When I first put Agent to the Stars online, I also put up a couple of additional essays, including one listing some of my favorite science fiction authors. I took down those essays when I transferred the site over to the new host and didn’t resurrect them when I re-established Agent. However, I keep getting requests for my SF recommendations, so I’m posting it here, behind the link.
As you read this, a couple of things to keep in mind: First, the list is now over six years old, so it is somewhat out of date — I still like all the authors on the list, but during the interim some of them have put out new works, and there are also several newer voices who I’ve particularly grown to like. Which are they? Well, that’s the other thing: Since I’ve now joined the SF writer fraternity, I’m more hesitant to haul out a list of writers I like, basically because a number of them I now know personally, and a number of them are my friends, and I don’t want anyone to feel implicitly (and wrongly) criticized if I don’t put them on the list. See, I’m all political now. Also, and conversely, I like the writing of all of my friends, and I don’t want to put out a list that’s just me giving mad props to SFWA homeez, yo. Suffice to say I’ve found a lot to like in science fiction, particularly recently; it’s an exciting time in the field.
In any event, here are some of my favorite science fiction reads, circa 1998.
Drop me in a book store (please!) and watch me head for the racks that contain the Science Fiction.
There are several reasons for this. First, while not a true nerd (I lack the math skills), I exhibit strong nerd-like tendencies: for one thing, I have a Web page. For another, I have a deep, abiding love and interest in science. For yet another, reading is my favorite leisure activity (and for yet another, I went to the University of Chicago). Everyone knows that science fiction is the preferred reading material of the Nerd Nation: In the future, you see, nerds will rule (and the future is here — check Bill Gates’ bank account lately?). It’s not for nothing that a lot of science fiction has scientists, engineers and other nerd types as their heroes, and the SF that doesn’t generally features other misfit types as the heroes instead.
Second, I like the fundamental basic requirement of Science Fiction, which is imagination. Authors in other genres imagine situations or particular circumstances; science fiction authors imagine entire worlds and civilizations. This is quite a step up on the confabulation scale– to dream up a whole new space, and populate it with peoples and situations that make sense in that context. Of course, not every one who writes in the genre is up to the task (and that’s why we have bad science fiction), but those that are produce work that is fundamentally more interesting to read, because what has to be imagined right at the beginning.
Third, and the flip side to number two, most fiction that takes place in contemporary time is boring. I remember when Back to Zero came out just as I was heading out of high school, and during my college years, the world was inundated with “searing stories of a dead-end generation” — basically, a bunch of bored 20-year-olds having bisexual sex and doing drugs. While I was, in fact, a reasonably bored 20 year old at the time (it’s perhaps the salient quality of 20 year olds), I didn’t particularly want to read about other 20 year olds being bored and self-destructive — why should I, when I could just look down my dorm hall? As I get older, I don’t notice contemporary fiction getting any better; thankfully, we have moved away from the Bret Easton Ellis/Jay McInerny axis of literary ennui, but the replacement fiction has not been notably more engaging.
Now, this is talking largely about “literary” fiction, which is a genre to itself, even though it’s assumed to be the default choice of reading material. Looking at the bestseller lists (which are an entirely different animal altogether) gives a slightly different view, although I have to say there’s nothing there that really grabs me either. This week (3/15/98) sees Grisham at the top of the list, of course, and features some more of the Usual Suspects: Lillian Jackson Braun, with her “Cat” mysteries, and Jackie Collins, pitching her usual stew of sex, money, and fame. None of these particularly appeal to me to read, though I don’t get snobbish about it; Grisham and Collins, for whatever their ultimate value, at least know how to keep the pages turning — a talent that is woefully underappreciated (besides, Toni Morrison and Charles Frazier, Nobel and National Book award winners, respectively, are also on the list this week — so who can complain?).
Fourth, no other genre has the same immediate appeal to me that science fiction does — I suspect, because my own personality does not incline me toward those genres on a day-to-day basis as it does with science fiction. Most horror I read is laughably bad, though I except Stephen King (the original page-turner) and a couple others from this general tarbrushing. Romance fiction is a world alien to me; most of what I read makes me giggle. Westerns bore me. Erotic writing is especially tricky; too graphic and I get turned off (in the literary sense), not graphic enough and I wonder why I’m reading it in the first place. Techno-thrillers don’t seem to have much place for character and dialogue; they mostly seem to be varying degrees of high-tech warfare porn. Poetry is generally silly. Historical novels seem to overlap romance novels rather too much for my taste. Medical thrillers are generally boring science fiction. So on and so on and so on.
Keep in mind that I’m speaking about genres as a whole; in each genre there are writers who I will read because I find their writing interesting, regardless (or in spite) of the genre they are working with. With science fiction, either I find a lot more writers whose work appeals to me in spite of the genre, or I mentally have kept the bar for being entertained somewhat lower than in other genres. It’s hard for me to say objectively. The only genre that I seem to have either the same tolerance, or have found the same number of interesting authors, is the mystery genre, in which I enjoy Carl Hiaasen and Gregory McDonald on a regular basis.
But ultimately, it comes back again and again to the simple fact that I enjoy science fiction, both for what people write about in the genre, and how they write it. The fiction writers I’d prefer to emulate come from the genre.
Well, enough of that. Whose writing do I enjoy in the science fiction genre, and why? I’ve collected this list of my favorite writers in the genre, with suggested novels for each. Bear in mind that for the sake of convenience, I’m lumping fantasy in with science fiction; I understand quite vividly that they are two separate genres, although I think the distinction for most folks is the same as the distinction between country music and western music: There’s a difference, though damned if most of us could say what it is.
And now, without further ado, my List of Favorite Science Fiction Writers. This list is in no particular order, excepting the first one, who is, reasonably enough, my all-time favorite.
Robert Heinlein: The most ironic thing about Heinlein’s writing, I think, is how much of his science he (in hindsight) got backward. In Starman Jones, he has starship officers writing out by hand the sort of logarithmic equations that a hand calculator can crunch in a fraction of a second; in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it’s (almost) nothing for a computer to talk and think, but rather impressive for it to be able to create a convincing virtual office on a monitor. Heinlein’s future is almost purely mechanistic in that stereotypical “rocketship to the moon” sort of way; technology qua technology either bored him or he simply didn’t fret the details too much beyond the math.
Which is fine with me. I read Heinlein not for the hardware (“hard” SF generally bores me), but for the software: namely, the characters and the dialogue — Heinlein, of all the Golden Age writers, had the best grip on both — and for Heinlein’s philosophical musings. Heinlein, as any SF reader worth his or her salt knows, was very much a proto-Libertarian; his general political philosophy appeared to be “most people are idiots, so why should we trust a government of the people?” Like Ayn Rand (who he share a large chunk of his audience with), Heinlein could get away with it because he populated his novel with characters who were independent and free-thinking, and thus could handle Heinlein’s political set-up with a minimum of fuss. The real world, dare I say, is somewhat more complicated.
For all that, Heinlein’s characters’ streaks of independence, intelligence, and honor made a big impression on me as kid growing up; they were the sort of people I would have liked to have been. Jubal Harshaw and Lazarus Long would be two people I would love to have over for dinner, just to chat and expound (although one would probably do; the characters, philosophically, are pretty much the same). Heinlein had style, and he had influence on several generations of writers — as you go down the list here, you’ll notice some of his stylistic children popping up now and again.
Heinlein’s work has aged reasonably well, particularly his juveniles, which I admire greatly because they talk across, rather than down, to the audience (I’m trying to write a juvenile myself, in the same vein as Heinlein’s work). Ironically, it’s his later work which I think fares worst of all: The Number of the Beast, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and To Sail Beyond The Sunset all are the work of a man trying to tie his fiction together in one big bow, rather than trying to create discrete works of fiction (for my money, Heinlein’s last totally readable book was Friday). Also, Heinlein got a little sex-crazy near the end, which for me distracted rather too much from the stories at hand.
Still, for all that, Heinlein was the author who got me started reading science fiction, and the author I still turn to as the primary signpost of what I think of as “good” science fiction. A singular fellow, to be sure — he could have been a character in one of his books. That qualifies as high praise.
Suggested Reading: Among his adult works, Stranger in a Strange Land is of course the place to start to get the gist of Heinlein when he was in full force: the story still reads like a rocket, despite some jarringly outdated moments — the crack about women looking for trouble nine out of the ten times they get raped is one that wouldn’t survive the editing process today. Speaking of which, I recommend the traditional version of the book rather than the “uncut” version which is also available; the book benefited from the pruning, from what I can see. Once you’re done with Stranger, check out The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a rousing tale of rebellion and computers, and Time Enough for Love, the first and best capstone of Heinlein’s universe, featuring Lazarus Long. He’s the guy to whom Heinlein attributes all his pithy quotes. For late-era Heinlein, Friday gets the vote.
But don’t neglect Heinlein’s juveniles! Some of his best work is here — and because these books were generally shorter, they’re a quicker, more compact read. Starship Troopers qualifies as a juvy in my book (though aimed squarely at later teens), and serves as a good tract for Heinlein’s political musings (it’s nothing like the movie, by the way). Starman Jones, Citizen of the Galaxy, The Star Beast and Red Planet are also worthy reads.
Orson Scott Card: Card is probably the most empathetic author working in SF today, which is to say that he is passionately interested in his character’s internal lives, how they think, feel and relate to the other characters. I can’t speculate too much on why this might be, since I don’t know the man personally, but I suspect that it has something to do with Card’s own strong religious beliefs; Card is a Mormon and apparently unabashedly so — he writes plays and stories about his faith. While not especially religious myself, I think that many people who are are intimately tuned to the internal dialogues we all have, possibly because that internal dialogue isn’t merely self-directed, but also directed towards God. Whatever the reason, this empathy saturates his work form beginning to end.
This empathy helps Card pull off some incredibly tricky themes in his work — genocide, murder, incest, spiritual and moral doubt all pop up in his work, and are dealt with amazing grace. Now, it’s not that Card can do no wrong; the empathy that make his best work brilliant is also the thing that makes some of his more mediocre work pretty damned mawkish and hard to read. On balance, however, his efforts pay off, both in story and style; no one else writes like Card.
Suggested Reading: Card has two series you want to avail yourself of: The Ender series and Alvin Maker series. The Ender series, particularly the first two books, Ender’s Game and Speaker For the Dead, are the books that made Card’s reputation — the story of an extraordinary individual who perpetrates the most unimaginable crime, and yet manages to atone for it. The final two books (Xenocide and Children of the Mind) are not essential, in my opinion (In these, Card pulls, quite literally, a deus ex machina), but the first two are must-haves for any serious SF fan.
The Alvin Maker series is fantasy — an incredibly realized alternate history of the United States, one that features magic as reality. Card’s revision of American history is fascinating in its own right, but the story of Alvin, a young man who has the power to move the world, is nothing to sneeze at either. As with the Ender series, the first couple of book are better than the later books (although as I write this, the final book in the series has yet to be written, so reserve judgment) — in fact, the second book of the series, Red Prophet, I would rank as Card’s best work to date (well, tied with Speaker, at any rate).
Outside of this series, two recommendations: Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, which is another alternate history, and Card’s novelization of James Cameron’s The Abyss — perhaps the only novelization of a movie that actually reads like a full-blooded novel.
Sheri Tepper: Like Card, Tepper is a profoundly empathetic writer, and naturally enough, her empathy is a distinctly womanly one. This feminine viewpoint, coupled with Tepper’s considerable story-telling expertise, is what I love about her writing: unlike most of the writers on this list, whose work I feel I could probably emulate, given time (and a jolt by God), Tepper is writing from a space I can’t inhabit. Mind you, this isn’t about writing female characters — any competent writer can do that (and just about every writer on this list has). It’s the overarching mental scaffolding we’re talking about — how Tepper creates her worlds as well as her characters.
Her take on the universe is fundamentally different than my take. But what makes her such a good writer is that she can make me see, feel, and believe her take on things — through the deftness of her prose and the strength of her characters. It’s like visiting a foreign land, and discovering to your delight that you can speak the language (or at the very least, the natives can understand you). Also, on a not entirely unrelated point, Tepper understands satire to be something more than broad lampooning; she’s got some marvelous satire in her work that just about slides under the radar. No offense to SF, but most of the writers in the genre are not known for a delicate touch. Tepper’s got it, God bless her.
Suggested Reading: Many of Tepper’s works take place in the same universe but only tangentially touch on each other, thus avoiding the “sequel” feel. Of these books, the one I most highly suggest is Grass, which shows Tepper’s mastery in several techniques: first, building a rich, complex and believable universe; second, creating a plausible crisis that can End Life As We Know It; third, creating a character, Marjorie, who is resourceful, willful, capable — and human. Great book. Tepper followed it up with Raising The Stones, which is just as good in an entirely different way: this book gets to the heart of what makes us human, and whether it’s something that an outside force can help us with. You can read either book without having read the other, but read them both for the full effect.
Dan Simmons: Dan Simmons is probably the best all-around writer out there in SF Land because, among many other things, he’s merciless. This is a guy who will make you put an emotional investment into a character so charismatic and central to the plot that you can’t help but think he or she is the main character — and then kill that character half-way through the book. AND still pull the book off cohesively. Talk about a one-two punch: both the chutzpah to give the reader the unexpected, and the skills to pull it off flawlessly.
What makes Dan Simmons even more of a treat is that he’s the rare writer who can pull off two separate genres completely: science fiction and horror. Simmons writes in each (and on more than one occasion, such as The Hollow Man, both at the same time), and has won the top awards in each genre (the Stoker for horror and the Hugo and Nebula in Science Fiction). Finally, for his masterworks (The Hyperion series), he shamelessly rips off everyone from Chaucer to Keats to Mickey Spillane — and nails each one on the head. Basically, as far as writing is concerned, there’s apparently nothing the man can’t do. It’s sort of disgusting if you think about it, so don’t. Just enjoy the results.
Suggested Reading: Simmons’ best work are the first two Hyperion novels: Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion. In these books, Simmons creates a fully realized universe that ranks up there with Asimov’s and Herbert’s in terms of complexity and believability, and does it while creating personalities you can really sink your teeth into (which, for what it’s worth, neither Asimov or Herbert could really pull off in their respective universes). The first two Hyperion books, in my humble opinion, represent the best science fiction writing in the last decade or so; you’d be a fool not to run down to the book store and pick up copies right this very instant. The two books that follow these, Endymion and Rise of Endymion, ain’t too shabby either.
If you want to try some of Simmons’ horror work, two titles should work for you: Carrion Comfort, a massive tome that combines mind control, zombie-like creatures, the deep south, Nazis and Hollywood – and does it very well, thank you. Also seek out Children of the Night, Simmons’ riff on the Dracula fable that includes a new and exceptionally well-realized spin on the vampire myth.
Susan Cooper: Cooper wrote the Dark is Rising juvenile fantasy series, which I think represents the absolute best juvenile fiction can be. It has a juvenile protagonist and is clearly written to appeal to younger readers (I first read it in the fifth grade), but it never, ever writes down. The characters are rich, the situations complicated and of earth-shattering importance, the references vivid, the themes never simplistic and the resolution satisfyingly consonant (for a fantasy series) with the real world. You’ll notice I haven’t even started to talk about the writing style here. It’s even better than what I’ve described so far — good enough that I can read the books again as an adult, and enjoy them as much as I did when I was a child — without having to read them through a child’s eyes. That’s good writing, friends.
I understand the books have been optioned to be made into movies by the Jim Henson Studios. Here’s hoping they don’t screw them up.
Suggested Reading: The Dark is Rising Series, naturally enough: The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, and Silver on the Tree. There is another book in the series, Over Sea, Under Stone, and it’s actually the first of the series, but I’ve always found it the weakest of the series, and I found that not reading it doesn’t detract over much from enjoying the rest of the series. I suggest reading The Dark is Rising first, to get a grip on the tone of the series, and then reading Over Sea later. Don’t let the fact they are juvenile fiction stop you — they really are worth the read no matter what your age.
Those are the biggies — here’s some quick notes on some of my other favorites.
David Brin: Brin is hit-and-miss with me, but when he hits, he makes an impression. Earth, his novel of the near-future (in which intrepid scientists fight against a black hole that has sunk into the center of the Earth) is his best work in my eyes — a detailed and well-wrought vision of a world on the brink, not so different from ours (Brin also gets credit for nailing the concept of hyperlinks a few years before they actually showed up). Brin’s Uplift Trilogies are so-so for me; I have to really work to get into them. The Uplift War is the one novel in the series that works best for me; the rest are ehhh in my book. I feel sorry for him about his novel The Postman, the movie version of which got the worst reviews of 1997. Fortunately for him, no one seems to blame him for it.
Neal Stephenson: The most readable author in the cyberpunk movement, mostly because he’s got a hell of a sense of humor, and an ear for dialogue and hip description: the first couple chapters of Snow Crash, his (deservedly) most-acclaimed novel, are some of the best, funniest science fiction you’ll read. What Stephenson has not managed to do to date, however, is come up with a serviceable close to his books; in Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (there’s a third book, Zodiac — actually his first published — which I have not read), he creates these wonderful, funny, vivid worlds, and then doesn’t know how to wrap them up. It’s frustrating. Still, better half a loaf than none — I still have more fun reading him than just about anyone else.
Steven Brust: Brust dabbles primarily in fantasy — his best known work is the Taltos Series, in which short-lived humans live alongside Dragereans, who live for thousands of years– and what I like about his work is his light hand with the dialogue and the humor. I’ve never been one for the somber, heavy-handed mumblings that come out of the mouths of most fantasy characters (the ones that aren’t blatantly spoofy, that is — which is just as bad), so the fact that Brust’s Vlad Taltos is recognizably contemporary within his fantasy world structure is a breath of fresh air.
Allen Steele: Steele’s work gets a lot of comparisons with early Heinlein, and in work like Orbital Decay and Clarke County USA, it’s easy to see why — both feature can-do folks in a mechanistic future (which is to say, one where people do more work with their hands than with computers), with some high-minded ideals thrown in for fun. I won’t insult Steele by saying his work isn’t original — but I will say that yes, I do read him for the same elements I find in Heinlein’s stuff. I figure that’s a compliment.
Ray Bradbury: The best fantasist to work in science fiction — or is it the best science fiction writer to work in fantasy? Either way, in a hundred years or so, I expect Bradbury’s best work — The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, and especially Something Wicked This Way Comes — will allow him to be favorably compared to folks like Edgar Allen Poe (don’t laugh. No one thought Poe was really all that while he was alive). What I’ve read of his most recent work doesn’t do all that much for me — a similar situation to how I felt about Heinlein’s later work — but that certainly doesn’t take away from what he’s accomplished over the length of his career.
Mark Helprin: Helprin is not generally regarded as a fantasy writer; he’s more of a mainstream literary fiction writer. But every person who loves fantasy owes it to him or herself to seek out his book Winter’s Tale. It is — bar none — the best fantasy book I’ve ever read, an alternate history of New York that is both breathtaking in scope and in the sheer, unalloyed quality of Helprin’s writing. One of Helprin’s book jacket blurbs reads “Helprin writes like an angel.” It’s probably the only time such gross hyperbole is actually close to the truth. Great writing. Get it.
Neil Gaiman: Alan Moore and Frank Miller get credit for getting comic books to be thought of as anything more than kids stuff (here in the US, at least; they don’t have as many hangups about illustrated work other places), but for my money it’s Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series that shows that not only can comic book writing hang with the best fantasy work out there — it can be the best fantasy work out there. Over seventy-five issues of the comic book, Gaiman followed the character of Dream (the immortal character Cure lead singer Robert Smith always wished he could be) through adventures in this world, Hell, and beyond. Outside of some token bows to the DC comics universe near the beginning of the series, the series is wholly original stuff, fabulous in the literal sense, and occasionally more chilling (and more thought-provoking) than anything else out there. Best of all, Gaiman had the good sense to close the series while it was still strong. Smart man. If you’ve never thought of a comic book as being quality writing, this is the work to change your mind.