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Cyberpunk is arguably the most difficult type of science fiction to learn to read. It combines noir, dystopia, and a persistent thread of hopelessness in the face of greed, power and ego. Snow Crash is easier to read than most, but Stephenson will grab you by the short hairs and drag you into the story without much mercy. As with any great book, Snow Crash captivates the mind - it's about something and as a human being the reader recognizes that thing as magnificently and horrifyingly important on a very personal level. It whispers of a truth you may have always heard on the very edge of your mind. This is what propels Snow Crash into top spot. It arrived in 1992 and didn't win squat in the awards categories. Cyberpunk seldom wins awards. It's uncomfortable. Doesn't matter when awards committees get it wrong. You will find Snow Crash in virtually every best ever list of science fiction. Why? Because you will remember it 50 years later. And, what it talks about will inform your thinking for the rest of your life. That's kick ass good.
Got fame? Sometimes a book races up the charts like it is blasted out of a rocket. This is that book. It began life already famous and then got more famous. Heinlein is one of the big three giants of mid-century science fiction along with Arthur C. Clarke and Issac Asimov. Published in 1961 this novel won the Hugo award. It's a satire. It's also a book that challenges money, sexuality, religion, monogamy and concepts on death. Clarke was well known for his adventurous personal explorations long before they were made popular in mainstream culture. In fact, Clarke had his part in creating that popularity and by stimulating dialogue about forbidden subjects. This is the kind of book that still pushes buttons and possibly that's the best reason to read it, because you want to have your buttons pushed.
You've erased files from your computer. You probably didn't think much about it. But, maybe you had a moment where you accidentally deleted something you really loved and now you can't get it back. That is the beginning of a science fiction story long before computers were accessible to anyone but a top government employee. In 1953 Bester won the very first Hugo award for his ground-breaking novel. Part police-procedural, part future fantasy with the unmistakable early signs of future cyberpunk science fiction, Bester gave us a world of telepaths and a general population unable to commit murder because their brain would be heard plotting the crime before they could do the dirty deed. Except, of course someone decides to be a murderer anyway even when they know the consequence if they are caught is to be demolished. It seems worth it.
This novel is like taking a swan dive off the high bar into big, juicy, all-encompassing science fiction space opera. A space opera has everything like: aliens, love, romance, betrayal, space battles, physics, high and low technology and the kitchen sink. Vinge does it about as good as it can be done in this novel. Published in 1993 it won the Hugo. Vinge is that most rare of science fiction writers, he's a real scientist. This means that he tends to get his science more right than most. He is also a real writer and that means that he is good at creating characters and situations we care about. That makes his book really good. It satisfies those who like their science fiction all gushy with romance and those who eschew love and demand good hard science. No one can complain. Okay, so you can whine a little over how he can cram so much good stuff into one book.
When this story first came out video games were still in their infancy with games like Zelda, Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong topping the popularity charts. No one had really written a science fiction story about a child. No one had conceived of a child in quite the way that Card did. This is militaristic science fiction. It is so good that the United States Marine Corp. recommends this novel to their marines. It won both the Hugo and Nebula in 1985 and was optioned for a movie that will be released in the fall of 2013. Some novels find their way to the top by breaking through a genre barrier that no one knew existed prior to the moment the novel hit the shelves. This is that kind of break-through novel. It sticks with you long after you read it.
You've probably noticed a bit of list failure happening here. See, you can't compare science fiction books as if all of them are apples from the same tree. What you have here are multiple sub-genres and books that are the very best in their genre. This means you've been reading a list of number ones no matter what number is in front of their title. Nothing is better than Haldeman's The Forever War as militaristic science fiction. It's a novel about relationships over time, about being a human being and about the Vietnam War filtered through space opera. Published in 1974 this novel won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. But it transcends these awards by winning the hearts and minds of nearly every science fiction fan who reads it. Don't plan on doing anything but read when you buy this book. Find a quiet corner, lie to your friends and family and turn off your cell phone. You're in for a bumpy ride with some of the best science fiction ever written.
Big Brother is watching. You pull up to a stoplight noting the camera looking down from the cross bar. You use the ATM machine, you walk into a department store, you sit in DMV waiting to register your car. At every moment a camera watches -; you. Government can collectively access any of these camera feeds, sometimes in real time. Your car has a GPS tracker, your cell phone is tracked by signal feeds, you can be followed almost everywhere. In 1949 the dying George Orwell frantically wrote his novel describing this world of increasing loss of privacy. His political dystopic novel should scare the crap out of you because it has been getting things mostly right for more than 60 years. That's what great science fiction often does -; it tells you that monsters are real and we are creating them by telling ourselves such intrusions will make us feel more safe. This book is periodically banned, censured, and called subversive -; as recently as 2009 where versions of this book were deleted by amazon.com from e-book readers devices without their consent. Most best book lists have this book in the top ten of all literary fiction. One of the best ways to identify really bad-ass books is by their degree of controversy.
You've heard of Dick. He wrote the novel that became the Harrison Ford movie, Bladerunner. Dick is the inspiration that prompted other writers to create cyberpunk. Many people view Dick as pre-cyberpunk. He was writing this Hugo-winning novel in 1963. It falls into yet another category called alternate history science fiction. This novel plunges you into a world where the Axis powers have won World War II. It's dystopic, bleak, and powerful. Dick liked to explore the nature of reality by tugging on common beliefs and inverting them in disturbing ways. This is the kind of book that will worry you long after you've read it and thought you solved it and moved on. Guess what, it will keep returning to your thinking years later.
Great novels reflect the era when they were written. Yes I know that we are talking science fiction and distant make-believe planets, aliens and starships but under all of the surface differences is a novel about real people on Earth. Us. You and me. The readers, and the challenges we are currently facing. No one does this better than LeGuin. Before she wrote The Left Hand of Darkness most science fiction centered on male issues from male writers. She blew open the door by introducing feminism, gender and identity questions and human sexuality from a female perspective. Published in 1969 she won the Hugo and Nebula awards and from that time forward this novel is frequently listed near the top of nearly every all-time best science fiction novels list. It remains relevant, powerful and just as good as it was 45 years ago. This is a Vietnam era, post birth-control pill era novel when women in America began to take back possession of their own bodies and reproduction. We call this feminist science fiction.
So you think you've tried all of the wonderful variations of science fiction? Nope. Mieville takes us into a police procedural weird science fiction novel. Just throw away your notion that science fiction is easy to stick in categories. Published in 2009 this novel won the Locus, Arthur C. Clarke, World Fantasy, Hugo, BSFA and Kitschies Red Tentacle awards. As you probably guessed the awards committees had a small bit of trouble deciding where it belonged so it won as both a science fiction and as a fantasy novel. This is the kind of novel that will bend your brain, in mostly a good way. Mieville explores two future cities that overlap each other in weird ways as his protagonist tries to solve a murder. It's easier to read than it sounds but don't mistake, you will have some double-blink moments as your brain scrambles to keep up and grok the situation. Go weird or go home!
You're going to hate me for this. Really. See, Clarke is one of the three giants of science fiction, old-school science fiction. He was writing this novel in 1953 at a time when the genre was read almost exclusively in serials that showed up in magazines that were aimed at boys and men. His characterizations are often flat, his science is questionable at times and his pacing reflects the serialized quickie style of magazine shorts. Still, at some point you need to read this book in spite of its potential flaws. Many books follow a familiar format allowing the reader to feel like they can predict the ending. You get sucked in and a bit complacent. Be ready, Clarke will jerk you around in the exact moment where you think you have it solved. He's Clarke and this is his best.
This novel is about as good as it gets. Miller started writing this as short stories before recognizing that what he had was a novel. It was published in 1960 and won the Hugo. It has never been out of print with more than 40 reprints of both hardcover and paperback and too many translations to count. Miller takes us into a post-nuclear war era, inside a monastery and into complex religious and political themes. The novel explores the cyclical nature of rising and falling technology and civilizations. This is a power punch novel that cannot be easily described and that is part of why and how it continues to be so very good after more than 50 years. You should be well versed in reading good fiction before you venture inside Miller's mind and expect to read this every few years for a decade or two. This is the kind of novel that transforms as you develop so that it becomes new again after each reading. Don't say I didn't warn you.
You've probably heard of this book. Maybe it was read to you when you were a child. It is enormously popular as a chapter book for children. You might think that makes it a children's book and what the hell is it doing in the top ten of best science fiction standalone books? Right? Well, this is an unusual book.
Technically people call its genre science fiction fantasy because it has legs in both ponds. Really, it's a novel that spans ages, genres, and pre-conceived ideas on what makes a book really exceptionally good. L'Engle delivered this masterpiece in 1962, at a time when women couldn't possibly be writing science fiction. It was unacceptable. Worse, she had a female heroine and children in her novel. At that time science fiction only happened to men. When women showed up in their novels, those women were decorative, sexual objects or took minor roles.
Not so for L'Engle. So, her novel must be for children and that's where it was placed - for years. She won the Newbery, Sequoyah and Lewis Carroll Shelf awards. But, no one keeps L'Engle down. A Wrinkle In Time is often the vehicle book that brings children into science fiction, fantasy and wonder. So, if you haven't had it read to you, make your significant other sit back in the evening with your head pillowed on their lap and listen. If you can't manage that, look for an audio book version and discover great science fiction and your inner child all at the same time.
Although we've already had one cyberpunk novel on the list, no one does it better than Gibson. He writes in a classically dystopic world replete with high-technology and low-life characters who use a mixture of drugs and technology that remains eerily scary today. This novel won everything or what insiders call the triple-crown of science fiction awards, the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards. But, it ascended to these heights based on an almost underground word of mouth that elevated cyberpunk into full legitimacy inside science fiction. Gibson is scary good. His world is dark, mean, edgy and paranoid. The worst thing about reading cyberpunk is seeing bits and pieces of the stories come to life around you. Got paranoia? You will...
Now that you're feeling all brave and shit, let's get into Atwood. Perhaps as recent as 2010 this 1985 winner of the Governor's General Award and the first ever Arthur C. Clarke award would not have made a Top 25 Stand Alone list. But then America witnessed the rapid rise of Christian theocracy in the conservative right wing political party and Atwood's novel blasted upwards into the science fiction consciousness. Nearly 30 years ago she predicted ghastly aspects of this theocratical thinking that have physically transpired on our national stage. This is also a dystopic novel but it is driven by social challenges that include gender, racial and sexual warfare. It's a must read. It clarifies the present and is vital and relevant in a way no other science fiction book has achieved.
Now you're ready for some honest-to-god aliens trapped in an outer space cul-de-sac. What do humans do? Why, we fly into the cul-de-sac to see what's in there, of course. What we find are some of the best written aliens ever created, the Moties. Nothing will prepare you for the Moties. Niven and Pournelle published this novel in 1975 and once again, it didn't win nothing. However, that didn't keep this book from becoming one of the best science fiction books ever. Heinlein (author of Stranger in a Strange Land, also on this list) famously said it was, "possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read." There are several things that make it great, the Moties. Niven and Pournelle don't just create one alien type, they create a class of aliens and rampant overpopulation. You'll love them and be scared to death by what the existence of such a species might mean. And, they are out there somewhere - right now.
No best of list would be complete without hearing from Ray Bradbury. It's like this, the enduring struggle of humanity is about conformity and censorship. In every culture in every era to every human, some one is seeking to control, confine and silence others. This struggle is at the center of most science fiction novels, often in subtle ways. In Bradbury's case his entire story focuses on how humans are conditioned by the pressures of society, by the media, by big business and by those persons who are driven by fear of differences. This novel didn't win any awards. It has been banned in some public schools. Its publisher censored and edited some of the book without the author's consent for a number of years. It is that kind of book. It may offend you. It may make you uncomfortable. That's a good thing. It's has been made into a film, multiple television shows, theatrical productions and radio adaptations. Bradbury reminds us that every book that we love can be silenced. Reading is the best way to fight back.
You know that moment when you are getting into reading a novel and suddenly you aren't alone anymore? The characters come alive and flesh out in your imagination until they are real. Sturgeon was a master of exploring human loneliness and difference. This book was published in 1953 and it won the International Fantasy award. What's really cool about this novel is how Sturgeon weaves together a motley group of misfits into a singular, powerful union. It's not a clean, easy to predict kind of novel. Sturgeon gets you dirty and keeps you dirty as his characters display all of the flaws and mistakes a human being is likely to make. When you are done with it, you will find yourself looking at the people commonly discarded in society with new eyes - wondering.
Are you convinced that you are reading this list because you have 'free will'? That's because you haven't read any Vonnegut recently. He is a master at exploring fatalism issues using postmodern and metafiction techniques. He challenges you to challenge yourself over what you think and how you make decisions. Published in 1969 this book didn't win squat in terms of awards. However, this is Vonnegut at his best and despite the absence of awards he managed to land in 18th place on the Modern Library's Greatest English Language Novels of the 20th Century list. In this novel Vonnegut mixes his real life experiences inside a German slaughterhouse in World War II with his fictional narrative adding an authenticity to the story that is difficult to escape. All the literary types out there want to lay claim to this novel as literary fiction but we all know it is science fiction that is just so damn good that it can't possibly be science fiction - right?
Do you download your books in order to save the trees? Going green is popular today. Back in 1976 the green movement was largely ignored or laughed at. Ecological catastrophe didn't sound reasonable or even something anyone should worry about. But Wilhelm worried about it. Her novel is so good that it won the Hugo and Locus awards. She imagines a world of clones, humans in great decline and ecological disaster. Her novel fits into yet another category, ecopunk science fiction. It's dystopic but the focus is less on technology and more involved with cultural processes, individualism and creativity. Like most great science fiction novels she forces her readers to think difficult thoughts and see the echoes of such dire futures in their everyday lives. She sucks that way. That's why she's so damn good. You have to read her because she doesn't let any of us get away with our bad behavior. Sucks so good.
Now that you are properly warmed up with a little ecopunk, it's time to get even dirtier with a dive into biopunk. You've read your social media sites and heard all about how genetically modified plants are killing off the bee populations and making people sick -; right? This is the underlying focus of biopunk. The premise is simply that genetically modified seed corporations are forcing world populations to eat genetically modified foods. The result is a 2009 novel that won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Compton Crook awards. Bacigalupi correctly recognized the pending food-war catastrophe already showing up across the world. He pushes this idea outward to show what is likely and how devastating things are likely to get. You will immediately want to find some heirloom seeds and plant your own vertical vegetable garden to protect you and your family from the heinous bio-crimes currently being committed. Yes, you will need to learn to like your damn vegetables too.
Sometimes gods behave badly, particularly when those gods are really humans who have enhanced their minds and manipulated their abilities to nearly magical heights. What are they likely to do? Well, in Zelazny's book they set themselves up as gods over the lowly regular humans and then forcibly attempt to limit technology that they believe may expose them and reduce them to mere humans once more. In Zelazny's novel the crew that eventually become the gods are from a spaceship called the Star of India and their heritage is Hindu so they naturally gravitate toward the Hindu god and status system. Zelazny published the novel and won the Hugo in 1968. More recently it was revealed that the film option for a movie based on this book was acquired by the CIA in 1979 and used to help free six diplomatic staff members from Iran during the Iran hostage crisis. This story was later filmed and became the award-winning movie called Argo.
This novel is a fan-lovers secret. It didn't win anything. But, it should have. Usually readers find a copy by accident recognizing Herbert from his Dune series. Nothing prepares you for this wild-ass ride of a novel. Yes, it's set in space and yes there are aliens and shit. But, what this novel is really about is nearly impossible to quantify. Imagine a poisonous planet with one tiny habitable area that is massively overpopulated. This planet is trapped by an artificial spacewall so its inhabitants have nowhere to go. The game is survival, and it's a very deadly game. This novel grabs you and never lets you go. That's why its one of the best, for those people who hide their worn copies tucked behind the award-winning stuff.
Got time? Everyone's heard of Wells and The Time Machine. It's been made into movies, television shows and comic books. It's inspired countless other similar stories. After nearly 130 years it is still in print and selling copies every day. This is the 1895 short novel that blew peoples minds and kept blowing peoples minds from the day it appeared. It's what is called a dying Earth science fiction novel. The basic premise is that the Earth is dying and this is the setting that propels the action and motivations of the story. The hot topic of 1895 centered around how society was degenerating. Sound familiar? Every generation seems to see abundance in the past compared to decline and scarcity in the present and dire consequences in the future. That said, it's a damn good book and still a good read 130 years later. It is the book that began the trend in time travel science fiction. So travel back to the late 1800's and fulfill your own kind of modern daytime travel.
This is another one of those sneaky first-book debut novels that slid in under the radar in 2003. No one had ever heard of Audrey Niffenegger before she sold a couple million copies and then optioned and had her novel turned into a movie. Worse, her book is categorized as romantic science fiction. That's fighting words for some people. How could she invade science fiction with - love? The jokes on those who haven't read it yet. It's damn good. All science fiction can't be doom and gloom, wars and battles, superhuman telepaths with zappy brains and aliens. Sometimes it has to be about people with real life problems. In this case it is about a woman whose boyfriend just happens to have a defect that causes him to spontaneously time travel. I know a lot of women feel like their boyfriends do this already without a defect to justify their mysterious absences and a few women wish their boyfriends would zap off to some dangerous place where they might get - oh right. Well, this isn't a chick book. It is a really damn good, modern science fiction novel. Are you brave enough to read it?
Our Version of the List
At a Glance
- 1 Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson)
- 2 Stranger In A Strange Land (Robert A. Heinlei...
- 3 The Demolished Man (Alfred Bester)
- 4 A Fire Upon The Deep (Vernor Vinge)
- 5 Ender S Game (Orson Scott Card)
- 6 The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)
- 7 1984 (George Orwell)
- 8 The Man In The High Castle (Philip K. Dick)
- 9 The Left Hand Of Darkness (Ursula K. Le Guin)
- 10 The City And The City (China MiÃ©ville)
- 11 Childhood S End (Arthur C. Clarke)
- 12 A Canticle For Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller Jr...
- 13 A Wrinkle In Time (Madeleine L'Engle)
- 14 Neuromancer (William Gibson)
- 15 The Handmaid S Tale (Margaret Atwood)
- 16 Mote In Gods Eye (Larry Niven)
- 17 Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
- 18 More Than Human (Theodore Sturgeon)
- 19 Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut)
- 20 Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang (Kate Wilhelm...
- 21 The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi)
- 22 Lord Of Light (Roger Zelazny)
- 23 The Dosadi Experiment (Frank Herbert)
- 24 The Time Machine (H. G. Wells)
- 25 The Time Traveler S Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)
Publicly Ranked Version of the List0 items >>