Sometimes you just want something fun to read while you slowly roast yourself on a beach, gentle waves constantly committing suicide in front of you.
Some of the books below are light, some are dark, but they’re all engaging stories.
Thorvald Spear wakes in a hospital to find he’s been brought back from the dead. What’s more, he died in a human vs. alien war that ended a century ago. Spear had been trapped on a world surrounded by hostile Prador forces, but Penny Royal, the AI inside the rescue ship sent to provide backup, turned rogue. The AI annihilated friendly forces and killed Spear. One hundred years later the AI is still on the loose, and Spear vows revenge at any cost.
“Beautifully paced … does just as well as at slam-bang action scenes as at painting frightening pictures … This is space opera at a high peak of craftsmanship.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Written by the editor-in-chief of io9.com, All the Birds in the Sky defies easy classification. It’s a combination of fantasy, sci-fi, and dark humor.
Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn’t expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during middle school. The development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine certainly complicated matters.
But now they’re both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them.
“Into each generation of science fiction/fantasydom a master absurdist must fall, and it’s quite possible that with All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders has established herself as the one for the Millennials… As hopeful as it is hilarious, and highly recommended.”
— The New York Times Book Review
Mankind in the Galactic Age had finally conquered war, so what was left for the military to do but drink and barbecue? A smooth-talking ex-sergeant, accustomed to an easygoing peacetime military, unexpectedly re-joins the fleet and finds soldiers preparing for the strangest thing—war.
“With an experienced ear for military double-speak, Zieja has created a remarkable and sarcastic adventure. In fact, I loved it so much I bought two sequels.
—Joe Monti, executive editor, Saga Press
Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.
Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.
The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao—because she might be his next victim.
“I love Yoon’s work! Ninefox Gambit is solidly and satisfyingly full of battles and political intrigue, in a beautifully built far-future that manages to be human and alien at the same time. It should be a treat for readers already familiar with Yoon’s excellent short fiction, and an extra treat for readers finding Yoon’s work for the first time.”
— Ann Leckie, author of Ancillary Justice
Captain Ichabod Drift presides over a crew of thieves, con artists, smugglers, and soldiers of fortune. This is good—it’s a corrupt galaxy where life is cheap and criminals are the best people in it.
He has to deliver a special cargo to Earth, and no one can know they’re there. It’s what they call a dark run, and it may be their last.
If you liked Firefly, you’ll probably like this romp of a space opera. Blazing guns, spaceships, suspicious cargoes, crazy pilots, mercenaries, and so on.
Like his earlier book Do Not Resuscitate, Ponticello’s prose reads like a less-angry Vonnegut. However, in The Maiden Voyage of the Destiny Unknown, he gets wilder and funnier.
Two hundred million years in the future, the sun is about to engulf the Earth, so a spaceship filled with people is sent out towards a likely star in order to save the species.
The outrageous situations and badly-behaving people on the spaceship are entertaining as hell, and are nicely balanced with an occasional thoughtful perspective from the narrator, a non-interfering alien observer.
The Maiden Voyage of the Destiny Unknown is bold and fun, and I found myself eagerly waiting for the next time I could get back to reading it.
Not since Isaac Asimov has anyone combined SF and mystery so well. A very rich man kills himself, and when his backup copy is animated, he hires Takeshi Kovacs to find out why.
Morgan creates a gritty, noir tale that will please Raymond Chandler fans, an impressive accomplishment in any genre.
Gateway deals with first contact with alien technology more than actual aliens, but it’s a lot of fun. In fact, there’s a really wonderful tension in stories about screwing around with alien technology you don’t understand, and Pohl uses that to full effect. The characters are vulnerable, the scope is cinematic, and it’s just a hoot.
In a world flooded and irradiated by a nearly forgotten cataclysm from generations passed, all that remains of civilization clings to life in two war-torn, city-sized submarines. For fifty years, the only peace between them had come from separation.
Now, young council woman Ralla Gattley has uncovered mysteries that will bring these two factions face-to-face, initiating a series of events that will forever change their undersea world. She didn’t expect to meet Thom Vargas, a bored fisherman and aspiring drunk who merely wants to climb one rung on the social ladder.
Little did he know that single step may well put the fate of the world in his hands.
My wife hates it when I read this book because there are actually spiders all over the cover.
As I’m writing this, my heavy metal station on Pandora is screaming, “I WANNA GET PYSCHO!” which is perfect for this book, because This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It gets seriously bizarre and creepy.
It’s also one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and yes, I’m including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in that list.
Two reluctant and generally irresponsible heroes are aware of huge invisible spiders that live in people’s heads due to their earlier ingestion of a drug called Soy Sauce. While they try to stay out of trouble (the kids, not the spiders), Armageddon finds them anyway. Hilarity and horror ensue.
“[A] phantasmagoria of horror, humor—and even insight into the nature of paranoia, perception, and identity.”
―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Humanity has colonized the solar system—Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond—but the stars are still out of our reach.
Jim Holden is an officer on an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, The Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for—and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew.
Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to The Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.
Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations—and the odds are definitely against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.
(James S.A. Corey is the pen name used by collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck)
In a distant future, Trevor “Lex” Alexander was shaping up to be the next great race pilot until a fixed race got him banned from the sport. Reduced to making freelance deliveries, he thinks his life can’t get any worse. That’s when a package manages to get him mixed up with mobsters, a megacorp, and a mad scientist. Now his life depends on learning what their plans are, and how he can stop them.
After finishing most books, I’ll put them down and think something like, “That was a good book,” or “The ending was terrible,” or “I’m hungry.”
But with The Ware Tetralogy, I put the big book down and wondered what the hell just happened to me.
My horizons got expanded in weird directions and there’s a little more odd joy in my life.
The four Ware novels (Software, Wetware, Freeware, and Realware) explore consciousness as an information pattern in a fearlessly absurd, awesomely readable way. All together, they’re a Dadaist cyberpunk tour de force that’ll make your brain feel like it’s in a bath of seltzer water. The books all move like a bat out of hell, are packed with enough ideas for forty normal science fictions books, and you can feel beat poetry in the background as you read them.
Fifteen years after Iran gets rid of its theocracy, the scientist Nasim is in charge of the virtual world known as Zendegi, used by millions of people for entertainment and business. When Zendegi comes under threat from powerful competitors, Nasim draws on data from the Human Connectome Project, which mapped all the connections in the human brain. She embarks on a program to create more lifelike virtual characters and give the company an unbeatable edge. As controversy grows over the nature and rights of these software characters, Zendegi is about to become a battlefield.
The book has an odd little trailer, too.
“[A] thought-provoking, intensely personal story about conflicting instincts and desires as technology recapitulates humanity.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
This Hugo- and Nebula-winner is known for its rich characters and moving story and not, say, for non-stop action.
For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.
But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin—barely of age herself—finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.
“[A]n intelligent and satisfying blend of classic science fiction and historical reconstruction.”
— Publishers Weekly
Red Mars is a great hard-SF read, with enough astrophysics to satisfy a large conference room at a ComicCon. You can tell author Robinson did a huge amount of research, and it pays off.
“[A]n action-packed and thoughtful tale of the exploration and settlement of Mars—driven by both personal and ideological conflicts—in the early 21st century.”
Thousands of years hence, many races inhabit a universe where a mind’s potential is determined by its location in space, from superintelligent entities in the Transcend to the limited minds of the Unthinking Depths, where only simple creatures and technology can function. Nobody knows what strange force partitioned space into these “regions of thought,” but when the warring Straumli realm use an ancient Transcendent artifact as a weapon, they unwittingly unleash an awesome power that destroys thousands of worlds and enslaves all natural and artificial intelligence.
Fleeing the threat, a family of scientists, including two children, are taken captive by the Tines, an alien race with a harsh medieval culture, and used as pawns in a ruthless power struggle. A rescue mission, composed not entirely of humans, must rescue the children—and a secret that may save the rest of interstellar civilization.
“Vinge offers heart-pounding, mind-expanding science fiction at its best.”
— Publishers Weekly
An uncontested sci-fi classic, Rendezvous with Rama is also one of Clarke’s best novels, winning the Campbell, Hugo, Jupiter, and Nebula Awards.
A huge, mysterious, cylindrical object appears in space, swooping in toward the sun. The citizens of the solar system send a ship to investigate before the enigmatic craft, called Rama, disappears. The astronauts given the task of exploring the hollow cylindrical ship are able to decipher some, but definitely not all, of the extraterrestrial vehicle’s puzzles. From the ubiquitous trilateral symmetry of its structures to its cylindrical sea and machine-island, Rama’s secrets are strange evidence of an advanced civilization. But who, and where, are the Ramans, and what do they want with humans? Perhaps the answer lies with the busily working biots, or the sealed-off buildings, or the inaccessible “southern” half of the enormous cylinder. Rama’s unsolved mysteries are tantalizing indeed. Rendezvous with Rama is fast-moving, fascinating, and a must-read for science fiction fans.
The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets that are fit to live on are scarce—and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So we fight, both to defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, and unyielding.
Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.
On his 75th birthday John Perry did two things: First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the CDF. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect, because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine—and what he will become is far stranger.
In the year 3016, the Second Empire of Man spans hundreds of star systems, thanks to the faster-than-light Alderson Drive. No other intelligent beings have ever been encountered, not until a light sail probe enters a human system carrying a dead alien. The probe is traced to the Mote, an isolated star in a thick dust cloud, and an expedition is dispatched.
Robert A. Heinlein, who gave the authors extensive advice on the novel, described the story as “possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.”
Few science fiction books can claim to use the same structure as The Canterbury Tales and still be kick-ass sci-fi, but Hyperion pulls it off.
On the world called Hyperion, beyond the law of the Hegemony of Man, there waits the creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it. In the Valley of the Time Tombs, where huge, brooding structures move backward through time, the Shrike waits for them all. On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope—and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands.
This book is widely considered to be Heinlein’s crowning achievement and one of the most important science fiction novels ever written. The plot centers around a lunar colony’s revolt against rule from Earth, but is packed with politics, questionable behavior, and a fully-imagined future human society that must deal with being on two worlds.
Gibson rewrote the first 2/3 of this book (his first novel) twelve times and was worried people would think he stole the feel from Blade Runner, which had come out two years earlier. He was convinced he would be “permanently shamed” after it was published.
Fortunately for Gibson, Neuromancer won science fiction’s triple crown (the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards) and became the seminal cyberpunk work.
This is one of my favorite SF books.
One night, a boy watches the stars flare and go out. The sun is now a featureless disk—a heat source, rather than an astronomical object. The moon is gone, but tides remain.
It’s a rare author that can start with such an intriguing premise and carry it through, while exceeding expectations. I recommend this book strongly, as well as the other two in the series, Axis and Vortex.
Emotionally damaged people are sent to work next to a giant rift in the ocean floor, harvesting energy for surface dwellers. The workers are a bio-engineered crew—people who have been altered to withstand the pressure and breathe the seawater to work in this weird, fertile undersea darkness.
This book taught me that you can make a protagonist as crazy as you want, as long as what she’s battling against is even crazier.
Brilliant, twisted fun by an ex-marine biologist. Go read it.
It’s easy to be a hero when you’re saving the entire world or galaxy or species. Which is why the hard-boiled detectives are the most heroic characters out there. They’re not out to ram the bad guy’s spaceship. More likely, they’re trying to find justice for a murdered little nobody, or get an intensely offensive (but innocent) man out of jail.
This dogged death grip on principle directs the actions of private detective Conrad Metcalfe in a bizarre future world populated by talking animals, drugs for all, and the most authoritative state I’ve ever come across.
Gun, with Occasional Music is dark, funny, fast-paced, clever, and chilling.
A catastrophic event renders the Earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.
But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain.
Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown, to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.
“No slim fables or nerdy novellas for Stephenson: his visions are epic, and he requires whole worlds—and, in this case, solar systems—to accommodate them….Wise, witty, utterly well-crafted science fiction.”
Dune is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time, and has spawned a huge franchise (I think we’re past “series” at this point). Dune’s sandworms remain one of the most fascinating alien species in science fiction literature.
Oddly enough, no one’s been able to tell Dune visually (no, I’m not counting Lynch’s Dune. He tried, but it wasn’t good).
Whoever can crack the Dune visuals and create a film or show that fans embrace will make shocking amounts of money. In the meantime, enjoy Dune and God Emperor of Dune (the others are iffy). The other books by Frank’s son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson lack the depth of the original Dune, but are all entertaining reads.
The Martian is one of the most enjoyable science fiction books I’ve ever read. An astronaut is left behind on Mars, and must survive by himself for over a year, using only his wits and what was left behind by a few previous missions.
Author Weir does a masterful job in creating his highly likable, intelligent, and deeply human protagonist Mark Watney. The science in The Martian is hard and feels as real as stone.
This book is a great combination of man vs. nature à la Jack London, with the inventiveness of MacGyver, moments of laugh-out-loud humor, page-turning pacing, and plot twists that are surprising but in hindsight feel inevitable.
To discuss The Girl with All the Gifts is to reveal too much about it, so here’s a review by filmmaker Joss Whedon:
“The story spirals towards a conclusion so surprising, so warm and yet so chilling, that it takes a moment to realize it’s been earned since the first page, and even before. It left me sighing with envious joy, like I’d been simultaneously offered flowers and beaten at chess. A jewel.”
If you haven’t read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy yet, then it’s perfect for a happy summer afternoon, toes in the sand, and perhaps a nearby Mai Tai.
This is one of the funniest books written in the English language. It begins with the destruction of Earth, and things go downhill from there.
Do not read this book around other people, because you will annoy them by laughing so much.