Give me something to look forward to!

Yeah, I’m still neck-deep in grading. My cell biology course is pretty well in hand — I’m all caught up there, I’ve posted preliminary grades so students know about where they are, and I’m fielding questions from them all day long — but I also give them a final tomorrow, which I aim to have graded by the next day. I’m still wading through my backlog of essays in cancer biology, and they turned in more yesterday, but once I’m done with those, I’m done. So my goal is to wrap up the whole semester by Friday.

Then early Saturday morning, before the dawn, I get on a plane and zip off to Christmas in Boulder, Colorado for a few days. I am going to turn my brain off during that flight, so I want recommendations for a good book to download into my iPad — the kind of thing a science fiction and fantasy fan would enjoy. Or whatever; the last novel I read, oh these many days long gone, was one of Lindsey Davis’s Falco books. So I’m not entirely bounded by one genre.

Also to discuss: people say that you should judge a book by its contents, and not the author’s political views. But I’ve found so often that the author’s views bleed into the pages — an author so pure in their craft that their personal ideals do not inform their writing is probably an author who treats writing as an abstract exercise, and isn’t particularly interesting to read — that I cannot enjoy as much books by people who are less than humanist and progressive. Mark Twain, for instance, is one of the greatest American authors because his personality suffuses his work and the author is inseparable from the stories he tells.

So maybe you can also tell me about writers who you know to be good human beings. Or maybe you know of an author of worth who completely contradicts my general principle.


  1. says

    Given his track record John Derbyshire is better than one might expect when he sticks to math topics (Prime Obsession, The Unknown Quantity—both thoroughly engaging), but he runs quickly out of control when he talks politics and oozes racism. I cherished his take-down of the supercilious Berlinski as he demolished Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (and how true that subtitle turned out to be), but that’s not enough to forgive Derbyshire his white-supremacist tendencies.

  2. kalkin says

    PZ: If you want science fiction/fantasy from authors whose worldview is close to your own, I’d suggest the following: “The Windup Girl” – Paolo Bacigalupi, “The City and the City”, “Perdido Street Station” – China Mieville, and “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” – Michael Chabon. All of these are great reads, but I’ve re-read Chabon’s book several times. He’s a gem.

  3. says

    I would suggest “To Say Nothing Of The Dog” by Connie Willis if you’re into a light-hearted fantasy romp. It’s all about time travel to satisfy an overbearing administrator making impossible demands and the hilarity that ensues

  4. says

    Epic/High Fantasy: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

    Although I should warn you, I’m seriously angry at Rothfuss for not having finished the cycle yet.*
    OTOH, I’m also angry with Jim. C. Hines for having finished the Princesses and the Goblin cycles, which I also recommend, especially if you’re looking for something light-hearted.

    *Am I a bad person for wanting an Eolian talent pipes necklace?

  5. says

    Oh, I should probably mention that Sword Dancer explores themes of feminism, and that Soulless has a decidely Austen flair.

    Oh oh and Black-Blade Blues by JA Pitts. Not only strong female protagonist, but strong lesbian protagonist.

    Oh and Sabriel by Garth Nix is another of my favorites. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it. Best magic system ever.

  6. leatassie says

    Okay, I’ll recommend one of my books. Green Blood Rising. Available on Smashwords or Amazon Kindle. Just put Lea Tassie into the search field. And there’s no way I could prevent my attitudes and philosophy from my writing — even if I wanted to!

  7. Kaintukee Bob says

    On Basilisk Station by David Weber is a good read. Strong female character, the kickoff to a huge series, but it stands well on its own.

    You can find it in the Baen Free Library, which is worth a look anyway.

    I’ve also enjoyed the Dresden Files series, but the first books (Storm Front & Fool Moon) are pretty weak. It’s an Urban Fantasy series starring Harry Dresden, wizard and private detective. The series starts off close to its film noir roots but escalates quickly.

  8. says

    I recently read a “fashion punk” novel called Yarn by Jon Armstrong (2010). I was quite impressed: gritty and exciting narrative, a surreal but familiar future setting, and plenty of commentary on neoliberalism, fashion obsession, monoculture, etc.

  9. Crimbly says

    “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch. Low fantasy.

    However, I would recommend “Empire Antarctica – Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins” by Gavin Francis. His descriptions of Antarctica and the penguins are wonderful as he “winters” at Halley over the sunless months.

  10. chigau (違う) says

    The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror
    Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal

    both by Christopher Moore

  11. ChasCPeterson says

    “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” – Michael Chabon

    That’s a great suggestion.
    (I’m reading his ostensibly’young adult’ novel Summerland and finding it a lot of fun: fairies, sasquatches, American Indian lore, giants, a werefox, an Oxford comma, and lots of baseball all mashed up, and it’s set in the Pacific NW to boot.)

  12. says

    “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch. Low fantasy.

    Interesting. I couldn’t get into it. It’s been on my tablet for ages, I read the first 100 pages or so and then abandoned it.
    Which doesn’t mean shit apart from the fact that I couldn’t get into it.

  13. Larry says


    However, I would recommend “Empire Antarctica – Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins” by Gavin Francis

    Seconded. I’m about a 1/3 of the way through reading this right now and I’m hooked. You can almost smell the penguin colonies as he is describing them. I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

  14. kalkin says

    @ChasCPeterson: “Gentleman of the Road”by Chabon is a good read as well. Not quite at the level of “Yiddish…” but his version of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser makes for very entertaining reading; :-)

  15. eraticscientist says

    I second Dan Simmons’ hyperion. Otherwise Jack Mcdevitt (Hutchins series in particular Engines of God and Deepsix ) and Peter Hamilton ( Pandora Star) are two great science-fiction authors that share most of Iain M. Banks values (strong female characters, rationalism over religion, liberalism)
    Enjoy your freedom!

  16. Thursday's Child says

    This is shameless, I know. But I have to pitch my own book:
    Rhubarb (by M.H. Van Keuren) is an adventure from the high plains of Montana about a hapless salesman, late night talk radio, aliens (with tentacles!), and what might just be the most dangerous pie in the galaxy. Available for Kindle (or the Kindle app) from Amazon.
    Have a great trip.

  17. serenegoose says

    Absolutely want to recommend Lies of Locke Lamora too. It’s fantastic as is, but the subsequent book is even better, and the third book which is only recently out is almost as good as that. I’d also like to recommend The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi, because I recall you mentioning Charles Stross a few times and it definitely comes with his recommendation, as well as mine :)

    …And I have a book as well, which I’m exceptionally proud of, and has been well received even by people I don’t particularly know. In the fantasy genre, and it deals with adventure, growing up, psychological scars, friendship, and rebelling against society’s wishes, no matter how it tries to squeeze the life out of you. Unfortunately I’m not yet a big name author, nor can it be bought anywhere (again, yet), but I’d be happy to send it on…

  18. nutella says

    Agreed on the political views of authors affecting their work on apparently unrelated topics. I tried to read Paul Graham’s Hackers & Painters (which some consider a classic on software development) but the author’s repulsive libertarian politics was so awful and so pervasive I couldn’t finish it.

  19. stevem says

    I will just recommend the Neil Gaiman books I have read recently, I wonder if they fulfill the OP request, but here they are: Neverwhere; an inspired by (and vaguely similar to) the Wonderland stories of Lewis Carroll. Brings a new meaning to the ubiquitous “Mind the Gap” of the London Underground (subway, to murricans). Also American Gods; a fascinating “deconstruction” of the god-botherers, by turning all gods into actually existing and how A.F.U. they really are.(and what we should expect for the upcoming ones). Good Omens takes that idea a little farther and depicts the coming of Armageddon and how even that gets AFU.

    Dan Brown’s latest: Inferno, definitely does NOT fulfill PZ’s request. Not quite as mythical as his previous works but still a nice travelogue of Florence and Venice and Constantinople with a frightening conclusion.

  20. says

    I second the recommendation for Perdido Street Station. Absolutely fascinating, well-told, intricate, all the best things you’d want from a sci-fi story.

    I’ll have to check out Chabon.

    I just listened to The Hundred Thousands Kingdoms audiobook by N.K. Jemisin and I really enjoyed it. Not sure whether to call it fantasy or SF, but it’s great.

  21. magistramarla says

    If you enjoyed a Lindsey Davis Falco mystery, you can’t go wrong with any of her books – I have every one of them. There is another excellent Roman mystery series out there – any of the Gordianus series by Steven Saylor. I also have every one of those. He has recently written two novelizations of Roman history – “Roma” and “Empire”, which might be a bit too heavy reading for a quick flight, but I’ve found them to be wonderful reading for overseas flights.
    My grandson got me into reading Rick Riordon’s Percy Jackson series. The books are written for young readers, so they are a quick read. He has branched off from Greek mythology to Roman and Egyptian myths. These books are delightful and the modern twists are fun to read, no matter your age.
    Enjoy your trip and time with family. I have a daughter in Denver – I wish that I could be there rather than in Texas!

  22. Lys ap Adin says

    I’ll step out of lurkerdom for the first time ever to cast a flailing excited recommendation for Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which does some really amazing things with politics and gender and questions of colonialism while still being an excellent space opera. It’s sort of like Left Hand of Darkness meets Iain Banks in the best possible ways.

  23. grayhame says

    Orson Scott Card is a real slimeball and horrible human being, but I still like Ender’s Game. Can’t say anything about his other books, and nor could I tell from Ender’s Game that he was a horrible human being. I wonder if that breaks your general principal? At least for me it does. I would never buy another one of his books, see a movie based on his work, etc., because of his repugnant homophobia and racism. So I don’t actually recommend him.

  24. Rick B says

    I second Mike’s (#4) suggestion of “To Day Nothing of the Dog” by Connie Willis. I enjoyed how she used the same premises as her “Doomsday Book” along with inspiration from Jerome K. Jerome with the result of a book much better suited for reading on a plane.

  25. greenspine says

    Another vote for “Perdido Street Station,” or “The Scar,” also by China Mieville, if sci-fi/fantasy/horror/mystery novels written by someone with a strong feminist and humanist bent sound appealing.

  26. keithb says

    If you want post apocolyptic, there is the daybreak series starting with

    A rogue terrorist group unleashes a non-plague that kills civilization

    I have not read it yet, but NPR reviewed

    The darwin elevator and liked it – it is next on my list about mysterious aliens who create a space elevator in Darwin, Australia and most of mankind gets some kind of zombie virus.

  27. says

    If you aren’t already familiar with Lois McMaster Bujold, you could try one of her stories. I read them roughly in the order they were published & some of the more recent ones might be hard to follow without having read earlier books in the series.

  28. permanentwiltingpoint says

    Of the authors I know, I could think of only one possible exception to your rule: Benvenuto Cellini. Nasty piece of work – brutal, irascible and a complete egomanic – but highly entertaining to read.

  29. says

    Heartily seconding Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora and sequels. I remember giving it a bit of the side-eye when I first saw the series title–“Gentlemen Bastards”–since heist/crime/con fiction is often fairly misogynistic (I loooooove me my mafia stories but Jesus Christ is it always just a giant wall of usually-identical-looking dudes cheating on their wives all the time) but there’s actually a buttload of awesome ladies. Also it’s hilarious. Also I’ve seen Mr. Lynch speak on a few occasions and he seems like Good People.

    Also seconding Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog and Gail Carriger’s Soulless if you like making fun of Victorian England.

    Might I suggest Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts? It’s a sort of political-fantasy sort of thing (a la Game of Thrones; lots of scheming and empires coming apart at the seams) but the made-up fantasy land is based off the Mongol Empire/medieval Middle East and Asia, rather than medieval Europe.

  30. brett says

    Ugh, don’t read Rothfuss. His books are pretty fast-moving (especially considering their size), but the man can’t write an ending to save his life.

    Try out Daniel Abraham’s A Shadow in Summer. It’s an easy fantasy read that I’ve always enjoyed, and the sequels are good too. Or if you’re in the mood for SF, go for Leviathan Wakes.

  31. says

    I recommend the Ex heroes series by Peter Clines.

    It is a crossover superhero/zombie fiction. Suddenly a few people start showing super hero abilities, and they start fighting crime.

    Then the zombie apocalypse happens, and the heroes have to protect the remains of the population against the zombies or exes as they are called, and against the zombie heroes – the ex-heroes

    It’s a quick and entertaining read. i also recommend his horror novel – 14.

  32. aziraphale says

    Kim Stanley Robinson – a good writer, progressive, humanist, always leaves me feeling better about the world. Try Pacific Edge, Forty Signs of Rain or Galileo’s Dream

  33. kalkin says

    I second “Hyperion” which is a wonderful ride, but you may want to stop after that one. The series tends to degenerate as you go on…think, “Dune”.

    Also, second “American Gods”. Really the best thing of that type if read since the late, great Roger Zelazny (whom Gaiman aknowledges :-).

  34. says

    Iain Banks’ “hydrogen sonata” is light yet tasty.
    And I enjoyed Scalzi’s “agent to the stars” and Patrick Rothfuss’ “the name if the wind”

  35. Steve Cameron says

    I’m a big fan of Souls in the Great Machine by Australian SF writer Sean McMullen. It’s a spectacularly imaginative Dune-like book, the first part of a trilogy, but it reads like a stand-alone story (the sequel, The Miocene Arrow, takes place on the other side of the world with different characters, and is equally amazing). It’s a world where librarians–the guardians of old-world knowledge–dominate, and our hero, Zarvora, has ambitions to create a never-seen-before human-powered calculating machine, the Calculor, like the computers of centuries ago.

  36. yazikus says

    I also enjoyed Rothfuss’ books, but now I’m waiting for the third. One review of the second book sort of ruined the title for me, and I’ll forever think of it as Name of the Wind 2: Kvothe Gets Laid.

    Oryx & Crake is a good read, and the third book in that trilogy just came out (Margaret Atwood)

    Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson (which I haven’t read in a long time but I remember enjoying it)

  37. Stacy says

    Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is dystopian and has a lot to say about current reality, but the grim is somewhat levened by Atwood’s sense of humor. I loved the sequel, The Year of the Flood. (The final book in the trilogy, Maddaddam, was a bit of a disappointment.)

    Atwood’s The Robber Bride is non-SF, but funny and thoroughly engaging.

  38. yazikus says

    Stacy, that is too bad about the third book, it was on my xmas wish list! The Blind Assassin is another Atwood that I really enjoyed that does have a little sci-fi mixed in.

  39. cicely says

    I endorse the previously-made, seconded, thirded, etc., recommendation of To Say Nothing of the Dog.
    Also, Good Omens (Pratchett/Gaiman).
    And adding A Night in the Lonesome October, by Zelazny.

  40. Pierce R. Butler says

    The finest fantasy novel I’ve read lately: Peter S. Beagle’s The Innkeeper’s Song – both feminist and humanist, in the best senses of both terms.

  41. says

    I recently read and enjoyed Tanya Huff’s Confederation of Valor series (space opera war). I also recommend her Blood books, involving a Toronto PI whose clients are werewolves and the like. I also enjoyed Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman which is a deconstruction of all manner of superhero comic tropes.

  42. Holms says

    Obernewtyn series by Isobelle Carmody. Pretty much sci-fi and fantasy in one.

    Bonus: the female characters are not useless!

  43. jblumenfeld says

    Terry Pratchett is a wonderful writer, a humanist, kind to Orangutans – and I can tell you from personal experience that he is simply a wonderful human being.

    If you have not read any discworld novels, get going! You can start at the beginning (chronologically) with ‘The Color of Magic’, but I personally think that ‘Guards, Guards!’ is his masterpiece.

  44. says

    I second anything by Neil Gaiman or China Mieville. Mieville’s Perdido Street Station is kind of heavy; Kraken is much easier to read and highly amusing. If you want hard science fiction, I just caught up on Greg Egan’s Orthogonal series. The setting is a thought exercise on the implications of a universe with four spatial dimensions.

  45. David Marjanović says

    Orson Scott Card is a real slimeball and horrible human being, but I still like Ender’s Game. Can’t say anything about his other books, and nor could I tell from Ender’s Game that he was a horrible human being.

    Isn’t Ender’s Game the one where the hero commits genocide because he’s the hero?

  46. Desert Son, OM says

    City of Bones or Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells. Wells writes exquisite stories with interesting, dynamic characters, and she has a background in archaeology and anthropology which lends a wonderful perspective and robustness to her story and setting development. She does substantial research on things like Victorian-era France (as distinct – and yet influenced by and similar to – the frequently limelight-dominant Victorian-era England) to develop a background of cultures, languages, traditions, technologies, artifacts, and so on.

    Apparently there are two other novels out there also called City of Bones, and I don’t know anything about those, so if that’s a title of interest, I can only recommend Martha Wells.

    Her characters who identify as women are capable, intelligent, complex, compelling, realized, and integral (I can’t say for certain her novels always pass the Bechdel test, but she does write excellent characters), though the two novels I mention do feature central protagonists that identify as men.

    City of Bones is essentially a fantasy novel about archaeology. Death of the Necromancer takes place in a beautifully-rendered fantasy analog to late 19th century France. Both are full of intricate plots, strong emotional development in the characters, political intrigues and struggles against dominant power structures (with varying degrees of success and failure), magic (if that’s of interest) and technology (same) and the implications and problems of both, varied cultures and their interactions, questions of what it means to identify as belonging to a particular culture, action and adventure (can’t forget the action and adventure!), and the characters tend to have a sense of humor in addition to ambitions, fears, flaws, skills, effort, and histories.

    What I can’t tell you is if either title is available in electronic version, with apologies for my ignorance on that topic.

    Regardless, I hope you find something absolutely delightful to read for your travels!

    Still learning,


  47. says

    Needs moar Charles Stross. Rule 34 is awesome and bits of it keep coming true, while the Laundry-verse series is lovecraftian fantasy, and easy and enjoyable to chew through.

    Neal Asher’s Polity novels are pretty good (from Line of the Polity onwards), just avoid The Owner books, due to /head-desk levels of ideological stupidity, while the Spatterjay series has some rather neat fictional exobiology.

    While Stephen Hunt ( ) writes perfect “can’t brain, want easy read” novels that flow beautifully and often have female lead characters.

    Lastly I’ll chuck in Thomas Harlan’s sci-fi books, starting with Wasteland of Flint, an alt-history series where the Aztecs ended up ruling the world with Japan as their Allies and the universe is filled with the not yet dead and very dangerous relics of the elder races.

    Seconding Pratchett, Hannu and McMullen’s Souls in the Great Machine series.

  48. says

    Re: Rothfuss, I will admit that the books are ridiculously long, and that there are probably some problematic sections; but the growth between Kvothe and Denna is lovely, especially when she forces Kvothe to admit double standards he has. The Adem and hand talk are brilliant in Wise Mans Fear.

    Oh and Giliell, I would get over my stage fright if it ment I could win a set of Eolian pipes, so no, its not weird you want a set.

    I want the Abhorsen’s Bells charm bracelet, but Nix has never gotten it available in the States, afaik.

  49. cicely says

    Well, yes, moar Stross is definitely indicated…but then, I generally recommend it for everybody.
    I mean, that Dresden chap is okay, but he’s no Bob Howard!

  50. says

    I didn’t bother recommending Stross because I know our Squidly Overlord already reads him, and doesn’t need my telling him too.

    Oh and Giliell, I would get over my stage fright if it ment I could win a set of Eolian pipes, so no, its not weird you want a set.

    Uileann pipes?

    Oh, hey I also like Wen Spencer, her Ukiah Oregon books involve alien viruses on Earth, while the Tinker series involves a junkyard-owning inventor in a Pittsburgh that’s been transported to another dimension.

  51. kalkin says

    I also loved “Soon I Will Be Invincible” by Austin Grossman. Favorite quote: “When your laboratory explodes, lacing your body with a supercharged elixir, what do you do? You don’t just lie there. You crawl out of the rubble, hideously scarred, and swear vengeance on the world. You keep going. You keep trying to take over the world.” – Dr. Impossible. Good stuff ;-)

  52. Olav says

    PZ must be really scared of boredom, planning ahead for filling a few hours on Saturday already…

    Of course if you must read, read. I am not sure I can really recommend anything because somewhere along the road I lost the patience required for fiction. But if I can make another suggestion: music.

    I often use travel time to listen to classical music.

  53. otrame says

    I see no one has recommended Snow Crash, by Neal Spephenson. Takes place in a libertarian “paradise” where neighborhoods have sovereignty, you pay for roads as you use them, and the federal government has almost (but not quite) ceased to exist. The hero (who is 1/2 Asian and 1/2 black) is named Hiero Protagonist. Of him, it is said that when he started college, that “he only understood two things, and he understood them entirely too well: samauri movies and the Macintosh computer.”

    If you are into cyber-samauri stories that include a skate punk ethos along with neurolinguistics and Sumerian mythology, this one is for you.

  54. yazikus says

    Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson (which I haven’t read in a long time but I remember enjoying it)

    Hey there otrame, I did! I can’t find my own copy and think I’m going to have to buy it again for another read.

  55. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    :The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements,” by Sam Keen.

    This was one of the best popularized books on science I’ve read in years.

  56. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Rose Estes penned some of my favorite fantasy books, including:
    Dungeon of Dread
    Revolt of the Dwarves
    Revenge of the Rainbow Dragons

  57. smipowell says

    For something different: “Levels of Life” by Julian Barnes.

    Incredible economy of writing that conveys deep feelings.

  58. Kaia Dekker says

    While it’s not the *best* scifi I’ve read this year, Hugh Howey writes great page-turners that are absolutely perfect for vacations and airplanes. Try the post-apocalyptic-yet-heartwarming series that starts with /Wool/, or if you’re in the mood for something lighter, go with his YA /Molly Fyde/ series.

  59. jakc says

    the latest Falco is the Ides of April, set several years after the last book and featuring the now adult daughter

    if you haven’t read it, I’d recommend “Eating the Sun” by Oliver Morton, about photo-synthesis and a lot more

    Another (non-sf) book that you might like because you like the author is “Rites of Autumn” by Dan O’Brien about a trip on the high plains to rehabilitate a peregrine falcon

    Some older SF that you might have missed: Who?/& Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys, Norstrilla by Cordwainer Smith, Cat Kirna by Michael Coney

  60. says

    Pierce R. Butler

    The finest fantasy novel I’ve read lately: Peter S. Beagle’s The Innkeeper’s Song – both feminist and humanist, in the best senses of both terms.

    I love that book. Thank you for reminding me of it. I had already given up hope to ever lay my hands on an English version (I started reading Beagle and fantasy long before I could do so in English) and this prompted me to look for it and look and behold, somebody is selling a used one for a reasonable price and with reasonable shipping.

    I also loved the Adem sex ethics

    Eolian Talent Pipes

  61. mattwatkins says

    Going to recommend female authors here:

    Chris Moriarty’s Spin novels (Spin Control, Spin State, Ghost Spin): powerful AIs, union politics, cloning, spaceships, entanglement, romance and ants
    NK Jemisin’s Killing Moon and Shadowed Sun: ninja vampire priests in a pseudo-Egyptian milieu
    Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus: enchanting story about romance between rival magicians

  62. says

    Mildly astonished that it took until comment #54 before someone recommended Pratchett! I finished his latest Discworld novel Raising Steam a few weeks ago and thoroughly recommend it, although it no doubt makes much more sense to those of us who have read earlier books featuring Sam Vimes and Vetinari and Moist von Lipwig.

  63. fentex says

    I thoroughly enjoy Taylor Anderson’s Destroyermen books (the first is “IntoThe Storm”) as light entertainment.

    The basic plot is this: an aging U.S destroyer is engaged in combat during the Japanese invasion of the Phillipines in 1941 when a mysterious squall passes over it.

    The crew find themselves lost, and long story short they have been transported to an alternative timeline where it seems dinosaurs didn’t die off and the worlds ecology is very different with intelligent lemurs being hunted by intelligent raptors all of whom having roughly a 17th century level of technology sans gunpowder.

    Real traditional silly premise but I find it engagingly written with characters to like and an absence of self aware cynicism, so it’s an adventure to enjoy without feeling a need to critique every point.

  64. betelgeux says

    I recently finished “Ubik” by Philip K. Dick, and can honestly say it’s one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve read in many years. The themes it covers are highly philosophical, so it’s probably not something you want to read with your brain turned off. Despite the intellectual weight of the thing, it’s a relatively short book with an easy-to-read writing style and an interesting plot, so I guess you can read it just for entertainment if you’d like.

    I’m currently reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I’m about halfway through, and my main reaction to the thing so far has been: What the Flying Fuck??? It’s a brilliant book, but the sheer lunacy of it is astounding.

  65. says

    I’m also going to add a recommendation for the Necromancer Chronicles, by Amanda Downum (not to be confused with Chronicles of the Necromancer by Gail Z. Martin; the latter may well be quite good, but I haven’t read them). Fantasy in a non-European style milieu, featuring a necromancer/secret agent and her assorted allies. The second and third books have trans* protagonists as well.

  66. stevenjohnson2 says

    Highly esteemed writers whose politics left something to be desired? The thing is, whose politics are considered worthwhile? Jack London and H.G. Wells are pretty universally dismissed as lesser writers.
    And Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James are considered great writers. But the first thought Puritanism was the key to his America instead of the contradiction with slavery. And the second gave up US citizenship in outrage that the US didn’t leap to defend the British Empire.

    Some random suggestions: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is informed by a Christian religiosity that is alien to many nowadays but the usual objections are nonsense. Best read by an adult, who can understand the treatment of sexuality.

    If you want something more modern but equally relevant, Gore Vidal’s Messiah, where a new religion displaces Christianity.

    If you want some SF, try Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, alternate history where John Brown won.

    If you want some mystery, Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, using Francis Bacon’s idols as metaphors for errors of human thought. Or possibly Jonathan Coe’s The Winshaw Legacy, mystery as social critique.

    If you want some fantasy, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, long but very sprightly and amusing.

    If you want some historical fiction, Cecelia Holland, The Sea Beggars (Dutch revolution) or The Lords of Vaumartin (partly about birth of modern thought) are excellent.

  67. Rich Woods says

    Today I can only go with what I’m currently reading, Peter F Hamilton’s ‘Great North Road’. I’ve enjoyed the half-dozen of his other novels that I’ve read; collectively they’re good space opera with a sound balance of male/female heroes/villains. He has an eye for good action sequences just as much as for a complex plot and multiple character development. Just don’t expect to buy a doorstop-capable dead-tree edition shorter than 900 pages (and rivetting denouements which can take 100 pages to unfold).

  68. Rich Woods says

    @stevenjohnson2 #81:

    If you want some fantasy, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, long but very sprightly and amusing.

    Was it just my imagination or was that book impregnated with lead and/or neutronium? I don’t think I’ve ever picked up a heavier paperback — it could block neutrinos.

    This is in no way a negative comment on the quality of the novel itself.

  69. says


    The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements,” by Sam Keen.

    Seconded, that was a great read.

    For sheer fun, Jim Hines’s new series, Libriomancer and Codex Born (unfortunately, that’s all there is as of now.) Wonderfully imaginative, and a must read for everyone who grew up with their nose in a book. Also fun, the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne.

  70. says

    Stross, Banks and Pratchett go without saying. I second Miéville, with the proviso that Perdido Street Station, while it is mostly a fantastic read, does treat one of the characters quite shabbily towards the end. It says something for his writing that despite that nasty mis-step I continued reading him. He doesn’t pull that trick again with his later books, though; I especially recommend The City and the City, Kraken and Embassytown.

    Alistair Reynolds is a good read, particularly his Revelation cycle: Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap. (The last one I’m sure is a metaphor for something, with its tracked cathedrals jockeying for position, and one character religiously inspired by a propaganda virus.)

    Ken Macleod is another Scottish Socialist SF writer (a good friend of Iain M Banks, incidentally); you’ll probably enjoy his Fall Revolution cycle: The Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division, and The Sky Road. Ditto for his Cosmonaut Keep books.

    For an off-beat recommendation, how about Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, starting with Master and Commander (recently butchered by a movie)? Aubrey is a captain (mostly) in the British Navy in the Napoleonic Wars, in the Cochrane mould, while Maturin is his ship’s surgeon, naturalist, and confidential agent of the crown (spy). High adventure on the seas (and on land) is had. The series spans twenty books, be warned, and a couple or three decades of writing; a somewhat chauvinistic approach to female characters is tempered and modified as time goes on. (Also, O’Brian regrets that he didn’t start the series earlier in the wars, since he had to bend time quite significantly to fit all the Age of Sail-era travelling into a few years. Eh, well.)

  71. says

    There’s also David Drake’s RCN series, often described as ‘Aubrey-Maturin IN SPACE!!!!’. Adele Mundy, the ‘Maturin’ character, is a communications and electronics specialist rather than a doctor, though.

  72. says

    Subscribe to Daily Science Fiction.

    Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card (yeah, I know) is engrossing. It significantly reimagines the discovery of the New World.

  73. Colin J says

    I’m surprised no one’s suggested Jasper Fforde. All his books are worth reading – fun, very witty and full of interesting ideas. I haven’t read his “young adult” books (yet) but his others are great.

    I’m a big fan of Fforde’s “Shades of Grey” (published years before that other grey book) – sort of science fiction and set in a seriously weird world. But I’m really annoyed that he left the story hanging 4 years ago and hasn’t written a sequel yet.

  74. objdart says

    I think Tom Robbins might be a libertarian of some stripe or another but he writes some fun and interesting stories.

  75. objdart says

    Also, if Kurt Vonnegut isn’t in there for both telling interesting stories and for talking out a pretty good ethic then it he probably should be.

  76. jimkakalios says

    Second to “Soon I Will Be Invincible.”

    I also am a big fan of Ian Tregillis’s “Bitter Seeds.” In 1939, the Germans have developed a team of super-powered Nazis, and the British respond with warlocks. Ian is a physicist at Los Alamos (got his degree from University of Minnesota – who knew that physicists from Minnesota writing about science and superheroes would be a ‘thing’?) when he is not writing engaging, hard to put down page-turners, and he came up with an interesting physical explanation for the warlock’s abilities.

    His latest, which I will tuck into this Christmas break, is a hard-boiled detective novel set in Heaven, and the acknowledgements mention “quantum angel dynamics.”

  77. nancymartin says

    I’m pretty much in the mindless entertainment group when it comes to reading choices. I do pick up non-fiction if it looks interesting. I am currently reading “A World Lit Only by Fire” by William Winchester – it’s an about the dark to middle ages. I like the histories by Alison Weir – last read “Princes in the Tour”. For one of my favorite mindless cozy mysteries – “Crocodile on the Sandbank” by Elizabeth Peters. She studied archeology at the University of Chicago and this centers on a dig in the late 1800s. Anyway, how can you resist a book that begins “When I first met Evelyn Barton-Forbes, she was walking the streets of Rome”. There is another series featuring a librarian which has a number of entertaining reads – I like “Die for Love” which is a send up of the romance fiction world and “Naked Once More” that looks at the world of fantasy fiction.

  78. Mark Weber says

    I cannot recommend highly enough “The Deed of Paksenarrion” by Elizabeth Moon. It is a 3 novel epic available in a single volume telling the story of a sheep farmer’s daughter’s journey from yokel to mercenary to paladin. The martial parts of the story are grounded in the experience Moon gained in the USMC. Her depiction of the paladin was revolutionary to me, even a decade after I started playing D&D. She truly understands the holy warrior.

    Paks is on a short list of female action heroes (not heroines). These are people like Buffy, Sarah Connor (in T2), Ripley (from the Alien films), and Starbuck (from the BSG reboot) who are badasses. They confront problems head on with the same sort of violence one expects from Bruce Willis or Jason Statham, not relying on seduction, misdirection, or intrigue (though they sometimes use those skills, too).

    “The Deed” isn’t available as an ebook through the main stream sources, but can be found here:

    If you are a fan of fantasy and you haven’t read it, you are missing out on one of the best works in the genre.

  79. chigau (違う) says

    Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow
    Smilla’s Sense of Snow

    by Peter Høeg

    The original is in Danish but I can’t find it in any ebook format.
    (there is also a movie)
    But we seem to be suggesting favourites, so there it is.

    Is there any good reason for Publishers™ to change the English language titles of books for European and North American audiences?

  80. says

    Is there any good reason for Publishers™ to change the English language titles of books for European and North American audiences?

    Every once in a while you run into a term that has an unfortunate usage in the target market but not the origin market, which titles are changed to avoid, but other than that, no.

  81. says

    Mark Weber

    Paks is on a short list of female action heroes (not heroines).

    If you haven’t, I recommend the Valor novels I mentioned above. Gunnery Sergeant Kerr definitely fits that mold. So does Honor Harrington, (On Basilisk Station and sequels, someone mentioned it upthread).

  82. Mark Weber says

    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    If you haven’t, I recommend the Valor novels I mentioned above. Gunnery Sergeant Kerr
    definitely fits that mold. So does Honor Harrington, (On Basilisk Station and sequels,
    someone mentioned it upthread).

    Moon also does Sci Fi. Her “Vatta’s War” series, beginning with “Trading in Danger” is available through Amazon or Barnes & Noble as well as Baen is also exemplary and follows a female hero. Kylara Vatta is drummed out of her planet’s version of Starfleet Academy and forced to captain a small trading vessel for her family’s shipping company (basically a family-owned, interstellar version of DHL). Obviously, things get a bit complicated from there.

    I also love two of her stand alone books. “Remnant Population” is the story of an old woman who refuses to leave her home on a colony world when the corporation who sponsors the colony pulls out its operations. She encounters the indigenous population and then some military people from Earth.

    Finally, “The Speed of Dark” is a fascinating look at someone on the autism spectrum. It is a first person narrative, in some ways reminiscent of “Flowers for Algernon”, but a very different story. It grew out of Moon’s experience with her son, who has a diagnosis on the autism spectrum.

    Obviously Elizabeth Moon is a favorite author. I haven’t found anything by her that I don’t enjoy reading. In fact, I’ve read much of her corpus multiple times. Thanks for the tip, though. When I finish my current series (a sequel series to “The Deed”, “The Paladin’s Legacy” just had a fourth book released), I’ll look at those. I’ve got “On Basilisk Station” bookmarked.

  83. bassmike says

    I would recommend anything by Greg Egan. His books generally require some concentration as there’s a lot of science in his SF. But generally worth reading. He’s very even handed with characters and their sexuality.

  84. Nick Gotts says

    An nth-ing for “To Say Nothing Of The Dog” by Connie Willis – but don’t try to read the follow-up, Blackout, where she’s trying to use the same time-travel setup seriously, as a tribute to the British stiff-upper-lip in WWII. I also second Steven Saylor’s Gordianus series, although it does have the common fault in historical novels of having a central character with a more-or-less modern sensibility in a context where they couldn’t possibly have been that way – still if you liked Falco, that’s clearly not a problem! And yes, Cloud Atlas, although it might be a bit more demanding than you’re wanting. Also more or less anything by Christopher Brookmyre, but particularly Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks and The Sacred Art of Stealing.

  85. Nick Gotts says

    Oh, and Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross. It’s set in the same universe as Neptune’s Brood, but at an earlier time (and was written earlier). Dispapointingly, there isn’t a “Uranus’s Rug-Rats” between them! Stross’s “Merchant Princes” series is a nice interacting-parallel-worlds storyline, although he’s wrong, Wrong, WRONG about feudal societies being in a “classic development trap”.

  86. corporal klinger says

    I suppose there is no english translation for this, but for everyone who reads german I would like to highly recommend Gert Prokops “Der Samenbankraub – The sperm bank robbery” and ” Wer stiehlt schon Unterschenkel? – Who steals lower legs? ”

    It’s a collection of connected crime short stories around a PI in a totalitarian USA that has become a Randyan libertarian’s wet dream. What baffled me most when I read the books for the first time in the late nineties, they had been written 1971.

    Just in case: ISBN 3-359-00715-8 and 3-359-00680-1

    Happy solstice, merry christmas, happy holiday and have a good time everybody.

  87. unclefrogy says

    I wish I had the time to read all the books recommended here but alas I do not seem to have the time I once had for books.
    most of them are newish so if I was wanting something interesting I might reach back into the past a little and read Dashiel Hammett’s Red Harvest it set in the time it was written in but sounds very modern and has been the source for a number of movies. a great story teller at the height of his game
    uncle frogy