How often are you underwhelmed by a book, movie, or video game after hearing about it online or through your friend group? The book is great, and clearly affected a large number of peoples’ lives. But by the time you’ve heard weeks, and possibly months, of hype from friends, you go in with an inflated impression and you leave the experience… well, underwhelmed.
This is the case with the books occupying this list, some of which might even be called 'overrated.' In this case, I’m using the term less as an extension of “this book isn’t as good as the hype,” and more to describe the sort of titles where the book’s impression has overshadowed anything to do with the book’s narrative and/or themes.
These seven novels have their place in the sci-fi ecosystem, and are among the top favorites of countless readers. Many count them classics. And yet, if you go in nowadays to experience the book for the first time, there’s no way to read it without the veil of its reputation. And for that reason, these novels often are judged accordingly.
Stranger in a Strange Land
Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is perhaps the best example of what I feel is an overrated book. At this point, if you haven’t read the novel, you have some clouded understanding of it from all the commentary and media/critical interpretation over the years.
But the novel is a product of its time. Read: The 1970s. Since then, it hasn’t aged well at all; yet the reputation continues to position the book in such a way that many a reader walks into the experience without realizing what they’ve just gotten themselves into.
I love cyberpunk and the concept of the matrix as much as the next person. But the culture surrounding Gibson’s masterpiece has overshadowed the actual, you know, reading of the book.
Shortly before writing this piece, I went around and asked people I knew (people who read a lot) if they had read Neuromancer. The result? Of the dozen or so, including myself, only two people had read the book. Two. And I’m not one of the two. I am a little ashamed that I haven’t read the book given that I’ve read so many other novels by Gibson; however, I was always overwhelmed by it due to the culture surrounding it.
Quite simply, the praise and discourse over the years for the novel has turned it into a bit of an infallible and intimidating work. Not a bad thing from a distance, but really, isn’t the point to have people read and experience the work rather than pose and posture the title as a mantelpiece for cyberpunk and its popularity?
That being said, the criticism in recent years hasn’t been favorable to this sci-fi classic series. The critiques run the gamut between the incredibly dry prose; to the paper-thin characters; the horrible treatment of women (a recurring issue with a lot of sci-fi of the time); and the overuse of deus ex machina as a narrative device. This is all to say that people are likely picking Asimov’s work apart simply due to its age.
Regardless, the Foundation series still has a lot to offer. Perhaps readers must approach it as a relic, rather than a straight-forward reading experience.
Ready Player One
The biggest ingredient of Ready Player One's success was nostalgia. The novel oozes with enthusiasm for an era long gone.
Cline did a good job of unearthing the nostalgia. According to many a critic, though, perhaps he should have focused on everything else. For every bit of success the book (and its author) has received, they have also been the subject of controversy.
And thanks to all the scrutiny and criticism, the book simply cannot step away from the incredibly daunting public response.
Niven’s sci-fi heavyhitter launched an incredible series, and continues to be celebrated as one the genre’s foremost examples of hard sci-fi and imaginative worldbuilding. However, Ringworld also unfortunately features sexist treatment of women.
Consequently, Ringworld may be a disappointment for those readers who listen to the devout adoration for Niven’s series… only to encounter page after page of fascinating ideas laden with antiquated social views.
This is a big one, in that so many readers of sci-fi grew up with Ender’s Game. Ender's Game also occupies similar territory as, say, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, in that it is so often read by young, teen audiences, at a pivotal point in their adolescence.
Ender's Game has a loud and divided readership; for every reader that loved it, there are a handful that hated it. Let me tell you, the biggest issue here isn't the haters, it's those that love the book.
Across the internet there is an aggressive fanbase ready to defend the book. I’m expecting to get many of them emailing and tweeting at me for adding this to the list! However, it wouldn’t be a fleshed-out list without it.
This has nothing to do with the book itself; rather, it is overrated due to the fervent fanbase, which blemishes a person’s ability to have an opinion about the book.
Here it is, the one and only Dune.
Dune is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, especially now that Denis Villeneuve is adapting it for film.
Many readers find it harder to get comfortable with Dune than they anticipated, but there is something uniquely compelling about Herbert's opus. It’s this book that can take the hate, and the heat; yet it often sways critics into the positive if they dare to pick it up, shrug off any negativity, and actually, you know, commit to reading it.
I did, and was pleasantly surprised.