Hi Jon, nice to meet you ^__^
I completely agree with you: many authors who can get their science right can't equally handle their characters and plots, and balancing those needs is really an unusual feat.
Regarding the first ones, in my opinion, Roger MacBride Allen's "Hunted Earth" saga is a good example, while usually Robert J. Sawyer is able to use all those three elements with much more care.
I enjoy plot-drive SF too, but, while it's true that there are a fair lot of robust plots and credible characters out there... once I get the fiction, I always feel hungry for science :P
The fact is that my love for physics makes me enjoy immensely such (not so easy to find, if you think about it) novels, because science (social science, too) well represented and plausible is one of the main triggers for my sense of wonder ;)
I find refreshing, in a number of good, plot-wise novels, to sometimes read something in which physics is the real protagonist, and the characters only mere instruments to display it. Yeah, I'm odd ;P
- the whole Neanderthal series by Sawyer... and everything else - he's one of my top writers. I really loved Calculating God, it blew my mind. How can he have such shattering ideas? O_o
- both the Eon Saga and Moving Mars (Bear is my current favorite, I just mooched Darwin's Radio)
- Benford's Timescape and
- quite a bit of Haldeman,
but I never tried Cramer and Hogan: I'll fix that!
It's really wonderful to be able to collect such interesting suggestions knowing that they come from other people who loved those books and want to share. Thank you very much, and good reading ^______^