“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.