Sometimes, at the end of a long day (or even a short one), I want to be thrown into the middle of a bunch of exploding weirdness and not have to think too hard. Or, if a book is going to make me think when I’m tired, it better be sneaky about it, and do it while I’m having a lot of fun.
The books below all fit the bill for smart, fun, science fiction adventure.
Riddley Walker is a unique, fascinating book. It takes places a few thousand years after a nuclear Armageddon in England when a young boy comes across a plan to recreate a weapon from the ancient world.
Humanity is semi-literate, and the language in the book reflects that. It can be a little off-putting; here’s the first line of the book:
On the naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for along time before him nor I aint looking to see none agen.
When I first started Riddley Walker, I thought, “Oh god, I don’t want to deal with this.” But someone whose opinion I respect (darn those people) recommended it, so I kept going.
It was totally worth it. Yes, you have to read it slowly, and yes, it’s more work than reading a typical book. But it’s also a lot better than a typical book. I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.
It’s intense, imaginative, and probably unlike anything you’ve ever come across.
Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations. He spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.
But Darrow discovers that humanity reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and lush wilds spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.
Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies… even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.
“[A] spectacular adventure.”
— Entertainment Weekly
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
A crew of thieves and con artists take on a job that could pay off a lot of debts in a corrupt galaxy where life is cheap and criminals are the best people in it.
The Keiko is a ship of smugglers, soldiers of fortune, and adventurers traveling Earth’s colony planets searching for the next job. And they never talk about their past—until now.
Ichabod Drift, captain of the Keiko, is blackmailed into delivering a special cargo to Earth, and no one can know his ship is there. It’s what they call a dark run, and it may be their last.
“Fans of rip-roaring space adventures will greatly enjoy this one.”
— Publishers Weekly
Beatrice Prior’s society is divided into five factions—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). Beatrice must choose between staying with her Abnegation family or transferring factions. Her choice will shock her community and herself. She also has a secret, one she’s determined to keep hidden, because in this world, what makes you different makes you dangerous.
“A memorable, unpredictable journey from which it is nearly impossible to turn away.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Triplanetary is the first book of the Lensman series, which was a runner-up for the Hugo award for Best All-Time Series, and was beaten by some nobody named Isaac Asimov who wrote something called Foundation, which is possibly about concrete.
In the not too distant future, while fleets of commercial space ships travel between the planets of numerous solar systems, a traveler named Virgil Samms visits the planet Arisia. There he becomes the first wearer of the Lens, the almost-living symbol of the forces of law and order. As the first
Green Lantern Corps Lensman, Samms helps to form the Galactic Patrol, a battalion of Lensmen who are larger than life heroes. These solders are the best of the best, with incredible skills, stealth, and drive. They are dedicated and incorruptible fighters who are willing to die to protect the universe from the most horrific threat it has ever known.
Stephenson explained the title of the novel as his term for a particular software failure mode on the early Apple Macintosh computer. He wrote about the Macintosh that “When the computer crashed and wrote gibberish into the bitmap, the result was something that looked vaguely like static on a broken television set—a ‘snow crash.’”
In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosoNostra Pizza Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about infocalypse.
“Although Stephenson… provides more Sumerian culture than the story strictly needs (alternating intense activity with scholarship breaks), his imaginative juxtaposition of ancient and futuristic detail could make this a cult favorite.”
Ringworld is considered a science fiction classic, and it won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards while spawning three sequels and four prequels.
An expedition’s goal is to explore a ringworld: an artificial ring about one million miles wide and approximately the diameter of Earth’s orbit (which makes it about 600 million miles in circumference), encircling a sun-like star. It rotates, providing artificial gravity that is 99.2% as strong as Earth’s gravity through the action of centrifugal force. The ringworld has a habitable, flat inner surface equivalent in area to approximately three million Earth-sized planets.
The explorers crash on the ringworld and make some surprising discoveries.
Despite the terrible BLOOD BLOOD BLOOD title, this is a really good book.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied android―a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.
“Wells gives depth to a rousing but basically familiar action plot by turning it into the vehicle by which SecUnit engages with its own rigorously denied humanity.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
When Ridley Scott made the film Blade Runner, he used a lot of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but he also threw a lot away. Instead of Harrison Ford’s lonely bounty hunter, Dick’s protagonist is a financially strapped municipal employee with bills to pay and a depressed wife.
There’s also a whole subplot that follows John Isidore, a man of sub-par IQ who aids the fugitive androids.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a much more sober and darker meditation of what it means to be human than the film it inspired.
This Hugo winner was cited as one of the top 50 science fiction novels of all time by Locus magazine (who hands out a prestigious award every year that’s just a little less recognized than the Hugo or Nebula).
Often described as an excellent novel that just happens to take place on a space station, Downbelow Station is filled with realistic characters under incredible amounts of stress, living on a vulnerable but supremely important space station in the middle of a war.
Downbelow Station is one of Cherryh’s Union-Alliance novels. While separate and complete in themselves, they are part of a much larger tapestry—a future history spanning 5,000 years of human civilization.
“Cherryh tantalizes our minds…captures our hearts and involves us completely…a consistently thoughtful and entertaining writer.”
— Publisher’s Weekly
I have a bad habit of getting excited by a book and skimming, eager to find out what happens next. Usually, this works out fine.
I did that with Echopraxia and missed so much that I had to read it again. This book is as dense as those borderline-illegal molten chocolate desserts that are as big as a teacup but somehow weigh ten pounds.
Don’t skip a word. The writing is that tight.
Echopraxia is a sequel to Blindsight, and again author Watts explores the craziness of space, aliens, vampires (he makes them work, even more believably than he did in Blindsight), and how malleable human brains are. His central idea that human consciousness is like a flea riding a dog, thinking it’s in charge of everything, when really the dog, i.e., the rest of our brain, makes all of the decisions. (This is something that a lot of studies are actually agreeing with.)
In addition to all that, it’s a smart, fantastic read, and his best book since Starfish, one of my absolute favorites.
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.
“[A] fast-paced, densely textured, impressive first novel.”
— Publishers Weekly
If you’re a child of the 80s, Ready Player One is like mainlining heroin-strength nostalgia. It’s so ridiculously fun that I frequently imagined author Ernest Cline giggling and saying to himself, “I can’t believe I’m getting away with this!”
In the dystopian future, teenage Wade Watts searches for a mysterious Easter egg in a worldwide video game called the OASIS. Finding the Easter egg will cause him to inherit the ownership of the OASIS and billions upon billions of dollars. Of course, he’s not the only one looking for it.
I listened to the audiobook version of Ready Player One, and loved it. Narrator Wil Wheaton nailed it.
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.
All in all, a good story well told.
451°F may or may not be the actual flashpoint of book paper, but that hardly matters in this dystopian (rare for Bradbury) tale of censorship run amok.
Neuromancer is the seminal cyberpunk novel, and is about a washed-up computer hacker hired by a mysterious employer for one last job against a powerful artificial intelligence.
Author 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.
Not exactly: Neuromancer won science fiction’s triple crown: the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards.
John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.
The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce―and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So we fight. 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, 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.
John Perry is taking that deal. 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.
“[A]stonishingly proficient first novel reads like an original work by the late grand master [Heinlein].”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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.
Constructed for an unknown purpose by a long-dead race, Shellworlds are ancient artificial planets consisting of nested concentric spheres internally lit by tiny thermonuclear “stars.” The spheres are inhabited by various primitive races, along with progressively more advanced species.
The book follows the experiences of three siblings of the royal household of the Sarl, a feudal, pre-industrial humanoid race living on the eighth level of the Shellworld. In the midst of a war, their father is murdered, and they must battle betrayal and alien secrets to regain control of their kingdom.
“Beautifully written and filled with memorable characters and startling technology, this tale of intricate politics and interstellar warfare ably demonstrates that Banks is still at the height of his powers.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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.
Leviathan Wakes is a big, fun space opera, has plenty of sequels, and is better-written that it has any right to be.
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 Holden 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)
Dune is a sprawling epic of Machiavellian politics, personal betrayals, secrets within secrets, giant monsters, and delightfully flawed characters. It’s often called the “Lord of the Rings of science fiction.”
Just for fun, here are a few things you may not know about Dune.
1. It was inspired by a trip to Oregon
Perhaps the most surprising fact about Dune is that Frank Herbert was inspired to create his all-desert, water-starved planet during a trip to the soggy Oregon coast. He watched people planting grass to keep the shifting dunes from swallowing up vacationers’ houses.
2. It was published by an outfit known for its car repair manuals.
It took Frank Herbert six years to write Dune.
But.. Herbert couldn’t sell his book. Publishers said it was too long. People who read science fiction, they said, don’t like long books (Apparently, neither do fantasy readers, since this was same reason given to J. K. Rowling when she was rejected multiple times for the first Harry Potter book).
After twenty rejections, an editor at Chilton (a publisher known for its car repair manuals) gave Dune a chance. It sold slowly at first, but eventually well enough that Herbert was able to become a full-time writer.
3. It has no authoritative visual look.
If Dune is so popular, why are there no conventions? Why don’t you see people dressing up as the hero Paul Atreides at various Comic-Cons? Where are the stillsuit costumes?
One possible reason is that there is no authoritative visual. If you wear something from the book, you have to tell someone it’s from Dune or they’d never know. Quick, what does an ornithopter look like?
The Dune movie by David Lynch was, well, awful. Various TV shows have tried to capture the essence of Dune, with limited success. One movie had the potential to become this vision, to declare This Is How Dune Looks, but sadly, it was never made. This film was documented in Jodorowsky’s Dune, a fascinating film in its own right. The specter of what might have been—the marvelous, surreal spectacle of a true Dune movie (e.g., designs by H.R. Giger, the man who created the monster for Alien, and starring Salvador Dali as the Emperor) is almost overwhelming to consider. (However, one of Jodorowsky’s other movies featured a literal golden turd, so maybe it’s for the best.)
4. It has eighteen sequels and prequels.
The success of Dune allowed Herbert to create a number of sequels, each slightly more disappointing than the previous. To enjoy these books after reading the original, lower your expectations. See the other novels as children playing around the feet of a wise old grandpa, and you’ll have a good enough time of it.
The Dune books by Frank’s son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson are more typical page-turners than heavy opuses like the original, but they’re still a lot of fun. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.