In an email to my readers, I asked what their favorite science fiction books were, and I got a TON of responses. Well done, you all.
I also got a bunch of favorite series, which I’ll be tabulating and publishing as separate list.
This American classic is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.
“Very tough and very funny… very Vonnegut.”
—The New York Times
In the year 2045, reality is an ugly place. The only time Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the OASIS, a vast virtual world where most of humanity spends their days.
When the eccentric creator of the OASIS dies, he leaves behind a series of fiendish puzzles, based on his obsession with the pop culture of decades past. Whoever is first to solve them will inherit his vast fortune—and control of the OASIS itself.
Then Wade cracks the first clue. Suddenly he’s beset by rivals who’ll kill to take this prize. The race is on—and the only way to survive is to win.
“Ridiculously fun and large-hearted… Cline is that rare writer who can translate his own dorky enthusiasms into prose that’s both hilarious and compassionate.”
Ubik is one of Dick’s most acclaimed novels. It was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 greatest novels since 1923.
Glen Runciter runs a lucrative business—deploying teams of anti-psychics to protect corporations from psychics who are trying to steal trade secrets. But when he and his top team are ambushed by a rival, he is gravely injured and placed in “half-life,” a dreamlike state of suspended animation. Soon, though, the surviving members of the team begin experiencing some strange phenomena, such as Runciter’s face appearing on coins and the world seeming to move backward in time. As consumables deteriorate and technology gets ever more primitive, the group needs to find out what is causing the shifts and what a mysterious product called Ubik has to do with it all.
Time magazine critic Lev Grossman described it as “a deeply unsettling existential horror story, a nightmare you’ll never be sure you’ve woken up from.”
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.
Foundation is arguably the first time a believable galactic empire was created in print. Unfortunately, Asimov’s characters tend be one-dimensional, but his stories are so entertaining that it’s easy to forgive that lapse.
Case was the sharpest data-thief in the matrix—until he crossed the wrong people and they crippled his nervous system, banishing him from cyberspace. Now a mysterious new employer has recruited him for a last-chance run at an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence. With a dead man riding shotgun and Molly, a mirror-eyed street-samurai, to watch his back, Case is ready for the adventure that upped the ante on an entire genre of fiction.
“A revolutionary novel.”
The inspiration for Blade Runner.
By 2021, the World War has killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remain covet any living creature, and for people who can’t afford one, companies build incredibly realistic simulacra: horses, birds, cats, sheep. They’ve even built humans. Immigrants to Mars receive androids so sophisticated they are indistinguishable from true men or women.
Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans can wreak, the government bans them from Earth. Driven into hiding, unauthorized androids live among human beings, undetected. Rick Deckard, an officially sanctioned bounty hunter, is commissioned to find rogue androids and “retire” them. But when cornered, androids fight back—with lethal force.
“A kind of pulp-fiction Kafka, a prophet.”
—The New York Times
I’m not usually a big fan of post-apocalyptic stories, but Station Eleven is a great story and exceptionally well-written.
A virus sweeps through the world and quickly kills off 95% of humanity, ending all comforts of civilization. The book’s protagonist is Kirsten, a young woman traveling with a band of musicians and actors who move from town to town, playing music and putting on Shakespeare plays. They hunt for food and tread carefully in a dangerous world, but even they can’t avoid a deadly and insane prophet.
Author Emily St. John Mandel flings the reader back and forth in time, examining characters both before and after the pandemic by jumping from thirty years before the virus to twenty years after and back again. But she does so with such a deft touch that these transitions feel natural and illuminating.
“Darkly lyrical… A truly haunting book, one that is hard to put down.”
—The Seattle Times
Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission—and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.
Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.
All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.
His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, Ryland realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Hurtling through space on this tiny ship, it’s up to him to puzzle out an impossible scientific mystery and conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.
And with the clock ticking down and the nearest human being light-years away, he’s got to do it all alone.
Or does he?
“An epic story of redemption, discovery and cool speculative sci-fi.”
Here are stories of robots gone mad, of mind-read robots, and robots with a sense of humor. Of robot politicians and robots who secretly run the world, all told with the dramatic blend of science fact and science fiction that has become Asimov’s trademark.
The three Laws of Robotics:
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2) A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
With these three, simple directives, Isaac Asimov changed our perception of robots forever when he formulated the laws governing their behavior. In I, Robot, Asimov chronicles the development of the robot through a series of interlinked stories: from its primitive origins in the present to its ultimate perfection in the not-so-distant future—a future in which humanity itself may be rendered obsolete.
Ideas from science fiction don’t often 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.
1984 is the rare book that is both commonly assigned to students and still a pleasure to read.
On the world called Hyperion, beyond the reach of galactic law, waits a 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.
“An unfailingly inventive narrative… generously conceived and stylistically sure-handed.”
—The New York Times Book Review
The idea was to terraform a world to prepare it for human life (check, done), send in a supervirus that makes some creatures really smart (check, also done), and finally, land some Earth monkeys on it and watch them get really smart and do amazing things (whoops, nope, total disaster).
Many years later, a spaceship filled with the last humans fleeing a dying Earth arrives at the planet. The humans have been told the planet has been prepped for them, but there’s a whole alien civilization down there, and it’s not what anyone is ready for.
“This is superior stuff, tackling big themes—gods, messiahs, artificial intelligence, alienness—with brio.”
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.
This book won the Hugo and Nebula awards.
Conscripted into service for the United Nations Exploratory Force, a highly-trained unit built for revenge, physics student William Mandella fights for his planet light years away against the alien force known as the Taurans.
Because of the relative passage of time when one travels at incredibly high speed, the Earth that Mandella returns to after his two-year experience has progressed decades and is foreign to him in disturbing ways.
Based in part on the author’s experiences in Vietnam, The Forever War is regarded as one of the greatest military science fiction novels ever written, capturing the alienation that servicemen and women experience even now upon returning home from battle.
Children are genetically programmed in the womb and sent through indoctrination programs, preparing them for lives in predetermined castes. It’s a utopian society that maintains its peace by removing the humanity of its members, and only one man is brave enough to vocally challenge the status quo.
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.”
When I think back to being blown away by books as a kid, The Martian Chronicles always comes to mind.
Bradbury imagines a place of hope, dreams, and metaphor—of crystal pillars and fossil seas—where a fine dust settles on the great empty cities of a vanished, devastated civilization. Earthmen conquer Mars and then are conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.
In this classic work of fiction, Bradbury exposes our ambitions, weaknesses, and ignorance in a strange and breathtaking world where man does not belong.
In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race’s next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter and Valentine were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn’t make the cut―young Ender is the Wiggin drafted to the orbiting Battle School for rigorous military training.
Ender’s skills make him a leader in school and respected in the Battle Room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity. Yet growing up in an artificial community of young soldiers, Ender suffers greatly from isolation, rivalry from his peers, pressure from the adult teachers, and an unsettling fear of the alien invaders. His psychological battles include loneliness, fear that he is becoming like the cruel brother he remembers, and fanning the flames of devotion to his beloved sister.
Is Ender the general Earth needs? But Ender is not the only result of the genetic experiments. The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway for almost as long. Ender’s two older siblings are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. Between the three of them lie the abilities to remake a world. If, that is, the world survives.
“An affecting novel full of surprises. Card never makes the mistake of patronizing or sentimentalizing his hero.”
—The New York Times Book Review
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.
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.
“Though a lot of SF writers are more or less efficiently continuing the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein, Scalzi’s astonishingly proficient first novel reads like an original work by the late grand master…This virtuoso debut pays tribute to SF’s past while showing that well-worn tropes still can have real zip when they’re approached with ingenuity.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
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.”
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.
Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.
After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.
Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.
But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?
“An excellent first novel… Weir laces the technical details with enough keen wit to satisfy hard science fiction fan and general reader alike [and] keeps the story escalating to a riveting conclusion.”
—Publisher’s Weekly, starred review
It looks like a good deal at first: a peaceful alien invasion by the mysterious Overlords, whose arrival ends all war, helps form a world government, and turns the planet into a near-utopia.
However, they refuse to answer questions about themselves and govern from orbiting spaceships. Clarke has said that the idea for Childhood’s End may have come from the numerous blimps floating over London during World War II.
An enormous cylindrical object has entered Earth’s solar system on a collision course with the sun. A team of astronauts are sent to explore the mysterious craft, which the denizens of the solar system name Rama.
What they find is astonishing evidence of a civilization far more advanced than ours. They find an interior stretching over fifty kilometers; a forbidding cylindrical sea; mysterious and inaccessible buildings; and strange machine-animal hybrids, or “biots,” that inhabit the ship. But what they don’t find is an alien presence. So who—and where—are the Ramans?
“Mr. Clarke is splendid… We experience that chilling touch of the alien, the not-quite-knowable, that distinguishes SF at its most technically imaginative.”
—The New York Times
Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, heir to a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable world where the only thing of value is the “spice” melange, a drug capable of extending life and enhancing consciousness. Coveted across the known universe, melange is a prize worth killing for…
When House Atreides is betrayed, the destruction of Paul’s family will set the boy on a journey toward a destiny greater than he could ever have imagined. And as he evolves into the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib, he will bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.
“It is possible that Dune is even more relevant now than when it was first published.”
—The New Yorker
17 thoughts on “The Readers Speak! This Blog’s Readers’ Favorite Science Fiction Books”
Thanks Dan! This is s great list. There is even one book on the list I haven’t read.
A very good list. I’ve read several.
Was there a sequel to Enders Game?
You bet: Speaker for the Dead.
Great list. It would be interesting to see one like this for Steampunk novels.
Great list! Thanks for this!
Still don’t see Red, Green, Blue Mars! , but great list nonetheless
That’s going to show up in the Favorite Series list.
terrific list and I was surprised that there was no Stanger in a strange land by Heinlein in the list . thanks for the list
What I love about this list (and about Science Fiction books in general) is that so many of these stories have stood the test of time. I mean, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine was published in 1895!! Quite a few from the 1970’s as well. Must have been a strong time for Sci Fi.
I am going to try and read the ones I haven’t read. Should keep me busy for a while 🙂
Interesting list, but no Iain M Banks and no Ursula Le Guin?
Nope. Their books didn’t get enough votes to make the cut.
“Foundation” and “Dune” are the first in a series. Doesn’t they belong to the series list ?
Absolutely, and they will be in that list when it comes out.
I have read 20 of the 24:
24. Slaughterhouse Five
23. Ready Player One (one of my suggested favorites and a series)
21. Foundation (but this is a series !)
17. Project Hail Mary
16. I, Robot (kind of a series)
12. The Time Machine
11. The Forever War
10. Brave New World
9. The Martian Chronicles
8. Ender’s Game (another series)
6. Old Man’s War (another series)
5. The Mote In God’s Eye (another series)
4. The Martian (one of my suggested favorites)
3. Childhood’s End
2. Rendezvous With Rama
1. Dune (another series)
Awesome list. I’ve read quite a few but have now added Rendezvous With Rama to my TBR.
I think Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro deserves a mention here but it is still a relatively new release in the great scheme of things. I think it will, at some point, become a recommended read.
Just added that to my TBR list. Thanks!