The SF fanboy stirs again

More SF indulgence, excuse me: Gary Farber has been reading Heinlein’s rediscovered “first” novel (brief summary: it’s very bad), and Kevin Drum raises the question of correlation between early SF preferences and later political biases, with Heinlein inspiring conservatives and Asimov motivating liberals (Drum says, “Well, I liked ’em both, but I liked Heinlein more and I turned into a liberal.” I’m not touching that straight line.)

I disliked Heinlein’s stuff intensely. It was badly written, with a patronizing tone, and always smugly assumed that his simplistic opinions were absolutely true. Even his juveniles were irritating in that way, but those self-indulgent later doorstops with old men waited on by nubile vixens? Gah.

I also wasn’t a big fan of Asimov. He was OK, but those gimmicky stories didn’t do much for me.

My favorites began with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne—I was very old school. As I began to branch out in grade school looking for new stuff, after gagging over Heinlein and being bored by Asimov, I really got into Ray Bradbury. Later I favored a collection of British authors—Brunner, Wyndham, Moorcock—and then Harlan Ellison, Fritz Leiber, anybody who could actually write, a talent that eluded the old guard. Nowadays I lean towards Banks and Mieville.

I don’t know what that says about how my political inclinations were shaped. I think the stronger correlation is with my utter apathy towards engineering, not my politics.


  1. linnen says

    Andre Norton.
    Marion Zimmer Bradley (less her Darkover than her Swords and Sorceress series.)
    Authur C. Clarke.
    Larry Nivens.

  2. says

    I’ve never read Heinlein, I know what you mean about Asimov, and the only “speculative fiction” I’ve read that seems to stick with me is Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. As for my politics, I think it was NPR that steered me to the left.

  3. No Nym says

    I remember when news of this novel first came out. It was written back when RAH was a tub-thumping socialisto, and the plot summaries I read indicated it was basically a rough draft for Beyond This Horizon (I wouldn’t dare read the thing, since authors tend to be pretty good at knowing what needs to be published and what needs to be quitely perished).

    And you liked ERB but not RAH? WTF? I found ERB totally obsolete, not to mention sexist and patronizing, as well.

    Heinlein doesn’t wear well beyond male adolescence, but he’s one of those authors that can inspire people to political activism. I personally was inspired by Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat stories (I would soooo *love* a Bureau of Sabotage!) more than RAH. However, Stranger in Strange Land really pissed off the fundies (esp. relative to, say, Starship Troopers), so he’s not all bad.

  4. says

    I’ve read Macleod, and like him.

    I could have gone on for some time if I were to list all the authors I like: Wolfe, Dick, some Clarke, Le Guin, Pratchett, Stephenson, Swanwick, Sterling, Zelazny, Vonnegut…

  5. No Nym says

    Oh, and if you like Ellison you might like Jorge Luis Borges. Imagine Ellison with less rant and more subtlety. I found Asimov’s short “robot ethics” stories delightful, but the rest of him suxx0r3d.

    Personally I’m more into Terry Pratchett these days.

  6. says

    I know, ERB is an odd one in that list, but it’s where I started. He’s good for that sense of heroic adventure, but the writing is flat and pulpy. It also helped a young boy appreciate them in that all the women are mostly naked, although prudishly never described. I had a good imagination.

    Actually, where ERB led me was to a non-SF genre: Rafael Sabatini and similar swashbucklers.

  7. dveej says

    Oldest school: Olaf Stapledon

    Medium-old school: Jack Vance

    Twenty-years-ago school: Octavia Butler

    Ten-years-ago school: Vernor Vinge

  8. says

    Current favorites: Terry Pratchet and Ursula LeGuin

    I used to read Arthur C Clarke too.

    I agree about Asimov

  9. says

    Check out some of the newest school writers, too, emerging talents with first novels out in the last few years.

    Barth Anderson
    Elizabeth Bear
    Mike Brotherton
    Sarah Monette
    Tim Pratt

  10. Haliaeetus says

    1. Piers Anthony (esp Bio of a Space Tyrant & Incarnations of Immortality)
    2. Moorcock (everything – always)
    3. John Norman (Chronicles of Counter Earth)
    4. Robert A. Heinlein (Revolt in 2100)
    5. Larry Niven (everything)

  11. minimalist says

    Alfred Bester and Theodore Sturgeon are two of my favorites just for their overwhelming sense of humanism, of love for humanity. Their best stuff is really affecting, with interesting and very down-to-earth characters. I’m working my way through Sturgeon’s complete collected short story series, and I can’t say enough good things about them. Bester’s The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man are what I’d recommend, though marred by his depiction of female characters. Sturgeon, however, was extremely deft and symapthetic with both male and female characters. Of his novels I’d recommend More Than Human and The Dreaming Jewels.

    For more cerebral and surreal stuff, I’d recommend JG Ballard’s short stories. “The Voices of Time”, “The Garden of Time”, and other stuff that owes more than a little to Borges but stand well on their own.

    I used to like Harlan Ellison as an angsty teen-to-twentysomething, but just find a lot of his stuff grating now, with too much emphasis on being either controversial or cloyingly sentimental. And a lot of his “hep” dialogue dates really, really badly. I still enjoy “I Have No Mouth” and “Paladin of the Lost Hour”, though, and a few others.

    You didn’t mention PK Dick, but I can’t imagine you haven’t tried him. Do so, if you haven’t. Maybe not the most skilled writer I could name, but with an extremely bold imagination and some interesting concepts. Valis may be a bizarre, psychosis-fueled odyssey, but it’s also a savage self-examination/self-parody that sets it well apart from Heinlein’s juvenile self-insertion fanfics.

  12. No Nym says

    garth said: “Terry Pratchett gives me a mean case of the grins.”

    Yeah, me too. And his work, such as Small Gods, is far more likely to promote secular humanism than all the rabid atheist blogs combined.

  13. Malcolm Loftus says

    I would suggest that you read Alastair Reynolds a relatively new sci-fi author who is also a scientist (asrophysicist). he write true “hard” sci-fi

  14. Roadtripper says

    For some reason, I’ve gone right off “old school” these days, but I’ve found some new-ish authors I rather like:

    Charles Stross
    Chris Moriarty
    Wil McCarthy
    Alistair Reynolds

    And I’m 100% with PZ; Banks is required reading. Last month I found the 1st volume of Wingrove’s Chung-Kuo series at a library sale. $1 Hardback, out of print, lucky me. [8->

  15. Flex says

    I’m glad someone else mentioned Jack Vance, his Lyonesse Trilogy of high fantasy is far superior, IMHO, than any J.R.R. Tolkien. His SF is better than most. (Although Vance wrote some shlock too.)

    Fritz Leiber I still re-read, as I do Fredrick Brown. For hard science I love C.J Cherryh. I like Brin, but his non-fiction is more powerful to me than his fiction. I’ve enjoyed Pratchett a good deal, but what I like the most is the parody rather than the straight stories. (The scence with Arthur the young assassin in training in _Pyramids_, being a brilliant parody of the same scene in _Tom_Brown’s_School_Days_, I laugh just thinking about it.)

    Over the years I have moved away from SF. I still re-read some of my collection at times, but I find that I also really enjoy C.S. Forester, George MacDonald Frazer, P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Cristie, Rex Stout, Umberto Eco, etc. Not to mention older authors like Poe, Twain, Saki; and even older ones like Erasmus and Ovid. (I re-read Oppenhiemer’s translation of _Till_Eulenspiegal_ last weekend on a whim. People haven’t changed in the last 700 years.) I’ve recently discovered Josephine Tey’s mysteries and I’m loving them.

    It’s nice to know that there is so much good literature out there. As well as highly entertaining, happy-go-lucky shlock from the likes of H. Rider Haggard, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

    Happy Green Beer Drinking Day!


  16. P J Evans says

    Cherryh (I don’t like most of her fantasy stuff, though)
    D Duane (humor even in dire situations)
    Anvil (space opera, but entertaining)
    L Sprague De Camp, _Lest Darkness Fall_

    Heinlein’s juveniles are less irritating than some of the stuff intended for adults. But my mind keeps going to ‘If This Goes On –‘ (in _The Past through Tomorrow_, aka The Future History series).

  17. The Brummell says

    1. Larry Niven
    2. David Drake
    3. Stephen Baxter
    4. Peter Watts
    5. Dan Simmons

    I also really like the collaborations between Niven and Jerry Pournelle (he’s got a blog, too:, even though I pretty much disagree with every political or social opinion Dr. Pournelle has expressed. Unlike other right-leaning people, at least he backs up his opinions with data and solid reasoning, so he’s occasionally worth reading and disagreeing with.

    Just discovered Dan Simmons, the “Hyperion” series. Very well-written, and quite different from most of the other stuff I’ve read. I haven’t read enough Heinlein recently to have an opinion. Thanks for posting this and letting the rest of us SF geeks vent a little.

  18. Will E. says

    —I used to like Harlan Ellison as an angsty teen-to-twentysomething, but just find a lot of his stuff grating now, with too much emphasis on being either controversial or cloyingly sentimental. And a lot of his “hep” dialogue dates really, really badly. I still enjoy “I Have No Mouth” and “Paladin of the Lost Hour”, though, and a few others.—

    I must concur, altho’ I still treasure the musty old paperbacks of his that I’ve collected over the years.

    I didn’t *get* SF until Dan Simmons came out with the first two Hyperion books. I’d read and liked his horror stuff, and was duly impressed with the scope and vision of Hyperion & Fall of Hyperion. Of course later as I read more SF I realized he was putting the whole history of SF in those books–a nice intro into the field, I thought. In the late ’90s I took an SF class in college and *loved* it, especially Le Guin’s Dispossessed and Sterling’s Schismatrix. For the final paper I wrote a sequel to a Ballard short story, “Terminal Beach.” I keep meaning to read Mieville, but Iain Banks is an old fave…

  19. mantis says

    Heinlein, ugh.

    A few unmentioned favorites of mine:
    Stanislaw Lem
    Philip K. Dick
    Neal Stephenson
    Kurt Vonnegut

  20. Caledonian says

    I don’t know what that says about how my political inclinations were shaped. I think the stronger correlation is with my utter apathy towards engineering, not my politics.

    No wonder you hated Heinlein and were indifferent to Asimov.

    Finding viable paths through FitnessSpace with limited resources is something I would think biologists would be very interested in.

  21. Patrick says

    Pratchett is pretty good although I would have preferred Thud! more if my copy hadn’t had so many damn typos in it.

  22. rrp says

    I second whoever recommended Bester with the appropriate reservations. I recommend, without any reservations at all, Samuel Delaney, just don’t start with Dhalgren. Is he left? I think so. My own current sf reading is pretty much limited to Banks, Mieville (though his reach still exceeds his grasp), and Egan.

    Heinlein was the first sf writer I ever read (at about age 11) and so I give him a limited pass for simply getting me reading the genre. I take the pass back for Farnham’s Freehold but give it back (sort of) for Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

  23. todd. says

    I’m always surprised by how little play Gaiman gets during blog/SF geek discussions. In part because he’s a favorite, and in part because he is one.

  24. Great White Wonder says

    Cordwainer Smith.

    James Blish.

    Joseph Campbell.

    Theodore Sturgeon.

    The real deals.

  25. Caledonian says

    Duane’s earlier works are excellent, although lately it seems a lot of the fire has gone out of them — the element of tragedy is watered down to happy endings.

    What I don’t understand is how someone who finds Heinlein irritating can appreciate Bujold. Bujold has the same uncompromising ethics and respect for rationality as Heinlein did — you can’t tell me that Falling Free wasn’t at least partially inspired by his works.

  26. Bob Nigh says

    Dan Simmons’ Hyperion cantos is brilliant, he has a depth of writing that actually slowed me down significantly. I can usually bang through a book quite quickly but his writing had a density and complexity that really forced me to think.
    Vernor Vinge’s stories have also struck quite a chord in me, both his “Bobble” books and his “Zones of thought” books (I don’t know how one refers to these two series).

  27. D says

    when it comes to SF and politics, I always thought Ursula Le Guin had good, clever liberalism covered

  28. Bob Nigh says

    I can’t believe that I forgot Zelazny. His “Lord of Light” has been a personal favorite for years.

  29. Caledonian says

    Liberalism? Not exactly. Her anthropological bent often induces Mrs. Le Guin to write stories about societies that sharply contrast with ours — the result is generally much further to the political left than liberalism usually is.

    That isn’t what I’d call a defining trait of her books, though. Feminism and Taoism are the dominant traits.

  30. Amy says

    Marion Zimmer Bradley
    Edgar Rice Burroughs
    Stephen Baxter
    Neal Stephenson
    Bruce Sterling
    William Gibson
    Larry Niven

    …and I see there is another Norman reader on the list. I like his books, although my husband gives me a bad time about it!

  31. Ah Clem says

    I would be remiss if I didn’t sneak in a plug for Maureen F. McHugh. Her recent short story collection is fabulous.

  32. Matt T. says

    Does Kurt Vonnegut count as science fiction? I’ve seen him lamped as such before, but I dunno. I agree with others above said about Ellison, and I’ll go one further: he’s in the same place on my mental bookshelf as H.L. Menken. Loved him and his venom when I was a full-on “angry young man”, topped off with whiskey and hillbilly snark, but now both just come off as mean-spirited assholes who are absolutely killer writers. I still enjoy their stuff, but it doesn’t quite have the “right on, man” vibe it once had for me. I haven’t really been turned on by Terry Pratchett’s later stuff (Monstorous Regiment was a chore and Thud! sorta rambled), but I consider myself a better human being for reading Small Gods. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy ruined my life when I first read it 20 years ago, but in a good way.

    That being said, I’ve never been one to care much for science fiction as a written medium. Maybe it’s the result of coming up in the ’80s with a 5000-channel satellite disc. “Doctor Who” and “Quatermass” define the genre for me, and though the science is insultingly bad even to a dumbass country boy like me, I sorta dig on “Star Trek’s” utopian vision of the future (am I the only one who think Rodenberry ripped off Buckminster Fuller on that one?). For what it’s worth and speaking of such, I finally saw a couple episodes of “Firefly” last night. I was underwhelmed, but what do I know.

    I was also raised on comic books, and my cousin had a big ol’ box of late ’60s and early ’70s Marvel stuff, full of Ditko’s Dr. Strange, Lee & Kirby’s Fantastic Four and Jim Sterenko’s Nick Fury. Plus, it had the bulk of Kirby’s “Fourth World” stuff, and I still say that has “Lord Of The Rings” beat all to hell and gone when it comes to world-building.

  33. Caledonian says

    Before I forget:

    Vonda N. McIntyre
    Diane Duane
    Greg Egan
    J. Gregory Keyes
    Theodore Sturgeon ( “…and my fear is great” and Godsbody, mostly)
    Ursula K. Le Guin (everything, but most especially Changing Planes)
    Some of the earlier works of Orson Scott Card are worth reading, although he’s been getting worse and worse with time.
    William Gibson

  34. Mike says

    My dad was a big Heinlein fan, so as a kid I ploughed through them all. I grew up in the south, surrounded by Southern Baptists, and I still remember the epiphany I had when reading Heinlein’s Job. In the book, an old man waited on by a nubile vixen pops from dimension to dimension. Each one is sort of like our world but slightly different. When they arrive in fundimentalist world, they’re puzzled that there are no traffic lights. Every corner has a cop. When they ask about it, explaining the concept of traffic lights to a local, the person is shocked. The idea that people would obey a traffic light with nobody around to make sure they stayed in line was alien. I finally understood what was wrong with all of these people around me.

    Heinlein made me think, at least that once, and so he’s ok in my book.

  35. jackd says

    Garth, I think Bear is pretty good, in the sense that I’ll try out a book of his if the dust jacket blurb looks interesting. But once you get past the gee-whiz idea for any given book, I’m afraid he doesn’t have a lot to offer.

    I gave up on Brin after reading the first two or three Uplift novels, which suffer from at least two really big flaws.

    First, his aliens are (like most SF aliens) just humans with funny shapes and a narrower range of motivation. I admit that conceiving a non-human race realistically, much less portraying it, is terribly difficult. But it would be nice to get at least a brief nod or admission that intelligent aliens could be as complex and various as humans are, but still very, very different.

    Second, there’s the morality of the Uplift scenario. For those who haven’t read it, the idea is that each intelligent race in the galaxy was only partially sentient until it was Uplifted by a parent race*. The Uplifted are slaves to their “parents” for 25,000 years. That’s right, you, the Uplifted whatchamajig, are my slave because my 400x-great grandparents were part of the race that helped your 400x-great grandparents attain sentience. It’s bizarre, but the most bizarre thing is that there’s a whole galaxy full of sentients who never question the morality of this arrangement. That’s where my ability to suspend disbelief utterly gave out.

    *Humans are the only known exception, which is really puzzling to everyone. By the time the galaxy discovers us, we’re already Uplifting chimps and dolphins, which gets us some kind of probationary status as grown-ups, otherwise we’d be slaves to whoever found us first.

  36. chuko says

    That’s the linchpin of the schlock era in sf writing – it’s more about the clever little ideas than the writing. Heinlein, Asimov, and the gang had lots of clever thoughts, if you could get past the bad writing and flat characters, and if you were enough of an adolescent male. (The Heilein book with the streetlights was “Job”.) Frank Herbert also falls on this list – great ideas and somewhat better writing than usual for the era.

    It’s probably worth remembering what came before them – magazine stories about adventurous young boys without any conflict and one distinct cultural viewpoint. They were an improvement on that.

    Of course, right after that time, there’s Le Guin, who can write and has wonderful thoughts. And then Gibson, and Pratchett, and Neal Stephenson, and…

  37. Dave Ratna says

    Larry Niven
    Vernor Vinge
    Neal Stephenson
    Ted Chiang
    Terry Pratchett

    Arthur C. Clarke
    Isaac Asimov
    Greg Egan
    Greg Bear
    Gregory Benford
    David Brin
    Poul Anderson
    Frederik Pohl

    Michael Swanwick and Charles Stross have published good stuff. Randall Garrett wrote one really, really good story. So did David Langford, Edward M. Lerner and Nancy Kress.

  38. says

    It was all grist for my mill when I was a kid. I still remember the shock to my system in high school when I read Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold and Glory Road after having plowed through his Young Adult novels in grammar school. The sex, sexism, and nudity took me by surprise. Although I was fascinated by Stranger in a Strange Land (especially his depiction of an “amiable dunce” as a world leader years before Reagan and the fabulous Fosterite religion that lampoons Mormonism and Hubbardism etc.), I seldom found Heinlein’s later work consistently engaging.

    Unlike PZ, I liked Asimov’s gimmicks and became even fonder of his nonfiction. I read all of Asimov’s stuff. Ditto Arthur C. Clarke.

    As for Edgar Rice Burroughs, I was quite the completist. All of the Tarzan novels? Of course. The Mars series? Yes, every last Barsoomian tome. And Venus, Pellucidar, and the moon. And the two Apache novels, The Mucker (and his return), etc., etc. Loved it all. Imagine how upset I was in physics class to discover that Pellucidar would have to be in an impossible condition of weightlessness, because I was nearly ready to believe that there was a world at the earth’s core.

    I don’t think my incipient political leanings had a major impact on my reading habits until significantly later, although I’m sure my interest in politics is one of the reasons I like C. J. Cherryh’s novels (the ones about the Alliance/Union universe and Mazian’s fleet, the entire Foreigner series, but not so much the fantasies or the earliest sf where she could not control her tendency to lard her prose with indecipherable alien terms).

    Iain M. Banks is perhaps my favorite author today, with Player of Games my favorite among his splendid Culture novels. Every Banks book is good for a surprise or two, such as the novel whose first-person narrator is killed in the final pages, turning out not to be who you thought he was (but I’ll not say which book I’m talking about).

  39. says

    It’s possibly a mistake to respond to this in public, where few, if any, of your readers are from the field (of science fiction, as actual pros or highly active fans [critics, booksellers, etc.]), but what the hell.

    I expect, from what you say, and given your age, that you had the misfortune of reading Heinlein’s late stuff (I Will Fear No Evil and later) before reading his Scribner’s work as a kid; too bad; it’s understandable to take him badly given that sort of ordering, but one can’t seriously call Heinlein’s work “badly written” compared to ERB, when judged technically and as bodies of work (what age you read a lot of stuff at is crucial; obviously you read ERB before getting to RAH’s Scribner’s period). As a mere reader, though, this is a perfectly understandable reaction.

    “…Fritz Leiber, anybody who could actually write, a talent that eluded the old guard.”

    I have to point out that Leiber was as “old guard” as anyone not writing in the Twenties; Gather, Darkness! was published in 1943, his first stories were published circa 1934, and he was a major genre writer in the Forties; his most famous work, the early Lankhmar stories, were in Unknown in 1943, after all. So right off there you’re not making any sense. Neither could anyone reasonably say that Theodore Sturgeon, or Alfred Bester, or many other greats of the Forties and Fifties couldn’t “actually write.” (Particularly by the Fifties, but I’m not sure where you’re drawing the line of “old guard,” given your citation of Leiber as not belonging: 1933? 1953?; 1963?)

    But, as I said, you’re a civilian, so it’s reasonable for you to write of your own impressions. :-)

    Geez, though, I’d really have made more of an effort if I’d realized anyone was going to pay attention to my dashed-off note on the Heinlein book; you’d think that’d I’d have learned by now that my dashed-off notes on Heinlein get endlessly more attention than the completely-ignored I figured they’d be (in 1973, a postcard account I wrote of meeting Heinlein and his encounter with Alexei Panshin sent to Dick Geis’s The Alien Critic was the center of a major Heinlein controversy; I never even expected Geis to print the damn thing; a Usenet account of that incident in 1995 started threads that didn’t die for over two and a half years and spread through multiple newsgroups, with thousands of cumulative posts).

    Apparently I’m very very slow.

    Anyway, bottom line is that there are tons of legitimate and accurate criticisms to make of Heinlein’s work, most particularly of his late work, but also of all his middle and earlier stuff, but that most of the criticisms made by casual readers tend to be wrong, and based on lack of much actual knowledge of Heinlein’s work, his real opinions, or of misinterpretation of his work [readers constantly make the mistake of confusing the opinions of characters with those of authors]; there was actually a heck of a lot of depth behind most of Heinlein’s writing, fronted by seeming simplicity that was actually the result of extremely careful work. But Bruce Moomaw’s comment in my comments to the effect that Heinlein’s arrogance was off-putting is spot-on. And, as I said, there are tons of perfectly valid criticisms made by those who actually do know his work well and in depth. Or who know much about fiction writing (writing in simple language is not at all the same as writing “badly”; even Asimov’s prose is hardly “bad,” as opposed to lacking much characterization and suffering other lacks); and there are many types of possible virtues and vices of different approaches to writing fiction, for one nutshell).

    To the person above who mentioned “Fredrick Brown,” good taste, but it’s “Frederic,” if anyone wants to go pick up his NESFA or older collections.

    The one thing you’d really particularly like, P.Z., from For Us, The Living, is the absolute reaming he gives to fundamentalists and Christians and moralists; particularly in the context of the 1920s, he was an extreme flaming radical, particularly for someone from Bible Belt Kanasas; but one could exchange many of his views from then and on with your views today; really.

    But I don’t remotely recommend you read the book, since if you didn’t find better Heinlein at all enjoyable, I can’t imagine you’d want to push through the fairly awful writing of FU,TL, just to enjoy the religion-excortiating bits (though you’d probably like a few excerpted pages of that stuff).

    I had more to say about the Heinlein book in the comments on my post, and in a comment on Kevin’s post, by the way, though still nothing approaching a formal review, in which I could say much (but would also have trouble disentangling details I know about his private life that I’m Not Supposed To Talk About until after my old friend Bill Patterson’s biography finally comes out).

    Good taste, by the way, in your 1:59 PM list of writer’s you’ve liked.

  40. says

    I read most of my Heinlein as a teenager and loved him. Later, in mid-20s, I read some more and liked some and disliked some others – I don’t care about his politics, I still think he is great.

    I just received in the mail my first Octavia Butler, prompted by her death and am looking forward to reading it. Of the new stars, especially for biologically minded people, I suggest John Kessell and Joan Sloncsiewski (sp?). I have recently written my own ‘list’ of favourite SF here

  41. Todd says

    Some serious SF geeks on Pharyngula. Big shocker there. Apart from PK Dick, I can’t stomach much of SF these days, but I do like Mieville up until I tried reading Iron Council. Jumped the shark on that one. I also like RA Wilson’s acid trips.

    Hmm, PKD and RAW. Probably be expecting a visit from the DEA anytime now.

  42. says

    Yay for someone who likes John Brunner besides me. I love an author that can be very challenging to read. Stand On Zanzibar still bends my brain. The endings to his books always hit me and make me go, “whaaaaaaaaa??”

    Ptuui on Heinlein, I STILL can’t get through one of his books. JP Hogan’s books have slid to the shit-pile lately, with all his bizarro ID rantings. Which is too bad, his earlier “Giants” series was a great read.

  43. tacitus says

    I read everything Iain M. Banks writes (well, except for his recent Scottish whiskey distillery tour guide :). He is a fine author, though some of his more experimental writing can be a bit off-putting.

    Nobody’s mentioned another British SF author yet–Peter F. Hamilton. He writes epic stories with lots of good hard scifi throughout.

    I love Neil Gaiman’s slightly off kilter take of alternate realities (American Gods, Neverwhere, etc.). Well worth a read.

    And don’t forget, the new “Doctor Who” starts on the SciFi channel tonight with two episodes. I’ve already seen the series and it’s very well done overall.

  44. says

    What I don’t understand is how someone who finds Heinlein irritating can appreciate Bujold. Bujold has the same uncompromising ethics and respect for rationality as Heinlein did — you can’t tell me that Falling Free wasn’t at least partially inspired by his works.

    Yes, but compare the ethics. Do you really think that Heinlein would have written fairly dispassionately about Beta Colony and Barrayar?

    And one reason Bujold appears to be more influenced by Heinlein than she actually is is that her publisher is Jim Baen – and most of Baen Books (which means her editor) are heavily influenced by Heinlein. Also, this influence is somewhat less extreme in the Vorkosigan series post-Memory where Miles is supporting the feudal society. Also, when it comes to religion, could Heinlein have written something resembling The Curse of Chalion or Paladin of Souls?

  45. John C. Randolph says

    Heinlein’s stories can be a fun read, but he’s no J.R.R. Tolkien. What I find tedious are those people who imagine themselves as Heinlein characters, and go on and on about how great “polyamory” is.


  46. Geoffrey Brent says

    I never had much time for the “science/logic problem dressed up as story” school of SF. Asimov seemed to be more prone to that than Heinlein, which may be why I preferred the latter despite being a young proto-liberal. (It took me a little longer to develop my dislike of the “author’s political theories dressed up as story” school of SF – and even there, I think ‘The Long Watch’ makes up for a lot.)

    My favourites, though, were Wyndham and later Sheckley, both because they concentrate on the human element (albeit in very different ways). Too many SF authors view characters as a way to showcase the toys; Wyndham and Sheckley often use toys to showcase the characters.

  47. MJ Memphis says

    Another Moorcock fan! I started reading his Elric series from my uncle’s enormous SF/Fantasy library when I was 9, read the Corum series later, enjoyed both. I have also enjoyed Jerry Pournelle’s stuff even though he is a wingnut, and for a while I was always reading David Drake. For good old-fashioned stuff, I like L. Sprague de Camp’s 1941 novel “Lest Darkness Fall.”

  48. MJ Memphis says

    Interesting (or not) factoid: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and L. Sprague de Camp all worked at the Philadelphia Naval Yard during WWII. Must have been an interesting place.

  49. says

    quite a lot of sci-fi/fantasy crossover…love Pratchett, but I’d consider him more of a fantasy novelist…

    For my money I’d be willing to go to the island (har har Aldous) with Just Douglas Adams’ books. And my Nuetral Milk Hotel CD. And my laptop.

    I have a related question, in an attempted threadjack (I admit it! Damn the consequences!):
    What’s your favorite Sci-fi novel adapted to the screen? Anyone who says “The Postman” will be beaten with a letterbag full of oranges. I’d go with Blade Runner, the far less interesting screen name for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick, additionally, the Director’s Cut without the voiceovers. Rockin good time there.

  50. Caledonian says

    Incidentally, is anyone else looking forward to the movie version of A Scanner, Darkly? Philip K. Dick rocks, and that’s my favorite of his works.

    Yes, but compare the ethics. Do you really think that Heinlein would have written fairly dispassionately about Beta Colony and Barrayar?

    What do you mean? Bujold doesn’t write “dispassionately” about either. She does present the strengths and weaknesses of their political and social systems quite effectively, but all in all it’s clear that most people would be far better off in Beta Colony. For all that, it’s not a paradise: their mental health system is terrifying, and I think intentionally so. But perhaps I’m projecting.

    Also, this influence is somewhat less extreme in the Vorkosigan series post-Memory where Miles is supporting the feudal society.

    Miles has always “supported” Barrayar’s society, even long before Memory. See “The Mountains of Mourning”. As Miles’ mother points out, egalitarians adjust just fine to aristocratic societies — as long as they get to be the aristocrats. That’s an ongoing theme to the stories: Miles is just fine with authority, as long as he gets to be it.

  51. Caledonian says

    One parting thought:

    Bujold’s Falling Free contains one of the best explanations of the scientific method I’ve ever encountered, in fiction or non-fiction, in stories or in reality. It also does a great job of explaining how science is inherently connected to ethics.

  52. Steviepinhead says

    I’ll second Vernor Vinge–aliens that are actually ALIEN in their biology and sociology and motivations, though less so in on the level of base thought-constructs and “personality.”

    Susan A. Matthews, anyone? Now THERE is character-driven sf.

  53. says

    I guess I’m just more forgiving of an author than most, and tend to look more to my mind than the actual words on the page. I was pretty ok with Heinlein’s nubile vixens as a teenager. I’m quite a bit older now, and to tell the truth, I’m still pretty ok with them.

    Just my pair of pennies.

  54. says

    I’m a huge Le Guin fan, but I have to say I’m having a hard time with Changing Planes. The writing is interesting enough, and she’s a great milieu writer, but I feel like she’s just tossing out a book to toss out a book with this one. She’s using her creative juices to come up with a bunch of different worlds, but I don’t know that they’re coherent. I think she’s just relying too hard on her anthropological we-can-learn-from-the-differences-of-others thing, which I ordinarily love.

  55. Kagehi says

    Thing with Heinlein was that there was no linear time in a lot of his books, they are interconnected, with a touch of Highlander, without the whole, “There can be only one.”, stuff. I find it interesting that JCR’s complaint is about the polyamory aspects, when a lot of evidence suggests humanities “lack” of that is more cultural than biological. I.e., if we didn’t make such a big deal out of it, we wouldn’t make such a big deal out of it, but we have thousands of years of pure hostility toward it, mostly in backlash reactions to eras like the Romans, Greeks, older Arab times, etc, etc. One has to wonder if most of the reaction was an attempt by a) those in power to keep their “lessers” from stealing lovers and b) the lessers objecting to the “betters” trying to steal all their women. This is not hard to imagine, given the women = property concept that threaded through every single society that ever objected to polyamory, save for ours, and “that” is built on a 2,000 year old religion, invented during one of the most anti-polyamory periods in history. And they blamed the behaviour instead of the disease that hit then, just as they blame behaviour for AIDS now. Its easier to say, “Those people deserved it.”, than, “We don’t know enough to deal with the problem.”

    My take on it is, no one has given it an honest attempt or created the structure of ideas that would allow it to function as well as the assumed utopia of monogamy. Its unlikely that it would function better, but it certaintly couldn’t function any worse, and you have to be blind to think monogamy is working like a well built clock. Neither would any other system, but somehow “some” people manage to function for their entire lives without killing each other “in” those unnatural life styles. I suspect they fail about as often on average as monogamy produces John Bobbit type situations. ;) Its just hard to say, since society is so hostile to alternatives that they only happen in secret, and when they don’t, all you end up with is cults, like the polygamists, who one could argue are about as typical of reality as scientologist are to all forms of communal living.

    Seriously though, I didn’t have much problem with Heinlein, but then I also do have seizures over bad movies the way some people here do… lol Of my favorites already listed, I would say Niven and Cherryh. But I would have to spend an hour sorting through what I have to list every author I like and to what extent. I have almost 2000, about 40% Sci-Fi and 60% Fantasy.

  56. NelC says

    I do like Dan Simmons, but there’s always one glaring flaw in each of his SF series that derails me midway through the story. In Endymion, it was his putting Epsilon Indi and Epsilon Eridani only one light-year apart, when in fact they’re about 90° apart in Earth’s sky. (Well, it annoyed me.)

    And in his latest diptych he has a human society with a static population where the women have only one child each. Erm…

  57. NelC says

    Indiscriminate SF slut that I am, I have to say that I like, or have liked, practically all the writers mentioned so far.

    I’m even cool with Heinlein being a reactionery old git, because I loved him as a teenager. And his later books were dire — mostly, I still like Job — but he still wrote better with a tumour in his brain than I ever will….

  58. Dawn says

    OK, I’m sure I’ll get nuked for this, but I tend to prefer sci-fantasy over hard core sci-fi. In saying that:

    Mercedes Lackey without and with James Mallory
    Christopher Speroff (sp?)

    But, as far as I am concerned, a bad book beats almost all TV anyday, anyway.

  59. Caledonian says

    but I feel like she’s just tossing out a book to toss out a book with this one

    Aside from the delicious pun that ties the whole together, Kate, many of the stories in the book were actually written and published as short stories first. In a sense, Le Guin didn’t write a book, that’s just how the stories are being published. (shrugs) I’m personally very fond of it, is all. You don’t have to be.

  60. LM Wanderer says

    William Gibson
    Larry Niven
    Neal Stephenson (religion as an information / brain virus)
    Robert Forward (another scientist who writes science fiction)
    Philip K. Dick (Who gets better as I get older)
    George R. Stewart (Earth Abides)

    I liked Heinlein when I was in high school. I have read much of Asimov especially his science essays which I loved. I am not sure one person can read all of Asimov or even find all of his published materials. I read all of Clarke and was disappointed to see his slide in religion with the last of the Rama series.

    LM Wanderer

  61. ochreous says

    Some of the best :
    1) Alfred Bester (The Demolished Man)
    2) Harlan Ellison (Jeffty was 5, etc…)
    3) Roger Zelazny (Lord of Light)
    4) Ursula LeGuin (The Left Hand of Darkness)
    5) Joe Haldeman (The Forever War)
    6) Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash)
    7) William Gibson (Neuromancer)
    8) Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange)
    9) Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game)
    10) Kim Stanley Robinson (Red Mars)

    honorable mentions:
    John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar)
    Walter Miller (A Canticle for Leibowitz)
    Isaac Asimov (The Gods Themselves)
    Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land)
    Clifford Simak (City)
    Harry Harrison (West of Eden)
    Philip Jose Farmer (To Your Scattered Bodies Go)
    Frederick Pohl (Gateway)
    David Brin (Startide Rising)
    Dan Simmons (Hyperion)
    Robert Silverberg (Lord Valentine’s Castle)
    Vernor Vinge (A Fire Upon the Deep)
    Neil Gaiman (American Gods)
    James Blish (A Case of Conscience)
    Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451)

  62. Graculus says

    Fritz Leiber, anybody who could actually write, a talent that eluded the old guard.


    Fritz Leiber WAS “old school”. Look at the publication date on “Gather, Darkness”. He wrote horror before that, and was an associate of H P Lovecraft. One of my favourites was “Our Lady of Darkness”.

    My first SF was, fortunately, John Wyndham, because if I’d have read Heinlein first I would have never become interested in the genre. Politically.. well, I had been reading John Steinbeck for 2 years before I discovered SF (at age 12).

    I see that one of the other 0.0000001% of SF readers that made it through Delany’s Dhalgren has commented. Hi rrp!

    I’m also glad to see someone else mention Stewart’s The Earth Abides, the best post-apocalpsic novel ever written.

  63. Baron Bodissey says

    Jack Vance mentioned only once? He is possibly the best writer ever in the science fiction field. His style of laconic understatement is often much more affecting than overstated — and overwritten — hyperbole. His imagery is always stunning. Even his schlock is better than many authors’ best. I’ve always thought of him as writing anthropological science fiction; his aliens are usually ourselves, but no less strange for that.

  64. says

    Gotta give a plug to two of my current favorites, Catherine Asaro (a physicist by training, and a dancer) and S.L. Viehl (she has extensive medical experience and writes about a female doctor in space, among other things). But I’ve read and loved most of the authors mentioned here.

  65. Ian H Spedding says

    John Wyndham
    Nigel Kneale
    Arthur C Clarke
    Isaac Asimov
    A E Van Vogt
    C M Kornbluth
    Robert Heinlein
    Gregory Benford
    Fred Hoyle

  66. says

    I always thought that Heinlein was a communist writer, but then I only read his Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, which was about the proletarian seizing the means of production, and Farmer In The Sky, about Maoist cadres on Ganymede, obviously based on Mao’s “Wheat is the Link” movement.

    Edgar Rice Burroughs rocks. He’s old fashioned fantasy, but in his Mars books, he is most definitely not sexist or racist. The child bearing thing is a feminist dream, what with the first three or four years of child rearing handled in ovo, ex utero. Maybe someone got confused by the Frazetta covers? Hot stuff.

    Of course the grand-daddy is Jules Verne, who is a much better writer in French than in English as translated by Mercier “Merciless” Lewis. I recently reread Mysterious Island and found it a charming allegory for the state of 19th century science and engineering, and don’t we all take that for granted now. His Captain Nemo, a prototype for the modern Batman type superhero, was an excellent character, and an anti-imperialist.

    What I think is great about science fiction is that it has, over the years, made so many people think. Just as it takes knowing about vacuum to learn about air, science fiction helps us learn about our own science, nature and technology.

    P.S. What, no Honor Harrington fans! Surely I am not the only one who enjoys major bombast on the relationship between the military and the government thinly disguised as early 19th century naval battles in outer space.

  67. says

    James H. Schmitz – the earliest non-sexist writer I encountered. James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) – the real inventor of cyberpunk. Caroline Janice Cherryh – real aliens and really foreign cultures, not just humans in greenface. Connie Willis – science fiction that achieves the level of literature. Octavia E. Butler, Kage Baker- excellent and different. Alfred Bester’s The Dark Light Years, Roger Zelazny’s A Rose for Ecclesiastes and others. Lots of Niven and Heinlein. I preferred Asimov’s science books to his science fiction.

  68. PenetratingShaftOfTruthAndSemen says

    Very sad and disappointing. This isn’t a thread worth anything unless H.G. Wells is mentioned. He is my personal favorite. How could you have a sci fi thread and not bring him up?????????? Amazingly pathetic.

  69. impatientpatient says

    We had a case at my kid’s school where he was not allowed to read non fiction (Michael Moore) because it was too political and had swears in it. And it wasn’t fiction. Apparently reading for information and reading for pleasure are not one and the same? Any way, after flipping out about it and threatening to come into school to purge all the books with bad language and controversial ideas in the school, including the Bible, I told my kid to go to the library and take out Farenheit 451. He showed this to his teacher and principal, and obviously not getting the message, they were pleased he had “chosen” to read a novel. I now have a 14 year old that loves Bradbury, have made an (albeit) unrecognized political statement, but still cannot figure out how reading for information is a bad thing.

    I guess Bradbury could be classed as sci fi, but I think he also was just a writer of the human condition, exploring our darkness. Kind of like Orwell, which I would categorize as a story teller. Sci Fi to me is more along the lines of Star Trek even though I know it is not just that kind of story.

    Another great writer of Sci Fi/story telling about the human condition is Timothy Findley, who wrote Headhunter, which is a prescient book about birds as vectors of a terrible plague. Set in Toronto, it builds off Joseph COnrad’s Heart of Darkness, and is a creeper of a tale. I keep wanting to take it out again, yet am not doing it, because I don’t like the thought of life imitating art this closely.

  70. Jason Stokes says

    I personally was inspired by Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat stories (I would soooo *love* a Bureau of Sabotage!)

    The idea appealed to me too, except the Burea of Sabotage was an orginisation featured two of Frank Herbert’s novels, “Whipping Star” and “The Dosadi Experiment”. I can’t find any mention of it turning up in any of Harry Harrison’s “Stainless” stories. I have not read them all, though, so you may still be correct.

  71. Graculus says

    I was always fond of the Brotherhood of Assassins in Spinrad’s Agent of Chaos

  72. Moses says

    I like Heinlein’s stuff much better than Asimov’s. Asimov couldn’t even write interesting bad dialog.

    But to start classifying Heinlein as “liberal” or “conservative” misses the point. People are not necessarily categorizable between the two. Heinlein was a socially progressive LIBERTARIAN who even admited the problems with socialism in Russia were about totaltarians running the show, not the economic theory.

    Oh, and when I say I liked Heinlein better, I didn’t say it was exactly the be-all and end-all of science fiction by a long shot. I much prefer CJ Cherryh and other authors that can write dialog and complex characters in a science fiction environment.

  73. says

    I read Heinlein juveniles when I was a teenager and loved them. His adult books, not so much. Stranger in a Strange Land bored me.

    Currently enjoying:
    Charles Stross
    Cory Doctorow
    Peter Hamilton (space opera, anyone?)

  74. whomever1 says

    I just wanted to put in a plug for engineering–I didn’t see any mention of Ben Bova. He, Kim Robinson, and the cyberpunkers are the folks most inspiring in the sense that Jules Verne and H.G.Wells were; How could we change the world with our current knowledge? For Ben Bova particularly, I was freaked by the opening scene where the hero was trying to save his woman from the flooding of Memphis, and mentioned that New Orleans had been lost years ago.

  75. The Bloody Sergeant says

    garth, if you liked Douglas Adams, permit me to call your attention to the recently departed Robert Sheckley, funniest science fiction writer the genre ever produced. Adams wrote an intro to a collection of Sheckley short stories in which he found it necessary to point out that his own discovery of Sheckley was post-Hitchhiker. But Sheckley was the better writer, in that the humor served the end of telling a good story, rather than having the story be a frame on which to hang the jokes.

  76. Gray Lensman says

    Try googling the term “Sturgeon’s Revelation” also known as Sturgeon’s Law. It still applies to so many things, including “speculative fiction”.

  77. James B. Cozad says

    Brunner’s “Shockwave Rider” and “The Sheep Look Up” had a wonderful impact on me in the 1970’s. Great thread.

  78. Stargeezer says

    Try anything by Richard Morgan – except MARKET FORCES.

  79. says

    Why Bujold is not a Heinlein fan/heir: Heinlein would have never let Miles live. See all his dialogue and crap on killing “monsters” — that is, defective babies. (For example, in Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Time Enough for Love — but it’s all through all his works.) Bujold is, in the creation of Miles’ character, I believe, responding directly to this eugenics strand of Heinlein’s work.

    She’s no fan of the Heinlein (Randian) Hero, in other words.

  80. Dianne says

    A hint for anyone who likes HP Lovecraft: Read him in another language. I never much liked Lovecraft because, frankly, he couldn’t write. Then I read him translated into German by translators who could write. Suddenly, Cthulu was actually scary. (Well, at least some of the mythos stories are suddenly scary. Cthulu itself is still just kind of silly. “The Color Out of Space/Die Farbe aus dem All” is really creepy though.)

  81. Caledonian says

    Bujold’s awfully fond of eugenics, though. Gene cleaning is widespread, systematic, and pervasive.

    It should also be noted that there’s really no such thing as a Randian superman in her works. Would you argue that Roosevelt meant rabbits are smarter than foxes when he wrote down the stories involving Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox? Or Aesop believed that frogs elected monarchs to rule over them? They’re symbolic and allegorical.

  82. rrp says

    We are a proud, tiny band, Graculus

    How could I have forgotten Brunner? The Shockwave Rider is one of the best dystopian novels ever, though I find the ending suspect. Stand on Zanibar, The Sheep Look Up, Polymath all made a huge impact on me. I can’t help regarding The Whole Foods chains with some suspicion, probably due to tSLU. His fantasy The Compleat Traveler in Black is also well worth reading.

    And Brunner was so prolific. Even though I bet there are some dogs here, his overall inventiveness and progresiveness are outstanding.

  83. says

    I just discovered Robert Heinlein, and I like him a lot. As you know I’m as progressive and liberal as they come. I’m reading Glory Road and I think it’s wonderful. The next book on my list is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I also read the first book of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and I learned a lot from it.

    So there. I’m an enigma. And by the way, RAY BEADBURY ROCKS, I even met him at a convention, he’s too cool.

  84. says

    Below, I posted the bio used at the last convention I was a panelist. You may recognize what it was that opened my eyes to SF!!!

    (P.S. The Countess didn’t read *much* of the first Foundation book… prolly the best work Asimov did. Oh, Heinlein is a damn fascist. Grok that and smoke it.)


    I was born in Rome, Italy and emigrated to the US with my parents in 1968 when seven years old. Spent my tender years in Honolulu, attended Tulane University in New Orleans majoring in Mechanical Engineering, and spent six years active duty in the US Navy. After leaving the Navy I spent 21 years as an Electrical Engineer working for various DoD contractors.

    Then, I finally grew up… since 1995 I have worked in the games industry as Producer and Executive Producer at The Avalon Hill Game Company (pre-Hasbro aquisition) and at Hasbro Interactive which was bought by Infogrames and years later renamed to Atari. My proudest accomplishment was being the Executive Producer for Civilization III. At age eleven I was bitten (severly, mind you) by the Science Fiction bug when I accidentally cast my eyes on “A Princess of Mars” at the school library, and immediately falling in love with John Carter, Dejah Thoris, and Barsoom.

    I live in Massachusetts, am married to the incomparable Trish Wilson, and have two children, Jim and Mike.

  85. John M says

    The love of science fiction (silly science, awful fiction) among real scientists has always puzzled me. You could start when you finish your PhD, live to be 110, spend the rest of your life reading only European novelists (and because you are not going to live very long in the cosmic scale of things, I’ll just limit your list to the French, Russian, and English) and die before you got to anything that is not far far better than the “best” science ficton ? Is there a single character in all the dreck mentioned on this post who is more profound than Emma Bovary or Anna Karenin or Phineas Finn ?

  86. says

    When I was young, I was pretty old school, too. I was big on:

    Isaac Asimov
    Ray Bradbury
    J.R.R. Tolkien
    Arthur C. Clarke
    Frank Herbert
    Larry Niven & Jerry Pournell

    I read some Heinlein, but wasn’t particularly enamored of him.

    What this says about how my present political affiliations developed, I have no idea.

    These days, I’ve gotten into Greg Bear and Gregory Benford. I have a couple of Robert J. Sawyer books sitting on my sheld that I haven’t gotten to yet.

  87. says

    Oh, someone mentioned William Gibson. I’ve never been able to understand his popularity. I’ve read a couple of his books (including Neuromancer). Highly overrated.

  88. says

    I’m glad a couple of other people mentioned Peter F. Hamilton. I’m waiting for Judas Unchained to come out in affordable paperback here in Australia less than patiently.

    Sheri S. Tepper – most of her stuff is more fantasy than sf, but the Arbai Trilogy (Grass, Raising the Stones, Sideshow) should have enough science in it for this crowd, though her writing is very much character-driven.

    On Bujold: because her characters interact in neighboring planetary cultures that vary from feudal to eugenic to amorally capitalist, I think way too many people make the mistake that Gary Farber pointed to, of believing the writer shares some/all of the same beliefs as their characters, even when the writer makes the flaws of those characters/cultures very clear. I don’t think Bujold idealises Barrayar, Beta Colony or Cetaganda, and how could anyone think someone who writes what she does of Jackson’s Whole and its rapacious capitalist-consumerism is either conservative or libertarian?

  89. says

    Gary Farber writes: “‘Fredrick Brown,’ good taste, but it’s ‘Frederic’…” Well, no, actually, it was Fredric.

    As I observed over on Kevin Drum’s blog, a lot of the most left-leaning modern SF writers acknowledge a debt to Heinlein. As Samuel R. Delany observed, the reactionary Balzac was one of Marx’s favorite writers, and Heinlein is one of Delany’s.

    I don’t know if PZ has read any of Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent work, most notably the in-progress trilogy about Washington DC during a near-future climate-change speedup, but I’d be interested in his take on them. From outside the world of Professional Science it looks to me like Stan does a better-than-average job of showing the inner life of actual practicing scientists.

  90. windy says

    (John M:) You could start when you finish your PhD, live to be 110, spend the rest of your life reading only European novelists (and because you are not going to live very long in the cosmic scale of things, I’ll just limit your list to the French, Russian, and English) and die before you got to anything that is not far far better than the “best” science ficton ?

    Are you a very slow reader, or do you think anything an European novelist writes is automatically gold? If you are cherry-picking the classics and comparing them to all science fiction then that’s not really fair, is it?
    Because what SF works match the profoundness of ‘A Brave New World’, ‘1984’ or ‘A Clockwork Orange’…. oh, wait.

  91. windy says

    And since we are talking European novelists: I don’t think A & B Strugatski or Geoff Ryman (The Child Garden) have been mentioned.

  92. Caledonian says

    Not the new meaning of “conservative”, no, but I’ve always felt that Bujold demonstrates the best aspects of the traditional definition of the word.

  93. Stargeezer says

    While we’re reading those classic Europeans don’t forget
    ‘WE’ by Yegevny Zamyatin.

  94. NelC says

    I read a non-genre novel once. It was dreck. Therefore all non-genre novels are dreck.

    Even if the above truly represented my feelings, I wouldn’t go squirting my bile all over other people’s blogs where they were geeking out over Tolstoy or Amis.

    Go away, John M. This thread is not for you.

  95. says

    I was hugely into SF as a youth, until I was seduced by the world of jazz music in my later teens (just as geeky, really, but with better clothes and cooler slang). But lately, since I discovered .mp3 sharity and the iPod, I’ve been really getting into old-time radio sci-fi. Most all of the old shows have no digital rights secured, and are freely available. “Sci-fi” is probably not the right word: X Minus One was an anthology show based on the best short fiction being published in Astounding Science Fiction through the 40s, 50s, and 60s, with fine scripts (Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Sturgeon, etc., etc., etc.), good production values, and top voice actors.

    Speaking of Heinlein, I recently listened to the X Minus One versions of “The Green Hills of Earth” and “The Roads Must Roll.” Green Hills made my cry (it’s pretty wild to hear that story with all the songs professionally arranged and produced), but Roads is quite possibly the most reactionary stories that conservatarian author ever penned. Try as I might, I just can’t sympathize with armed strikebreakers. 2000 Plus is another good series, although a bit more pulpy than X Minus One. I’m digging it in a Roger Corman kind of way. Mind Webs was a CBC series from the 70s-80s with some great hippie-trippy SF. And of course, there are lots of obscure short-run series, plus British, Australian, South African radio, etc. I’ve also found German Hörspiele; I’m sure you can find radio SF in any language you like.

    When it comes to downloading .mp3s of classic SF radio, the hunt is part of the appeal. But if you’re interested, try googling for “Datajunkie” or “ZombieAstronaut” plus “X Minus One” or “2000 Plus.” That should get you started. Then start following links and looking for clues for more.

  96. Graculus says

    Oh FSM, yes, windy. The brothers Strugatsky )along with the already mentioned Lem) … I read Monday Begins on Saturday in HS and have been a fan of them ever since. Far to little Russian SF got translated, although Sturgeon sponsored a series of translations in the 70’s. You an tell it wasn’t from a culture that had John Campbell. Very interesting stuff.

  97. JohnM says


    Your accusation of cherry-picking is justified, but irrelevant. Cherry picking is acceptable here because I am not discussing a sampling procedure to estimate a mean. I am only looking at the right-hand tail of the distribution. (BTW, I dont suppose the biologists on this thread would accept democracy in their science — if they did, then they’d be forced into the scientific absurdity of taking creationism seriously — so why should they accept it in their art ? Read Dwight MacDonald’s essay, “Masscult and Midcult” (published in 1963 and easily found on the web), and you’ll see what democracy in art produces).

    Of course European literature is mainly dreck — most literature is anywhere — but my point is that sci-fi’s right hand tail is thin compared to other genres.


    My apologies for offending you. But: answer my question — is there one character from a science-fiction novel who is really memorable ? Whose life means something ?

  98. Caledonian says

    But: answer my question — is there one character from a science-fiction novel who is really memorable ? Whose life means something?

    The second question is unanswerable no matter what it’s applied to, so I’ll concern myself with the first.

    Memorable to whom? To you? To me? To a certain population, or a certain percentage of the general population?

    It seems to me that you are not supporting a conclusion, but defending a position that you have decided upon and searching for rationalizations to prop it up. Your questions do not seem to be capable of shedding light on the matter.

  99. windy says

    Cherry picking is acceptable here because I am not discussing a sampling procedure to estimate a mean. I am only looking at the right-hand tail of the distribution.

    You did only specify European novelists but of course you meant “the classics”. Do you have a reading list of these classics, then, that is too long to finish in 70 years or so, and where each and every book is better than all SF? :)

    And what about other genres? I don’t think the right-tail end of detective novels is that thick either, using the same criteria.

    Of course European literature is mainly dreck — most literature is anywhere — but my point is that sci-fi’s right hand tail is thin compared to other genres.
    But: answer my question — is there one character from a science-fiction novel who is really memorable ? Whose life means something ?

    I did mention a couple of books already such as 1984 and A Clockwork Orange… I should hope Winston Smith and Alex are as memorable as those you mentioned.

    Here’s a few other classics:
    The Demolished Man
    A Canticle for Leibowitz
    The Left Hand of Darkness
    Fahrenheit 451
    Flowers for Algernon
    Slaughterhouse Five

    Let’s hear why none of these are profound compared to a random European classic novel.

    It might also be that as SF is often about the “big picture” it sometimes depends less on memorable characters than mainstream literature. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be profound.

  100. John M says


    Yes, I did mean the “classics” (broadly defined) and 110 years is indeed too long. Assuming a working life of 40 years, with 10h/d reading (unless you are teaching literature or are a member of the landed gentry), and a retired life of 20 more, with 20h/d, then you have something like 41,600 hours of reading fiction. The last thing I read more or less straight thru was The Cairo Trilogy (non-European classic), maybe 5+ h/d for a week, 1000 pages or so, so call it 25 pages/hr; at that rate, my lifetime serious fiction read would be 1.04*10^6 pages. Mahfouz’s great work is admittedly longer than most, so, at an average “classic” length of 300 pages, there would be time for 3,467 “classics”. So, I have to concede that some of the sci-fi (or futurist works like 1984) would fit into my (admittedly subjective) r-h tail.

    I agree about detective fiction, Winston Smith, Slaughterhouse-5, and the big picture character of much futurist writing. I have not read Clockwork Orange or Slaughterhouse Five or F-451 for > 30 years, but once I get thru my current list, I will go into the basement and retrieve them.

  101. says

    Personally, I’ve always felt Asimov to be like OT George Lucas – brilliant ideas, woeful execution.

    As to reading – originally Lewis, via that to Tolkien, then Jordan (gave up on that), and now hooked on George RR Martin.

  102. bmurray says

    But: answer my question — is there one character from a science-fiction novel who is really memorable ? Whose life means something ?

    Pham Nuwen, in both incarnations, from Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky.

  103. NelC says

    John M, you just named one: Winston Smith. Or does 1984 not count as an SF novel because it’s good (by your standards).

    I’m an old SF fan, and I’ve experienced this snobbishness too many times. If it’s SF it isn’t any good, and if it’s good, why, it’s not SF.

    Nobody here is going to try and convert you to SF; you like what you like, and we like what we like. Can’t we just leave it at that?

  104. windy says

    It seems that SF has given us quite a few memorable characters such as Captain Nemo, Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll/Hyde.. or are these too pop culture by now? :)

  105. Graculus says

    But: answer my question — is there one character from a science-fiction novel who is really memorable ? Whose life means something ?

    …Gully Foyle, Isherwood Williams, …

  106. Graculus says

    John M,/b>

    I’d like to politely tell you to get stuffed. I’ve read the classics, and the tail on the 19th century is pretty damned thin. Most of it is overwrought melodrama. Gimme Orlando Furioso over another damned Dickens any day.

  107. Jay Carlson says

    My favorite novel for the last ten years has been Gravity’s Rainbow. Besides giving me the reaction mass to tell the literary snobs to pick a different orbit (see you later, accelerator), this 1973 book put a lot of cyberspace rhetoric into perspective:

    –Son, been wondering about this, ah, “screwing in” you kids are doing. This matter of the, shooting electricity into head, ha ha?

    –Waves, Pop. Not just raw electricity. That’s fer drips!

    –Yes, ah, waves. “Keying waves,” right? ha-hah. Uh, tell me, son, what’s it like? You know I’ve been something of a doper all m’life, a-and-

    –Oh pop. Cripes. It isn’t like dope at all.

    –Well we got off on some pretty good “vacations” we called them, some pretty “weird” areas they got us into’s a matter of fact-

    –But you always came back, didn’t you?


    –I mean, it was always understood that this would still be here when you got back, just the same, exactly the same, right?

    –Well ha-ha guess that’s why we called ’em vacations, son! Cause you always do come back to old Realityland, don’t you?

    You always did.

    –Listen Tyrone, you don’t know how dangerous that stuff is. Suppose someday you just plug in and go away and never come back. Eh?

    –Ho, ho! Don’t I wish! What do you think every electrofreak dreams about? You’re such an old fuddy duddy! A-and who sez it’s a dream, huh? M-maybe it exists. Maybe there is a Machine to take us away, take us completely, suck us out through the electrodes out of the skull ‘n’ into the Machine and live there forever with all the other souls it’s got stored there. It could decide who it would suck out, a-and when. Dope never gave you immortality. You hadda come back, every time, into a dying hunk of smelly meat! But We can live forever, in a clean, honest, purified, Electroworld–

    –Shit, that’s what I get, havin’ a double virgo for a son…

    (Page 698, for those of you following along at home.)

    Then there’s Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand, which is probably the single most prophetic thing I’ve read in over 20 years. Google and Wikipedia on your cellphone? Just a warmup. Plus it enrages the fundies as a bonus.

  108. says

    Memorable SF characters: lots of them from Lois Bujold. Also Douglas Adams, in a different way. Vernor Vinge — Della Lu, Wil Brierson, the Korolevs, Sherkaner Underhill. C. J. Cherryh: Ariane Emory (both of them), Justin, Grant, Pyanfar Chanur, Skukkuk, Morgaine and Vanye. Banks: Gurgeh, Zakalwe. Julian May (bah, psionics): Aiken Drum, Felice Landry, Marc Remillard. David Weber: Honor Harrington (I haven’t read them, but she seems to stick for some people.) Ken MacLeod: Ellen May Ngwethu, Jonathan Wilde.

    And this is sticking to written SF I’ve read and can think of quickly, not televised SF, or written fantasy, which would expand the list hugely.

  109. says

    I guess my original post was squelched for linking to webcomics…

    SF and politics: I read L. Neil Smith when I was 13 and was libertarian for years. There’s probably a connection. Oh, and more memorable characters.

    I think Bujold is Heinleinlike, especially in Falling Free. She has much better characters and dialogue though, so I could see her not being irritating the way he is. No speeches about polyamory, either. As for Bujold and eugenics… hard to tell, and what do you mean by eugenics? Parents filtering bad genes out of their children is common and gets no bad text time. A society based around centralized eugenics is creepy if not evil, though also a bit awesome. Designing people for one’s own purposes is just bad. And a couple of strongly anti-abortion moments are key to the storyline, but ex utero pregnancies seem good (certainly not bad).

    The ethics of Bujold’s books seem very similar to those of Pratchett’s: very humanist in distinction to transhumanist, pro-life in some general sense, anti- seeing people as tools, or as means, rather than ends.

  110. Caledonian says

    What the dickens was he, then? :-)

    A writer of magazine serials, of course. This accounts for the odd structure of his works: they were never meant to be read all at once, and the strangely unnecessary bloat makes perfect sense when he was paid for length.

  111. sglover says

    Very sad and disappointing. This isn’t a thread worth anything unless H.G. Wells is mentioned. He is my personal favorite. How could you have a sci fi thread and not bring him up?????????? Amazingly pathetic.

    Glad to see I wasn’t the only person wondering how good old HG never came up in a sci-fi thread.

    A more recent author whom nobody seems to have mentioned is Rudy Rucker. I think of his stuff as “California sci-fi” — no dystopias here. (Actually, given the themes I gravitate toward, that comes as a relief!) Very engaging and interesting.

    Quite a contrast to a guy whom I think can’t be panned enough: Neal Stephenson is a good journalist. He’s more than qualified to write good, popular articles on technical subjects. As an author of fiction, he’s just about as self-indulgent and adolescent a gas-spewer as anyone since Heinlein. “Snow Crash” is an especially egregious piece of shit.

  112. David Lewin says

    A few people who were left out, but shouldn’t have been, who are superb writers:

    Terry Bisson (“Bears Discover Fire,” Numbers Don’t Lie)
    Norman Spinrad (Bug Jack Barron)
    Gene Wolfe (more SciFantasy than SF)
    Eric Frank Russell
    Robert Graves–yes, the poet/novelist (Watch the North Wind Rise)
    Gore Vidal (Messiah)

    I’m a long-time fan of de Camp, Sturgeon, and Zelazny who started out reading Heinlein juveniles and ERB.