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Top 25 Underrated Science Fiction Books

Under-appreciated Science Fiction You Should Read

Making up a list of 'underrated' books is even iffier than making up others; like 'best ever' suchlike. What to include and how books are ranked becomes more subjective than ever. So, the list below you see here is very subjective indeed. Besides, what's 'underrated' now, may or may not have been 'underrated' in the past, or vice versa.

The novels (and one story-collection) here made it onto the list for a range of reasons. The basic qualification is that they're good reads, from first-class authors. Then they also must be outstanding examples of 'science fiction'; that is, they must have a significant 'science' element, even if they're mixing genres. 'Science' means anything from physics to personal or social psychology. 'Underrated' means that in the opinion of this reviewer, the books in this list either did not get the credit they deserved, or aren't getting it anymore. Some of them are completely forgotten, even though they belong among the 'classics'. A few were brief bestsellers, but quickly faded from view. Others eschew the deep-and-meaningful for the sake of providing readers with great entertainment, mixed with solid and involving imagination and some great story telling. And isn't that what it's all about?

There are only 25 books on this list—25 of literally hundreds that never made it into prominence and acclaim, despite deserving to get it. I hope you'll find at least one or two on this list that you've never heard of or, if you have, never thought of reading until now. And maybe now you will, and discover some unexpected delights and should-be-classics.



You can view the crowd-ranked version of this list and vote on the entries at the bottom of this page.

From one moment to the next all the women disappear from the world of menand all the men from the world of womenwhich in some instances would have made for interesting sitcoms. But The Disappearance is not about eliciting cheap laughs. In the aftermath of the disappearance, civilization in both worlds, the male and female, disintegrates: physically, spiritually, socially. Wylie focuses on one affected couple to perform a profound analysis of the fundamental and indispensable dependence of the sexes on each other, in the process revealing the absurd way in which almost all societies view male-female relationships. While Wylie does not shy back from exploring homosexuality (in a positive way and quite daringly, given the publication date), it's not a representation that would be considered entirely 'PC' these days, mainly because he views the male-female relationship as central to your nature as human beings; at a level far more basic and fundamental and than 'religion' or even 'culture'.Why it's at the top of this list: This novel was first published in 1951. Its place should be on your bookshelf beside Brave New World and 1984. While the latter two are about different aspects of social manipulation through statist and other agencies, The Disappearance focuses on much more fundamental human parameters. But try to buy a copy these days Read if you like: Timeless books that really make you think, take you into believable alternate universes, and which combine engaging storytelling with serious and unsettling analysis of our humanity.

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A permanently-red, dying sun shines down on an Earth eroded and worn down by time and history. Here, a bunch of vainglorious magicianshalf scientists, half thaumaturgesplay their silly games with magic and science they don't understand; just to pass the time and try to forget that everything is coming to an end. The dark forests are inhabited by monsters, many of them human. Giant Pelgranes rules the skies. Only a few still struggle to retain their humanity. They seek for relics of the past; or the secrets of life; or beauty and love. Sometimes they find them. Of course, the sun isn't just going to go out like a dying ember, but will have consumed Earth long before it collapses into a white dwarf, but Vance never let science stand in the way of creating a setting for his enchanting tales. Why it's on the list: If it weren't for The Disappearance, this would be on top. Jack Vance weaves magic, and these tales are a brilliant mix of exuberant imagination and mordant social commentary, all rendered in Vance's unique style; together with an affirmation of Jack's belief that the universe is indeed methodized by the Law of Cosmic Equipoise (i.e. for every tit there will be a tat). My favorite story in this collection of stories is T'sais, which best depicts the horror and beauty of life in that place.

Read if you like: Jack Vance. And if you haven't discovered him yet, this is the place to start; themes of world-weariness, the end of time, decay, decadence

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Awards Won:1967 NEBULA
Award Nominations:1967 HUGO

The Sapir-Worf (no relation to Klingons!) hypothesis basically states that the structure of language influences the way we see the world, because it defines how we structure propositional thought. It therefore will also influence our actions. The theory is not without its critics, but it's true anyway. It's not too far a stretch to conceive the possibility that an appropriately-constructed language can be used as a weapon. Teach it to someone and it might make him do anything, including turning him into a traitor. 'Babel-17' is a weapon-language, and the novel explores its use in this intriguing futuristic thriller.

Why it's on the list: Because this mid-1906s novel, next to Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao, this is probably the most impressive fictional exploration of the consequences if the Sapir-Worf hypothesis were truewhich it is. It's also a cautionary tale, because, as Orwell has pointed out again and again, our very own language is constantly twisted and abused in order to make lies appear like the truth and truth look like a lie. It's all the stranger then that this work isn't getting the attention it deserves.

Read if you like: Intrigue and skullduggery in a rattling good yarn, that tackles a profound philosophical subject.

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On the planet Sangre (Spanish for 'blood') there exists a divided society so brutal that it makes your average Earth-bound slavery society look like a humanitarian enterprise. The sub-class is treated by their masters worse than cage-hens or cattle in Indonesian abattoirs. You're talking torture, killing, cannibalism and Into this setting comes Bart Fraden, a fugitive on the run, with his girlfriend Sophie and his buddy Wilhelm Vanderling, who's a bit of a military genius. Fraden sees a great potential for revolution here and with Wilhelm set about to start one. The consequences are terrifying and might well cost Fraden his soul.

Why it's on the list: Spinrad was a master at subversive SF. Men in the Jungle is a disturbing story, mainly because it's hard not to like the rogue Bart Fraden; and so is likely to follow him into the darkness that he has created. Your classic tale of how the unforeseen consequences of any action outnumber the foreseen (or intended) ones by a factor of a gazillion to one. Also questions the notion that the oppressed are necessarily any nobler then their oppressors. This book isn't for the faint-hearted, and those who can't handle graphic descriptions of violence might want to give it a miss. Conscience takes a back-seat for a significant portion of the story. Having said that, it's also thought-provoking, precisely because of all those reasons.

Read if you like: Seriously subversive literature.

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First published published in 1964, this novel it hasn't lost anything of its appeal 40+ years later, mainly because its themes are timeless. Two men and two women are abducted from Earth by aliens and deposited on a conveniently Earth-like planet a mere seven light years from Earth. (Strange our current planet searches haven't discovered it yet! Maybe we will soon.) It may not have a moon and the 'rabbits' have six legs, but you can't expect perfection.

Turns out that the four abductees, very different personalities all, are the subjects of a social experiment, helping the aliens to determine what makes us tick as individuals and social creatures.

Why it's on the list:

It's a 'classic'; one of the best. The theme of aliens abducting people and subjecting them to some form of psychological or social evaluation has been tackled by others, but many of those are imitators of Transit. It is also a 'relationship' novel, with intervals of self-reflection, people making mistakes and correcting them, and eventually finding meanings to their existence that they had never expected to find.

Read if you like:

People-focused, thoughtful, occasionally meditative, SF; complicated and dramatic, but without nastiness. Easy reading and stuff that leaves you feeling better for having spent your time on it.

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When people hear 'Ayn Rand', they tend to think of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Anthem is a David to her other Goliaths. It may originally have been conceived as a play, which would explain much of its storyline, as well as the fact that it's written as a prose poem. The style needs getting used to, and no real complexity of character here either. Still, it's not needed in this parable about the ultimate totalitarian collectivist society. Somewhat reminiscent of Kafka, though with a slightly different agenda. The 'Anthem' of the title, by the way, is one to individualism; which is what the book is meant to be.

Why it's on the list: It's an important book, despite its comparatively small size (Rand's novels usually go on and on and on and). It comes across as maybe the most terse and pithy of Rand's rants against the evils of collectivism. While the book is basically one giant in-your-face message board (like basically all of Rand's novels), it still provides solid and thought provoking entertainment. The only comparable anti-collectivist tirade in the SF genre is Jack Vance's Wyst: Alastor 1716.

Read if you like: Objectivism (but then, I guess, you would already have read it already). Or to discover Ayn Rand and what she's all aboutwithout however having to slog through massive tomes with bermensch heroes, who are in the habit of holding forth at length in monologues about their philosophies and just about everything else that takes their fancy.

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An old lady who isn't what she seems to be. (Are they ever?) A detective accepting a case he knows he maybe shouldn't. A bunch of magiciansstage and 'real'trying to gain control of the one tool that'll make their craft and themselves more powerful. Plenty of unexpected twists and turns. All of that put together in a little novel that you can gobble up in an easy evening's read; written by a master of the craft, who breezily ignores genre boundaries to tell his tale. And, of course, there's the crucial battle between good and evil (sorry, that's Good and Evilcapitalized!). And did I mention the old lady?

Why it's on the list: A high concept: the notion that 'magic' (not just the 'stage' variety) can be methodized, become subject to scientific investigation and ultimately made controllable by anyone with access to the mathematics that describes it. Masterfully told, and you can't wait for the end. But when it's over you wish it weren't.

Read if you like: Noir, deception and intrigue, murder mysteries, romance, mathematics, little old ladies, monomaniacal sociopaths getting their deserved come-uppance, Good and Evil battling it out in small, insignificant towns in the USwith the rest of us boring mundanes not having the slightest idea of what's going on right under our noses.

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Many of those in the Transhumanist camp believe that sooner or later, in a twisted take on the 'reincarnation' mythos, we'll be able to effectively separate minds from bodies and incarnate them into machines. This novel, by contrast, envisages a world where something that some might consider much more desirable is possible: separating 'minds' from bodies and implanting them into new bodiesin the process wiping out whatever minds might have been resident in there.

Sheckley explores a future in which this has become commonplace; with all the unforeseen attendant consequences. It's not a pretty world, which predictably includes a major criminal component having to do with the transmigration issue. Plus some interesting inventions, like Suicide Booths that help those who don't want to reincarnate anymore to go to whatever other place there is or isn't after 'real' death.

Why it's on the list:

Sheckley provides us with an excellently-envisaged nightmare future, based on a simple 'what if'. Even though this was written in the late 1950s, it has lost none of its appeal; depicting the nightmarish world that might result from what, on the face of it, seems like something almost all of us secretly desire is solidly imagined.

Read if you like:

Immortality tales. 'Unforeseen consequences' tales.

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Ted Quantrill is a freak: he fastest gun in the West (and probably the world). After the total collapse of Russia, India and China band together (unlikely, I know, but this is fiction) and try to nuke the US out of existence. It works, partially, and what's left habitable of the US has turned into a post-apocalyptic Wild West, with a fanatical religious government reigning over it. In order to survive, Quantrill does whatever it takes. If that involves hunting down the enemies of the government, so be it. And he's good at it.

'A Western in SF disguise,' you say? Hell, yes, but this one, comes from the pen of a master of the hard-boiled action flick. And Ing doesn't hold back on the implied social commentary either, with little patience for the theocracy-potential he might have seen developing in the US. (Is he wrong? Not!) Still, the focus is on the development of a young man with a lethal talent and a suspended conscience, who needs a serious shakabuku in order to wake up from his trance and find his soul. And when he gets it, have some pity with his enemies.

Why it's on the list:

Because it's such unmitigated solid fun. The story continues over two sequels: Single Combat and Wild Country.

Read if you like:

Action, SF-Westerns and some solid dystopian visualization, without it degenerating into zombie-world.

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This is a classic 'first interstellar journey' story by the amazing Gordon Dickson. Impatient with the bureaucracy who is delaying the launch of the new-technology 'phase ship', (very cool technology!) Brigadier General Benjamin Shore hijacks it by faking false orders, and takes it and its crew onto mankind's first trip into space to find planets suitable for colonization.

They come across remarkably un-alien aliens (seriously, what's the likelihood of coming across anything even remotely humanoid?) on remarkably Earth-like worlds (hmm...). Some of the aliens are rather unfriendly, and the crew are seriously decimated, before Shore finally decides to turn the ship around to head home and face the music. But not everybody aboard actually wants to go home...

Why it's at this place on the list:

Could have been higher, but I thought I'd mix things up. This is one of those novels you'd expect from the early days of SF. Dickson, who wrote it in the mid-1960s, effectively took another look at the topic of the first trip to the stars and made it into something more than just a pulp. The novel doesn't really exert itself in terms of imagining strange aliens, but focuses on Shore, the crew and the weight of command and responsibility for one's actions. Great storytelling, as you'd expect from Dickson, who never disappoints.

Read if you like:

Spaceship' SF. Exploration stories. Character-driven narratives.

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What would it be like if your mind, memories, feelings, identify suddenly ended up in the body of a prepubescent child (no sex change involved)? Well, for 17 people that's what happened. That's all the aliens did when they landed: allow the 17 to come aboard and return them to the world as children. No explanations. Just 'Here they are. Now go figure.'

Why did they do this? Well, that's the BIG question, and everybody wants a piece of these kids who aren't kids, even though their bodies are those of children. Their existence threatens international relations; and they are sequestered away, as scientists of all persuasions prod and probe them, without much success. But the effective incarceration isn't the children's only problem. They have to cope with their sudden transformation and how it's disrupted and changed their lives.

Why it's on the list:

A thoughtful 'what if', which England uses to tackle a bunch of interesting questions. Foremost among these is the one about the rights of children; their powerlessness when dealing with the world of adults, who hold all the cards, andmaybe you do remember?think they know everything, while you, the child, knows diddly-squat and you better do as you're told.

Read if you like:

A look at what it means to be a child in a world of adults, wrapped up in a contemporary SF tale

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Award Nominations:1990 CLARKE

What would it be like if your mind, memories, feelings, identify suddenly ended up in the body of a prepubescent child (no sex change involved)? Well, for 17 people that's what happened. That's all the aliens did when they landed: allow the 17 to come aboard and return them to the world as children. No explanations. Just 'Here they are. Now go figure.'

Why did they do this? Well, that's the BIG question, and everybody wants a piece of these kids who aren't kids, even though their bodies are those of children. Their existence threatens international relations; and they are sequestered away, as scientists of all persuasions prod and probe them, without much success. But the effective incarceration isn't the children's only problem. They have to cope with their sudden transformation and how it's disrupted and changed their lives.

Why it's on the list:

A thoughtful 'what if', which England uses to tackle a bunch of interesting questions. Foremost among these is the one about the rights of children; their powerlessness when dealing with the world of adults, who hold all the cards, andmaybe you do remember?think they know everything, while you, the child, knows diddly-squat and you better do as you're told.

Read if you like:

A look at what it means to be a child in a world of adults, wrapped up in a contemporary SF tale.

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Award Nominations:1969 NEBULA

Zelazny wrote a few stories about immortals, and Francis Sandow is one of them. He was born in the 20th century and ended up in suspended animation on a spaceship. By the time he was discovered, star-flight technology had advanced far beyond that available when he set out on his journey, and so he woke into a very strange world indeed. The Pei'ans, an alien super race heading for extinction, adopted and mentored Sandow; made him into a 'worldscaper' and an avatar for one of the Pei'ans deities: Shimbo of Darktree, Shrugger of Thunders. The novel steps into Sandow's life when an old enemy lures him to Illyria, a world Sandow created many years before, to force a final confrontation at the Isle of the Dead, which Sandow had constructed based on Arnold Bocklin's painting of the same name. (Check out the painting by Googling it!)

Why it's on the list: It's not a long book, but rich in concepts and ideas, and vast in scope. Like Zelazny's Lord of Light it liberally mixes SF with reflections on the possible nature of 'deity'. The novel was nominated for a Nebula in 1969 and won the Prix Apollo in 1972.

Read if you like: Zelazny at his best. SF that breezily ignores genre conventions and boundaries.

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Award Nominations:1986 PKD

The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been underway for over five decades now. (For real, that is!) Somewhere out there, we thinkhope? fear?there may be life forms, alien but intelligent, who are sending out signals that tell us that we're not utterly alone in this vast universe.

But what might they be telling us? The Hercules Array (we're in fictional territory now, in case you hadn't noticed) picks up what looks like an intelligent signal, and soon that's followed by a huge data dump, the Hercules Textall in need of being decoded and analyzed for what it might contain. When the decoding's done, it turns out that it contains not only the answers to just about every unanswered question about physics and the universe, but also about life and how to manipulate it. All the knowledge of the universe apparently at our fingertips.

Now, what would you do with that? And, to ask a much more interesting question, why has this information been sent out for everybody capable of deciphering it to have?

Why it's on the list:

Because it asks some damn good questions, especially about the potential intentions with regards to us of anything ET. It also asks whether it's actually a good thing for us to know literally everything about the physical universe that there is to know. Can we handle this knowledge at our current stage of development?

Read if you like:

SETI related fiction. Thrilling, yet thoughtful, near-future SF.

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Among the infinity of unanswered questions there are a few about our so-called 'human nature' that will never be answered because we'll only find those answers in alternate universes or time-streams that we can't ever enter. Would societies and individuals today be more humane, thoughtful, responsible, far-sighted, if human history had been different? In other words, is today's 'human nature' a product not just of evolution, but also of historical contingency? Were there events that, like switches on railway tracks, put us onto the path we're on now; and which may, as the novel stipulates, destroy us all. Can we identify those events? If we could go back in time, could we actually change the whole course of history for the better? This novel answers all these question in the affirmative. In the aftermath of a devastating plague, two people are sent back to the dawn of civilization, to prevent a particular event, identified as being a critical nexus in history, from happening.

Why it's at this place on the list: Because the premise is far from being as silly as many people seem to think it is, and Moscoe follows it through with gusto and credibility. Followed by two sequels that round off the story.

Read if you like: Time travel tales. Stories with modern-day people exposed to prehistoric societies.

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Awards Won:1983 PKD
Award Nominations:1984 LocusF, 1985 BSFA

Time-travel tourism? Well, why not? If somebody can make money out of it, they find a way to do it. This story is about Brendan Doyle, a history-professor-turned-tourist-guide, who takes a bunch of rich tourists through the mysterious Anubis Gates to show them around the timescape and attend a lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Doyle is kidnapped and becomes trapped in the 19th century, with predictably complicated consequences. In addition we have werewolves and body-swapping, evil magicians, a miscellany of monsters, intrigues and bloodshed, plus 19th century Egypt thrown in for good measure. And there's a final twist that you'll probably not see coming. What more can anybody ask for?

Why it's on the list: Tim Powers is a master at mixing SF tropes with a goodly dash of fantasy. This one is an intensely involving tale that twists and turns so much that it leaves you dizzy and gasping for air. Requires a goodly measure of attention and-dare I say it?-intelligence on the part of the reader.

Read if you like: Time travel stories, with a good dash of ancient history (real or not; who cares?) thrown in for good measure. Possession and endless story-twists and generally near-exhaustion after you're through with the tale. But it's brilliant fun, and the dizziness eventually fades.

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For those who don't know: 'steampunk' is about neo-Victorian settings and behaviors, while 'cyberpunk' presumed the demise of statism; that is, a world where nationalism has lost its meaning, because everything's cyber-connected and everybody's like completely hooked into the cyberverse. Add all-pervasive nanotech, and you'll end up with the world of The Diamond Age. This novel centers on Nell, a girl who grew up in slums and would be familiar to any reader of Dickens. She's given a mysterious book (the eponymous 'A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer') that recounts and presages Nell's life. A large supporting cast of Victorian and cyberpunkesque characters rounds off the tale. The story has a somewhat rambling structure, non-linear; with the added complication of the book added in, whose predictions predictably mirror the plot in the 'real world', whatever that is. It takes some getting used to, but has its rewards.

Why it's on the list: Because it's an interesting attempt to combine the steampunk and cyberpunk sub-genresand because it kinda works. There are some jarring notes, but overall it's a great effort, and a good read to boot.

Read if you like: Steampunk. Cyberpunk.

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Suppose someone financed a project to create a drug-and-virus cocktail that could make people essentially immortal. Pop a capsule of the mix and Bob's your uncle. No more illness, quick healing from most injuries, constant cell repair, bye-bye wrinkles and old-age decrepitude. And it seems to work. Still, they've got to test it, preferably on subjects who don't know what's happening to them, who can be conveniently killed off later, and whom nobody's really going to miss. So that's what they do. And it all goes welluntil the someone starts asking questions. And that someone is turns out to be very hard to kill. Run-of-the-mill first-world problem coming up.

Why it's on the list:

Steve Perry is a master of the engaging, character-focused action flick and pitting worthy antagonists against each other. This novel is great entertainment, woven around a seriously plausible scenario of how something like this might go down. Contemporary bio-science and conspiracy fiction that doesn't need much suspension of disbelief in order to work; set against a background of the ordinary, where the bad things kind-of just sneak up on you and bite you in the butt.

Read if you like:

The idea of living like forever (because it's all-too plausible). Solid, yet 'open', endings (this one screams for a sequel, which may or may not be coming). Solid action from Steve Perryand what more could you ask for?

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A spaceship with a bunch of delinquents crashes on a water-covered planet. The survivors manage to adapt to the circumstances and rebuild a kind of civilization, living on the giant floating leaves of water plants. No metals to work with though, which kind of makes it difficult to defend themselves again the giant tentacled, extremely voracious, semi-intelligent sea-creatures who regularly raid the colonists' carefully tended plantations and orchards. King Kragen is the biggest one of those, and the colonists have adapted to him by making him into a kind of god, who must be appeased and submitted toall through the agency of a dedicated and unproductive priesthood, of course. Except for Sklar Hast, who's going to try and kill King Kragen, no matter what the cost. The priests, of course, aren't exactly happy at the prospect of him succeeding.

Why it's at this place on the list:

Because there were more significant underrated novels. That's all. This one's a classic Vancean tale of a young man at odds with his society and determined to thumb his nose at the system, no matter what the cost. As usual, Vance's mordant wit takes a good swipe at the nonsensicalities of religion, parasitical priests and society's acceptance of traditions that make no sense.

Read if you like:

Social commentary and satire, wrapped up in a tale of coming-of-age and rebellion, and set in a most unusual environment that would have seriously taxed human ingenuity.

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Awards Won:1983 WFA

Nifft was a thief and a rogue. Nifft is dead. This is kind of an epitaph in four short tales. You decide whether you'd ever let Nifft get close to you without sequestering everything valuable in a safe place first.

Why it's at this place on the list:

Because it kind-of Vance but just not quite. This novel won 'Year's Best' at the World Fantasy Awards, but never made it into the wide public arena. Shea's style has been compared to Fritz Leiber's, but it's much closer to Jack Vance's, as the stories in this collection clearly show. Not wanting to take away from Shea's accomplishment, but you can see Vance in there, as big as a priapic stallion in a spinster's bedroom. The stories amble along and sometimes you wonder where the action is, but then BANG! It happens, and then we amble along again. A bit like a Tarantino flick. And just when you wonder where this is all going, you're probably left to wonder just a bit longer.

Read if you like:

Cugel the Clever in particular and Jack Vance in general; but when you've also read all of Jack's books so often that you really feel like you should read something else. As long as it's Vance-ish.

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Nifft was a thief and a rogue. Nifft is dead. This is kind of an epitaph in four short tales. You decide whether you'd ever let Nifft get close to you without sequestering everything valuable in a safe place first.

Why it's at this place on the list:

Because it kind-of Vance but just not quite. This novel won 'Year's Best' at the World Fantasy Awards, but never made it into the wide public arena. Shea's style has been compared to Fritz Leiber's, but it's much closer to Jack Vance's, as the stories in this collection clearly show. Not wanting to take away from Shea's accomplishment, but you can see Vance in there, as big as a priapic stallion in a spinster's bedroom. The stories amble along and sometimes you wonder where the action is, but then BANG! It happens, and then we amble along again. A bit like a Tarantino flick. And just when you wonder where this is all going, you're probably left to wonder just a bit longer.

Read if you like:

Cugel the Clever in particular and Jack Vance in general; but when you've also read all of Jack's books so often that you really feel like you should read something else. As long as it's Vance-ish.

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