My science fiction itch

Sketch of Larry Niven's "Ringworld"

Sketch of Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve always been fascinated with anything futuristic. My favourite viewing as a child ranged from the Tomorrow People through to Logan’s Run and everything in between. When the Star Wars films came out, I was in heaven. Although I liked the science fiction represented on TV and in the cinema, it took me a long time to grow a liking for literary science fiction.

I tried many books, but found that most of them lacked the raw guttural excitement of what I’d seen on screen. I found myself drawn to fantasy fiction. Somehow, the reverse was true. Most fantasy films were pretty ropey when compared to the best of the written word. Of course, these days we are spoilt with Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit & Game of Thrones.

Lately though, I have a science fiction itch that I can’t quite scratch, so I find myself steadily ploughing through the SF Masterworks series from Orion Publishing. I can pick them up for a song from my favourite disorganised bookshop. I started with the Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Published almost 40 years ago, the novel still seems fresh and follows the life of a soldier in an interstellar war against the Taurans. The war ebbs and flows as both sides learn from the conflicts. Straight after this, I read Tau Zero by Poul Anderson which is even older. The bed-hopping colonists in the book suddenly realise there is something terribly wrong with their ship. Although the scope of the novel is epic – the destruction and rebirth of the Universe – I can’t help being disappointed with the ending.

Larry Niven‘s Ringworld was next – again, an old book. Published in the year I was born, it follows an unlikely group of 4 voyagers setting out to explore a the massive ring like construct of the title. The story bounces along at a jaunty pace and the characters grow throughout the book. Of the three, this was the best so far. What struck me about each of these books was the role that physics plays in the story. They almost read like stories made up to illustrate the theory of relativity.

More recently, I read the Demolished Man which is the oldest so far. In a world full of people who can read minds – how can you murder someone? An intriguing concept and the story proceeds at a breakneck pace. Of all the books – it is very difficult to believe that this was written over half a century ago. It feels so fresh. Highly recommended!

Right now, I’m reading Hyperion. A massively imaginative tale of a group of pilgrims heading to a religious site on the planet of the title. The story unfolds in a Canterbury Tales-esque fashion with each character telling their story. Of course each tale is intertwined and quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. This is the most recent tale and the first to convince me to seek out the sequels. My disorganised bookshop doesn’t carry them, so I’ll have to pay full price – but somehow, I’m convinced they are worth it!

What else should I read to scratch my science fiction itch?

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18 comments on “My science fiction itch

  1. You should read any of Barry N. Malzberg’s early 70s novels — Beyond Apollo, Revelations, IN the Enclosure — but be warned, rather experimental and metafictional etc…. Also, I recommend John Brunner’s Hugo winning 1968 Novel Stand on Zanzibar — my favorite ever sci-fi novel. Again, rather on the experimental side…. And, if you want early hard science fiction which is damn good — Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity (1953) is brilliant.

  2. The Genocides – Thomas Disch
    Tik Tok – John Sladek
    To your Scattered Bodies Go – Philip Farmer
    A Scanner Darkly – Philip Dick
    A Stranger in a Strange land – Robert Heinlein
    Weapon Shops of Isher – A E Van Vogt
    Speed of Dark – Elisabeth Moon
    Shockwave Rider – John Brunner

  3. Just bought Zanzibar on Kindle for £5. My recommendation is Surface Detail by the (recently departed) Ian M Banks. This is the second last of the Culture books and is the best sci-fi book that I have read. There are ten books about the Culture but they are not a series, they are all stand alone. Consider Phlebus is the first and The Hydrogen Sonata the last. They are all superb reading. Ian M Banks is the name Ian Banks uses when writing sci-fi. Many people think he has single-handedly turned sci-fi into literature.

  4. Of all of the above comments I agree most with Mick’s choices. Robert Heinlein and Philip K Dick are literary giants in this field. I’m stunned no one has suggested the ‘Lensman’ books by E.E. Doc Smith and I implore you to continue reading all of the Larry Niven “known space” books, as he crafts a bubble of space populated by a multitude of aliens that will keep you thinking about it for years after you have read them. You should most definitely read Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” books and I agree with John that you need to read Iain M Banks “Culture” books – they are excellent (even if clinically complicated in places) – although John I have to say those “Many People” you describe must be a strange lot as I am capable of naming 100+ science fiction Novels that preceded the birth of Mr. Banks and were considered to be literary greats…
    Personally I think you should read what feels right. After many years of insomnia and a faster than average reading speed – I have read in excess of 20,000 science fiction stories and still find new things to interest me all the time

    • How are you using “literary”? Ok, they are “giants” in the field of SF without doubt and very important to read — especially for SF fans. BUT, I would never call Heinlein “literary.” He is not a stylist, his prose is functionalist at best, and how he uses words is hardly evocative…. PKD on the other hand has sometimes very interesting prose… Banks is a “literary” writer on the other hand. But Asimov is NOT — he cannot use an adjective other than atomic. But, again, Foundation is a fascinating series and worth reading. But let’s not delude ourselves, most of these figures are not “literary.”

      • Am not on this planet nor on WordPress to argue with people – however it’s worth considering the following:-

        Literary – Concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, esp. of the kind valued for quality of form.

        Literature – Written works, esp. those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit: “a great work of literature”.

        Am assuming you see what I’m saying. The authors aren’t your personal favourites but to try and pretend that they didn’t write literature or weren’t literary in their own right is just puzzling.

      • Actually, I like all the authors under consideration.

        But, to suggest that Heinlein and Asimov’s sci-fi was somehow “literature”? Wow — it was genre written for 14 year olds. It was a genre where for the longest time very little attempt was placed on “artistic merit.” Yes, there was a drive in the 60s — the New Wave Movement where the prose itself, the structure, etc became objects to hone rather than plot.

      • I feel that maybe you just didn’t find the same things out of them that I (and many others) did. Of course the inverse holds true too. I dipped into Heinlein with Space Family Stone and read it for the fun (pap) that it was but then I read Time Enough For Love and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.. I loved them.
        With Asimov I acknowledge that Foundation and I, Robot were the high points for me… I just thought it was quite a bold statement to say that sci-fi literature started with Iain M Banks..

      • I don’t think you understand — I felt all the same things when I read them! But they are not literature… I LOVE THEM. MY ENTIRE blog with 150+ book reviews and 100 cover art posts is dedicated to my obsession with SF.

        But I understand what is true art in writing — a dedication to how the language sounds, how to flows, how words interact together, how scenes are constructed, metaphors, hidden meanings, symbolism… That is literature. Most SF does not achieve that. That does NOT mean it is not worthwhile.

        But yes, I disagree with the statement that sci-fi “literature started with Iain M Banks”. Utterly. Completely. But nor did it start with Asimov or Heinlein. The true stylists start in the late 50s/60s — David R. Bunch, Le Guin, Ellison, etc. They attempted, and understood, that science fiction was not literature and hence they tried to change it.

      • OK.. I concede your point. In a manner anyhow. I suppose what I was trying to say with regard to that ridiculous statement posted by John was that “Literature” only needs to be something that endures – it doesn’t have to tick all of the clinical boxes of standard definition. It feels a little like suggesting that a rainbow is just a collection of colours and nothing else. You miss the beauty when you try to really define something too much.

      • Look, I argue this all the time with my English graduate student fiance… She reads my science fiction books occasionally and endlessly complains that is poorly written (she concedes that some Malzberg is literature, and Kit Reed, and Le Guin, and some Disch) — but, doesn’t understand how powerful it is, still, to me. I understand where she is coming from and understand completely how a lot of SF is not literary.

        But as you said, that does not mean that it does not have power, meaning, art — but so much of what was published before the 60s was for PLOT! Not literary artistry…. Many magazine editors rejected works because the ideology was not what they endorsed or the language was too complicated but accepted shit that did endorse it because it was all about market — the market being 14 year old boys. Pulp magazines were not looking for quality… They were looking for what would sell.

        Does that make sense? I am in no way trying to put down SF. It is one of my most sincere passions. But little of it is literature — and what is, I cling to, and savor. But I love almost all of it (prefer works from the 40s-70s).

      • For example, the career of Robert Silverberg is case in point. He knew he was writing crud for money, then, in the late 60s he came back with completely different types of novels. They were low on plot, they paid attention to language, they were about ideas, they used metaphors — Dying Inside (a man slowly losing his telepathic ability while attempting to fix his frayed relationship with his sister) is a perfect example. He changed what he wrote completely — he started caring about writing “good literature” instead of his pulp works and soft core pornographic novels he cranked out like mad before…

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