I'm looking for a solid science fiction novel...
December 20, 2014 9:44 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a solid science fiction novel to enjoy and then send along to a friend whom I owe a book. Recommendations will be much appreciated; a few details are provided below the fold.

I've barely touched science fiction for about twenty years and have no particular preferences re: the genre; she reads a lot but does not seem to have covered the classics or any particular sub-genre.

I'm more interested in the quality of the prose than any particular aspect of the story; she does not enjoy stories that are grim in the dystopian sense or otherwise unpleasant.

I'm obtaining everything through the library to begin with and'll only purchase a copy once I've determined what to send along, so if nothing else this is cheap entertainment for me.

Recommendations, please.
posted by mr. digits to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
In my limited experience in this genre, "quality of the prose" and "grim in the dystopian sense or otherwise unpleasant" tend to go together, at least some level of unpleasantness seems to be a part of good writing. But that could just be how my tastes run, however.

In any case, a book with a lovely, utopian future is Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. The story involves time travel from the present to the future. And the present time is quite unpleasant, so not sure if it quite fits what you are looking for. Perhaps others will have better suggestions.
posted by nanook at 10:01 AM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke
posted by mysticreferee at 10:06 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is a little more than you asked for (a four book series, compressed into two books), but if you want truly great science fiction and thoughtful, beautiful prose, here you go:

Gene Wolfe's 4 book series "The Book of the New Sun." A masterpiece.

Shadow & Claw: The First Half of 'The Book of the New Sun

Sword & Citadel: The Second Half of 'The Book of the New Sun'

posted by Auden at 10:14 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Martian by Andy Weir.
Best new sci-fi in a long time but in Classic style
posted by prk60091 at 10:22 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuin is wonderful and not grim. (Really, you could substitute most LeGuin here - I would also highly recommend Always Coming Home - but The Dispossessed is my favorite.)

Oh, and Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith.
posted by darchildre at 10:30 AM on December 20, 2014 [7 favorites]

Everything by Stanislaw Lem is great. Some of it is not grim.
posted by aws17576 at 10:43 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

... oops, sorry I overlooked the "not grim" part. Don't get the Gene Wolfe. Sorry about that.
posted by Auden at 10:45 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Iain M Banks, try the Algebraist

The Culture novels can be tough. But once you get into them they are absorbing.
posted by 15L06 at 10:46 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

seconding Stanislaw Lem. Some of it is outrageously funny.
posted by 15L06 at 10:48 AM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Came to recommend The Martian as well.
posted by backwards guitar at 10:51 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm just reading The Hydrogen Sonata by Banks, and it's lovely. Haven't read any of the other Culture books (yet) but I don't feel like I'm missing much.

Seconding Always Coming Home.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:54 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Second Book of the New Sun. You could also pick up an anthology of Gene Wolfe's short stories.
posted by Gymnopedist at 10:59 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love Stanislaw Lem, and would never hesitate to recommend The Cyberiad. Generally, Michael Kandel is your go-to translator for Lem (who wrote in Polish), and when you see the utter genius of the wordplay in The Cyberiad, I'm sure you'll agree.

I understand there's a new translation of Solaris that might be worth a damn even though it's not by Kandel, but the classic version of Solaris was translated to English from a French translation.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:09 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don't give up on Wolfe if your friend really, really won't handle grim stuff; just start with some other works of his--Fifth Head of Cerberus and Peace. New Sun is sort of grim but not, like, Frank Miller-grim. Really I can't recommend Wolfe highly enough.

Theodore Sturgeon's More than Human.

I like Howard Waldrop as much for his fun style as for his fun ideas, but it might be a bit self-reflexive if you haven't read much SF lately.

Michael Swanwick's Stations of the Tide, maybe, but you should probably just read Fifth Head of Cerberus instead.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 11:11 AM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

The Culture novels can be tough. But once you get into them they are absorbing.

I found The Player of Games to be a good gateway into the Culture novels (actually, I've found all the Culture novels I've read to be more rewarding than Book of the New Sun, but YMMV - I know Wolfe is a Metafilter favorite). Player of Games' premise is pretty novel, and you get a good sense of the world Banks has built; I think I followed that one up with Feersum Endjinn, which is also excellent but probably not so good as a first Culture book.

If she hasn't already read it, Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars (and the rest of the trilogy) is also a really engaging read.
posted by DingoMutt at 11:18 AM on December 20, 2014 [7 favorites]

I suppose Ursula k Le Guin's book The Lathe of Heaven could be considered grim in some ways... But it is such a beautiful, heartfelt, poetic, philosophic and humane work. And it's fairly short. One of my all time favorite science fiction books, one which transcends the genre and is simply a wonderful work of art.
posted by Auden at 11:21 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I came to recommend The Dispossessed and The Player Of Games, they're both beautifully written. There also both very similar books in lots of ways, and I think they'd benefit from being read in relatively quick succession. Also, they're both great intro books to longer series/universes, that also work as standalones.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:26 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm always recommending A Fisherman of the Inland Sea as a gateway to Le Guin. It's short stories, but they're really good.

What about Jeff Noon--maybe Vurt or Needle in the Groove? Maybe they're a little too grim (Vurt) or not sci-fi enough (Needle in the Groove) but I really like the writing.

Snow Crash? The story may be a little too over the top for your friend, but it has a lot of cool and interesting ideas on many, many topics. I like how the characters are written. (Same with Cryptonomicon, but not really sci-fi.)
posted by sevenless at 11:30 AM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ancillary Justice! It's so fantastic, I'm recommending it to everyone everywhere but particularly people who like the space-opera end of SF.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:36 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I came in to recommend Ancillary Justice, it's amazing.

Haven't read any of the other Culture books (yet) but I don't feel like I'm missing much.

You're wrong. You're missing a lot. They are some of the best books ever.
posted by biscotti at 11:41 AM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

"Otherwise unpleasant" is a tricky criterion, as there are lots of good, overall hopeful books that contain moments of considerable unpleasantness (e.g. the first scene with the antagonist in The Algebraist).

In addition to what's been mentioned above, I've enjoyed most of Jack McDevitt's work, which draws heavily on SF concepts (flying cars, FTL, spaceships, sometimes aliens) but is very much about how the human characters engage with these concepts. I'd suggest looking at the first in the Alex & Chase series A Talent for War or the standalone first-contact novel Infinity Beach. As a bonus (for this question), his works do contain mortal danger but not the kind of graphic violence seen in Banks.
posted by audi alteram partem at 11:49 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not sure I totally understand the parameters, but off the top of my head, a few things that are well-written with upbeat endings:

Neuromancer - William Gibson

The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester

Sandman Slim - Richard Kadrey

Altered Carbon - Richard K Morgan

Stations of the Tide and/or the Iron Dragon's Daughter - Michael Swanwick

This Perfect Day - Ira Levin

Rendezvous With Rama - Arthur C Clarke

The Light Of Other Days - Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter

Old Man's War - John Scalzi

Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card

Lord of Light and/or Doorways in the Sand - Roger Zelazny

Schismatrix - Bruce Sterling

Something More Than Night - Ian Tregillis

Wildside and/or Jumper - Steven Gould

Blood Music - Greg Bear

Job: A Comedy Of Justice - Robert Heinlein

The Hyperion Books - Dan Simmons

The Peace War and Marooned In Real-Time - Vernor Vinge

The Ophiuchi Hotline - John Varley

To Your Scattered Bodies Go - Philip Jose Farmer

Good Omens - Terry Pratchet and Neil Gaiman

The Stainless Steel Rat - Harry Harrison

Inferno - Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

And - if they can handle a single dim thread of hope amidst the bleakness and despair:

When Heaven Fell - William Barton

Let me know if you need more.
posted by doctor tough love at 12:22 PM on December 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

I just saw some nicely done new editions of Olivia Butler's work.
posted by sammyo at 12:36 PM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

"The Diamond Age" - Neil Stephenson

I found that one more enjoyable than "Snow Crash" (which is awesome too).
posted by hz37 at 12:41 PM on December 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

I recently read 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson's recent novel, and found it solid enough. It's a semi-plausible future in which a few pieces of only moderately magical-seeming technology have given human civilization the ability to spread throughout the solar system. Must be pretty much the sort of thing present-day proponents of colonizing Mars and Venus are thinking should happen. Pretty good if you don't mind some weird sex and Beethoven. It comes to mind as being the polar opposite of a grim dystopia.

Even better though is The Years of Rice and Salt.

The Algebraist was mentioned, and I'll second that as the best of Banks.
posted by sfenders at 1:08 PM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons. I've read a decent majority of the other books mentioned so far, and love a great many of them, but I think that, for prose, this series stands near the front of the crowd. The world, character and plot building is also fantastic; it's Epic Space Science Fiction written with exceptionally talented prosecraft.

(The Book of the New Sun could be neck and neck, but when considering its prose I would swing towards taking the fantasy not science fiction side of that ongoing argument.)

Also seconding Ursula le Guin, whose prose in any genre never displays a wasted word; The Left Hand of Darkness is my favourite of her science fiction.

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller Jr. are both beautifuly written classic post-apocalypse stories.

Air by Geoff Ryman is very well written story of an illiterate peasant woman in a central Asian village living through the information revolution as extrapolated into the near future.

The prose in Dune by Frank Herbert is maybe somewhat polarising; for my part, I adore its layering of sense of place and its intense use of characters' internal perspective in its narration.

Finally Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut has possibly the cleanest, most powerful prose of any science fiction I've read, but parts of it are both grim and unpleasant. I mention it because I feel the world would be a better place if everyone read it. It made me weep, and it made me feel like I had no right to weep, at the same time.
posted by protorp at 1:32 PM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

You're wrong. You're missing a lot. They are some of the best books ever.

Sorry, I meant I don't think I'm missing much in terms of backstory--the book seems fairly self-contained, not like reading only the third book of a trilogy.

Echoing Snow Crash! Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series is nicely written as well, and not particularly grim. Gritty in the sense of detailed and stuff not really smoothed over.

Spider & Jeanne Robinson's Stardance trilogy, while it has its faults, is a nice read.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:10 PM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

the Hyperion Cantos

The first book in the series is brilliant for sure, but a couple of large parts of it may fall into the category of "otherwise unpleasant". In fact I can't think of many fictional things more unpleasant than what happened to Father Duré in the Priest's Tale, and he doesn't even get impaled on a giant metallic tree of thorns.
posted by sfenders at 3:59 PM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh man, Hyperion gave me nightmares. It was amazing, but seriously, nightmares.

Upvotes for Wolfe (if you are tolerant of liberal use of obsolete words), though he might be considered grim (definitely not like The Road grim, though); the Cyberiad; Snow Crash and Diamond Age. I find the prose of the Culture books hard to follow, but apparently that's just me.

I'd add Ubik (Dick); Earth Abides (Stewart); Accelerando (Stross); A Fire Upon the Deep (Vinge).
posted by hishtafel at 8:31 PM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

I rarely read science fiction, but this previously made me want to read some Anne McCaffrey.
posted by clawsoon at 9:44 PM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Off the top of my head, the best sci fi book I read this year was John Scalzi's Lock In. It isn't grim or dystopian, is often funny, is unusual, and the writing is fine.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:10 AM on December 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

My only word of warning to add on The Hyperion Cantos is that it's basically 2 long novels in 4 volumes. The first volume, Hyperion, features a gathering of pilgrims, of a sort, who tell their tales (which are engaging as hell) but the entirety of this book is their travel to Hyperion, and I don't mean that in a "life is a journey" kind of way, I mean nothing happens except in their stories. In short, you will be kicking yourself if you don't have the second book, "The Fall of Hyperion" on ready standby as soon as you finish "Hyperion." Ditto for the second pair of novels, Endymion/Rise of Endymion.

Also, I'm reading "Altered Carbon" for the first time right now and it's got some majorly unpleasant stuff in it. It's a great read to be sure, but wow, there's a substantial sequence in which the protagonist is getting prolonged torture in the second section, followed by his murderous revenge. Good read, but it's not for the OP's friend, and maybe not for OP.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:44 AM on December 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

This year I read the entire Jean le Flambeur trilogy (starting with the Quantum Thief), sort of a post-post-human worlds hanging in the balance caper stuff. I found all three to be rollicking reads, and just blazed through them. The prose is interesting, so much of it is very post-human, but almost none of it is explained for the audience. You have to learn it and pick it up from context, a bit like Clockwork Orange in that respect, but there is a rhythm and musicality to it. Beautiful if very strange imagery. Each one are roughly standalone, but all three read together very very well and are a lot of fun.
posted by X-Himy at 6:48 AM on December 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Echoing Ancillary Justice; it's amazing.

The earlier (chronologically, not necessarily in publishing order) Miles Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold are fabulous madcap adventures with a brilliant main character. A few of the middle ones (Brothers in Arms, Mirror Dance, Memory) have some fairly grim moments. The Warrior's Apprentice is a good place to start.

C. J. Cherryh has some great SF. Favorites of mine include the whole Company Wars universe, the Chanur novels, the Morgaine cycle, and the earlier books of the Foreigner series. The Morgaine books include at least one dying world, so may possibly be on the grim side.

I'm also a long-time fan of Ursula K. Le Guin. Always Coming Home may be a bit abstruse? It's a blend of first-person narrative with anthropological and folkloric material from a might-be future California. I adore it, but I also loved reading the appendixes to The Lord of the Rings when I was fifteen, so I might be weird. The Left Hand of Darkness is very interesting; I enjoy most of the books in her Hainish universe, but especially some of the later ones (1990s and on). Her short stories are excellent too.
posted by velvet_n_purrs at 9:07 AM on December 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I personally might recommend Isaac Asimov's Foundation or Ursula LeGuin. However, some of LeGuin may venture into dystopian (Lathe of Heaven would be the most accessible for beginners, Dispossessed or Left Hand of Darkness are my favorites but may be a more difficult beginner's entry into science fiction), but her writing is beautiful.

This is NPR's list of top 100 if you would like to look at a list.
posted by typecloud at 10:57 AM on December 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for your help, everyone. It looks like I have a lot of fun to look forward to.
posted by mr. digits at 1:19 PM on December 23, 2014

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