Far future, alien-feeling SF recommendations
September 26, 2014 7:44 AM   Subscribe

I'm getting fairly tired of science fiction set in the near or medium future where society and motivations are an extension of modern life. I'd like something set so far in the future that there is nothing that really calls back to earth politics or history or culture, or something which may well be in an alternate universe because earth-like things never even come up.

I haven't read Dune in a few decades, but my vague memory of it is that it was somewhat like that (the Butlerian Jihad already being ancient history). A perfect example, from what I've read so far, is actually the recent run of the comic book Prophet. While Ian Banks Culture novels seem like they might fit the bill, I couldn't make it through the first novel because it was just a collection of disconnected action stories. I'm sorry I can't think of any more examples right now. So, any good suggestions?
posted by Bugbread to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
The rest of Banks' SF oevure is much less actiony and you will probably like them.
posted by Mistress at 7:48 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Book of the New Sun, from Gene Wolfe. It looks like a fantasy book in the beginning, since all of technology as been forgotten. The narrator tries to describe stuff with is own terms - i.e a metal building might be an old abandoned ship - which can be quite cryptic sometimes.
posted by florzinha at 7:50 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding non-Culture Banks, especially Against A Dark Background and The Algebraist.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:53 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood might fit what you're looking for. She does an incredible job of animating characters that aren't human and presenting their (totally alien) worldview as completely normal. In the later part of the trilogy there's quite a lot of hand wringing about what makes people human though (but it's more fundamental humanity, not modern culture).

Anne Leckie's Ancillary Justice may be worth a look too.
posted by snaw at 7:55 AM on September 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Asimov's Foundation and Robot series, especially the former.
posted by Melismata at 7:59 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Charles Stross' Neptune's Brood, also Accelerando might meet this requirement. Accelerando starts day after tomorrow but gets really out there.
posted by edbles at 8:09 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think Vernor Vinge might hit the spot: You can get the Zones of Thought Omnibus which contains A Fire in the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, both of which are very alien, in a good way.

You might also like Neal Stephenson's Anathem for lack of connections to our world, although it's not far future so much as sideways.
posted by itsjustanalias at 8:23 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie (won, like almost all the awards this year)

The Cyberaid by Stanslaw Lem

Radix and The Last Legends of Earth by A.A. Attanasio
posted by edgeways at 8:42 AM on September 26, 2014

Ursula Le Guin's Sci Fi is like this, mostly.
posted by small_ruminant at 8:42 AM on September 26, 2014

I'll throw in my vote for the prodigious work of Jack Vance, which is maybe as "alien-feeling" as it gets and some of my favorite writing, period. He's considered a "classic" SF author (the aforementioned Gene Wolfe is heavily indebted to him) but many of his books have been out of print for decades and he's not as widely read as he should be. This obit thread has some good quotes to whet your appetite.
posted by theodolite at 8:43 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars is set billions of years in the future.
posted by Chenko at 8:45 AM on September 26, 2014

It's very hard to completely get away from human experience: Dune, for instance, is really a sort of fantasy novel in terms of what human inputs it draws from.

One author I would recommend is Cordwainer Smith, who wrote a series of very distinctive stories set successively farther and farther in the future that detail a strange evolution of the human race.

I would also second Gene Wolfe; the Book of the New Sun is quite close to Dune in terms of what it draws from. Comes at it from a different angle and tone, though.

Another one to try might be the Einstein Intersection by Delany, which I remember being pretty strange and alien. And if you like Delany you might also try Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand, which is so weird and heady with ideas that I ultimately bounced off it. I bet it's fantastic, though, like everything he's written.
posted by selfnoise at 8:49 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

The "Fleet of Worlds" series (spinoff of Larry Niven's Ringworld) would probably fit the bill. There are humans but without giving too much away they belong to a society that's been heavily influenced by exterior forces.

Nthing Ancillary Justice.
posted by trunk muffins at 8:56 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding non-Culture Banks, especially Against A Dark Background and The Algebraist.

Don't forget Feersum Endjinn, set on Earth but far enough in the future that it's not really recognizable any more and where history and technology are more myth and legend than anything really remembered.

Also Asimov's _The Gods Themselves_, set in part in an alien society in a different universe.

Vinge's stuff is sort of there but also not really -- he features alien societies that at one level are pretty alien, but at the level of their basic psychology, mostly they might as well be from southern California. Sort of like Niven in that respect.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:57 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh I want to add that I had the same reaction about Consider Phlebas but my understanding is that the rest of the Culture books are not like that one (it was sort of a sendup of action-hero space opera, I guess?). So I still have these on my to-read list and you may want to keep them on yours as well.
posted by trunk muffins at 8:58 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

These far-future stories and novels have particularly stuck with me:

- Hothouse, Brian Aldiss
- The Einstein Intersection, Samuel R. Delany
- The Last Castle (novella) and The Dying Earth, Jack Vance
- Confluence series, Paul McAuley
- Feersum Enjinn, Iain M. Banks
- A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge - maybe also his Marooned in Realtime
- Tracking Song (novella) - Gene Wolfe (and of course his New Sun books as well)
- Sister Alice, Robert Reed
- the later books in Gregory Benford's Galactic Center series are pretty far in the future
- Spin (Robert Charles Wilson) and particularly its two sequels are set in the far future

Lots more but those are the ones that come to mind immediately.
posted by aught at 9:24 AM on September 26, 2014

I'm not sure if this exactly what you're going for, but The Time Machine by HG Wells sort of fits your description. (The framework is set in Victorian time, but the "future" part sounds like what you're looking for.)
posted by litera scripta manet at 10:25 AM on September 26, 2014

Cordwainer Smith -The Rediscovery of Man All of it is weird and wonderful and out there.

Foundation by Asimov, of course

Silverberg's Majipoor Chronicles is a bite size way to consider whether Lord Valentine's world is attractive or not. Otoh, Kingdoms of the Wall is definitely out there in alien world.
posted by infini at 10:53 AM on September 26, 2014

Anything Catherine Asaro, but specifically the Saga of the Skolian Empire. She's a physicist and the best part of her sci-fi is that it's plausible. She's won tons of awards and is an impeccable writer. Recommendations are: Catch the Lightning, Primary Inversion, Radiant Seas, Ascendant Sun, and Spherical Harmonic. Any of these books are amazing as stand-alone stories, but magnificent as part of a series.

So far into the future that you're delving into separate races and advanced biomech systems. Politics that barely resemble anything "Earth". And the people of Earth are so inconsequential to the two major player races, but are what is the balance between all-out war spanning interstellar civilization. If you really want to read sci-fi done well, Asaro is a must.

Also, Silicon Dreams edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Larry Segriff is a collection of 12 original sci-fi stories. Some are about androids but all of them are pretty futuristic and well written. These recommendations are some of my favorites and I've yet to come across anything like it. You might also like The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee. Feed by M.T. Anderson. And Starfish by Peter Watts.
posted by lunastellasol at 11:05 AM on September 26, 2014

After posting I realized I read sci-fi and posted the first ones that came to mind. The Saga of the Skolian Empire is what you're asking for, the others are just some sci-fi I thought you might like.
posted by lunastellasol at 11:14 AM on September 26, 2014

A bunch of Greg Egan's writing might fit this.

Diaspora is a novel that goes pretty far afield from present human civilization. It gets pretty abstract at times too though.

Oceanic is the name both of a novella and of a book that collects it and other shorter stories he wrote. There's some not-too-distant-future stories that won't satisfy your criterion, but there's also plenty with a post-digitization, post-singularity, post-scarcity, post-integration-with-alien-cultures setting that ought to.

IMO, Egan is better with ideas than he is with characters, which means shorter formats work better for him. So I recommend Oceanic more highly than Diaspora.
posted by aubilenon at 11:16 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Bug Wars, by Robert Asprin.

No human characters, no human motivations, but plenty of characters and motivations.
Involves a touch of reading between the lines because some remarkable (to humans) things aren't remarked on.
Enjoyable light reading aimed at YA and up.
posted by anonymisc at 11:16 AM on September 26, 2014

Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie

I just read this and it is great!
posted by Kwine at 11:40 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

You want Olaf Stapledon. I'm thinking particularly of Last and First Men and Star Maker, but a lot of what he wrote would fit your requirements. As a young sf fan, my mind and sense of the universe and its infinite possibilities was expanded by him more than just about any other writer. (That Wikipedia article says his books "were highly acclaimed by figures as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges, J. B. Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Algernon Blackwood, Hugh Walpole, Arnold Bennett, Virginia Woolf[...] and Winston Churchill"—I had no idea, nor that he was a philosopher!)
posted by languagehat at 11:59 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd like something set so far in the future that there is nothing that really calls back to earth politics or history or culture, or something which may well be in an alternate universe because earth-like things never even come up.

Some good recommendations above, including the accurate note of caution about Greg Egan's Diaspora. And you don't specify which of the Culture novels you read and didn't like - assuming it was Consider Phlebas, the rest of them really get better as he hits his stride.

My recommendations:

* Banks, the Culture novels. Use of Weapons and Player of Games are the two most favoured, but Excession has the most far-future feel, with vast machine intelligences plotting and counter-plotting while human drama plays out on a tiny scale in the foreground.

* Banks, the non-Culture novels. The Algebraist is great, but Feersum Endjinn is my particular favorite. (U do haf 2 get past the stylizd riting of the narator in sum chapters, but its ezier than it luks. Far future, alien stuff - try re-reading the book's name now.)

* What I think of as the "standards" for space opera: Charles Stross (mefi's own), Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise. John Scalzi (also mefi's own), the Old Man's War series. Alastair Reynolds, the Revelation Space series ("includes five novels, two novellas, and eight short stories set over a span of several centuries").

* Ann Leckie, the Radch empire trilogy, of which only the first book (Ancillary Justice) is out. As mentioned above, it swept the SF triple crown, and it's easy to see why when you read it.

* But the first thing I thought of when I read your question was really Hannu Rajaniemi's Jean le Flambeur trilogy, The Quantum Thief, The Fractal Prince and The Causal Angel. It reads like a stylized fable set in an overwhelmingly far-future high-technology solar system - if anything, the science is so hard that it reads as indistinguishable from magic. The intro by Charles Stross stuck with me: "He's Finnish, lives in Scotland, has a PhD in string theory, and — well, if you dropped Greg Egan's hard physics chops into a rebooted Finnish version of Al Reynolds with the writing talent of a Ted Chiang you'd begin to get a rough approximation of the scale of his talent."
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:19 PM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
posted by EndsOfInvention at 4:01 PM on September 26, 2014

China Mieville's books are usually more fantasy than sci-fi but Embassytown fits what you want!
posted by foxfirefey at 10:18 PM on September 26, 2014

Seconding Olaf Stapledon - Last and First Men.
posted by brownrd at 4:12 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

C.S. Friedman does some of this - I enjoyed This Alien Shore particularly, though In Conquest Born also has some similar themes, as does The Madness Season.
(Technically speaking, her Coldfire trilogy is far-future as well, but it's in such a way that humanity's story sort of comes full-circle, and the books fall more under the label of "fantasy" than "sci-fi.")

Armor, by John Steakley, is another one I like, though it's described as military fiction, and focuses on individual stories in a war rather than culture or society.

If you want something truly alien from human culture and experience (it isn't human-based at all), my very very favorite is the short story, "Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death," by James Tiptree Jr./Alice Sheldon. It's unlike anything else I've ever read and I adore it.
posted by po at 7:37 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I'm going to have a lot to work through, here.
posted by Bugbread at 3:51 PM on September 28, 2014

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