Underrated science fiction/fantasy

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.

  1. 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…)

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.”

Comments, suggestions?

I’ve read both the Galactic Milieu and the Tales of Alvin Maker (the name of the series that contains Red Prophet) books. I agree they’re both good. I’m not sure I agree with you about Julian May’s writing, although her characters are indeed rather weak. Alvin Maker (both the character and the books) seems to lack direction, and is of course unfinished and unlikely to be finished. This probably detracts from its popularity a lot.

One series that I don’t often see discussed is Simon R Green’s Deathstalker books. I know it sounds like crappy space opera, but it’s not. It’s good space opera. It has some rather outrageous premises but it explores them well and the internal logic holds together. The characters are not particularly deep, but they aren’t awful either. A tad cliched, but there is enough extra flesh put on the cliches to make them acceptable and the dialogue between them is rather good… It also explores some interesting philosophical and political ideas. Unfortunately it suffers in various other respects: The plot is a trifle slow moving (at least partially because of the sheer number of viewpoint characters), a lot of the descriptions, etc. are overwritten, there’s far far too much random gore, and you eventually get tired of problems being solved by one of the main characters suddenly shouting “Ah ha, but you forget: We’re omnipotent” (I may be exagerating that point slightly). Nonetheless, it turns out to be a surprisingly good series.

Another are the Deryni books, by Katherine Kurtz. So far it consists of four series, a number of short stories, and one standalone novel (which is unfortunately dire). The series are respectively “Chronicles of The Deryni”, “Histories of King Kelson”, “The Legends of Camber of Culdi” and “The Heirs of Saint Camber”. The series gets off to a weak start in “Chronicles of the Deryni” but it’s frankly unbelievable quite how much her writing improves over the course of writing these books. Book one, Deryni Rising, is pretty crappy to be completely honest. The dialogue is cliched, the characters not much better. The premise is quite interesting, but isn’t supported by the writing. This series steadily improves but never gets better than “Yeah, it’s quite good I guess.” “Histories of King Kelson” picks up from the end of High Deryni with a good solid political fantasy series. However, the next two series are amazing. They’re really prequels to the other two - they’re set about 200-250 years before the start of High Deryni. The characters are great, the plots riveting, and the ideas it explores are very interesting. Further, she is merciless in her plots - various characters who one has really grown to care about are killed off as the two series progress. You know it’s got to happen, but it’s still heartbreaking. These books have had me in tears several times. Seriously: These two series are among the best fantasy I’ve ever read. The first two are missable, but they’re not remotely neccesary to understand the Camber books. Unfortunately she followed these with “King Kelson’s Bride”, a rushed and frankly missable book about boy wonder king kelson, who I’m not a huge fan of (although he has his moments in Histories). Apparently she’s recently started a new series “Childe Morgan” which is supposed to be quite good. I haven’t yet been able to obtain a copy of the first book though.

I’m sure there are a couple more. I’ll have a think about it and get back to you.

I’ve just discovered that Katherine Kurtz has apparently revised Deryni Rising, fixing a lot of the writing problems. Not having read it I can’t comment on the revision personally, but others seem to think it improved a lot of the problems.

Stand On Zanzibar, To Your Scattered Bodies Go and Gateway all won Hugo awards for “Best Novel” for their respective years. One (or more) of Julian May’s was a nominee. Any book that won a Hugo is not overlooked or underrated. It’s like saying that a movie that won an Oscar is ignored. :slight_smile:

(And some Hugo winners are waaay overrated, The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber or the loathesome They’d Rather Be Right (aka “The Forever Machine”) by Clifton both never have won…or even been nominated.)

However, great topic!

I’d start with Sleeping Planet by William R. Burkett—long out of print, it’s a very fun romp in the old John W. Campbell “Stoopid aliens with overwheming firepower are beaten by a handful of clever humans” vein. There’s a plant who’s pollen(?) will put humans into suspended animation…but it only works on a given human once. Only 3 humans that the aliens know about (and, IIRC, six total) have ever been exposed. The aliens show up and spray Earth, Mars and Venus (which have been terraformed) with this pollen. It’s up to the six awake humans to defeat the slavering hordes of aliens. It’s loads of fun.


Mockingbird by Walter Tevis. He didn’t write much SF being best known for The Color of Money and The Hustler but also wrote The Man Who Fell to Earth and a rare novel about chess The Queen’s Gambit. Tevis was a superb writer and deserves to be far better known than he is, particularly among SF fans - his 2 books are the cusp of thoughtful SF and literature.

And these are books you are recommending? :wink:

I loved the Julian May books from start to finish. The same with Katherine Kurtz. I recommend the Deryni books and her Adept series to everyone.

One author who has not received his due is Michael Flynn. Get the Firestar series or In the Country of the Blind. When he was getting started I would get excited everytime I saw one of his short stories was in Analog. That was even before I found out he lives in the next town over.I just wish he was more prolific.

Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality of Man stories aren’t exactly underrated; but they aren’t well known either. I think they’re excellent. His writing is often poetic, his stories are always strange. The universe is one in which the Instrumentality of Mankind (a sort of super-Illuminati) has restored danger to an Earth which had achieved very boring perfection.

In more recent books:

Eluki bes shahar’s Hellflower trilogy came and went without much notice. It may be a peculiar taste. Our heroine is a smuggler from an interdicted barbarian planet, travelling with a highly illegal Library (i.e., AI) in an interstellar Empire in which Library Science is the worst of crimes. Some very good scenes, and I find the writing interesting. (Be warned: our heroine, “Butterflies-are-Free Peace Sincere,” usually speaks in something of a thieves’ argot. I find it fun. You may find it irritating.)

Robert Chase, The Game of Fox and Lion. The book is set in a near-earth colonized space universe in which genetically modified humans, having been used as contract workers, are at war with the rulers of the major planets. The last surviving Multi-Neural Capacitant, who has been hiding from assassins as a monk in the Order of Stewards (which does world-building, from religious motives) is conscripted by an industrialist.

A few comments on series nominees to date, and one additional candidate:

First, Julian May’s books – the nine novels (the Galactic Milieu Trilogy is, unsurprisingly, three books: Jack the Bodiless, Diamond Mask, and Magnificat – which might equally well be called Nunc Dimittis! ;)). I agree that May’s characters are generally “underdone” – the supporting cast seems to have been cut out by a Pangalactic Stereotypesetter that she borrowed from Doc Smith back when they knew each other in the 50s. But a part of the problem lies in the fact that she had constructed a Myth in the classic sense and then needed to turn it into novels – and mythic characters tend to be larger than life and one-dimensional. Jack and Dorothea are real, living characters, but suffer from “Silmarillion Syndrome” – nobody could live up to the hype she generated for them. But, as she herself wryly notes, her Trilogy fell into the same trap as Dante and Milton – to quote Jean Kerr’s kids in a Sunday School production of the Eden story, “the snake has all the good lines.” However,

she rescues herself from this by transforming Mark from the evil-incarnate role to the six-million-years-older-and-wiser guardian angel who ensures that the whole thing work out as foreordained, so that he plays both roles in the course of the story.

But the last two books of the Pliocene Exile story, particulary The Adversary, tie directly into the Milieu trilogy, and create the scenario under which it plays out. As Mary Stuart observed, "En ma fin est ma commencement."

Likewise, the Kurtz stories began with her transforming a very juvenile story into Deryni Rising, which for all its hackneyed quatrain-magic (Is being Deryni at least partly a skill at extempore verse?) struck a chord in readers’ imaginations. When the real-world-chronologically first novel of a ficton-series is the product of the author’s youth, I for one tend to give a lot of license for juvenility to that particular book, especially if the author went from there to a more mature scenario. Which Kurtz most emphatically did, even resisting the temptation to make her Deryni and Haldanes all good guys and her Festils and mundane-humans all bad guys in favor of a more nuanced moral-choices schema.

But the ficton-giving-rise-to-a-book-series that I find most underrated is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series. Starting when she was 17 and with collaborations still coming out which she helped plot and precis just before her death a few years ago, she’s used that background to say a lot of different things about the human condition – many of them subtle and underpinning some whopping good adventure stories – in the classic Shakespearean/Norman Lear formula of “entertain the masses, but say something important in the process.” Darkover, it might be noted, will be extremely annoying to nitpickers – she intentionally sacrificed consistency of background to the needs of each novel, so that Armida is a day’s ride from Thendara in one book and two weeks’ tough journey through bandit-infested wilderness in another set only a few years apart from the first – it depended on what she needed to have the characters do what the world’s structure was in each story.

No, I’m not particularly recommending the first deryni series. It’s the other three I’m recommending (and Histories less than the Camber books). Like I said, I think Deryni Rising is a weak start to a pretty good trilogy, and the rest are much much better.

Deathstalker has some problems with it; I’m not going to deny that. I think however that the good points outweigh the bad points, and most people I know who’ve read them seem to agree with me.

I like to give the bad with the good points. Glowing praise makes me suspicious, and if I don’t warn people they might stop at Deryni rising because they were put off by it. :slight_smile:

Polycarp, I agree with most of what you’re saying about the Deryni series. I understand why Deryni Rising is so much weaker than the later books, but and when I first read it (at a much younger age) I enjoyed it much more than I do now. However that doesn’t change my opinion about it. :slight_smile: Unfortunately some of that carries over into the characters and, even though she develops them much better in later books, causes me to enjoy the first two series somewhat less than I otherwise would.

I should probably check out this revised edition when I pick up the first Childe Morgan book (which looks to be of a similar caliber to the Camber ones).

Um…I’d say lack of skill at verse. I can do better. Of the top of my head:

*Charissa, you an ooogly whore
You’re quite a bitch and furthermore
You suck at spells, I’ll fry your brain
And you’ll no longer be a pain.

Kelson, you’re whiney punk
Who thinks he’s tough, but that is bunk
I’ll burn you up until you’re dead
And then I’ll piss upon your head

Well, maybe not better exactly, but certainly as good as! :stuck_out_tongue:

My problem with Darkover is that around the mid-to-late '70s (if my recollection is correct–I haven’t reread 'em since soon after they came out) Bradley forgot how to write men. I’ve never said that about any other writer (I hate the critique “He/she doesn’t understaaaaaaand how to write women/men.” as it usually means “I don’t like their politics.”) but in this case, I think it applies. Her earlier novels had strong male and female characters (along with fun concepts and swashbuckling adventure). Her later (post '75, give or take) books had tough competent women and men who were: whiney, sissified, ineffectual wimps or evil misogynistic brutes who got off by applying red-hot pincers to their captive’s nipples. She used to know that there was a midground between an Alan Alda-esqe wimp and a refugee from John Norman’s GOR novels. The un-updated Bloody Sun is one of my favorites.


Point taken, it’s just that I never see discussions about those books. None of my friends into scifi have read those books until I lend them out, but they have read a load of Heinlein and Niven and all of the Dune series. They talk endlessly about those books, which IM very HO are loathsome (except for Starship Troopers which I found tolerable and Dune which is in my top twenty of all books ever). People get fixated on mediocre cyberpunk like Neal Stephenson (and I’ve read almost everything he has out and have enjoyed it) even though he can’t write an ending to save his life. So I wanted to give out props to those books and series that I think are overlooked in terms of popular (not critical) appeal.

To extend your Oscar simile, this is like telling someone to go get The Last Emperor instead of Titanic. Nobody would deny the critical appeal of The Last Emperor but it does lack in the popular appeal department.

Hey, don’t forget the classics like Smith’s Skylark and Lensman series. It took space opera to a new level. Granted, it wasn’t the highest level, but it was a lot higher than most of what was passing for SF sagas at the time.

But of course I’m prejudiced. :smiley:

Robert A. Heinlein thought highly of E. E. Smith, writing an essay on his writing and other talents. To those who criticized “oh those hackneyed plots, that cliched dialogue!” he replied “but they were brand new when he wrote them!”

Kurtz really hits her stride with Camber of Culdi and she hit it well. You can go ahead and skip the first series and read this book first and its trilogy. Since it’s a prequel you don’t get lost. After the first Camber series is the second Kelson series which was not quite as good. And then the 4th series was again less so. And then Kelson’s bride was awful. There do seem to be obsessive fans. There’s a fan fic book she edited. 2 Spell books, one for like $50, and now I see a map. And there are family trees floating around the internet which make connection to the old families of Normandy.
I never see Glen Cook’s Garrett series in the top sellers, how about those? Sweet to Red were all very fun, can’t put em down books. He kinda lost it with Deadly and Petty, got it back with Faded. Sort of had it with Angry.

King Kelson’s Bride, I thought, was well done – but not in the classic conflict style of most Deryni books. Rather, it was an investigation of (a) how love can grow between a “dynastically bonded” couple, and (b) that there are good and bad elements even in our traditional enemies – and sometimes, to quote Lincoln, “the best way to destroy your enemy is to make him your friend instead.”

Gosh. Histories was written after the Camber books? I’d always assumed it was the other way around, simply because the Camber books were so much better. Also, I quite liked the Heirs of Saint Camber series. I thought it was a good continuation of the first Camber books, although she does fall into the boy wonder king of gwynnedd plot again.

Polycarp, I thought King Kelson’s Bride had the potential to be rather good, at least partially because of the reasons you liked it. There were some interestind ideas explored and the plot showed promise. The problem is that I found it rather rushed and, consequently, not all that well written compared to some of her others, so it just ended up falling flat. Of course in my case it did have to overcome the aforementioned dislike of Kelson & co, but I think even if I’d liked the characters it wouldn’t have appealed to me.

Right now I’m championing Chaz Brenchley’s Outremer books. They rarely seem to get mentioned in these discussions and while I’m only on the fifth book of six, these things are absolutely first rate. Fantasy, a setting reminiscent of the Crusades, great characters, surprising plot twists, and really fine writing.

jsgoddess gives it two thumbs up!

Donald Kingsbury and Robert Charles Wilson are two great SF authors who have not received the recognition they deserve. In Kingsbury’s case it may be due to the lack of quantity; he publishs at a rate of about one novel per decade. Check out Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite or Wilson’s The Harvest.

Peter Hamilton’s Night Dawn Trilogy. I found it fascinating. He developed some great concepts in it.
The SDMB is the place where I look for fantasy or Sci-fi because none of my friends like those genres, I swear I’ve never seen it mentioned here.

Yup. [spoiler]The second Camber series was well up to snuff on the plot but it just didn’t have the same feel of the 9th century as the first series. There was something so ‘thick stone walls and torchy’ about the first series that really made it seem like I was reading a historical archive rather then a modern novel.

I think she wanted to get Kelson’s marriage out of the way after snatching it from him at the last moment a few times. Therefore the whole book seemed kinda pointless. And the big battle seemed so thrown together.[/spoiler]
But Deryni Archives was as good as the first Camber series.