Great SciFi Books that are not literate.
October 12, 2006 12:35 AM   Subscribe

Science fiction book recommendations please.

I want to compile a list of science fiction books that are/were great science fiction, but possibly not great literary fiction. I have this theory that sci-fi is mainly about the ideas and I'd like to compile a list of books that support this theory. It's for a creative writing lecturer friend of mine. This is great, but not exactly what I'm looking for. Any suggestions?
posted by seanyboy to Writing & Language (43 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps the Lensman series? Jurassic Park? Um...Startide Rising or any of the other uplift books? Crap, I hope David Brin isn't a Mefite and didn't just read that. This is a pretty comprehensive best-of list of for Sci Fi. I suppose you could just take your pick from the less academically recognized books.
posted by Loser at 12:53 AM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Asimov was definitely a writer of ideas who could not maintain a credible prose style to save his life. If you want a specific book, I suppose you might as well take the Foundation trilogy, though his most awkward prose passages (and his biggest ideas) were probably in his short stories. In the thread you link to, languagehat quotes a perfect exemplary passage. "Harroway had no doubts on the point of to whom he owed his job." Hrm.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:56 AM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

I find The Sheep Look Up a little more disturbing every year, just because it seems a little more ordinary every year.

Player Piano is a great book, too.
posted by flabdablet at 1:13 AM on October 12, 2006

The list of sci-fi books that aren't action/adventure stories is not very long. Without losing much, you could rewrite most of them as historical stories about cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, Allies and Axis, spy vs spy, guns and planes and girls.

There always is a Nifty Idea at the center that helps to keep the nifty-needy reader entertained -- we're going to the middle of the earth! we're so tiny that we can take a submarine into a guy's bloodstream! -- but that just puts different masks on the bad guys. What makes the story entertaining is the action/adventure stuff. The drive is whether they will get away, find the secret, win.

Not, however, whether they will fall in love, get married, have children. You won't find many sci-fi stories like the Time Traveler's Wife, which is all love story, light on the action/adventure tussles, zero percent gadgets, and seventy-five percent naked man. It does have an idea, a niftiness (the time traveling), at the center, however, despite being a romance novel in all other ways. Maybe to look for sci-fi without the ideas at the center is to look for something other than sci-fi. Like looking for a solar system without a sun.
posted by pracowity at 1:28 AM on October 12, 2006

Player Piano is a great book, too.

But it is not well written? Nnh?
posted by Wolof at 1:33 AM on October 12, 2006

flabdablet writes "Player Piano is a great book, too."

I've gotta defend Vonnegut, here. His prose might be simple and direct, but that's a well-considered artistic choice, and I certainly wouldn't call it "not literate". Player Piano might not be "great literary fiction", but on purely literary terms, it's stronger than 95% of the genre.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:35 AM on October 12, 2006

For a recent author, I'd choose Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.

He's got great ideas, but sometimes I think he's simultaneously writing with ADHD and Asperger's syndrome.

In Cryptonomicon, there is a section about the main character eating Cap'N Crunch cereal. The whole transition to this scene is a little odd, but then he gets rather detailed in the whole eating process. I think the whole scene runs at least 6 pages.
posted by Cog at 2:02 AM on October 12, 2006

Robert L. Forward was a 'hard' science fiction author who basically wrote books to illustrate scientific ideas. They're not 'great literature' by any means, but they're not pulp either; really they're all about the science and the ideas. Sounds like they'd support your theory.
posted by Rubber Soul at 2:07 AM on October 12, 2006

I'd say a good many of Philip K. Dick's novels & stories would fit your bill: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a good example of great ideas standing out of some flat & occasionally clunky prose.
posted by misteraitch at 2:40 AM on October 12, 2006

John E. Stith is kind of similar. 'Redshift Rendevous' in particular is about explaining Relativity in the guise of a story.

James P. Hogan might be considered similarly a hard SF author who illustrates big ideas in the guise of stories. 'The Two Faces of Tomorrow' comes to mind immediately as does 'Code of the Lifemaker.'

David Gerrold could certainly count as well, 'When Harlie Was One' is an SF classic filled with some great ideas, but it probably doesn't count as great literature (whatever that is).

However, as a counter example to your thesis I'd claim that Stanislaw Lem is an SF author who's works were filled with great ideas, and should also count as great literature. If you haven't read 'The Cyberiad' yet, you really owe it to yourself to - not that everything else he produced wasn't brilliant, that's just my favourite.
posted by mock at 3:02 AM on October 12, 2006

Greg Bear is an author whom I've always found to have fantastic ideas, but is particularly hard to read (for me). Others may disagree. The Eon Series in particular.
posted by antifuse at 3:06 AM on October 12, 2006

I'm not sure your idea is terribly supportable. If you look back in the early days of SF, there was a lot of really bad writing of some very good ideas. But by and large, SF authors have developed a great deal, and I think you'll find that the average SF novel is just as good as most other mainstream books, if not better.

That said, of course you can pick out klunkers, even recent ones. Neuromancer has horrible writing. It's actively uncomfortable to read.

James P. Hogan has been around forever, and at one time he was just an absolutely atrocious writer with some very good ideas. The last time I read him was his 1983 novel "Code of the Life Maker", which had some seriously good ideas (for 1983) in a prose style I loathed. I got through it, and I remember the book twenty years later, but wow did I despise the style.

For a contrary example, read Lord of Light by Zelazny. It is very possibly the finest-written SF novel ever done. It is subtle, understated, complex, and sneaks up on you. You are in the hands of a master, but it takes awhile to feel just how deep his mastery was.

The opening page:
"His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could.

Therefore, there was mystery about him.

It was in the season of the rains..."
It's quiet. It will not hit you in the face with a 2x4. But it is incredibly good.
posted by Malor at 3:15 AM on October 12, 2006

Another thought: the Honor Harrington series. Fairly interesting ideas, tolerable-at-best writing. Eric Flint's 1632 series is another example. (both from Baen Books.)

I believe 1 or 2 of the Honor Harrington novels are in the Baen Free Library, so you can check them out at no cost. Online, even.
posted by Malor at 3:22 AM on October 12, 2006

Everyone should have a copy of this. Some of the stories are dated but man, that guy could write!
posted by black8 at 3:31 AM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Aside from seconding Zelasny's "Lord of Light," I'd also like to point out one particular work of P. K. Dick's, namely "The Man in the High Castle," as well as F. Pohl's "The Starbow at the End of the Universe." Personally, it would be hard for me not to classify those great SF works (among others) as sheerly brilliant literature.
posted by rudster at 4:16 AM on October 12, 2006

The idea of a sci-fi author with fascinating ideas but awful prose was pretty well explored by Vonnegut: Kilgour Trout, patron saint of bad writers!
posted by Paragon at 4:28 AM on October 12, 2006

The early William Gibson stuff is good - right up until the point where someone actually explained to him how to use a computer (was that at "Idoru"?) and it all went downhill after that. Imagination really shouldn't be shackled by knowing what the heck you're on about. I'm partial to "Count Zero", personally, although the genre has been pretty much mined out by imitators.

Failing that, China Mieville writes well, although there's a certain sameness of flavour after a while in his brand of the bizarre.

Ah..and I really liked David Zindell's space opera stuff. Poet assassins indeed.
posted by ninazer0 at 4:36 AM on October 12, 2006

Peter F Hamilton? His attempts at writing female characters are ludicrously bad (in a way which makes this probably the most notable feature of his work) and the endings of all of the books of his that I've read have been deplorable deus ex machina fuck-ups, but what you get along the way is full of interesting ideas.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:38 AM on October 12, 2006

...and I just noticed that you're after books rather than authors. So Fallen Dragon and The Reality Dysfunction.

Another one I can think of is Hugh Cook. His post-apocalyptic SF/fantasy books break most of the rules of literary writing and are sometimes just silly (as well as nasty, existential and harshly misanthropic), but I love them anyway. The Worshippers and the Way is the purest SF, but even the most fantasy-like of them have a bit of it in there.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:51 AM on October 12, 2006

Best answer: The Hugo and Nebula awards should be a pretty good guide to what is valued in science fiction. Here is a list of books that won both awards.

The Niven/Pournelle collaboration produced a lot of terrific idea-driven books, probably the best-regarded of which is The Mote In Gods Eye (nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula). I also like Asimov's The Gods Themselves which won both. Neither of these are famous because of their great prose or characters.
posted by teleskiving at 5:05 AM on October 12, 2006

Best answer: Hey seanyboy here are a couple of self-links.

Brief reviews of the Science Fiction Book Club's Top 50. This will probably give you some direction into what author's are idea-based as I understand your meaning of the word.

My review of Dark Matter: Sci Fi from the African Diaspora.

Perhaps your question isn't worded exactly the way that you want it, but I would suggest that simply finding books that support your theory ensures confirmation bias. I do think that the general science fiction reader is more interested in the idea than the exposition of it. And the best science fiction has both a strong idea and strong literary ambition. [For my purposes, I'm defining "idea" as anything in the book that makes it a science fiction novel.]

The Sci-Fi of the 60s 70s and 80s will probably be your best source for idea-based storytelling. Definitely read Dangerous Visions, if you've not. Philip K. Dick is probably the quintessential mind-bending idea-man, but it can easily be argued that works like Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and Mark Z. Danielewski's works are also science fiction, although they are marketed as literature. Same for Vonnegut as has already been mentioned. Samuel R. Delany is probably the most literary science fiction author.

In terms of storytelling chops I find Gene Wolfe to be extraordinary. And this is where I most strongly defend my taste for sci-fi instead of contemporary literature. A good science fiction tale offers the same quality of drama and humor, tragedy and pathos as a contemporary novel, with the addition of and in the context of a world unlike our own. This permits a better examination and illumination of human behavior since it isn't automatically associated with a familiar environment.

Ursula K. LeGuin, in my opinion, is the best science fiction writer, period. Her ease in forming strange cultural systems [a legacy from her father, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber] gives her works broad human appeal while framing her humanism in a subversive manner. The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, and her collection of short stories called The Birthday of the World are books I'll reread for my entire life.

Kate Wilhelm and John Brunner [The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar, especially] are both worth looking in to.

I do agree that there is much sci-fi out there with the goal of "merely" telling an entertaining story that is easy to digest. Sturgeon's Law definitely applies [Read his If All Men Were Brother's Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? in Dangerous visions to see him at his most tactical] to sci-fi, but there is just as much "merely" entertaining storytelling going on in the regular fiction stacks.

To summarize:

Good idea authors who focus less on literary-prose-quality include Philip K. Dick, Orson Scott Card, Robert Heinlein, Gregory Benford, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip Jose Farmer and Joe Haldeman. [Haldeman I should note, writes ridiculously interesting existential stories, read All My Sins Remembered!]

Good literary science fiction authors who have strong ideas as well: Gene Wolfe, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. LeGuin, Pynchon, Danielewski.

Good literary science fiction authors without strong ideas:
I can't think of any, because without the good idea, they won't write sci-fi.

Hope my opinionations help more than hinder.
posted by sciurus at 5:10 AM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

James P. Hogan might be considered similarly a hard SF author who

...suffered multiple visits from the Brain Eater.

The Brain Eater is a monster that walks up to unsuspecting SF authors and Eats their Brains, leaving them prone to all manner of crank ideas instead of good ones.

In Hogan's case, he's become a rabid Velikoskian who seriously believes that Earth was a moon of Saturn during the time of the dino-sours, and that the gravity of Saturn up in the sky was what allowed brontomasauruses to have such long necks.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:16 AM on October 12, 2006

Velikovskian, that is.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:17 AM on October 12, 2006

Good ideas, not good writers:Greg Egan, Phillip Jose Farmer, Harry Harrison.
Good ideas and good writers: M John Harrison, David Mitchell.
posted by asok at 6:04 AM on October 12, 2006

Not strictly sci-fi, (but some of his stuff has aliens in) but I love Harry Turtledove's alternative history books for the concepts and the theories, but he may have a program running on an Apple IIe somewhere that actually generates his characters and dialog for him, it can be that bad.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:36 AM on October 12, 2006

While Asimov and his Foundation series have been mentioned in genereal - Foundations Edge is awful. The story is interesting and the ideas interesting (to a point), but the writing is beyond awful.

I never realized until I listened to it as an audio book. I learned speed-reading at an early age, so I have a knack for skipping the crap and going right for the juice, so I never noticed the craptacular writing. But, in an audio book you have to listen to every single god damned word.

Most of the words suck. It's filled with argument after pendantic argument between the main characters about the various concepts being explored in the book.
The conversations (the primary expository method) are clunky, halting and ridiculous. The awful writing also shows just how socially backwards Asimov was.

Foundation and Earth is similarly awful.

As for Neal Stephenson's work - some of it is hard to read. And Snow Crash has its difficult moments. But, at least Stephenson can write interesing prose. The quality of his writing seems to vary from chapter to chapter, but his good writing is far better than Asimov's. I found the first few pages of snow crash (about the deliverator) to be a brilliant opening and scene setting, though the middle part with the librarian was a little tough.

Asimov, on the other hand, is pretty universally dry and his prose scarcely moves beyond the functional, which is too bad. Given the number of books he's written, you'd think he'd have acquired some sort of literary skill.
posted by jaded at 6:56 AM on October 12, 2006

I think in general, writers that decide they're so awesome that they don't want any goddamn editors changing one goddamn word of their perfect prose are candidates for your list.

Evidence: Anne Rice starting around Queen of the Damned, Tom Clancy around the time of Debt of Honor, Larry Niven and The Ringworld Throne.

These authors all still had good ideas, but their writing went from good or at least passable to unreadable drek. And the thing is, because they have strong fanbases, they probably didn't see a dip in sales or experience any other sort of negative feedback.

But, overall, writers that were important SF writers also tend to be excellent writers whose works are also considered to be very literary.
posted by bshort at 7:18 AM on October 12, 2006

I have this theory that sci-fi is mainly about the ideas and I'd like to compile a list of books that support this theory.

The problem is that your theory is wrong and your approach is meaningless. You can compile as long a list as you want and someone who disagrees with you will come back with an equally long list of books that don't fit your theory. Why don't you just say "the sf [not "sci-fi," please] that appeals to me is mainly about the ideas"? Then all you need to ask for is other books of the kind you like so that you can enjoy them. Leave the creative writing lecturer friend out of it.
posted by languagehat at 7:35 AM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you refer to science fiction as sci-fi, anybody knowledgeable about the genre will dismiss your opinions out of hand.

Yes, science fiction often has a gee-whiz aspect to it. That doesn't necessarily make it "about the ideas." An awful lot of sf writers are actually writing about human nature (what's essential to our nature and what's only a product of our own times?), or criticizing their own society (see the large body of dystopia lit). It's more common for the "ideas" to be a tool that allows the writer to explore what they really want to talk about, than to be the point of the book themselves.
posted by joannemerriam at 8:03 AM on October 12, 2006

I want to compile a list of science fiction books that are/were great science fiction, but possibly not great literary fiction. I have this theory that sci-fi is mainly about the ideas and I'd like to compile a list of books that support this theory.

I agree with sciurus and languagehat. You can't use books which support your theory in order to test your theory. Maybe I don't understand your intent, but this is what it seems to be. You need to fix your methodology.
posted by halonine at 8:07 AM on October 12, 2006

Anything by Heinlein.
posted by radioamy at 8:31 AM on October 12, 2006

Response by poster: I think you misunderstand what I mean by "about the ideas". Societal Criticism and explorations of human nature both fall under the "ideas" category for me.

Also, languagehat, my argument/theory goes a little something like:
Me: Great Science Fiction doesn't have to be well written.
Them: All great literature must be well written.
Me: But not science fiction. It's more about the ideas.
Them: No it isn't.
Me: I'll show you some books which may not be well written, but are considered to be great science fiction.

I just don't think that science fiction can or should be assessed based purely on quality of writing. This is contrary to other genres of writing. I like a well written book as much as the next person, but science fiction needs to be judged based on a different template. You probably disagree with this, but I assure you - I'm right about this one.

Also, anyone criticising science fiction needs to be aware of the "science fiction" canon. What I'm trying to do is fill in some canonical blanks. Poe, Shelley, Gibson, Bradbury & Lem all exist to a degree within the standard literate canon. Asimov & Heinlein do not.
posted by seanyboy at 8:32 AM on October 12, 2006

If you weaken your theory to "Great science fiction books don't necessarily have to have high literary quality" then you can support that with a single example; any further examples help to defend against the possible counterargument that "Such-and-such book was a one-off".

I agree that any stronger statement of the point needs to be supported by a properly thought through statistical methodology.
posted by teleskiving at 8:39 AM on October 12, 2006

If you weaken your theory to "Great science fiction books don't necessarily have to have high literary quality" then you ...will end up with people telling you that that's because science fiction is a lesser genre with lower expectations.
I am not saying so, but I imagine folks will.
posted by zoinks at 9:12 AM on October 12, 2006

I just don't think that science fiction can or should be assessed based purely on quality of writing.

But that's a statement of personal attitude, not a theory that can be proved, disproved, or supported. Your friend isn't interested in genre fiction that isn't well written; what are you going to say, "Yeah, well me and a bunch of other people think it's great?" So what? Why would that change his mind? Frankly, I've gotten a lot less interested in badly written sf over the years, though when I was 13 I read almost nothing but sf and devoured it all happily, well written or not.

And like zoinks said, what you're really getting across is the idea that "science fiction is a lesser genre with lower expectations." Which (from a literary point of view) is true.
posted by languagehat at 9:21 AM on October 12, 2006

I just don't think that science fiction can or should be assessed based purely on quality of writing.

Well, works of literature, in general, aren't assessed purely on the quality of the writing. You can have the most elegant, beautiful sentence in the world, but if the ideas underlying it are trite or uninteresting, then it's not really worth much.
posted by bshort at 9:45 AM on October 12, 2006

I think your premise is basically correct. There are science fiction authors who write prose that is as interesting and engaging (in my opinion) as anything literary fiction has to offer (Bester, Bradbury, Letham, Lem). There are authors who write capable and fun but highly stylized prose that might not be accepted in mainstream literature (Gibson, Stephenson). There are authors who have their own particular quirky styles that are distinctive but not great (Heinlein, Herbert, Asimov, who can write dialog until the cows come home, but can't write action to save his life). There is a large contingent of authors whose prose is basically just functional and gets the point across without a lot of bells and whistles (Card, Brin, Niven). Finally there are a small number of authors (Dick is that only one I can think of right now) whose prose is totally inelegant, but their ideas are so interesting we forgive them. I think it does come down to a balance between elegance and ideas. I think science fiction readers forgive authors for workmanlike or even clunky prose if their ideas are interesting enough.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 9:48 AM on October 12, 2006

Well, one writer I've heard people rave about (but I personally can't finish a book by) is Kim Stanley Robinson. Looking at some summaries and reviews, however, I seem to be in the minority.

Maybe I should be a bit more general and say, "anything classified as hard science fiction," which I think is generally considered to be more about the exploration of the ideas and less about plot and character development.
posted by timepiece at 10:01 AM on October 12, 2006

IMHO, one of the best contemporary SF writers is Jack McDevitt. Chindi and Omega are two of his best. Great writing and character development.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 10:16 AM on October 12, 2006

Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
posted by w_boodle at 11:04 AM on October 12, 2006

I think you misunderstand what I mean by "about the ideas". Societal Criticism and explorations of human nature both fall under the "ideas" category for me.

Thanks for clarifying - I thought you meant specifically scientific ideas. (Although I'll point out that a lot of the literary canon taught in universities is also about ideas, if societal criticisms and explorations of human nature are included.)

I would argue that the quality of the writing was often incidental to the popularity of a sf novel, especially in the early days (I think this is becoming less and less the case, as the genre matures). But when we re-read older works, we're looking for different things - the gee-whiz aspect of the science has much less force than it originally did (since, through the passage of time, it's become either familiar or proven to be wrong). The ideas stop being enough to carry us through the bookl, because they aren't startling or original anymore. Nobody reads Frankenstein and says, "a scientist creating a monster?! Who would think of such a crazy thing?!" We continue to read it because of Shelley's compelling character development and chilling prose.

Look back at the awards listings for any major literary award and you'll see that what people prize in the year it's written is more often than not forgotten about fifty or a hundred years later. What lasts is excellently written. That's what makes it great literature. The ideas aren't enough, by themselves. (Of course, the corollary that good writing isn't enough without substance is also true.)
posted by joannemerriam at 2:20 PM on October 12, 2006

Everyone keeps skating around Asimov...personally, I agree with everything being said about his ability to write, but to answer the question, I think the most influential of his works are his robot stories. As much as I enjoyed the Foundation Trilogy (in spite of its questionable writing), I don't see that many of its ideas being as well-known in the rest of the world as his concepts of how robots should behave toward humans.

I'll go on record as disagreeing with whoever said Neuromancer was unreadable. I've enjoyed everything he's written, though I think Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition are by far my favorites.
posted by lhauser at 4:54 PM on October 12, 2006

Ted Chiang's Stories of your Life.
Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood
posted by dhruva at 6:38 PM on October 12, 2006

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