Down-to-earth science fiction

Everyone gave me good advice on my first science fiction thread, so now I’m hoping to narrow things down a bit.

I got a bit discouraged with some of the recommendations given The first part of The Reality Dysfunction, which a few posters gave the nod to, left me with no inclination at all to finish the rest of the series. Too far-flung. Too unconnected to my reality. However, another highly-recommended book – Ender’s Game – was a little more up my alley. I didn’t actually like the book, but I breezed through it with no problems.

So I’m looking for stories that take place today, or a few years ago, or a few years down the road but where it’s still recognizably Earth. First contact, time travel, super mutants, etc. all fair game but I find myself unable to enjoy a story if it begins like this:

“Fug-Nort of the Seventh Order gazed up at the twin moons of Klendor XV. He realized it was almost time for The Othering and missed his lifemate and their broodlings more than ever.”

This is more my speed:

“Fred turned on CNN just in time to see the aliens dragging the president out of the White House, clutching his Tickle Me Elmo doll and sobbing uncontrollably.”


“‘I’ve just created a rectal thermometer that sends its users into an alternate dimension!’ the professor shouted gleefully to his two horrified teaching assistants.”

Except, you know, more intelligent. I hope everyone knows what I mean. As an example, I mentioned in my other thread Manifold: Time. Tough going, but I enjoyed it because I could identify with the characters, I could believe the background, and even though it took place in the near future, I recognized it as my Earth.

Any takers?

OK, here’s my recommendation for a science fiction novel involving artificial intelligence, but which occurs on normal planet Earth (in the 1960’s):

Colossus by D.F. Jones

Here is the basic plot idea, as found in

It was also made into a movie in 1969: COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT

The author also wrote two sequels.

I would read any of the three examples you gave. You should write them. :smiley:

Hm. Contact comes immediately to mind.

How about Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson about the creation of a Mars colony? It’s set in the near future and as far as I can tell is technically realistic. It’s literally “down-to-earth” with interminable descriptions of Martian geology and terraforming but a pretty good book overall. The physical setting may not be familiar but the human and political themes are.

If you want Earth and still recognizable, another triilogy by Robinson is more to the point: His Orange County tilogy of The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge. Near future but extrapolated in interesting ways.

That would also cover many of Bruce Sterling’s books, including Distraction. I think Sterling does the most believable totally changed futures of any writer in the field.

Cyberpunk is mostly near-future changes, so that means William Gibson from start to finish.

Robert Charles Wilson is another fine writer who does fascinating works almost all of which are set on Earth.

There’s also Nancy Kress and her Beggers trilogy about the changes genetic mutations would make.

Dan Simmons’ Phases of Gravity is so down-to-earth that it’s almost not science fiction, but there’s enough there for a good sci-fi fan to chew on. Damn fine book, too.

For something a little more outlandish, try The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. It takes place on Earth in the mid-1980’s (mostly), and the things in it are recognizable… for the most part. A pretty decent read.

The Stanley/Mars books SUCK, so skip those. Fore “real world” SF look to Ballard, or Lem, or Pollack, or Blumlein.

Ballard’s Concrete Island is about a man whose car crashes down a steep embankment in the center of a tangle spaghetti bowl of freeway overpasses. The walls are two steep for him to climb out with his broken leg, so he must live there for a time, drinking rainwater and eating from fast food litter. Then he finds out he’s not alone . . .

Lem wrote Solaris, which is more a meditation on what is real and what is perceived than it is about spaceships. Lem is one of the few SF writers who, in my mind, should win a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Pollack’s Unquenchable Fire is a brilliant novel that starts from the premise that modern America is a society untouched by Christianity; we live in a culture of mainstream paganism. The local lawn and garden center sells lawn totems; channelers and seers are the superstars of the day. In this parallel Poughkeepsie, NY, the protagonist is a woman who’s never given religion much thought. Although she works for the city, clearing evil spirits away from municipal oracles, she doesn’t really believe in any of it. Until she’s made pregnant by a dream and the prophecies suggest that she will give birth to the messiah. But she wants nothing to do with it.

Blumlein’s The Brains of Rats follows pretty closely in Ballard’s shadow, but his stories of modern day SF horror are pretty powerful.

Lee Killough wrote a series of three books, The Doppelganger Gambit, Dragon’s Teeth, and Spider Play. Set in the near future, maybe seventy to eighty years from when the books were written, they are basically cop novels. What gave me a special interest is that they are set right in my home town of Topeka, Kansas. One cop loses her partner and is paired with another guy. In outlook, imagination, and personality they are polar opposites but as usual they do manage to forge a working relationship while solving whatever crime is the main impetus of the story.

Some parts are hilarious to Topekans because Killough knows/knew the town well, and uses street and area names from now, while adding new places as well. Social mores have changed some. For example, in the first book the female cop, Jana, is roommates with a Shawnee County Medical examiner. He’s gay, and when the second book gets underway she is alone and looking for another roommate because Sid moved out to “marry the man of his dreams.” The books were written before Fred Phelps started picketing, or his descendants would have had heart attacks at that plot twist.

I recommend the titles but you may have to go to a place like to get them, as they are out of print. If you really want them I think I have an extra copy to lend out.

Also, Crichton’s medical thrillers count as SF, and they mostly take place in the real world, Jurassic Park aside of course.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote two books- Lucifer’s Hammer, a story about a meteor impact (years before Deep Impact and Armageddon,) and Footfall, an alien-invasion story also including a meteor impact. There is a significant amount of exposition through the modern-day characters who have to deal with these situations.

Try Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke as well.

Heck, he should submit them to the Bulwer-Lytton contest.

Especially The Harvest.
Plot: Alien entity comes to Earth and puts everyone (safely) to sleep. Entity gives everyone (and I mean everyone) the same dream: give up your humanity and see the universe forever. One in 10,000 decide not to go. The story revolves around a doctor who stays and has to watch his daughter slowly fade away.

Would make a good movie or a bad Sci-Fi Channel show.

Kiln People by David Brin you can make cheap easy copies of yourself and it has a detective novel flair to it. (too bad the author is a jackass)

I also like the Earthclan novels by said author. It’s the future we’ve found the universe full of crazied aliens full of their own concerns. Uplifting non self aware species is the main thrust of most of these races and they’re upset we seemed to make it on our own.

Robert J Sawyer. Any of his books, from what I have read so far. Which is:

Calculating God - the meeting of an alien and a palentologist at the ROM in Toronto, discussing whether God exists based on the science. There’s an interesting side-story, and its pretty thought-provoking.

the Neanderthal Parallax - consists of three books: Hominids, Hybrids and Humans. I have yet to read the last one (it’s in the mail as we speak) but it’s very contemporary, with a quantum-portal opening up between this Earth and an alternate earth in which the Neanderthals became the dominant hominid form. Somewhat lighthearted and easy to read.

There are a bunch of other books by him too. I likely will read them eventually.

Caves of Steel - Isaac Asimov [as a color, a shade of purple gray]
Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert A Heinlein
The World of Null A (written as A with a bar over it) - A E Van Vogt
Titan - John Varley
Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon - Spider Robinson

These should be fairly connected to your reality–at least they are to mine. :slight_smile:

Let me second the Niven/Pournelle suggestions of Footfall and Lucifer’s Hammer. Particularly Footfall. Easily one of the best alien invasion novels I’ve ever read. Guerilla warfare with “elephants” in hang gliders, and POTUS asking the Russians to launch at Kansas. Sweet apocalyptic goodness.

Blood Music by Greg Bear. A scientist invents nanomachines which get injected into his bloodstream to surprising effect. Definitely set in a recognizable world, though what happens in the last quarter is wildly unpredictable. :smiley:

Yes. He makes a deliberate point of writing books that take place in the here-and-now, with a big twist somewhere for the SF plot.

Calculating God. An alien lands on the patio outside the Royal Museum of Ontario, walks into the lobby, and says, “I want to see a paleontologist.” Turns out the alien scientist has discovered the mass extinctions on his world coincide with those on other planets, and he and his kind believes this is evidence for the hand of God in the universe. The human paleontologist, an atheist, resists this explanation, until the aliens show him additional evidence…

The Terminal Experiment. A computer scientist, investigating the possibility of life after death, uploads his consciousness into a mainframe computer. Specifically, he creates three versions: one with the physical limitations edited out, one with the sense of mortality edited out, and a third unchanged as a control. The idea is to compare how the three versions vary, but when one of them commits murder, he has to figure out which one is responsible before it happens again…

Factoring Humanity. In a story that starts out something like Contact, signals are received from space, which when deciphered seem to suggest an engineering diagram for some sort of device. But when it’s assembled, it turns out to do something completely unexpected…

Illegal Alien. An alien vessel arrives in the middle of the Pacific. They seem to come in peace, but then a human is murdered and an alien is arrested. This leads to a courtroom trial; it’s a lot like Law & Order plus aliens.

Hominids. Energy scientists using a particle detector in a deep mine are shocked to discover a Neanderthal in the device: not a caveman, but a fully modern, language-using Neanderthal scientist. Word of warning: There’s one major subplot that I thought didn’t work in a big way. Other than that, a fun read.

Sawyer’s stories are all similarly constructed; they take place in a recognizable modern world (with the exception of Starplex), one big twist is added to get the story moving, and the climaxes are (almost without exception) totally off the hook. Sawyer has all kinds of confidence in his ability to pull off these mind-blowing finales, and for the most part he usually does.

Given what you’re asking for in the OP, I’d start with these.

I think you would be very happy with the work of Robert Charles Wilson. A lot of his stories are set in modern times and all of them have very believable, realistic characters, but they are very much science fiction. In ‘Mysterium’, a small town is transported into an alternate universe. In ‘A Bridge of Years’ a guy moves into a supposedly haunted house, and ends up finding a tunnel to the 1960s. ‘Darwinia’ starts out in 1912, and covers several decades of an alternate history where Europe was replaced by an alien jungle in 1912 (sounds very weird and it is, but it all makes sense in the end).

‘Bios’ is space opera, of a sort, but it’s not very far-fetched, and is only set a couple of hundred years in the future.

I recomend reading ‘A Bridge of Years’ first. It’s a really easy book to get into, and will give you a taste for more of his writing.

Robin Cook’s medical thrillers might be to your liking.

My favorite was Acceptable Risk. It’s about woman who was desended from a woman hanged during the Salem witch trials and her boyfriend who discovers that the hallucinations the girls suffered during the trials was caused by a spore. He and a team of scientists work to turn the spore into a Prozac like drug, while the girlfriend reads more and more about her ancestor. It was the intertwined stories I liked about this one.

A firm aye on Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Also on David Brin’s stuff, Kiln People and Earth are both relatively “down-to-earth” at the start (if you can swallow the immediate world-premise of Kiln). However, both admittedly fly into Wonderland at the end, so you may find yourself disconnecting towards the latter third.