How To Find Good Science Fiction To Read

There’s so much stuff getting published these days that it can be a challenge to identify good fiction from bad.

In fact, quite a few years ago when I was reading fantasy and science fiction in my own time, I remember even then, when we weren’t downloading it from Amazon, that the ratio of ‘good’ to ‘bad’ science fiction was woeful.

Partly that was my fault. I assumed that if a book was published, then it had to be good. After all, it costs so much time and money to publish it would be folly to publish something bad. If it’s cover was on display in a bookshop, then it must be among the best because of the real estate it takes up.

Now I know a few things I didn’t back then:

  • Publishers buy manuscripts before they’re written, so they haven’t seen the end result before they’ve committed to paying for it any more than you have.
  • Publishers aren’t that good at choosing great literature anyway. They get it right more often than the Amazon algorithm, but that’s because they’re harder to manipulate, not because they’ve got mystical abilities to choose good writers.
  • The book that has pride of place in the bookshop has often paid to be there. At least online portals are required to indicate that the presence of a book at the top of your page is a paid promotion.

At least that explains some of the truly awful stuff I read when I started into the genre, and almost put me off for good.

Then I ran into a few people who course-corrected for me and sent me in a couple of new directions.

If you’re looking at science fiction and wondering why people read this stuff, then perhaps I can do the same for you. Here is my take on why you ought to give the genre a try, and how to get a good panoramic view of what it has to offer.

None of the rules of writing change in this genre

Good stories have well-rounded characters facing big challenges that they overcome in creative ways. They face challenges that alter the way they see the world and therefore change who they are. They are set in a world that is internally consistent with rules you instinctively, intuitively understand, even if the rules seem strange from the outside.

Just because you’re in the science fiction genre doesn’t mean a good book doesn’t need good characters, internal consistency and a dramatic premise. If you come across a bad science fiction book, remember this: it’s probably bad for the same reason some non-science fiction books are bad. It’s not bad because it’s science fiction.

The search for good books to read exists everywhere.

There are different subgenres, some of which may not be for you

If you read a book that’s narrowly-focused military science fiction, you’ll most likely read a lot about military battles, deployments of fleets and the characters of the marines or officers that are in command of these ships or part of their crew.

You might hate that.

If you hate that, you’ll probably also hate the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien, because it’s exactly the same thing only set on earth in our not-too-distant past when we relied on sails and conscripted seamen to get large ships around. Nobody in their right mind (at least in my opinion) is going to claim that the Aubrey-Maturin series (all 19 books of it) is bad. That’s because it’s exceptional.

But it might not be for you.

Check what a book is about before you choose to read it. Science fiction is not what a book is about, any more than The Three Musketeers is about French history.

Ask people who know

While you may not know the people who know, it only really takes a couple of links to get to authors you like who will recommend (or whose readers will recommend) other things to read.

Of course, don’t get stuck in an echo chamber of similar stuff.

A good place to start for some recommendations that aren’t from me is the Science Fiction Roundup by the Guardian. Every so often they publish a list of the best new science fiction. I don’t agree with all of their recommendations, but a lot of the authors I enjoy reading today I discovered there.

There are some great authors that you should read at least once to see what’s available

Here’s a suggested list of science fiction authors that you might like to try, and the reason for each.

DISCLAIMER: This is by no means a list of the best, nor is it a comprehensive list of the good. It’s a suggested panorama of undeniably good authors whose work provides a safe and high-quality entry point into the genre. If I were to write this article again tomorrow, half the names and suggestions would change.

Isaac Asimov. Because it’s hard to pretend to have read any science fiction if you haven’t at least read Foundation. He’s the father of the debate around AI and its interaction with its human creators.

Larry Niven. Mainly because of Ringworld, which remains one of the great leaps of the imagination in the genre. Once you’ve visualised the Ringworld in your mind, it’s something you can’t unsee.

Iain M. Banks. An author whose worldbuilding is beyond compare. Iain M. Banks invented the post-scarcity society ‘The Culture’. If you can have anything you want, then what motivates individuals to act? Then he asked what would threaten such a powerful society and what challenges would it face, internally and externally. In answering that question he wrote some of the most satisfying science fiction out there. If you want to start where I started, read The Player of Games, but if you want to start with the book everyone talks about, read Consider Phlebas.

Alastair Reynolds is one of my favourite authors for hard science fiction. By this I mean science fiction with a strong emphasis towards not bending, breaking or ignoring the rules of physics. I think of his books as ‘crunchy’ and I enjoy them very much. Revelation Space is space opera with enough worldbuilding to keep you busy pondering it for weeks after you’ve finished reading it. Don’t stop there though, Reynolds is prolific and I’ve recently rediscovered him myself.

Alex Lamb is a more recent author. I really enjoyed his debut novel, Roboteer, published in 2015. I’m putting it here because it’s a very different vision than the other suggestions. The setting is conflict between Mars and Earth, and the technologies that make space travel possible. I also reviewed it when I read it, and you can read the review here.

Cixin Liu is a Chinese author, and his work has been widely translated into English. If you ever saw the film The Wandering Earth, then you should know that the story came from him. The work has a distinct flavour to it that comes from its foreign roots, which I consider a great asset. I suspect there is a lot of excellent science fiction being written in China and we in the west are deprived of access to most of it. I would suggest, just to pick something suitably different, The Three Body Problem.

Neal Stephenson is one of my favourite writers, and it’s extremely hard to pick what to suggest from his work because it’s all just so excellent. I’m going to cheat and suggest several novels because I can’t choose between them. The first, Seveneves, is a spectacular story spanning centuries that begins in the present day, with the destruction of the moon. The second, Anathem, tells the adventures of a monastic scholar on a world called Arbre, where knowledge is kept behind walls to protect if from the saecular world. Finally, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer; yet another fast-paced world-building epic with a strong message about the social ladder and how it works.

Ann Leckie exploded onto the science fiction landscape in 2013 with Ancillary Justice. Original and exciting, sometimes poignant, Ancillary Justice is about a synthetic person that is an extension of a ship AI, and how they must adapt to no longer being part of a collective larger identity while dealing with the larger circumstances of how the ship she was a part of was destroyed.

There is a ton of excellent science fiction

Literally more than you could ever read.

I’ve named mostly big names here, because Asimov, Stephenson and Banks are giants in the genre, but that’s not to say you have to stay in that particular garden. I just think it’s a good set of signposts to start with.

I’ve not named any military science fiction, although there’s plenty of that (for some fun, pulpy military science fiction you could try Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series, starting with Dauntless. In a similar vein, you could try the excellent Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Also by John Scalzi, if you’re looking for something a bit (very?) different, and you’ve some experience with the Star Trek TV series, you might enjoy Redshirts.

I could literally type all day and not run out of suggestions.

I was about to say I’ll stop there, but then it struck me that I haven’t mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson’s fantastic novel, 2312. So… guilt.

Feel free to add your recommendations below. I’m always keen to discover quality writing, and the genre isn’t as well signposted as people think it is.

Happy reading!

Re-Read: Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

I’m an Alastair Reynolds fan.

Not ashamed to admit it, he writes crunchy science fiction that sits well with my critical mind. You know – the bit that competes with your enjoyment of a novel by whispering, “that’s not very realistic, is it?” in the back of your mind.

I’m not a very good fan though.

I found his books by accident, trawling the shelves of a local bookstore many years a in search of good science fiction, something which can be very hard to come by when you don’t know the genre well.

In the intervening years, I’ve read Reynolds intermittently, chancing upon one novel or another, and getting that spark of author recognition when I saw his name. I’ve enjoyed every single one, to a greater or lesser degree.

I recharged my kindle for the first time in about two years when the coronavirus-related confinement limited my entertainment options, and while flicking through books I’ve read and know well, I chanced upon Revenger. I remembered the title, recognized Alastair Reynolds’ name on the cover, which seemed familiar.

But I couldn’t remember anything about it.

Brilliant! A second run at a novel I’ve already bought, courtesy of a faulty transfer from short- to long-term memory.

The downside of reading a book you already know is that you read it much faster than the first time around, as your memory starts to fill in ever larger bits of the story for you. The upside is you get to rediscover work you enjoyed enough not to delete, which in my case is a sure measure of quality. I’m not short of memory on my kindle, but I’m still picky about what gets to fester there.

After I finished, I looked up the Wikipedia entry for Revenger and found that it’s referred to as “hard” science fiction. That I have to object to. Although much of Reynolds’ oeuvre is hard science fiction, this isn’t. The “glowy”, the “ghosty” and the “quoins” are anything but, and they’re central to the story. That said, his departure from the strict confines of hard science fiction poses no problem for me.

Fura Ness, as a protagonist, gets most of her character development out of the way in the first third of the book, and spends the rest of it coming to terms with the person she’s developed into. The world-building is, while not on a par with Seveneves, absolutely top notch. Reynolds’ willingness to kill off significant characters keeps you on your toes, but he doesn’t forego the character development of each of his victims for all that, which gives you the shock that a death in a novel ought to.

Finally, the moral complexity the book hints at is refreshing (at least to me), in a context where the real world seems ever more defined in absolutes. Even the protagonist and the anatgonist have, as we finally discover, a side to them that mitigates the obvious judgement their behaviour draws. It’s possible, in fact, that the most evil characters are on the periphery of the story, looking in.

I’d forgotten about Revenger, and I really enjoyed rediscovering it. I also discovered that there are two sequels, which I will now have to read, and other books by Reynolds that had passed unnoticed, and which will find their way onto a list that informs future reading decisions.

Coronavirus Workplace Upgrade

The impact of coronavirus on my personal situation comes with a particular silver lining.

Unable to go to the office to work, I worked from home in London for a while. After a while, that was unmanageable and a solution needed to be found. The solution I came up with was to relocate the family to the countryside until this blows over.

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Classic Revisited: A Wizard of Earthsea

I wrote back in January that I felt Ursula Le Guin’s passing was a great loss for both the art of writing and for SFF in particular. I was driven at the time by my memories of reading A Wizard of Earthsea, one of the first fantasy books I ever held in my hands. You know, back when paper was a thing.

Since I wrote that, I’ve thought back occasionally to the story itself, only to realise that I don’t remember it all that well.

Passing through an airport last week I came across a collection of the first four Earthsea books and it felt a little too much like divine providence to ignore. I ploughed through A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan over the next couple of flights, and rediscovered the work.

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How To Make A Spaceship, by Julian Guthrie

This is not a science fiction book, it’s science fact.

It’s the story of how one man hacked human motivation to create incentives for other people to achieve something he thought was very important. A biography of sorts, it tracks the meandering path followed by one man in an attempt to wrest spacefilght from the clutches of the public sector by inspiring private organizations and individuals to pick up the baton and run with it. Read More

The Iron Tactician, by Alastair Reynolds

This is a bite-sized novella based upon the same characters as the excellent short story, “Merlin’s Gun”.

When I say “Bite Sized”, I mean, “I read this in the first 45 minutes of my flight to Miami.”

It’s not long.

Merlin is a rogue element escaped from a civilization, “The Cohort”, which is under existential threat by an aggressor known as the “Huskers”. They pursue pretty much any and all life in the galaxy and extinguish it, for reasons that have never been made clear.

The Cohort have taken to a fairly nomadic lifestyle in vast vessels called Swallowships to evade and combat the Huskers, and they have been losing a war of attrition over a very, very long time. By that I mean the kind of “long time” that only becomes possible when you start thinking in terms of relativistic time and long-distance space travel.

Merlin ran off, as was described in “Merlin’s Gun”, on a personally-appointed quest to find a weapon of vast power, which could tip the tide of war in favour of the Cohort, after endless engagements lost to the Huskers and centuries of running for their lives.

His quest is so spread out over time and space that Alastair Reynolds has built himself an endless story machine, not too unlike the Stargate franchise where you never really know what lies behind the next wormhole.

The fact that this is only the second story in the franchise demonstrates remarkable restraint, if you ask me.

Upon discovering a long-dead swallowship, Merlin finds out from their records that they traded a Syrinx (the alien artefact that allows him to travel an ancient high-speed galactic highway) a few thousand years ago in a nearby star system. Since his Syrinx has been damaged and his quest depends upon his ability to use the Ways, for which the Syrinx is essential, he goes in search of this rare and essential replacement, only to find himself embroiled in a local war between different planets in the same star system.

The story is well tied together, and Reynolds’ prose is tight, clear and well-edited as ever. The read is fun and satisfying. Don’t expect too much of a novella, there’s only so much space for character development. Also, it feels ever so slightly expensive for a meal consumed so rapidly. It is, however, a very good addition to the Husker/Cohort universe and to Merlin’s story and I’m glad to have read it, even if I still had to watch two movies and write 3 blog posts to get through the rest of the flight.

The Burning Page, by Genevieve Cogman

I find I’ve grown into Cogman’s novels set in parallel worlds connected through her great Library. Her confidence and comfort writing in this world that she’s created also seems to have reached new levels with this latest instalment, which also benefits from not needing to introduce the characters, since we know them from the previous novel.

Despite her heroism in saving the day in the previous novel, Irene the librarian is on probation for breaking quite so many rules in the process. She is therefore given sub-par assignments that are riskier than usual, but she seems to be taking it in stride. Meanwhile, the Library, eternal and unmovable and outside of space and time, is under attack. Quite how this is being achieved is not understood, but old enemies rapidly appear in central roles and a conspiracy begins to appear on the stage.

Our heroine, relegated to the sidelines by her superiors, finds herself rapidly drawn back to the center of current events, due in large part to a pre-existing relationship with the malefactor-in-chief. As she tries to play by the rules of the library, while nevertheless using her connection to the enemy to draw him out and foil (or at least understand) his plans, she comes to realise that she is not the only one preparing traps and moving chess-pieces on the board, and that everyone is not always what they seem.

The adventure is fun and the world and its rules are entertaining, but it is the characters that make the novel. It’s not that they’re drawn with incredible depth, in fact its rather the opposite, with Vale, Irene, Kai and almost every other character playing almost entirely to their stereotypes. With these simple notes, however, Cogman composes a highly entertaining score, and the pages turn easily as the story develops and the characters play their expected parts to perfection.

The founding premise of the series, of parallel worlds each on a spectrum between orderly or chaotic, allows Cogman immense freedom to invent universes inspired by the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, with a shot of steampunk and the occasional flying sleigh or talking bear. The implausible becomes plausible when things like magic, sorcery and impossible technologies are justified as manifestations of chaos that grows and fades as opposing forces of the fae and dragons bring their influence to bear on each world. More than in the previous novels, it becomes apparent that one cannot exist without the other, and that chaos and order do not correlate nicely with “wrong” and “right”, and perhaps this will be further developed in future novels that are sure to come.

The Gilded Cage, by Vic James

The Gilded Cage is a new novel by Vic James, and the first part of a new trilogy, and a very promising beginning to a new world of stories.

A revisionist take on history tells us of a world divided between the skilled, known as Equals, and everyone else. Those born without hereditary Skill are bound by law to serve ten years of their lives in service to the skilled, and these ten years are known as the slavedays. This metaphor for empowered nobility versus serfdom is the foundation upon which the story rests, and from which a more intricate tapestry is woven.

While the individual characters remain drawn in shades of fairly strict moral and ethical black and white, the pieces are mingled. Some slaves are quite nasty individuals and some Equals are strong moral characters. Of course, most of the pieces still land on the expected side of the chessboard but there’s enough ambiguity to keep things interesting.

The story is then told from the point of view of a family of five about to begin their slavedays. Trying to get it over with early on in their lives, the group manage, thanks to an enterprising elder sibling, to get assigned to an important family of Equals, thus dodging the unpleasantness of Millmoor, the slavetown on the outskirts of Manchester, where they live.

From here we are drawn into the politics and conflicts of an England more polarized by class than even your most staunch and radical socialist could have imagined, with individuals entitled by birthright dominating the rest of society in a way reality hasn’t seen since the Middle Ages.

But the politics are modern, and the intrigue is simple enough to understand without lessons in the politics of this alternate reality.

Vic James draws you into her world and its intrigues with skill and strong prose, and the result is amply rewarding.

My only regret is that by the end of the novel, despite the ordeals of the major characters and the events that have unfolded, nothing much has changed. A few unanswered questions and open threads lead clearly into the next novel, which I will no doubt anticipate with bated breath, but as far as this first novel is concerned, the characters have evolved, but their environment has not. A few Equals have had their political intrigue, but from the point of view of a commoner, the world remains much the same, and I was really hoping for a cliffhanger of epic proportions, rather than the very personal story that will form the beginning to the next novel.

For sure, their situation of our heroes is both complex and dire, but if we accept the founding premise of the book that the Equals have real power, rather than just some inherited noble title, then it will take events of much greater import than we have seen so far to change the structure of this world for the better. A hint at what those might be, rather than the vague shadows of possibility we have glimpsed, would have been welcome.

Doctor Strange

The last time I wrote a film review, I had just seen quite possibly one of the worst science fiction films of all time. I was close to despairing at the paucity of decent stuff coming out of Hollywood.

Moreover, although I didn’t review them, the latest Marvel and DC Comics offerings have, to my mind, been driven far more by Hollywood profits forecasts and a need to overcome a Godzilla threshold than by inspired or original storytelling (even if it’s with established characters). Just because it worked in the comics doesn’t make it a good story on the screen.

So Doctor Strange is more than a good film, it is a huge relief.

It would be too generous to say that the Hollywood profit motive was not present. The stunning special effects take took perhaps more share of mind when compared to the storytelling than would have been ideal, but that’s my biases showing. Not every film can be written and directed by Christopher Nolan.

Also, to claim that this movie didn’t also suffer from a by-the-numbers Godzilla threshold trope (and I use “suffer” very deliberately) would be untrue, but it’s an Avengers film, and in this context, anything less than the end of the world does not a story make.

What we do have is a brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch (nightmarish American accent notwithstanding) in a fully fleshed-out role, introducing us to a universe of magic and urban sorcery that does not rely on any of the existing Marvel franchise. In fact, other than two references in the entire movie, the rest of the Marvel universe stays politely in the toy box.

Doctor Stephen Strange is a man who, despite being roguishly lovable and appreciated by a number of his peers, is clearly so self-centered and imbued of his own ability as a surgeon that his world-view is entirely egocentric. Take a man at the pinnacle of achievement and arrogance and strip him of everything in a terrible accident. Watch him wither on the vine and, at the last moment before total self-destruction, provide him with a new path to which he is uniquely suited, and which he would never have found had he not been through the pain and self-annihilation of his recent experiences.

In search of a cure for his broken hands, he finds something else, a role as a member of a society protecting the earth from forces unknown. His photographic memory and talent for all things complicated make him ideally suited to the task of mastering sorcery, something which is learned and not given, practiced and not innate.

His discovery and growth in this new world coincides (obviously) with the manifestation of one of the greatest mystical threats ever to face the earth, and he finds himself in the thick of it before he is entirely ready. But we are never ready, as the Sorceror Supreme, played by Tilda Swinton, tells him.

An visual feast and a fun story to complement it, not to mention a wonderfully hammed up performance by Benedict Cumberbatch who appears to enjoy every moment of playing Doctor Strange, this is definitely a film to take its rightful place at the very summit of the Marvel franchise.

Unfortunately now they’re going to mix Strange with Iron Man and Thor because that’s what they have to do to justify putting a new, bigger Godzilla on the screen, and like fine wine, you can only go bigger, never backwards.

The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

To start (and to state my conclusion), this is a fantastic book with brilliant worldbuilding that confounds traditional characterizations of nature, government, allegiances and magic.

Nature is out to get you, vindictive and vengeful. The system uses gifted individuals like animals, their enslavement preordained and accepted by all as a part of the natural order of things. Selfishness and brutality are enshrined in a hybrid of law and religion known as stonelore, which also provides guidelines for the survival of a Season – a period of tectonic, volcanic upheaval that occurs when vengeful Earth makes her festering hatred for mankind felt.

Orogenes are the magic-wielders of this world. Capable of sensing and influencing the seismic activity around them. At once necessary and feared, they are able to cause and prevent the very thing everyone fears most – seismic activity. The Guardians control the orogenes, ruthlessly, keeping everyone safe through a form of indoctrination and partial enslavement of orogenes.

Being born an orogene is to be born into a life of self-hatred, knowing you represent all that everyone fears and that your society will kill you sooner than let you breathe the same air. The day your parents give you up to a Guardian, they will be happy to see the back of you.

People live in comms, communal arrangements akin to fortified villages, designed to survive the Seasons when they come. They do this by keeping out those who would steal the comm’s stockpiles and by ensuring limiting its members to those who can contribute, and never more than the comm is able to feed. This is considered a good thing. It is written in the lore.

Into this stable, accepted but somewhat unpleasant context, Jemisin pours her characters. We follow them through three separate timelines that interrelate in ways that gradually become apparent around the middle of the novel. Jemisin’s world is a rich tapestry cleverly and thoughtfully woven to provide a coherent and satisfying environment for the story. This is the greatest strength of the novel, in my opinion.

The story is the second strong point – there are actors and factions in significant number, although the main characters are kept to a disciplined minimum, allowing us to keep track of how we feel about each of them, and follow their desires, constraints and difficulties in great detail. These characters have roles, by which I mean they play a significant role that goes beyond their desire to satisfy their own needs – they have little choice in this, it follows them like a curse. A lesser writer would have written about prophecies, fate or destiny, but Jemisin describes the events, and we see the pattern ourselves for what it is.

The story leaves a lot unanswered, as befits the first book of a series, but I felt a comforting subplot was missing from the narrative – something that would provide at least a sense of resolution at the end of the book rather than a fairly long list of open questions that no doubt lead to further questions.

I had only one real problem with the novel, and that was with the relentless attention of the sexual oppression of the characters. There is not a single one who is not either in some way sexually oppressed, violated or abused, or either gay, bisexual, transgender, androgynous or cross-dressing. Most can tick at least one box from both lists.

While I applaud and encourage the inclusion of these elements into characters in novels, their omnipresence in The Fifth Season felt “shoehorned-in” by the final third of the book. A new character’s introduction at this point leads to a patient wait for the big reveal when they will turn out to have been raped as a child, to actually be the opposite gender I thought they were, or turn out to not be a gender at all, or a “Breeder” or a sexual surrogate or something. This isn’t a problem per se, but felt somehow cloying by the end of the book. It isn’t a function of, and doesn’t contribute to, the overall story, so it feels unnecessary. Perhaps I will get used to this by the next book and it will become part of the story and less of a distraction. I hope so.

This minor gripe aside, the world as built by Jemisin is a glorious landscape for the construction of a fantasy novel, a new take on magic and its presence and role in the world, and I look forward to the next installment. The broad recognition this book has garnered is well-earned.