth

Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker

Colson Whitehead's Zone One

Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl

Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers

Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad

Max Barry's Machine Man
posted by nicwolff at 5:25 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Will Self's Great Apes.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:28 AM on March 21, 2012

Girl in a Landscape by Jonathem Lethem, though his work doesn't focus on SF only.

Atwood, LeGuin, Russ, and I'd also add The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.
posted by lillygog at 5:43 AM on March 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:46 AM on March 21, 2012

He's not usually considered a sci-fi writer, but I'd toss some of Richard Powers' books into this mix. Galatea 2.2, Ploughing the Dark, and arguably Generosity explore the human implications of near-future technologies, and contain some really well-crafted prose (although the characters can be a bit wooden).
posted by gauche at 6:20 AM on March 21, 2012

I wish Michael Chabon would write more SF. The Yiddish Policemen's Union was remarkable. Its only flaw was that it demonstrated what poor prose stylists most SF authors are.

I'm not talking about "dense, allusive" prose (from the Gene Wolfe wiki entry)

Pynchon is dense, Wolfe is vivid.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 6:21 AM on March 21, 2012

Best answer: While it has a mostly fantasy feel to it, Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories are set in Earth's far future and do have some SF elements. More to the point of your question, though, Vance's writing style in these stories is colorful and witty, with great pacing, descriptions, and dialogue. He has cited P.G. Wodehouse as a major influence on his writing, and you can definitely see it here. That might sound like an odd combination, but it works and it's great! (And not at all like comic science fiction, a la Pratchett or Adams. It's just genuinely funny at times.)

A couple of others I don't think anyone has mentioned yet: Angela Carter (not so much an SF author, but Heroes and Villains is good, and some of her other stories are SF-ish) and J.G. Ballard (The Unlimited Dream Company, Hello America).
posted by Fred Mars at 6:22 AM on March 21, 2012

Seconding William Gibson, especially his more recent novels.
posted by jquinby at 6:24 AM on March 21, 2012

There's actually two books in the Lebowitz series, both beautifully written. Le Guin is also a favorite. I love Roger Zelazny's Amber series (the first six or so), but Lord of Light is my favorite of his works.

Oh, and if you want sci-fi that reads like crime fiction, how about sci-fi from a guy who writes crime fiction? Walter Mosley wrote Blue Light, which isn't spaceships and lasers sci-fi, but is sci-fi.

Oh, and check out some short story anthologies. Short stories are where the genre really shines.
posted by Gygesringtone at 6:31 AM on March 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yes, Jack Vance, although from past discussions here, he may be an acquired taste. I think it's worth the effort to do the acquisition; except for his earliest stuff, his writing is always entertaining for its use of language.

The Big Three you mentioned from the Golden Age really are not first-rate writers. This is especially true of Asimov. I've tried to re-read the Foundation trilogy a couple of times, but have been unable to do it. I always wonder how I managed to when I was a teenager.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:37 AM on March 21, 2012

Best answer: She is woefully overlooked, but you really really want Patricia Anthony.
posted by jbickers at 6:39 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I was going to mention Peter Watts until I saw you know him. Great, clear writing in service to fantastic ideas. And oh, man, don't get me started on how overrated Isaac Asimov is. I'd highly recommend avoiding his work entirely if you're interested in well-written science fiction, and cringe when I see anyone today buying the Foundation stuff.

First piece of advice: focus on short stories. There's some wonderful writing in The Secret History of Science Fiction, an anthology based on the premise that Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow won the 1973 Nebula award. I've been on an alternating classic/modern scifi binge this year and really enjoy the handful of James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon's stories I've read - clever ideas and nice writing. I'm looking forward to more. Le Guin tends to be overrated, I've found; her writing is good, but those late 60s/early 70s works have their share of clunkiness, too. Maybe her later work is better. Chabon, yes: The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance is a great little story.

A bit on the quirky side, but I'd also recommend Howard Waldrop. He's not very well known, but many scifi writers love him and I've been pleasantly surprised as I go through the stories in these two collections. His story "The Ugly Chickens" is a wonderful, wonderful alternate history of the dodo, and many of his others are gems of speculative fiction, written in an odd, accessible style that quickly grows on you. I like him a lot.
posted by mediareport at 6:41 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thirding William Gibson. His early stuff was very good. His most recent three novels are amazing. And you will be introduced to amazing things that really exist.

Ian McDonald is great for hard SF. I've read the Night's Dawn trilogy twice and was lost to the world for weeks each time.
posted by lhauser at 6:43 AM on March 21, 2012

Oh, I should mention I think Le Guin is a marvelous essayist; the non-fiction I've read from her has always been beautifully written and well-reasoned. I just found myself a bit disappointed in the fiction works.
posted by mediareport at 6:44 AM on March 21, 2012

Gads, I need more coffee. I meant Peter Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy.

Talk about embarrassing...
posted by lhauser at 6:45 AM on March 21, 2012

Also, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is one of the most beautifully written books I've read in a long time. It's the only one of his that I've read, though, so I don't know how typical it is of his oeuvre.
posted by jquinby at 6:50 AM on March 21, 2012

Best answer: For the "clean" stylized prose you seem to be looking for, Roger Zelazny's first Amber series was a concious attempt to produce a voice like Raymond Chandler's. His other works are less so and better IMO. His modern inheritor is probably Steve Brust. Brust's Taltos novels are similarly likely very close to what you are looking for.

Kage Baker has already been mentioned. K.J. Parker also writes well, clearly and directly, with a strong voice. I'd add Emma Bull to the list. Walter Jon William is worth looking for, particularly in Metropolitan and City on Fire.

Le Guin, and writers like Maureen McHugh, Ted Chiang, and Lisa Goldstein are less in line with what your asking for, in terms of strong character voices similar to Chandler's, but all have that elegant, invisible prose which is such a joy to read.
posted by bonehead at 6:53 AM on March 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: One author that seems to meet you criteria, but who may have fallen through the cracks of recent notoriety, is Mary Doria Russell. Her 1996 debut novel, "The Sparrow," was critically acclaimed and won the Arthur C. Clarke, James Tiptree, Jr.and the British Science Fiction Association awards. It is about a Jesuit-financed mission to a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. She followed it up with a well-reviewed sequel, "Children of God." Both beautifully written and, in my opinion, offfer the clean, polished, lyrical prose you seek.

I would also second .kobayashi on Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go." Ishiguro is a rare talent.
posted by flyingrock at 6:54 AM on March 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

@jbickers, I agree completely. I forgot to add that some of Vance's other writing feels kind of wooden compared to the Dying Earth series.
posted by Fred Mars at 6:55 AM on March 21, 2012

I'll second Samuel Delaney, particularly Dhalgren.
posted by whorl at 7:19 AM on March 21, 2012

Don't think I agree that Clarke's writing is clunky.

I've just gone through a Clarke 'season', and I agree that his writing doesn't focus on the same elements that a prose stylist from more conventional genres might exhibit.

Try reading a classic Clarke novel - say "Rendez-vous with Rama" - and ask yourself 'Why do I care about this story? Why do I not just put this book down unfinished?'

If you enjoy his writing, the conclusion that you may come to is that Clarke is very skilled at the slow reveal - the long, patient exposition of ideas with very tightly controlled pace and tension. Often these ideas aren't fully resolved or explored - eg [spoiler] we don't get to know who or what the constructors of Rama were (in this book at least)

Yes, characterisation suffers, but is this so bad? If you pick up a hard-sf novel is that really what you're after? There are examples of romances, thrillers, and dystopian novels, all set in a 'speculative universe' that are not considered SF because they're focus is unambiguously on characters and their interaction with the storyline.
Personally I read hard SF because I want someone with more imagination and research time than I have to speculate and exposit at length on what the world would look like if a particular scientific or sociologial breakthrough occurred.
posted by 5imon at 7:24 AM on March 21, 2012

Also read JG Ballard if for some bizarre reason you haven't. He has some great short stories. The Drowned Giant would be a good place to start.
posted by whorl at 7:28 AM on March 21, 2012

Double yes to Ray Bradbury and Ishiguro . . .
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:50 AM on March 21, 2012

Some Asimov is better than others. The first two Lije Baley novels are pretty well-written, as I recall.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:05 AM on March 21, 2012

Enthusiastically seconding both Patricia Anthony and J. G. Ballard. Anthony's Brother Termite and Ballard's Concrete Island are both excellent.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:08 AM on March 21, 2012

Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow has been referenced numerous times here. I have given 25 copies of this book away as gifts over the years. This is my A+++ #1 super recommendation.

The Lethem ones are good too. My favorite was Gun with Occasional Music.

And Stross, and Scalzi have both been really enjoyable reads for me.

Also, Robin Sloan's Annabel Scheme was a great kickstarter project back in the day. I hear he's novelizing it these days. He's got quite a bit of stuff out on the nets.
posted by DigDoug at 8:17 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Samuel R. Delany. Roger Zelazny. Cordwainer Smith. Ursula Leguin. Ted Chiang.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:04 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, shit, yes -- Jack Vance.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:06 AM on March 21, 2012

Best answer: There are several recommendations above that I'm too late to make (Le Guin, Delany short stories, Bester, Walter Jon Williams, Cordwainer Smith) but one I haven't seen yet is Michael Swanwick. Stations in the Tide is well worth your time.
posted by N-stoff at 9:10 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding/nthing JG Ballard & Iain Banks (with or without the "M".)

Richard K Morgan

Robert Silverberg

IMO, Joe Haldeman's writing has improved since "The Forever War," which is from 1974. Maybe try some of his later works.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:22 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'll throw in H G Wells, Jules Verne and John Wyndham. They're not high art, but they are much better writers than many more modern sci-fi authors.

Did you want to include fantasy as well? Because to my mind here are a lot more good stylists in fantasy than straight SF.
posted by philipy at 11:16 AM on March 21, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions, this has given me a long list to check out. I've marked a few best answers but please feel free to keep them coming.

Clean, direct, and polished: Mefi's Own John Scalzi?

I was going to mention Peter Watts until I saw you know him. Great, clear writing in service to fantastic ideas.

It's funny, Scalzi and Watts are pretty much the only two contemporary SF writers I've liked enough to keep reading, and I've read almost all their books. They're both a little hard to characterize in the terms I've been using here, though.

Try reading a classic Clarke novel - say "Rendez-vous with Rama" - and ask yourself 'Why do I care about this story? Why do I not just put this book down unfinished?'

Yes, characterisation suffers, but is this so bad? If you pick up a hard-sf novel is that really what you're after? There are examples of romances, thrillers, and dystopian novels, all set in a 'speculative universe' that are not considered SF because they're focus is unambiguously on characters and their interaction with the storyline.
Personally I read hard SF because I want someone with more imagination and research time than I have to speculate and exposit at length on what the world would look like if a particular scientific or sociologial breakthrough occurred.

Interesting response. I have read RwRama and I see what you mean about it. To your second point -- sure, people read SF for lots of different reasons, I'm not suggesting my taste is universal. But I would be more interesting in that kind of speculation if I didn't feel that older writers like Clarke had used up most of the interesting ideas. "Cyberpunk," Singularity and bioethics-type philosophizing just aren't that interesting to me, and I think in some ways they're still stuck in an era when true AI, genetic engineering and related breakthroughs seemed much more imminent than they've turned out to be. And writers like Atwood, LeGuin, Mieville (or many other "literary" SF types) seem to be using sci-fi scenarios to comment on modern society, not to say there's anything wrong with that but it's different than really exploring the implications of science and tech. For example, "Little, Big" by John Crowley is my favorite fantasy novel but I'm not sure you can really call it fantasy, since his themes are so rooted in the real world and real history.

If the point of "hard SF" is to really push the envelope in exploring the limits of realistic science and tech scenarios, then Watts's books are the only ones I've even heard of that seem to be really doing that today. I would be open to recommendations for others, though.
posted by pete_22 at 11:16 AM on March 21, 2012

Le Guin's "Wizard of Earthsea" is beautifully simple. If you can get past the japery, sometimes Terry Prachett writes really nice stuff (though usually as a setup to some awful gag). I liked "Stardust" by Neil Gaiman.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:33 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Harlan Ellison?
posted by Devoidoid at 3:45 PM on March 21, 2012

Definitely Gibson.

"The sky was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel"

I stopped reading him after Idoru, but I'm listening to Spook Country (audiobook) while imaging/data-analysis, and the man's got massive prose chops. The characters and the story? A bit thinner than some of his earlier work, but he has improved about as much as China Mieville has between the pre- UnLunDun Bas-Lag books and post-UnLunDun slightly-less-weird-but-now-actually-readable novels.
posted by porpoise at 3:49 PM on March 21, 2012

Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, William Gibson.

Charles Stross is excellent, but adding bleeding-edge geeky slang to a story is going to make it feel like badly, badly dated prose two or three years later.

I'd say Gibson owns this one.
posted by talldean at 8:20 PM on March 21, 2012

Ursula Le Guin. "The Left Hand of Darkness," "The Dispossessed." I read her and think that is what writing should be like: prose that is elegant without drawing attention to itself, prose that knows the right detail to use.

I would just like to note that this comment has 16 favorites (as I write this) for a reason.
posted by pullayup at 8:52 PM on March 21, 2012

Lethem again - As She Reached Across The Table
posted by Gorgik at 9:23 PM on March 21, 2012

Came to say Gibson, but see that lots of people beat me too it.
He was a huge fan of Chandler, and it shows. His books read to me, more like crime fiction in the future more then any other sci fi I have read.

I would recommend his first trilogy, and in particular Neuromancer, for that classic Noir feel (but with murder robots and stuff).
posted by St. Sorryass at 9:59 PM on March 21, 2012


But I would be more interesting in that kind of speculation if I didn't feel that older writers like Clarke had used up most of the interesting ideas.

I suppose you're right here, though it's kind of depressing if you are. This suggests that there are only a handful of really big SF ideas and concepts, which were pretty much well covered back in the SF golden age. I hope you're wrong, though I suspect you're not. Kind of neatly parallels the fact that there are a finite number of fundamental theories, concepts, and paradigms in the sciences.
You might think that as our world scientific acheivements accrue that this palette of fundamental notions available to us might grow, but I don't think speculative fiction that uses, say, the potential development of the mobile phone network is particularly numinous (thanks Sagan. Thagan.) to me.

"Cyberpunk," Singularity and bioethics-type philosophizing just aren't that interesting to me

Yes indeed - I tend to find that in the genres you mention (particularly Cyberpunk) I'm asked to suspend my disbelief a bit too much. I'm sure there are some very worthy additions to these genres that doubtless take a huge amount of effort and time to write, but it feels kind of like cheating if you can rewrite history or the laws of physics to make a plot element work.

..and before the legions of cyberpunk fans object, yes I know speculation of an alternate historical timeline is no less interesting and valid than speculating on the introduction of, say, a new technology, but the fact that technological development leaves hard Sf possibilities open to us makes it immediately more appealing (to me at least).
posted by 5imon at 4:53 AM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

This suggests that there are only a handful of really big SF ideas and concepts, which were pretty much well covered back in the SF golden age.

I don't think that's true at all. The alien contact in Peter Watts' Blindsight is a good counter-example - a fantastically interesting and suspenseful first contact story that's light-years beyond Golden Age stuff, in both content and execution.

Seriously, at this point I can't see how anyone who's gone through a chunk of the golden age stuff can for a moment imagine the Big Ideas were all covered so well back then there's no reason to read hard scifi anymore. That's so, so wrong.
posted by mediareport at 5:56 AM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Seriously, at this point I can't see how anyone who's gone through a chunk of the golden age stuff can for a moment imagine the Big Ideas were all covered so well back then there's no reason to read hard scifi anymore. That's so, so wrong.

Glad to hear it. I'd love to be wrong about this and it sounds like 5imon would too. I agree about Blindsight (that's why I mentioned Watts as the exception) so we're on the same page. What are some other recent books you'd compare to that in terms of really pushing the conceptual envelope?
posted by pete_22 at 1:02 PM on March 24, 2012

Well, that's why I decided to go on an alternating classic/modern scifi binge this year - to find those books. This thread will stay open for a year, so I'll post anything I find as I read. But the first thing I've noticed from plowing through collections of Golden Age stuff like this one is that most Golden Age stories are fairly shallow explorations of sometimes-really-cool ideas. Take Asimov's classic "Nightfall," an enjoyable gem of an idea with about an inch of depth to the execution, and mediocre writing. *shrug* I find most of the Golden Age stuff to be like that, even before you add the understandable but nonetheless cringe-inducing sexism, homophobia and embarrassingly simplistic psychology. There's no way I'd recommend that Hall of Fame collection of "twenty-six of the greatest science fiction stories ever written!" to anyone today who wanted the best prose stylists in the genre.

I know it doesn't sound like it, but I'm enjoying going through a bunch of the older stuff for historical interest, mainly. But the idea that the Golden Age of science fiction tilled any ground so thoroughly it's no longer fertile just seems bonkers.
posted by mediareport at 8:12 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks - I'm also doing a bit of a classical / modern SF binge this year, so glad to hear of any modern hard SF recommendations.

I'll have a look at Blindsight, though the Amazon blurb doesn't make this sound very appealing...

Who should we send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn't want to meet?Send a linguist with multiple - personality disorder and a biologist so spliced with machinery that he can't feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood.

Is this representative?
posted by 5imon at 3:03 AM on March 27, 2012

What are some other recent books you'd compare to that in terms of really pushing the conceptual envelope?

Anything written by Greg Egan, ever. I think he's best at short story length rather than novel, but that may be just personal taste. Ted Chiang would have to be on that list as well. China Meiville has done some interesting things with language and perception recently, The City and The City, Embassytown. Neal Stephenson's Anathem, if you can get past the stylistic tics, is the first hard philosophy fiction I think I've ever encountered.

I'd argue that Vernor Vinge together with William Gibson framed a lot of what has come since. The idea of a singularity in the (near) future, humanistic or malevolent, has strongly affected writing in the past two decades. Charlie Stross has written one of the few books that walks through a Singularity in Accelerando. Much of Alastair Reynolds' (eg House of Suns, Century Rain) and Iain Banks' (eg Excession) output has incorporated the idea of transcendence as well.

Many interesting books have been written around the edges of singularity, examining the incomprehensible from a outsider's viewpoint, the survivors or the refuseniks or the left behind. Elizabeth Bear's Jacob’s Ladder Trilogy is a fragment of post-singularity society on a dying spaceship, Ken McLeod's Fall Revolution is about the people left behind or who stayed behind after a transcendence. Bloom by Wil McCarthy, is about the human refugees from a singularity. Paolo Bacigalupi writes about a failed one in The Windup Girl, vein of Gibson, the dark side of the Singularity.

That's a short, personal view of some of the more interesting hard sf books I've read in the last decade. Not intended to be definitive or complete, mind.
posted by bonehead at 9:31 AM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Blindsight is about thinking about the the nature of consciousness, and how the human sense of self-conscious identity (we know who we are, and think we make our own choices) may not be the most successful strategy for life in the long term. The laundry list of characters provides viewpoints through which Watts examines that question.

(I'd also place it squarely in the outsiders to transcendence events sub-genre.)
posted by bonehead at 9:36 AM on March 27, 2012

Looking through my last year or so of Goodreads, here are the writers whose books I would say count as unusually well-written (excellent prose style, believable characters, non-clunky dialogue) for the sf genre:

- Ian McDonald (The Dervish House, River of Gods)
- Gene Wolfe (anything, as others say, he's a major figure; but I re-read The Five Heads of Cerebus and a couple books of short stories - wow - but note I have yet to get to his last couple novels, which have been getting mixed reviews)
- Alexander Jablokov (River of Dust; also Brain Thief which is pretty good but quirkier)
- Ken Macleod (The Restoration Game and The Execution Channel; his earlier books that are parts of series were very good with occasional clunks)
- Adam Roberts (Yellow Blue Tibia, The Snow) - often playing subtle literary tricks
- John Crowley (tending toward literary fantasy the last decade+, but one of the best writers alive, like Wolfe, not just sf, but of all writers)
- John Barnes (underrated, very good writer, and plays subtle games with sub-genres of sf that not everyone will get or appreciate) - Candle and The Sky So Big and Black come to mind as particularly well done
- JG Ballard (hard to say where to start with him but he's one of the British masters of sf prose, albeit in a 1970s kind of way)
- Justina Robson - Natural History and Mappa Mundi
- William Gibson (while his older books are considered landmarks of sf, I think his last several, the last trilogy esp., are much better written, just considering them as novels)
- Robert Charles Wilson - was criminally underrated for a long time, I particularly like Mysterium, The Chronoliths, and Spin
- Geoff Ryman - Air, The Child Garden
- Maureen McHugh - particularly China Mountain Zhang and Nekropolis
- I thought Greg Egan's Zendegi was very well written and note that it is not at all like his usual "story of AIs puzzling out mathematical constructs" novels or "characters' uploaded brain" stories which sometimes alienate people
- seconding whoever mentioned Michael Swanwick's Stations of the Tide. That, and Vacuum Flowers, I thought were amazing, but haven't been as taken by his books since
- also seconding those who mentioned Samuel Delany, but also noting that he hasn't actually written any science fiction in a long time; still, his books from the 70s and 80s, The Einstein Intersection, Nova, Dhalgren, Trouble on Triton, and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand are all astounding novels; I'd also note he has a book about to come out (Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders) that reportedly follows its characters from recent years into the near future a few decades, but I also think it's only fair to note that, being a post-sf-years Delany novel, it probably has explicit gay sex scenes
- If you feel like reading sf from the 70s, Ursula LeGuin, James Tiptree, and Joanna Russ were all writing some excellent novels then
- I will refrain from critiquing other contributions to this thread but I think some folks confuse a cracking good storyline with excellent prose. I mean, someone mentioned Peter Hamilton, wtf, who's written some fun novels, plotwise, but who I find to be a very clumsy writer

(Apologies for the length... I love well-written science fiction.)
posted by aught at 1:10 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

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