Sci-fi books that are jam packed with ideas?
October 28, 2012 6:25 PM   Subscribe

What are some good science fiction (ish) books that are crammed with lots of interesting little ideas?

I have read and really enjoyed books by China Mieville (e.g. _Kraken_, _Railsea_, _Embassytown_, etc) and the Iain M Banks _Culture_ series (e.g. _Consider Phlebas_, _Use of Weapons_, _Matter_). One thing I really like about both of those authors is that they seem to stuff their books chock full of interesting ideas, some of which are relevant to the plot but a lot of which are just fun little asides. I really like that overstuffed feeling in sci-fi books and I want to read more of it. What other authors or books should I read?
posted by jacobm to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon" and The Baroque Cycle.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:26 PM on October 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

This sounds a little bit like Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix (or, if you can get it, Schismatrix Plus, the expanded-with-a-bunch-of-short-stories edition).
posted by zer0render at 6:31 PM on October 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'd add "Anathem" by Stephenson-- it retells the history of Enlightenment on a fictional parallel world. Also, Banks's non-Culture SF does this too--- The Algebraeist was cracking with awesome ideas.
posted by Sunburnt at 6:33 PM on October 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is kind of the most important element of William Gibson's style. Neuromancer and sequels are the best known but he has a bunch of other books too, including some that read like science fiction but are set in the recent past.
posted by vogon_poet at 6:35 PM on October 28, 2012

Alastair Reyneolds "Revelation Space".
posted by dfriedman at 6:36 PM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Vernor Vinge has a lot of big ideas, but also a lot of great little ideas. Robert Sawyer's Neanderthal novels has some great random ideas (mostly in the Neanderthal section; I've taken to sometimes dining with gloves since reading them).
posted by novalis_dt at 6:41 PM on October 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:44 PM on October 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Neuromancer! Yeah, it's dated, but last time I read it -- a few years ago -- I still liked it.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:49 PM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Gibson as a master of this. Once upon a time I really liked SF/fantasy books that meticulously build up a consistent universe (Tolkien-style) as a setting. But when I got on to Gibson I was suddenly more impressed by his ability to evoke his invented (or extrapolated) world without being so condescending as to have to explain it to me. The opening paragraph of Count Zero is always the one that sticks in my head for this technique:
They set a Slamhound on Turner's trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT.
As far as I recall, no ‘slamhound’ appears in the book beyond that: it's pretty much a throwaway device to get Turner blown up. I've seen a vaguely similar idea in a short story from the 1960s (ish), and in that case it occupied the entire story -- Gibson just throws it out and moves on.
posted by pont at 6:50 PM on October 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

I know Cory Doctorow is not popular on MeFi, but Makers has lots of ideas in it.

But I prefer the cool future tech concepts in cstross's Accelerando.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:50 PM on October 28, 2012

Oh, I don't know if it would count as sci-fi, but Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series is full of brilliant little ideas. They should be read in order, starting with The Eyre Affair.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:50 PM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love Kurt Vonnegut's books (though he's not a SF writer per se), and they always have these kooky asides that illustrate interesting ideas.
posted by Rykey at 7:05 PM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Diamond Age, also by Neal Stephenson.
posted by alms at 7:09 PM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Gibson and Stephenson are like the high priests of this style. I really liked Gibson's Spook Country for all the little fascinating throwaway details. Cryptonomicon takes this concept to such an extreme it took me a year to finish the damned thing, but I still highly recommend it.

But if you're looking for something really dense and almost impenetrable for the sheer amount of subtle weird ideas I would tell you to go read Shadow of the Torturer right now.
posted by Doleful Creature at 7:14 PM on October 28, 2012

I liked Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, and the subsequent The Year of the Flood for this.
posted by just_ducky at 7:14 PM on October 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Gibson and Stephenson of course, but Charlie Stross (MeFi's own cstross) is also very good for this. You might also like Ian McDonald's River of Gods.
posted by Quietgal at 7:25 PM on October 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding Revelation Space.
posted by lpsguy at 7:27 PM on October 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Diamond Age, also by Neal Stephenson.

I'd just like to chime in here and say that when my daughters got Kindles for Christmas last year, I felt like we were one step away from Stephenson's vision.

Check out the omnibus edition of Wool. Lots of great ideas -- and fantastic writing.
posted by thanotopsis at 7:27 PM on October 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Stanislaw Lem's Cyberiad.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:34 PM on October 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

The classic master of this type of overstuffed, fun world is Alfred Bester. My favorite is The Demolished Man, but The Stars My Destination is better known (and also great).
posted by zompist at 7:49 PM on October 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Second "River of Gods." It was the "slow missiles" that stumped me until they were revealed. Brilliant.

I, too, love the bit about the Slamhound. Stephenson came close to those in the Diamond Age, in my mind, with the supersonic cyborg dogs.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:50 PM on October 28, 2012

Permanence had a ton of really great ideas in it-- literally dozens that I remember years later. (Loved the idea that dark space between the stars might be filled with brown dwarfs.) Unfortunately I found the characters uninteresting and the plot unfollowable, so I've never read another book by Karl Schroeder, but based on those lovely lovely incidental ideas I'm not ruling him out forever. And I see that other readers of his work have often felt the same way.
posted by seasparrow at 9:58 PM on October 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Some these are earlier vintage than most of the things mentioned so far.

- John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider and Stand on Zanzibar

- David Brin's Uplift novels

- Illuminatus! is so chock full of (self-contradictory, metacircular, fucking-with-the-reader) ideas that it kind of makes one's head hurt. May not be optimally timed if you're much north of your early 20s, though.

- Roger Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness

- Larry Niven's Known Space stories and a number of his unrelated novels. Stop somewhere around the mid-to-late 1970s, I think.

- Peter F. Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction and sequels. I have to confess I never actually finished the series - it got bogged down in metaphysical torture porn somewhere in the second volume, IMO, but it's just absurdly full of ideas, and at least the first volume is a lot of fun.

- John Barnes. I just finished Kaleidoscope Century and basically hated it, but I liked A Million Open Doors a lot, and he's good at the packed-with-ideas thing.

On a related note, have you read much short SF? A lot of the establishing (and still some of the best) work in the genre was done in short stories, and reading a good anthology of these can be a great way to get lots of interesting little ideas fast. If you can find any of the big Groff Conklin anthologies, I remember them being generally great.

Definitely nthing Stephenson. He's amazing at this. If I were going to recommend one Ian McDonald book of those I've read so far, it'd probably be The Dervish House rather than River of Gods, but they're both worth the time.
posted by brennen at 10:37 PM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe Jon Courtney Grimwood? redRobe has that feel for me, and the Arabesk trilogy are stuffed with wonderful little signs of a different 20th century. His books aren't for everyone but I like them and I do like some Mieville and Banks.
posted by N-stoff at 10:59 PM on October 28, 2012

Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre, is a short-ish book with little ideas woven into the story. It's a great read.
posted by itwasyou at 11:36 PM on October 28, 2012

David Brin's newest book, Existence, is chocablock full.
posted by bswinburn at 11:43 PM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Mars Trilogy had tons of random ideas thrown in. Many of them were societal ideas rather than "hard scifi ideas", but for me at least that's a bonus.

I definitely second the idea of going for short stories. For hard scifi, Asimov has a gazillion stories. They're usually tightly focused, but also tightly written, so you can just zip through one after another. For soft scifi, Ursula LeGuin's got you covered.
posted by vasi at 12:08 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

David Brin's are great for this - the entire Uplift War series has some cool asides that are never quite explained, which makes it interesting indeed, although my favorite book of his is The Heart of the Comet, written with Gregory Benford, which is stuff full of everything from exobiology to the life cycle of comets, to cybernetics, to group psychology.

Benford as well has some cool Hard SciFi books, notably In the Ocean of the Night, and Across the Sea of Suns. They're both fascinating books that have aged surprisingly well.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:32 AM on October 29, 2012

Stephen Baxter's Manifold series.

Peter Watt's Blindsight.

nthing anything by Charles Stross, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.

Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep is absolutely fantastic, and A Deepness in the Sky is pretty good, but I'd pass on the sequel.
posted by cthuljew at 1:40 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, almost forgot: Greg Egan's Premutation City.
posted by cthuljew at 1:41 AM on October 29, 2012

Thirding the Revelation Space series (there is a main trilogy of novels starting with the titular Revelation Space that I recommend reading first, plus a bunch of other novels set in the same universe but not part of the main plot - all are good).

Also seconding Iain M Banks' non-Culture novels. They all have a similar tons-of-cool-details-packed-in feel.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:07 AM on October 29, 2012

Wouldn't Dune be the gold standard for this?
posted by jbickers at 8:17 AM on October 29, 2012

Oh yeah, forgot about Dune. Dune is packed with words and ideas and concepts that only show up once or twice. Frank Herbert was an obsessive researcher. From the wikipedia entry on Dune:

Herbert spent the next five years researching, writing, and revising a literary work that was eventually serialized in Analog magazine from 1963 to 1965 as two shorter works, Dune World and The Prophet of Dune.[8][9] Herbert dedicated his work "to the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of 'real materials'—to the dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration."
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:25 AM on October 29, 2012

Dan Simmons Ilium.
posted by Brody's chum at 8:30 AM on October 29, 2012

Seconding Vasi's suggestion of the Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson. All sorts of fun socio-political stuff as well as scifi concepts thrown in there.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:49 AM on October 29, 2012

I'll second Dan Simmons Ilium/Olympos, and add his Hyperion Cantos, 4 books (2 x 2-volume stories, really, just as Ilium Olympos is really just one story in two volumes).

It reminds me to add "Metaplanetary: A Novel of Interplanetary Civil War," by Tony Daniel (no, not the C3PO guy), with the caution that there is some disturbing holocaust allegory in there. It's about humanity's adjustment to massive and expansive use of hard nanotech, including some very inventive ones by the author. The story continues in "Superluminal."

Also, re: Karl Schroeder, I only recently discovered this author and so far the only book of his I've read is "Ventus," which is a very fascinating book, and I believe it qualifies for this thread. The title is the name of a planet which is stuck at a medieval tech level, and the book is set mostly there, so it might feel like a fantasy novel, but outside Ventus, humanity is long-post-Singularity.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:50 AM on October 29, 2012

2312. Has tons of little bits, including instructions on how to make a spaceship out of an asteroid.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:09 AM on October 29, 2012

Jorge Luis Borges isn't really an SF writer, but he does stuff his stories, essays, and poems full of ideas. Check him out. Circular time, parallel universes, and infinity figure prominently.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:28 PM on October 29, 2012

Matt Ruff's Sewer, Gas & Electric is chock full of interesting ideas.
posted by creepygirl at 3:16 PM on October 29, 2012

For something a bit more recent, The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi is really rather excellent at creating a world (well, a solar system) and societies with enough detail to make them feel real.
posted by eemeli at 3:36 AM on November 4, 2012

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