I was looking through my books and I found four series of books that I almost never hear discussed amongst the multitude of science fiction threads. This thread is for those books and series that you think are consistently overlooked. Include here why you think they are underrated.
The Pliocene Saga quartet by Julian May (starting with The Many Colored Land). I will include her two other tangential series with these (the Intervention/Metaconcert duo and the Jack the Bodiless trio). Summary plot: Mankind belongs to a wide multi-species Galactic Milieu in the future. This was brought about by the emergence of psychics in humanity. There emergence was accompanied by a revolutionary understanding of physics (which explained the psychic forces and made a lot of things like interstellar travel possible). This is discussed in great detail. The Pliocene Saga starts with a scientist in France who is messing with these forces and manages to open a one-way time portal to Earth, 6 million years ago. This is a localized, isolated event that is only possible in that particular place. People who don’t fit into the ordered Galactic Milieu take the opportunity to travel back in time only to find that there is already a humanoid race of aliens living there. The other two series deal with the metapsychics back on Earth and the joining of the Galactic Milieu. I don’t know why this isn’t considered one of the greatest series of scifi out there, except that the character development and writing is a bit shoddy (like that ever stopped anyone from liking scifi coughHeinleincough…)
The Riverworld series by Philip Jose Farmer. This one suffers from shoddy writing (like I’m any critic), but it is pretty riveting. Humanity finds itself reincarnated in a semi-random geographical arrangement along the banks of a river. Meals and clothing but no technology are provided. The river spirals around a planet; there are unscalable mountains between the adjacent loops. It follows Richard Burton (the 19th century explorer) and Samuel Clements (Mark Twain) in their adventures and searches for meaning. It is very well conceived and at times quite tongue-in-cheek.
The Gateway series by Frederick Pohl. This series deteriorates pretty rapidly after the first book. An abandoned alien space station is found in a strange orbit around our sun. It is totally devoid of aliens but chock full of spaceships and alien tech. People gamble, selecting preprogrammed voyages at random on these spaceships (since they don’t understand the controls). Some never return. Those who do have the potential to get very rich. Money is made by information and alien artifacts recovered on a mission. There are a bunch of books – they eventually find out what happens to the alien race but there is a bunch of dime-store psychology before they get there.
The Red Prophet series by Orson Scott Card. I think this is amongst his most clever storylines, and it keeps on being good (unlike the Ender series which started out gangbusters and IMHO totally petered out by the third book). Unfortunately, it appears that he is having a hard time ending it (I have not read the most recent book in the series). It is about an alternate history America, where people fled from Europe not seeking freedom of religion but freedom to practice magic. There is Western magic and Native American magic, which of course is a lot more powerful and a lot more subtle. It is a retelling of the westward push of expanding America in the 1800s against the native tribes, twisted a little. The main character is a seventh son of a seventh son and is a Western magician who is more powerful than any other. He is a good guy, a Christ figure. This one suffers from preachiness and a strange setting that may turn off both scifi and fantasy readers, who may not appreciate long lectures on William Henry Harrison, Tecumseh, and Tippecanoe.
I saw both To Your Scattered Bodies Go (the first book of Riverworld) and Gateway on that list of 100 must-read scifi and fantasy books that was circulating a couple weeks ago. So those two are definitely appreciated by at least the guy who compiled the list. I’ll add one more from that list that I don’t hear people talking about: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, which is very prophetic and quite compelling, although it kind of oozes a 1960s-1970s futurism a la “Soylent Green.”