Science Fiction Book Reviews

I like hard SF and no longer mind fantasy / soft SF that much.

# = I will read anything they ever publish

John Barnes #

A modern-day Heinlein. Orbital Resonance is a good start. It's a somewhat conventional YA novel, but with lots of little bits & changes in society that show how smart he is. You can always rely on Barnes to put an edge on things. He pays attention to economic & political issues too. And like Heinlein, he can go way over the top sometimes... The one problem is that he's pretty obsessed with the darker side of human existence. Mother of Storms gets pretty graphic, but is fun mega-storm book that turns to his real interest in human transcendence. Candle is another good first book of his to read. The concept of "One True" and meme wars is just great. Gives a "V for Vendetta" feeling. I also read Kaleidiscope Wars. A Million Open Doors was fun too.

Directive 51 doesn't get very dark; his editor must have cut out all the rape & murder scenes.

Patton's spaceship is fun Barnes-style nazi killing alternate universe time travel book. Yep, that's what it's about.

Duke of Uranium is the closest to a Heinlein juvenile.

Peter Watts #

He has a really distinctive style, and you have to work pretty hard to figure out what's going on. Similar to Gibson. I first read Blindsight and was impressed. Then Echopraxia and was like, whoah this guy really has it together. He must read the same blogs as me. Went back and read Rifters and thought it was pretty great too. But wow, this guy has a dark view of the human condition. He needs more Darwinian Happiness... I've been told the rest of the Rifters books aren't as good, but will try them anyway. He also has a bunch of short stories up on his site which I'll read.

Iain M Banks #

Great. The Player of Games is a good intro to the culture series. Consider Plebas is also good. The later ones are really fun, the earlier ones are a bit more science fictional, but they're all great. Huge loss when he died. The Quarry was a good, non-sf novel he wrote as he was dying. The Business was okay, a novel with semi-SF trappings. Against a Dark Background was interesting, very dense and hard to read at the time. The Algebraist is super fun, non-culture SF.

Rudy Rucker #

Spaceland was really good. Frek and the Elixir was really good. He's a prolific, creative psychedelic surfer physicist. What a guy! software, hardware etc. are really creative, wild, fun.

Stephen Baxter #

Sort of like Greg Egan - really hard SF from a physicist. They are readable, but he is not quite as trippy or quite as good of a writer as some other authors. Still, pretty good. (Later) I have gone back and read a bunch of his short stories and can't help but be impressed. He has a long term future of humanity built out, which is pretty different than what anybody else has done, and is consistent, too. A lot of the stories were pretty touching... it's the story of human individuals being transformed into a greater, cultural organism trying to take over the universe. But each "cell" still has its own independence and consciousness... so it's offers millions of stories from the various times & jobs existing there.

Bruce Sterling #

One of my favorite authors. Hard near-future SF. More of an all-around futurist than a scientist. He's really into global warming and design, also. He also writes the Viridian newsletter which has (commented) articles about climate change, and his awesome speeches at various tech/design/sf conferences. Distraction, Heavy Weather, A Good Old-Fashioned Future (short stories) were all great. They're set in the near future (less than 30 years probably) and focus on how media, tech gadgets, climate change, networking etc will change us. In one shocking moment the main character is walking through a European city and stops by the central river, and drinks from it. We can make the natural world clean again, even in cities! Schismatrix, Crystal Express - cyberpunk, awesome, 80s. The Difference Engine - written with William Gibson. Alternate history where Babbage's experiments with mechanical computers in the 1880s really take off. Steam-punk. It was pretty good.

Vernor Vinge #

If you ever want to enjoy "normal" SF again, don't read Vinge. I compare all the SF I read to him now, and almost nothing stands up. It's thoughtful, exciting galaxy spanning human-alien interaction/deserted island/introducing-modern-tech-to-ancient-cultures stuff. Deepness in the Sky is probably my favorite SF novel, I read that and Fire upon the Deep twice they were so good. I'm getting ready to read deepness again. I haven't reread things like this since I was a kid. I've been waiting for the next one to come out for a couple years now, but no luck. Vinge also thought of the idea of the technological singularity, a massive compounding increase in machine intelligence beyond which prediction is impossible. Once we make AIs, we teach them to make themselves smarter, and they will rapidly become godlike. I'm reading his earlier stuff now. The Peace War was interesting but not major. Some good ideas but the technology he introduced was really amazing. I can't imagine how you would live in a world with bobbling technology, even once people got their freedom. Still, it's a good post apocalyptic rebuilding society book. The Witling was pretty interesting. Very physicsy, but definitely Vinge. Really short, lots of action. Like a good pulp. Annoyingly complex character names, though.

Dan Simmons #

Famous for the Hyperion series, which is great. The first two are awesome, the 2nd two good. Carrion Comfort is also great horror. If the horror genre, which I've read nothing of, has more authors as good as this then I've got a lot of reading to do. The one about Hemingway in Cuba in the 50s The Crook Factory was good and held together all the way to the end.. The "Case" series reads like a screenplay, super violent and ugly. Is he trying to become Michael Crighton? I'll read Illyrium when it comes out in paperback. Children of the Night was pretty good. This guy knows how to end a book, which is nice. The first couple stories of Lovedeath were pretty good.

James Tiptree, Jr #

Brightness falls from the Air was sooooo good. Houston, Houston do you Read? was also great. Incredibly good writing about sex, psychedelia, and addiction. I still have to find her other books. I think there are some short story collections I don't have. So, so wonderful. If I had Brightness with me I'd read it again right now.

William Gibson #

Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Count Zero are all famous and good cyberpunk. It's interesting that this vision of the future is basically wrong. Things are still holding together. We've got some years yet. He's at least half a crime/detective/noir author whose books happen to take place in a bad future. The later books are also good, Virtual Light, Pattern Recognition etc. and get better over time.

Neal Stephenson #

Snow Crash is great, if incredibly unrealistic. The Diamond Age was good. I can't imagine we'll get that far in nanotech without first totally changing ourselves genetically, or at least reaching a singularity, though. Cryptonomicon was really good. All the cool stuff about WW2 - secret codes, secret missions, special forces, etc. He also throws in Tempest and EM bombs. I mean to read his later huge books like Quicksilver, etc. Also he's got one about the surveillance society that recommends putting total surveillance in the hands of the public as our best option. Anathem was 950 great pages long, I have read it twice. Totally loved it. Reamde was a great read, handled China wonderfully, just a super fun adventure story written by a smart & knowledgeable guy. Seveneves was great fun, thrilling, a bit long winded here and there, but I could have easily dealt with it being 3x as long. After reading it I went online & searched for fan fiction... I want more stories about the future world... survival stories set in the different cultures... It'd be a great setting for an RPG... the exploration of future earth, pretty sharply defined cultural & racial groups, technology & style differences, ancient mysteries hidden everywhere.

Cory Doctorow #

Publishes boingboing, is also a good writer. Kind of like Bruce Sterling, lots of thoughts on how technology will change society. Has a few short novels available online. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is great. The idea of "whuffie", a social currency that would replace money, is brilliant and is the first revolutionary political/evolutionary idea I've read since the communist manifesto. Basically it's just about extending and automating the ratings systems ("was this review helpful to you?" from amazon) to everything in life. So every time you think something good about someone, they get points. And you can spend points to get people to do stuff for you. It automatically rewards people who create good public art. It's awesome. The novella also introduces extreme human-computer interfaces, brain backups, immortality. Still, it feels human. (Later: rereading this, it's still good, but he really goes quite far into Disneyland fanboyism. Cool ideas in there, still though.)

Octavia Butler #

I read Dawn for a SF class. I thought it was really interesting, definitely had some good ideas. Aliens find the remains of post-nuclear war humans and try to reconstruct us, but they want to make modifications. Similar to Greg Bear's Anvil of Stars in having a bunch of humans with no culture being raised by aliens who don't understand them. And in some ways it's similarly annoying - there's this major thing where the aliens refuse to give the woman paper and pencil, because they've just assumed she has eiditic memory. Takes a while and a lot of annoyance to clear that up. Of course Dawn is still way better than Anvil of Stars though. I should read her other stuff.

(later) Mind of my Mind and Clay's Ark are gripping thrillers with honest, good SF inside. She's an incredible writer. I really want to read the rest of hers. And I've still never gotten around to Kindred, her most famous book.

Greg Egan #

Permutation City was really good, if heavy. Schild's Ladder was good. Distress was really great, too. His short story collections are EPIC, some of the most awesome SF ever.

John Varley #

Meta-engineering and gratuitous sex, like Niven. The most memorable part of Titan was two girls' months long climb up a tree-covered 50 mile tall ventilation shaft inside a huge living moon. Not really hard SF. Kind of 70s. I should give him another try really.

(later) I went back and found that I love a bunch of his stories. Equinoctal and Phantom of Kansas are both unforgettable. I read the Barbie Murders collection and there weren't any other big standouts, though. I should reread his Titan series and other novels, too.

Isaac Asimov

Ugh. Some of them are ok but generally, they're really dated. His later work absolutely sucks. Don't waste your time. I'd recommend reading just the first three Foundation books and a few of the robot stories to get the idea. That is enough. Definitely don't waste time reading the extended Foundation series, or the Robot City books, and definitely do NOT read Azazel.

Robert Heinlein #

Starship Troopers is awesome. I go back to it every few years and come out a republican for a few days. Some of the juveniles are great, especially Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and Farmer of Ganymede. The Puppet Masters and By his Bootstraps were good, total classics & inventing new genres Very memorable, and I have read 'bootstraps multiple times. Stranger in a Strange Land - eh. Sixth Column I remember as being nicely anti-christian. The others mostly sucked. Farnham's Freehold was really anti-asian. Read most of them as a teenager... but my lasting impression is of a libertarian asshole. Starship Troopers is awesome though. Must Read.

Arthur C. Clarke

Rendezvous with Rama was really good. The 3 sequels were absolute garbage. 2001 and 2010 were ok, 2061 was bad, 3010 was absolutely awful. After a few pages I realized it, and started a list "things clarke hates about the 1980s." Typically for SF authors, the early stuff is good, later stuff sucks. Childhood's End was good.

Maureen McHugh #

Her books are about sex and gender and living in foreign countries, especially China. It is what SF should be - it's mainly about non-tech things, but it lets it influence how basic human things are considered. China Mountain Zhang - I really liked this one. It has a gay american chinese construction worker who dreams of getting his visa to go back to China. It has hang glider racers. It has living in an isolated arctic research station. Mission Child - I liked this one too. An isolated planet is recolonized by more modern humans. The part about the tribesperson refugee becoming a druggie in the city is memorable. So damn good.

Douglass Adams

So funny. Brilliant.

Alfred Bester

The Stars My Destination - I read this a couple times as a teenager and loved it. The idea is that someone discovers a way to mentally instantaneously transport yourself to anyplace you've memorized the location of. In that future a fugitive is searching for a man he witnessed commit an atrocity. The prison scenes are really memorable. It's hard SF in spite of the semi-magical premise, because it does a good job of imagining how transportation changes society. I recently reread this and it was quite different. It's really fast and light, still good though. A fast 60s SF novel. I've got his others and am waiting to read them. ...I started Golem Hundred but quit after 100 pages or so. It was a failed return to SF apparently. Awful. The Demolished Man has amazing praise from asimov etc... it was ok. But not as good as Stars...

Walter John Williams

I read City on Fire, it was all right. I don't see what's the big deal though. A little too magical for my taste. Probably better classified as fantasy. I read The Praxis, wanting to give him another chance. But it was just utter crap. Not awful and the first page or two is good, but just not SF, not deep or thoughtful. Apparently you can have galaxy spanning empires without changing human nature at all. The aliens who conveniently forbid all post 1990s technology helps too. Soap operas in space. Post Vinge this doesn't cut it anymore.

Larry Niven

Prolific. Early stuff good, some hack work later. Likes meta-engineering projects. Ringworld was good, the sequels were ok. The most interesting idea is the "droud", a mechanical device that stimulates parts of the brain for a herion like-effect. The main character becomes an addict after being zapped by one randomly on the street. Also, the super-cautious puppeteers are interesting. The Integral Trees was a great idea, a gas ring around a sun with huge trees growing in it and the descendants of stranded human colonists. Life directly in a zero-0 ring of air with floating blobs of water. I don't remember the plot at all though. I read a bunch of the Man Kzin Wars series but I can't imagine they'd be any good now.

C.J. Cheryyh

Really prolific, I've only read Cyteen. I read the first of the three books and thought it was amazingly great. But nothing happened in the next two books and I was a bit disappointed. It takes place in a scientific authoritarian society where citizens run genetic labs that breed, clone and raise people who are in effect slaves. However, they have a good understanding of psychology so they treat them really well, and sometimes allow them to become citizens. The description of the upbringing of two kids destined to be bodyguards is awesome. From age 3 they are trained, subjected to hypnosis and all kinds of mental analysis. Not in a brutish way at all though - it's more like japan-style conditioning, which takes into account human needs and desires. The book is about people trying to control the nurture aspect of upbringing, not just nature. There is also a secret project to clone a genius and replicate her entire upbringing (i.e. giving her the same type of mother, the same type of friends etc). Foreigner - um, this book was awful. Page 50 to page 250 could and should have been condensed to 5 pages. Unbelievably annoying dialog style. Way too much of the whiney narrator's thoughts. I read Downbelow Station, her other Hugo award winner. Um. She is shit. I'm sick of it. There were a few good ideas in there but they were overwhelmed by 200 pages of moaning. Why do I keep reading her? I'm done now. Done. Enough. All her male characters are indecisive. And all haunted by some kind of sexual abuse that they always refuse to talk about or deal with. They just beat themselves up mentally all the time and you have to read ALL of it. Cheryyh's got like 30 books... I'll look at her timeline and see if i can locate the good period... After reading Cyteen I realized that I have actually read another of hers, but I was too young for it. 40,000 in Gehenna was mentioned at the end of Cyteen. Two competing spacefaring civs have a disputed zone. One sneaks 40,000 lab-raised clones onto a planet in the zone, mindwipes them, and lets them start a society secretly. Later when the other side figures out the space has been 'mined 'they're pissed. I was too young when I read this, it sounds interesting when I think back on it. But now that I know Cherryh's annoying, pretentious style, every time she does it (about 5 times a page) it breaks me out of the book.

Kim Stanley Robinson

The Years of Rice and Salt is great, great stuff - not really SF at all, though. Fascinating alternate religious history of asia. The one about futuristic musicians, A Sense of Whiteness was good & enjoyable. The one of his I read first, Red Mars was pretty good. I don't know what to think about it really. It got incredible amounts of praise from the new york times etc. It was good all right... The characters feel way more real than something in say Vinge. There was an awful lot of mars geography in there though. I didn't really bother to figure it all out. I liked it enough to plan to read the next two. Robinson knows something about arabic culture evidently. Green Mars was pretty good. Yet more tons of martian geography. I wish I'd gone to nasa's mars site before I read all these. I guess I'll read the next one, if only because 2 ends right in the middle of something important. Aurora is supposed to be really good.

Ian McDonald

Terminal Cafe started off annoying wanna-be gibson, all in love with death etc. It got much better once it switched to the other characters. It's good SF, but the plot lacks something. It was all familiar to me, yet I'd never read it before. Turned out it was a prequel to The Days of Solomon Gursky, a novella which I'd read somewhere and loved. It's a posthumanist immortality romp. So great.

Lois McMaster Bujold

S/he's won a million Nebulas, so I got one of the Miles Muscovian series. I wasn't impressed, stopped halfway through. Seemed like simplistic moralistic tales set in a future where nobody knows what to do with their technology. It's pitiful when you read a book set in the future yet today we can do more advanced things with tech. Not SF.

Joe Haldeman

The Forever War was good. We get involved in a war with some aliens and there's lots of relativistic travel changing sexual morals hijinx. Turns out the whole thing was dumb, just like vietnam. The Forever Peace was ok.

David Brin

I read a bunch of it when I was a teenager. Seemed all right. One interesting bit was the idea that man evolved to chase down antelope on the plains. They can sprint way faster than us but over a few days of running we can wear them out. I don't know how true that is, but it'd be cool.

Orson Scott Card

I read the first one, Ender's Game. it was pretty good. People rave about the others, should read them sometime I guess. I read one of the later YA books about magic, etc. and it was pretty good. Well-written, at least. I also tried to read one that was apparently modelled after the "true tales of the early days of mormon history" and it was kind of pointless if you didn't understand the symbolism of all the voyaging around. But, it did have an awesome "static" world where an AI monitored people's thoughts for 40 some million years and prevented them from making any technical breakthroughs... but it's breaking down, and some kids figure out what is going on and begin to think previously forbidden thoughts - but they do it for the forces of good! to restore the old, controlled world. That wasn't enough to make me keep reading, though.

Frederik Pohl

Gold at the Starbow's End was really interesting, even if totally wrongheaded. Send out 7 super smart but varied people on a mission to a star many years away. Give them math problems to work on to pass the time. In actuality, there is no destination - they're being sent to their deaths, on the hope that in the isolation they will discover amazing things. It turns out to work and they become godlike before they get to their nonexistent destination. After reading Guns, Germs, and Steel this idea seems absurd - whole countries of millions of people (China) foundered and didn't advance because they were too controlled and didn't have outside perturbing influences - Europe did so well because it was hard to control all of it, so there were always competing countries and evolution of political and military systems continued. Japan had better guns than Europe in the 17th century but since they had no competing countries, they eventually abandoned them and went back to swords (until the west came in again). So the idea that 7 people on a spaceship would be able to remain innovative and not settle down into some stable pattern seems doubtful.

Philip K. Dick

Speed addict and crazy, but wrote some good stories. A Scanner Darkly is great. Some of his short stories are good. Not hard SF. I haven't read Ubik or or his other later speed head books. The short story Second Variety was memorable.

Philip Jose Farmer

Famous for Riverworld, which I haven't read yet. A bit of a hack from what I can tell - I've read his one about an attempt to create a modern tarzan, and the one that's to Frankenstein as back to the future 3 is to back to the future 1. Both were amusing. Basically a huge, bad hack, though.

Roger Zelazny

I've read the first 7 or 8 of the Amber series. They're pretty good, not SF though. There are some promising SF ideas in the first one but they never reappear. The main character has the ability to move between an infinite number of worlds, all more or less similar to the true center of the universe, a sort of medieval city called Amber. Earth is just one of the fairly distant alternative worlds. The main character never thinks of doing what I would do if I had the power to easily switch like that - go find some really great music, food, girls, books. And find some really really great go players. Everyone is just obsessed with controlling the city of amber. The second 5 bring in straight up magic; I lost interest.

Michael Swanwick

Bones of the Earth was pretty good. Deterministic time travel and dinosaurs and a really crazy end, plus anti-fundamentalist Christian stuff. Jack Faust was... um... I'm glad I read it, and it was really fast, didn't drag. Swanwick is pretty good, but I don't know... maybe he's secretly a fantasy author or something.

Frank Herbert

Dune is great. I've read the next 3, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God Emperor of Dune. They were all right. I kind of liked God Emperor though. It'd be interesting to reread these in light of The Blank Slate - Herbert's definitely got genetics playing an important role, but in God Emperor the emperor tries to change society by destroy all history books and making an invincible woman army.

Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle For Leibowitz - The first two parts are really good, the third is ok. Postapocalyptic, religious.

Robert Silverberg

Prolific. Probably his short stories are better than his books. I read one of the Valentine books, didn't get into it. Too much juggling, and really predictable. Tom O'Bedlam was better, but still predictable. Better than Philip Jose Farmer but similarly seems to be lacking something to really grab me. I have read the one where there is this gigantic wall and a society at the base that keeps sending people up to climb it - not that impressed. He also has a short story about psychological simulation of historical characters that is pretty cool.

Carl Sagan

Contact was good. The movie sucked, though.

Gene Wolfe

Everybody constantly talks about the Old Sun and New Sun series. I started reading one but couldn't get into it.

Aldous Huxley

Brave New World is pretty good. God, where are the modern versions of this guy? All destroyed by drugs, probably.

Stanislaw Lem

Polish "I'm not SF dammit!" SF author. Novels mostly revolve around describing some weird but inert/alive alien environment. His short stories are great and funny. Also has some incredible mathematical poetry which translates well from Polish.

Kurt Vonnegut

Depressed good "I'm not SF dammit" author. Super depressing, but great books.

Neil Gaiman

A really good writer, but basically fantasy. American Gods was really well written. But it was still just a bunch of myths, it's all outdated and unreal. I'm just not interested. The one set in underground london was cool, but not really SF either.

Samuel R. Delany

Tales Of Neveryon kind of PoMo Le Guin style. Some was ok. The Fall of the Towers was awful.

Clifford D. Simak

John C Wright

Guest Law is a great intro short story to his hard, very formal world. The Golden Age is completely amazing and wonderfully creative. The rest of the series is good but I may not have fully gotten it. I read one of his allegedly YA novels and was turned off. He also runs a very Rush-Limbaugh-style blog which just seems a foolish way to interact with the world. But seriously, The Golden Age makes it all worthwhile. I think of it often.

Greg Bear

His books have gotten better and better. At first he wrote hard space SF, lately he's written bioscience thrillers. Eon was absolutely awful. The Forge of God was all right, but the sequel Anvil of Stars was awful. Darwin's Radio and Vitals were both really enjoyable. I plan to read all of his new work, and the sequel to Darwin's Radio. Dead Lines was a horror crossover. It was just ok. Compared to Dan Simmons' horror it was a letdown.

Piers Anthony

Arrogant hack. The Xanth books are ok for 12 year olds. Bio of a Space Tyrant is a fucked up thing for a kid to read. However, he did write one extremely memorable short story collection, Anthonology. I'll never forget the torture story in that one, and a few other stories are just brutal. His introduction starts out "I submitted a story in college, and when the professor read it, he just laughed and said, oh, you have an amazing talent, congrats you're a writer"

Robert Charles Wilson

Darwinia was pretty good. But I later read Blind Lake and thought it was pretty terrible. Super slow, completely ignored the interesting economic side of the situation, and had a pretty bad ending. Also, predictable.

Robert A. Metzger

Picoverse was pretty good. It's one of those books that despite having lots of hard pysics, includes the magical idea that physics knows something about the human body. The human body is not well-defined, so there can't be machines that operate on the human body as a unit. "A is touching B" for physical objects is not well-defined. I was also surprised at how despite messing with incredibly powerful pysics and jumping through wormholes, the physical environment remains conducive for human life. I'd think that having half your body exist in one universe and half in another would really really mess you up, even for the half a second that it takes you to jump through a portal.

Terry Pratchett

He has about 20 Discworld books. I've read the first one and it was pretty good. It's fantasy. I'll probably eventually read a few more of them.

Dean Koontz

Cold Fire was just surprisingly good. Mostly horror, I suppose. Light, fast, he's a better writer than 90% of SF authors.

Robert Sheckley

Mind Swap was fun and I want to read more of this era SF - smart, but not locked into genre. And funny. Apparently he is pretty well-respected, but forgotten today.

R.A. Lafferty

Wrote hundreds of stories in the 40s-70s, super creative mixtures of SF and fantasy. I've read a bunch & find them really fun time capsules from the past.

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