Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hard Science Fiction

Curious, perhaps, to discover 2 years ago, at 55 years old, that I’m in love with the genre of Science Fiction.  For whatever reason, while I’ve been an active lifetime reader of fiction and non-fiction, SciFi had never really been of any particular intense fascination.  Now that I am “in to it”, I’ve also very quickly learned that there is a specific sub-genre that is the focus of my relish.  While the term seems to mean various things to different people, I will use term “hard science fiction” to describe it.  My own definition would be SciFi which speculates on and extrapolates from known scientific facts, doing so without relying on blind grabs at the "supernatural" to move the storyline.

There is, it seems to me, a real problem in categorization of “Science Fiction and Fantasy”.  As a hard core materialist atheist, I am not intrigued by anything that even touches upon the supernatural.  There are endless possibilities provided by futuristic musings on the landscape of the natural.  With this simple proposition, it is evident that no science fiction writer need ever invoke the mystical in order to create a story of mind-bending proportions.  

Upon my new adventure into discovering great science fiction I was encouraged by several long-time devotees to go back and read some of the great works of the past.  A number of books and series were recommended to me and Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and subsequent spin-offs nearly always came into the conversation.  I read it.  It was greatly disappointing.  This is not to say that “Dune” is anything less than a classic piece of literature.  Herbert spun an incredible story.  However, I continually found myself wondering why he felt it necessary to invoke prophecy, jihads, spiritualism, clairvoyance, precognition, telekinesis, etc.  

There are, I have found, a number of currently active writers who seem, at least in the manner of their writing, to have an atheistic viewpoint, which sits extremely comfortably with me.  I do not specifically know, nor do I care, if these writers are in fact atheists, agnostics, deists, pantheists or whatever.  I do know that they don’t include magical, mystical, spiritual events in the pages of their books and stories, and that’s good enough for me

I will dedicate this blog to talking about these authors, the books they have written and my recommendations for others who might view the SciFi genre as I do.  I will primarily concentrate on the “positive”.  When I have read a book that was gratifying experience, I will share it with whoever might come along looking for a suggestion.  

Along the guidelines I have set for the type of SciFi that I personally find satisfying, I encourage others to leave their own recommendations in the comments.

Let's start with a very quick nod to the authors who have consistently shown themselves to create very high quality work in the area of interest here.  I find it interesting that so many of the very best of the current crop of hard SciFi authors seem to hail from the United Kingdom.  Three cheers for my genealogical homeland!  The following list is no one particular order, other than it somewhat reflects the chronological sequence in which I discovered each of them.

Alastair Reynolds (Wales), Vernor Vinge (Wisconsin, U.S.), Charles Stross (England), Ken MacLeod (Scotland), Ian McDonald (Ireland), Cory Doctorow (Canada), Iain M. Banks (Scotland), Robert Charles Wilson (Canada), John Scalzi (California, U.S.), David Louis Edelman (California, U.S.),  Paolo Bacigalupi (Colorado, U.S.), Peter F. Hamilton (England), Jack McDevitt (Georgia, U.S.), Richard K. Morgan (England).

Certainly more authors will be added to this list as time goes on.  

Some opening recommendations would include:

Alastair Reynolds - his "Revelation Space" series is phenomenal.  I might even suggest reading it slightly out of order by starting with "Chasm City" which is somewhat of a prequel, and then moving on to "Revelation Space" (the book).  I would definitely suggest that RS, "Redemption Ark" and "Absolution Gap" be read in that specific order for maximum comprehension and enjoyment.

Iain M. Banks - his "Culture" series never stops being enjoyable, eye-opening, with a terrific sense of humor.  There is no need to read this series in order.  I have found great pleasure in every one that I've read so far (six of the nine).  I started out with the second book, "The Player of Games" and it's as good a place to begin as any, though you could just as easily go with last years' "Surface Detail" or "Matter" from 2008.

Charles Stross - I highly recommend getting a grip on his literary stylings by picking up either "Glasshouse" or "Saturn's Children", both are stand-alone novels though he is working on a follow-up to SC.  If you enjoy SciFi short stories, I had a great time with "Wireless", a collection of stories written over the past decade.

Vernor Vinge - as far as I have been able to determine; read anything he has written.  His most recent book, "Rainbow's End" is not one of his more critically acclaimed, and I still thought it was marvelous.  Don't miss either the 1993 "A Fire Upon the Deep" (which I haven't finished yet, but can still recommend.  "Hugo" agrees with me, as he won the award that year) or 1999's "A Deepness in the Sky".  Pure genius.  

Paolo Bacigalupi - he is fairly new, though he has been around writing short stories for a while, but his 2009 debut novel "The Windup Girl" is not to be overlooked.  

Peter F. Hamilton - Though I haven't read a whole lot of his many works, what I have read I absolutely loved.  "Pandora's Star" and it's sequel (which is really Part 2 of the same book) "Judas Unchained", might be the best books I've read since I stated this, a little over 2 years ago.  If not, they are certainly right up there.  

(Please check back periodically as I add to this list)


  1. Has anyone ever suggested Ursula K. Le Guin to you? She's American, and wrote some books I read quite a few years ago, The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. Both Hugo a Nebula winners in their years.

    I rarely remember the plot of a book, but I do remember if I was blown away by it, and those two did it for me, albeit 30 some years ago. Wish I could remember why.

    Hey! Did I get to leave your first comment?

  2. Yes indeed! My very first comment. I know I don't have the first comment on your blog, but I do have the honor of the first comment on your "About the Inquisitor". ;)

    No indeed. I'm not familiar with Le Guin. I have been looking for female authors who fit "hard sci fi" mold.

    I read a good book by an author named Elizabeth Bear ("Undertow"). She doesn't always steer clear of the supernatural, but she pretty much did in the book I read and, according to the reviews, has some others I'll probably enjoy just as much.

    She was kind enough to point me in the direction of a number of women who write in the genre I'm interested in, via an email, and I'm gong to look into to some of them. Apparently sexism is alive and well (or sick as we may view it) even in science fiction. She tells me that a number of women only use their first initials or even pen under male names so that their book sales won't suffer. Well, to be precise, she DID NOT say that this is the reason - only that it happens.

    That's just crazy. Like I told her, I WANT to get the female perspective on this stuff. I guess not all readers feel that way though.

  3. We have a well respected (I think) female science fiction writer that posts on a Mystery Newsgroup I belong to. I'm blanking on her name, but I'll dig it out.

    It's funny, in the mystery genre, we have this bright line demarcation also, about what we call the "woo" books. Those with a supernatural element, to sort of beef up the mystery. I found that a surprisingly large % of people on that group are atheists (one of them turned on the little light bulb over my head that got me headed where I've ended up, as SI), and most of them do NOT like any books with woo.

    I read a series by John Connolly, an Irish writer who touches on the spooky in his books, but only tangentially. He handles it really well, so that when I read his books, I can rationalize the woo as something that's going on in his mind, not in reality, and it works. He writes such good books, and is so much fun in person, I hate to discount what he writes over that. I usually have a couple of beers with him when he comes to town for a signing.

    Suzy Charnas! Just remembered her name (she uses an alias online). Looked her up but quickly and she doesn't look like she's up your alley.

  4. Le Guin is great. I met her in college (also lucky enough to meet Asimov there, too). The early part of the Foundation series is my favorite Sci-Fi knock at religion, btw.

  5. I'm not surprised that British sci-fi authors outclass most American authors. I always preferred British children's authors when my kids were growing up, and British spy novels are often better than American ones. One could probably say the same about British mystery writers too. As far as TV shows, British comedies are often better than American ones. Why are Americans exceptional again?

  6. I see you mentioned quite a few newer novels which is great! As you defined it, hard sci-fi builds upon our current scientific knowledge, and I find it easier with newer books that are scientifically up to date (so build upon humanities most recent ideas).
    Anyway, I really wanted to recomend Hannu Rajaniemi - The Quantum Thief. It might seem a bit "supernatural" in a way (no more than Ian M Banks in most culture novels), as it really plays maybe a bit too freely with some concepts, but it is the best I've read dealing with quantum mechanics in a "realistic" way and to such depth.

    Also, I don't know if you tried, but I think you would like Stephen Baxter, there's a lot of his to read, but I think maybe Destiny's Children trilogy is a good place to start, or there are quite a few newer novels which are decent (like Flood and Ark).

  7. Quantum Thief was already on my Amazon "wish list", but I'll move it up on your recommend. Thanks.

  8. I think you should definitely check out Greg Egan. Diaspora is a good starting point.