News Ticker

What’s the Worst Book You’ve Ever Read?

Adam Whitehead rediscovered David Langford’s SFX list of Top 20 Pre-1990 SF Novels:

  1. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
  2. Little, Big by John Crowley
  3. The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
  4. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  5. Pavane by Keith Roberts
  6. Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
  7. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
  8. Dune by Frank Herbert
  9. Blood Music by Greg Bear
  10. Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys
  11. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  12. The Owl Service by Alan Garner
  13. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
  14. Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
  15. The Affirmation by Christopher Priest
  16. Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
  17. Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh
  18. Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
  19. Gateway by Frederick Pohl
  20. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

More interesting to me was the list of The 10 Worst Pre-1990 SF Novels:

  1. Ralph 124C41+ by Hugo Gernsback
  2. They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
  3. March of the Robots by Rev. Lionel Fanthorpe (writing as Leo Brett)
  4. The Number of the Beast by Robert Heinlein
  5. Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard
  6. O-Zone by Paul Theorux
  7. The Troglodytes by Nal Rafcam
  8. The Eye of Argon by Jim Theis
  9. The Black Star by Lin Carter
  10. Flight by Vanna Bonta

I’ve had the misfortune of reading through Battlefield Earth when I was younger and more tolerant. I’m thinking these days, I’m less likely to finish a book that gives me a bad reading experience. My recollection of Battlefield Earth is that the first 500 pages(!) were OK, but then the main protagonist died off and the remaining 500 pages(!) centered on financing problems involving shark-like alien bankers. Good grief!

So what’s the worst book you ever read?

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

30 Comments on What’s the Worst Book You’ve Ever Read?

  1. One of the Mission: Earth novels by Mr. Hubbard. I have blotted out which one it precisely was.



  2. Probably Dream Park by Larry Niven

  3. I don’t remember the name or author, but I do remember the experience. I picked up one of my dad’s hard scifi books when I was around 15 and got about 70 pages in before deciding that the author was having too much fun with the characters swearing at each other to do anything about an actual plot (the book was only around 200 pages). I told my dad that it was a good thing I had read good scifi already or I probably would have avoided the genre forever.

  4. I guess your question depends on whether you have to have read the whole book.  Worst book I ever read that I couldn’t get more than 40 pages into was First Mother’s Fire by H. L. Hoffman.  Other than that, I’m drawing a blank…

  5. euphrosyne // February 26, 2009 at 2:47 pm //

    I second the Mission: Earth novels–all of them.

    And although a lot of people will disagree, the first (and only) book of Jeff Noon’s i’ve read: Nymphomation. It came highly recommended but I was just turned off, waaaaay off by the gratuitous, masturbatory self-pleasure of the wordplay. Comparsions to Lewis Carroll are undeserved. I threw the book away, rather than give it away or sell it, because I felt it was my duty to rid the earth of what copies I could, and perhaps save another human being the several hours of suffering.

  6. Anonymous Coward // February 26, 2009 at 3:14 pm //

    Saab Lofton’s AD by Saab Lofton. I should have known it was bad by the fact that he put his name in the title. I would have completely forgotton about it, except for this little anecdote: in 2000, I offhandedly referred to it – and my opinion of it – in an article on a mostly unrelated subject. Then, in November 2005 – five years after – Lofton must have read my comments, and finds his way to my blog, where he posts an comment criticising my article and calling me a “spoiled First Worlder” – this from a man who (according to Wikipedia) lived in Las Vegas at the time. Las Vegas. Turns out he’s as classy as his own book, that is, not in the least.

  7. Planet of the Apes, by Pierre Boulle

  8. I think I gave up on Mission: Earth somewhere around book 3.  I’m seeing an author-specific theme here…


    @Jim: Wha…?  That’s crazy talk!  🙂

  9. John Norman’s Gor series?

    Oh wait, I’ve never gotten further than 10 pages into any of them.

  10. Battlefield Earth will do me.

  11. “Turn The Other Chick” edited by Esther Friesner. This was a sequel for reasons I couldn’t understand. I never finished the anthology.

  12. Reave the Just and Other Tales by Stephen Donaldson.  I love some of his books, but I think several of his books are among the worst I’ve ever read.

  13. I would say The Left Hand of Darkness but I never got past page seventy something.  I could never take the “mad king” seriously nor the notion of a world preparing for war when they had no history (supposedly) of such a thing. 

    No, worst SF novel has to be Oryx and Crake (aka Ork and Crackhead in my book) by Margaret Atwood.  A pathetic protagonist who is stuck in a joke of a human extinction plot. 


    S. F. Murphy


  14. I had a bad reading experience with The Left Hand of Darkness as well.  I have a so-so track record with award-winning sf.  Glutton for punishment that I am, I still want to give it another try, though…

  15. The Guns Of Terra 10 by Don Pendleton. The first book I couldn’t finish.

    However, I loved Planet Of The Apes.

  16. The Divorce of Buddy Figaro – A Taoist Comedy Novel by David Silverberg. I still don’t know why I read that steaming pile all the way through (maybe it’s that whole inability to turn away from a train wreck thing), but as a result there are a couple of hours of my life I’ll never get back. An unnecessary root canal would have been more entertaining and thought-provoking.


  17. I recently tried to read “The Iron Hunt” by Majorie Liu and it was <i>awful</i>. Chuck-across-the-room bad.

  18. The Legends of Dune trilogy by Kevin J Anderson & Brian Herbert. And Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune by the same two. Agreed, Elron’s Battlefield Earth was bad. But also bad is Computer One by Warwick Collins.

    I’ve also read a whole bunch of sf turkeys – lots by Lionel Fanthorpe (under various pseudonyms); Space Train by Terence Haile; The Space Mavericks and Children of the Night by Michael Kring; The Mind Brothers, Assassins from Tomorrow and Men Who Die Twice by Peter Heath; The Girls from Planet 5 by Peter Wilson…

  19. The Avatar by Poul Anderson.  Was an average read utterly ruined by the ending.

  20. My favorite SF writer has always been Robert A. Heinlein, but I can’t stand Number of the Beast and Friday.  I’ve tried both a number of times and have never been able to finish either.  Of the two, I’d vote for Number of the Beast as being the worst.  What’s weird is the book is based on a fantastic idea, but the characters are too silly, and the constant references to nipples, especially nipples that go sprung, just ruined the story for me.

    It’s pretty damn weird when your absolute favorite and worst novels are written by the same guy.

  21. Interesting to see different tastes displayed here – I happened to *like* Dream Park and Planet of the Apes (or Monkey Planet) by Boulle, and absolutely LOVED The Number of the Beast when it came out (I was 15 and had read every other Heinlein book at that point, which is kind of a prerequisite to enjoy Beast.) And I’m a huge LeGuin fan. Never read any Hubbard though, and feel pretty good about that…

    Hands down the absolute worst SF book I’ve ever read was Borrowed Tides by Paul Levinson. It was sheer awfulness – which is weird, because I’ve liked all of his other books quite a lot.

  22. My “worst” are as follows:

    (1)Wreck of the River of Stars by Michael Flynn. Characters I just hated and could not sympathize with at all.

    (2)Fatal Revenant and Runes of Earth by Stephen Donaldson. I don’t know what happened, but I enjoyed reading the Covenant books when I was younger. Linden and Covenant are such whiny and dysfunctional people that I just hate reading about them. “Oh, my son, I must find time to think about this.” Stop thinking about every damn little thing and wallowing in despair.(“It’s like those miserable Psalms, there so depressing.”)

    (3)Soldier Son trilogy and Tawny Man trilogy by Robin Hobb. (These were gifts for Birthdays.) Oh, GOD, they are so boring. Will never, never pick up a book by her again. Also the Fat “protagonist” in Soldier Son is just awful.

  23. Frek and the Elixer, by Rudy Rucker. It had a really interesting premise,  but I really just forced myself to finish it. I still pick up Rucker’s books from the library shelf, because I still like the sounds of the ideas he presents, but I just can’t get into them as much as I would like to…..

  24. “Sphere” by Michael Crichton.  The ending was such a deus ex machina that I felt thoroughly cheated after investing so much time in the book.  Conversely, Jurassic Park is still one of my favorite reads.

  25. @ Hi John…. I recall it was the narative that didn’t work for me. Seemed awkward and stilted. I gave up on it about a quarter the way in. I didn’t like the whole concept of the Apes franchise, one of the few books I gave up on, that and Joe Haldeman’s “Old twentieth.” Sorry.  

  26. patrick-nsrc // March 1, 2009 at 4:49 pm //

    This lists is 13 years old,  flawed and misrepresented.  Besides the well-known fact that the small amateur SF community gives good reviews for its friends and inside writers and  there’s another at least one glaring problem with this list, i.e.,  At least one of the books on the Worst list doesn’t even fit the genre or date criteria.

    1) Flight by Bonta (a quantum fiction novel) publication date is almost a decade after 1990, when this list’s claim is books BEFORE 1990.

    2) And, Flight by Bonta is not even science fiction.

    In fact, Flight was published in 1996 — the same year as this (13 year-old) Langford list. 

    So what’s it doing on the list of titles Langford claims is books published before 1990? 

    It was the mid 90s when Flight first got the amateur SF community’s attention, who were annoyed to arms by praise that came for the book and author from many respectable reviewers and fans.

    Publishers Weekly compared Bonta, a new and unknown writer, to Heinlein in a high praise.  (Understandly unforgivable to sf hardliners).

    Flight was put on the black-ball list by Langford  in the mid 90s, within months of its publication, whene noone had even heard of Bonta, when the book isn’t even sf. 

    Ironically, here it shows up on a Worst of SF list, again with Heinlein.

    I guess one could say she shares pretty good company to be mentioned even in a Worst category with Heinlein but it begs the question why would they even bother with a new unknown writer who wasn’t even science fiction?

    The past two months (a decade + later) we’ve been seeing the author Vanna Bonta on History Channel, and the novel Flight.  A decade later, the book has exceeded the inspiration most writers would hope for and has won literary awards and recognition and has made its place in a lot of people’s favorites and libraries.  It also made news in a way that any sceince fiction writer would kill for.  Very cool things.

    It’s hard to be wrong when a book a reviewer and his friends campaign hardly against a book and author and the world loves it anyway.   But “experts” like Langford, amaterur or not, should realize their campaigns and choices are a matter of opinion, not the law.  No worries, the public knows it too. 

    Opinions are arguable, but any writing community is lost that confuses the activity of reviews with political blackballing.



  27. I definitely agree with “Number of the Beast” being on the list.   That was the quintessential “dirty old man” heinlen novel.  It made me think that he learned everything he knew about women from Penthouse Letters.


    This is Saab Lofton, author of A.D., here to list some facts …

    1) “Anonymous Coward” is a good pen name for someone who put down a book that not only exposes the Nation of Islam and how America’s corporate elite funded Hitler’s Nazis, but also depicts a positive future for Humanity to strive for.

    2) I didn’t put my name in the title, my publisher did, but if that’s the best this cowardly prick can do, it’s clear he’s R-E-A-C-H-I-N-G like Plastic Man (same can be said about him picking on how I lived in Las Vegas … BIG DEAL, asshole).

    3) I would’ve responded to this loser sooner than five years had I known he was talking smack. And the VAST MAJORITY of A.D.’s reviews were positive. It’s just a goddamn shame all too many out there can get off by turning their noses up in the air for no reason. “Duh, that band was cool when they first came out but now they SUCK!” And so forth …

    4) Finally, half of A.D.’s first printing sold within the first year of its release — how many first time authors can claim that? To this day, I STILL have folks asking for copies, and though the cover price was $12.00, it’s been known to sell online for as much as three times that amount, so kiss the blackest part of my ass, you snide, stuck up bastard.


    Saab Lofton’s AD by Saab Lofton. I should have known it was bad by the fact that he put his name in the title. I would have completely forgotton about it, except for this little anecdote: in 2000, I offhandedly referred to it – and my opinion of it – in an article on a mostly unrelated subject. Then, in November 2005 – five years after – Lofton must have read my comments, and finds his way to my blog, where he posts an comment criticising my article and calling me a “spoiled First Worlder” – this from a man who (according to Wikipedia) lived in Las Vegas at the time. Las Vegas. Turns out he’s as classy as his own book, that is, not in the least.


    Posted by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 26, 2009 at 3:14 PM at 3:14 PM

  29. There are, unfortunately, a lot of genuinely terrible SF books out there (Sturgeon’s Law). And, it seems to this old, jaded reader, many more being published. I blame the overwhelming tide of indifferent fantasy series and movie and game tie-ins/adaptations, driven by an understandable need for publishers to actually make a profit in a very difficult industry.

    More interesting–to me at least–isn’t the question of bad books, but of bad books written by good writers, the frequently-mentioned-in-this-thread Heinlein’s Number of the Beast being a good example (tried but could not finish it). Another colossal disappointment was Haldeman’s Forever Free with, possibly, one of the worst endings I’ve ever had the misfortune to read (wish I hadn’t finished it). I also hated – and I seem to be in a minority here though I don’t know why – The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Swanwick (wish I hadn’t started it). Oh well. Any others?

    It’s all proof that good writing isn’t necessarily what gets published, but good sales (or the likelihood thereof). It’s on us, as readers, to find good authors, to buy their books (especially in hardcover if you can), and to let others know about them. 

  30. This is Saab Lofton. One of the greatest examples of hypocrisy in Human history is when some bored, spoiled, coy, snide, smug, sarcastic, stuck-up prick hides behind the First Amendment in order to attack me …

    … but then cowers in fear when it comes time to, say, defend the free expression of Muslims/Arabs in a post-9/11 climate. For shame! CaN’T have it both ways! Those who tell me, “Saab, such criticism is inevitable,” better start producing their A.C.L.U. membership cards!

    I shudder to think how much damage has been done to the anti-nuclear movement because similarly stuck-up pricks attacked Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (It’s enough to make you think a white boy’s favorite thing to say is, “Sucks!”). Thank God V for Vendetta did so well — it took 54 million to make but brought in 132 million during its inital theatrical run ..! 

    The point is everything I write is as radical as Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and V for Vendetta, so whenever some snide, sarcastic bastard attacks my work, they risk ruining a perfectly good chance to make a difference; to make the world a better place.

    Sadly, the white suburbanites who usually attack me are so damn spoiled, they couldn’t care less about the future of Humanity — and therein lies the problem …


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: