“’First of all, the burst of base eight numbers are coming in groups of 16,769,021, with a longer break between each group. Ad what makes that interesting is that some bright people ran it through a simple factoring program and discovered that it’s equal to 4093 times 4097 – two prime numbers.’”
In “Encounter with Tiber” by Buzz Aldrin, John Barnes
"I've written a novel in SF genre, and we 'all know' that SF is nothing more than a pile of badly-written misogynistic tripe fit only for pimply teens with socialization issues. But I'm so edgy, and post-modern and ironic so it's not really a 'proper' SF novel, which we 'all know' has to top being badly-written, etc., but actually a 'crossover' novel. And here comes nervous giggle."
I heard something like this a long time ago when this novel come out. I can't remember the exact words, but the above “quote” more or less represents what I can still remember after all these years. Really, I know these people (the "literati establishment" before you ask) and their attitudes towards what they call "genre" literature and especially "juvenile" genres like SF. I'd bet you an arm nervous apologetic giggles were present in talks when stupid people tried dissng this novel back in the day (maybe even today). Sad thing is I really thought these attitudes died somewhere in the early nineties, thanks to a large extent to authors that stupid people blithely dismisses as habitual producers of "unreadable garbage."
SF's so diverse and has been going on for so long that any attempt at an answer has to be tailored to the individual reader. Maybe a quarter of what's currently in print will appeal to you, but it'll be a different quarter for each individual reader. Be prepared to read things you might not think you ought to - they may be more fun, and at worst will give you an idea of what you don't want, but they'll help you develop your stamina. That said: try starting with short story anthologies from the 70s and 80s. By then commercial and artistic pressures were roughly in synch and the general public were still being invited to join in without an exam. If you think of SF as a 'genre' and define it by content you may miss out on a lot; try thinking of it as a way of reading and a set of stories that are more fruitful if read that way. To learn this way, and get a feel for what's out there and how to develop your own preferences, a diverse array of short pieces is more useful than a thumping great book, even a very good one (and, as everyone's already said, Gene Wolfe is waiting for you after a short nursery slope). Some of Terry Carr's anthologies are still around online or in libraries. Anything that won a Nebula Award (the writers' own award, as opposed to the fan-voted Hugos which are increasingly as reliable as the Eurovision Song Contest) is worth a shot.
Cyberpunk was odd in that there were a lot of writers who'd read literature trying not to do the old 'well-rounded character' thing because it was the 80s and Michel Foucault was 'in'. The whole point of the narrative was to use technology to disperse the unified 'self' and that rather militates against what you're looking for. So try skipping that whole generation and, when you're ready, go for near-future settings populated by people. Off the top of my head, Ian MacDonald's 'The Dervish House' and Maureen McHugh's 'China Mountain Zhang' might be a good way in. Oh, and one last point: don't expect to become a Master of SF in fifteen minutes a day. This is like deciding to like cricket or become Welsh for an afternoon. You're in it for the long haul.
In the future, everyone will be naked and swim through the breathable liquid on space ships. Bodies will gracefully slide past each others ever strong, youthful and lithe nanoBot repaired forms. They will have pink and electric blue hair which fluffs out around their heads in a perfect gently shimmering sphere, micro circuit patterned irises will frame pupils that sparkle with intra-ocular augmented reality systems informing them about those to whom they are communicating, tracing histories and memories now shared in common. Instrument panels blinking like an Andy Warhol avant-garde movie, illuminating them with waves and polka dot lozenges of primitive and complimentary colours. Then the barest of touch, fingertip to fingertip, eyelids in perfect synch for the briefest of moments as their eyes and gaze meets, heads dip and smile. Outside the large arc of windows, star trek star fields will fly by at many times the speed of light.
I hate Star Trek Wars and Babylon 5 and all that rubbish, except for the early Kirk and Spock ones with the cardboard scenery and the preposterous fight scenes... but I soft spot in my heart for novels like “Encounter with Tiber” even with its problems. I don't want 'plausible', coherent, unscientifically-literate visions of the future written by teams of professional SF script-writers. I want badly-written dystopias populated by a smorgasbord of biological improbabilities that break every known rule of the universe, at the end of which nothing of any moral or educational value is learned - by either any of the characters or me. I want sexism. I want misogyny. I want prejudice, anger, envy and bitterness towards the whole of mankind. I want blood. I want war. I want BALDIES! And I'm now going to monitor this post like a hawk for references to the very worst that SF has ever produced, then I'm going to hunt them down and devour them. SEND ME YOUR JUNK.
The best comment I can make about this novel is: "I'm not shaken, I'm buffeted by this book." Pay close attention to the way Aldrin and Barnes use different narrative voices to add depth to the texture of the novel. Brilliant!
NB: Docked one star because 4097 is not prime (it is divisible by 17) Sorry Aldrin. See the Star Trek paragraph above. It’s still one hell of a cringey blunder. Aldrin deserves a proper lashing…In 1996 I almost stopped reading as I came across this glaring faux-pas! I wonder how no spaceship fell from the skies in the writing of this novel…I’m glad I persevered. It’s still a good yearn after all these years but not as good as my 1996-old-self thought it was. It needs a strong astringent corrective for some anthropocentric assumptions on the part of BOTH authors regarding Tiberean behaviour and motives. “Blindsight”, a book I particularly enjoyed for challenging the assumption that intelligence must mean consciousness, as well as considering aliens that are not simply humans with a different body form. Would have been quite apt in “Encounter with Tiber”, questioning the lazy assumptions that permeate a lot of SETI thinking. But as I wrote elsewhere, you can't have everything. Still a solid 4 stars after all these years.
SF = Speculative Fiction.