In this list of my top 20 sci-fi books, you’ll find both books that were crowd pleasers and books that were genre makers.
It’s going to be impossible to pick only twenty books in my “top 20 sci-fi books” article. I’ll stick with the ones that I’ve enjoyed the most, and know that others have enjoyed. There’s no real order to my list, but I have to start somewhere, so…
Top 20 Sci-Fi Books: The Classics
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Frank Herbert’s longwinded explanation of why and how Spice Must Flow has to be experienced firsthand in order to be completely appreciated. Dune takes place in the far future, where humanity has progressed to an interstellar society yet regressed into political feudalism and anarchistic mercantilism. Dune is a space opera of sorts, though it largely takes place on the planets where the various feudal “houses” reside. Of course, the political and later armed war between these houses are the subject matter of Dune‘s plot. Dune is notable for its deep characterization of characters within the protagonist’s family (House Atreides) and description of the relationship between humanity and the most valuable resource, spice. Dune is also interesting due to its amoral exploration of power dynamics and the matter-of-fact contemplation of murder for political purposes. Dune has also aged very well, avoiding any of the clumsiness that some of the older science fiction novels seem to gain over time.
War Of The Worlds, by HG Wells
We’ve all heard the story about HG Wells’ War of the Worlds provoking terror when broadcast on the radio. It turns out that it’s a really interesting story aside from the hype! Perhaps the first account of a war with extraterrestrials, War of the Worlds is incredibly forward thinking for being written in 1897, understanding that Earth’s atmosphere and microbes would be hardy defenders against extraterrestrial invaders. Interestingly, the protagonist of War of the Worlds isn’t directly involved in the conflict, as one might expect–instead, he is merely a civilian attempting to survive the tripod war machines that have come to dominate England and kidnap humans. The primary sense one gets from War of the Worlds is fear, and understandably so. With only limited human military success against the invading Martians, military conflict is not the major focus of the novel. Despite this, the imagination of Wells’ technically detailed descriptions of combat against the aliens are definitely worth a read, and will probably jog your imagination in ways that newer science fiction novels won’t.
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
Heinlein’s 1959 novel is an unforgettable episode of military science fiction at its very best. Combining political philosophy, the ambiguity of war, and the perspective of an elite soldier, the novel Starship Troopers far eclipses the film of the same name. I find Starship Troopers to be a fascinating exploration into what a spacefaring fascist society thinks about itself. The plot of Starship Troopers revolves around one soldier’s role in mankind’s war against the alien “bugs” and their allies, the “skinnies”. Johnnie Rico, the protagonist, is a member of Earth’s “Mobile Infantry”, who are best described as the blueprint for all future fictional “space marines”. The Mobile Infantry ride into battle via pods launched from orbit, then wage battle on planets using their polyfunctional jetpack-equipped power armor. Starship Troopers is a serious novel, and refuses to shy away from in-depth discussion of political and military concepts. If you’re interested in a complex and thought provoking military science fiction novel, read it.
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Orson Scott Card’s noir military epic is probably familiar to most. Ender Wiggin’s service as a child soldier and ultimately commander of Earth’s forces against the buggers marries gory details with abstract zero-gravity space conflict. Amidst Ender’s unintentional homicide of his fellow students at Battle School and accidental genocide of the buggers, Ender’s Game doesn’t show the good side of humanity, instead focusing on ruthless conflict and Machiavellian game theory. Throughout Ender’s advancement as a child soldier, the desperation of Earth’s forces is gradually revealed to the reader, culminating in the big reveal that Ender’s combat simulation games were in fact real battles in space between Earth forces and the buggers. Ethical issues aside, Ender’s Game is a unique approach to the theme of conflict between spacefaring civilizations, making it a seminal young adult fiction novel. If you haven’t yet read it, do so! Ender’s Game deserves its reputation as a classic, though its follow-up novels aren’t quite as memorable.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams’ comedic satire of the science fiction world is an absolute classic. The Hitchhiker’s Guide stars Arthur Dent, a clueless citizen of the space rubble formerly known as Earth. Dent’s stories are written in a gonzo style, frequently interrupted by snarky narration that defines the humor and wit of the novel. Eccentric characters and eccentric worlds mash up to create a compelling and giggle-worthy read, even if it’s a bit dense at times. Thankfully, Adams is an expert at keeping the reader engaged with hilarious dialogue and characterizations. The voice of the narrator is the real protagonist of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, and its true plot is an educational conversation between that narrator and the reader’s expectations.
The Foundation Series, by Isaac Asimov
Asimov’s Foundation series is hallowed within the science fiction community with good reason. Centered around the invention of a future-prediction system, the Foundation series is a space opera that is deeply developed in depth and scale. Allegedly, Asimov created the Foundation series to be a very long homage to the Lord of the Rings. The epic scale of rising and falling galactic empires is certainly wider, though. Comprising 15 books, there’s far too much going on in the Foundation series to summarize effectively, but a good starting point is I, Robot. Asimov’s prose is witty, detailed, and perfectly paced, often able to capture whimsical and sentimental themes in the same breath as clashing empires or deep philosophical inquiry.
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
Written by Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow has the reputation of being one of the hardest books in the English language to read. I’m not afraid of a challenge, but this book brought me to my knees. The only plot summary that I can muster for you is that it’s about the construction of a certain V2 rocket toward the end of World War Two. Read this book with a notebook nearby. Write down every character name and try to group them into plot threads. It may be necessary to look up certain equations and words in order to get the most from the story. The intense sensation of confusion is eventually worth it when the plot threads start to intertwine. You’ll like it if you can soldier through. I promise.
Top 20 Sci-Fi Books: The Genre-makers
Neuromancer / Sprawl Trilogy, by William Gibson
Gibson’s Neuromancer is well known for spawning the cyberpunk genre, which was developed further with the subsequent books Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, which take place in the same universe. Neuromancer develops the concept of cyberspace as a setting for events to occur, and also develops the idea of a down-and-out hacker protagonist. Far from being a unification of the ideas “cyber” and “punk”, Neuromancer also characterizes the world of cyberpunk as acutely dystopian and perhaps frightening to people from our reality. The largest innovations of Neuromancer are largely technical: Gibson’s set up of basic concepts like “cyberspace”, “cyberdeck”, “ICE”, “hacker”, and “implants” provide a platform that the other works in the genre springboard off of without requiring an abundance of unnecessary explanation. The plot of Neuromancer also characterizes the cyberpunk standards, with the washed-up hacker Case roped into a corporate sabotage job via manipulation by the AI called Wintermute. Definitely a must-read for anyone interested in amoral technological fiction.
William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy (which begins with Neuromancer) is a genre-defining series, crystallizing cyberpunk as a valid space within science fiction. Within each of the books of the Sprawl trilogy is an enigmatic cyborg woman named Molly Millions, though she doesn’t always go by that name. Frequently, characters refer to Molly as a “razor girl”, an epithet for typically attractive women who have received robotic augmentations which make them effective combatants. Molly is the cyberpunk femme fatale, and she dresses to kill, complete with black leather, reflective shades, and knives beneath her fingernails. [Click here to read more…]
Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Perhaps an obscure item to include on this list, Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky has a special place in my heart. Roadside Picnic is the basis for the film Stalker, and as such is the basis for the rural-environmental-survival-horror genre of science fiction. Responsible for the likes of STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl and numerous others, Roadside Picnic is a story about the after-effects of alien presence on Earth. After aliens visit earth, the areas that they visited are pockmarked by distortions of reality which appear to have supernatural properties. Fascinatingly, the novel posits that the after-effects of alien visitation are merely trash discarded by the aliens following a “roadside picnic”. As such, humanity is left to the role of wildlife along the road, investigating the items which have fallen. This raises all sorts of questions about extraterrestrial contact, but these are not the focus of Roadside Picnic. Instead, Roadside Picnic is about the journey of the humans who dare to interact with what may well be discarded alien garbage.
Top 20 Sci-Fi Books: The Philosophical
Flowers for Algernon, by Dan Keyes
Flowers for Algernon is a novel by Dan Keyes about a hypothetical surgery which can massively temporarily increase the intelligence of the patience. Algernon is the laboratory mouse who is the first successful application of the technique, which is eventually practiced on a mentally-handicapped human named Charlie. Flowers for Algernon is a science fiction story which manages to be heartbreaking due to Charlie and Algernon’s journey from abject idiocy to brilliance. Of course, they both suffer from the transition, and eventually suffer more during their reversions to their normal states. The ethical questions of Flowers for Algernon are obvious: is augmentation of human ability ethical? Is it ethical to make decisions for people who aren’t able to do so themselves? There are a few answers contained within the novel, but I’m not about to spoil them for those who haven’t yet boarded the emotional rollercoaster.
Flatland, by Edwin Abbott
Flatland is a philosophical-mathematical investigation into the potential lives of two dimensional beings. Written by Edwin Abbott in 1884, Flatland’s radical departure from everyday experience was absolutely groundbreaking at the time of its publishing, and continues to be so now. Intended as an obtuse commentary on the cultural situation of the time, Flatland stands out more for its ability to bring the reader into thinking about the world in terms of the fictional two dimensional universe. Thinking in two dimensions takes a long time for the reader to become acquainted with, but requires worthwhile mental hoop-jumping. Not exactly the same kind of science fiction as a space opera. Flatland gets even more speculative, eventually bringing the reader to a universe in which there is only one dimension, and explaining to the reader what a three dimensional sphere would look like from the perspective of the two dimensional beings. Flatland is remarkable for its farsightedness regarding what is possible to conceive with the human mind. Flatland is a quick read, and a must-read.
Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman
Einstein’s Dreams is a highly underrated speculative science fiction novel written by Alan Lightman. Einstein’s Dreams is a collection of anecdotes, supposedly dreamt by Einstein himself. The anecdotes are tied together with scenes depicting Einstein himself. Each anecdote describes a day in a Bern, Switzerland, with different interpretations of Einstein’s theory of time, resulting in many absurd yet compelling scenarios. Reading Einstein’s Dreams requires the reader to maintain a spry mind and open imagination, as keeping up with radically different conceptions of fundamental assumptions can be tough. In a particularly memorable anecdote, the property of time is only describable as having “ended”–thus, all “time” that can be perceived is a snapshot of time at the very end of the universe, which is permanent. Always thought-provoking and memorable, Einstein’s Dreams isn’t a typical science fiction novel. While based partially on variants of Einstein’s theories of relativity and written by a physicist, identifying fantasy from potential reality isn’t too difficult for a lay reader.
Dr. Alan Lightman’s truly unique investigation into the potential ramifications of alterations of Einstein’s theories of relativity is titled Einstein’s Dreams. Einstein’s Dreams is a science fiction novel which is comprised of a series of anecdotes “dreamed” by Albert Einstein as he struggles to put together his theory of relativity in the Swiss city of Bern. Each of his dreams are self-contained hypothetical realities in which the property of time behaves differently than we are used to. The author holds a PhD in theoretical physics, and so each anecdote is well-thought out from start to finish, though only tenuously connected to the actual mathematics of relativity. [Click here to read more…]
Top 20 Sci-Fi Books: The Politically Minded
1984, by George Orwell
1984 requires very little explanation. By far the most influential of the political/technological dystopian novels, Orwell’s masterpiece has been the centerpiece of societal conversations about surveillance and government ever since being published. 1984 was a product of Orwell’s passion, Orwell being a life-long combatant against totalitarianism. The novel itself depicts the life of a relatively helpless citizen in the totalitarian society of Airstrip One. Though many readers fixate on the methods of surveillance–“telescreens” with embedded cameras–the real horror of 1984 is the perversion of language into a means of oppression. “Newspeak”, the euphemism-laden language that residents of Airstrip One are forced to speak, should put all readers on guard against political language that obfuscates rather than clarifies. In many ways, 1984 is the culmination of Orwell’s thinking on political language, which is outlined the most clearly in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” 1984 is an excellent starting point to the world of sci-fi, aside from being a politically-engaging dystopian novel.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World is often considered the companion to 1984, but in fact is an entirely different beast. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a dystopian exploration of an engineered society in which citizens are controlled by addiction to various pleasures. Via drugs, sex, and brainwashing, the residents of the Brave New World are kept within their culturally-defined roles in a hierarchical and vapid society. Much like in 1984, the technical details of Brave New World are less relevant than the philosophical questions that lie beneath the surface. Is it possible or desirable for everyone in a society to be happy? Is a society dystopian if its nonviolent methods of ensuring conformity make people happy? Should our society function such that people are formed according to what roles are needed? Brave New World is a starting point rather than a conclusive analysis of these questions. Brave New World remains extremely relevant decades after its publication.
Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut’s Cold War era novel lamenting the utilization of doomsday weapons is an essential science fiction book. Cat’s Cradle is focused around the weapon called Ice-nine, the chemical which ultimately destroys all water on Earth via its unintentional runaway reaction. In parallel with Vonnegut’s exploration of the doomsday chemical is his description of the residents of San Lorenzo, a utopian Caribbean island where extreme poverty and dictatorship do not stop the locals from practicing a bizarre religion known as Bokononism. Bokononism is a peaceful and odd religion that was designed for the purpose of social coherence and is now outlawed by the dictator of San Lorenzo. Vonnegut uses San Lorenzo and Bokononism to satirize the Cold War era support of dictators, violence against communism, and nuclear mutually assured destruction. While it can be a bit hard to follow at times, Cat’s Cradle is an excellent example of science fiction that has a personality beyond its political commentary.
Jennifer Government, by Max Barry
Jennifer Government is one of the newer books on my list. Written by Max Barry, Jennifer Government is a dystopian semi-cyberpunk novel in which the concepts of corporate control are taken to their logical conclusion. In the former US, the government (called “the Government”) is completely powerless, with all decisions of import being delegated to the two major corporations, who have absorbed all other corporations and fiercely compete in the name of profit-seeking. Jennifer Government is an exploration of anarcho-capitalism in a near-future alternate reality context, and its satirical content really shines. The plot involves a marketing campaign for Nike in which the first buyers of the newest Nike shoes are murdered by mercenaries in a black operation designed to generate buzz about how desirable the new shoes are. With this kind of conspiracy as the starting point, Jennifer Government is a great primer for the conspiracy science fiction genre, and is an adequate thriller as well.
Top 20 Sci-Fi Books: The Space Operas
Culture Series, by Iain Banks
Written by Iain Banks, The Culture Series is my favorite space opera because of its creativity. Unafraid of mixing political commentary and whimsical themes, the Culture series doesn’t take itself too seriously but does an excellent job of describing the exploits of the utopian Culture society. I can’t help but wish that I lived in the Culture, where citizens are granted nearly limitless resources to live in peace and pleasure. Though the series seems to explicitly avoid questions of existential boredom created by a perfect society, Banks does a great job of creating a compelling space opera, complete with all of the action and alien curiosities that one would expect. A good starting point for the series is the first book, Consider Phlebas–it isn’t written in the same tone or descriptive fashion as the other books, but it does give a good overview of the events that set up the history of the universe that the rest of the series takes place in.
Heir to the Empire / Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
Perhaps this is another oddball of the list. Written by Timothy Zahn, the Thrawn Trilogy is a Star Wars extended universe novel trilogy which, until the release of the latest Star Wars movie, was canon. Taking place a few years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the Thrawn Trilogy features all of the much-loved Star Wars characters taking on the new challenge of uniting the New Republic from the momentum of the Rebel Alliance. Dogged by remnants still loyal to the Empire, the Thrawn Trilogy is, at its core, about the war between the fragile New Republic and the imperial survivors as unified by the enigmatic Admiral Thrawn. Thrawn is an absolutely magnificent villain and makes the trilogy into the epic that it is–Thrawn is far more complex, multidimensional, and relatable than any of the villains in the films. If you haven’t read it yet but are a fan of Star Wars, definitely check the Thrawn Trilogy out.
Top 20 Sci-Fi Books: The Thrillers
Sphere, by Michael Crichton
An underwater thriller written by Crichton, notable for its curious twists and haunting setting. This book is special because of the genuine feeling of uneasiness that my teenage self experienced while reading it for the first time. I’m not entirely sure how, but Sphere gets under your skin. The plot summary is that a team of scientists are sent to investigate a crashed spacecraft deep underwater. The spacecraft is ultimately revealed to be American, generating great confusion, given its advanced technology. Within the spacecraft, the scientists find a bizarre sphere which imparts strange powers onto those who interact with it. The rest of the novel is a haphazard attempt to discover what the Sphere does, and attempt to survive its presence. Sphere captures the spookiness of being alone and far from home absolutely perfectly. Predictably, the novel captures many details and scenes which just aren’t given enough justice in the film.
The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton
Another Crichton thriller novel, this time revolving around a different team of scientists investigating a crashed meteor (noticing any similarities?) which bears an infectious disease ultimately dubbed Andromeda. The Andromeda Strain is on my list of favorite science fiction novels because it is an entry point into hard science fiction, taking great care not to flagrantly abuse the relevant scientific concepts during its plot development. The Andromeda Strain is also an effective thriller because it is plausible. Far from wowing readers with technological or sociocultural or political tidbits, The Andromeda Strain is more about the methodical development of scientific knowledge about an unknown disease. Perhaps it takes another scientist to find this aspect of the story thrilling, but if you’re looking for nail-biting, look no further. The Andromeda Strain may be noteworthy as one of the first pieces of fiction to involve a race against time to stop a nuclear bomb from exploding, a cliche that has been beaten to death in the decades since it was written.
As far as sci-fi films go, The Andromeda Strain is notable for being plausible, scientifically speaking. The film closely follows the Crichton novel, much to its credit. And while The Andromeda Strain movie isn’t perfectly accurate, it nails the gestalt of dealing with an unknown biological phenomenon.
Top 20 Sci-Fi Books: The Conclusion
That ties up my list of the top 20 sci-fi books. I hope that you’ve become inspired to read a few of them! There were a ton of notable runners up, but perhaps that’s fodder for another list later down the line. While my list of the top 20 sci-fi books wasn’t in any particular order, if you had to pick absolutely one book from this list to start with, I’d suggest you pick Einstein’s Dreams. We all read science fiction for entertainment, but beyond that, I find that the sense of wonder is what keeps me coming back for more–something that Einstein’s Dreams provokes in spades. Enjoy!