Don’t know if you like science fiction? Don’t know if you only like a specific subgenre of science fiction, but don’t want to wade through novels of dreck to find out what it is?
As a first step, I recommend reading Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Yes, an entire novel is a big time sink, but the book is built from shorter tales strung together into a larger narrative. Each tale is drawn from a different subgenre of science fiction, so you’ll get a pretty wide exposure just by reading this single book (publishers hate him!). The shared plot thread running through all these stories is also useful to make sure you finish reading all the stories in their entirety, and not just skip the ones you’re perhaps apt to abandon too quickly before you’ve let it develop.
Once you’ve read Hyperion (or don’t care about spoilers), join me after the jump.
Now that you’ve read Hyperion, I’ll point out additional books and authors that fit different aspects of each tale.
The Priest’s Tale
If you enjoyed the conflict of religion and science, A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter Miller might be up your alley. The book follows a Catholic order after a nuclear war, exploring the boundary between science and religion, and holds up remarkably well for being written in 1960.
For an interesting take on the relationship between religion and science, Peter Watts’ short story A Word for Heathens has religion symbiotically developing alongside science, but in a violent alternative history way, not in a “why can’t we all coexist” sort of way. Peter Watts’ contributions don’t stop there: if you enjoyed the, ah, biological horror aspect of the tale, then he has that covered too with his short story The Things. If you’re hooked by Watts’ blend of biological expertise and nihilism (“whenever my will to live becomes too strong, I read Peter Watts”), then might I suggest his novel Blindsight (online)?
The Soldier’s Tale
To put it mildly, there’s a fair amount of military-themed science fiction out in the wild. If you enjoyed the imagery of advanced weapons laying waste to everything, then Old Man’s War by John Scalizi is a good start. In it, green octogenarians unapologetically shoot aliens in the face on strange planets in a crowded universe. It’s a simple (if strange) core, but Scalizi dresses it up pretty well.
If you enjoyed following a competent career soldier fighting in battles across the universe, then Use of Weapons by Iain Banks is a great start. It shares some of the more thoughtful skepticism present in The Soldier’s Tale, asking in the large “for what end are we fighting?” It also doesn’t hurt that the writing quality is great: at one point, I described it as “verging on poetry”.
If you’re interested specifically in military science fiction that features sex with sharp objects, then I can’t help you. Sorry.
The Poet’s Tale
If you wanted to read more about the sort of decadent society the Hegemony embodies, the Culture series also by Iain Banks certainly describes a civilization, The Culture, that many would describe as hedonistic. Most of the novels in that universe focus on the interactions between the Culture and other civilizations, simply because that’s where the interesting conflict happens: people having a good time building planetary megastructures doesn’t make for a compelling story. However, one does pick up the structure of the Culture simply by watching the shadow it casts in each story. A good place to start is The Player of Games, which along with being a compelling story is also unusual with how long it lingers on normal life within the Culture.
However, if you are instead interested in a critique of the sort of shallow society created by the Hegemony of Man, the classic Brave New World should have you covered. A reviewer sums the book up fairly well: “Orwell [Author of 1984] feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”.
Otherwise, as one might expect of science fiction, there aren’t that many works that focus on the artistic. If you don’t mind exploring a single short story, Zima Blue from Alastair Reynold‘s Zima Blue and Other Stories collection might fit: it chronicles the rise and fall of an artist in the far future who is, in a way, searching for their muse. The other stories in the collection are more traditional Reynold, which I’ll touch on later.
I also apologize if you were looking forward to more recommendations of works with protagonists possessing vulgar nine word vocabularies.
The Scholar’s Tale
Tragic time travel stories? Unfortunately, I haven’t read much romantically imbued science fiction. My best guess is The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I haven’t read it, but it certainly seems to use Time as a tragic weapon which separates the people that love each other, even if it relies on eros instead of storge as in the Scholar’s Tale.
The Detective’s Tale
Ah, this tale is pure, uncut, grade-A cyberpunk. I swear that Dan Simmons was giggling to himself while writing it, just like I imagine Neal Stephenson giggling while writing Snow Crash. Both are over the top, serve up plenty of action in physical and virtual realms, and feature gritty dystopias. Be warned that Snow Crash can be too over the top for some people’s suspension of disbelief: in this case, you might want to try Neuromancer (below) instead.
More serious in tone is Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, which skews away from shiny cyberspace adventures and towards the hard-boiled noir detective side of The Detective’s Tale. It doesn’t drift too far from a cyberspace adventure, though: this detective has been downloaded into a spare body and told by an immortal to solve his murder a few days earlier. To top it all, it’s set in a San Francisco that’s dystopian enough that it ought to have rain constantly.
You might also be interested in the archetypal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer by William Gibson. I mean, it single handedly popularized the term “cyberspace” for crying out loud, and the Detective’s Tale lifts an amazing amount of virtual imagery from this book. And it’s not a “tell people you’ve read it to look cultured” sort of book: it is a legitimately good story. Where Snow Crash is over the top,Neuromancer is understated, feeling like a lived in world with believable characters. Sure, some parts of the book are cliché, but only because it spawned the literary cyberpunk genre, inspired landmark films like The Matrix, and played a part in creating the real world cyberspace we live with.
The Consul’s Tale
This is easy: a military flavored love story separating lovers with the gulf of relativity? The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is the obvious choice: two lovers are drafted into an interstellar war, but the need to travel at relativistic speeds means they will age at different rates, and may never see each other again.
If you enjoyed the slow burn of revenge, then Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie might fit your bill. Someone tried to kill the protagonist, and now she’s out for blood years later. Did I mention the protagonist is a sentient warship? The plotting can get tied up in the flashback narrative structure, but it was still fairly compelling.
The setting of a environmental sanctuary might have intrigued you: if you’re interested in hearing more about the interplay between ecology and man, the classic Dune by Frank Herbert has been hailed as “the first planetary ecology novel on a grand scale”. More than that, though, it’s one of the best selling science fiction novels, and like A Canticle for Leibowitz holds up well for being written in 1965. Highly recommended.
Not all flavors of science fiction are covered in Hyperion’s tales, just a good selection of them. Here are some additional books I enjoy that didn’t fit above.
Accelerando (online) by Charlie Stross used to be my favorite book: I opened the book here in the present, then seemingly fast forwarded through 100 years of human progress, and it was so cool. The second time, I realized it was actually a horror story. If you were intrigued by Hyperion‘s inscrutable TechnoCore, or wanted something set closer to the near future, then this book might work out for you.
Alastair Reynolds does awesome scale very, very well, and his book House of Suns is an especially good example. This applies to both time and space: 200,000 years pass while the protagonists circumvent the Milky Way against a backdrop of rising and falling civilizations. “Epic” as a description would not be remiss here, and would apply equally well to many of his other books. Be aware that Reynolds sometimes violates the “show, don’t tell” rule, but he’s usually telling a story so grand that I don’t care.
For something maximally thoughtful, Anathem also by Neal Stephenson is a good bet. Plenty of the other books I recommended have interesting ideas embedded in them, but none of them quite measure up to a book about secular academic monks that have spent millennia sitting in monasteries and thinking. And not to worry, there’s enough action sprinkled in to keep the plot going. However, be warned that Stephenson also sprinkles in made up words for common objects we would call by other names, which can turn some people off.
I hope that this guide has gotten you started with your science fiction future. Happy reading!
Thanks to Hans Hyttinen for reading early drafts of this!