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A Few Underrated Science Fiction Novels:

As promised in my last post, here is my list of a few underrated science fiction novels of the last 30-40 years. The list is not meant to be exhaustive. Moreover, it is definitely not meant to be a list of the best sci fi of the era, merely the most underrated.

1. Norman Spinrad, Iron Dream. This is a great satire of some common shortcomings of the sci fi and fantasy genres. It purports to be a sci fi novel written by Adolf Hitler, who in this alternate universe left Germany in the 1920s and became a science fiction writer in the US. The fake "novel" makes the point that many standard genre tropes have a lot in common with the main themes of Nazi/fascist ideology. I think that Spinrad takes the theme a bit too far, but it's an interesting and fun book nonetheless. Ironically, the book was for a long time banned in West Germany because censors feared that it would actually stimulate support for Nazism (the very opposite of Spinrad's intent, but a possible validation of his point about the genre and some of its more misguided fans). Iron Dream is well-known to aficionados, but hasn't received as much broader recognition as it arguably deserves.

2. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series. This series has been overshadowed by the author's own better (and more popular) Mists of Avalon. Moreover, some of the books in the series are far from brilliant. Nonetheless, the series has numerous interesting elements, characters, and plotlines.

3. S.M. Stirling's Draka trilogy. I include this one with some trepidation, because it has many weak points, including the unrealistic nature of the "alternate history" elements of the plot, and extremely silly technology in the last book. Nonetheless, the author's idea of a society that is essentially the negation of American ideals is interestingly developed and thoughtprovoking. Stirling manages to make the evil and depraved Draka characters weirdly fascinating, a rare achievement for sci fi villains. The series is also unusual in that the villains, not the "good guys," are actually the central characters. Like Spinrad above, the author has been misinterpreted as sympathizing with the dystopian society he portrays. I should warn also that the sequel to the trilogy, Drakon, is lame. It combines most of the defects of the original series with none of the virtues.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. A Few Underrated Science Fiction Novels:
  2. On the Paucity of Underrated Science Fiction:
PatHMV (mail) (www):
I'm a big fan of Stephen Donaldson's Gap sci-fi series. It presents a very plausible future (well, as plausible as anything with aliens in it can be), a very interesting and conceivable political structure, and tremendous moral issues, showing both the strategic and personal consequences of individual choices.
7.2.2007 2:35am
DG:
No one recommends Draka without some degree of trepidation. Its not like anyone who is a good person could possible cheer on the fascists...could they?
7.2.2007 2:55am
Ilya Somin:
No one recommends Draka without some degree of trepidation. Its not like anyone who is a good person could possible cheer on the fascists...could they?

Stirling wasn't "cheering on the fascists." It's a common but false misinterpretation of the books. Both the Draka series and even more so Stirling's other books make it clear that he means to defend American values (with some qualifications) rather than reject them in favor of fascism.
7.2.2007 3:07am
Cornellian (mail):
Iron Dream was a great book, though easily misinterpreted.
7.2.2007 5:13am
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
Stirling wasn't "cheering on the fascists."


Perhaps not, but if you've ever talked to him, his political views tend to resemble the way liberals characterize Bush. He advocates draconian anti-piracy laws that would require every computer in the country to contain spyware to monitor the files stored on it, and thinks anyone who tries to get around it should be sent to prison and anally raped.
7.2.2007 9:27am
Jeek:
I think it is exactly right - not false - to say that Stirling likes the Draka, to the point where it's creepy. Stirling wants the Draka to win, and sexlly subjugate their enemies, and they do. The "alternate history", as such, is not very well done, and on top of that, the books are just not all that well written. Frankly, I am surprised that anyone over the age of 18 thinks the Draka trilogy is worth reading, since it's basically an adolescent rape fantasy writ large.

Can't say I was terribly impressed with The Iron Dream, either. It is ponderous, heavy-handed, and slow.
7.2.2007 9:37am
YAP (mail):
At a con a few years ago I asked Steve Stirling what he thought about the Draka series. He said that its supposed to be a dystopia and he certainly wouldn't want to live there. He isn't promoting what the Draka do, he's writing a story.

As for reading his wants or thoughts into what he writes...people often seem to understand what they want to about an author from reading his books. That's nice and not a problem, but "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar". (my 2 cents)
7.2.2007 9:55am
A.C.:
As for Darkover, the part that interests me is how MZB started the series very early in her career and kept at it as her talents developed. This means that the quality of the books changed dramatically as she learned how to manage more complex stories. Sometimes the later stories get TOO complex in my opinion, but comparing the earlier books to the later ones gives a reader some sense of how she learned to write things on the scale of "Mists of Avalon."
7.2.2007 10:09am
Tregonsee:
I agree about the Darkover books, but it depends on which editions. When first issued, they were essentially sword and sorcery novels with strong female characters. Over the years, as they have been brought out in new, updated editions, they have acquired a strongly feminist outlook, with seemingly endless whining about fairness and power issues. Ironically, the result has been to diminish the female protagonists. They have become, retroactively, dated period pieces.
7.2.2007 10:14am
Colin (mail):
I just finished an underrated (or at least, underpublicized) novel, the re-release of Glen Cook's Passage at Arms. Perhaps older readers remember it from its first release, but I'd never seen it before. I thought it was excellent.

A bookstore clerk told me once that Cook did his best writing while he was stealing time from his 9 to 5 job, and that once he retired to write full-time his work slumped. I think there is a definite drop-off in his work; anyone know if that explanation is true?
7.2.2007 10:36am
Jeek:
As for reading his wants or thoughts into what he writes...people often seem to understand what they want to about an author from reading his books.

Eh, you don't have to be a genius to figure it out when an author likes his bad guy(s) too much.
7.2.2007 10:42am
Mr. Bingley (www):
"Crusade" by David Weber and Steve White is an excellent read.
7.2.2007 10:49am
Ilya Somin:
Stirling wants the Draka to win, and sexlly subjugate their enemies, and they do.

Here is Stirling's own description of his intent in creating the Draka:


"An Anti-America, representing all the distilled negatives of Western civilization."

I think that's a pretty clear statement, and not easily reconciled with him wanting them to win (except perhaps as a plot device).
7.2.2007 10:52am
The Drill SGT:
Most anything by David Weber or David Drake. I particularly recommend the "Honor Harrington" series by Weber for young readers, particularly girls. John Ringo has some good stuff and I like some of S M Stirlings more recent things. The Draka series was great early, then got worse as it proceeded.
7.2.2007 10:54am
Blue (mail):
Is H. Beam Piper's stuff still in print? If so, I'd recommend reading anything he wrote. He applied Tiynbee's ideas, taking historical events of the past (e.g. Sepoy Mutiny and the cargo cults of the South Pacific) and reimagined them as science fiction stories.
7.2.2007 10:55am
Blue (mail):
Er, that's "Toynbee"
7.2.2007 10:55am
TDPerkins (mail):
If the Darkover novels are included as science fiction, and many of them are medieval setting sword and socrey novels, after the first colonists technologically regress, I feel comfortable recommending Joel Rosenberg's "Gaurdians Of The Flame" series.

He takes the relatively unusual tack of killing well developed characters, be warned.

Although I don't feel all the ultimate questions of the series are resolved--what does happen with Deighton, anyway?

I am left me wanting more.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
7.2.2007 11:36am
TDPerkins (mail):
I have Iron Dream, but haven't been able to slog through it. I confess I can't see how either it or Stirling's Draka series could be interpreted as anything other than dystopian books which are meant to penultimately deprecate their protagonists.

Much like with Heinlein's Starship Troopers, I find both sad and fascinating that leftists miss the mark in interpreting works.

Do you have any idea how many moonbats I've talked to who assume Johnny Rico is a blond, tall caucasian?

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
7.2.2007 11:40am
AnandaG:
Blue: The complete works of H. Beam Piper just passed into the public domain, and as a result are all freely available on Project Gutenberg.
7.2.2007 11:48am
TDPerkins (mail):
AnandaG, thank you for that news!

Wahoo!

TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
7.2.2007 11:59am
Ken Arromdee:
I will mention here, as I do most of the time the subject comes up, that when I originally read Iron Dream I interpreted it in a third way. Not as a warning about fascism or as promotion of fascism...

I interpreted it as about the folly of "proving" one's ideas by writing a science fiction story where those ideas happen to work. It seemed obvious to me; Lord of the Swastika, the book-within-a-book, was a parody of those stories where the author thinks his own pet ideas are true, and writes a story which manipulates events and makes characters act in arbitrary ways or even lecture to the audience, just to make his favorite idea work. How better to parody such things than to have Hitler write one?

It turned out that Spinrad intended almost the opposite. He wrote the outer book to demonstrate that militaristic sci-fi is fascist. In other words, he did just what I thought his book was against. He wasn't *rejecting* the idea that you can prove something by writing a book about it--he was *doing* it. He "proved" that militaristic sci-fi is fascist by writing a book where militaristic sci-fi comes from Hitler.
7.2.2007 12:12pm
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):

Do you have any idea how many moonbats I've talked to who assume Johnny Rico is a blond, tall caucasian?


Practically all of them?

Heinlein messed with people like that regularly: Podkayne was half-Swedish and half-Maori, Eunice (in "I shall fear no evil") was black, Colin MacDougal(?) in "The Cat Who Walked Through Walls" was half-black, Juan Rico was Filipino.
7.2.2007 12:14pm
Mr. Mandias (mail) (www):
<i>Stirling wasn't "cheering on the fascists." It's a common but false misinterpretation of the books. Both the Draka series and even more so Stirling's other books make it clear that he means to defend American values (with some qualifications) rather than reject them in favor of fascism.</i>

I think that Stirling is committed to America with his head. But having read most of his stuff, I'd say that part of his heart loves the Draka.
7.2.2007 12:15pm
TDPerkins (mail):
Bit of a repost from the first thread, but nevertheless:

Daniel Keyes Moran, for having the imagination and guts in a fairly nuts and bolts hard science fiction world, to leave it up in the air as to whether a character walked through a wall, and also having France/the UN in charge of the Earth/Moon system.

And godd@mn him for having the 2nd American revolution fail.

I also want a semiballistic.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp

PS. Also Jack L. Chalker for his frighteningly plausible biotechnology derived dystopias in the other wacky Hexworld series.
7.2.2007 12:22pm
Jim Hall (mail):
Anything by M.A. Foster is well worth reading. The "Gameplayers of Zan" (Ler) trilogy and "Morphodite" trilogy are classics.

Foster stopped writing sci-fi a long time ago, but is one of the most underappreciated authers out there.
7.2.2007 12:49pm
Mark Field (mail):
In the category of underrated, I'd recommend Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage.
7.2.2007 12:50pm
Gary McGath (www):
There's an annual Darkover convention which is still going strong, so I wouldn't say that series is neglected.
7.2.2007 12:50pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Most anything by David Weber or David Drake. I particularly recommend the "Honor Harrington" series by Weber for young readers, particularly girls. John Ringo has some good stuff and I like some of S M Stirlings more recent things. The Draka series was great early, then got worse as it proceeded.


I’m reading “March to the Sea” by Ringo and Weber (Book 2 of the Empire of Man series) and “On Basilisk Station” by Weber. The EoM series has been excellent so far and from what I’ve heard from other military sci-fi fans, the Honorverse series just gets better. One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about both series so far is that the authors do an excellent job with their characters – particularly their female characters (which is unusual with a lot of male authors). My only regret is that I didn’t pick up any of these books sooner.

I also started reading “Marching through Georgia” (I found a hardcover copy of “The Domination” for a dollar) a while ago but haven’t had the chance to pick it up again lately. So far it seems pretty decent and I’ve enjoyed the concept of an anti-United States dystopia in an alternate timeline as the protagonists. I don’t get the feeling that Stirling is really rooting for the bad guys so much as trying to tell an interesting story from the villains’ perspective based on their cultural mores. At this point until I’ve had a chance to read more, I’ll keep an open mind.
7.2.2007 12:50pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
PS. Also Jack L. Chalker for his frighteningly plausible biotechnology derived dystopias in the other wacky Hexworld series.


Have you read any of the Quintara Marathon series by Chalker? I finished the first one some time ago and recently got the other two but haven’t yet picked them up. I’d be interested in the opinions of anyone who has read any of the series.
7.2.2007 12:54pm
TDPerkins (mail):
"Have you read any of the Quintara Marathon series by Chalker?"

No. I've read the Hexworld* series and the River of the Dancing gods, and I've come to the conclusion that once you've read on Jack L. Chalker series, you've read them all. I proffer the Hexworld series primarily because I see government controlled biotech going straight for his dystopias.

Want a new soviet man? Make him. Or it, for gender netrality.

*It was a long time ago, I'm not sure Hexworld is the name for the series.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
7.2.2007 1:01pm
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
I don't think anyone mentioned Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun in the last post either.
7.2.2007 1:10pm
The Drill SGT:

I don’t get the feeling that Stirling is really rooting for the bad guys so much as trying to tell an interesting story from the villains’ perspective based on their cultural mores.

Though as a former armor officer, I enjoyed the military descriptions of the Draka war machine, I think themes that I took away most deeply from the books were:

1. The slave resistance side stories. Heroic and ultimately futile sacrifice to slow the Draka down. Contrasted with

2. The weakness of the West. Too much political bickering, lack of will, softness in the face of an overwhelming threat, and the willingness to trade with an enemy that had publicly announced the intent to destroy Western civilization. Ultimately the good guys lose, because they start too late.
7.2.2007 1:15pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Question for any military sci-fi fans. I see a lot of Elizabeth Moon books in the store and haven’t picked one up yet. Any recommendations?

Also I’ve heard pretty good things about Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium series but would be interested in hearing from anyone whose read some of them.
7.2.2007 1:24pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
2. The weakness of the West. Too much political bickering, lack of will, softness in the face of an overwhelming threat, and the willingness to trade with an enemy that had publicly announced the intent to destroy Western civilization. Ultimately the good guys lose, because they start too late.


Sounds like then that if Stirling is interjecting his own politics into his Draka series (not that authors ever do that sort of thing) it might be more of a “yes it can happen here” then “wouldn’t it be neat if we had a society like the Draka.”
7.2.2007 1:27pm
The Drill SGT:

Also I’ve heard pretty good things about Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium series but would be interested in hearing from anyone whose read some of them.


I have read a number but not all of them. I liked the series based around FALKENBERG'S LEGION, better than I liked the War World series.

Its been a long time for both, but I have reread some of Falkenberg's stuff which reminds me of Hammer's Slammers a bit.
7.2.2007 1:42pm
Blue Sun (mail):
I think the first book of Chalker's WellWorld series (not Hexworld), Midnight at the Well of Souls, is provocative and fascinating - well worth the effort of hunting down. It will give you a taste for Chalker that should last through the next two sets of two-book WellWorld adventures. After that, his fascination with drawing out his stories into multple volumes can get a bit tiresome, as well as his returns to the same themes (albeit from original and imaginative new angles) again and again.

I also highly recommend the previously noted Alexei Panshin novel, Rite of Passage. It is a young-girl-coming-of-age novel ala Heinlein, but, IMO, much better.

David Palmer's Emergence is still far and away my favorite sci-fi novel in this sub-genre and I HIGHLY recommend it. It is told in first person, in the clipped sentences of the young heroine's diary. It is one of the rare treasures that, having come upon by chance, I go back to and re-read again and again, never losing the sense of delight. If you are lucky enough to find the original short novella from which the book was expanded, it is absolutely brilliant.

My last recommendation for underrated sci-fi is the complete works of T. L. Sherred, which consists, alas, of one novel Alien Island and four short stories that have been reprinted in paperback as First Person, Peculiar. The first of these stories, E for Effort is, hands down, one of the half-dozen best short stories to have emerged out of the pulp magazine era.
7.2.2007 1:56pm
Colin (mail):
The best CoDominium stuff I've read is tangential - the WarWorld collections. I'm partial to short stories, and those collect stories from a number of good authors. They're hit and miss, of course, but they're worth reading. They're not very strongly connected to the CD setting, though. If I remember right, they take place well after the other series/novels.

I'd also recommend any of David Gerrold's hard sci-fi work. His Chtorr series is fantastic, although the third book is a difficult read, given how unsympathetic he makes his protagonist. The Star Wolf novels are a little more straightforward, and the intro to the latest one has a fantastic inside-baseball explanation of how Gerrold got fired from Star Trek, and how the show would have been better if they'd kept him. If you're at all interested in television, and televised sci-fi in particular, that introduction is worth reading in the bookstore, even if you're not interested in the novel (Blood and Fire, I think).
7.2.2007 2:07pm
scote (mail):

Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series. This series has been overshadowed by the author's own better (and more popular) Mists of Avalon.

Hmmm...I'd say the Mists of Avalon is overrated. The mindnumbingly feminist re-telling of the Arthurian tales just didn't work for me, the feminist perspective seemed almost dogmatically forced rather than motivated by good storytelling. Certainly doesn't make me motivated to read any over her "lesser" books.
7.2.2007 2:10pm
rhinoman (mail):
This is a bit out there, but has anyone ever read the Star-Pilot Grainger series by Brian Stableford? Top notch stuff, but virtually unknown.
7.2.2007 2:37pm
Jeek:
if Stirling is interjecting his own politics into his Draka series (not that authors ever do that sort of thing) it might be more of a “yes it can happen here” then “wouldn’t it be neat if we had a society like the Draka.”

No, that doesn't really capture it. He doesn't want us to be like the Draka, or probably even to live in the Draka world himself. He just never lets anything bad happen to his pet badboys (indeed, they eventually conquer the Earth), and he gives them literally every possible advantage.

This critique captures a lot of it:


The entire Draka timeline requires several broad trends which are in themselves extremely improbable:

1. The Draka are allowed an incredible level of independence by the British government from the earliest days, which freely hands them administration of all conquests in Africa, and seems to let them keep a large independent military and campaign against foreign powers independent of Britain itself. In fact it seems that for over a century, the primary goal of the British colonial authority is not to extent British influence and control over the world, but to hand the Draka as much territory and independence as it possibly can.

2. The British Empire, which in OTL had great objection to slavery and even to mistreatment of non-slave servants, and cracked down greatly on this in the early 19th century, allows the Draka free reign in doing whatever they want. Essentially one of the more civilized and progressive civilizations of the 18th century lets one of its colonies act more depraved and barbaric than anyone else in the world (it should be noted that the Draka habitually treated misbehaving slaves much worse than most other slaveholder nations, including brutal mass executions following revolts).

3. The Draka have an uncanny ability towards conquest from the start - they seem to have no form of military weakness whatsoever, and always have equipment equal to or better than their opponents, even when fighting powers that IOTL were technological leaders. The Draka advantage in tactics and equipment is compounded by the fact that nobody else seems to copy, or respond to with new developments, the Draka innovations.

4. The Domination of Draka is NEVER, EVER attacked. Throughout its entire history all wars it fights are entirely on its terms, and it is always on the offensive. Not once does anyone else attack the Draka, no matter the provocation, or even stand up to them in a meaningful way... giving them a position unique in the history of major powers. Even more stupendously unlikely considering that they give other nations far more reason to attack them than most.

5. The Draka are able to advance through, and industrialize, the continent of Africa very quickly. They totally ignore the diseases and various other difficulties that kept OTL advances into Africa as small "outpost empires" rather than true control of most areas. The start from zero (a small number of settlers and a continent of untamed wilderness, jungle and desert), and within the space of under a century, become a world technological and industrial leader. In fact within 80 years of first settlement they are providing substantial, advanced military technology to the Confederates in the American Civil War. It should be noted that this means the economic growth of the Domination is considerably higher than that of the United States for quite some time.

6. The Draka manage to develop technology and industry at a rapid pace, despite having the worst sort of society for it. They industrialize despite having cheap slave labor which can produce the products of early industry more cheaply than early industry, and despite having the majority of their population in such a state of low income that there is little internal market for the products of industry (the Draka themselves will demand a lot of goods, but mostly high-quality luxury stuff, not the basic products of early industry). In addition they manage great technological development despite the majority of their populace being kept in a delibertely uneducated state (and brutally repressed at that), and the remainder of the population emphasizing military prowess in the education system and in life. I'm not saying that a slave society couldn't manage to tolerably keep up technologically, but it is unlikely to become a world technological leader - especially when starting essentially from scratch.

7. The Draka maintain an unnaturally high level of control of their territories. Stirling may be somewhat excused for this - he wrote this book while the Soviet Union, an excellent example of long-term repression, had not yet fallen and was portrayed as a great threat. It isn't until now that we fully realize how even the best regimes encounter great problems - their technology turns out to be backward, and their citizens are on the verge of revolting all over the place and are in general often unproductive due to repression. Essentially any real Domination-type society would be beset with minor wars all over the place, resulting in great difficulties to the Draka. For example in Afghanistan supposedly they killed 65% of the populace and everything was then OK. In reality they would have taken great losses of their own while doing this, and the territory would never really be fully pacified, and would be liable to erupt at some later date, and is certainly no recipe for producing any kind of productive area at any rate. The Draka eventually manage to hold their conquests in Eurasia - a newly-conquered area with a population of over 500 million - with an army of 10 million. WHILE mounting an offensive in the East with 4 million of those soldiers. And it wasn't 10 million either... that was the Draka army strength at its peak in 1943... it had suffered additional losses and been slightly demobilized by the time of the Eastern assault. A massive continent with a hostile, mistreated populace of over 500 million, outnumbering the troops supposed to keep them in line by at least 100 to 1.

This is in reality a huge recipe for disaster, and with even the low level of Alliance aid to the locals which Stirling acknowledges, the Draka should find themselves totally unable to maintain control of all this territory. Running the numbers one finds that they could occupy France with about as many troops (Citizen and Janissary) and Order Police as the Germans did in OTL. Sure, you say, the Germans managed to occupy France thoroughly - but unless you were a Jew or similar persecuted minority, the Germans basically left you alone as long as you supported the institutions of the occupation. The Draka literally treat everyone like slaves, and are engaged in a rapid and complete restructuring of society, turning the entire area into plantations and compounds and shipping people all over the place while imprisoning huge numbers of potential dissidents. There is simply no way that they have the resources to maintain this level of control over their large conquered areas - while maintaining a large military operation in the East, and later while maintaining a tremendous technology race with the Alliance.

8. It's just plain unrealistic that the Draka arise in the first place. They go from a bunch of slave owning but thoroughly loyalist British settlers, to atheistic, militaristic, ultra-repressive supermen in between one and two generations. This scale of social alteration - completely without an unusual stress to cause it (fighting a bunch of bushmen in Africa doesn't count as unusual stress) - is unprecedented in human history for that short a time. The realistic result of the migration to South Africa would be a cosmopolitan cross between British and southern American culture, but instead we get the super-Nazis out of the middle of nowhere.


To say the least, this is simply bad alternate history. It violates the rules of the genre, such as they are, and severely challenges one's suspension of disbelief.
7.2.2007 2:54pm
djharr (mail):
Two authors I have not seen mentioned (although I highly recommend Glen Cook and Stephen Brust for any FANTASY aficionados out there) are Keith Laumer and Ron Goulart. Anyone who reads Weber, Stirling, et al, MUST read Keith Laumer. He is the prototype for ALL modern military science fiction, and his Bolo series (just the one that he personally wrote, the other 6 volumes in the series are pale imitations of the original) is the finest military science fiction of his generation. Most of his Retief books are also great. The one problem with Laumer is that he had a stroke which affected his writing, and he went back and rewrote some of his old stuff, with disastrous results. You want to stay away from anything he did that was after about 1975.

Ron Goulart (who is currently writing the Groucho Marx, detective series) has a series of hilarious takes on (then) contemporary science fiction. He has two particularly amusing "series." One takes place in the early 21st century (they were written in the early '70s) and the other takes place in the far-flung Barnum system of planets. The defining feature of all his work is oddball characters and straight-faced parodies of familiar situations which are usually a rather iconoclastic commentary on how bad things really are.

Unfortunately, Goulart is completely out of print. However, Jim Baen has been publishing reprints of Laumer's works, and you can usually get them pretty cheaply at the usual places.

David
7.2.2007 4:01pm
maximp:
Re Elizabeth Moon and military SF - Her most recent series "Trading in Danger" is a very interesting mix of mil-SF and mystery/adventure, just as her earlier Serrano/Suiza had been. Her Paksenarrion trilogy (admittedly fantasy, but quite military fantasy) had been called the "most successful" purchase in his career by late Jim Baen.
7.2.2007 4:04pm
Syd (mail):
Blue Sun (mail):
I think the first book of Chalker's WellWorld series (not Hexworld), Midnight at the Well of Souls, is provocative and fascinating - well worth the effort of hunting down. It will give you a taste for Chalker that should last through the next two sets of two-book WellWorld adventures. After that, his fascination with drawing out his stories into multple volumes can get a bit tiresome, as well as his returns to the same themes (albeit from original and imaginative new angles) again and again.

I also highly recommend the previously noted Alexei Panshin novel, Rite of Passage. It is a young-girl-coming-of-age novel ala Heinlein, but, IMO, much better.


In the midst of writing his series, Chalker wrote two stand-alone novels. And the Devil WIll Drag You Under and Downtiming the Night Side, which I like quite a bit. His series get repititious. I did like Lilith: A Snake in the Gras in his Four Lords of the Diamond Series.

Rite of Passage is excellent. I think Panshin was trying to outdo Heinlein at his own game, and wrote a great novel.
7.2.2007 5:15pm
Colin (mail):
Ditto the recommendation for Cook and Brust, although in both instances I think their primary series started off stronger than they finished. (Except that I hope Brust isn't finished with his Taltos series, and that he either returns to form or starts fresh with something new.) I think that both make a strong case for the dangers of overserialization. Scalzi has taken the better course, I think, and been particularly good about not continuing a series just because it still sells.
7.2.2007 5:19pm
John Kindley (mail) (www):
I've never read much science fiction, but did read a lot of fantasy in my teen years. From the little science fiction I've read and the science fiction movies I've seen, it does indeed seem that many of the standard genre tropes have a lot in common with the main themes of fascist ideology. I'm wondering if there are ANY fantasy or science fiction novels out there that instead envision a society where government as we know it has been replaced (perhaps after a nuclear holocaust or after government becomes so bloated that a critical mass of people just get fed up with paying taxes) by competing private protection agencies (and private vengeance agencies!?) and competing systems of law produced on the open market, a la David Friedman? Seems there'd be a lot of opportunity for creating drama and conflict when the private protection agency of an alleged perpetrator disagrees with the private protection agency of an alleged victim about what actually happened and/or what should be done with the alleged perpetrator and/or what private court, if any, should adjudicate the dispute, etc. etc.
7.2.2007 5:20pm
TDPerkins (mail):
John Kindley, search for "Jennifer Government" and you may get a big kick out of "First Contract".

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
7.2.2007 5:23pm
Ilya Somin:
He just never lets anything bad happen to his pet badboys (indeed, they eventually conquer the Earth), and he gives them literally every possible advantage.

This critique captures a lot of it:


I linked to that same critique in my post. So I obviously agree with most of its points. the Draka series is weak Alternate history. But that doesn't undermine the strong elements of the book.
7.2.2007 5:38pm
PersonFromPorlock:

Rite of Passage is excellent. I think Panshin was trying to outdo Heinlein at his own game, and wrote a great novel.

Panshin also wrote a three-volume series, Starwell (1968), The Thurb Revolution (1968), and Masque World (1969) which isn't bad at all. 'Peelgrunt', in Masque World, is possibly the most charming moment in science fiction.
7.2.2007 5:43pm
Nick P.:
John Kindley,

I think what you want is Vernor Vinge's short story "The Ungoverned" which is collected in Across Realtime and The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge. IIRC, Vinge specifically cites Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom as an inspiration.

Marooned in Real Time, the sort-of-sequel to "The Ungoverned," is well worth your time, too
7.2.2007 6:02pm
Nick P.:
John Kindley again,

Also check out Ken Macleod's Fall Revolution series:
The Star Fraction
The Stone Canal
The Cassini Division
The Sky Road

All four explore different aspects of libertarianism, with the second focusing on an anarchocapitalist society.
7.2.2007 6:05pm
Steve:
I always thought Julian May was underappreciated, particularly her 4-volume "Saga of Pliocene Exile."
7.2.2007 6:20pm
The Drill SGT:

I'm wondering if there are ANY fantasy or science fiction novels out there that instead envision a society where government as we know it has been replaced (perhaps after a nuclear holocaust or after government becomes so bloated that a critical mass of people just get fed up with paying taxes) by competing private protection agencies (and private vengeance agencies!?) and competing systems of law produced on the open market, a la David Friedman?


LOL, Mad Max
7.2.2007 6:20pm
Colin (mail):
John Kindley,

You might also try Charles Stross's Accelerando and Iron Sunrise, both of which deal with Terrans who contract out various governmental functions to private or semi-private entitites; it's not the focus of the books, but it is a steady theme. They're fine novels, too; Stross's best work. (I'm also a fan of The Atrocity Archives and its sequel; they aren't as good, but they're very fun books.)
7.2.2007 6:38pm
Colin (mail):
Sorry, I meant to give an example; in Accelerando, the protagonist remarks that he contracts out his legislative needs to one firm, and his personal defense needs to another. In the second novel, one of the protagonists is a UN functionary who describes the UN's accession of nearly all its functions to private firms. Stross never bothers to really explain the details, which is nice, because authors who try to explain massive societal changes through fiction are rarely as clever as they think they are. Stross just uses it as a background for his novels.
7.2.2007 6:42pm
John Kindley (mail) (www):
"Stross never bothers to really explain the details, which is nice, because authors who try to explain massive societal changes through fiction are rarely as clever as they think they are."

Yeah, seems like it would be quite difficult to convincingly describe a civilized anarchic society and how it works and how we got there from here, which is why I wondered and doubted whether there were any such novels that had incorporated this theme. Thanks to everyone for all of these suggestions. I'm looking forward to picking up some of these. Haven't enjoyed a good novel in a while.
7.2.2007 7:04pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
after government becomes so bloated that a critical mass of people just get fed up with paying taxes) by competing private protection agencies (and private vengeance agencies!?) and competing systems of law produced on the open market, a la David Friedman?


I’m not sure that there are really that many libertarians who are resentful of the taxes they’re paying for things like police, courts, and the military that they’re looking seriously for any sort of private sector alternatives. It’s usually for things like social services – entitlement programs, health care, education, income maintenance for the indigent, subsidies to industry, etc. – that eat up the bulk of our “bloated” government and are usually things that most libertarians think that government generally shouldn’t be doing. Which is one reason I’ve though it odd that we’d have so much libertarian sci-fi focusing on privatized version of the things that most libertarians seem to think is the proper function of government.
7.2.2007 7:06pm
Jim Hall (mail):

I'm wondering if there are ANY fantasy or science fiction novels out there that instead envision a society where government as we know it has been replaced .... by competing private protection agencies (and private vengeance agencies!?) and competing systems of law produced on the open market, a la David Friedman?


Neil Stephenson's "Snow Crash" comes pretty close to the above.
7.2.2007 7:25pm
Bill Woods (mail):
AnandaG: "The complete works of H. Beam Piper just passed into the public domain, and as a result are all freely available on Project Gutenberg."

That's a bit of an overstatement, but the copyrights on much of his work weren't renewed, so they're available at Gutenberg, including the magazine version of Space Viking.


Underrated SF... Well, there's Alexis Gilliland's Rosinante trilogy.
7.2.2007 8:17pm
SenatorX (mail):
"I'd also recommend any of David Gerrold's hard sci-fi work. His Chtorr series is fantastic, although the third book is a difficult read, given how unsympathetic he makes his protagonist"

I kind of like the f'd up protagonists. Armor was another like this. The Chtorr series was great I need to find that and read it again.

"I always thought Julian May was underappreciated, particularly her 4-volume "Saga of Pliocene Exile." Steve

YES!!! A triumphant, one-of-the-best-ever series.
7.2.2007 8:27pm
Colin (mail):
Armor was another like this.

Yeah, I liked Armor. I haven't read it since I was a teenager, but I look for a copy every once in a while at the bookstore. His Vampire$ was pretty good, too, but I've never seen any other book by him. It's a shame; both books took hackneyed genres and did something worthwhile with them.

If you dig up the Chtorr series, try to find the unexpurgated editions. Some of the edits were hack jobs, if I recall. And if you can buy them new, who knows... maybe the royalties will spur him to finish the next book.
7.2.2007 8:44pm
Caliban (mail) (www):
I don't understand why no one has mentioned the works of the late John M. Ford. (May God rest his soul!) But I'll take that as proof of how underrated they are.

I'll also put in a good word for The War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches (and its sequel The Martian War).

If "science fiction" includes comic books (oh, excuse me, "graphic novels") I'll also add anything and everything by Alan Moore. (I'm not sure whether Neil Gaiman has enough recognition to still be underrated.)

Finally, I'll say that IMO Terry Pratchett is still underrated despite his recognition!
7.2.2007 11:03pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
SciFi novels are interesting to read, or not, but I find the most interesting ideas are in short stories. Perhaps the author figured that the idea was what counted and putting it in novel form was too much work and too hard to sell.
Two come to mind, from decades ago. One by, I think, Heinlein, had to do with what we would call genetically-modified chimps doing manual labor. Something similar to Brave New World, except they came up from chimps, so to speak, instead of down from Homo Sap.
I was in the form of a court case, tightly written. We sympathize with Joe, but are disappointed that the verdict meant he was legally considered a human.

Another, by Poul Anderson, had to do with werewolves. Werewolf legends have different premises. In this case, the werewolf is ordinarily a normal wolf. The story is written from the POV of his wolfly wife, and is not particularly anthropomorphosized. When the moon is full, her beloved gets pasty faced and ugly and does stupid stuff which annoys humans. The reader is sad for the family.

Drake's Hammer's Slammers series is sometimes like one of the old military techno-thrillers, but he gets into the kind of person who would go mercenarying.
One historian, either Keegan or Hanson, referred to the wars of the successor empires (succesors of Alexander). They had no nation, no Folk, hardly a state other than the bureaucracy whoever got to be king in some sordid fashion or other could get running. Their soldiers were entirely mercenaries. Yet, for some reason, when they fought, the casualties were enormous. It's one thing to be paid to march around, to support the tax-gatherer, to sharpen your skills on border raiders. But to stand in a phalanx and die by the thousands and thousands is a different idea altogether. Drake, especially in his Tank Lords, addresses that, to the extent anybody today can understand it.

Mil SciFi is either mostly mil, which means the author can haul out any deus ex machina he needs to overcome plot shortfalls, or mostly people, in which case it doesn't need to be scifi at all. Patrick O'Brian's sea novels are fascinating character studies, although built around war and conflict. An alien culture? Early nineteenth-century England is pretty weird.
Still, if you liked the recent genre of military techno-thrillers, mil sci fi can be just as good, or bad.

But, for my money, the good premises are in the shorts.
7.3.2007 12:51am
S/F Fan:
Here's an under-rated one (but be warned, you won't want to stop and it's like a 1200 page hardback) James 'Fel' Galoway's Subjugation.

And my guess is that anyone who likes David Weber will also like Elizabeth Moon (try "Remnant Population").
7.3.2007 6:01am
Nick P.:
Two come to mind, from decades ago. One by, I think, " I thiHeinlein, had to do with what we would call genetically-modified chimps doing manual labor. Something similar to Brave New World, except they came up from chimps, so to speak, instead of down from Homo Sap.

"Jerry Was a Man," and you are correct that it was by Heinlein.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Was_a_Man
7.3.2007 9:43am
keefer55 (mail):
If anyone is interested in military SF, go to Baen's free library to download Weber, Flint, and Ringo. Also H.Beam Piper's work re-released. Some Heinlein also. www.Baen.com Eric Flint is the editor, and he is revolutionizing the way SF and Fantasy gets written and published.
As for under-rated SF writers, Steve Gould (Wildside, Jumper)
is well worth reading.
7.3.2007 10:32am
Colin (mail):
I don't think that Ringo is underrated - quite the opposite. I enjoyed the March to the Sea books, and the first few Posleen novels, but I think he really needs a coauthor to write a good book. By the time I stopped reading his books, around "Ghost," I think, I had decided that he really needs a girlfriend and a hobby. I got tired of the 17-year-old teenage girl super commando characters he seems infatuated with. And I got really tired of him stuffing his politics into every nook and cranny. (It's not that I mind conservative authors - I'm a big fan of Stirling's work. But Ringo is especially blunt with it. I had the same problem with China Mieville's last Bas-Lag novel - he forced his socialist politics into the book, and it suffered.)

I'll second the Weber and Flint recommendations, though. I was pleased to see that Weber put out a sequel to the Shiva Option a while ago, although technically I suppose it's a sequel to Insurrection (which I think was the first book in that series to be written). It wasn't as good, but it was good enough. If you like their work, you might try William Dietz. His novels are repetitive, but fun.

I also agree with Aubrey re: short stories, and why they're an especially good vehicle for science fiction. When I was a kid, some of my favorite sci-fi books were the short story compilations in the "Fleet" and Man-Kzin series. More recently, I plowed through some of Phillip K. Dick's lesser-known short stories, and enjoyed them much more than most of his novels and novellas. Neal Gaiman writes good short stories, too; I like them much more than his novels.
7.3.2007 10:57am
Colin (mail):
Ah ha! Since this thread started I've been trying to remember the name of a novel I think is genuinely underappreciated. It just came to me - Way of the Pilgrim, by Gordon R. Dickson. One of the more thought-provoking sci-fi novels I've read, told from the perspective of a translator working for the administration of an occupying alien power. It has its problems, but I enjoyed his take on the means and methods of resistance to an inscrutable and invulnerable enemy.
7.3.2007 11:03am
SenatorX (mail):
Never been a fan of short stories personally. Nothing worse that actually finding a good story and it ending. When I find something that captures me I don't want it to end.

How can anyone really say sci fi is a dead genre? Is the future that boring. I'll agree that the future comes fast and books become "quaint" to some degree. This is always in my face when someone uses money. I was reading I Robot I think it was and they were talking about 30k space robots being insanely costly and stuff that showed Asimov clearly misunderstood the role of the fiat money and inflation o_O

I think maybe it's more that certain themes have been over used. The "evil AI" someone mentioned would be a good example. The space colony that regresses another.
7.3.2007 5:09pm
ElizabethN (mail):

Heinlein messed with people like that regularly: Podkayne was half-Swedish and half-Maori, Eunice (in "I shall fear no evil") was black, Colin MacDougal(?) in "The Cat Who Walked Through Walls" was half-black, Juan Rico was Filipino.

Where does it say that Eunice is black? I've heard that said before, but I've never been able to find anything in the book to support it. The closest I've found is a comment that she and Joe's second wife (Gigi?) have "contrasting skin tones" - which could mean almost anything.
7.3.2007 7:44pm
Ian Argent (mail):

I don't think that Ringo is underrated - quite the opposite. I enjoyed the March to the Sea books, and the first few Posleen novels, but I think he really needs a coauthor to write a good book. By the time I stopped reading his books, around "Ghost," I think, I had decided that he really needs a girlfriend and a hobby. I got tired of the 17-year-old teenage girl super commando characters he seems infatuated with. And I got really tired of him stuffing his politics into every nook and cranny. (It's not that I mind conservative authors - I'm a big fan of Stirling's work. But Ringo is especially blunt with it. I had the same problem with China Mieville's last Bas-Lag novel - he forced his socialist politics into the book, and it suffered.)


Please note that John Ringo did NOT want to publish the Paladin of Shadows series (Ghost etc) under his own name, and possibly not at all. See http://johnringo.com/FAQ/Paladinofshadows.asp - he basically did not want nor expect fans of the Posleen saga or of March series to just pick up Paladin of Shadows and expect it to be the same. That having been said, I enjoyed the heck out of it; DESPITE it not being the same thing as his previous stuff. OTOH, I like heinlein pre- and post-Stranger, so I may not be representative...
7.3.2007 11:29pm
JGR (mail):
"I'm wondering if there are ANY fantasy or science fiction novels out there that instead envision a society where government as we know it has been replaced (perhaps after a nuclear holocaust or after government becomes so bloated that a critical mass of people just get fed up with paying taxes) by competing private protection agencies (and private vengeance agencies!?) and competing systems of law produced on the open market, a la David Friedman?"

The author you are probably looking for is L.Neil Smith, popular in libertarian circles. In his book The Probability Broach, the protagonist is transported to an alternate universe run on anarcho-capitalistic principles.
The problem is that his books are the type of books one commenter above already noted: The author assumes that his principles are correct, and writes a sci-fi novel where all of reality is remolded to support his theory. In libertarian utopia, average citizens give intelectual speeches to one another about the glories of libertarianism (as opposed to the infotainment fluff in our universe); There is no army because every citizen dutifully rushes to join the army when our freedom is in danger; People in the lowest wage sectors are somehow all miraculously wealthy because capitalism has apparantly lowered the cost of all the neccesities (electricity? rent? medical care?) to something ridiculously below what we would set as the market value. It's the libertarian version of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. Or as the philosopher Robert Nozick said about such utopian fiction: "Godwin - if you like that sort of thing".
Neil Stephenson's two great scifi novels (Snowcrash and The Diamond Age) are simultaneously more fanciful and more realistic in their portrayal of competing protection agencies existing at a state of low-level warfare with one another, as well as its extrapolation from present trends that such groups would feature racial and ethnic tribalism - One only has to read Ayn Rand's essay Global Balkanization.
And as someone already noted, there is Ken Macleoud's Fall Revolution - an extrememly enjoyable series, although I would skip the fourth book (The Sky Road) which is vastly inferior to the others (It's also the only book in the series which can't be read largely on its own in any order).
7.5.2007 3:31pm
Frietag (mail):
I've never read the Draka books. But I read the "unrealistic nature of the alternate history timeline" link (provided in Ilya's original post).

One item reads:

>1783-84 - Volcanic eruptions devastate Iceland. 25,000
>Icelanders offered asylum in Drakia, arriving 1783-86.
>First off no such eruptions occured OTL [Our Time Line,
>I think], and eruptions of such great effect are
>unlikely considering the size and geological makeup of
>Iceland. Also ... historically, there was massive
>Icelander emigration during those periods to the US and
>the Canadas, (during a period of ... exceptionally
>harsh economic conditions...).

Um. This criticism of Stirling's timeline is not signed, but I'm curious who wrote it. Because the event Stirling describes is the Móðuharðindin ("Mist Hardships"), or the Skaftáreldar ("Skaftá river fires"). This eruption of the Laki volcano is one of the greatest volcanic eruptions in recorded history:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%B3%C3%B0uhar%C3%B0indin

So yes, the economy of Iceland probably was experiencing "exceptionally harsh economic conditions" shortly thereafter. That may have been due to the fact that 75% of their cattle and and 21% of their population had just died of poisonous sulfur and flouride vapor and ash fallout. (With thousands more deaths world wide; that summer was known in Europe as the "Sand Summer" from all the ash.)

Then there's the confident assertion that "eruptions of such great effect are unlikely considering the size and geological makeup of Iceland." Yes. Not much volcanic activity in Iceland, there.

As A. P. Herbert once put it, "It's like the thirteenth strike of a crazy clock, which casts doubt not only on itself but on all previous assertions."
7.5.2007 7:23pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Colin. Your interpreter story: Is that about the Aa? Depressing. Read that after having been paid to be prepared to do either side of the issue and I could see no crack in the Aa's regime.

Murray Leinster wrote hard sci-fi with the extra fillip that, when he explained some far-out technology, it was so clear you wanted to take your allowance to the hardware store and build it yourself. I particularly liked the solo medical ship and Murgatroyd.

The Ringo-Flint-Weber axis is getting mushy. I reviewed Kildar on Amazon by saying the book was apparently devised solely for the inadequate-guy-living-in-his-parents'-basement market. Terrible.

I've enjoyed novels. But, starting when I was a kid when I used to get anthologies of shorts from the library, I enjoyed them much more, not to mention saw many times as many new ideas.
7.6.2007 12:05am