After reading six of his novels, I would recommend that "hard" sci-fi fans of "space opera" start here with Alastair Reynolds. Chasm City kind of blew my mind. Reynolds has done some very creative things writing in the first person, and Chasm City is my favorite example. After Chasm City, try "The Prefect" and/or "House of Suns." If you're really enjoying yourself, proceed to Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap or some of the others, which I can't yet comment on.
In a word: compelling. Niven's ingenious story compelled me to read it twice, get it for a friend so we could discuss it and seek out discussion groups on-line to ponder it's complexity and creativity.
Clarke is one of the giants, and this work was acclaimed as one of his best, which is why I was eager to listen. In short, two things bothered me: first the authors' political biases dominated the story, and second the disappointing outcome, which was not quite "he woke up and it was all a dream," but close. That's not to say that it had no redeeming qualities, and if you share his political views or don't care about those things, you'll enjoy Childhood's End.
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