The question of which science fiction books are the best ever is a pointless
one for most people, since many of the "greatest science fiction
novels" are books that no one but science fiction fans will read.
A better question to ask might be: What are the best science fiction books
that you don't have to be a hard-core science fiction fan to enjoy? We
scanned our library and came up with these 10 (well, 12) books that not
only provide great SF fun, but also are approachable enough for the casual
reader. Some old, some new - but all good reads.
Lynch made this book into a 1984 film that was so incomprehensible that
the actual novel - 600 pages on the future of religion, politics, desert
ecology, and drug trafficking - look positively streamlined in comparison.
When the book came out in the mid 1960s its multiple story threads were
daunting. (Photo: Robert E. Nylund, via Wikipedia)
But (ironically) thanks to shows like The X-Files and even The
West Wing, in which several things are happening all at once, people
got used to following intersecting story lines. The result is that Herbert's
magnum opus now comes across more like an epic historical novel that happens
to be set in the future, not the past.
Herbert wrote several Dune sequels of varying quality. More
recently, Herbert's son Brian teamed up with SF author Kevin J. Anderson
to write a trio of prequels that Uncle John doesn't think are on par with
the rest. Stick with the original.
in the near future create a tiny black hole and - oops - allow it to sink
into the earth's core; in the process of digging it out, they discover
there's another black hole down there, and that one's origin
is a mystery - and a problem. (Photo: David Brin)
This plot line is the skeleton on which author and real-life physicist
Brin hangs some fascinating episodic story lines that involve problems
the world faces today (global warming, privacy, energy crunches), carried
out to their possible outcomes 50 years from now.
Originally published in 1991, Earth has already pegged a couple
of items correctly (such as a version of the World Wide Web and the idea
of futzing with old movies using new computer graphics). Plus, scientists
have begun trying to generate tiny little black holes in labs. So imagine
what else Brin might (eventually) be right about.
child-warriors are used by the military to battle an invasion of buglike
aliens. That's the setup of Ender's Game; the meat of the story
comes from the struggle of one of these extraordinary children (named
Ender) to keep a grip on his humanity even as he's being turned into the
perfect killing machine. (Photo: nihonjoe via Wikipedia)
Card sets up a lot of questions about morality, war, and man's purpose
in Ender's Game; in the sequel, Speaker for the Dead,
these questions get a payoff as the grown-up Ender finds himself in a
position to save a new sentient species or allow it to be destroyed. Proof
that interesting philosophical questions can be asked (and even answered)
in the form of a purely entertaining story.
Dune, this is a large tale involving nobility, religion, politics,
and the fate of the human race - but for a change, the hero is a heroine.
(Photo: Charles N. Brown, via Locus
Marjorie Westriding is dispatched with her family to a far-off planet
to find a cure for a plague, but she ends up confronting questions of
original sin among aliens. Lots of philosophy, and even some sex (well,
sort of), but also lots of action, plus a group of purely malevolent creatures
who love nothing better than to toy with humans. Hand this to someone
who enjoys those massive romantic epics for a change of pace.
is destroyed to make an intergalactic bypass, launching the interstellar
travels of one completely ordinary and befuddled human being named Arthur
Dent. (Photo Jill Furmanovsky, via DouglasAdams.com)
Geeks love this one, but for the right reasons - namely because it'll
make you laugh so hard that you may vomit involuntarily. Note that this
is humor of the distinctly British, Monty Python-like variety, so if you're
not into that, you may wonder what the fuss is about.
But if you ever laughed at Monty Python and the Holy Grail (or
even A Fish Called Wanda), you'll be laughing at this one, too.
Hitchhiker has several sequels, each progressively less funny
than the one before (but still worth a chuckle or two).
takes guts to snatch the format of The Canterbury Tales and use
it to crank out epic science fiction, but the extraordinarily talented
Dan Simmons (who also writes bang-up horror and action novels) is just
the guy to do it. (Photo: Dan
Over the course of these two novels, Simmons creates a galaxy-wide human
civilization that's pitted against a mysterious enemy. Hyperion
uses the overlapping stories of a clutch of pilgrims to paint the picture
of this future civilization; Fall of Hyperion describes its downfall,
as seen through the eye of a clone of the great Romantic poet John Keats.
Great storytelling, great action, great plotting; not just a couple of
the best science fiction novels ever, but two of the best adventure novels
in a long time, period.
one shows up on a lot of high school reading lists, and for good reason.
It's a fine combination of science fiction and fantasy and an increasingly
neglected literary form - a series of short stories, hung together with
a single thread: they all take place on Mars. (Photo: Alan Light, via
The stories include encounters with real live Martians (who may or may
not be happy to see humans), the stories of the humans who leave Earth
to come to Mars, and, in the end, the stories of the humans who are left
behind, each short enough to be read in a single sitting.
It's Bradbury at the top of his form, which means these are some of the
better short stories you'll find almost anywhere.
perfect book for anyone who thinks that science fiction can't be literary
and/or adventurous in form. Miéville's genre-buster of a novel
is not unlike what you would get if you spliced together the genes of
Charles Dickens and horror master H.P. Lovecraft and raised the resulting
creature on the writings of Orwell, Huxley, and Philip K. Dick (the fellow
who wrote the story that was the basis of the movie Blade Runner).
(Photo: Andrew M Butler, via Flickr)
It's difficult to describe the novel, except to say that it involves
mad scientists, interspecies romance, vampiric moth creatures, Tammany
Hall-like urban politics, the value systems of alien species, interdimensional
spiders, and a rip-roaring final action scene that takes place on the
rooftops of a city you really can't imagine. All written by someone who
uses the English language like Yo-Yo Ma uses a cello. Fabulous writing,
regardless of genre.
Gibson's Neuromancer may be considered the first "cyberpunk"
novel, but the fact is, it's kind of a deadly bore. Snow Crash,
on the other hand, is a real hoot right from its first scene, which involves
a madcap pizza delivery and is written with the same sort of delirious
cinematic urgency that you'll find in the best novels of William Goldman
(Marathon Man). (Photo: Bob Lee via Flickr)
The novel's plot involves a computer virus that (get this) dates back
to Sumeria, but it doesn't really hang together, so instead, enjoy the
book for its portrayal of both an insanely Balkanized America and a huge
cyberworld so vividly imagined that a whole bunch of Internet companies
bankrupted themselves in the 1990s trying to create a world just like
Also, any book that features a large Aleutian with a nuclear bomb in
a motorcycle sidecar and the words "Poor Impulse Control" tattooed
on his forehead is one you know you're going to have fun with.
expiration date for this novel and its ideas regarding love and sex and
human transcendence has sort of passed (people used the novel for years
as a foundation for their own desire for hippie polygamy, and now they
don't so much), but it still make for a good read for two reasons. (Photo:
Dd-b, via Wikimedia
One, Robert Heinlein wrote damn fine dialogue, which makes him more fun
to read than most other writers today (and how sad is that, since
Heinlein's been dead coming up on 15 years now). Two, Heinlein thought
seriously about the nature of God and the interrelationship between God
and His followers, which is interesting to contemplate even if you're
not interested in the polysexual hijinks.
Also, Jubal Harshaw, the cranky old man who counsels the "Stranger"
is like a dyspeptic Yoda advising an extraordinarily horny Luke Skywalker,
is one of the great curmudgeons of the 20th century writing, and you don't
want to miss out on a character like that.