The 23 Best Science Fiction Books of All Time

Metal World

“Best” is a hugely subjective term, and not to be trusted. So here, “Best” means, “a consensus based on dozens of other lists, infused with my own personal bias.”

Dune by Frank Herbert
by Frank Herbert

The world’s best-selling science fiction novel of all time, and often described as the Lord of the Rings of science fiction. If you’ve never read a science fiction book before, don’t start here, but make it your fifth.

Your first science fiction book should be the next book on this list.

Did you know Dune was inspired by a trip to Oregon?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams

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.

Enders Game
by Orson Scott Card

Criticized for its violence (and possibly popular because of it), Ender’s Game shows children on a military space station, training for the war against the evil alien Buggers.

It won the Hugo and Nebula awards, even though the New York Times felt that the plot resembled a “grade Z, made-for-television, science-fiction rip-off movie.”

by George Orwell

Ideas from science fiction rarely make it into the public consciousness, but 1984 has been referenced in Supreme Court cases and “Big Brother” has a spot in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The most political and literary entry on this list (with the possible exception of Brave New World), 1984 is the rare book that is both commonly assigned to students and still a pleasure to read.

Fahrenheit 451
by Ray Bradbury

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.

by Isaac Asimov

Psychohistory is one of Asimov’s best inventions: using a combination of history, psychology, and statistics, one can accurately predict the behavior of large groups of people.

Asimov’s characters tend be one-dimensional, but his stories are so entertaining that it’s easy to forgive that lapse.

brave new world
by Aldous Huxley

Both Brave New World and 1984 saw dystopian futures, but Huxley seems to have gotten much of it right (though Orwell did nail the surveillance state). According to social critic Neil Postman:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism… Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy”

by William Gibson

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 work in the cyberpunk subgenre.

I, Robot
by Isaac Asimov

I, Robot focuses more on the unintended moral consequences of intelligent machines obeying the Three Laws of Robotics than the actual technical wizardry that makes up their parts.

In fact, Asimov wanted to call this collection of short stories Mind and Iron, since I, Robot had already been used.

Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert A. Heinlein

It was all his wife’s idea.

During a brainstorming session, Virginia Heinlein suggested Robert write a version of The Jungle Book, but with the child being raised by Martians instead of wolves. After about a decade of on-and-off effort, Heinlein published the public-mores-challenging book and introduced the word grok to the world.

by Mary Shelley

It’s been argued that Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is the first science fiction novel. Shelley published it anonymously in 1818, and 500 copies were printed.

It wasn’t until 1831 that the “popular” version was sold (which is probably what you’ve read). Shelley edited the book significantly, bowing to pressure to make the book more conservative. Many scholars prefer the 1818 version, claiming it holds true to Shelley’s original spirit.

The Martian Chronicles
by Ray Bradbury

This book was one of my Pink Floyd moments as a kid, where you finish reading a book, listening to an album, or watching a movie, and you sit back, your mind blown, thinking, “Oh my god, it can be like this?!”

I’m almost afraid to read it now, knowing it won’t have anywhere near the same impact.

A Clockwork Orange
by Anthony Burgess

Infuriating novelists everywhere, Burgess claims he wrote this book in only three weeks. He also claims to have heard the Cockney phase “queer as a clockwork orange” in a London pub, but research by a number of journalists has uncovered no such term used anywhere else. Being that the phrase was overheard in a pub, it’s possible Burgess was already a few pints in when he misheard a drunken exclamation, misremembered it later when he had a chance to write it down, and now it’s one of the most famous titles in literature.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert A. Heinlein

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.

A Canticle for Leibowitz
by Walter M. Miller Jr.

This is Miller’s first and only novel, but he didn’t hold back: it spans thousands of years, chronicling the rebuilding of civilization after an apocalyptic event.

It’s never been out of print in over 50 years, despite early reviewers that called Miller a “dull, ashy writer guilty of heavy-weight irony.”

So there.

Tales of Pirx the Pilot
by Stanislaw Lem

Lem is my favorite SF author, and Pirx the pilot is a big reason why. Not a hero, or even a rogue, but just a hopeful guy flying by the seat of his pants, sometimes literally.

Altered Carbon
by Richard K. Morgan

Not since Isaac Asimov has anyone combined SF and mystery so well. A very rich man dies unexpectedly, 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.

The Time Machine
by H. G. Wells

A great old classic that invented the phrase “time machine.”

Just don’t watch the modern movie, because that ends in a fistfight for some reason.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
by Jules Verne

While his description of this new thing called a “submarine” is fun even for modern readers, it’s the brilliant but tortured Captain Nemo who steals the show.

Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes

The narrator is Charlie Gordon, age 32, IQ 68. Based on a successful intelligence-enhancing surgery on a mouse (Algernon), the same technique is performed on Charlie, whose IQ rises to a super-genius 185. However, intelligence is not the same as wisdom, and Charlie has a number of new issues in life to deal with.

On the chance you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil the ending. But you should read it. You’ll be a slightly better person for it.

The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin is a wonderful anomaly, a writer with grand philosophical attitudes who can communicate these attitudes while still writing a gripping tale. The Left Hand of Darkness examines sexless androgyny in a fascinating way (and this is from a guy that loves exploding spaceships). In a way this androgyny feels entirely alien, since our language has “he” and “she” but no human-specific pronoun for “it” or “unknown, but it doesn’t matter.

The Player of Games
by Iain M. Banks

Banks’ Culture, a machine-run but super-friendly society, is the richest far-future human society I’ve ever read. The Player of Games is the best of an excellent lot of Culture books.

by Frederik Pohl

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 in Gateway. The characters are vulnerable, the scope is cinematic, and it’s just a lot of goddamn fun.

by Peter Watts

This is an extra: not one of the best of all time, but a truly great book. Brilliant, twisted, freaky, it takes place at the bottom of the ocean, not up in space, and it feels much more dangerous.

Some marine biologists go off to create Spongebob Squarepants (it’s true). Peter Watts, also a marine biologist, went in a very different direction, and did a beautiful job of it.



19 thoughts on “The 23 Best Science Fiction Books of All Time

  1. Great list, persuasively articulated. Made me realize I’ve actually read – and enjoyed – quite a bit of science fiction.

  2. Please include Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke – an absolute classic- in any future list.

    Also please include the world’s best author most peole have never heard of, the genius who is Christopher Priest. The science fiction element in his books is often mild, but Christopher writes some of the most mind bending books ever written.

    All his books, not only have excellent characters but also raise fascinating philosphical points. I would suggest starting with Fuge for a Darkening Island, although written in the 1960’s, it is a brilliant dystopian vision which is even more relevant today than when he wrote it.

    For the more mind bending side to his work try The Affirmation and then The glamour. Amazing stuff!

  3. Wells’ “The Sleeper Awakes” contains some very racist, eurocentric passages that some readers (such as me) find disturbing. Herbert was on an intellectual journey, and didn’t become a modern progressive until towards the end of his life, though he was always exploring. His socialism, for quite while, was of the Fascist sort, but he got over that. Nonetheless, I’d suggest rather “The Food of the Gods”, a novel so beautifully written that it can be, like Joyce, read aloud. It’s got nothing to do with the bad movies that share the title; it’s an exploration of Nietzschean evolution and how real ubermenchen –giants!– would be tolerated or dismissed by the society around them. It discusses the implications, moral and economic, of bio-engineering and genetic research, long before there were such things. Why anybody reads Rand when there’s this around, this progressive can’t figure.

  4. When it comes to “screwing around with alien technology you don’t understand,” I strongly feel that the Strugatski’s “Roadside Picnic” is far more formidable and influential than Pohl’s “Gateway,” but this is your list, after all. (And a very good one at that.) Simak’s “City” could stand in this company as well, though, don’t you think?

  5. “The Dark Forest”, part II of “The Three-Body Problem” is without doubt in the top 3 and “The Three-Body Problem” itself in the top 10.
    I have read about half of these books. Enders Game and Dune (in no particular order) have been my favorite science fiction books forever, until 2 days ago when I finished “The Dark Forest”.

    1. Though I’m glad the author of this list only puts Foundation at #6. It’s a very good trilogy but can’t understand at all how it is consistently ranked in the top 1 or 2 sci-fi books. Player of Games is also a good book but IMO the author of this list is being very kind in ranking it in the top 23.
      It’s far better than “The Diamond Age” but another of Neil Stevenson’s books, Seveneves, is far superior and IMO derserves a spot in the top 23.

      1. maybe because the foundation series literally invented the rules of robotics which are now actually used in generally agreed upon as the true basis for Ai. i think that MIGHT be it..

    2. The Dark Forest is only bettered by the Death’s End, which, I suppose, was not translated at the time this list was made.

  6. The list is very comprehensive and you have listed the great masters of science fiction. Yet you have missed out Arthur Clark, Philip Dick. They works are indispensable and impeccable. The mentioning of sci fi novels will not be incomplete without them.

  7. Several of these choices are not “Classic Science Fiction”. That said several major works that are were left out like the “Null A” series by A.E. Van Vogt and “Rainbows End” by Vernor Vinge that better cover some of the same ground.

    Heinlein is represented by two of his very good works, but “The Man who Sold the Moon” and his Future History Series in general may turn out to be more important historically as Elon Musk seems to have read the series and set about to become D.D. Harriman in real life!

  8. Woefully sort of female writers, how about Kage Baker, Nancy Kress or Connie Willis?

    Check them out

  9. Thanks for all the replies, A few I haven’t read and will check out. Ender’s Game and Dune are excellent but a lot of good ones have been missed.

  10. As mentioned above, the omission of Childhood’s End is inexcusable. Ditto Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book. So glad you worked in Lem and Banks. Please DO NOT drop Altered Carbon, a brilliant novel. I will definitely look for the 2 of the 24 I haven’t read.

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