Having just nourished your intellectual xeriscape with a post about why I hate fantasy, I think it’s high time I told you what I do like.
Take heed: these books are old. Most of them were written before I was born (1986, as if you care). In fact, Mary C. Moore, of the literary agency Kimberley Cameron & Associates, actually scolded me for this when I pitched her my novel idea at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference in February. She said I need to read more current science fiction books so I can have more contemporary “comps,” or well-known books I can compare to my own works in a pitch or query letter.
Phooey to that, I say. If you want to write like the best, read the best. And I happen to be of the opinion that the best science fiction has already been written.
But before you go calling me a Philistine, I am planning to read some science fiction books by contemporary writers in 2018 and 2019: Kim Stanley Robinson, George R.R. Martin, Connie Willis, Norman Spinrad, Ted Chiang, and Nancy Kress, among others. (I’m actually attending a sci-fi writing workshop with Nancy Kress on Saturday, March 24, sponsored by Locus.) But their books were on my to-read list before I ever met Mary C. Moore. So there.
Without further ado, here are my fifteen favorite science fiction novels of all time (so far). Some of them are famous, or won swanky awards. Some of them are more obscure. I list them here because, if you’re a sci-fi writer and are reading this blog to get more confident in your chosen vocation, then I hope these stories will inspire you as they inspired me. These books changed my life, spurred me to write sci-fi of my own, or just let me escape this drab, dull world for a precious few hours.
1. The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (1972)
It’s the 22nd century. An alien race from a dying universe develops a revolutionary technique to resolve its apocalyptic energy crisis: they begin importing energy from our universe. Simultaneously, three individuals—one of the aliens and two humans (one born and raised on the moon, the other an Earthling)—realize that the steady siphoning of energy from this universe will cause Earth’s sun to explode in a very short time. Will they persuade anyone to listen to them before disaster strikes?
This is Asimov at his finest: futurist sci-fi with rock-hard science to back it up, superb characterization, and numerous subplots woven together into a spectacular climax. The title is taken from The Maid of Orleans, a play written in 1801 by Friedrich Schiller: “Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.” The Gods Themselves won the Nebula Award in 1972 and the Hugo Award in 1973.
2. Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (1973)
Know what a light curve is? I didn’t either before I read this book. It’s a graph that shows “the variation in the light received over a period of time from a variable star or other varying celestial object.”
In the late 20th century, humans detect a new object entering the solar system. They immediately notice something strange about its light curve.
It doesn’t have one.
Nobody can believe it, but it’s true. The light received from this mysterious object never varies a hair. That can mean only one of two things: either the object is spinning at a ridiculously fast rate (thousands of revolutions per minute)…
Or it’s perfectly symmetrical. Read: artificial.
Arthur C. Clarke, using a series of otherwise bland and dull scientific facts, grabs hold of your attention at the start of this book and just yanks you along for the entire thrill ride. If I knew that I’d be trapped on a remote tropical island for twenty years and could take only one book with me, it’d be this one. I’m not going to say any more about it. Read it. It won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards upon its release.
3. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)
It’s a mark of just how well Neal Stephenson writes that he managed to make me like a cyberpunk novel. I hate cyberpunk. (You’ll notice that there’s nothing by Philip K. Dick or William Gibson anywhere on this list.) I have no interest in computers, or hacking, or cyber warfare, or cryptocurrency, or digital espionage, or brain uploading, or artificial intelligence, or any of that crap. Give me a laser pistol, a zippy spaceship, and a cyborg T-Rex any day of the week. But, dang it, Snow Crash is just so well written it’s criminal. Stephenson’s prose is like a William Gibson novel: sweaty, frenetic, intense, bursting with hidden menace—kinda like a bad acid trip, or a virtual reality simulator run by Skynet.
Snow Crash has the trappings of classic cyberpunk: heart-stopping action which takes place in both the real world and cyberspace; an expansive virtual frontier that’s structured like a real-world city, and which people jack into and visit (and which even has exclusive clubs with names like “Black Sun”); a class divide wider than the Grand Canyon; and a highly corporatized vision of the future. In fact, the United States as we know it hardly exists; most of the North American continent is not divided into various corporate holdings and the heavily fortified “burbclaves” in between where the ordinary people live. Our hero, a pizza delivery boy, drives a souped-up armored car just to evade all the banditry and thuggery going on in the no-man’s-land in between. And that’s how the story starts, with a thrilling car chase. Can’t go wrong there.
4. The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells (1896)
This was a real tough choice. Almost all of H.G. Wells’s books deserve to be on this list. He is, and always has been, my favorite science fiction writer. I still remember the first time I read The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine and had my little mind blown. (Yes, they were the crappy abridged versions with pictures on every page, but my mind was still blown.) Wells was my gateway drug into the world of sci-fi. His seminal stories remain cornerstones of the genre, and eerily prescient ones at that—he predicted the invention of tanks, airplanes, and lasers, and correctly guessed how they would be employed in large-scale warfare. Wells’s tales, apart from popularizing pretty much every alien invasion and time travel trope used in film and literature since, also marked the nascent beginnings of science fiction as a serious medium for social commentary.
The Island of Dr. Moreau is probably the least nuanced of all of Wells’s rather bleak tales. A shipwreck survivor, Edward Prendick, washes up on a tropical island where a mysterious man, Dr. Moreau, and his boorish assistant Montgomery live with a bunch of strange and bestial-looking human beings. After a series of mishaps, misunderstandings, and surreptitious explorations, Prendick comes to a horrific conclusion: Dr. Moreau is a vivisectionist who turns people into animals. He confronts the amused Moreau and learns the truth is even stranger and more horrifying: Moreau is doing the exact opposite, surgically turning animals into people. Everything goes south when a vicious leopard-man kills Dr. Moreau and escapes the lab, and the “Beastmen,” deprived of Moreau’s humanizing surgeries, begin to revert quickly back to their previous states of savagery…
The moral of the story couldn’t be more obvious (or more cynical): despite the thin veneer of civilization and order in which we have clothed ourselves, people are beasts. The Island of Dr. Moreau may not be Wells’s most subtle book, but for my money it’s the most suspenseful and the most horrifying. Read this excerpt if you don’t believe me.
5. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864)
You read that right: eighteen hundred and sixty-four. Nearly one hundred years before Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Alfred Bester, Lester del Rey, Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague de Camp, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Connie Willis, Vonda McIntyre, and Vernor Vinge arrived on the scene—hell, a good three decades before H.G. Wells started doing his thing—there lived an adventurous Frenchman named Jules Verne (pronounced “Herbert Thacklewaite”—you know how weird French is). And that Frenchman was scribbling down some of the most mind-blowing and groundbreaking science fiction ever written. The man predicted everything from electric submarines and tasers (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) to televised news reports and skywriting (“In the Year 2889”) to lunar modules and solar sails (From the Earth to the Moon).
In Journey to the Center of the Earth, everything’s looking sunny for lazy, twenty-something Axel Lidenbrock, nephew of the eminent and acerbic German geologist Otto Lidenbrock. Then, one fine day, Axel and his uncle crack a 200-year old code cipher left by the famous crackpot explorer Arne Saknussemm, which reads:
Descend into the crater of Sneffels Yokul, which the shade of Scartaris touches before the kalends of July, bold traveler, and you will reach the center of the earth. I have done this.
No force in heaven or on earth (or within it) can contain the elder Lidenbrock’s enthusiasm when he reads those words. In a twinkling he and the bewildered Axel are off on the journey of a lifetime with their faithful Icelandic guide Hans—Otto hoping it’ll never stop, Axel wondering if it’ll ever end. The book may be written in that heavy-handed 19th-century style that so many impatient 21st-century readers hate, but I loved every minute of it. Gigantic gemstones, volcanic eruptions, the battling of prehistoric monsters, subterranean suns, and vast underground seas are just some of the wonders and dangers our heroes encounter on their journey.
6. Empire of the Atom by A.E. van Vogt (1957)
Ever read the 1934 novel I, Claudius by Robert Graves? No? Shame on you. Have you at least seen the excellent 1976 BBC television series of the same name? Seriously? How could you miss that? It’s fantastic. Derek Jacobi, Siân Phillips, Patrick Stewart, Patricia Quinn, John Hurt, Brian Blessed, John Rhys-Davies, and a ton of other famous Shakespearean British actors, all dressed up in togas and yelling at each other. What’s not to love?
Empire of the Atom is basically I, Claudius IN SPACE! A young mutant becomes the head of one of the most powerful interstellar empires in human history, just in time to face off against a barbarian invasion from Europa (barbarians in spaceships…too cool!) and an even more powerful alien race, the Riss.
It’s a lot less boring than I’m making it sound. Pick up a copy and read it. No matter what awful things Damon Knight has accused A.E. van Vogt of being (a bad writer, a plagiarist, and “a pygmy who has learned to operate an overgrown typewriter”), I think van Vogt was one of the best sci-fi writers who ever lived. Empire of the Atom and its sequel, The Wizard of Linn, are an excellent introduction to classic science fiction for the raw and uninitiated, especially those interested in Roman history. And seriously, watch the I, Claudius BBC miniseries too. It’s terrific.
7. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)
Forget that horrendous Will Smith film. You gotta read the book. Imagine being the last normal human living in Los Angeles after a vampiric plague wipes out or mutates the entire human race. Imagine, if you will, that the vampires are not the bald, feral, pointy-eared creatures we see in the godawful Will Smith film; they aren’t all that different from normal humans, except for the vampirism. Imagine that you had to burn the corpses of your wife and daughter in the ruins of a sports stadium, along with all your neighbors and friends. Imagine that you, as the last remaining normal human being, slaughter any vampire you encounter on sight, and that you are now the minority, you are the monster, you are the freak. The world has left you behind and you’re just a primeval throwback living in a moldering ruin of a city, killing anything you see. To the new humans, the new masters of the world, the vampires…you are legend.
I hope that wasn’t a spoiler. The movie did such a crappy job of explaining the title of Matheson’s novel that I felt I had to try. Matheson, by the way, is a masterful writer. His prose is taut, tightly paced, suspenseful, and evocative, a real punch to the gut: just what you want in a science fiction and horror writer. It’s no surprise to me that Stephen King cites him as a source of inspiration.
8. Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (1959)
Anyone who says Heinlein was a fascist, or likes the dung-heap of a movie better than the book, deserves to be slathered in honey and inserted head-first into an anthill. Aside from single-handedly spawning the subgenre of military science fiction, Starship Troopers is also a thoughtful commentary on citizenship and moral responsibility. The book posits that a lack of discipline in society leads inevitably to moral decline, and strongly advocates for corporal and capital punishment. Some errant fool in Hollywood thought this point of view sounded fascist (it’s not) and made a film that was a deliberate middle finger to Heinlein’s views, resulting in both a monstrous miscarriage of literary justice and a classic case of la mort de l’auteur.
Okay, fine. I’m stepping off the soapbox now. But I wasn’t kidding. I don’t care where you lie on the political spectrum: you can learn something from Starship Troopers. The writing is damn good, almost Hemingway-ish in its straightforwardness and simplicity. The themes are easy to understand and universal. The descriptions of space warfare are lavishly detailed and totally believable. I heard a rumor (possibly apocryphal) that this book is required reading for all U.S. Army Rangers. You may just find yourself wishing you were in a drop pod with Rico’s Roughnecks heading into battle against the skinnies by the time you’ve finished it.
9. Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle (1963)
Never mind the crappy 2001 film. Don’t even mind the 1968 film with Charlton Heston. As atmospheric as it was, it never really went into detail about why the ape civilization looks so similar to humanity’s: why apes ride horses, wear clothes, use guns. And like most science fiction films made during the Cold War, the looming specter of nuclear war hijacked the script and the story. It’s heavily implied in the film that apes arose to take over the world after humans decimated themselves in a nuclear holocaust.
That’s not the case in Boulle’s book. In La Planète des singes, it’s explained that humans tamed apes and used them as servants. Apes, via their association with human beings, gradually learned to speak; when that happened, humans became mentally lazy, until gradually the clever apes drove the humans from their homes and into the wilderness and took over human civilization. They know how to ride horses and wear clothes and shoot guns because they watched humans do it for years. Monkey see, monkey do…
Oh, and the ending of La Planète des singes is different from the Heston movie, too. There ain’t no Statue of Liberty at the end, I’ll tell you that.
10. Timeline by Michael Crichton (1999)
I’ve heard Crichton’s books described as cheap, tawdry techno-thrillers and not “real” science fiction. I think that’s bull. When you write about genetically engineered dinosaurs (Jurassic Park) or space plagues (The Andromeda Strain) or a tribe of semi-sentient ape-men living in the jungle (Congo) or intelligent swarms of nanomachines (Prey) or giant glowing orbs in 300-year-old spaceship wrecks lying on the ocean floor and giving people reality-warping powers (Sphere)…that seems pretty science fiction-y to me.
The best thing about Crichton is that he didn’t just limit himself to writing about only one type of science. He wrote about everything and anything that interested him. As the 21st century approached and humanity began to be obsessed with that crazy little thing called quantum mechanics, Crichton threw his hat into the ring and came up with a plausible story about time travel. You can say whatever you like about Crichton’s writing style, or his characterizations, or his injection of gory violent deaths into every single one of his books, blah blah blah. You’ll never know the chill that passed through me when an archaeological expedition is exploring a ruined castle in France and happens upon a secret chamber, only to find an ancient piece of parchment there that reads simply “HELP ME 4/7/1357.”
11. Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970)
Imagine, if you will, a strip of metal a million miles wide and 600 million miles long, completely encircling a warm yellow sun at a habitable distance. The sunward side of this strip of metal is covered with dirt, rocks, grass, fields, lakes, mountains, seas, deserts, and every other geological feature you could name. The ring’s rotational speed gives the sunward side of the ring artificial gravity of 99% that of Earth. Night is provided by a series of slightly smaller “shadow squares,” each connected by strings of ultra-thin, ultra-strong wire, which rotate in the opposite direction of the “Ringworld.” The Ringworld’s habitable surface is three million times that of Earth.
Now imagine that humans have just discovered a Ringworld orbiting a sun not too far from Earth, and have sent you, a two-headed alien mastermind, a bloodthirsty primitive cat-man, and a sexy dimwitted woman aboard a super-fast ship called Lying Bastard to investigate the ring and find out what it is and who built it.
Boom. That’s the plot of Ringworld. And even though Larry Niven himself has been accused of sexism over the course of his career, the novel won the triple crown of Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards.
12. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
A strange, humorous, gut-wrenching, tragicomic tale of one Billy Pilgrim, a soldier and chaplain’s assistant who survives the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II. Oh, and is also exhibited in an alien zoo. So it goes. If you’ve read any books by Vonnegut before, there’s nothing I need say to talk him up. A funnier, wittier, more mournfully insightful American writer may never have lived. Oh, and if you’re a struggling writer like me, his eight rules for writing are really freaking helpful.
13. A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge (1992)
Not gonna lie: I hated this book the first time I read it. I found the story dull and plodding, the plot confusing, the setting mysterious and incomprehensible, the third-person narration stilted and wooden, the characters flat and unlikable.
Upon reflection, however, I realized that this story had some pretty spectacular things going for it: believable alien races, a galaxy of different languages and agendas and cultures, realistic interplanetary news services and information networks, and a fully developed setting with clear-cut rules and a richly imagined history—not to mention a unique twist.
In Vinge’s book, the galaxy is divided up into “Zones of Thought.” In the lowest zones, advanced technology cannot exist. The higher zones are reserved for incredibly advanced races who have mastered interstellar travel and other technologies. Who divided the galaxy into the Zones—and why—remains a mystery for most of the book. The answer is guessed at near the end, but not thoroughly settled, becoming a delicious tidbit for the reader’s imagination.
Instead of telling a bland story where humans are the center of the universe, Vinge realistically imagines a diverse galactic community filled with races and cultures that are in different phases of their development. One of the alien races that plays a large part in the story is medieval: swords, crossbows, catapults, and castles. The villain of the story is a godlike, super-intelligent being capable of transmitting itself via faster-than-light communication networks and enslaving entire races. Vinge’s imaginings take the form of a thought-provoking and satisfying space opera.
14. At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft (1931)
This post is almost 4,000 words long already, so I’ll be brief. Practically everybody who knows science fiction knows H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos. This is Lovecraft flexing his literary might, moving beyond the short story format which garnered him fame and writing a full-length novel. At the Mountains of Madness follows a scientific expedition to the brutally cold and remote Antarctic continent to search for survivors of a previous expedition who vanished under mysterious circumstances. The quest for answers takes the befuddled search team on a terrifying plunge into the unexplored heart of Antarctica, where something ancient and evil lurks behind a massive mountain range even taller than the Himalayas…
Tying in beautifully with The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym by Edgar Allen Poe, At the Mountains of Madness remains a landmark work of sci-fi horror, and also popularized Antarctica as a hotbed for all sorts of otherworldly goings-on in fiction and film for years to come.
15. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921)
George Orwell wrote 1984 in the year 1949, when the Soviet Union had been around for 32 years. Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote We in 1921, when the Soviet Union was just four years old, and it was chillingly prescient. Secret police. Government surveillance. Extrajudicial executions. Birth permits. State-approved poetry and art. Arranged marriage. Characters don’t even have names in We, just numbers.
The main character, D-503, is a spacecraft engineer and a citizen of the One State, a totalitarian and highly urbanized nation that conquered the planet. Everyone lives in apartment blocks built of glass, making it easy for the secret police to monitor them. Free will is nonexistent. People wear uniforms, march in lockstep, are assigned lovers by the authorities, and are forbidden to smoke, drink, or fall in love. Society is run entirely on rules and regulations based on formulas and calculations made by the One State. The concept of humanity has been reduced to a series of algorithms and equations, resulting in a nightmarish dystopia that fans of George Orwell and refugees from the Soviet bloc would find all too familiar.
Yet every oppressive regime has its secret resistance…and the One State is no exception.
My wife first read We in her dystopian science fiction class at college (why wasn’t that on my curriculum?!) and recommended it to me when we were dating. I loved it, and still do. Thanks, honey.
Okay…this listicle is done. That was exhausting. I think I’m going to have to limit my blog posts to one per week. I’m a wordy bugger, I am. Look out for my weekly posts on Saturday mornings, henceforth. And once again, thank you for being a loyal follower and reader.
Now get the heck off the Internet and get writing. The world(s) of sci-fi need you!