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The most overrated and underrated sci-fi novels

Works by Robert A. Heinlein and Ayn Rand are on one geek's list for the most overrated and the most underrated science-fiction novels. Share your picks for the most overrated/underrated sci-fi book.

Science-fiction fans like to share information about good reads. It doesn't matter whether the book is about a town from West Virginia being hurtled across space and time or the murder of a royal in an alternate Victorian London, we'll spread the gospel. Unfortunately, at times passion overrides reason and some books are overrated, while other worthy stories are ignored.

For instance, while I do like most of the works by Robert A. Heinlein, I am not a fan of Stranger in a Strange Land. Sorry, but the tale of a messiah raised by aliens does nothing for me. Add the Soylent Green-esque ending to the mix, and I find myself completely turned off and somewhat revolted. If I'm going to read Heinlein, I'd rather reach for Friday, Glory Road, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or Starship Troopers. It's almost like a group of people decided that Stranger in a Strange Land needs to be deemed a great book because of the author. Pardon the pun, but Stranger in a Strange Land leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

While many people might not consider Ayn Rand's Anthem a science-fiction novel, it is a vision of a dystopian future. It's set in a world where candles are the highest level of technology, and first person pronouns are simply not used; in fact, if the characters speak one particular word, the punishment is death. Anthem could be considered a blueprint for other works of science fiction. Jack L. Chalker's Com from his Saga of the Well World Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation's Borg are both logical descendents of this novel.

I don't expect most Geekend readers will agree with my picks for the most overrated and underrated science-fiction novel (in fact, Heinlein's novel was included in the TechRepublic gallery 75 must-read geek books) and will likely call me an idiot. If you do, just know that you won't be the first. While you're at it, share your picks for the most overrated/underrated in this genre.

211 comments
manxann
manxann

Early L Ron Hubbard. Return to Tomorrow has always stuck for its portrayal of future societies seen by a time-dilated hero! All things change!

moondown1
moondown1

I am "constant reader" to whom Stephen King often speaks after his novels. I read at least a little of ALL genres but Sci-Fi is my favorite. Personally I love Dune. And "Stranger" isn't far behind. Only Amber mentioned by Zelazny? Lord of Light, Creatures of light and Darkness and Doorways in the Sand don't deserve mention? Not to mention perhaps his most just for fun read Roadmarks. Or Coils his colaboration with Saberhagen also a fun read. And Saberhagen: the Beserker series, the Swords books, Pyramids, and my favorite:The Mask of the Sun. Then there is George R R Martin's Wild Cards should be mentioned though they're not novels but collections on a single theme. Anne McCaffrey's Dragons of Pern series is worthy. John Varley's Titan series. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels. Anything by Phillip K Dick. I could go on and on with books I find worthy of mention but I don't type so this a chore for me.

Geoff Bomford
Geoff Bomford

Use of Weapons and Feersum Endjinn are two great reads by Ian M Banks I like Fade Out, and Mission by Tilley

nemesis77
nemesis77

Two of my favorites that were not mentioned here: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

jhhend
jhhend

The 9 Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke. "overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out."

hyperpat
hyperpat

Perhaps one of the most underrated books is Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, written in the same period as 1984. A very strong dystopian work of strong relevance to today's computerized everything. Perhaps this one flies under everyone's radar as this was his only sf book. Most overrated has got to be Gibson's Neuromancer. Besides having very flat characters and a plot buried in techno-references, it can't even really lay claim to being the progenitor of the cyberpunk genre, as there are several earlier works, such as Brunner's The Shockwave Rider, that presented all the prime ingredients of this flavor of sf. On Heinlein: Stranger is not quite as simple a book as it might appear. There are a lot of buried referents within it that help define and illustrate the points he was making, and and least some people don't consider it to be sf at all, but rather a satire in the mold of Gulliver's Travels. Some excellent analysis of this book can be found in The Martian Named Smith: Critical Perspectives on Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land by William H. Patterson. That said, I don't think it's his best (that goes to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), or even his second or third best (Starship Troopers, Time Enough for Love - of which one section, The Tale of the Adopted Daughter, may be the best short sf ever). So yes, it is perhaps slightly over-hyped, but not by a lot.

DeltaBrain
DeltaBrain

I like Stranger, though Heilein's overwraught machismo is laughable at times. Rand has become a posterchild for neo-facism. Underrated, overlooked: James Tiptree Jr. was a true original "The Screwfly Solution" rocks.

YetAnotherBob
YetAnotherBob

Overrated would include any of the fantasy type SF. Ray Bradbury is at the top there. Underrated should include Hal Clement. He liked to imagine a truly alien world and tell things from the local perspective. I would recommend A Mission of Gravity, Iceworld, or Needle to anyone. Cycle of Fire was a good mystery, in a way. Clement was a professional Chemist. I also liked E E Smith, and Robert Forward. (Both Physicists. Expand your mind.

stevenddickey
stevenddickey

I think Scott Siglers Ancester is a great work of Scifi.

Marc Erickson
Marc Erickson

...may be that you read the originally published version. Heinlein cut ~70,000 words from it at the request of Putnam. You may find the 1991 full length version more to your liking. "Time Enough For Love" - Heinlein "Snow Crash" - Neal Stephenson "Cities in Flight" - James Blish (originally published as four separate books - "They Shall Have Stars," "A Life for the Stars," "Earthman, Come Home," and "A Clash of Cymbals" [in the US as "The Triumph of Time"]) Are three of off the top of my head that I love.

wwwqueen
wwwqueen

Apologies to the author, but he entirely misses the allusion to catholicism's holy communion and Heinlein's toying with the suggestion of cannibalism. He did have a sense of humor, you know, and we don't have to take everything Heinlein completely seriously. He is simply toying with anything that society/culture considers to be profane and saying, "Well, consider this, then." I was in awe of the book when I was very young and still believe it to be one of the greatest works of sci fi.

stanl6580
stanl6580

Anything by Timothy Zahn is excellent. He is the new Heinlein!

Dr. Fowler
Dr. Fowler

Perhaps you should not rant pseudo-critically when you do not understand the book. SISL is arguably RAH's finest and definitely one of the top 5. Pax Vobiscum.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

Under-rated. Virtually never reviewed, or spoken of. The Orthe books are excellent.

esalkin
esalkin

This may be one of those generational things. As a "child of the 60's", the theme and concept of being an outside observer of the culture is one I can relate to. I can see where younger readers would have trouble with a hero who is impervious to Political Correctness. I guess you either grok it or you don't :-)

tsutay
tsutay

Interesting reading the comments - considering that "like" and "dislike" are subjective, I still find the comments of many to be interesting and perhaps even useful. Here's my humble opinion for some likes: Eon by Greg Bear, The Crystal Singer and Dragon Rider books by Anne Mccaffrey. The Lamb Among the Stars series by Chris Walley is an interesting blend of sociology, theology and science fiction. Perhaps my 2 favorites are Nightfall (Asimov and Silverberg novel version) and Fahrenheit 451 - a difficult read, but scary in how his vision of the future 60 years ago is playing out in real life. Hard to say dislike because if I don't like it, I put it down and read something else. Tried to read Stranger in a Strange Land twice, though, because I felt I might be missing something based on all the positive feedback from people. Clearly, this is my first choice for most Overhyped, because the story line was so poor and the writing wasn't that good either. He's written other, much better books; I don't know why Stranger is considered the best.

magic823
magic823

I enjoyed Stranger, but its been a while since I've read it. I've never read Anthem. The "me" attitude of her and her charactors in her other books turned me off. My favorite Sci_Fi reads: E.E. "Doc" Smith when you want the light "hero" type of sci-fi. Ursala K. LeGuin - The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are great political sci-fi. I enjoyed a number of the Dune novels, but some of Frank's later ones are off the rails. Ender's Game, but then they went bad. Ringworld, Pern, Rama, Tau Zero and Gateway and also good reads. Books or authors I couldn't get into: Deligren (or however it spelled) I like Heinlein, but some of the last few books were weird. Edgar Rice Boroughs Actually not a fan of most Ray Bradbury's books. Unfortuanately, I don't get a lot of time to ready fiction since I'm working on a second Master's degree.

rdinning
rdinning

I not only agree with you about Heinlein's Stranger... but even Heinlein agreed. He claimed he wrote the book purely to make money by playing to the times and didn't consider it a very good book. Another Heinlein book I'd avoid is "Farnham's Freehold". What you left out of must read is almost every SciFi book Asimov wrote. The only one I'd omit is "End of Eternity" which has a very poor ending, as if he ran of of ideas and time simultaneously. As a reader of Science Fiction for 60 years, if you need a place to start then no matter how old you are start with the Heinlein Juveniles in any order and then read "The Rolling Stones".

ke_xtian
ke_xtian

I loved "Who Goes There".

sw
sw

Almost anything by Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle, together or seperately. Footfall, Mote in God's Eye, Inferno... Also Zelazny, the Chronicles of Amber is still a classic. And although Saberhagen is mentioned, have a look for The Complete Book of Swords. I like characters that are smart, and shared assumptions. Heinlein's classic "The door dilated" comment. Hard to find new writers, too many just write dark for darkness sake.

aandruli
aandruli

Although it was mangled in the movies, like most of his books, Do Androids Dream of ELectric Sheep? by Philip K Dick was highly underrated as a mystical search for truth in a futuristic world full of phonies

DarkHorseSki
DarkHorseSki

I love Heinlein but hated "Stranger in a Strange Land" too. I also really liked "Anthem", that was my gateway book to Ayn Rand. I'm just going to list some authors I think should be read and some who are overrated. And I will stick to purely Sci-fi, not Fantasy. Overrated: Greg Bear Need to read: Alan Dean Foster started strong but jumped the shark: Piers Anthony, McCaffrey (mostly the child's fault), Hogan, Leo Frankowski

sllanso
sllanso

Try the Xenogenesis series (available as a single book) and Kindred. Both are superb and more than usually thought-provoking.

sllanso
sllanso

I can't disagree about a lot of Bradbury's stuff, but these two collections (and Dandelion Wine) had a usefully unsettling effect on me when I read them 30+ years ago. When others say "Stephen King", I'd say any of these three books...

neilb
neilb

Quite to the contrary as he was recognised, in his time, as one of the top "hard" science fiction authors. He just did his best writing some decades ago. Mission of Gravity was written before most of the posters, here, were born! Given that E.E. Smith [b]died[/b] in 1965, he's not particularly contemporary, either! As for Forward, Dragon's Egg is thirty years old. And although the science is top drawer, his characterisations are, in my opinion, shite. Expand YOUR mind.

don.howard
don.howard

The man who started the onslaught of Star Wars novels. (Any whose writings are so much better than the original movie scripts.) Agree, he may not be prolific, but I've never read anything of his I didn't like.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I know a heck of a lot of people who would argue that Stranger wasn't his finest, as for top five all time, not even close. It was basically a poke at the establishment, unlike say the Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or Starship Troopers he presented no alternative, never mind a credible one.

YepThatsMe
YepThatsMe

If Heinlein was the father of modern science fiction, Campbell was the midwife. I grew up reading his editorials in Analog. He encouraged so many young (not young any more) writers who would have been lost to us if he hadn't. I'm happy that someone mentioned him. :)

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

favourite list, unfortunately she hasn't even got close with her other stuff in my opinion. The sequel was a huge disaappointment, and I made the mistake of reading that Grunts garbage...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

exactly a poster boy for political correctness, and the books in which he features are light years better reading than Stranger.

rogersk
rogersk

I've been reading SciFi/Fantasy since I was six. My main motivation in learning how to read was Burroughs and his Tarzan series. I still have the first paperback I ever bought, the sixth in the series, 'Jungle Tales of Tarzan', though I really couldn't recommend it. As far as my picks for overrated and underrated, they both belong to Zelazny. While I loved the Amber series, it really wasn't his best work, and I'd say it's firmly on the 'overrated' list. At the opposite end, I think, is 'Lord of Light' (and maybe 'Donnerjack'). This thread has reminded me of some of the great books I've read over the years. I've now got a good list of stuff to go back and read again.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

A lot of his stuff is hard to get into, chap is a bit weird. Try "Stars in my pocket like grains of sand" that will do you in. I really enjoyed Dhalgren, read it a few times, never managed to finish any of his others though. His prose is superb, what he uses it on, can leave a lot to be desired.

Jerriais
Jerriais

James Blish 'A Case of Conscience' (1958) started as a novella then added a second half to make a short novel. I wonder if this inspired 'Enemy Mine' The Conscience is that of a Jesuit faced with a perfect world 'desirable' at cost to its inhabitants as a source of lithium for processing into nuclear weapons (hence called Lithia). Reptilian Lithians are hatched with perfect social morality and scientific knowledge but cannot conceive of anything 'spiritual'. This leads the Jesuit to believe them a creation of Satan to show that Man can live without God - and presumably all that lithium will not be without its dangers either. However, to believe Satan capable of creation is heresy. The Jesuit is faced with both this quandary if his conclusions are right, and that of having to quarantine or destroy the innocent and perfect Lithians. The novella ends there. The second half has a Lithian egg hatched on Earth who grows up to become a cult figure whose inability to understand human aggressiveness instigates mass rioting. Meanwhile the Pope tells the Jesuit that if he truly believes his heresy he should have exorcised the planet when he was there and sends him off to reconsider. There is a for of 'instant telescope'. As Earth goes up in riot, the Jesuit exorcises Lithia and sees it explode taking the perfect Lithians with it: genocide for God (not the first time!) Blish grouped this with 'Dr. Mirabilis', detailing the life of Roger Bacon the alchemist and 'Black Easter'/'The Day after Judgment' (another 'double novella') where an industrialist hires a black magician to unleash all the devils in Hell for one day. It proves to be the 'Last Day' but Satan wins and implied he may actually be a better deal than God - but he never wanted that position and relinquishes it to Man to bear responsibility for his own destiny. Blish was not religious but religion is an unusual theme in SF (despite CS Lewis), particularly of the hardcore Roman Catholic variety. The Vatican has recently opined on alien life and undoubtedly there will be religious 'stellarnauts'.

YepThatsMe
YepThatsMe

;) "Blade Runner" is the Hollywood name.

manxann
manxann

Always a good read, keeps reminding you how enormous the universe is- Peter F Hamilton - Travelling to the stars bt train!!! Eric Frank Russell- A good laugh with some serious points also the only author to set an SF story on the Isle of Man, where I live!

Robiisan
Robiisan

... I don't understand the reference about "jumped the shark" - if you see this in a reasonable time, could you "splain me?" Thanks!

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Still think watching Axis City driving down The Way is one the most powerful images in sci-fi. Some of his other stuff though, a bit limp. Mr Foster is a bit hard to figure though, his Midworld stuff is very good, but then you get that Spellsinger crap... Piers Anthony. Battle Circle, not bad, everything else I've struggled with, juvenile drivel again. McAffrey, generally too juvenile for me. Dragon's Dawn was a good book, but my favourite's would be the Pegasus books. Sure I've read a couple by the other two, but I can't remember what, which says something.

harryseldon
harryseldon

underrated - Peter F Hamilton's void books, burroughs john carter books, the mote in gods eye (love me some niven). overrated - cryptonomicrom, just couldnt get into it, maybe read a 3rd for the book before I gave up.

panzer
panzer

The father of all space opera? I have read the Lensman and Skylark series multiple times because of the imagination and scope of the story lines. My only regret is that I can't forget the story lines so I can enjoy then anew. (I feel the same way about Basblyon 5)

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

Came across it at a yard sale. That and [i]Golden Witchbreed[/i] are what I've read of hers. I haven't read [i]Orthe[/i]. Now you've mentioned it, I may not.

sboverie
sboverie

Your last paragraph reminded me of a non-fiction book about the American natives before the colonies united. The book mentioned that there was a debate whether the natives had souls or were just a bunch of organized animals. I am not sure of the title of the book except that it was in the line of "Natives in Early America". It also spoke of the epidemics of measles and small pox that decimated the natives and the loss of whole tribes and cultures.

JamesRL
JamesRL

Once upon a time there was a TV show called "Happy Days",set in the 50s, and featuring Ron Howard as a high school teenager. It ran for ten years. Towards the end they had pretty much explore every aspect of the charecters they could. It had spawned a number of spinoffs. They struggled to find new themes or plots. In one episode, they chose to have one charecter try to jump his motorcycle over a pool with a shark in it. It was considered to be an over the top moment - how can you top a stunt like that. But they felt the need to because people had become bored and the show was loosing viewers. So "jumping the shark" generally means something has peaked and is desparately trying to hang on with gimics.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

probably read then when I was twelve or thirteen. I tried reading it again, and stopped immediately because all it would have done was spoil good memories. Now I know the 'science' he used was bollocks then, his characterisations poor, his heros and villains one dimensional. I enjoyed Babylon Five, still do to an extent, but time travel gives me the mental heebies, I can't suspend my disbelief enough to accept it.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

It looks as though what is listed at Wiki as [i]Orthe[/i] is just the two books packaged as one. I thought it was a third in the series for some goofy reason.

wwwqueen
wwwqueen

Turned mine off, too. No time for that drivel. Seen bits of a couple of "reality" shows at other people's houses. How can they keep watching that sewer?

Robiisan
Robiisan

Got it! I (deliberately) missed most of the TV stuff after watching the first issue of Batman and the first issue of Laugh-In in the late 60's. Turned the babble box off - permanently - and to this day can count on both hands, with fingers left over, the number of complete broadcast shows I've watched since then. So I understandably missed the reference. Thanks for the enlightenment.