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What Makes Great Science Fiction? 1190

Posted by michael
from the laugh-it-up-furball dept.
cheesethegreat writes "Have you ever noticed how everyone breaks down into a near-religious frenzy when the topic of the "best" science fiction universe comes up? Everyone has a favorite universe, be it the Foundation Series by Asimov, or the classic Star Wars trilogy. So tell Slashdot what your favorite is, and what the most important part of a science fiction universe is to you."
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What Makes Great Science Fiction?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 02, 2002 @01:57AM (#4791380)
    Nubile female alien sex addicts, who are genetically engineered to please men at the drop of a hat.
  • by Eric(b0mb)Dennis (629047) on Monday December 02, 2002 @01:57AM (#4791381)
    Well, as far as books go, I'd have to say the Dune series by Frank Herbert (ALthough, I'm sure you all know that) The way it so elegantly combines action, suspence, twisty curvey plots within plots that actually require one to think... but the prequels... they are just pieces of crap that are poorly written..

    As far as movies go... Donnie Darko, although not blatently science fiction, is one great piece of film... you should all watch it...
  • by absurdhero (614828) on Monday December 02, 2002 @01:58AM (#4791384) Homepage
    As much as I like nearly all science fiction universes, my favorite is that of Dune. Herbert's universe is filled with politics, planets, populations and dozens of complicated plots that could affect whole galaxies. He manages to convey a vast and complicated universe through his works. I am always amazed.
    • by ender81b (520454) <billd.inebraska@com> on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:59AM (#4791657) Homepage Journal
      Frank Herbert's writing sytle is also something to be admired. I have never, ever come across somebody who writes Science Fiction like he does. I mean it is like he is a historian giving you the entire picture, including background, language, culture, the works. He really doesn't skimp out on anything in his books - except maybe tech he focuses more on culture. His stories are so in-depth and the culture he presents so consitent throughout that it puts most writers of Sci-fi to shame. Some sci-fi writers (Niven) provide wonderful technological backgrounds to their stories, Herbert provides a cultural background to his stories letting that influence the entire book, from eating, religon, warfare, etc. He uses technology certainely but the universe he presents in Dune is largely technologically static.

      I also think one of the things that fascinates people most with his Dune series is it's focus on people, and their power. I mean first you have Paul Atreides (sp?) and later the God Emperor, then you have the Emperor, the sisterhood, the bene tleilaxu(sp?) it goes on and on. PEOPLE run the show/book.

      I can only imagine how much research/how many pages his notes are for his books with the attention to detail he puts in them. I have been bitterly disappointed with the new dune series that have recently come out. It just isn't Frank Herberts Dune. The writing is fine, they aren't bad stories but it just *isn't* the same.
      • by oakbox (414095)
        I read somewhere that Herbert did 8 YEARS of research for Dune and that it was originally going to be an ecologically centered book. Large parts of Children and Messiah were written during this time, but didn't fit into Dune, so were pushed into later books.
        You can see this attention to detail in the appendix. Just amazing stuff.
        Dune is one of those books I go back and read again every 1 or 2 years. Always something new and interesting to discover.
  • by Obliterous (466068) <shawn@somers.gmail@com> on Monday December 02, 2002 @01:59AM (#4791389) Homepage Journal
    #1: Believable, REAL people.

    Heinlien, Weber, Drake, Cook. All authors that have good solid characters.

    #2: Believable science.

    a limited number of WOW factor science. Make it easy for Me to believe, and make it well thought out and self consistant!
    • >Believable, REAL people.

      Can't argue with this.

      >Believable science.

      Can argue with this. Look at Zelazny; often remarked that Zelazny "made magic feel like science, and science feel like magic" (forget the source). Coils, despite the dubious nature of the science, was still a good book. The Madness Season, terrible science, but still, fun book.

      Believable science is good for HARD SCIENCE science fiction. A sci-fi story that isn't strictly old-school doesn't always suffer from a unbelievability.

      Grok me?
    • by vertical_98 (463483) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:30AM (#4791531) Homepage
      Heinlein had the ability to make his characters grow as the story progressed. I have always loved his story writing. And he never let technology bog down a story. Technology is a crutch to some writers...Look at StarWars II.

      I also loved Zelazny's Amber series, although I guess that was more Fantasy than Sci-Fi.

      Its hard to pick out the greatest, because there are several good ones. Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Card...and the list goes on.

      Vertical
    • You really think Heinlein wrote believable characters?

      Sure he created INTERESTING characters, but believeable?

      His characters were two-dimensional macho-man stereotypes. Oversexed geniuses spouting half-baked libertarian claptrap.

      Gender-swapping pirates who walk around naked?

      Nymphomaniac housewives who collect PhDs and shag their own children?

      Dimension-hopping perverts who cavort with dragons and vacation in the land of Oz?

      Interesting, sure. Believable is another matter.
      • Learned to play chess at age 4.
        Attended the US Naval Academy, competed in fencing and marksmanship. Graduated 20th in a class of 243 with a degree in engineering.
        Served in the Navy until honorably discharged at rank Lieutenant because of Tuberculosis.
        Ran as a Democrat for representative in California on a platform of ending poverty (lost). Was active in politics as a fundraiser, speaker, and committee member throughout most of his life. His 'libertarian claptrap' was, right or wrong, the product of his disaffection with politics through years of direct personal experience.
        Amon his many interests and careers, he dabbled in mining, photography, and masonry.
        During WWII he worked with the US military on high altitude aviation suits, the precursor to modern day astronaut uniforms.
        Designed and built his own house while in his 50s.

        I'd say it's fair for a writer that happens to be a jack of all trades, sexually open-minded, highly intelligent, libertarian, and reasonably athletic to write about characters that also have those characteristics, don't you?
    • Does not compute (Score:4, Insightful)

      by UberOogie (464002) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:52AM (#4791628)
      #1: Believable, REAL people.

      Heinlien,

      In a word, no. Most of the female characters in his books were just his libertarian wet dreams. How realistic are super-proficient women, who just happen to dress provocatively and mouth his beliefs perfectly?

      • Re:Does not compute (Score:3, Interesting)

        by opencity (582224)
        >#1: Believable, REAL people. Heinlien, In a word, no. Most of the female characters in his books were just his libertarian wet dreams. How realistic are super-proficient women, who just happen to dress provocatively and mouth his beliefs perfectly?

        The same could be said of Heinline's men.
        His female characters don't get really strange until the later period where he ends up verging on satire. The Menace From Earth with the girl engineer, who admitedly gets the guy. Lots of his characters make speeches and a lot of his best work was aimed at teenagers.
        He was, however, a very good story teller with some science to his fiction

      • You ask, without giving examples:

        How realistic are super-proficient women, who just happen to dress provocatively and mouth his beliefs perfectly?

        If Friday is an example that comes to mind, I suggest you re-read Friday and Star Ship Troopers with a more critical eye. Heinlien is NOT Friday or a Star Ship Trooper, he's used the character's to mouth a future he considers nighmarish. The characters are imperfect and unable to understand their situation as well as we do.

        Our Star Ship trooper is happy to see the entire planet turned into a war machine. He even smiles when he sees his own father drafted. Would you want to live in a world like that?

        Friday is not supposed to represent any living person either. She is a poorly educated sex slave with extraordinary strength and mental ability. Friday demonstrates both her mental power and lack of education by a nauseasingly detailed recitation of events that span years. She remembers every single meal she eats in every greasy spoon and tells us all about it years after the fact! Clearly, Heinlien wanted to paint a mind that was not trained to disregard extraneous details but strong enough to not need to. The average person who burdened themselves with all those kinds of details would run like M$ XP. What appears to be poor story telling is crucial to our understanding of the character! That Heinlien can pull it off without losing the reader is awsome. Yes, she was concieved and bred to be some adolescent man's dream toy. Sterile, with low self esteem and taught only those things that might sexually please before being recruited to other things. It is doubtful that any Libertarian would want anyone else treated that way.

        In any case, both of these stories demonstrates what makes good science fiction: they take a few postulated technical inovations, understand how they might effect society and it's members, then create an entertaining story of entrapment or escape. Good science fiction, like any story telling, requires an understanding of both human nature and creation. I see a kind of triad, character insight, technology insight and storyline. Strengths in one area can make up for weakness in others, depending on the tastes and education of the reader. My favorites are short stories that have all the elments.

      • by Nehemiah S. (69069)
        How realistic are super-proficient women, who just happen to dress provocatively and mouth his beliefs perfectly?

        I've known several, some of whom loved heinlein because they identified with his characters, while others disliked him (possibly for the same reason). One absolutely HATED him, but she had race-related self esteem issues that went way beyond poor literature-appreciation skills. I bear some of the blame as well, for starting her on the wrong book.

        IMHO Heinlein hated the idea of women-as-cattle that conventional culturalists consider "proper". I personally consider him a feminist- his protagonists embody every essential feature of a truly realized human woman. Brilliant, attractive, unyielding, loving and brave... Should he have made them ugly, or dumb, or sloe-eyed, just to keep book-of-the-month-club soccer moms from feeling inferior?
    • Gay Deceiver - Take us home!
    • #2: Believable science.

      Greg Egan. At least he uses real scientific terms unlike some <COUGH>Gene Roddenberry</COUGH> writers.
  • by Buzz_Litebeer (539463) on Monday December 02, 2002 @01:59AM (#4791390) Journal
    Sci-Fi needs to tell a story, period. Many times you read a sci fi novel and the author is obviously in love with how clever he can be. Sci-Fi is about expanding ideas, not how clever an author can be. An author needs to suspend disbeleif, this can almost be as easy as Orson Scott Card (enders game) when he assumes technology exists, because then we can see how it affects the characters and devise how we beleive it works. Or an author can take the road of Peter F. Hamilton (reality dysfunction) and completely describe every minute detail about how things interact and function. Both authors achieve a suspension of disbeleif about things that are scientifically fictional, and they mix it with the good elements of a story, that are not sci fi at all. The blending of sci-fi concepts and ideas and a good solid story seemlessly make a good science fiction novel.
  • Good SF (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:00AM (#4791392)
    As good literature: nontrivial (but feasible)technical ideas, good non-cartoonish characters (read: NOT Luke Skywalker or Captain Kirk), interesting plot (read: not necessary ends with happy end). In general, one may actually have more questions after finishing the book than he had in the beginning. BTW, Lem is one of such authors. Philip Dick is another.
    • Re:Good SF (Score:4, Insightful)

      by kscguru (551278) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:39AM (#4791571)

      (read: not necessary ends with happy end)

      And, in particular, does not pull some "magic" super-gizmo out of a hat that suddenly resolves a horribly tangled storyline. It makes me feel like the author was too lazy to finish the book. (Sorry, this is my worst pet-peeve with modern books.)

      Example: Orson Scott Card's series that ends with Children of the Mind. Due to some mystical-science only discovered by the main character, everyone who was a "good person" to Ender comes back to life in a perfect form, and Ender can magically teleport to different planets and solve all the problems in the universe, blah blah blah... Absolutely Not! The reason the earlier books were good was that they were balanced - the good guy is ironically reviled by everyone because of what he had to do to save them, the bad guy ironically ends up doing the most good, and people actually are accountable for their past. The same reasons any good literature is good. There's no "magic" involved.

      (Note: for an example of a good use of "magically resolving a storyline", see Robert Asprin's "Myth" series. And realize that the point of those books is not the conclusion, it's the set-up and characterization. One of the few places cartoonish characters actually work.)

      I don't know... the best "sci-fi" I've ever read doesn't necessarily fit under the "sci-fi" section of the library. In one sense, Greek epic literature is sci-fi (The Illiad; The Odyssey). 1984 and Brave New World were essentially sci-fi when they were written. It's about books that have literary merit on their own - the "science" part just means that the world doesn't have to obey the same rules as the world around us. (Note to aspiring authors: that doesn't mean you can change the rules on a whim. Your universe must have rules too, and you can't break them. I'm just saying those rules don't have to be the same as this universe's rules.)

      AC: good comments! I vividly remember reading Blade Runner... for exactly those reasons.

      • Re:Good SF (Score:4, Informative)

        by Cyclometh (629276) on Monday December 02, 2002 @04:01AM (#4791831)

        You mean, of course, you remember reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep unless you're referring to the novelisation of the movie Blade Runner.

        Actually, there's some interesting backstory about Blade Runner- one of my favorite "dark" SF films. The origin of the name is from a book by Alan E. Nourse called Blade Runner, but had nothing (or very little) to do with the plot of the movie, which was largely based on the P.K. Dick short story and the writers' imagination. Nourse's book had a great title, which apparently one of the writers had done a screen treatment of and they decided to use that title instead of the far-too-long Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

        The cover of Nourse's book was flat black and had a sillouhette of a guy in a long coat running done in red on it- that little icon is often associated with the movie, and in fact appears at the end of the credits (along with a nod to Nourse's book, if I recall).

        Nourse's book was OK, as I remember it, but not incredible or anything. The title was more prosaic than anything else, the book having to do with a future society where the practice of medicine is outlawed for most people. Blade runners would carry surgical and medical equipment to underground doctors who would provide medical care to people on the sly. The book is about one of these Blade runners. Unremarkable, but now that I think about it, some of the elements of the movie may have their origins in Nourse's book. Have to score a copy and re-read it to see if that's true or not; it's been about 20 years since I read it.

    • Lem IS best (Score:4, Informative)

      by richieb (3277) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {beihcir}> on Monday December 02, 2002 @07:27AM (#4792454) Homepage Journal
      In general, one may actually have more questions after finishing the book than he had in the beginning. BTW, Lem is one of such authors. Philip Dick is another.

      Lem is not afraid to tackle the real difficult questions in his books. For example, the problem of communication with another lifeform/species is far from trivial and Lem gets into it in a number of his books.

      • "The Invincible" - encounter with a "swarm" of machines?
      • "Solaris" - forget the love story. Is the ocean alive in any sense that humans could understand?
      • "His Master's Voice" - a message (?) is received from outer space. People trying to decipher it (this is not at all like "Contact").
      • "Fiasco" - humans visit the first other civilization. Communications doesn't happen.

      Orson Scott Card comes close to this topic with "Speaker for the Dead" - where there is a weird cultural conflict. But most other SF authors just gloss over this issue, in Star Trek "Universal Translator" style...

  • Best to live in? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by kubrick (27291) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:00AM (#4791395)
    Iain M. Banks' Culture.

    I'd love to live in the middle of trippy post-humanist apace opera universe... wouldn't evryone?

  • by dertx (161391) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:01AM (#4791400)
    I think what makes great science fiction isn't the universe, it's the concept behind it. Of course, you can argue that this is what distinguishes short stories (which tend to be much more concept-oriented) from novels (which need to develop deeper characters, unless you can figure out a device like Asimov used in Foundation to get away with shallow character development). Still, I can think back on the great science fiction I've read, and most of it is really about the ideas, not about the universe.

    After all, most sci-fi universes are just our own universe with something changed - a more complicated version of a Sliders episode. If everything were actually different, we'd have no reference point and it wouldn't mean anything. It's the fact that almost everything is the same except for some crucial difference (more advanced technology, or the Nazis winning WW2, etc.) that makes the stories compelling. That's why so many of these stories include some kind of foil character that the reader can identify with (Arthur Dent is a good example of this, but literally almost every single sci-fi book ever written contains at least one main character that is strikingly similar to people contemporary to the author's own culture). The story can often be created simply by allowing the contemporary typical person to clash with the changes introduced in the universe.

    • by kscguru (551278) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:58AM (#4791652)
      I'm clashing with your terms, but agreeing with you in spirit...

      Science Fiction is ENTIRELY about the universe. The key is, once you subtract out the fancy science, it has to be OUR universe. (I'm thinking this is what you were getting at... correct me if you think I'm misinterpretting).

      Asimov's Foundation series, for example - boiled down, it's a very large Imperial power, and a small group attempting to change that power. Sure, there's fancy "psychohistory" and "Q-Beams" and "Atomic Drives" involved - but the politics are exactly the same. Every one of the characters is an archetype that we can see in the world around us - maybe not someone we can give a name to, but someone we could say, "yeah, my mayor acts just like that guy." The science doesn't unbalance what is really a story about politics.

      Here's an exercise for some bored English major out there: re-create Asimov's series in today's world. Toss in some "stagnant" factor - maybe over-powerful mega-corporations or 1984/Farenheit 451-style thought control. And make the "Foundation" produce one product the rest of the world subconsciously needs - entertainment, perhaps, which would lead to the "Foundation" re-introducing great, revolutionary literature (Upton Sinclair "The Jungle", "Uncle Tom's Cabin", or "1984") in a slightly altered form to change the world. The Foundation universe really IS our world - Asimov's just renamed a few things.

      • Asimov clearly stated he based the storyline along the middle age and renaissance. That's not novel, but many of the ideas in the book are, and cleary set it appart from "historical" setups.

        The fact that a small group is attempting to change power is in fact a universal constant that doesn't even need the human race arround to be a certain truth.
      • Foundation is actually the Roman Empire, and the first Foundation story (the prequel where Seldon is an actual character, and I mean the one that appears in the first book, not "Forward the Foundation" or whatever that tripe was much later published to cash in on the Foundation name) is the actual fall of Rome.

        Any relationship to current times should be considered thought-provoking, but do note that to the extent we are currently stagnatng, it is not complete; technology is still developing at a rapid pace, which is a major difference from the Empire yet.
    • Two words... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Sun Tzu (41522) on Monday December 02, 2002 @06:30AM (#4792293) Homepage Journal
      'Known Space'. Larry Niven, et. al.
  • by cdlu (65838) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:03AM (#4791406) Homepage
    There is no greater science fiction writer than the late Douglas Adams [slashdot.org] and there is no greater work of science fiction than the hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy and its five part trilogy.

    Science fiction doesn't have to be dramatic to be good, but being nuts does help a little...
    • I think Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is good. However, I don't think it is great. I don't recall it being sufficiently relevant to anything but my funny-bone that I would call it "great". So, it is a good funny-insights-and-zany-episodes book in a sci-fi setting, but I don't think it is fully sci-fi.

      To me, "1984" and "A Brave New World" are masterpieces. They both outline technological scenarios, but they discuss the morals of these scenarios in good detail. Their basic insights into humanity also help me accept their scenarios as plausible.

      I quite enjoyed "Contact" as well.
  • by kin_korn_karn (466864) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:05AM (#4791415) Homepage
    Really, it's the same thing that makes any story good:

    1) GOOD CHARACTERS
    2) Good plot
    3) Well-written imagery and narrative

    Too many sci-fi writers seem to forget those rules. They take a gadget or a concept or an individual occurrence and try to stretch it into a novel, because it's sci-fi and "people who read sci-fi" (insert Trek convention stereotype here) will buy it no matter how shitty it is. They don't even TRY to be good writers.

    Also, and even good writers can be guilty of this, they write into the genre rather than letting the genre be a non-factor. They don't develop a plot or a character in a logical way because that's "not sci-fi enough." You can always tell when a writer has shoehorned something into what they percieve as a sci-fi limitation.
    • by ArcSecond (534786) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:49AM (#4791614)
      I think you are missing something. What makes great science fiction is politics and psychology. I have never read a single science fiction piece that really got into my skull that wasn't challenging some present-day assumption about society or the individual.

      I think all great science fiction seeks to answer not just "what if?" but "where do we go from here?". The technology in science fiction is not just a prop, it is usually a disguise for an topical issue in the here-and-now. "Sci-fi" that uses technology as a "gee-whiz" element is just fantasy or action dressed up as science fiction.

      Personally, the best stuff I've ever read has been short stories. Something about SF has always lent itself to short, concise explorations of a single theme. I think novels tend to get tricky, since you need a few themes and a really strong philosophy to back it up.
  • by Eric(b0mb)Dennis (629047) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:05AM (#4791417)
    Battlefield Earth was the best science fiction movie ever!!!!!!!! Man... Where else can you find a bunch of natives who learn how to fly jets in under 42 hours... all by reading...

    I tell you... nothing to get better than that...

    And with that whacky scientoligist alien guy... it's excellent! You should all go rent it right now!

    EOS, End of Sarcasm
  • by gorehog (534288) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:06AM (#4791419)
    Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, were the trinity of SF when I was a kid. The genre offers too much to be limited in thi way.

    For really great SF look to Gibson, Stephenson, Sterling, Vonnegut...

    Dont forget to read mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

    The list of great SF goes on and on, basically because stories of the future answer or us the question "where are we going?"
  • by cofbaron (576294) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:06AM (#4791420)
    The essence of great science fiction, to me anyways, is taking ordinary people as we know them in real life, then placing them in extraordinary (but still believable) situations. Of course, science and technology should be present, but it shouldn't dominate the story. If you let it upstage the rest of the story, you get garbage like Independence Day (which wasn't even very science-fictional, if you ask me).

    Great science fiction sheds light on the inner workings of what people are like, by showing them in a different light. It serves as a warning about possible futures, examining implications of technologies both good and bad. And perhaps most of all, great science fiction has ideas and themes in it that can survive the test of time.

    Cecil
    • The essence of great science fiction, to me anyways, is taking ordinary people as we know them in real life, then placing them in extraordinary (but still believable) situations. Of course, science and technology should be present, but it shouldn't dominate the story. If you let it upstage the rest of the story, you get garbage like Independence Day (which wasn't even very science-fictional, if you ask me).

      It doesn't necessarily have to be ordinary people, nor even believable situations. The universe the characters exist in has to be consistent above all. Look at 'Doc' Smith's Skylark or Lensman series. In neither of them are the situations believable in the light of modern science, and in all of them the main characters are cast from the classic Heroic mold. Or David Drake's Hammer's Slammers universe -- Joachim Steuben, for example, is a seriously bent character, but the stories still work.

      I don't think that it is so much whether the author creates believable situations, or that the characters are ordinary people, but that the universe and the characters are consistent -- and that is what makes the story believable. Not any ordinary or extraordinary quality of the characters or the situations they are in, but that the characters exist as consistent beings in a consistent universe. The moment an author starts pulling things out of their hat to either advance or obstruct the main characters, my enjoyment goes downhill fast.
      Great science fiction sheds light on the inner workings of what people are like, by showing them in a different light. It serves as a warning about possible futures, examining implications of technologies both good and bad. And perhaps most of all, great science fiction has ideas and themes in it that can survive the test of time.

      Science fiction authors are no better at predicting the future of technology than anyone else. Look at Heinlein's novel Starman Jones for example -- massive computers that only performed mathematical calculations and needed to have input fed into them in binary, and huge books of conversion tables necessary to convert human-readable numbers back and forth to binary, then plotting by hand. Aside from an ongoing over-optimism about space exploration, I think that that is one of the most glaring examples of how badly the future of technology can be predicted. Other authors point out that technology is changing so fast, and the rate of change is changing so fast, that it will cause a 'phase change' in society, at which point all of our predictions break down (a la Vernor Vinge's 'Singularity').

      And there are a number of fundamental limitations in what can be done with science fiction. Take alien races and alien cultures. There is no way to portray a genuinely alien race because, lacking any common referent, neither the human characters nor the readers would have any way to understand them. Alien races and cultures exist as distinct entities to hold up a mirror to reflect certain human characteristics and explore them, or exist as people in rubber suits. For example, other than creating atmosphere, was there really any plot reason for Nien Nub, Admiral Ackbar, or Greedo in the Star Wars movies to be nonhuman? It is another mark of great science fiction that an author can create alien races and cultures that, while possessing enough cognates to human culture that they are not totally enigmatic, are not just humans with bugs on their foreheads. Too many authors confuse 'not looking human' with 'not being human'. An alien race can be a powerful tool to examine or illustrate humanity and human culture, but it has to have its own culture first to create that vantage point.

      • I don't think that it is so much whether the author creates believable situations, or that the characters are ordinary people, but that the universe and the characters are consistent -- and that is what makes the story believable. Not any ordinary or extraordinary quality of the characters or the situations they are in, but that the characters exist as consistent beings in a consistent universe.

        This is one of the reasons I like Alastair Reynolds' work so much, the consistency and attention to detail. For example, in his universe (set several centuries in the future of our own) FTL travel is still impossible, and the stars were colonized by relying on a combination cryogenic sleep and relativistic time dilation. If you want to intervene in events happening in another star system, it will take years for you to even be aware of it, years to prepare, then years to get there, by which time circumstances could be completely different. The people who do well in this universe aren't impulsive hotheads like Kirk or idiotic risk takers like Archer, they are people who think, because there's no pulling a techno-babble solution our of your ass.

        Have to wait 'til next September or something for the conclusion of the trilogy, tho', but there are some other stories set in that universe published in January.
  • Simple answer (Score:5, Informative)

    by bravehamster (44836) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:06AM (#4791421) Homepage Journal
    Iain M. Banks


    Seriously, if you haven't read this guy, do yourself a favor. American book stores don't care much of his stuff, although I have seen Excession and Look to Windward in there lately. His books are hands down the best science fiction I have ever read. His fiction books are widely acclaimed also.


    The technology in his books allows him to place his well-developed characted in unusual situations. He doesn't let the technology run the story. The questions his books pose stay with me for many days afterward. His endings are not simple, usually they're very bloody and unhappy, sometimes even unsatisfying. And that's why I think they're so great. So check him out. Start with Consider Phlebas, or Against a Dark Background. You won't regret it.

  • by harangutan (315386) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:07AM (#4791427)
    One thing that makes great sci fi is when the story and setting can not only withstand the implications of the science, but grow naturally from it. Examples of science fiction stories that really reflect an understanding of their science are: everything by Vernor Vinge (particularly A Fire Upon the Deep, anything by Greg Egan (I particularly love Permutation City), and even the classic '50s film Forbidden Planet, whose plot is almost inevitable given its compelling techno-sociological premise.

    Examples of Science Fiction that cannot withstand the implications of the science presented include Star Trek (particularly the later series) and the Star Wars franchise. Neither of them really know what they're getting themselves into with their technological advancements. Replicator technology in particular would be so transformative in reality that we would not recognize the society that resulted from its existence.
    • One thing that makes great sci fi is when the story and setting can not only withstand the implications of the science, but grow naturally from it.

      I freaking last, I finally found a good sentence to explain why I don't like most sci-fi. I'll copy past that phrase! I got tired of trying to explain to Trekkies that the technology in Star Trek it completely inconsistent with how it could be best used or abused and that ruins the hole series, amen that they make tehnology appear and disappear at will. If you can materialize people, you can materialize everything as in Diamond Age, and that changes the entire universe. They can't do a materializer and use it just as a "space elevator" for CRIST SAKE!
  • Sci Fi? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by teamhasnoi (554944) <teamhasnoi@@@yahoo...com> on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:08AM (#4791432) Homepage Journal
    Its the real stuff [go.com] that blows my mind.

    Niven is one of my personal favorites - you can't go wrong with the Ringworld books, or the Smoke Ring books(a world consisting of a gas torus around a white dwarf star, giant trees and humans evolved to live on them. Tech from when they first arrived is highly prized and guarded. Great stuff!) Pretty much all his books are good, I have noticed a battle of the haves and have-nots theme reappearing here and there.

    Clarke is great and has put out alot of '2 hour' books, finish them on a long car ride - if you can stand your wife's/gf's driving ;)

    Asimov is wonderful and has written something about everything. Clarke and Asimov I found while buying cheapy sci fi books at garage sales and thrift stores. I will *always* buy anthologies - they never fail to provide a story that amazes me, and authors that I've never heard of writing incredible stories. I'll post some when I find my books...

  • by NeuroKoan (12458) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:09AM (#4791442) Homepage Journal
    I'm reluctant to cast a vote in the best SciFi category, mainly because there is so much great stuff.

    I will, though, mention one author that is completely blowing me away right now. Her name is Octavia E. Buttler and for powerful, dramatic SciFi, she reigns supreme (for me at least). Clay's Ark [amazon.com] and Patternmaster [amazon.com] are definately not to be missed. Also, for great short stories, try her collection of short stories Bloodchild: And Other Stories [amazon.com]

    Also, for good old fashioned SciFi, check out Roger Zelazny. The first half of the Amber [amazon.com] series is almost purely fantasy (while the second half is a mix of SciFi and Fantasy) so they probably don't count as an answer to this question. But Psychoshop [amazon.com] and Donnerjack [amazon.com] are definately fun to read.

    Oh and I guess I might as well plug one of my all-time favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut. All of them are so good that I can't even pick out one to recommend. Just try any (or all) of them.
  • Hmm. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Burgundy Advocate (313960) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:10AM (#4791444) Homepage
    Lately, I've been going through Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Series [amazon.com]. Very interesting, and quite entertaining.

    I think what makes it appealing to me is that it isn't too far-fetched, and also deals with the human element -- something that's all too often ignored in the terribly geeky, antisocial realm of sci-fi.
    • Re:Hmm. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by syrinx (106469) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:30AM (#4791534) Homepage
      I was wondering when someone would bring up the Mars trilogy. Excellent excellent books. Some people don't like all the political stuff, I guess, but I thought it was intriguing, and seemed fairly realistic.. if people now could break away and start their own society "from scratch", the Martian society described by Robinson is a very credible possibility. Some of the "capitalism == evil" bits were somewhat annoying, but I don't have to agree with the book to be entertained by it. :)
  • Nudity (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:13AM (#4791459)
    Nudity, robots and nude girls, nude girls floating in zero-g, nude girls in futuristic cities, and umm, nude girls.
  • by charlesbakerharris (623282) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:14AM (#4791460)
    Asimov, in his letters and other nonfiction, wrote that he always concentrated on the interactions between people more than the technology, because that interaction is what creates a great story. Many of his early Robot books were simply detective stories - I say simply not as a slight, but their power lay in the execution - the philosophical musings of Daneel and Giskard, the relationship between Daneel and Baley... The science took second place to the human (and robotic) interaction.

    Read some of Niven's stuff in N-Space and Asimov's Gold and Robot Dreams, or Arthur C. Clarke's Letters to get an idea of where they come from when they're writing. The common idea that great Sci-Fi comes from great Fiction more than great Science runs through all of them.

  • tough question (Score:5, Interesting)

    by lingqi (577227) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:14AM (#4791463) Journal
    It's just like things such as "what makes a great sandwich." Some swears by tomatoes while others can't stand them; the select few will go with anchovys and say that any sandwich without them is no food at all, etc.

    Furthermore, you can't really answer this without delving into a question like "what makes a good book." And if all of us had better ideas than you, we'd be making millions selling books instead of posting of /., eh?

    Of course, I can give you what I personally like in SciFi - imaginative worlds are always welcome (well described, mind you), and intellectually stimulating is also another plus (social / psychological / whatever problems that arise from these new and imaginative circumstances); beyond that, here and there some action / romance / whatever to help push the story along so I actually look forward to continue reading.

    Of course, I have read books that may lack some of these qualities but were still very fun to read. So in the end, your question is still unanswered; but anyways... who posts questions on /. to get them answered, anyhow... It's all about Karma-whoring right?
  • The classics (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Chuckaluphagus (111487) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:18AM (#4791482)
    I really love the classics:

    Asimov, especially the original "Foundation" trilogy.

    Clarke's "2001"

    Heinlein's "Stranger In a Strange Land"

    Niven's "Ringworld"

    Among more modern works, I'm a big fan of Neil Gaiman("Neverwhere", "Sandman", "American Gods"), William Gibson("Neuromancer", "All Tomorrow's Parties") and Neil Stephenson("Snow Crash", "Cryptonomicon")

    What I like about them differs. Asimov does large stories and themes well. There aren't any big characters in "Foundation", but the story is so beautifully put together, spanning hundreds of years. "Stranger In a Strange Land" is barely science fiction, dealing almost exclusively with people's perceptions and beliefs. Gaiman has an excellent knowledge of classical myth and legend and how to weave it into more modern stories. Gibson deals with themes and problems that are just starting to become an issue today. Stephenson's books vary in type and character, but most are pretty good. "Snow Crash" is a pretty out-there half cyberpunk/half action-flick novel, it's a great quick read. "Cryptonomicon" has two separate but related storylines fifty years apart, and he plays them off each other very well.

    There's nothing specific to any one of these authors or their novels that I can single out, aside from good writing skills. Their novels are enjoyable and intelligent, which is all I require from any genre.

    • Re:The classics (Score:3, Interesting)

      by kingkade (584184)
      Cryptonomicon was truly great, but Snow Crash was boring (I totally bought the environment thought, -- franchises dominate as local authorities in the defunct US)

      I also like Michael Crichton (congo was amazing, and terminal man, and andromeda strain, ...). He gets into the subjects he discusses and goes on wild, but interesting tangents explaining technology, events, etc. Some of his latest work is lacking though.
  • Lexx (Score:3, Interesting)

    by l33t-gu3lph1t3 (567059) <arch_angel16@@@hotmail...com> on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:19AM (#4791488) Homepage
    Lexx.

    It's sexy.

    It's weird.

    It has characters I love to hate. (Prince, 790)

    It has characters I despise but cheer on (Stanley!).

    It has characters I want to ogle (Xev).

    It's epic (C'mon, lexx = biggest weapon of destruction ever built?

    The whole initial plot is serendipity so severe that it can only be called extremely dumb luck that the heroes can find themselves in such roles.

    Oh,and it doesn't have omnipresent use of special effects.

    Vaiyo A-O
    A Home Va Ya Ray
    Vaiyo A-Rah
    Jerhume Brunnen G!
  • by MikeyNg (88437) <mikeyngNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:21AM (#4791494) Homepage
    To me, good science fiction starts with what makes good fiction. You need good, believable characters, an interesting plotline, etc. The difference between science fiction and other genres is the fact that there's science involved in it. There should be some correlation to real physical laws in the universe that may or may not have been discovered yet.

    Science fiction is similar in some regards to horror and fantasy genres. They both are fiction that hold themselves within limitations that are commonly known. (Horror titles probably have a good amount of leeway. Fantasy titles enjoy more leeway than science fiction, also.) In my opinion, it is these limitations that make good science fiction.

    Great science fiction asks, "What if?" questions that provoke our mind, but it'll do so within a hypothetical context. Take a look at LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness for instance.

    My personal favorite episode of Star Trek (Original) is City on the Edge of Forever. It asks the question of how important can a single person be? How important is a single moment in time? It also provides some great scenes with the interplay between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. (There's also that memorable line at the end, with McCoy saying, "I could have saved her! Do you know what you just did?" And Spock replying, "He knows, Doctor. He knows." Love it!)

    I also personally enjoy Larry Niven's Known Space stuff. Hard science fiction is great. As a reader, you exercise your mind and get entertained. "Science fiction without a net" is the perfect way to describe it.

    Finally, I really enjoy Gibson's stuff. I must have read Neuromancer about twenty times, and there's always something new to find in there. Great books are like that.
  • Ursula K. LeGuin (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Crusader of Yore (630674) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:22AM (#4791500)
    LeGuin's sci-fi (Left Hand of Darkness, Hain cycle, etc.) always struck me because of it's cultural realism. Even though the alien species posited are humanoid, the extreme difference in culture between the species makes for a great dramatic device (especially when help is decades away!). By giving them such different points of view from our own, she makes her writing much more humanly thoughtful than a lot of sci-fi out there. Just as she built up the world of Earthsea with offhand anecdotes regarding the world around the characters, building up the cultures of her alien worlds gives her novels both a satisfying completeness and a believable internal consistency.
  • by Pyromage (19360) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:30AM (#4791526) Homepage
    I prefer to make a distinction between the three, because I think there can be great stories in all of them, however, if you block them together as tends to happen, you don't have good criteria with which to judge.

    I think science fiction is fiction in which the science plays a major role. My example here is David Webber's Honor Harrington series: I think it's a good story, but obviously not fantasy: he takes too much care in making sure there are realistic scientific devices with known limitations, and builds his characters inside a world with that science.

    Fantasy is simply where that doesn't happen: magic is the canonical example here: World XYZ has magic. We don't know *why* they have magic and we don't, but they have magic.

    Speculative fiction, on the other hand, I characterize as the types of stories when the author says "what if this happened?" My classic example is the movie Pleasantville: "What if we were all in a black and white world and suddenly there was color?"

    Speculative fiction can be either of the above catagories, but is unique in that it is usually a social commentary. As a book example, consider any of Ben Bova's novels. Especially his near-future ones, like "The Kinsman Saga". When it was written it was speculation about the future. What if the military took a real interest in space and we got missile defense to really work? And what if local problems like overcrowding and such were growing? Most good speculative fiction changes a few things, very few, and just paints a picture of what the world might be. Orwell's 1984 is just like that: "What if the government was always watching?".

    In any case, there are many great novels in each category, but the distintions are so rarely made that trying to choose the best often leads to trying to pick one. I think it'd be much much easier (but still nontrivial) to pick a best in each catagory, rather than one overall. My picks:

    Fantasy: LotR (Tolkein)
    Speculative Fiction: Colony (Bova)
    Science Fiction: The Worthing Saga (OSC)

    These are just a few, there are many just as good. But I think it's a few good picks.
  • H.P. Lovecraft (Score:5, Insightful)

    by USC-MBA (629057) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:34AM (#4791549) Homepage
    H.P. Lovecraft needs to be mentioned in any discussion of any beloved Science Fiction universes. Lovecraft's work exists right at the borderline where our scientific/rational knowledge leaves off, and the cold unknown, and what just might lurk therein, encroaches.

    Lovecraft's genius was to tap into the human anxiety about what might exist beyond the limits of reason and the safe, predictable, knowable world ,and the nagging thought that perhaps the universe itself might harbor malevolent intent toward our fragile planet and the humans who dwell on it (Lovecraft's characters would often go insane when faced with these alien horrors). .

    These fears have manifested themselves throughout history in everything from witch trials to UFO scares. Lovecraft was so good at playing off this ancient unease, in the process creating his own universe of alien gods and beings, that his legacy lives on decades after his stories (never out of print) were first published, in the form of countless "Cthulhu Mythos" stories, games, and of course tribute websites [google.com].

  • by passthecrackpipe (598773) <passthecrackpipe ... m ['hot' in gap]> on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:34AM (#4791553)
    One day, I started reading a Clarke book - I think it was Rama something, and I made the mistake of reading Clarke's intro notes. I realised that Clarke was a seriously pedantic, condensending person, whose every word exhumed his belief that the sun shine out of his ass. That sort of put me off.

    The one author I keep returning to is Stephen Donaldson. I have read the whole Gap Series [ihug.co.nz] 5 times now, and it remains interesting. There is nothing like the raw power, emotion, violence and vile politics that Donaldson portrays in the Gap series. Every page you think that the characters cannot endure more - cannot go further. The final book, "This Day All God Die", is one massive crescendo - a fitting finale for a space series of serious proportions.

    Donaldson is the master.

  • by TooTrueTroubs (630665) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:41AM (#4791580)

    Stephen Donaldson once said in his "Gap" Series that there is a difference between Drama and Melodrama.

    Imagine a triangle, with each of the main character classes at a point - the Villian, the Victim and the Hero.

    To truly be drama, in the course of the story, at least 2, but preferably all three of the characters must change place:

    The Villain becomes the Victim, the Victim becomes the Hero and the Hero becomes the Villain. That's the essence of true drama. Otherwise it's just melodrama.

    Stephen Donaldson used this to good effect in the Gap Series. Like much of Piers Anthony's work, this story featured some pretty hefty brutality and abuse of women. Unlike Piers Anthony, it's not the mainstay of Donaldson's work. Anthony has managed an entire universe based around this Hero-Pirate, but essentially the characters always stay the same, and his work never makes it past low-grade melodrama. Donaldson uses almost exactly the same pretext and gives us an epic and dramatic tale.

    This is also a reason why Episode II was so poor from a narrative perspective. [*spoiler alert] We all know that Anakin becomes Darth Vader, we know what happens to Obi Wan. We know from Episode IV where all these characters must be. So unlike most stories, the interest is not derived from where the characters go, but how they get there. Which is what Lucas failed to deliver. The story of Anakin is not so much a fall from grace as a slight trip - you can believe that he becomes Darth Vader, but his personal journey to the dark side isn't particularly interesting.

  • by psyfir (184254) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:41AM (#4791581)
    I was simply blown away when Asimov linked all the Foundation story to the Robot Novels. He managed to link so many of his books together so well, and these are books that he wrote long before Foundation.

    What an amazing writer.
  • Hard v Soft Sci Fi (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Any Web Loco (555458) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:45AM (#4791602) Homepage
    IMHO, the biggest rift in Sci Fi is between devotees of "hard" Sci Fi (focuses more on the *science* than the tale - think Greg Egan) and "soft" Sci Fi (space opera - swords & sandals epics in space - think Peter Hamilton).

    I like both, and have always found the zealotry on either side to be kinda childish. Think emacs v vi... (sorry kids).

    The bummer with Hard Sci Fi is that a lot of the really _interesting_ stuff will go straight over the reader's head: I've got a reasonable grasp of, say, the basics of quantum physics, but I get completely lost when someone a lot smarter than me starts using more esoteric aspects of the theory as a _starting_ place for an exploration of the logical consequences of said theory in a literary context. _I_ like it though, because even if I don't completely understand, I can still muddle through and figure out the gist of what's going on. The other downside of hard sci fi is that the writing tends to be _terrible_. You effectively have scientists attempting to write engaging stories. It's not, as a rule, their forte. Too much science, not enough fiction.

    Conversely, the bummer with "soft" sci fi for me has always been that it's just some-old-story-set-in-space. Star Wars is like that. In fact, it's a modern classic of the genre. Peter Hamilton is another good example. This kind of sci fi is more like fantasy than _science_ fiction. Even worse, the fiction is usually terrible too. I used to love space opera when I was young - laser beams, aliens, space ships, funky babes. But I think you kind of grow out of it unless there's something _more_ to it than big-arse space battles & galactic empires.

    Which is why I'm a _huge_ fan of Iain M Banks. This is a guy who can _really_ write. His sci fi (he writes more standard fiction under the name Iain Banks) is space opera, but some of the best space opera I've ever read. Read the Culture novels - start with "Consider Phlebas" or "Player of Games". Seriously - they're worth reading just for the ship names.

    So I guess what makes great sci-fi for me is great writing. There's plenty of "ideas" writers, and don't get me wrong - interesting ideas are part of what sci-fi's all about. But that's a neccessary condition, it's not a sufficient condition.

    Long post - must sleep.

    Jeff Noon too. I seriously recommend "Vurt" - Automated Alice says curious yellow.
  • by global_diffusion (540737) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:47AM (#4791606) Homepage
    The most important thing in Science Fiction is to never ever, under any circumstances make up any science. All the really good series have fantastic machines, faster than light travel and all kinds of silly impossibilities, but they never try to explain how they work. Fiction stories exist in a realm that we choose to believe for the time being. This suspension of disbelief (as the lingo goes) lasts only as long as the reader can imagine such a world.

    Take, for example, the world created by Orson Scott Card in Ender's Game. The world is great and totally believable. The greatness even lasts into a sequel. In the third book (the name escapes me) Card starts to explain the physics of his world and the storyline breaks down. It is no longer believable. Go ahead and flip back through the series. The instant that he starts to mention this new, crazy physics of his is the instant the story falls apart into completely unbelievable crap. You just can't make up physics. Stretch it, bend it, but never try to tell the reader how it happens. That's the trick to good science fiction.
  • by Henry V .009 (518000) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:49AM (#4791617) Journal

    For me, it is not what is in it, or what it is about, or how realistic the science is. Good science fiction is science fiction that makes me think about themes and ideas that are sometimes only barely explored by the work itself. It's usually the kind of story that sticks with me for only a little bit, and then when I think that I've forgotten all about it, it comes back and plows me over.

    Kubrick's version of The Clockwork Orange might fit this definition for me.

    Maybe Socrates' (Plato's) story of the cave.

    Roger Zelazny's lyrical short story Frost comes back to me every now and then, as well as Wolfe's even more lyrical and adept New Sun books.

    Tsutomu Nihei's manga series Blame is remarkable for its visual style, and what is even more remarkable is the story it contains--one that can only be told through the particular medium which Nihei has selected.

    And of course, my favorite place to find good science fiction is in Gardner Dozois' yearly anthology of short stories, The Year's Best Science Fiction. The summation at the beginning of the past year in science fiction is worth the price of the book, and the many stories inside are pure gold.

  • Phil Dick (Score:4, Insightful)

    by astrashe (7452) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:49AM (#4791618) Journal
    I'm a big fan of P.K. Dick.

    Whenever they make a Dick book into a movie they change things around, but his characters tend to be schlubby middle aged guys teetering on the brink of loserdom.

    In Blade Runner Decker is a guy whose greatest ambition in life is to have a sheep, a real one, not a synthetic animal.

    Dick's view of the future was all about the countless new ways things will suck.

    And then there's the madness that crept in at the end.
  • James P. Hogan (Score:3, Interesting)

    by seann (307009) <notaku@gmail.com> on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:51AM (#4791623) Homepage Journal
    and the Giants Novels [amazon.com]. A must read for anyone who is my friend and reads books (Very few now adays.)
  • by jerryasher (151512) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:53AM (#4791632)
    My favorite story of an everyman is The Stars My Destination [sfsite.com] by Alfred Bester, 1956.

    I am too tired to explain why this is the best, so I'll just say it's my favorite, and for good reason.

    Man against Man, Man against Nature, and especially Man against himself. It's a shoot-em-up. It's romantic. It's revolutionary. It's serious. It's funny.

    And then throw on some accurate forecasting (such as predicting the slashdot effect and distributed denial of service attacks, the problems of security through obscurity, and even 404s) and there you have it, the best sf.

    Gully Foyle is my name
    And Terra is my nation
    Deep space is my dwelling place
    The Stars my destination

  • by SwellJoe (100612) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:57AM (#4791650) Homepage
    As a kid, I read just about anything sci-fi...but even then, I think I recognized the gems of the genre. The books I kept, versus the books I gave away or sold, includes a list of the authors I still read and enjoy today. Back then, if there were robots or sex or spaceships, it was probably good enough for me to read it once...but what I kept has some qualities that the majority of the pulp stuff just doesn't have.

    I think sci-fi without a real science underpinning is generally crap. The science doesn't have to involve mechanical technology in the form of spaceships or robotics, it can just as easily be the science of sociology or the science of medicine. But where "sci-fi" pulp fiction often fails is in being too dedicated to mysterious magical developments...I'm afraid the Star Trek and Star Wars universes often fail because of this reliance on trappings of mystery. The explanation of The Force as a virus just seems forced, if you'll forgive the pun. Star Trek has too many dramatic dying scenes and too many dramatic miraculous healing scenes for either to be believable.

    Good sci-fi asks tough questions about how the human race will realize some dream, and what the cost will be. Great sci-fi shows us the fallacy of common truisms, and makes a case for the other side. As has been said many times before, science fiction is about asking "What if?" and making an honest attempt to figure it out.

    Asimov, of course, deserves the title of great science fiction writer. The Foundation novels are compelling for their sweeping vision of a human future (not The human future, as no one knows what The human future will be, and there wouldn't be so much point to sci-fi if we did). History and social sciences are merged and theorized into a strikingly convincing future. One comes away from them with a little more understanding of human history, and human behavior on a grand scale. Of course, it wouldn't be very much fun if the story wasn't worthwhile as fiction. In that regard too, Asimov is a lonely figure (though not entirely alone) in the sci-fi landscape. Humor permeates his every novel and story, along with a profound sense of joy and surprise at the diversity of the human race. Every character is real, complete and knowable. Without the human element, science fiction is just more useless techno-babble.

    Heinlein too, has persisted in my book collection, and his best works are capable of impressing even people ordinarily bored to tears by sci-fi. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, perhaps my favorite, provides laugh-out-loud comedy, strikingly human personalities (even on Mike the computer), and a great story of "what if?". What if a computer developed "life"? What if the moon housed a colony of humans, growing tired of being dominated by Earth? What makes a revolution? The best of Heinlein is respectful of history, is lovingly impressed with and in equal part disgusted with the human race (to know us is to love us...and hate us), and perhaps most importantly, fun as hell to read.

    Stanislaw Lem is a new one for me, but one that I can't help be impressed with. I recently picked up Peace on Earth because of frequent Slashdot recommendations, and was simply blown away. Lem knows science, and is convincing whenever he wanders into imagining the future of technology. Lem also knows the human mind, and presents it in all its glory and fallability. But the key to Lem is his feel for the movement of a story. The story flows from beginning to end with the majestic and impossible force of a glacier...it is unstoppable, and yet it is almost unnoticeable in its momentum. It reaches its conclusion with almost crushing force, and leaves the reader satisfied at having made good use of the time spent reading.

    All of that said, I keep finding myself wanting to differentiate the above authors from run of the mill science fiction by talking down the things they are not. They are not writing fantastic tales of improbable outcomes in entirely fictitious universes. That is the realm of fantasy writers. Science fiction requires a respect for science, not a mindless fascination with explosions and shiny things. Of course, great science fiction isn't just respectful of science, it remembers what its purpose is...to entertain. Without that, any other reasons are moot, as no one will read the story to find them. So, great science fiction is also great fiction, and can stand beside other great works of fiction...if it can't, then it is merely an interesting footnote into predicting the future (if the predictions within prove correct in some respect). I wouldn't be ashamed to suggest Asimov's Nightfall or Bicentennial Man, be read alongside Huckleberry Finn in a study of great American literature. Ray Bradbury doesn't really need my endorsement, as he has already received much of the respect amongst the literati that he deserves, but is worth mentioning anyway, as he is a shining example of great science fiction. Nearly everything he has written is simply stunningly pretty to read, all the while answering all of the other requirements for great science fiction.

    I would like to think that the tripe (even the tripe I enjoyed as a child) will be filtered out of our collective memory over time...There just isn't any point in wasting more peoples time or money on L. Ron Hubbard books. I attempted to reread Battlefied Earth when the movie was nearing release, and was just astonished at how bad the book really is (I loved it when I was a kid). Full of paper thin caracitures posing as human, overwhelming in its scientific and historical ignorance, and painfully obvious in its every twist and turn. A more thoroughly pulp sci-fi space opera has yet to be constructed (Ok, Star Wars comes close, but I still love the original episodes as well as the next nerd, despite its flaws).

    I'll stop talking now, as I'm back to wanting to bash the stupid 'sci-fi' products of the world rather than talking up the good fiction and film. There's just so much crap to talk about...
  • by Twylite (234238) <twylite&crypt,co,za> on Monday December 02, 2002 @03:01AM (#4791665) Homepage

    For me the most important characteristics of good SciFi are an epic plot, forethough (and planning) on the part of the creator, strong lead roles, and detail. At the end of it, good SciFi "says" something to me; touches me in some way, and makes me reevaluate what I think of the real world. Of course good writing/presenting style and/or dialog are essential.

    Babylon 5 and Dune achieve both of these admirably. Star Wars sacrifices some forethough and detail, while Star Trek has little in the form of an enduring plotline, poor details and consistency, and weak characters. Of course I still enjoy them ;)

    Babylon 5 weaves a web of intrigue which is underpinned by an epic saga and several prophecies. Consistency across the entire series is high, as is detail. Small seemingly throw-away comments in some of the first episodes have significant three seasons later. The acting and dialog is evocative, and it is easy to relate to all of the characters, even the "bad guys". The are at least several monologues that I would like to see again just to copy down and put up on my wall (and some other dialog besides). Characters come and go and when they do there is a profound sense of loss.

    Dune presents a far different universe. During the series the focus expands from a single character to several, to the political balance of the known universe, and beyond. His attention to details is magnificent, and he draws on a wealth of knowledge to flesh out the behaviour of the characters. He too presents a saga which is a turning point in history, and encourages the reader to relate to the characters. While many disagree with me, I personally enjoy Herbert's writing style and find it captivating.

    Perhaps the most significant part of these two settings compared to other SciFi is that they are SciFi-Fantasy. Babylon 5 is based far more in reality than Dune (concerning itself with physics and scientific possibility in many instances), but both present fantasy aspects which transgress the realm of the strictly possible, and add a level of interest which is difficult to attain in any real (or future-real) world setting.

  • by darewreck (630681) on Monday December 02, 2002 @03:05AM (#4791676)
    A few of my favorite series (book wise) are the Titan, Wizard, Demon trilogy from John Varley. The Gateway/ Heechee Saga from Frederick Pohl or for a good romp the Stainless Steel Rat series from Harry Harrison. These may not be the high brow mainstream stuff like Dune, 2001 or Foundation, but hey for me they were all entertaining and a good read.
  • by Morgaine (4316) on Monday December 02, 2002 @03:06AM (#4791683)
    As is the case with all fictional literature, the
    "best" is that which most effectively triggers,
    shapes, and gives life to the mental images which
    writing can only stimulate in our minds rather
    than convey directly.

    Since minds are so different from individual to
    individual, and sometimes utterly so, there can
    never be a single "best". At most, the fact that
    any given book is seen as "best" by more people
    than any other simply means that there are more
    people with that particular mental makeup which
    allows that book to succeed. Quite often, this
    translates to those people inhabiting similar
    memespaces, which is very common especially in
    high-bandwidth communities both online and off.

    So, which SF books best trigger my mental imagery
    at the present time? In several categories of
    subjective assessment:

    Iain M. Banks's Culture novels
    -- most convincing galactic future

    Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age
    -- most convincing human-level future

    C.J. Cherryh's The Chronicles of Morgaine
    -- most forceful and single-minded heroine

    Peter F. Hamilton's The Nano Flower
    -- most luscious yet unobstrusive image weaving

    Walter Jon Williams's Aristoi
    -- most distant yet still recognizable future

    E.E. 'Doc' Smith's Lensman series
    -- fastest delivery of mental images :-)

    Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time
    -- most endearing treatment of distant future

    I'd expect a fairly good correlation with the
    "bests" of other SF readers on Slashdot, as the
    memespaces of the technical communities tend to
    be fairly cohesive. Ultimately though, it really
    doesn't matter, since "best" is a personal issue.
  • Define great... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by starseeker (141897) on Monday December 02, 2002 @03:10AM (#4791688) Homepage
    There's great as in "great literary work", or great as in fun to read.

    I'm gonna catch a lot of heat for this one, but I really like E.E. "Doc" Smith. It's not high literary art but if you read the Lensman and Skylark series there's an atmosphere to those books you just don't find anywhere else. I know people complain about how every gun is the new ultimate weapon, but really if you think about it that's what we do with computers, military weapons, and lots of other technology, so it doesn't bother me much. They do deserve respect as a precurser to lots of later stuff - I'm willing to bet George Lucas had read these books before thinking up the whole Star Wars thing. And I saw one of Smith's "nonsense" words appear in a modern Star Trek book, so I can't be the only one who likes his stuff. Most people would say his work isn't "great", and in a literary sense I'll agree, but they're great fun and to me that makes them worthwhile.
  • by the gnat (153162) on Monday December 02, 2002 @03:16AM (#4791711)
    Best motherfucking book ever, and one of the least recognized. Imagine a more literate "Star Trek" with elements of "Alien" and "Forbidden Planet" thrown in (but it predates all of them by quite some time). Though it was born out of pulp sci-fi, it transcends the vast body of what was being written then; I'd rank it up alongside "Nightfall". Vernor Vinge is the only other author I've read who makes me feel anything like I do reading Space Beagle.

    Other than that, all of Philip K Dick's short stories. His novels are even better, but most of them aren't sci-fi the way Asimov or Heinlein are; I think he just wrapped them in futuristic settings. Of all of these, I'd say "Eye in the Sky" and "Ubik" are my favorites.
  • by Tord (5801) <tord.janssonNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday December 02, 2002 @03:57AM (#4791819) Homepage
    Skimming through the other comments here I only find a lot of standard, political correct responses stating the importance of characters and plot. Of course, that goes for ANY book/movie in any category, not just SF, but what I find that good Science Fiction brings to the table that hardly can be found in other categories are:

    1. The way it lets authors play around with and explore philosophical ideas of how society develops. Asimov did this with the Foundation series, basing a whole story on a theory of how society develops through crises, what steps are taken in what order, who gets in power when and why. That's quite hard to make in a non-science fiction novel, unless you write a historical novel which often gets more dull and predictable.

    2. Separate what is undeniable facts in the world around us (i e many aspects of human nature, like love, hate, passion, greed, curiosity etc) and what is just the results of our cultural heritage (our economical system, democracy, patriarchalism, monogamy and focus on material wealth just to mention a few). A good science fiction novel can be an eye opener to what can be changed and what can not.

    3. Let's us explore our possible futures. Good SF gives us a glimpse (although very simplified and exagerated) of how the future might look like. By comparing the scenarios of Star Trek with Cyberpunk and 1984, we can more easily get aware of what the future might hold and as a society make decisions on what we want and don't want of what's ahead of us. The novel 1984 has definitely helped to raise the public awareness of the threats of totalitarianism combined with technology, likewise has Cyberpunk woken up many people to how global corporations gathers more and more power and how that might affect society.

    4. Epical tales. I'm personally a real sucker for this and no other category except fantasy so easily allows for grand epical tales as SF.

    These are to me the promises of SF and a good SF book should take advantage of at least one of these posibilities, otherwise there is no need to put the plot/characters in another space and time. Plot and characters must still be good though, but I expect that from books of any category.

    Actually, I'm a bit surprised that not more of the ./ community has more elaborate thoughts of why they've fallen in love with SF and not just books with good plots/characters...

  • russian scifi... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by m00nch1ld (588690) on Monday December 02, 2002 @04:13AM (#4791860) Homepage
    ...might be a very eurasian p.o.v., but the strugazki brothers have released some very intelligent scifi, in which technology is a) a utility and b) mostly enhances mens capability to build a better future. which it should be, in my humble opinion. although some of their books (the stalker, the far rainbow) have a quite pessimistic view, it is always the responibilty of the individual what to make of it. most of their books (e.g. troika) belong to the wittiest scifi ever written.
  • that ain't sci-fi (Score:3, Interesting)

    by devonbowen (231626) on Monday December 02, 2002 @05:24AM (#4792101) Homepage
    I once had a girlfriend who claimed to hate sci-fi. One night I got her to watch the director's cut of Blade Runner with me. She really enjoyed it. Her comment afterward was that it wasn't sci-fi. Her logic was pretty solid... she liked this film and she didn't like sci-fi, therefore this wasn't sci-fi.

    I think many people think of things like Star Wars when they think of sci-fi. Just people in spaceships shooting lasers at each other. Personally, I find the ability to stretch reality very helpful in exploring human depths. Some of my favorite Star Trek episodes revolve around Data because you can expore humanity more through him than anyone else. Same with Blade Runner. Or any Bradbury story.

    Devon
  • by awol (98751) on Monday December 02, 2002 @05:26AM (#4792105) Journal
    Don't get me wrong, I love SF. And for my money great SF is about grand ideas. Talk of characters et al, is not important.

    Great literature is about the human condition, or about the magnificent use of words. It is not impossible for SF to be about either, but if it is then it is most likely that it need not be SF. Indeed, most every piece of SF I have ever read, from Benford, Bear and Bradbury through Herbert, Hoyle and Heinlein to Verne, Wells and Wyndham is not really about great literature (although some of the above have certainly approached the human condition in some of their work) but about grand ideas and the grandest ideas make the grandest SF.

    I mean, Herbert's devices to eliminate technology as a factor in the Dune universe, genius. Bear's cosmic accounting to destroy planets, inspired. these are the ideas on which great SF is made.

    For me, it is a tough call. I read and loved Wyndham's work when I was child, "The Chrysalids" and "Midwich Cuckoos" entranced me (perhaps because of the central role of children). But it was Dune that was the first universe that enthralled me, inspiring me to create within the constraints of that universe. I suspect that it will remain a classic, and remain read for many years to come. Perhap's that is the best measure of what makes SF great.

    As for Film and TV, most 50's SF (the "golden age") was just allegory and metaphor, nothing wrong with that, and indeed some of it was fabulous, but once the object of the allegory is lost then the story loses meaning. Star Wars changed the landscape forever, for that alone it will last and is great. Bab 5, loved it, loved the vision, loved the idea of using TV as the medium for a grand arc, but in truth it was again just the first, and it (hopefully) will not remain the best. Finally the one offs like Blade Runner and Alien (the sequels _DO NOT COUNT_), are they really SF? possibly. Are they great? Definitely.
  • by mccalli (323026) on Monday December 02, 2002 @05:54AM (#4792200) Homepage
    I've read the threads above and am struck by how little the past is being looked at. Sci-fi didn't start in the 1950s, there's a whole canon to look at before that.

    War of the Worlds. A plot so far ahead of its time that the ending is still being copied. Ususally badly (V, Independence Day - although I believe that film to be satire for reasons I'll be happy to debate later). Or how about The Shape of Things To Come, which correctly predicated mechanised warfare. Perhaps you prefer The Time Machine, redone yet again on film in the last year or so. Or perhaps The Invisible Man, redone as Hollow Man. Maybe even The Island of Dr Moreux, which predicts human/animal hybrid experiments like Slashdot's human/mouse hybrid thread a couple of days ago. All of the HG Well's stuff was set in this universe, so it becomes that much more believable.

    No? How about Jules Verne's undersea worlds. Or the book his publisher rejected as too depressing, in which he described light railways, telephones and fax machines. The name unfortunately eludes me.

    No? How about Brave New World. George Orwell's excellent and entirely depressing book, though to my mind a bit ripped of from his namesake's Shape of Things To Come (George Orwell. Herbet George Wells. Hmmm).

    Films. How about 1926's Metropolis, from Fritz Lang? The film without which Bladerunner simply wouldn't exist. The short story 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' probably would, but the short story and the film bear almost no resemblence to each other.

    Need to look a bit further back than just the last few years. There's probably some visionary author writing before Wells that I've overlooked. If so, please tell me. I'd be interested to hear it.

    Cheers, Ian

  • by kakos (610660) on Monday December 02, 2002 @07:25AM (#4792448)
    Not the most popular (or even the most known) sci-fi series, but it stands out as the best. What makes it so good? For one, the idea of it is entirely original (as far as I know). You'll have to read to find out what it is, but it is a pretty good story.

    Secondly, the science is very hard. Hard science fiction is a genre that is very hard to pull off. A lot of authors who do hard sci-fi spend most of the pages of a book just describing their hard science. Baxter manages to seamlessly weave it in to the story and you barely notice, but is leaves an impression.

    However, what truly makes it great is that he weaves the plot and the science together perfectly. A lot of sci-fi authors simply use sci-fi as a setting and tell a traditional type story. A sci-fi love story or a sci-fi crime thriller or a sci-fi horror story. These are all sci-fi, but can only achieve the rank of 'good' sci-fi. Truly great sci-fi needs to have science in it, but also relate it to the plot.

    When I read a piece of science fiction, I like to know how the advanced science affected the culture. So, in the future there is some really cool technology. Well, how do people's lives change? What are the consequences? These are all focuses in Baxter's series. A big part of the plot is the interaction between the technologically superior Xeelee and the (comparitively) primitive human race, and the resulting war between the two races. Add to that the impending death of the universe and the pursuit of science among all of this, which leads to some startling discoveries about the Xeelee.

    Few other sci-fi universes has these elements together. The only other one that I can think of off hand is the Foundation trilogy, which is second on my list. It only falls behind Baxter's series because the science is less than hard.

  • Stanislav Lem (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 02, 2002 @08:29AM (#4792699)
    It's amazing. In the same slahdot main page, we can see a review [slashdot.org] of Stanislav Lem's Solaris (well, the film). Ok, the Wired article [wired.com] explains why so few Americans do not know this author (he writes in Polish, and most novels are not translated or only poorly). However, also non-Amreicans read Slashdot, and being German, I can only say: After reading Lem, you stop reading Asimov, and others (just the Hitchhiker will still be considered good SciFi). And, Lem's books are translated into German where he sells millions. The only hope for the Americans is that the film Solaris will be a blockbuster -- and trigger the editors to newly traslate all other Lem books as well.
  • by 1u3hr (530656) on Monday December 02, 2002 @08:46AM (#4792773)
    The question was universes, so I think that implies a series of stories in the same imagined future.

    Being Australian, I start with, Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind [cordwainer-smith.com] series. (Particularly his planet Norstrilia, "Old North Australia", like Dune settled by outback Australians instead of Bedouins.) And then A Bertram Chandler's Rimworld [acay.com.au] series about tramp spaceships on the edge of the galaxy.

    More classically, Edgar Rice Burroughs' worlds: Pellucidar [the hollow Earth], Barsoom [Mars], Amtor [Venus] and Tarzan's Africa [and all its lost cities].

    One of the largest and most coherent universes must be Poul Anderson's [sfsite.com] Psychotechnic League/Terran Empire. Read some Dominic Flandry and forget about Star Wars.

    Of course Heinlein's "Future History" (apparently he invented the term), and Niven's "Known Space" are up there, but suffiently well known not to need my endorsement.

  • by Inexile2002 (540368) on Monday December 02, 2002 @08:53AM (#4792816) Homepage Journal
    Generally, what churns my butter in a science fiction story is how thought provoking or insightful it can be. Greg Egan is one of my favourite authors despite the fact that his characters can be flat listless plot devices that are there to put a human face on an abstract concept. (In fairness, this does not speak to all his characters or stories.)

    Science fiction allows authors to explore themes that come off as contrived at best in regular fiction: explorations of human nature, information theory, the role of power in nature, the true implications of the existence of X. My rule of thumb is that if a story can leave you pondering something, it's a successful science fiction story.

    That doesn't excuse some of the piss poor hacks who have a cool idea and a word processor. Neato factor does not a successful story make. A harlequin romance could be brilliantly written (in theory I guess, I'll never know) and the best story concept ever could be given to the Eye-of-Aragon guy.

    I guess what I'm getting at is that if all the other elements of a good story - interesting & believable characters, gripping plot, well developed setting, good writing are there what separates a good read from a brilliant story is the underlying concept.

    That said, Ian Banks (anything), Neal Stephenson (Snowcrash and Diamond Age), Orson Scott Card (Pastwatch and Enders Game), Harry Turtledove (Guns of the South, How Few Remain and the Great War Series), Peter Hogan (The Giants Series and some of his other stuff), Joe Haldeman (Forever War), Peter F. Hamilton (Reality Dysfunction) and Robert J. Sawyer (Calculating God, The Terminal Experiment and Factoring Humanity) are off the top of my head examples of great vs. good science fiction.
  • by phorm (591458) on Monday December 02, 2002 @11:09AM (#4793759) Journal
    A good book has to
    a) Provoke thought
    and/or
    b) Stimulate the imagination

    Scenario (a) often applies to the non-fiction works, or works based on comtemporary/historic/near-futuristic reality. You have events that happened, or events that very possible could have happened, had things been a bit different, or could happen in the future. It gives you that sense of "what if" that makes you think, and also leads you into scenario (b).

    Scenario (b) works often start in the fictionous/fantasy realm. Characters are very far out, not believable in physical definition, but (for their fictive archetype), believable in action. Things like being able to fly, or use magic, etc are often based around childhood imaginations or fantasy. It doesn't really make for a "what if this happened today", but more of a scenario where the reader thinks: I wish life were more like this.

    Don't cross me boy, you'd make an ugly toad!
  • by Viking Coder (102287) on Monday December 02, 2002 @11:41AM (#4794016)
    Fool's War [amazon.com] by Sarah Zettel

    The Dragon's Egg [amazon.com] by Robert L. Forward

    The Mote In God's Eye [amazon.com] by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

    Beggars In Spain [amazon.com] by Nancy Kress

    Armageddon Inheritance [amazon.com] and On Basilisk Station [amazon.com] by David Weber

    A Fire Upon The Deep [amazon.com] by Vernor Vinge

    The Demons at Rainbow Bridge [amazon.com] by Jack L. Chalker

    And of course Snow Crash [amazon.com] by Neal Stephenson

    And Hitchhiker's, Ender's Game, DUNE, Foundation, Ringworld, most LeGuinn, all things by Philip K. Dick, etc...
  • by Dread_ed (260158) on Monday December 02, 2002 @01:04PM (#4794841) Homepage
    For me the true test of the best sci-fi is this...RE-READABILITY!

    If I can't read it at least two or three times without becoming bored or disgusted it's not worth the paper it is written on. More important is the book that makes you WANT to re-read it the moment you are done. Or the kind that has you begging the writer for a follow up book.

    Oddly enough, some of the great books a I have read don't generate in me the desire to re-read them. Asimov's Foundation series is a one example. Loved it, but didn't want to go back there. Some of Heinlein's work was the same way, but most I have read three or four times and still love em.

    The works of Niven have withstood my best efforts to wear them out. Probably due to the great central characters he creates, the mystery plots, and the hard sci-fi edge he incorporates into his stories. Integral Trees, Ringworld and the Ringworld Engineers, The Mote in God's Eye and following books, the great short stories, all seem to endure without fail. Truly, in my mind, one of the greatest sci-fi writers ever.

    Card is another who wites stories that can be re-read obsessively. Treason is a lesser know favorite of mine. Similarly to Niven, Card creates great central characters. Unlike others, Orson's explores his characters weaknesses as much as thir strengths. And, oddly, some of his characters' strengths ARE their weaknesses. Think about it when next you read Card.

    One of my other favorites it Tuf Voyaging by George R. R. Martin. Sort of a one hit wonder: it's kinda campy, but the story is so entertaining, and the characters so quirky that it never fails to reel me back in. By the way, this story was originally written as a series of short stories in "Analog" magazine.

    Another great series is the Gateway/Heechee series by Fredrick Pohl. Nice hard Sci-Fi with a great cosmoligical twist. Complex, human characters. Describes time dilation from black holes and faster than light travel as an integral part of the story (in my case it was a great way for a ninth grader to be exposed to the concepts).

    Last, but not least, Adams. Of course the Hitchiker's Guide and associated books rock, and the humor never ceases to amaze and amuse me. Teatime and Holistic Detective are also wonderful. Worn out a few paperbacks of both!

    Oh, The Godmakers, by Herbert(and many others Dune and such included), and Catseye By Norton are also great re-readers.

    I haven't included any Tolkien here because I don't consider his books Sci-Fi.

    Any suggestions on other books that I can read (and then re-read!) would be helpful. Thanks!

    It is completely impossible to say anything intelligent or enlightening in a space this size, excep
  • by crazyphilman (609923) on Monday December 02, 2002 @02:45PM (#4795687) Journal
    For me, at least, great sci-fi has to be realistic and believeable, and the tech has to be correct (at least, I have to be able to believe it could function and have some idea of how it is supposed to work).

    I think the most wonderful genre is near-future science fiction. A lot of Asimov's work falls into this line, involving space exploration, etc... James P. Hogan was pretty good with his "Inherit the stars" trilogy, which I thought was pretty good. I like Heinlein a lot, because although some of his fiction goes pretty far into the future, at least the tech is handled in a very believeable way and he tries pretty hard to "get it right".

    The whole cyberpunk genre is just awesome, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, et al... I like the fact that they're very tech-centric, and make some pretty good predictions about the near future (some of which are already coming true).

    I'm not into the "faraway galaxy" thing at all, I recoil at fantasy stuff like sword-and-sorcery, and if a story is too far in the future, and the tech is just completely pulled out of the author's butt I generally ditch the book and write the seven bucks off as a loss. I think this sort of thing is a sign of laziness on the part of the author; instead of researching, and figuring out how something could work if it was happening in real life, the author just says, "it's fiction" and pulls the whole thing out of his ass. It's crap, you know?

    What pisses me off more than anything else is when an author has no understanding whatsoever of computer science and tries to make up a situation without researching it. I've seen a couple of novels about how a "biological virus" is "infecting the internet", or how someone caught a biological virus by looking at an infected system's VDT -- usually with some hackneyed explanation about how the flashing on the screen "hacked the person's brain". Don't get me wrong, it's fun to laugh at some joker lit major who saw "the Matrix" and figured he'd cash in, but reading the tripe he puts out is too painful.

    I know, I'm judgemental. But, Jesus, a guy's gotta have his standards.

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