Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My newly assembled sci-fi reading list!

On Monday, I asked readers for recommendations of science fiction writers I should try, and wow, have you folks come through! If this is a topic that interests you, I recommend you go read the comments to the post, because many people were kind enough to offer a bit of detail along with their recommendations, but I figure it's worth my posting a tally or summary of sorts here.

Here are the names offered up thus far, with vote totals in parenthesis and a bit of commentary here and there as seems warranted.
  • Gregory Benford
  • Alfred Bester (3): Clearly I'm going to have to try Bester. (Side note: longtime Chicagoans will remember when there was a sci-fi bookstore on Belmont named after his best-known novel, The Stars Our Destination.)
  • James Blish: Atticus warns me to stay away from Blish's Star Trek books, not realizing that the one area of sci-fi in which I've read deeply (aside from Asimov) . . . is Star Trek novels. I read probably seventy-five of them in middle school and high school. Such is youth?
  • Octavia Butler: I've actually read one Butler, Fledgling (2005). Though it suffered a bit from being the first of a planned series, which Butler's accidental death prevented from continuing, it was definitely interesting enough to make me want to read more.
  • John Crowley: Oh, have I read Crowley. But I've not read Engine Summer, the closest thing to straight sci-fi he's written.
  • Thomas Disch (4): Disch was the winner in this unscientific poll. I've not read him at all, though David Auerbach's essay on his work at the Millions last year nearly convinced me. Should I start with On Wings of Song, as marco suggests?
  • R. A. Lafferty (3): Anonymous wrote that Lafferty "is not afraid of extravagant language." "Be ye not afraid of extravagant language" would make a nice motto; I think I'll be checking Lafferty out.
  • China Mieville: I tried The City and the City, and while the concept was fascinating, I felt like the characters weren't very substantial, and I couldn't keep going.
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Ian McDonald: This suggestion, from Thomas, a bookseller friend from 57th Street Books, is the only one I've already acted on. I'm about 40% of the way through McDonald's Brasyl and am really impressed so far. (And this can serve as a reminder: if you don't have a local bookstore that you haunt often enough that the booksellers hand you things they think you'll like, you're really missing out on one of life's great pleasures.)
  • Dan Simmons
  • John Sladek (2): Atticus describes him as "very funny," which is always a plus in my book.
  • The Strugatsky Brothers
  • Michael Swanwick
  • James Tiptree, Jr.: Ed Park seconded this one via e-mail.
  • Jack Vance
I'll definitely be giving a lot of these authors a try; thanks to everyone who took the time to make suggestions. In gratitude, I'll pass on one of my own, courtesy of Ed Park: back in February he used his Astral Weeks column in the Los Angeles Times to recommend a one-a-week, year-long sci-fi diet consisting of the fifty-two stories in The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Ed wrote,
his big book is both a thrilling entertainment and a convincing argument for the way SF can refresh the mind, play boldly with form and reflect its era creatively — in other words, what all good literature should do.
Now that I've got sci-fi on the brain, I think I'll start on the Wesleyan diet this weekend.


  1. I must have missed that discussion, I was having a busy day on Monday!...

    James Blish's "A Case of Conscience" is one of only a handful of novels that Brent has metaphorically pressed on me.

    Are you following Jo Walton's reread of Hugo and Nebula winners at the blog?

    I just read and LOVED Neal Stephenson's "Anatham" - slow start, as I said on-blog, but I am certain it would be much more to your taste than for instance China Mieville.

    Not SF as such, but Charles Stross's "Atrocity Archives" is a book I am certain will delight you - I liked "Accelerando" quite a bit too, and that is the one that would probably be more strongly endorsed by the truly SFional.

    Also - but surely you must have! - if you never read Isaac Asimov's Foundation books when you are a kid, they are unmissable for the ten-year-old in us!

  2. Somehow I missed Monday's post. I hope I'm not too late! Here are a few more recommendations:

    Adolfo Bioy Cesares- The Invention of Morel: You probably already know this one, but a great virtual reality novel

    Christopher Priest - Inverted World: Great mind-warping, very well-written different perspective on reality stuff

    Frederick Pohl – Gateway: fun and clever take on dreams being made true--ancient alien gateways in space produce wondreous and amazing things, but the getting of them is extremely risky

    Greg Egan – Axiomatic: best collection of brilliant stories by this Australian author; intelligently and satisfyingly explores in 30 pages what lesser writers would use to produce a padded 1000p trilogy

    John Christopher - The Death of Grass/No Blade of Grass: especially good example of the 1950s "quiet catastrophe", ala John Wyndham

    Peter Watts - Blindsight: best recent SF novel I've read, explores nature of intelligence, and its total uncoupling from consciousness, plus it's really thrilling

    Robert Charles Wilson - The Chronoliths: superb examination of history being warped by actions of future time travellers, very well written

    Robert Silverberg - Dying Inside: the ultimate Jewish-man-with-fading-potency novel, but about telepathy

    Russell Hoban - Riddley Walker: you probably know this one already

    Stanislaw Lem - His Master's Voice: on the impossibility of communication with completely alien societies

    Strugatsky brothers - Roadside Picnic: source for 'Stalker', absoultely gripping

    Ted Chiang - Stores of Your Life and Others: more amazingly good short fiction

  3. What's cool about Anathem is that it uses language-building as a means of world-building. It introduces a vast made-up vocabulary that slowly gains life as you explore the made-up world. I guess Tolkien, Burgess, and many others did the same thing, but it's still impressive.

    I've begun delving into Julian May's Galactic Milieu books, starting with Intervention. It seems very worthwhile so far.

  4. Speaking of Hoban...maybe also stuff like THE MEDUSA FREQUENCY and ANGELICA'S GROTTO...

    And speaking of Greg Egan...*Jennifer* Egan's new book, I can't recommend it enough, by the end it sort of blends into the future, and why not call that SF?

    And Chiang, Chiang, Chiang!

  5. Also want to publicly emphasize how good Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR is.

  6. DG Compton is similar to JG Ballard in style and approach. Try The Steel Crocodile or The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe.

  7. I've dutifully tried to like science fiction but I just can't. There are a few exceptions to this -- I liked Madeleine L'Engle's books when I was wee, and I also have fond memories of Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time -- but for some reason I can't explain, the genre never felt right on me. That being said, I have lately been enjoying some short stories by Robert Bloch that are more science fiction parodies than anything else, but they're pretty hilarious. I recommend the short story "Grandma goes to Mars."

  8. I always recommend David Marusek, especially his short story collection GETTING TO KNOW YOU. I read his stuff in Asimov's growing up, remembering it as weird and strangely funny. Then when this collection was issued it was even better than I remembered!

    His first novel, COUNTING HEADS, is also really good, although the follow-up, MIND OVER SHIP, gets a little too concerned with world-building and loses the characters.

  9. For hard SF, I like Robert Forward. He's a physicist/novelist and he tries hard to keep all of his constructions as feasible extrapolations from a few basic leaps. Dragon's Egg was probably his best, but I quite liked Flight of the Dragonfly as well.

    For the opposite of hard SF, I really like John Varley's Gaea trilogy. They are jam-packed with ideas and structural stunts, much of which is zany, but it's a heck of a ride.

    For more current stuff, I think we've talked about Richard Powers. I really liked "Galatea 2.2" and "Plowing the Dark," but will admit that part of it may be that they kind of talk about "my world."

    If you have any taste for stuff geared towards younger readers, I loved John Christopher and William Sleator when I was in their target demo. Not sure how well they hold up now.

  10. M.H. Van Keuren has written a terrific sci-fi book. When it actually gets published, I will let you know so you can add it to the list. :)

  11. marco5:01 PM

    - Disch
    the Auerbach article is pretty good. His best SF novels are 334 and On Wings of Song; both are excellent.
    For some people 334 is a struggle because it's a collection of thinly related novellas which share the same setting rather than a novel.
    Disch was also a very good short-story writer: his three major collections are Under Compulsion, Getting Into Death and The Man Who Had No Idea. I'd probably give a slight preference to the second, but each has its fair share of memorable stories.

    - Crowley
    well, "straight" is not a word I'd use, but he has written some sf other than Engine Summer; for example the novella Great Work of Time.
    Anyway, Engine Summer and Little Big are the two works of his that I've found most affecting.

    - Delany
    what was the problem with him? the fact you mentioned Nova in connection with Iain Banks makes me think you objected to the Space Opera setting.

    - Ian MacDonald
    I think River of Gods is even better than Brasyl.

    For hard and "idea-based" sci-fi, definitely yes to Chiang, Egan, Watts.

    In any case, lots of good recommendations but I think you should read a bit around each one of the names submitted before trying them - there's quite a range of styles, interests and approaches here. For example

    - Lafferty
    is certainly closer to Chesterton or Carroll than to Egan or Chiang.

  12. Patrick Kurp: . . . Tom Disch’s best novel, Camp Concentration . . . .

    And Patrick again:

    I read his novel Camp Concentration when it was published in 1968, and later 334 and On Wings of Song, and I’ve since reread them all. This is science fiction for grownups, written in good prose and without the conventional props of the genre. As a sci-fi apostate, Disch in 1998 wrote The Dreams our Stuff is Made Of, which starts like this:

    “America is a nation of liars, and for that reason science fiction has a special claim to be our national literature, as the art form best adapted to telling the lies we like to hear and to pretend we believe.”

    And later:

    “SF is in its nature an ephemeral literature. Most predictions of the future are wide of the mark, and their errors become more glaring as the years progress. No blossoms wither so quickly as yesterday's tomorrows.”

  13. I favor 334 over On Wings Of Song, but agree that those are Disch's two best. Either is a great place to start.

    You could do a lot worse than read everything on JRSM's and Marco's (from the last post) lists. I'm always glad to see someone touting David Bunch's very odd Moderan, and will supplement that with Felix Gotschalk's Growing Up In Tier 3000, which vies with it for the honor of being the strangest book ever published as a mass-market paperback. It's a Freudian future, written mostly in deadpan psychobabble, where children murder their parents at age six or so.

  14. I'm going to plump for Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, which are great political books; and the writing, while often mediocre, is almost as often beautiful, esp. when describing Martian geography through the lens of earth science.

  15. I just finished the book. It was a delight. I was lead to reading this particular book because of the Jim Thompson reading I had been doing. Drowned Hopes has the character Tom Jimson, which is Jim Thompson with the first letters flipped. Here's a DVD extra I put on youtube where Westlake talks about Thompson.
    jim thompson
    Here's another Westlake clip I took from the DVD extra for Payback, the directors cut. He's really funny in it.