Sigh-Fi: Seeking Less Boring Books

Once upon a time, I asked you goodly people to recommend some science-fiction books to me to read. And so you did! And there was a nice little conversation about science-fiction (and fantasy) books in the comments.

Well, I read some of those books, and didn’t read some others, and I read some other books that I saw listed on “science-fiction novels that are super awesome” kinds of lists. I didn’t bother writing “short reviews” for most of them here because most of them bored me, but I’d like to get an updated picture of what sci-fi is supposed to be worth reading, and Amazon’s recommendation system turns out to be kind of sucky. So, I thought I might check back in to let you know how my recent reading has gone, and see if you have any other novels you’d recommend to me, to each other, or to the world in general. I also welcome you to use this opportunity to tell me I have crappy taste in literature, as I suspect that is what many of you may feel after reading this post.

Books That Bored Me to Varying Degrees

Glasshouse: Charles Stross—recommended by friends and authors I respect—pens a tale of intrigue, identity confusion, and murder in the far-flung future. I actually liked it quite a bit for much of it, but I was really geared up to read about the freaking future, and this book abandons that to a large extent to focus on living in a simulated 20th-century environment. Okay, our arbitrary gender roles and frozen food products would seem weird and alien to people in the future! I get it! Move on! But actually, this was the most interesting book for me in this “books that bored me” category, so I gave another Stross book a chance…

Halting State: Charles Stross—who I still want to like—writes a novel about a heist that takes place in an MMO? That sounds awesome! Turns out that it doesn’t really go anywhere, though, and the characters are kind of dull people. Great setting, but I’d rather see how somebody else populates it.

Newton’s Wake: Ken MacLeod thanks Charles Stross right on the first page, which I guess should’ve been a tip as to what would come. Again, I really wanted to like this book, but I just felt like it went nowhere and presented characters with boring personalities and/or unclear motivations. Maybe I’m also just bored of the idea of “The Singularity,” too. (Though I enjoy the term “The Hard Rapture” for when everybody gets sucked into computers against their will.)

Consider Phlebas: Yeah, didn’t do it for me. I may check out A Player of Games based on friends’ recommendations, but it’s not high on my list now.

Perdido Street Station: I haven’t finished this book yet because I find it boring and overwrought. People keep saying that Chine Mieville is really weird, but I’m just not getting it. To me, the truly “weird” is that which prods at you, uncomfortably deep within your mind, like that itchy feeling Haruki Murakami tends to leave on the roof of your mouth. “Weird,” for me, is not just an unlikely blend of dissimilar elements, like a peanut butter and ringworm sandwich (or, in this case, sex between a fat guy and a woman with a bug for a head). I’ll probably get back to this later because I actually paid for it, but this is the book that finally got me to get a new library card.

The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three: Probably the Dark Tower series gets more interesting as you get further into it, but the second book just left me cold, and I can’t help feeling like these ideas would have seemed way cooler to me if I’d read them when I was closer in age to how old Stephen King was when he wrote them.

Dune: I started reading this in 8th grade, got bored, and quit. I just got it out of the library and read through it pretty quickly. Parts of it were interesting to me (like the integration with the Fremen), and I think I can see why it was very influential (blending of science/religion, basis of a large “world” before everybody and her brother had their own sci-fi franchise planned out). I kind of wanted to just be done with it for large parts, though, and adding it to my Amazon wish list brought all kinds of recommendations for books I don’t want to read (again), like all kinds of stuff by Asimov and Clark. If I’m going to read more of the “classics,” I’d rather pick from the lesser-known ones that I might not have gotten to already.

Books I Liked Quite a Bit

A Fire Upon the Deep: I liked this quite a bit. I usually try to mix up which authors I’m reading, but I’ve disliked so much of the sci-fi I’ve been reading lately that I may just go hunt down more “Zones of Thought” books.

A Game of Thrones: Still working on this one. I am usually hesitant about starting a series that hasn’t been finished yet (a lesson learned the hard way by Robert Jordan fans), but it looked interesting and relatively cheap, so I bought it. And I like it a lot! I’m not really big into fantasy literature, and the conventions of the genre are kind of grating for me even here, but I’m willing to overlook that for interesting characters and character dynamics, a compelling mystery in the plot, and the promise of an even greater struggle to come.

Despite what this short list at the end might suggest, having multiple, parallel story lines and protagonists is not a make-or-break factor for me. Mostly I just want a book that has an interesting, identifiable plot, and characters who seem like they could be actual people. I feel like too much of what I’ve tried reading has been about cool ideas, but an idea isn’t enough to make me want to finish a whole book.

Sorry to see many of of recommendations on the bored list. Although I can’t fault you any of your comments. I do wonder if you went into Stross with the incorrect expectations. His novels do tend to do that. Setting you up for some sort of massive futurism, then pulling out the rug beneath you and showing that it was really about economics all along.

Also I wouldn’t necessarily give up on Mieville yet. Perdido Street Station does come off as a bit of a disjointed mess, but the later books in the series (which only share the location in common) are much more focused, although still big ideas books.

[Stross tend s to be about setting] you up for some sort of massive futurism, then pulling out the rug beneath you and showing that it was really about economics all along.

I think this was part of the disappointment about Stross for me, but not the whole of it. Yeah, I showed up expecting the future and got the present, but that’s somewhat to be expected in science-fiction (e.g., what is The Time Machine if not a commentary on class relations?). What bugged me about Glasshouse was getting something that was so literally lodged in the present, but otherwise it was okay, and had much stronger characters than the other books on this list. But what bugged me about Halting State (and Newton’s Wake, for that matter) was a combination of (a) characters that felt completely hollow and (b) a setup for something big, plot-wise, that never really delivered. Halting State was particularly frustrating in this way because it was actually promoted as a “heist” book, and in the end, the heist and mystery themselves kind of fizzle into unimportance (spoiler: with the “villain” being someone who barely even appears earlier in the book; end spoiler).

I am okay with books being more about exploring characters and themes than about action-packed plots. I am less okay with books purporting to be action-packed and then turning out not to be, and not having much in the way of character either while they’re at it. The idea of “space(s)” in Halting State was pretty awesome, but felt like it had the wrong story built into it, to me.

Hah, I just started Glasshouse as my vacation reading based on Jeremy’s recommendation.

I saw Jeremy recommend it on Twitter, and I didn’t chime in because it actually is a really interesting book—it just wasn’t exactly what I was looking for when I picked it up. (And the stuff about how novel and amazing pizza and high heels are could’ve been skimmed over, IMHO.)

I think you’ve managed to convince me that I should just go back to reading Murakami. Still haven’t gotten around to the Wind Up Bird Chronicle.

Ridley Walker is quite good, if you really liked Chaucer but thought it lacked a certain post-apocolytic scifi sensibility.

Riddley Walker, even.

Oh, and besides being terribly post-apocolyptic, it was written by the author of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and all the Frances the Badger books. So yes, this is totally and completely recommended.

If I might be self serving…I recently read Parke Godwin’s Waiting for the Galactic Bus and I’d love to hear your opinion on it. It’s starts as a SciFi book, turns into something like Dante’s Inferno, and ultimately was very compelling, but I’m not sure how I feel about it (I dreaded reading it because of how much I didn’t like a couple of the characters and how much I needed to know what happened to them–which is an oddity for me, being invested so much in disliking characters), so I’d love to hear your opinion on it. And by “your”, I mean any of the fine people around here, not just Jason. (Of course, maybe you guys have already read it?)

Jacob: I never really liked Chauer, but it might have been because he lacked a certain post-apocolytic scifi sensibility so maybe I will check it out…

Does anyone else thing we should just start a book club?

For what it’s worth, I’ve been keeping track of what books I read over on a tumblelog for about a year now, as part-experiment, part-memory aid (since sometimes I have a hard time remembering when I’ve read books, or what they’re about).

Actually I do the same over on

Sorry the link didn’t work

I would be all about the doombook of the month. I am on shelfari, but rarely use it. I think I am too lazy to blog about the books that I read.

In other sci-fi books, Jason, have you read John Scalzi yet (Old Man’s War)? It smacks of Ender’s Game, but remains an enjoyable read (and even the sequels are worth reading – no cliffhangers either, everything is a distinct story, though characters are reused).

Also, I am currently reading Jack Vance (Tales of Dying Earth). Old “classic” stuff, more fantasy than sci-fi, but the prose itself is absolutely wonderful.

I haven’t read Old Man’s War yet, largely because everyone describes it as being like Ender’s Game (with old people) and that pitch just seems very predictable in terms of how it’s likely to unfold. I’m sure I’ll get to it eventually, but right now, I am interested in being surprised (which is admittedly a tall order when talking about genre fiction).

What about Rendezvous with Rama (Arthur C. Clarke)? Again, something old school, but REALLY well done, and not necessarily as troped in other fiction.

Bouncing off of Evan’s classics in sf theme, I’ve got to throw out Alfred Bester. The Stars My Destination, The Demolished Man, and his early short story collection are all phenomenal.

Re: Scalzi. Indeed, I’ve used the “Ender’s Game” pitch for the book, though it kind of reduces it a bit. It’s probably not as good as Ender’s Game, but it’s still engaging and entertaining, if not quite as ambitious. The subsequent sequels are also pretty good.

I don’t remember if you actually went and read Richard K. Morgan, but I enjoyed Altered Carbon and, to a lesser extent, its two sequels.

I must say that Iain Bank’s “Consider Phlebas” is one of the best science fiction novels of the last twenty years or so: stuffed to the gills with intriguing technological ideas, and (most importantly) a considered approach to how socialism might work in “space opera”. A blast-off beginning with a vivid prison escape, and an ambiguous protagonist. Banks’ “Culture” novels are stunning achievements.