• We have updated the guidelines regarding posting political content: please see the stickied thread on Website Issues.

Good Science Fiction By Non Sci-Fi Writers


As if!
Jul 31, 2004
Do you know of any good Sci-Fi (or Speculative Fiction) by writers not usually associated with the field? 1984 and Brave New World are the obvious examples, but are there any overlooked gems out there?

My own recommendation would be Gore Vidal's Duluth, which is set in a small town in a kind of Hyperreal America. This review makes a brave attempt to sum it up:
In the middle-class part of town, Captain Eddie Thurow, chief of the Duluth Police Department, wants to run for mayor. The key to his campaign may be a gummy-textured, cerise-colored spaceship that has settled mysteriously nearby and that moves, obeying ''Pynchon's lesser corollary to the law of gravity,'' whenever Captain Eddie shifts a thumbtack that represents the ship's location on a map at police headquarters.

Captain Eddie's rival, Mayor Herridge, whose first name was actually ''Mayor'' until he was elected and took it as a title, sees the key to his campaign in Duluth's barrios, ''just off ethnic Kennedy Avenue,'' where illegal and legal Mexican aliens ''with ageold Aztec faces are ironing tacos, folding enchiladas, stitching tortillas by the light of a single kerosene lamp.''

(Vidal followed it up with Live From Golgotha, which was a far more ambitious work but fell rather flat for me.)
Arthur Conan Doyle. His more SF-ish works include the Professor Challenger series, but I also recommened digging around his short-story collections as well. My collection ('Tales of Unease' - I think - published by Everyman) includes a story called 'The Horror of the Heights', in which an aviator has a terrifying experience with mysterious creatures that inhabit the sky (definte shades of UFO lore, as well as Trevor James Constable's 'atmospheric animals'). Well worth a read.
Er, off the top of my head there's loads of SF Masterwork reprints - like George R. Stewart's "Earth Abounds" and loads of other stuff like the similar themed Matherson's "I Am Legend" - and check out Alfred Bester's shorts - they are worth a read. Loads of gems there. Harry Harrison et al.

But Alan Glynn's "The Dark Fields" is probably as good as it gets 'new style' - "One Pill Could Change Your World". Imagine your brain functioned differently, at a high-energy level that you could never dream of.

Link and nice comments
erm Frobush, the idea is stories by writers not normally associated with SF, Alfred Bester was pretty definitely an SF writer.

It's like Margret Attwood's religious dystopia "The Handmaid's Tale" or Kingsley Amis's alternative history "The Alteration."

That's a point does alternative history count as SF if there's no other SF elements for example Len Deighton's SS-GB, or Robert Harris's Fatherland.

Stephen Fry's Making History is alternative history with manipulation of the timelines and time travel so that's probably SF (clever and funny as you'd expect).

If we're looking at classic authors Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, is borderline SF, but I suppose is arguably fantasy.

More curios than anything else but OK if a bit plodding are Dennis Wheatley's Star of Ill Omen (flying saucers piloted by bees from Mars) and Sixty Days to Live (standard SF plot 4A: comet about to smack into Earth).

PD James's Children of Men is OK, but I think Brian Aldiss did the same idea a lot better years ago, but was largely ignored as a genre author.

There's Russell Hoban's Ridley Walker , a post-apocalyptic novel, written entirely in a mutated future English (I lke this one a lot).

If we're on about Nobel Laureates there's Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos sequence of novels, largely about ET observers of less advanced species (such as us).
I'm glad this discussion is focussing on the difference between SF and Fantasy....

Now would someone please explain this difference to my local library...? :roll:

Odd that PD James is mentioned though - I'm reading one of her later Dalgliesh novels right now - but I seem to have missed Children of Men
rynner said:
Now would someone please explain this difference to my local library...? :roll:

Or WH Smugs for that matter. Far too many brick sized trilogies by people who've heard of LoTR, and think that if you stick wizards in no will notice it's derivative pap.
Frobush said:
Er, off the top of my head there's loads of SF Masterwork reprints - like George R. Stewart's "Earth Abounds"...
Or "Abides", even! Good call, though - I was going to mention it myself, but I couldn't figure whether it was SF or not. I get a bit frustrated, as do Rynner and Timble, that there's a shelf in most booksellers marked "Fantasy and Science Fiction", as if they're always interchangeable. On balance, I'll agree that "Earth Abides" (and its more upbeat-sounding sequel that you mention!) counts as good SF by a non-SF author. So well done, Fro - carry on the good work!
It is "Abides". I am wrong. And I guess every novel is SF.
No, no, I want to be in the wrong - "Earth Abounds" sounds such a happy book! You were right, and don't let anyone tell you differently!
Whoever buys the new titles for the Sci-Fi section at my local library seems to think that Science Fiction means Star Trek / Star Wars novelisations. They've got dozens of the damn things- literally - and they keep buying more. Who reads that stuff? I'm quite fond of Trek, but my idea of good literary Sci-Fi isn't some hack writer's novel about how Picard dealt with the mutant uprising on Quelton 7, or whatever.

They also seem rather uncertain about how to shelve certain writers. HG Wells is shelved in general fiction of course, but JG Ballard, Ray Bradbury and Michael Moorcock have some of their stuff in general fiction and some in Sci-Fi. I guess the staff aren't sure whether they're 'proper' writers who deserve their place alongside Dickens and Trollope in general fiction, or genre hacks who should be consigned to the Sci-Fi section.

I wish they'd just shelve books according to theme. Take The Time Machine for example. In what way is that not a Science Fiction novel? Jeez - even the title makes it obvious that it's about some dude who travels though time! :roll:
graylien said:
I wish they'd just shelve books according to theme. Take The Time Machine for example. In what way is that not a Science Fiction novel? Jeez - even the title makes it obvious that it's about some dude who travels though time! :roll:

The Time Machine is quite good. At no point does the protagonist - the time traveller - ever get named! He is just "The Time Traveller".

And I think shit like Shatners "Tek Wars" deserve a read! Though I've never done it myself!

And the paperback cover of "Earth Abides" is a 'flange and tits"! Mother Earth I guess.


Timble2 said:
erm Frobush, the idea is stories by writers not normally associated with SF, Alfred Bester was pretty definitely an SF writer.

Erm Timble, Alfred Bester - at the age of five - was not a definitive SF writer.

I rest my case.

I am the Chaos Monkey Dude of the Forums! Don't argue with me!
There're rumours that Tek War novels were ghostwritten by SF/comic/mystery writer Ron Goulart.

Oh BTW a don't. Don't bother with EP Thompson's (the late historian and antinuclear campaigner) The Sykaos Papers , its supposed to be satire, in the vein of Gulliver's travels I suppose. IMO it's dreadfully ponderous and laboured.

It's title and legend say it all:

The Sykaos Papers,
being An Account of the Voyages of the Poet Oi Paz to the System of Strim in the Seventeenth Galaxy; of his Mission to the planet Sykaos; of his First Cruel Captivity; of his Travels about its Surface; of the Manners and Customs of its Beastly People; of his Second Captivity; and of his Return to Oitar.
To which are added many passages from the Poet's Journal, documents in Sykotic script and other curious matters.
Selected and Edited by
Vice-Provost of the College of Adjusters.
Transmitted by Timewarp to
E. P. Thompson

If Bloomsbury hadn't found JK Rowling and had contined to publish stuff like this they'd have gone bust years ago.

EP Thompson's "The Sykaos Papers" it is!

Must have! Ta muchly!
Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. Even better than Handmaid's Tale IMO.
Daphne Du Maurier's The House on the Strand is another excellent time-travel one. I don't know much about her, but could "the Birds" also count as sci-fi?
Sailor Song by Ken Kesey is good dystopian near-future science fiction, if you like that sort of thing it's well worth getting hold of.
Well Science Fiction is historically and accurately just a subset of Fantasy so why would it not all be lumped together? Fantasy and Science fiction are pretty much inescapably intertwined as it's basically just a technological fantasy novel.
Sadly my local library also goes for the mass Star Trek/Star wars book buying. Somebody must be asking for the flaming things!!
many_angled_one said:
Well Science Fiction is historically and accurately just a subset of Fantasy so why would it not all be lumped together? Fantasy and Science fiction are pretty much inescapably intertwined as it's basically just a technological fantasy novel.

Got to take issue with that!

SF covers a wide range from hard SF to soft SF, and then there is fantasy.

SF explores the ramifications of actual science and technology, or likely extensions of these. Stuff is supposed to happen more-or-less within the laws of nature as we know them.

Fantasy, by and large, is about magic. There may be laws (explicitly described or not), but they are not the laws of known science.

Some books are on the cusp of soft SF and fantasy, and can be quite entertaining and intellectually challenging, but you'd never confuse them with something by A.C.Clark, whose stuff is largely hard SF.

But then again, Clarke has confused the issue by pointing out that any sufficiently advanced technology would seem like magic to the uninitiated! :D
John Fowles - A Maggot.

Actually, first appearances might indicate this was a historical novel and IIRC you have to get quite a way in before you find out why it has been occasionally described as science-fiction. A strange book and it's a long time since I read it but I seem to remember finding it quite powerful - maybe even unsettling.
Rynner - Ah but where lies the point between what is science fiction and what could be classed as a drama or thriller? No matter which way you look at it science fiction is a fantasy about the (possible) future, just some are more possible and real-life than others I guess. Hard sci-fi is somewhere between the two so I guess it tends to get lumped into "not real life so must be science ficition and fantasy section". And of course as science advances science fiction slides ever more towards the thriller scale.

I mean hyperspace, faster-than-light, psionics, cyborgs, aliens, nanotechnology, force fields etc could just as well exist in heroic style magic fantasy as in scifi fiction. I quite enjoy books about "magic" when it is actually the remnants of a little-understood space-faring technology and the like.
A long piece from the Times:

Why don't we love science fiction?
The British are sniffy about sci-fi, but there is nothing artificial in its ability to convey apprehension about the universe and ourselves
Bryan Appleyard

In the 1970s, Kingsley Amis, Arthur C Clarke and Brian Aldiss were judging a contest for the best science-fiction novel of the year. They were going to give the prize to Grimus, Salman Rushdie’s first novel. At the last minute, however, the publishers withdrew the book from the award. They didn’t want Grimus on the SF shelves. “Had it won,” Aldiss, the wry, 82-year-old godfather of British SF, observes, “he would have been labelled a science-fiction writer, and nobody would have heard of him again.” :roll:

Undeterred, Aldiss has just published a new version of A Science Fiction Omnibus, a fat collection of classic stories. In the 1960s, the original was on everybody’s bookshelves, dog-eared and broken-backed. Aldiss says that was SF’s one golden age, when Oxford dons were happy to be seen indulging the genre. Now they wouldn’t be seen dead with a Philip K Dick, a James Blish or a Robert Sheckley. Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, insists her books are not SF, but “speculative fiction” or “adventure romance”. “She’s quite right,” says Aldiss. “She had this idea that a certain amount of opprobrium always hovered around the title science fiction. You might call it double-dealing, but I can quite understand it.”

I remember, as a young boy, overhearing a neighbour remarking snootily that they were surprised such an intelligent man as my father should read Astounding magazine, the greatest of all SF periodicals. I knew at once that SF was the real deal. Yet it is the embarrassing uncle at the British literary feast. He’s one of the family, but nobody wants to go near him. He has, they say, disgusting habits, and his only friends are sad little creeps who memorise Star Trek scripts. But we need the uncle now more than ever. 8)

“The truth is,” Aldiss has written, “that we are at last living in an SF scenario.” A collapsing environment, a hyperconnected world, suicide bombers, perpetual surveillance, the discovery of other solar systems, novel pathogens, tourists in space, children drugged with behaviour controllers – it’s all coming true at last. Aldiss thinks this makes SF redundant. I disagree. In such a climate, it is the conventionally literary that is threatened, and SF comes into its own as the most hardcore realism.

The British will resist. This is, of course, ridiculously parochial.

No other country is quite so contemptuous of the literary genre, though, in the movies, we happily accept SF as high art: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris is rightly regarded as a great film, as is Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Blade Runner. (If you want to see just how great Scott’s film is, the seventh and “final” cut has just been released in cinemas and on DVD. It’s visually enhanced and, says Scott, “tweaked”. It looks, and is, superb.) The further oddity is that fantasy – Terry Pratchett, Tolkien, Philip Pullman – is not embarrassing to us at all; indeed, it’s downright respectable. Perhaps this is because these are seen as children’s books that grown-ups can read, whereas SF is seen as irredeemably adolescent. This is to ignore the fact that it tends to be much more demanding and much bleaker.

“In a fantasy story,” Aldiss says, “there’s a big evil abroad, but, in the end, everything goes back to normal and everybody goes home to drink ale in the shires. In a science-fiction story, there may be a terrible evil abroad, and it may get sorted out, but the world is f***ed up for ever. This is realism. It’s certainly not beach reading, unless you can find a really nasty, shingly beach.” :shock:

The big problem with being sniffy about SF is that it’s just too important to ignore. After all, what kind of fool would refuse to be seen reading Borges’s Labyrinths, Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco, Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World or Wells’s War of the Worlds just because they were SF? These are just good books, irrespective of genre. But they are also books that embody the big ideas of the time – both Wells and Lem were obsessed with human insignificance in the face of the immense otherness of the universe, Huxley with technology as a seductive destroyer and Orwell with our capacity for authoritarian evil. Borges, like Lem, suspects we know nothing of ourselves. Interested in these things? Of course you are. Read SF.

For this is where it excels. It is the most vivid and direct chronicler of our anxieties about the world and ourselves, what Mary Shelley called “the mysterious fears of our nature”. It was Shelley’s Frankenstein that was, Aldiss argues in his superb history of the genre, Billion Year Spree, the first true SF novel. Her big idea – and it is the big idea that haunts all SF – was that our imperious ingenuity would backfire horribly. Frankenstein’s monster runs amok, the Skynet computer in the Terminator films decides to destroy humanity, Philip K Dick’s robots think they are human, and his humans fear they might be robots. And when the scientists in Fredric Brown’s one-page story Answer ask their new super-computer if there is a god, it replies, “Yes, NOW there is...”

This is why the genre is called “science” fiction. It deals with the effects of scientific insight and technological application. A new book, Different Engines by Mark L Brake and Neil Hook, makes this clear by showing how closely SF follows scientific developments. The Copernican revolution that displaced the earth from the centre of the universe produced 17th-century space fantasies by Kepler, Godwin and Bergerac. Darwin, by showing how life might evolve anywhere, generated a wave of alien-encounter literature that still submerges us. The weird physics of Einstein and Planck made fictional interstellar travel – such as the “warp drive” in Star Trek – seem possible. And the rise of the computer-inspired “cyberpunk” SF, most famously in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the novel that preinvented the internet in, of course, 1984.

But Brake and Hook go further. They suggest this is a two-way street: SF also influences science. Brake points out to me that it was Wells who invented the atom bomb in The World Set Free, in 1914, in spite of the fact that two of the leading nuclear physicists of the day, Rutherford and Soddy, had said it was impossible. Leo Szilard read Wells’s book in 1932. A year later, Szilard discovered the idea of a nuclear chain reaction while waiting for the traffic lights to change on Southampton Row, in Bloomsbury. “Wells’s fictional bomb led straight to Hiroshima,” write Brake and Hook. I would add that Astounding magazine led to the cold war. Werner von Braun had the magazine smuggled in while working on rockets for the Nazis. His V-2 – a pointy cigar with fins – was plainly inspired by an Astounding cover.

This is not so surprising. SF writers are free to speculate in a way that scientists aren’t, and this can suggest the path ahead. Perhaps the best example of this process is the way the idea of the alien has moved from fiction to reality. The Nasa historian Steven Dick has pointed out that the billions spent by the agency on investigating the possibility or likelihood of alien life is a direct result of the invention of the extraterrestrial in fiction.

Furthermore, there is now an entire scientific discipline – astro- or exobiology – that exists to study a so far entirely fictional entity, life beyond the earth. In effect, science has accepted a terrifying, uniquely SF insight that has been with us ever since the fantasies of Kepler and Godwin: simply, that we are nothing special, and that the universe is unimaginably large. There must be aliens out there, said the SF writers, and the scientists now, on the whole, agree.

The point is that SF is, in fact, the necessary literary companion to science. How could fiction avoid considering possible futures in a world of perpetual innovation? And how could science begin to believe in itself as wisdom, rather than just truth, without writers scouting out the territory ahead? Which is why this widely despised genre should be read now more than ever. Unfortunately, as Aldiss and Brake agree, this does not seem to be a great time for the production, never mind the reception, of SF. The classical age – of Wells, Lem and Dick – seems to be behind us, and the emerging genre of New Weird, led by Britain’s China Miéville, shades too much into fantasy and horror to be strictly classified as SF, a genre that must remain true to a certain level of logic and realism.

But one can try Greg Bear, a practitioner of old-fashioned “hard” SF, the kind that, like the work of Michael Crichton, sticks most closely to real current science. Bear’s celebrated Blood Music is a brilliantly horrible vision of genetics gone wrong. Or there’s another Brit, Stephen Baxter, who writes hard SF strongly influenced by HG Wells; or Iain M Banks (Iain Banks’s SF guise), who has written a series of novels about the Culture, an alien civilisation existing in parallel to the human. Banks’s emphasis is more philosophical than strictly scientific, and seems to descend from the supreme practitioner of philosophical SF, Olaf Stapledon, a man incapable of writing about anything less than everything.

Aldiss is the great champion of logical SF – with good reason. He worked on the film script of his short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long with Stanley Kubrick for 10 years, much of the time simply trying to persuade the director not to bring in a Pinocchio theme of a robot boy seeking love from the Blue Angel. :roll: “But you might as well try to persuade this table to be a chair as persuade Stanley of anything. I should have known better.” Kubrick died without making the film. Steven Spielberg took over the project and made AI, a film that toppled over into whimsy and fantasy. “It’s crap,” Aldiss says. “Science fiction has to be logical, and it’s full of lapses in logic.”

But if new hard, logical, shingly-beach SF is now a rarity, at least there’s a lot of old stuff to read. The literary snobs will say it’s badly written, which most of it is. So is most “literary” fiction. Badly written literary fiction is, however, wholly unnecessary. There’s a lot of badly written SF that is driven by an urgent journalistic desire to communicate. That is necessary. So, watch Blade Runner for the seventh time, or curl up with Aldiss’s Omnibus. And remember, it’s all happening now.

A Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss is published by Penguin at £9.99. Different Engines: How Science Drives Fiction and Fiction Drives Science by Mark L Brake and Neil Hook is published by Macmillan at £16.99

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/ ... 961480.ece
have to second 'Oryx and Crake'. Margaret Atwood is irritatingly one of those authors who get very haughty about science fiction, but you'd have to be blind to see that it's an incredible sci fi book ;)
Here's a book I haven't read, and hadn't even heard of it until today. There's a long BBC article on it:
The Machine Stops: Did EM Forster predict the internet age?
By Chris Long Arts and entertainment reporter

The futuristic world portrayed in The Machine Stops is an eerily familiar one - people mostly communicate with each other via screens, the rarity of face-to-face interaction has rendered it awkward, and knowledge and ideas are only shared by a system that links every home.

Yet that world was imagined not by a contemporary writer but by the Edwardian author Edward Morgan Forster.
Best known for his novels about class and hypocrisy - Howards End, A Room With A View and A Passage To India - The Machine Stops was Forster's only foray into science fiction.

Published in 1909, it tells the story of a mother and son - Vashti and Kuno - who live in a post-apocalyptic world where people live individually in underground pods, described as being "like the cell of a bee", and have their needs provided for by the all-encompassing Machine.

It is a world where travel is rare, inhabitants communicate via video screens, and people have become so reliant on the Machine that they have begun to worship it as a living entity.

Neil Duffield, who adapted the story for York Theatre Royal's stage, says it is "quite extraordinary" how much modern technology it predicts - and how sharply it observes the effects it will have on users.
"He predicts the internet in the days before even radio was a mass medium.
"It would have all seemed so far-fetched back in that time, when people weren't even used to telephones - and that makes it more relevant now than it was in his time - he was anticipating technology like the internet and Skype.

"And he predicts, with astonishing accuracy, the effect the technology has on our relations with one another, with our bodies, with our philosophy and culture.
"It's a warning for now for what we might be getting ourselves into."

The play's director, Juliet Forster (no relation), brought the story to Duffield for him to turn into a play.
She says she became enthralled by it in the late 1980s and "year on year, it's gained more and more relevance".

"It's so eerily true and resonant. Very quickly I thought it was something that could be very interesting. Although he predicts all that technology, what's more interesting is how human beings react to it - that's what fascinates me.
"Forster had such insight into human nature and the way we would adapt and lose parts of ourselves through technology.
"It asks the question about how far we will go in allowing technology to be the thing that we rely on in order to function."

The University of Manchester's Dr Howard Booth, a Forster expert, says that though the story is fascinating, it is those insights into human nature it offers that are more important than the predictions of technology.
"People read it and say 'look, this is somebody over 100 years ago that seems to have imagined the world of the internet and the smart phone and many of the issues that we are addressing about people living their lives through technology and not looking up and seeing the world around'.

"I would put that not in terms of him being some sort of great futurologist - the technology in The Machine Stops doesn't look like our technology - but in a long-standing tradition that he knew well, which questioned industrialisation and technology and the way it was starting to reach into the mind.
"So he didn't see the machines of our day, but he was starting to see the issues that are involved - that what is there to supposedly aid and help us to perform certain tasks may actually become what we start to live through, need and be unable to imagine being without."


Doris Lessing wrote five 'science fiction' tales, the Canopus in Argos series; unfortunately this is mostly fantasy, with few real sci-fi elements.