Lesser-known Science Fiction Stories That Have Stayed with Me… and few classics that haven’t
There are some books that may not be well known as science fiction classics, but that I’ve found myself reading repeatedly. Dune is a classic, and I’ve written about it elsewhere, so it’s not on this list, not because it hasn’t influenced me considerably, but because it is so well known in the genre.
Of the non-classics, I’d put The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle fairly high up on the list. it’s a first contact story, but an odd one. Humanity has a star empire, very much divided along old cultural lines - think Czarist Russians and 1950s Americans (who have embraced royalty and all its trappings) with Scots, Muslims, and cyborgs mixed in. Having just survived a civil war, we discover that there is a planet within the boundaries of empire that has an alien race on it. Is it peaceful? Is it a threat to Humanity? Let’s find out!
It’s a good space opera with strong world building and back story. The Niven/Pournelle pairing wrote another couple of books worth mentioning, Lucifer’s Hammer, about an extinction-level asteroid impact and the survivors of it; and Footfall, about resisting an alien occupation. They also wrote a sequel to Mote, called The Gripping Hand, but it's best left alone. Niven, of course, is best known for his Ringworld books, which inspired the Halo video game series.
Roger Zelanzy is a writer whom I fear is quickly being forgotten by science fiction readers. I would strongly recommend The Lord of Light. I’ve read it multiple times and enjoyed it each time. Oddly, it’s the only story I’ve read by him. I really don’t know why. Not to give too much of the plot away, but people are pretending to be Gods by using “magical” technology and denying basic education to the subjected multitudes. One of the Gods rebels, re-brands himself as Buddha and leads a revolt against the remaining Gods. We join the story in progress and have to sort which parts of the narrative are past, present and future.
I’ve been meaning to re-read The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. I fondly remember it as a fun read (I got it as one book, so the individual titles of the trilogy escape me). It plays with time, space, linear and non-linear story telling all the while making fun of historical events and conspiracy theorists. Of course the Cthulhu-loving aliens assassinated JFK. Of course…
Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep is already considered a classic, but I prefer its later-written prequel, A Deepness in the Sky, which I recently read for the third time. It’s a rich story about two Human cultures fighting over a first contact. Vinge brings aliens to life better than almost anyone, just putting you into the scene and letting you discover how different or similar they are to us. Again, there’s a very rich back story here that affects the characters and their actions.
Peter F. Hamilton did a very taut duology called The Commonwealth Saga. The books, Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained are George-RR-Martin-thick books, and are just as detailed and layered. This is not a single story, it’s seven or eight stories that interweave tighter and tighter as the pages turn. Most of the stories are very compelling by themselves, but what I’m discovering upon re-reading is that even the stories that I thought were distracting (Like Tara’s murder) introduce ideas that become significant much later. This time I even noticed that in the first few pages of chapter one, there’s what appears to be a throw-away piece of trivia that becomes exceedingly relevant about halfway through the second book.
Also, this book has one of my favourite openings: It’s a major historic occasion! The first Humans are landing on Mars after an arduous and danger-filled journey across deep space. Descending from their space ship, they discover… a physicist in deep sea diving gear standing there applauding their arrival. Behind the physicist is a wormhole portal back to CalTech on Earth, in case they want to, you know, take the short way home.
On the flip of the topic, there are many classic stories that I’ve read that really haven’t stayed with me.
Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” is a great short story, but his collection of short stories called The Martian Chronicles, which are considered classics of science fiction, just didn’t do anything for me.
Likewise with Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. I read it once and didn’t much care for it, tried it again a few years ago and reaffirmed my sense that it really wasn’t that good. However I’m not an Asimov snob. I loved his Elijah Bailey stories. I was sad when he later tied those stories directly into the Foundation story line.
Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep is the only Philip K. Dick story that I’ve been able to get through. Any of his other stories, especially ones where he himself is a character, just drive me away. When Kurt Vonnegut writes himself into a story, I can handle it; when Dick does it, nope, not at all.
Until George R. R. Martin burst onto the scene, people thought that Stephen R Donaldson would carry the label of the next J R R Tolkien. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books started strong, but just went on too long. Now I can’t go back and re-read them. However, I’d like to re-read his Mordant’s Need books (a duology again - The Mirror of Her Dreams and A Man Rides Through).