Dune (Frank Herbert)
Often quoted as “Science Fiction’s answer to Lord of the Rings”. And totally true. This is one hell of an epic novel. Pretty much everything is epic – huge ideas, huge scope, a story (if you count the sequel novels that spans millennia), compelling characters that leave their mark. The cast is huge and varied, a tapestry of flesh that includes the likes of noble desert fighters, messiahs, conniving ‘witches’, and greedy emperors. To top it off, there’s even giant sand worms ridden into battle. F**k Yea! Did I miss anything? There’s politics between major powers, love, a war that spans planets, treachery of the foulest sort, boy heroes who rise from the dust (literally) and villains that you just love to hate and hate to love. And this fascinating mishmash of just about every concept and idea all centers around Spice, an almost magical substance that comes from one planet only – Arrakis, also known as Dune. It’s a substance that enables interplanetary travel, the most valuable resource in the galaxy. For he who controls Spice, controls the known world. He who controls Dune controls all.
Ender’s Game (Ender Quartet) (Orson Scott Card)
One of the best science fiction books ever written and a modern classic, through and through. Ender’s game is the story of a young boy placed in a situation where there is no winning, a game that is of course a metaphor for life. Some might call it Lord of the Flies in space and it is to a certain extent, but beyond some of the surface similarities, Ender’s Game is a different beast. There’s a lot going on, plot-wise and theme-wise in this story. A relentless alien threat, a young child thrown into a controlled futuristic version of a Lord of the Flies setting, and one of the best plot twists in the science fiction genre.
Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein)
Starship Troopers is classic Heinlein and my fill for one of his best novels written. It won the Hugo Award and deservedly so. Unfortunately, most people know this book through the shamefully produced movie. Really, forget the movie ever existed as it’s got nothing on the book itself; the only similarities shared are the character names, the bugs, and the power suits. The quick and dirty summary of the book is that it’s a metaphorical look at war, both the cost of war and the pleasure of war. Like every “classic”, the message is just as relevant now as it was decades ago when first published.
Foundation (Foundation Series) (Issac Asimov)
A pinnacle of Science Fiction literature, Foundation stands at the top. Many will argue Foundation is the greatest work in the genre while just as many wonder why others love it. It’s roundly regarded as a classic in the genre by one of the grandmasters science fiction writers. The series has garned a slew of awards included a one-time Hugo award for “Best All Time Series” in 1966. Grand concepts and epic storylines abound in this novel. This is not so much a story of personal characters but of grand ideas. If you like to “think” when you read science fiction, Foundation will deliver.
The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester)
A stunning classic that’s influenced a generation of writers and sub genres, including the Cyberpunk movement. The Stars My Destination broke away from the main stream SF about supermen, heroes, and good guys. Instead of the handsome, altruistic good guy, we have a character who’s rather repugnant, both physically and morally; an amoral black hole who manages to suck out the good around him without spitting anything of value back into the universe. And despite this,we get it; we understand what makes this man tick. And by golly,we actually emphasis with him — which is the real genius of Bester.
2001: A Space Odyssey (Author C. Clarke)
One of those genre defining, pop-culture inseminating books that’s practically on every ‘best of’ science Fiction list out there. Besides all that, this is the novel that spawned that way cool famous phrase “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” A big Thank You for that. Now you know when your little iRobot starts spouting that phrase when asked to vacuum the floor, you’re royally fucked. Outside the annals of science fiction, people are familiar with the title from the cult-hit Stanley Kubrick-directed film. Many have seen the film, but fewer have read the actual book. The movie and book are quite tied together as things go, with Author C. Clark working closely with Stanley Kubrick on the movie script and then adopting it to novel afterwards. The movie and book were meant to complement each other.
Hyperion Cantos (Dan Simmons)
A fantastic Hugo-winning space opera that merges the narrative element of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with a futuristic space opera set in the distant future. The whole series (not just the first book) is based on the assumption that man’s conquering the stars is inevitable and the complexities and troubles this brings. It’s a wild, wild ride and one of the best damn science fiction books/series ever written. This is a modern science fiction read that’s absolutely destined to be a classic. The story centers on six pilgrims and their tales. We find out parts of their history and the needs that drive them to this pilgrimage – a pilgrimage which is a certain death sentence. For these pilgrims are seeking out the Shrike, a god like creature that legend says will kill all but one pilgrim, granting the one survivor a wish.
Neuromancer (William Gibson)
Released in 1984, Neuromancer is widely considered the progenitor of the Cyberpunk genre and the first science fiction to simultaneously win the “Triple Crown” awards (Nebula, Hugo, and Philip K. Dick award). This seminal novel brought many ideas that have seeped into our collective consciousness, including inventing now-used terms such as “cyberspace.” It’s an ambitious novel full of unique ideas. The pose is complex and full of technical jargon which may be off-putting to some (more than a few people have picked the book up only to put it down after a few pages). But this is a novel that if you push through becomes an electrifying read.
1984 (George Orwell)
A novel of seminal importance that’s influenced society and pop culture like few others. 1984 is the novel that invented the term Big Brother (and no, we’re not talking about that uber crappy reality TV show that locks half a dozen sex-starved drug addicts into a room for a month). 1984 has often been used as a battleground tool in the war waged by the supports of personal privacy against the forces that push for more government control in our daily lives. It’s a stark warning for the 21 century against the pitfalls of government control.
10 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
A comedic take on the whole science fiction genre that pokes fun of just about everything. This work has transcended the genre to become part of pop culture. The novel is one long tongue in cheek event – from the characters, to the plot, to the setting. The humor is as British as they come which can lose more than a few that don’t get British humor. This entry on the list is our ode to the Comedic subgenre of SF. It’s a journey through space and time that will have you laughing the whole way through that’s practically cackling with energy the whole way. A must read for everyone if only so you can get the cultural references that refer to the book!
Ubik (Philip K. Dick)
What is a best science fiction list without the inclusion of one of the greatest science fiction writers ever? Yes, I’m talking about Philip K. Dick, a man ignored in his time but now Hollywood’s golden boy when it comes to drumming up new science fiction films that star A list actors. The typical entry on a top list would be Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a seminal science fiction short story that has influenced pop culture like few others. Blade Runner, for one, was based closely on the short story. And we all know how much that film influenced future films. Pretty much every new science fiction film that features an urban city rips out the dirty, vertical urban city sprawl depicted in Blade Runner.
The Forever War (Joe Haldman)
A futuristic account of an endless war that ends only to return home again to everything has changed so much you don’t fit in. To say this is an allegory for the real world would be an understatement. The novel gives a stunning look into the potential future of humankind and how society might evolve. The Forever War won both a Hugo and Nebula award. If there was a novel written for veterans, this would be it. And given that the author himself served in the Vietnam War, the novel reflects his own loose metaphoric experiences in the story. This novel is a direct discourse with Starship Troopers in the way that it takes an anti-military stance the whole way through. It’s a very sharp look at the whole Vietnam War if you read between the lines.
Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson)
A novel of startling ideas that influenced a generation of writers and pop culture. Some of the best cyberpunk science fiction out there. Fans of dystopian fiction and cyberpunk will love this one especially those who adore the setting present in Blade Runner – a dilapidated futuristic Asian metropolis with little law and even less order. The writing is sharp, the wit sharper, and the sarcasm even more so. Stephenson brings you into HIS world, a world where society has been redefined and the rules of living are vastly changed. It’s a distant future that’s somewhat familiar while also alien. There’s a lot of ideas in Snow Crash and complex ones at that. Stephenson looks at the not-too distant future; it’s a dismal place with no laws, private corporations controlling everything, and the Mob having their hands in the rest – including Pizza Delivery services.
A Fire Upon the Deep (Zones of Thought) (Vernor Vinge)
This stands as one of the best damn space operas ever created, standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Hyperion. It’s packed with incredible ideas and interesting characters and wrapped around with high adventure. Folks, it doesn’t get better than this. So read the damn thing. A Fire Upon the Deep is one of those books that some love and some hate, but needs to be read. It’s a book with an incredible vision of the galaxy and man’s future among the stars, but it’s also a rip roaring tale that doesn’t get lost in all that “vastness”. A perfect combination between story and ideas. This book won the Hugo Award and it’s pretty easy to see why it did. There’s a lot of “back story” going on, but the basic premise is this: the galaxy is divided up into various zones. The more sophisticated the technology, the further zones you can go. The laws of physics are relaxed in the zones which make computing and technology such as faster than light travel possible that’s not possible in the Slow Zones. Earth is stuck in the Slow Zone but humanity has in fact made it into the Beyond and founded a few civilizations. The irony is that when you have made it to the Beyond, it’s hard to reach the Slow Zone because the laws of physics are more restrictive. The perfect utopia of the Beyond comes to a grinding halt when human scientists accidentally unleash an ancient evil that basically gobbles up the known world. And the fight to save the universe is on.
Old Man’s War (Cold Fire Trilogy) (John Scalzi)
A recent work that’s undoubtedly destined to be a classic. This is one of the best science fictions to come out the past decade. With a strong homage to classic Heinlein but with its own personality, Old Man’s War is a refreshing mix of the old and the new. The bare-bones premise of the story is that humans have found a means to travel between stars. They also find we are not alone and that valuable planets are a very rare and sought-after commodity. Space, it turns out, is not bright world where a collective of Star-Trek like evolved races work together for the good of the galaxy. Rather it’s a dog-eat-dog world where stronger races prey on weaker ones as a matter of principal. And there are several unfriendly races in the human neck of the woods. To help protect Earth’s colony’s against invasions, the Colonial Defense Force enlists everyone, including elderly citizens. The hero of the story happens to be one of these “elderlies”.
Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs Novels) (Richard Morgan)
Part Film-Noir mystery, part cyberpunk, all goodness. Altered Carbon made a big splash when released. Combining gritty detective noir and cyberpunk, this novel is one hell of a thrill ride from start to end. While there is a strong cyberpunk element to it, you could class this directly in the future noir / science fiction aubgenre. The premise is simple, but unique: death has been conquered and humans wear different bodies, called sleeves. The Hero, Kovacs, an ex-member of the UN Envoys, a feared international killing squad sent out to do the UN’s dirty work, is brought in to investigate why Bancroft, one of the wealthiest men on Earth, was murdered. Bancroft, brought back from a digital copy rejects the explanation of his death by suicide. Kovacs, brought back in the body that all too well known. And with both the underworld and police gunning for him, a simple investigation will pit Kovacs against a conspiracy.
Book of the New Sun (Gene Wolfe)
A critically acclaimed science fantasy – a thoroughly extraordinary series that’s set far far into the distant future. This is an epic that’s set in the distant future – millions of years into the future to be precise – when the world is now old yet startlingly new in other ways. The protagonist, Severian, lives a secluded life as a torturer until he’s exiled from his guild after falling in love with a woman he tortures. As he journeys out from a familiar world into the unfamiliar, seeking the far city of Thrax, we the audience are taken along with him and exposed to an exciting and distant world that’s as alien as it is familiar. At times the world evokes similarities to Vance’s Dying Earth and Peak’s Gormenghast – both worlds that are a labyrinth of possibility that seem made almost from a half remembered dream. This is a book that straddles both science fiction and fantasy. I would readily award this novel the greatest literary science fiction book out there on par with Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series. Often described as a literary science fiction epic. Immense futurity, travel through space and time, palaces within palaces, swordplay, wordplay, mercy that kills, lies becoming truths with the passing of time, etc.
Player of Games (Culture) (Ian M. Banks)
Probably the best of Ian Bank’s Culture novels. Strong characters and a light-hearted tone to the novel despite the “seriousness” of the actual plot make this an easy, addicting read. Come on people, as much as we like reading about world-shattering ideas, end of the universe problems, and defeat impossible alien invader odds, sometimes you just want to a fast read that doesn’t require too much commitment on your part. Player of Games is just that type of novel – you can jump into a rich world without committing to too much. And despite how easy it is to read, it’s a pretty damn good read to boot. The Culture novels are about a Galactic spanning empire of hedonistic evolved humans where all supposed problems have been solved. This society and the workings of it are highly detailed by Banks.
The Night’s Dawn (Peter F. Hamilton)
Hamilton’s best work – a magnificent space opera that’s as expansively epic as it is exciting. Hamilton’s later works are perhaps more refined and writing better, but this is his best work still. This is not a work of grand ideas along the lines of Foundation or Dune (though Hamilton creates a compelling vision of a humanity who’s conquered to void of space yet finds it is not the master after all) but it’s one hell of an adventure that tackles the death, the afterlife, and man’s primal fears. On a distant planet humans find a mysterious device of potentially alien origin. Things go wrong when humans tinkering with it unleashes man’s darkest nightmare on the galaxy. Man though he conquered the void. But now the void is conquering back.
Gateway (HeeChee Saga) ( Frederick Pohl)
For a superb science fiction tale that straddles the perfect mix between hard and soft science fiction, Gateway take the cake. Gateway is a real page turner – something that many science fictions novels fail at. This is one of them more accessible science fiction reads out there; no need to wade through staggering concepts or follow along with dull characters and thin plot threads. The critics loved it too; Gateway won the Nebula, Hugo, Locus, and Campbell awards in 1977/78. Gateway features an everyman character you can relate to, plenty of humor, and healthy dose of suspense that keeps the suspense up throughout the whole story. The prose too is good; concise and easy to read.
Spin (Robert Charles Wilson)
A novel of characters and ideas, one that melds to two together fluidly. It’s one of the best science fiction novels written in the “2000’s” and while it’s not yet a “classic”, it’s probably destined for classic status. Overall, this a wonderful read for those who want science fiction that not only tugs forth novel ideas but tugs on your emotions too. This Hugo award winner poses the question if the earth remained static while the universe around it aged 100 million years for each earth year that passes. This is the premise of the story with a mysterious shield that suddenly surrounds the earth, while the universe “spins” through time around it. It’s a grand concept that brings with it a number of smaller issues such as with each passing year the chances of earth being destroyed by an outside force increases. The human drama created by this Spin results from the motivations of the powers who installed the shield and the ultimate purpose of it. Then there is the rich emotional drama of how the ultimate End will impact humanity.
The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi)
This might not have the seminal influence that some of the “classics’ have on this list, but it’s a damn impressive novel – rich and atmospheric. The setting is a near future dystopia. All those bad things that you’ve heard can happen to the environment have happened and the world has been shaken up and new rules are in place. The setting is unique and evocative, a futuristic Bangkok. The world is post-oil where there is very little petroleum and energy is provided by using genetically modified animals to wind up springs which are then used to power an array of machines. It’s a sort of steampunkish look at a future of sorts, but completely different than the usual blade-runnerish, vertical cities, flying cars, media-everywhere visions of the future present in most future-looking science fiction.
Anathem (Neal Stephenson)
Wow, what a ride from beginning to end. True to a Neal Stephenson tradition, it ties a number of completely different ideas and themes together into a (somehow) working thread. Stephenson returns to the science fiction genre after nearly 13 years and manages to reinvent the old wheel, but improve on it in many ways. I know Stephenson has been mentioned on this list already with Snow Crash and there are a LOT of classics that could take this place; but Anathem was one of the best recent science fiction releases and because of that is on this list. Science Fiction is not interested with extrapolation, but variation on existing ideas. Big Object hurtling towards earth. Parallel universes. Artificial Intelligence. That’s not to say contemporary science fiction hasn’t produced some outstanding works that explore these ideas more fully than the pioneers of the genre did, but the fact remains that very few “new” concepts are being explored.
Blindsight (Peter Watts)
Nominated for Hugo award, this is a “First Contact” novel that focuses just as much on a cast of troubled, flawed characters as it does on the alien contact premise. It’s a wonderful read and should be read if you want a different sort of First Contact story than the usual Science Fiction. This is one of the best Hard Science fiction novels of the past decade. The story centers on Siri Keaton, a human with half a brain. He’s a member of the Theseus, a research vessel crewed by a number of superhuman misfits – all genetically and technologically modified to work in deep space. The crew quite accidentally encounter an alien lie form during a routine trip. It’s a novel of first contact that calls into question not the otherness of something not human, but the inhumanity that lies in a human. Watt’s gives a cold clinical view of the universe, yet at the same time breathes a deep life into his wounded characters.
Miles Vorkosigan Saga (Lois McMaster Bujold)
There’s a time for everything. There’s a time to read heavy novels filled with grand ideas and space, the universe, and the destiny of mankind through Hard Science Fiction. There’s a time to read meaningful discourse on the human condition through Soft Science Fiction. Then there’s just a time to sit back and read something that’s just pretty damn fun without having to think complex thoughts. Miles Vorkosigan is that read. This is heroic, romantic space opera that has the best character writing and development in the entire genre. The series follows the rise of prodigy Miles Vorkosigan, a young man with a crippled body but a brilliant mind, through his rise in the ranks as he takes on and conquers impossible odds with genius strategy. This is character-driven Space Opera that mixes in humor, comedy, tragedy and loss, politics,, military, and romance in various proportions. Lots of action, lots of adventure, and always fun, this is one of science fiction’s most endearing and enduring series. The first book was published in 1986 and the most recent in 2012.