When I was young, I was a "card carrying" geek. So naturally I read a lot of science fiction. But as I got older, I found it harder and harder to enjoy these books. Eventually I stopped reading SF and moved on to "serious literature." But when looking for a novel to read, I often find myself longing for another world. I desire escape. I want to be taken far, far away to somewhere massively different from
I've discovered that if you're a lover of fiction who would like to read good SF (as opposed to a SF fan), you generally won't get very far asking the average SF fan to recommend books for you.
SF fans have different criteria for what makes a good book than general readers. As the SHOULD. They are SF fans. So their starting point is that the book must be SF. They love SF so much that, though many of them don't like bad writing, they will forgive bad writing if they have to -- if bad writing is the only sort of SF writing they can find. The bottom line is, good or bad, they want to read SF.
And many SF fans pretty much only read SF, so they can't really compare it to anything else. They can only measure with the ruler of their genre.
I've had similar problems when asking people to recommend graphic novels. When I say that I want to read a good graphic novel, I mean good when compared to a story by John Cheever or a movie by Martin Scorsese. I don't mean good as compared to Spiderman. It's not that I expect a comic book to be like a movie or a novel. But regardless of the genre, I expect the same level of workmanship and quality. And I'm continually disappointed.
I can't seem to find the Jane Austen of SF. When I ask SF fans to recommend good novels, they generally take "good" to mean better than the crap with the bug-eyed monsters and the ray guns. But that's not good enough. Who is the SF equivalent to Shakespeare?
I have a need for SF, because I like other worlds, but I need it to be GREAT. I need really really good writing (style), I need expert plots, I need realistic dialogue, I need characters that I fall in love with. There are exceptions, of course, but most of the people who are best at this sort of writing aren't writing SF.
Unlike many SF fans (and perhaps this also separates me from many fans of serious literature, too), I don't much care for novels of ideas. I'm a pretty intellectual guy, but I prefer to get my philosophy from non-fiction. When I read fiction, I want to wonder "what's going to happen next?" and I want to fall in love. I want those two things. And in addition I want to be transported to an alien world. And I want all these treats wrapped in evocative prose. I mention my distaste for idea novels, because when I say I'm looking for "good SF," that's what people generally think I mean. "You'll like this book," they say. "It explores some really interesting themes." But I have no interest in themes. I plot, character and language.
In theory, SF could be a hothouse for growing great plot/character/language books. Writers should use their best verbal skills to describe alien worlds; the freedom to go anywhere -- to any planet or "dimension" -- should allow for some rollicking plots. And one can explore unique facets of human psychology by placing characters in extreme situations. SF can (but rarely does) do all these things.
To be fair to the SF writers, people like me are really asking a lot of them. It's REALLY hard to be the Jane Austen of SF. You have to be an expert observer of people, and you have to be a master of prose and dialogue. To expect such a writer to also be a master of creating believable alien world AND to have a degree in physics is a bit much. But that's what is needed.
So what do I do when I need an alien world fix? I generally reach for historical fiction. A couple of years ago, when I read "Memoirs of a Geisha," which was expertly written, I got the same feeling I get reading really good SF. It was set a hundred years ago in