7 writers whose work I’ve struggled with

Yesterday I listed 5 writers I keep meaning to read 1. Today I’m listing 7 writers whose work I’ve attempted to read, but which for various reasons, I’ve struggled with. This struggle is likely the fault of the reader, not the writer, so keep that in mind as you go through the list.

1. Charles Stross

I am an avid reader of Charles Stross’s blog. I’ve met him on a couple of occasions (and once, at Boskone in 2008, we chatted briefly about system administration before a panel). But I’ve had trouble getting into his stories. I’ve tried reading two of his novels, without success. The first novel I tried was Singularity Sky. Later, I tried reading Saturn’s Children 2 I could never get very far into either book. This is embarrassing to admit, but I think his books are just over my head and I feel like I don’t get what it happening half the time. It is difficult to maintain interest under these circumstances. It’s frustrating because his books sound so interesting and so many people like them. I guess it is just a matter of technique and style. And patience on the part of the reader.

2. Cory Doctorow

The first I’d heard of Cory Doctorow was when he was writing for Science Fiction Age. I seem to vaguely recall reading his story, “Craphound” back in 1999, I think. He also wrote a Games column for the magazine. I had a friend who spoke highly of Doctorow and in the years since, I’ve tried reading other things he’s written but again I’ve struggled. In this instance, I think it’s different from Charles Stross in that I find Cory writing about things that don’t particularly hold my interest. This isn’t intended as a slight on Cory; not everyone can be interested in everything. There are certain types of science fiction that I like better than others, and Cory happens to write stories that don’t quite fit that niche.

3. Ursula K. Le Guin

I’ve struggled with Ursula K. Le Guin since I wsa ten or eleven years old. Unlike Charles and Cory, I keep trying with her, because I find that the struggle is ultimately worth it. I recall trying to read A Wizard of Earthsea the summer before I moved from Warwick, Rhode Island to Los Angeles, California, which would make me about 11 years old at the time. For some reason, I had difficulty getting past the first chapter. I kept re-reading it, and re-reading it, and eventually I got through it and continued and finished the book–but I have almost no memory of it, aside from the first few lines of the first chapter, which are burned into my brain.

Much later, I read other stuff by Le Guin. I recall struggling through (but finishing) “The Word for World Is Forest” in Again, Dangerous Visions. And I remember taking a long time to read The Left Hand of Darkness, but in the end I was glad that I did. I haven’t read much by Le Guin, and while I do struggle to get through her work, I am generally better for the fight.

4. Neal Stephenson

A friend of mine asked me many years ago if I’d ever read Neal Stephenson‘s Cryptonomicon. I hadn’t, but I take recommendations from this friend seriously and as soon as I could manage, I picked up a copy of the book and started reading. I was immediately fascinated. For one thing, I like big books, and Cryptonomicon is nothing if not big. As I read through the book I continued to be fascinated by the various threads. This fascination continued on and on until somewhere, perhaps 5/6th of the way through the book, I’d lost the threads. I couldn’t manage to keep them all together in my head, and the book, despite being fascinating, lost its point for me. Once again, I think this is a failure on the part of the reader, not the writer. In this instance, what I struggled with is the complexity of the story.

This has been true for other Stephenson books I’ve attempted to read. I’ve desperately wanted to read the Baroque Cycle, and I started reading Quicksilver when it was first released, just as fascinated with that story as I was with Cryptonomicon. And the same thing happened. Halfway through the book, I started to lose the threads and the story, despite being fascinating, fell apart on me. I’ve heard many good things about Anathem, which is sitting on my bookshelf, unread. I want to read it, but I’m worried that I’ll run into the same problem 3.

5. Vernor Vinge

I’ve struggled with Vernor Vinge‘s work for the same reasons I’ve struggled with Charles Stross’s work: I feel like his stories are over my head. I’d been told by many people that A Fire Upon the Deep was an outstanding novel. I tried reading it sometime in 2000. The opening of the book was fascinating and I loved how as a reader, you learned the language of the aliens along with them. But it soon spun into something deeper and I struggled to keep up with the story Vinge was trying to tell.

Many years later, I read his novel Rainbows End, and in this case, I finished the whole thing. But it was a real struggle and when I came out on the other side, I wasn’t sure I understood what happened in the story. Admitting this is embarrassing, but I’m trying to be honest here. I like to think of myself as a pretty intelligent person, but Stross and Vinge seem to write for people somewhat more intelligent than I am.

6. P. Schuyler Miller

I imagine that quite a few people reading this post may not recognize the next two names, even if you are science fiction fans. Both were established science fiction writers at the dawn of the Golden Age and I’ve encountered their work during my Vacation in the Golden Age. P. Schuyler Miller wrote fairly prolifically for Astounding and his stories seemed to me mostly adventure stories, but I never particularly enjoyed them. A few of them, like “Pleasure Trove” (August 1939, Episode 2 4) I couldn’t even finish. These days, when I come across one of his stories in an issue, I groan inwardly. I’ll give the story a try but I know that in most cases, it’s not going to suit me.

In most cases. There has been one exception so far. Miller’s story, “Old Man Mulligan” (December 1940, Episode 18) was a pretty good one which I managed to get through without cringing and which afterward, I was glad I had read.

7. Nat Schachner

Like Miller, Nat Schachner was prolific before the dawn of the Campbell-era of Astounding, and continued to be fairly prolific for a few years after. And once again, with one exception, I did not like his stories and struggled to read nearly every one of them. Stories like “City of Cosmic Rays” (July 1939, Episode 1) and “City of the Corporate Mind” (December 1939, Episode 6) had characters that it seemed the reader was already supposed to know all about. It made the stories difficult to read. It wasn’t until later that I found out that these were the last two stories in a series of stories about a set of three characters. But I’m not sure it really would have helped if I’d known this going in. His stories tended toward more of the pre-Campbell notion of science fiction: adventure and “fantastic” science, that wasn’t really grounded in anything we think of today as science.

The one exception was a story he wrote called “Cold” (March 1940, Episode 9) for which he got the cover. “Cold” was a spectacular story, very well done, fairly well grounded in science (relative to his other stories) and one that I completely enjoyed. I think I may have rated it as the best story in the issue.

So there are the seven authors I’ve really struggled with over the years. I can’t imagine I am the only one who struggles with writers work, despite giving them a fair try. I’d be curious to know your experiences. Are there certain author’s works with which you struggle time and again? Do you have any idea what the cause of the struggle is? Is there any author you’ve grown particularly fond of after struggling through their work?

  1. Incidentally, I read Robert Reed’s “Stalker” yesterday. Creepy story, but good and made me want to read even more of his stuff. So late last night I started reading “A History of Terraforming.” Haven’t finished it yet.
  2. Indeed, this was the first e-book I ever purchased.
  3. You have to understand that I try and give every book I read a fair chance, but my time is limited and I’ve learned over the years that if I am not making progress on a book after a certain amount of time, I have to give up on it and move onto something else. There is just too much to read, even in science fiction, to get bogged down on any one book. And this is true, regardless of the author.
  4. Episode referes to the episode number in which the story is discussed in my Vacation in the Golden Age.


  1. I have a lot of the same problems with the authors you mentioned, especially Stross. I don’t know why, but his stories don’t draw me in.
    Glad to see you’re reading Reed. He’s one of the best SF short fiction authors writing, if maybe in a dated style. A History of Terraforming is a great future history.

  2. This is a great idea for a post. I think this is both informative and a great way to stimulate reflection and conversation. The negotiated middle ground of difficulty is where we start to see what sets our likes and dislikes apart and how our tastes and perspective changes or solidifies.

    Stross is difficult for me too, but because I find too much self-assuredness in the tone of his writing and I feel that I am being led too aggressively to the point. But that is a different sort of difficulty. I find Stephenson challenging for the same reasons you do and I get overloaded. I interface with Le Guin pretty easily, however.

    1. Thanks, John. I noted earlier today in Gardner Dozois’s The Years Best Science Fiction 28th Edition, Gardner writes:

      Like Bruce Sterling, Greg Egan, and Charles Stross before him, Rajamiemi is a writer who cranks the bit-rate up about as high as it can go and still remain comprehensible (although there will almost certainly be some who thank that he doesn’t remain comprehensible, the usual fate of cutting-edge writers)…

      So I guess I am not, after all, the only one who has had this reaction to Stross’s fiction.

  3. I like Stross, but I came to his work through Saturn’s Children and feel that I got a boost up because it is so steeped in Heinleinania, with which I have more than a passing familiarity.
    Stephenson’s style of presentation is what gets in the way for me; I can see the richness that he threads into his work, but I’m not all that interested in getting intimate with color and texture and smell and etc.; wading through the descriptiveness slows me down and I stop caring.
    For all of Cory’s media presence, I too have just not been able to get into his works. Tried – not happening.
    Le Guin was the third SF author I ever encountered and I have no problems at all with her work – which seems to get better with every re-read.
    Vinge is ok, but (at least with contemporary works) you have to be willing to make a commitment to a long, deep, convoluted and multi-faceted story, something I’m not always mentally up for. But when you are ready for such, his novels make excellent choices.
    Miller & Nat I have no trouble with – but then I read them for what they are and from the rea they hail from. I do seem to have less difficulty than the average bear with pulp-era works; most are so relatively short that I don’t find it too much of a waste to finish off even the worst examples; I suppose that the forensic aspects are one of the things that lead me on (like yourself – mining the history of the genre); I get off on thinking about what influences the story may have had, remembering the limitations of the era it was written in, marvel at the attempts at prognostication and glory in the relative simplicity of the tales.

    1. Steve, Vinge is someone I would want to try more, especially getting through more than the first few chapters of A Fire Upon the Deep. I guess I just need to make that commitment you speak of.

  4. Your observations about the C. Stross books surprised me. My experience with his work is on the other, fantasy side. I’ve found his Laundry stories to be light & easy reads.

    1. Will, I haven’t tried the Laundry series although I recently saw a YouTube video where Stross was talking about them. (I think he was at Apple.) I prefer science fiction, but maybe I should give those a try.

  5. Reed has two brand-new short stories online, if you’re looking for more: “Pack” at Clarkesworld and “Swingers” at Tor.com. I looked into catching up on his work, but at this point, it seems a lot more feasible to just keep up with the new stories! We need a “Best of…” volume.

    Strangely enough, the one author I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to “get into” for 35 years, without much success, is Heinlein. I wish I could explain why…

    1. Scott, thanks for the heads-up on the new Reed stories. I will definitely check them out.

      I can imagine it being tough to get into Heinlein. Some of his stuff I really like, and others I really don’t. It took me three tries to finish Stranger in a Strange Land and after all that effort, I didn’t really like the book.

  6. Yeah, I agree about Stranger in a Strange Land, it didn’t grab me, I worked all the way through it and it was a disappointment. Same for “Glory Road” except with more disappointment as it was worse, I never managed to finish “The Number of the Beast”

    Odd, as I’m a massive fan of his ‘juveniles’ all of which had more logic and humanity in them than any of his didactic, overhyped and oversexed ‘masterworks’

    1. Sarah, it’s funny because I’m not enamored with his juveniles, at least the ones that I have tried to read. I did like Podkayne of Mars, which many people know did not like, but I was also a younger reader when I read that one and may not have seen some of the sexism that people see in it today.

  7. Between my mid-teens and mid-twenties I tried to read Dune maybe six times in total. Never made it more than half way through before I threw it across the room, irritated. It’s hard to remember but I think I found the writing style and the approach to character to be stiff and stilted.
    Now middle aged, I tried Dune again six months ago. It flew by. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
    I guess either my tastes have changed or I’m just really desperate for some of that good ol’ “Classic SF” feel.

  8. ***Looks up from his copy of “REAMDE”*** The test to whether you can enjoy one of Neal’s novels lies in your willingness in having a very entertaining geek/nerd crash on your couch for a couple of weeks (or in the case of the Baroque Cycle, a couple of months).

    1. The thing is, I did like Cryptonompicon; and I got most of it too (I’m a software developer by day, after all!) but something about the book 3/4ths of the way through just dragged on. I’ve seen reviews for REAMDE and they all seem to indicate it is a good thriller so maybe that one is different.

    1. I’ve got a novella by Liz (which she signed for me) that’s waiting for me to read it. But I’ll tell you, I enjoy the morning strolls through the Readercon parking lot with Liz and company. The “and company” including Paul Di Filippo and his wife, Barry and Joyce Malzberg, Scott Edleman. Usually one or two others. 🙂

  9. Stross: Like the Laundry, haven’t been hooked by anything else.

    Doctorow: Prefer the nonfiction to the fiction.

    Le Guin: Dispossed and Left Hand are the only two (along with some shorts) that captivated me.

    Stephenson: Maybe he caught me at the right time (when I was working on Wall Street and all the world was heady and techy), but I enjoyed Crypt, Baroque and the rest.

    Vinge: I’ve been reading since early appearances in ASF, so maybe I grew with him.

    Miller: I know I’ve read his stuff. But nothing has stuck to the neurons.

    Schachner: As above, but I recall some titles. But like Christopher Anvil, seems to be somebody who was wildly popular at the time but whose reputation has not lasted or translated.


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