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They don’t work for me – books and authors who don’t appeal

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It’s not all positivity and shiny happiness around here, you know. Some times, I have not very nice things to say about science fiction and/or fantasy. This post happens to be one of them. You can blame Liam Proven – it was his idea. “Everyone does top five or best ten lists,” he said. “Why not do a worst five list?”

So he did. And you can find it here.

And so I did too. Listed below are writers and/or books whose appeal I just cannot fathom. They have their fans – a great many in some cases. But I am Not One Of Them.

We’ll take my increasing dissatisfaction with classic sf as read (no pun intended). Regular readers of this blog will have noticed my struggle to like, or be impressed by, such classic science fiction works as The Stainless Steel Rat series, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, anything by Asimov… I’m not consigning all genre fiction written before 1980 to the dustbin – there was some good stuff written in the years 1926 to 1979. It’s just that for me most of what sf fans claim is the Good Stuff, well, isn’t. Or rather, not entirely…

I do like Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, but not his The Demolished Man. Both are in the SF Masterworks series. Many of Philip K Dick’s novels strike me as far too haphazardly written for me to really like, but I very much enjoyed his A Scanner Darkly. Gene Wolfe has written some superb novels, but I hate most of his short fiction. As for EE ‘Doc’ Smith, well, the very datedness of his works I find too much of a hurdle.

The problem for me is that most sf classics lack timeliness. Some transcend their time of writing, like Dune – it reads as well today as it did when it was published in 1965. Unfortunately, I find that too much sf is very much of its place and time and, not being in that place and time – or that place and time is too foreign to me (time more than place, of course) – then I find those books less enjoyable than others apparently do.

This is not an argument that applies to mainstream fiction. They’re set in the time and place they were written, and so that becomes the world of the story. When I open a sf novel, it’s like I’m opening a Can of World. And if that sf novel is properly rigorous, then that can is hermetically sealed – the real world cannot leak in. (It, or elements of it, can be deliberately placed inside the can; but that’s an entirely different matter.) For mainstream fiction, the time of writing is the can; for sf, the invented world of the story must be the can.

But on with the list of popular authors whose works simply don’t work for me. I’ve blogged in the past about the authors I like and admire. Here are the ones that don’t float my boat…

Neil Gaiman – I just don’t Get Gaiman. I’ve read some of his short fiction, and I can’t see what all the fuss is about.

Peter F Hamilton – I’ve read his Night’s Dawn trilogy – and I did have the biceps to prove it – and I was impressed by its size. And that he managed to control his cast of thousands and hundreds of plot-threads. But there was little else about the three books I liked, and as a result I’ve never read any of his subsequent novels.

Kevin J Anderson – who is the Dan Brown of science fiction but, unfortunately, a thousand times more prolific. I have read the Dune books he co-wrote with Brian Herbert, but the sound of Frank Herbert spinning in his grave made it difficult to concentrate on their lumpen prose. I tried the first book of KJA’s Saga of the Seven Suns, and was not at all impressed.

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley – I thought George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was very good indeed, but this one I just couldn’t like.

Ray Bradbury – nope, never understood his popularity. The Martian Chronicles are… twee. I hated Fahrenheit 451 (although I love the film). His short fiction just leaves me completely blank.

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde – I’ve no idea why this has proven so popular. The writing wasn’t very good, the plot didn’t add up, and Fforde couldn’t decide which of his two Neat Ideas to focus on.

There are a great many other books and writers I don’t like. This is just a small selection. There are also many books I do like, although I’ve no idea why – the novels of AE van Vogt, for example. They may well be the subject of another blog post.

18 thoughts on “They don’t work for me – books and authors who don’t appeal

  1. I was thinking I’m in complete agreement with you reading down your list until I got to Ray Bradbury…

    From only reading Neil Gaiman’s “Stardust”, I completely agree, what is all the fuss about?

    Peter F Hamilton, I’ve not read but it certainly doesn’t sound like my cup of tea from how you describe his work.

    Kevin J Anderson – that make me laugh when I read that. Like Dan Brown but a thousand times more prolific? Again, I haven’t read and it sounds best avoided.

    Ray Bradbury – I love, but I can see why others might not do. He is definitely quite a pastoral, whimsical writer. His stories often seem quiet nostalgic.

    Aldous Huxley with Brave New World, I agree that it is vastly inferior to 1984 even though it is often mentioned in the same breath.

    Not read any Jasper Fforde though.

  2. That’s an interesting list.

    I have to say I’m a fan of Ray Bradbury particularly his short fiction. As with any author though I don’t absoultely love everything he has ever written but I do like F451. Brave New World has it’s moments but I think it suffers from the “of it’s time” syndrome in that some of it doesn’t appeal to my more modern sensibilities.

    Have you read “We”?

    I also have to disagree on Dune. There are parts of it that are quite breathtaking and others that are bogged down and conveluted.

    I’ll agree with you on PKD, sometimes his writing transcends and other times it falls down in the psychedellic surrealism that is hard to access with a clear head.

    I don’t really have an opinion on Anderson or Hamilton, although I do have them on my list to sample their works I tend to shy away from really huge tombs and long series optining for the one off novel of pre-Jordan size.

    It only goes to show you that every read is as different as every writer.

    • Dune is not a brilliant novel – see my piece on it here. But I do think it evokes its universe extremely well, and there’s remarkably little in it which might tell you it’s a book of the early 1960s.

  3. Most people come to Gaiman via The Sandman comic books, which are really very very good if you’ve never read them, especially if you’re the kind of person who’s into mythology. Ditto with American Gods. I can see why some people might not like Gaiman, but if you’ve just read his short fiction, you’re missing out.

    I would think that timelessnes would be more of an issue with mainstream books than sf books – sure, early sf books can have ludicrous pseudoscience concepts built into the plot, but the fact that they’re set in the future, or another planet, means that they can be more accesible for longer periods of time because of their foreigness. On the other hand, books written more than fifty years ago set in that time period can, depending on how good the author is, lose readers beause they don’t understand the cultural context.

    I think Jasper Fforde is so popular because the kind of people who read his books are the kind of people who desperately wish that, by reading a book aloud, you could conceivably jump into the world of that story. That kind of idea, if executed correctly, can trump poor prose.

    • I’ve heard before that Gaiman carried a lot of fans across to his prose from his Sandman comics. I’ve never read any of them.

      I think because mainstream books are of their time and set in it, I find it less of a problem. With sf novels, the real world often leaks into the invented world – it’s not just silly science or a failure to imagine future tech, it’s more the attitudes and sensibilities. If a novel set in 1950s USA shows women chained to the kitchen sink, because it was like that then it doesn’t throw me out of the story (much as I disagree with it). But I don’t expect to find the same of a novel set in 23rd century USA (which was written in the 1950s).

      • Surely predicting changes in cultural attitudes is as difficult as predicting changes in technologal changes. Indeed, probably more difficult. Afterall, changes in cultural attitudes are nor quite as linear.

        How do we now women in the 23rd century won’t be “chained to the kitchen sink”? It seems unlikely from our cultural view point but we’re just rooted in our own cultural prejudices. Envisaging a 23rd century in which women are fully liberated from domestic labour may date us now just as much as it dated some SF writers in the 40’s and 50’s.

        And I wonder as to how dated contemporary SF will seem in a few decades that is probably capturing contemporary cultural attitudes as much as any previous era did. Which lends weight to the argument that if timelessness is a criteria for determining a “classic” of the genre, we can’t even begin to judge a book until it’s been around for at least 2 or 3 decades.

  4. Personally, I approve of the notion of “Worst Of…” lists. Too many reviewers are namby-pamby types, whereas sometimes a book is so patently godawful (yes K.J. Anderson, we mean YOU) that you just have to lower the boom on the fucker. Glad you like Bester–compared to the other Golden Agers, he was Nobel prize quality. The best of the biggies was undoubtedly A.C. Clarke: he powerfully evokes the vistas of space, its vastness and mystery, that fascinating nether area between science and faith/spirit. The sense that our species has indeed reached the end of its childhood and needs to grow, evolve, make the leap into space…and eternity.

  5. Good job. It’s not easy to say ‘I think that sucks,’ in the face of a popular wind. Sometimes a classic is named that because of popularity, not quality.
    I’ve been chastised often enough for not being a Huxley fan, among others.

    • It may not be easy for some — personally, I’ve never found this, but I’m odd — but it is immense fun.

      It is far more pleasurable to write a really harsh, damning, condemnatory review than some piece of fawning adulation.

      If you don’t like saying “this is a load of stinking dreck, avoid at all costs” — and spelling out *why* — then you cannot be a good reviewer or critic. It is every bit as important to bury as to praise, and good criticism always highlights the flaws as well as the highpoints.

  6. Excellent list. Very similar to what I’d have come up with on my own, only nothing about the Stainless Steel Rat or Neil Gaiman’s post-Sandman work made me even consider reading, so I can only suspect you’re absolutely right. I have a lot of PKD lovin’ friends, but so far only A Scanner Darkly has impressed me. I’ve never been able to finish an Asimov novel (zzzzzzz) and also think Bradbury is over-rated. I will admit though to having a fondness for Heinlein that I picked up very young and have never managed to shake, even though I acknowledge his limitations.

  7. Cheers, Ian. Interesting — but nowhere near as contentious as I’d hoped for from you!

    Surely nobody of any real taste or discernment really rates KJA? My impression is that he’s a total hack, a purveyor of wookie-books, & nobody really thinks anything else.

    I strongly agree about Bradbury, Fforde & Dick. All are very overrated, I think. EE Smith is also horribly dated, yes. Re-readable for nostalgia but not for newbies.

    Whereas I’ve read most of PKD, the only one I personally rate is /Vulcan’s Hammer/, a fairly straightforward novel, not as psychedelic as most of his. I particularly liked the self-healing car windscreens, a nice little touch.

    At last year’s Eastercon, venerated bookseller Rog Peyton voted Dick’s books as the 1st to be tossed overboard in a balloon debate. He expected to be lynched & was amazed when quite a few people agreed with him.

    /The Eyre Affair/ is the only fforde I’ve read & it was utter tripe. Even his conceits are not witty. It seems to me to be the sort of thing that its creator & fans think are terribly clever, but are actually rather shallow & trite.

    Peter Hamilton, I think you egregiously underrate. It’s not great literature but it’s good clean fast fun adventure SF for grownups, a welcome pleasure in a field far too dominated by would-be Artists trying to create Literature. I think going for the huuuuge fat blockbuster was a mistake. Try the shorter, sweeter /Watching Trees Grow/, or some of the shorts. If you can stomach these, then maybe 1 or more of the Greg Mandel books — quite decent SF whodunnits.

    As discussed elsewhere, I think your disagreement with Heinlein’s politics biases you against him. Bester, Asimov — well, all right, to each their own. Some Asimov is good, honest. /Foundation/ isn’t among it unless one gets off on the psychohistory thing. The robot short stories remain classics even now, when weirdly technologically dated; I will brook no dissent on this.

    But Gaiman — oh, man, are you missing out there. All right, he is not a conventional novelist; he is a tale-spinner, a modern fabulist. You *need* to read Sandman. All of it, I’m afraid; it’s a more-or-less linear story, that gradually develops, but unfortunately, at the beginning, the art was frankly dreadful & he was nervously feeling his way a bit. By the later ones, the art is wonderful, it’s all come together, but the story is impenetrable to the uninitiated.

    They’re graphic novels. Some of the best ever written, but still — not many words, not fat. They don’t take long.

    But I concede, he is a very heavily-styled writer, with a very distinctive voice, and if you don’t like that voice, well, you probably never will…

  8. Liam, you might remember I moderated that debate at the Eastercon 🙂 Actually, I was surprised at how much the audience agreed with the panellists.

    I’ve read the first of the Greg Mandel books. In fact, I read it before the Night’s Dawn trilogy. And I’ve not only read some of Hamilton’s short fiction, I’ve even published one of his short stories. Remember The Lyre?

    • Good gods, did you? Completely forgot. Sorry!

      No, I don’t remember the Lyre, either. Clearly I am not doing well today… 8¬(

      • The Lyre was a small press magazine edited by myself and Nicholas Mahoney. We published two issues, in 1991 and 1993, containing fiction by Eric Brown, Keith Brooke, Peter F Hamilton, Gwyneth Jones, Angus McAllister, Stephen Baxter, Chris Gilmore, Simon Clark, Mike Cobley and Peter Garrett.

        Amazingly, I managed to find a couple of scans of the covers online – truly the sum of all human knowledge is on the tinterweb. Anyway, this is issue one and this is issue two.

  9. I liked American Gods by Neil Gaiman a lot.

    As for PKD, the haphazard is the thing. Accept the bonkers and relax!

  10. I read the Sandman comics before I read any of Gaiman’s fiction and I don’t understand what the fuss is all about. I actually think that the Sandman comics are massively over-rated. Compared to your average comic from that period they’re pretty good (in a baggy, self-indulgent, pretentious but ultimately intellectually empty way) but compared to a thoughtful novel using some of the same tricks they’re lightweight and I would say that that’s a term that nicely describes Gaiman’s writing in general : Lightweight.

  11. It probably won’t be a surprise to you that I find that is what one’s man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Unlike your recent experiences with revisiting science fiction from your past, there are a handful of books I read as a pre-teen/teenager that are every bit as fun to read now for me as they were then, The Stainless Steel Rat being one of them. Most of the other ‘classics’ I am only discovering now. I read the Foundation trilogy a couple of years ago and was blown away. I tore through them and when I was done wanted to start all over again. Most of the Heinlein I’ve been reading recently has been a real pleasure. I haven’t been able to bring myself to read Stranger mostly because my preconceptions of it turn me off. Maybe someday, but I’m not betting on it.

    Stars My Destination if fantastic, but I have to admit that I also enjoy Demolished Man, much more than the group of people who I joint read it with a couple of years ago. Stars is a more well-rounded story though, I will agree.

    Gaiman is always a hot topic. I’m a huge fan myself, love his work. Completely respect those who feel differently, it would be a boring world if we all agree on everything.

  12. Hi again Ian—I am in total agreement with your list, except on one nonfunctional point. I have never read Gaiman and don’t intend to. For the rest you are spot on, and for the same reasons I have. I agree with the daring few who told me (in secret) that Asimov was a bad writer. I agree with that too.
    Here’s one point about DUNE that I thought of several years ago. Herbert’s refusal to allow the post-Jihad legal use of computers goes a long way towards an explanation of why the book is not dated. Get rid of computers and admit mentats, and you’ve got a “universe” that is so different from ours that a question of ipossible datedness cannot arise. Describe that universe as richly as Herbert does, and you wind up with a self-sufficient cosmos. So (once again) it cannot become dated, ever.
    My only caveat is that its method of interstellar travel is too far-fetched for my tastes. But in reading almost any (non-Mundane) SF one must (as a deceased best friend put it) “accept a few impossibilities.” I can do that with DUNE without getting a feeling that it’s dated. Wild Talents have never fully disappeared from SF.

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