Good hard sf or biography book suggestions
December 12, 2003 10:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the process of trying to buy Christmas presents for my father and his wife. My father likes science fiction (hard, mostly) and I've had luck with Vernor Vinge and Neal Stephenson in the past. His wife... doesn't, although I am told she likes biographies. Can anyone recommend some good hard sf or biographies that might go over well?
posted by Karmakaze to Media & Arts (36 answers total)
If he hasn't read the Isaac Asimov Foundation series, I highly recommend it. (Start with Foundation, not Prelude to Foundation).
posted by nthdegx at 10:06 AM on December 12, 2003

Philip K Dick's The Man In The High Castle
posted by matteo at 10:07 AM on December 12, 2003

Is Ender's Game too simple? I was never a big sci-fi fan, but the Ender's Game series has some incredible character writing and is pretty impossible to put down.

On Preview: There's that short story collection by Philip K. Dick, too.
posted by gramcracker at 10:08 AM on December 12, 2003

How about a biography of Isaac Asimov? They can both read it have a great discussion!
posted by me3dia at 10:12 AM on December 12, 2003

Response by poster: I'm pretty sure he's been through Asimov and the Ender series.

me3ia - do you know a good bio of Asimov? He's an interesting enough guy there should be a good one somewhere.
posted by Karmakaze at 10:14 AM on December 12, 2003

For SF, one can't go wrong with Lois McMaster Bujold. I got my dad one of her books last year for Christmas--he likes mainly hard SF--and he really liked it. Go with either Cordelia's Honor or The Young Miles.

As for biographies, this is an excellent biography of Helen Keller. Also this one about Dorothy L. Sayers bio is good, or this one about Roy Chapman Andrews. I'd recommend R.F. Foster's Yeats biographies, but volume 1 is $35 and volume 2 is $45. And I've not read Volume 2 yet, as it's just come out.
posted by eilatan at 10:16 AM on December 12, 2003

I'd recommend the newish Peter Sellers bio, if she likes him already, or Madeleine Albright's new autobiography.
posted by amberglow at 10:17 AM on December 12, 2003

My all time favorite biography is "The Last Lion" by William Manchester, the most delightfully entertaining account of Churchill's extraordinary life. It was to be a three volume set, but sadly Manchester is not up to finishing the third, which was to encompass the war and twilight years.
The first, Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, about Churchill's youthful escapades and the end of the Victorian world, is one of the most engaging biographies you'll ever read.

The second, Alone, about his years playing Casandra in the wilderness, gets a little more bogged down in politics in places, but it has a far more grand historic narrative - and a happy ending, of course.
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:18 AM on December 12, 2003

Try Iain M. Banks (the Culture novels) and Stephen Baxter (stories in the Xeelee Sequence).
posted by bshort at 10:19 AM on December 12, 2003

Or there's also My Early Life by Churchill himself, which is shorter and even more fun than Manchester.
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:21 AM on December 12, 2003

On the biography front, Claire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys is outstanding.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:24 AM on December 12, 2003

This discussion about contemporary sci-fi may help, as well.
posted by bshort at 10:24 AM on December 12, 2003

For SF, I enthusiastically second Iain M. Banks, especially Use of Weapons and Excession. If he's into space-opera, get him Peter F. Hamilton's Reality Disfunction series (6 books in all).

The best Bio I've read was Paul Auster's Hand to Mouth.
posted by signal at 10:29 AM on December 12, 2003

Hey Karmakaze.

Robert J. Sawyer's award-winning "Quintaglio Ascension" (Farseer, Fossil Hunter, Foreigner) is one of the best hard sf trilogies I've ever read. Another world where dinosaurs evolved, mimicking (through perhaps a touch of e.t. providence) human development. Pheremones and physiology bump up against astronomy, psychoanalysis and evolutionary theory. It's fascinating stuff, and the best thing Sawyer's written (though one of his other early novels, Starplex is a solid single-book space SF delight). Sawyer is very well known in Canada, and although he's been Nebula/Hugo nominated, I'm not sure if he has much of a reputation in the States.

I'm coming up blank on the biography issue, for some reason... nothing I've read recently was fantastic.
posted by Marquis at 10:29 AM on December 12, 2003

Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is science fiction-y (at least from my perspective, as someone who doesn't really read sci-fi). Plus, I have vowed to sing Murakami's praises at every opportunity. This is amazing stuff.
posted by jpoulos at 10:39 AM on December 12, 2003

Get The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert Caro (available on Amazon.) It's four volumes and probably about 6,000 pages all told, but well worth it. Caro's also got an excellent biography of Robert Moses.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 10:40 AM on December 12, 2003

I'll second the recommendations for Banks (one of my favourites), Sawyer and Baxter. Greg Egan is another highly acclaimed hard sf author, although I've only read one of his books, so I can't give any thoughts on his opus. You might also want to check out David Brin's Uplift series.

Murakami, while a fantastic author, is more along the lines of Magical Realism than any kind of sf. Oh, and if you enjoy Hardboiled... also check out A Wild Sheep Chase.
posted by sauril at 10:47 AM on December 12, 2003

I'll second/third/whatever Banks. I think that The Player of Games is a good introduction to the Culture, but then I'm some sort of filthy pervert.

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others.

Greg Egan, absolutely anything. I'd particularly recommend Distress or the collection Axiomatic

Ken MacLeod, either series (they're easy to tell apart in the store). Start with The Star Fraction or Cosmonaut Keep.

There's a good collection of Greg Bear short stories.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:52 AM on December 12, 2003

SF pioneer Judith Merril's terrific memoir, edited by her granddaugher Emily is a great read.
posted by judith at 10:54 AM on December 12, 2003

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars. Hard to beat.

And anything by William Gibson, of course - paper-thin characters, but what a prescient imagination, and a great writer to boot.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:17 AM on December 12, 2003

This is actually a memoir, not a biography, but I would highly recommend Ghost Light by Frank Rich. Rich is a columnist/drama critic for the NYTimes, and the book is about his tough childhood and how he used musical theater to escape his everyday problems...sort of a limp synopsis, I know. It's poignant without being sugary and it's extremely well-written.

It features an evil-stepfather character so if your relationship is not that great w/ your dad's wife, you might want to pass on it, though.
posted by contessa at 11:57 AM on December 12, 2003

The best biography I've ever read was about the novelist Honore de Balzac. He lead a fascinating and really sad life.
posted by iconomy at 12:04 PM on December 12, 2003

Iain [M.] Banks may be my favourite contemporary sci-fi writer, but to be honest, I don't think the Culture series is "hard" SF. (The same goes for the couple of stand-alones.) The physics/science of everything is pretty much ignored - what's important is the whimsy, the scope, the limitless possibility. It's great fiction, but if somebody distinguishes himself as a fan of hard sf, Banks isn't the best choice. Ditto for Gibson and Asimov. (But then, I find most of the hard sf royalty to be boring, style-less clods. See: K.S. Robinson, Greg Egan.)
posted by Marquis at 12:05 PM on December 12, 2003

Not sure I'd call Neal Stephenson hard SF, but anyhow...the best SF I've read in a long time is the Hyperion/Endymion tetralogy by Dan Simmons. Really genre-bending stuff that has elements of horror.

And it's not everyone's cup of tea, and doesn't look like SF at first glance, but the Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe is amazing. IMHO.

For hard SF, I like Greg Bear too.
posted by adamrice at 12:28 PM on December 12, 2003

Mostly recent, mostly golden skiffy:

- Rosemary Kirsten: The Steerswoman/ Outskritter's Secret and the new Lost Steersman. Looks like Extruded Fantasy Product, but *spoiler*.

- Will McCarthy: Bloom , Collapsium and Wellstone. Collapsium is probably the best of the three.

- Scott Westerfield: Evolution's Darling and The Risen Empire

- Katherine Rusch: The Dissappered and Extremes

- Walter Jon Williams: Metropolitan and City on Fire are his best (if you can find them). The Praxis reads like he's had a brain swap with David Weber, but is still worthwhile.
posted by bonehead at 12:49 PM on December 12, 2003

I thought that The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less was a good biography/memoir. Sorry, no suggestions for the SF.
posted by nramsey at 12:55 PM on December 12, 2003

Get The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert Caro (available on Amazon.) It's four volumes and probably about 6,000 pages all told, but well worth it.

Actually, he's only finished the first three volumes, right?

The best biography I've come across is Peter Guralnick's two volumes on Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love.
posted by staggernation at 1:03 PM on December 12, 2003

do you know a good bio of Asimov?

I haven't read one, so I can't recommend, but there are a couple biographies listed on Amazon, and he wrote a three part autobiography. The autobio-trilogy has been condensed into one volume, which seems to get fairly high marks.

So there's a start.
posted by me3dia at 1:53 PM on December 12, 2003

I'd caution against Asimov. He's super-dry as far as writer's go. Not a lot to enjoy there.

Someone who's a little more obscure, but probably one of the best science fiction writers out there is Jack Vance. His oeuvre is enormous, but you could start with something like "Eyes of the Overworld".
posted by rocketman at 2:22 PM on December 12, 2003

Did someone say hard SF? Do you mean really hard? Greg Egan (MeFi discussion here). I'd highly recommend Permutation City and Diaspora to start with.
posted by ook at 3:24 PM on December 12, 2003

I know nothing about SciFi, but here are some good best in Biography

John Keats by Walter Jackson
Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain by Justin Kaplan
The Life and Times of Cotton Mather by Kenneth Silverman
Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan
Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough (or really anything by McCullough, if she hasn't read them all already)
Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick
Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel
Lawrence of Arabia by Jeremy Wilson
Any historical biography by Alison Weir
James Thurber : His life and times by Harrison Kinney
posted by anastasiav at 3:32 PM on December 12, 2003

I heartily second the Greg Egan recommendation, but I think Diaspora is proabably the least accessible of his books for people who aren't used to the hard stuff. I'd say go for Distress or Teranesia, or if you can find them, his books of short stories, Axiomatic and Luminous.

Also, what everyone else said.
posted by majcher at 5:23 PM on December 12, 2003

Damn, AskMeFi is great. I didn't know anyone else who loved Banks and Murakami.
posted by fuzz at 5:23 PM on December 12, 2003

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, for the best of both worlds.

If she's interested in biography, she may also be interested in history; how about H.G. Wells's 'A Short History of the World'?
posted by plep at 5:31 AM on December 13, 2003

Autobiography :- 'Black Boy', by Richard Wright.
posted by plep at 7:42 AM on December 13, 2003

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