Character Driven Science-Fiction Books

Alucard

In the name of the Pizza Lord. Charge!
Staff member
#1
Prompted by @Boreas over at our resident thread for this new year, here's a thread where you can list all the science fiction books that are largely character driven. We all know that for a lot of fantasy books characters are their bread and butter; we love them, we hate them, we fear for them, we cheer for them, we live through them. But for a lot of science fiction books, characters take the back seat and exploration of big concepts, innovative ideas, or strange worlds that kind of reflect our own take a central role.
However, I realized that strange new worlds in my personal reading can't replace the enjoyment I get from caring about the characters. So here's the thread where you can list all the science fiction books where the characters or character development remain on the central stage.
@ofer has already listed these:

Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion (nothing I can do I will recommend it regardless, but it is more character driven then other SF) by Dan Simmons
Ilium/Olympos duology by Dan Simmons
A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernon Vinge
The Ender series by Orson Scott Card
Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
Moving Mars by Greg Bear

I hope this thread can be of use to us all. Please list any books you think would fit within this category.
 

Sir Arthur

Journeyed there and back again
#2
Good idea @Alucard . Some of these may be more enjoyable to fantasy readers than a lot of sci-fi. I've been reading more sci-fi these days than ever before, and plan to keep the trend going in 2015. So this will be useful to me, and hopefully I'll be able to add to it.

Dune is another one that's a character driven story that feels more like fantasy. I read it last year, and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. I didn't like the movie, and only read it because I felt it was a classic "must read".
 

TomTB

Super Moderator
Staff member
#3
Old Man's War and its sequels for me. Grew fond of the characters in these books, and would recommend.

I second Hyperion. Stunning book.
 

Boreas

Journeyed there and back again
Staff member
#4
Hmm, I wouldn't go so far as to say that characters take a back seat in science fiction. Certainly they're not necessarily the primary focus in works espousing the 'hard' aspects of the genre, where technology or concepts take center stage, and where the works can tend to take a didactic tone. This is more true for one end of the spectrum in the science fiction attitude, and this end of the spectrum is the very reason the genre has the name it does in the first place.

I think many science fiction works contain levels of characterisation similar to those found in the fantasy genre, or in fact the mystery genre, the horror genre, the crime genre or any genre - namely, some novels are better with characterisation than others. Each genre has a specific focus, and you can't fault it when its harder-line examples exemplify one of the core, defining characteristics of the very genre you're looking at.

Speculative fiction of the science fiction variety is most definitely concerned with exploring facets of reality with more rigour (be it physical or social aspects or both). This rigour lends itself well to the 'hard' end of the spectrum. For example, Poul Anderson's "Tau Zero" is SF at the hard end exploring the physical side of reality, whereas Isaac Asimov's Foundation works are also at the hard end, but focusing on societal aspects.

Having said that, I do understand that many (certainly not all) of the older, highly regarded SF works, especially many that have won or been nominated for awards, do explore the concepts (again, either physical or social) at the expense of character development at a skewed ratio, in part because they were breaking ground at the time in terms of what the genre could explore. It's not called the Golden Age without reason.

As you move away from the hard end of the science fiction spectrum, there is a wealth of science fiction where the focus tends to move towards exploring the effects of the setting oftentimes at a micro level. These stories can have greater potential for character development. So, it's not that science fiction doesn't focus so much on characterisation as a whole genre, just that there are different foci lying at either end, and you prefer one over the other. There are also works that do a good job of striking a decent balance.
 

Boreas

Journeyed there and back again
Staff member
#5
Some that come to mind:
  • I agree with the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons, making up four books, and further split into two stories as connected duologies. Simmons is an excellent writer who likes to infuse his works with his own interests ranging from classical literature, mythology to religion (especially the Jewish diaspora and some of the conundrums in the Torah). I advise you to take a good break between the Hyperion and Endymion books.
  • I'll also mention "The Sparrow" by May Doria Russell. A very human and religiously tinged look at first contact.
  • All the science fiction works of David Zindell. The stand-alone "Neverness" and the Requiem for Homo Sapiens trilogy that follows. Character driven space opera delving into the nature of transcendental awareness and genetic memory.
  • The works of M. John Harrison and Christopher Priest. Both of these are master writers up there with Simmons and Banks, all with very different styles from each other. One of my favourite works by Harrison happens to be neither fantasy nor science fiction, rather a novel about rock climbing unimaginatively titled "Climbers". I also love his works "The Course of the Heart" and "Signs of Life". He returned to science fiction (space opera) in the 2000s after a long absence with his somewhat difficult to read "Light" - there's a follow up that I haven't read yet. Priest is definitely one of my favourites. Just about anything: "Inverted World", "The Separation", "The Affirmation", "The Glamour", "Fugue for a Darkening Island", "The Extremes", "A Dream of Wessex", "The Prestige", "Indoctrinaire", etc, etc...the guy is a tour de force.
  • Stephen R. Donaldson's Gap Cycle is a superlative example of character driven science fiction in the space opera subgenre, besides the Zindell and Simmons works already mentioned.
More recommendations next time.
 

Derk of Derkholm

Journeyed there and back again
#6
I'd say that both of the recent books "Ancillary Justice" and "The Martian" belong here.
 

atheling

A Poet of the Khaiem
#7
The Hainish books by Ursula K. Le Guin. All of them, since her shtick is really anthropology and culture: Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions (these last three these days often sold in one volume called Three Hainish Novels or some such), The Left Hand of Darkness, and Dispossessed. There are more but that's what I've read.
 

Hand of Fear

Journeyed there and back again
#8
I haven't read a lot of SF books but I agree these books can be quite 'cold' when it comes down to the characters, and they can lack emotion in them.

This is why I think I will always be a Fantasy reader over any other kind of genre.
 

Boreas

Journeyed there and back again
Staff member
#9
"China Mountain Zhang" by Maureen McHugh belongs on this list. I'll thank Alastair Reynolds for recommending this book.

Robert Silverberg's "Lord Valentine's Castle", a slow moving planetary romance (quasi-fantasy) of an individual initially unsure of his identity, or his "Dying Inside", the story of someone dealing with the realisation of the gradual loss of a 'sensory' ability he possess, comparable to how one might deal with the loss of hearing or vision. Just about all his works are character driven.

Similar in theme to "Dying Inside" would by Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon", which you can read either as a novel or as the original short story.
 

kenubrion

Journeyed there and back again
#10
So I can have a clearer picture of the difference between character driven vs what, action driven?, tell me what each of these are:

Armor
Forever War
Pohl's Heechee saga
All Culture books
Time Machine
Pandora's Star/Judas Unchained

Thanks in advance, and obviously once I get the concept down I'll be editing my list as time goes by and my memory improves. I have no doubt where Foundation fits, as a character driven series. But some of Asimov's robot tales would be action since by nature the robots shouldn't (but might, Daniel does) have character.
 

Boreas

Journeyed there and back again
Staff member
#11
"Armor" - most definitely completely character driven.
"Forever War" - I'd say strikes a good balance.
"The Time Machine" - I haven't read.

"Pandora's Star/Judas Unchained" is much more plot-centric. All the characters are crap when compared to Paula Myo, the only truly excellent character he's created in the duology besides MLM, of course.

Only the 2nd and 3rd published Culture works, "The Player of Games" and "Use of Weapons", qualify for fully character driven stories.
 

Boreas

Journeyed there and back again
Staff member
#12
All of Octavia E. Butler's works are completely character driven: her Xenogenesis books, the Patternist books, her Parable books, her two stand-alones, "Kindred" (more a time travel fantasy) or "Fledgeling". As are those of Ursula K. Le Guin. My favourite work of Le Guin remains "The Dispossessed". Both are authors that I really, really like.

Of Poul Anderson's many novels, one that I can heartily recommend as character driven science fiction is "The Boat of a Million Years".
I have no doubt where Foundation fits, as a character driven series.
I like how Asimov writes the characters in the Foundation books. And R. Daneel and Elijah Bailey from his Robot novels are two characters that I've always been fond off since my early teens. The only thing is that Asimov's writing can be quite dry and unimaginative (which doesn't matter to me because his stories are just great). The only time he made more of an effort with this writing was with "The Gods Themselves", when even Asimov was influenced by the filtering in of the post-modern ethos from mainstream literature (think Beckett, Vonnegut, Heller, Pynchon, Burroughs) into the science fiction genre. He experimented with the structure of his story, and even wrote about sex! Asimov writing about sex, imagine that. The effort paid off.

As for the Heechee books, I've only read "Gateway" and, yes, that's also quite character focused.

EDIT: I retract my earlier statement that Asimov is unimaginative. His writing is more cerebral prone (whilst being very easy to read) with lots of conversation between characters, but certainly not unimaginative.
 
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Sneaky Burrito

Crazy Cat Lady
Staff member
#13
All of Octavia E. Butler's works are completely character driven: her Xenogenesis books, the Patternist books, her Parable books, her two stand-alones,
I'd agree, although the characters in the three from the quote box up above are VERY similar. Strong (personality and emotion-wise, not necessarily physically) women of African or African-American descent, often taking leadership roles, in post-apocalyptic or dystopian societies (so you get the element of the character interacting with the setting, which is also similar). (One or two of the Patternist books have male POV characters, I guess.)
 

wakarimasen

Journeyed there and back again
#14
Some years back I read "Enemy Mine" by Barry B. Longyear (which they did a film of) , I remember that as being fantastic character driven sci-fi.
 

Boreas

Journeyed there and back again
Staff member
#15
Some years back I read "Enemy Mine" by Barry B. Longyear (which they did a film of) , I remember that as being fantastic character driven sci-fi.
Awesome story and a great film, too!
 

Boreas

Journeyed there and back again
Staff member
#16
Only the 2nd and 3rd published Culture works, "The Player of Games" and "Use of Weapons", qualify for fully character driven stories.
I don't know how I missed mentioning "Inversions" by Banks. Another Culture novel that is completely character driven.

Most works of C. J. Cherryh are character driven, be it those works that are more thriller in nature, like "Downbelow Station" or "Rimrunners" or even those that take a harder-sf approach like with "Cyteen". Especially her earlier space opera that makes up the Faded Sun trilogy, or those titles on the fringes of her main sequence Alliance-Union novels, like "Forty Thousand in Gehenna" or "Serpent's Reach". Even her excellent sword-and-sorcery science fiction that make up the three novels of Morgaine.

All of Orson Scott Card's works that I have read, which include: "Ender's Game" and, especially, the following trilogy making up "Speaker for the Dead", "Xenocide" and "Children of the Mind"; the first two Alvin Maker books, "Seventh Son" and "Red Prophet"; and the allegorical "Wyrms" which I remember rather enjoying. I bought a big stack of used paperbacks by Card which contained most of his early major works. I've been thinking more and more about OSC's novels since the previous mention, and now I want to pick up his first work, "The Worthing Saga", sometime soon. Whatever his other problems, I find he writes very well.
 

wakarimasen

Journeyed there and back again
#17
Yeah, I remember reading one of OSC's about a world administered by an orbiting computer... The oversoul or some such. Was great. I know it was supposed to be the first in a series maybe called the homecoming series. Anyone ever read those? May have to put them on my mental tbr if they're as enjoyable as the first one.
 

Alucard

In the name of the Pizza Lord. Charge!
Staff member
#18
Guys what about anti-heroes in sci-fi? I think they are more prevalent than heroes right? Han Solo comes to mind immediately in movies, but what about books?

Edit: just remembered one. Gully Foyle from The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. That is also a character driven sci-fi.
 
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ofer

Journeyed there and back again
#19
Guys what about anti-heroes in sci-fi?
The Man in the Maze by Robert Silverberg.
Consider Phlebas by Iain Banks.
Several of Philip K. Dick books
The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (with a bit of a satirical tone into it)
To Die in Italbar by Roger Zelazny
The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov
(the last two are a little hazy in my memory but the protagonists are definitely not bone fida heroes).
 
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Boreas

Journeyed there and back again
Staff member
#20
Most of the Cyberpunk subgenre is full of great antiheroes. I second "Consider Phlebas" and also include "Use of Weapons". The Gap Cycle has the über-antihero in science fiction of all time; very over-the-top, but done really well. "Altered Carbon" and "Market Forces" by Richard K. Morgan. Check out Danshiell Hammett's "Red Harvest" - while not science fiction, it has one of the best noir characters ever.

Edit: You really should start a new thread for antiheroes, since it has a much narrower focus than the intended topic for this thread.
 
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