Good science fiction and fantasy lit vs. the bad stuff

How do I tell the difference?

(Disclaimer – I do know (somewhat) there is a difference between science fiction and fantasy literatures. I’m just trying to avoid opening two threads on similar subjects [unless I should have?). Are there a lot of crossovers?

After re-re-re-reading LOTR and reawakening the college kid in me, I’ve decided to get back into both genres. Way back when, I read everything from H.G. Wells and Jules Verne to authors I can’t remember (prolly crud, since they obviously didn’t seem to make much of an impression).

I don’t want to waste my time with stuff that’s trite, clichéd, “the same stuff I read in the last six books by this author”, suddenly suspends my suspension of disbelief (crashing back to reality).

What makes a book good science fiction or fanatasy?

What should have the “DANGER! WILL ROBINSON!” sticker plastered on the front cover?

So who are the outstanding authors in each field?

Who are the ones whom I should avoid like the Artellian Blue-Spotted Fever (or was it Yellow-Spotted)? Or ought I read them to get an understanding of what foetid compost literature is like?

(Note: I realize there will be ‘differences of opinions’, just like some folks love Mozart’s works and some despise them. Civility, please. Unless it is completely non-sarcastic humorous – I need a good laugh right now. :slight_smile: .)

Well, my tastes include Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (both alone and collaboratively, though they’re better as a team than solo), Spider Robinson, Lois McMaster Bujold, John Barnes (particularly the Thousand Cultures series, though he’s good in his other works too), and Katherine Kurtz. I happen to enjoy Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, though not her other works by and large – you’ll find people who love the “Avalon” and “Atlantis” stuff and despise Darkover, and still others who complain (with some validity) that all her work is hackwork. For interesting philosophical fiction, albeit very much acquired taste, E.R. Eddison’s fantasies and Olaf Stapledon and James Blish’s SF are very good.

Edgar Pangborn is exceptionally good – if you can finish a Pangborn story with dry eyes, you’re a stronger person than I. H. Beam Piper is also good along much the same lines. And Theodore Sturgeon falls into a very similar category.

I personally dislike the work of Harlan Ellison and Ursula LeGuin, but they’re very skilled and excellent writers – it’s purely a matter of conflicting tastes.

All the above are “classics” in the field, though some are still writing today. There are quite a few newer writers that have made names for themselves and who are excellent, but I don’t have a quick list of them.

Terry Pratchett’s work is wittily humorous and has some remarkable social commentary. I understand that Neil Gaiman’s work is equally good, though I’ve personally only read his collaboration with Pratchett, Good Omens (which was excellent).

Anything that contains elves and/or dwarves which was not either written by Tolkien or before LOTR came out is 99% probability a hackwork ripoff of him, and should be avoided.

Before venturing into older SF (pre-1970), get a good anthology and read it cover to cover, making note of which authors you “get into” – there are some excellent writers (e.g., L. Sprague deCamp, Murray Leinster) from back then, and also some formulaic hacks who nonetheless have their fans.

Disclaimer: totally IMHO, your opinions may vary. :slight_smile:

First off, to have a good science-fiction / fantasy book, you have to have what makes a book itself great: engaging characters, good pacing, an interesting, suspenseful plot, good description. Your book has to be able to stand on its own merits if the scifi / fantasy elements are removed.

In this specific genre, furthermore, you have to make sure your alternate universe (so to speak) has some level of believability. What makes Tolkien (and his ilk, ie. Guy Gavriel Kay, Phillip Pullman, Ursula K. LeGuin) so great is that they’ve done the background work on the surroundings of their characters, on their locale’s history and features, and that their universe is just detailed enough to draw us in on that level of plausibility. There have to be set rules for this new universe, whether it’s on a spaceship or Middle Earth–you can’t just randomly smush aliens and elves and time-travel together. And foremost, there has to be creativity–that this world is new, original, unique to the author, not just a copy of some other author’s conceptions.

That’s my thoughts so far, for what they’re worth. :slight_smile:

I don’t read enough fantasy to offer any meaningful recommendations.

On science fiction, I’d recommend David Brin, Joe Haldeman, George R.R. Martin, and Robert Charles Wilson.

It seems I have many of the same SF tastes as Polycarp but let me put a second to the works of H. Beam Piper.

I really enjoy alternate time-line or alternate history stories, and he had some good ones. There are his Paratime stories of course. But one story “He Walked Around the Horses” is one of my five favorite short stories ever. Told in a series of letters, the signature on the last letter is a real kicker, if you get the history behind it.

One of my other five favorite stories is by Spider Robinson, an author also mentioned by Polycarp. “True Minds” It’s about the real meaning of love, and what lengths someone will go to to make their loved one happy. I once had the opportunity to have Robinson sign my battered copy of Melancholy Elephants, the collection in which that story appears, and he told me, and wrote in the book, that nobody had ever told him they like that story.

…which, given his anecdote about having Heinlein sign his copy of 6XH and mentioning “The Man Who Traveled in Elephants,” must have totally made his day! :slight_smile: Great story!

I’m a pretty brutal critic of Fantasy, Tolkien being my first and only true love in that regard. For me to enjoy fantasy the author has to go somewhere different. That was the original idea of Fantasy, you know, before everyone decided that ripping off LOTR was a hell of a lot easier. So, some of my favorite authors within Fantasy are:

  • China Mieville – his book The Scar is out in mass-market paperback now, the rest of his books, King Rat, Perdido Street Station and Iron Council are only in trade paperback or hardcover… gritty, dark, freaky, alternaworlds.
  • Juliet Marillier --Sevenwaters Trilogy but especially Daughter of the Forest… Irish myth & folktales
  • Jacqueline Carey – Kushiel’s Dart, etc… spying, politics, S&M
  • J. Gregory Keyes (AKA Greg Keyes) – Age of Unreason series – what if Alchemy and not physics was the correct theory? Benjamin Franklin stars as the foxy action hero! Newton’s Cannon is the first in the series.

The worst offenders in the Tolkien rip-off department are Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks. At least Terry Brooks isn’t ashamed to admit it. Speaking of ashamed, Anne McCaffrey has been phoning it in for years, stay far, far away. (ok, I have to stop, I’m rambling)

Generally speaking, Baen as a publisher tends to be a little cheesy over-the-top (the cover art they use should be a big hint), Tor is more intellectual and they give new authors a shot, I don’t think they pay much cause often if a new author has a sucessful book with them, the next one often comes out from… Del Rey, which doesn’t take risks, they are more commercial and work with established, sucessful authors for the most part (hint: commercially sucessful does not automatically equal “good,” but it can). Ace & Roc generally are on the pulpier side, but their mass-market themed anthologies can be good (look out for the good editors, like Gardner Dozois). HarperCollins publishes Terry Pratchett in the US, for which I thank them, but they aren’t too active with SF/F in general.

As always, YMMV.

You know what might help the OP? A list of award-winning SF/Fantasy books. I know the Hugos and the Nebulas are the “biggies” for SF (one decided by fans, the other by writers); I’m not sure what the fantasy equivalent is. Maybe someone more knowledgeable than I could find a link to such things?

Here are a few suggestions for authors/works that would most (I think) would agree with (or at least not violently disagree):

Kim Stanley Robinson - Red Mars, et. al.

Roger Zelazny - Lord of Light, Doorways in the Sand, My Name is Legion
he can be good for a few laughs, sometimes

Ursula LeGuin - The Dispossessed

Gene Wolfe - Shadow of the Torturer

Jack Vance - The Dying Earth, Eyes of the Overworld, Lyonesse
also good for some laughs, sometimes, but more of an acquired taste

Robert Silverberg - Tom O’Bedlam, Hot Sky at Midnight

Larry Niven - Ringworld’s his famous work, but I rather liked his SF detective stories.

House on the Borderland (Hodgson; yeah, it’s early 20th c. horror, but it’s tinged with SF/F and it’s good)

I guess this list tends toward the more literary, higher quality writing end of the spectrum.

Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels (i.e., The Sandman series) far outclass his regular novels (which are still decent), but this may be a minority opinion.

Onto this list I’ll tack on Orson Scott Card (specifically Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, and Ender’s Shadow), and Robin Hobb.

I just finished reading Hobb’s third trillogy, and she managed to do something that I’ve never seen done: three sequential Trillogies that are internally consistent, yet tell a greater story - and it’s all well planned out. Details that seem insignificant in her first series are developed at length in her third, and a throway line in book 4 may be the pivotal point of book 7.

She’s what I would call a dark writer - lots of really bad stuff happens to her characters, but she fits the bills that Kytheria mentioned: " engaging characters, good pacing, an interesting, suspenseful plot, good description. Your book has to be able to stand on its own merits if the scifi / fantasy elements are removed. "

F.Y.I.: Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin’s Quest are the the books of the first series. Sound’s cheesy but they absolutely aren’t.

try this site.

Warning: The guy behind it has attitude to spare.

I recently decided that Life Was Too Short, and started reading all the Hugo novels. All the ones that I’d already read before were good, so it seemed like the list was probably a smart way to find great books, and I wasn’t wrong. Some of them started out kind of slow, or just didn’t seem very good but they all redeemed themselves, in a big way, and I haven’t regretted picking up any of them.

I think I have to disagree with this, to some extent.

A lot of the classic SF writers are, or were, ideas writers. Asimov, Clarke and Niven spring to mind, for example. None of them write strong, engaging characters (Niven is probably the best of the three I mentioned, but he’s still not great), and their pacing is often pretty bad. But they can spellbind with ideas and imagination.

Hell, Clarke wrote several novels in which almost nothing happened. (For example, Imperial Earth or Rendezvous with Rama.) They were terrific all the same.

That said, at the other end of the spectrum …

Guy Gavriel Kay.

And if you’re looking for strong, powerful fantasy, you could do worse than check out Charles de Lint. (Except his early stuff, which was very … generic.)

I enjoy Ellison and my Father like LeGuin, but I haven’t read any hers.

Otherwise a good list.

(Dammit, Poly, the more posts of your I read, the more I’m annoyed I didn’t know you my 20 some odd years in NC.)

Nobody’s mentioned Ray Bradbury yet? :eek:

I like nearly all of his works, except a few of them where he resurrects the old literary authors and have them complain about how they’re unappreciated. He comes off as slightly preachy in a few others, too, especially the “religion in space” ones. But overall, I think he’s awesome and a must-read.

The works of Stanislaw Lem are a good read, especially Solaris and The Cyberiad.

Frank Herbert is known mainly for Dune, but he wrote some very good other novels, especially The White Plague.

He also doesn’t seem to care much for actual science fiction; Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein are not even listed. One star for Silverberg and Zelazny?

For the OP: I’ll second the mentions of Bujold and Haldeman. Try some John Brunner if you can find it - Stand on Zanzibar is a good one. Card’s science fiction is generally excellent. His fantasy is wildly uneven - Hart’s Hope and Enchantment are both good.

I also like the idea of going through the award winners. You’ll find authors you particularly like and that will open up whole new vistas to your reading.

For authors still releasing new material, I’m rarely disappointed with the 3 Bs - David Brin (especially his Uplift Saga series), Greg Bear, and Gregory Benford.

And while he may be too gory for some, I’ve enjoyed S. M. Stirling’s Conquistador and the series about the pocket of 21st century America that gets relocated to the time of Alexander (it starts with Island in the Sea of Time.)

Little Nemo suggested George R. R. Martin for SF – his fantasy is fine too.

I’d add Dan Simmons for the Hyperion Cantos books and Ilium.

Ditto Gene Wolfe, Guy Gavriel Kay, Theodore Sturgeon, and Philip Pullman.

Whatever you do , DO NOT READ THE EYE OF ARAGON. Unless you don’t value your sanity.