When two heads are better than one: 5 must-read collaborative SF/F novels

Gautham Shenoy February 16, 2019 8 min

As anyone who has tried writing collaboratively will tell you, it’s a tricky one to pull off, for more reasons than a few. But every so often, magic happens when two writers decide to collaborate and the result is more than the sum of its parts – a book that brings to the fore each writer’s strengths, a novel that does more than each writer could perhaps have done on his own and these collaborative novels, not surprisingly, often go down as essential classics. More than any other genre of literature, SF/F has arguably had a long tradition of collaborative fiction and here are just five of them, instances where two authors – each an established writer in his own right – collaborated to create magic.

The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl & Cyril M. Kornbluth

First published as a single book in 1953, with the tagline, ‘A novel of the future when the advertising agencies take over’, Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants is today considered one of science fiction’s great classics and rightly so. The Space Merchants follows the story of a ‘copysmith’, Mitchell Courtenay – a professional who works at one of the ad agencies that control the world – whose latest advertising campaign is a project to sell Venus as a future home to unsuspecting consumers. Having lived a life of luxury, Mitch soon finds himself on the other end of the spectrum as his life takes a turn for the worse and he finds himself going up against the very system of which he was the epitome of, along with the ‘consies, a group that seeks to undermine the advertising agencies and especially the Venus project. A fast-paced story set against the background of a grossly overpopulated earth and food & fuel shortages, The Space Merchants is a scathing, satirical take on unbridled capitalism, a cautionary tale about technology, ubiquitous advertising and hyper-consumerism, and is as relevant now as it was when first published.

The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Counted amongst the finest novels of ‘first contact’ that explore the meeting of humans and aliens for the first time while looking at its various aspects and repercussions, this 1974 novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle is set 10 centuries from now, in a time when humankind has taken to the stars and settled on planets in star systems across the galaxy. The Second Empire is just establishing its supremacy in the face of resistance, with the First Empire of Man having been torn apart by an interstellar civil war. Written to be ‘the epitome of first contact novels’, The Mote in God’s Eye sees humans unexpectedly discovering, and then reaching out to, a sapient species on a newly-discovered planet – which makes them the ‘visiting aliens’. ‘The Moties’ as they are dubbed are an old species with several specialised sub-species, technologically capable with a Base 12 numbering system, but not quite advanced enough to carry out interstellar travel. And because The Moties have to reproduce prodigiously or else they will die, which means that overpopulation of their planet is a constant threat, which has led to wars and the downfall of many their previous civilisations, one that will happen with the current one as well – a fact that the fatalist Moties accept as an inevitability. On being discovered by humans, The Moties see their opportunity to become a part of an interstellar society and thus begins a tale of deception, action and intrigue. The Mote In God’s Eye, though may seem slow-paced and dated in certain section, remains nonetheless a good read for its exploration of ‘first contact’ in the context of how it looks – realistically – at how humans would react if they found another intelligent species in the universe through the lens of religion, politics, psychology and culture.

Also read: Something for everyone: 5 essential science fiction anthologies you must read

The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling

The novel that birthed an entire sub-genre and established the conventions of the steampunk sub-culture – not least in cosplay – The Difference Engine, the 1990 novel by two of the key architects of the cyberpunk movement, Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, is without a doubt a classic of science fiction, especially of the alternate history sub-genre. Set in a world that diverged from our own in the 1820s, The Difference Engine portrays a Victorian Britain in which the Industrial Revolution and the Information Revolution happened at the same time – both powered by steam and – the latter due to Charles Babbage’s achievement in completing his difference engine and going on to develop an Analytical Engine. Due to its advancements in steam-powered technology, the British Empire is more powerful than it was, not least because of its successful efforts in thwarting the rise of a united United States. Exploring the implications of the I.T. revolution happening before its time, The Difference Engine is a masterful read in detailed world-building and its clever layering of current technological implications on the past. Powered by Bruce Sterling’s techno-imagination and William Gibson’s take on the people who inhabit it, The Difference Engine feels like real history due to its structure – of interconnected stories and short vignettes that shed light on the smaller details – and is to this day, a classic that no fan of science fiction can afford to miss.

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Good Omens, or rather, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter Witch, as the book’s full title goes, is a 1990 novel by Discworld-author Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the writer of, amongst other things, Sandman. A comedic fantasy tale about the end times, or The Apocalypse as it is more popularly referred to as Good Omens is at once a satirical take on religion and philosophy as it is about a mix-up about the Son of Satan. Given that Agnes Nutter was (is?) the only truly accurate prophet who ever lived, and given that she predicted the very specific details of the end times, it is now up to two supernatural beings – the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley (technically an angel, who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards) – who now have to endeavour to ensure the apocalypse doesn’t arrive, not least because they have grown so used to the comforts of their earth-bound lives and mayhap even grown to like humankind and would not like to see a change in the state of things as they are. With Good Omens set to hit screens on May 31st, in a single-season six-episode series , starring – among others – David Tennant, Michael Sheen, Jon Hamm and Frances McDormand & Benedict Cumberbatch, as a production of Amazon Prime Video and the BBC, now would be a good time to catch up on this SF classic about the (mis)adventures of the anti-Christ, the supposed Four Horsemen of the supposed Apocalypse and a cast of indelible characters that has made Good Omens a fan favourite and a cult classic amongst SF/F reader and humour aficionados. After all, a book is always better than its adaptation.

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Unlike the books mentioned above, James S.A. Corey is the only pseudonym on this short list being as it is the pen name for the collaborative efforts of writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, whose 2011 novel Leviathan Wakes kicks off the well-received Expanse series (also the name of the acclaimed TV series now on Amazon Prime Video). A contemporary classic of the SF sub-genre known as ‘space opera’, Leviathan Wakes introduces us to the mainstays of the Expanse – the ship Rocinante, its intrepid team and how this motley crew of people came to be – against the backdrop of a future in which our solar system’s asteroid belt, its  resources and the people who call it home (the Belters) are caught between the machinations of the two opposing superpowers of Earth and Mars. Just as the hauling ship that Captain Holden is in ends up encountering an explosive fate, detective Joe Miller is handed a commission to trace the daughter of a wealthy and concerned father. As is to be expected, the path of Captain Holden and his crew soon crosses with that of detective Miller as they each seek answers to the situation they find themselves in, and an end to the mystery of what has transpired and why. As much as noir detective novel as it is a space opera, Leviathan Wakes touches upon politics, technology, diplomacy and the idea of freedom & autonomy by way of exquisitely detailed world-building that sets the stage just right for the next book in the Expanse series, Caliban’s War (2012).

So, there then are the five books we think are SF/F must-reads – and not just because they are the result of collaborative efforts, but also because each book is an SF classic that deserves to be read. Speaking of reading, which of the aforementioned books have you read? And why YOU recommend these books as must-reads? Or is there another book you’d like to add to his list? Tweet us your comments ad answers to the questions above using the hashtag #NWWonFD or using the comment section below. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and answers just as much as we hope to see you here on FactorDaily.com again next week for the next edition of the New Worlds Weekly column. Until then, and beyond, Live Long and Prosper!


Lead image: Illustrations from the 2006 HarperCollins hardcover editions of Good Omens which had two different black & white dust jackets: one listed Neil Gaiman's name first (with the image portraying the “demon” Crowley), while the other had Terry Pratchett's name first (with the “angel” Aziraphale on the cover).

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