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If there's one science fiction novel you can go back to time and again, it has to be Dune. I mean, can anyone get too much of this? Epic vistas, noble heroes, the blackest of villains, the scariest of creatures! In this book, Frank Herbert just got everything right. Which is why, 50 years later, it still comes out top when you look for the best science fiction novel ever.
The story begins with a drug, the "spice" melange, which is essential for the mental powers of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, and also for space travel. Whoever controls melange, therefore, has immense political power. The drug is found in only one place, the desert world Arrakis, but when the Emperor gives control of Arrakis to the Atreides family it is actually a trap, and when power-hungry Baron Harkonnen springs the trap only young Paul Atreides and his mother are able to escape into the desert.
Here they join with the native Fremen, desert-dwellers who have learned to live with very little water, and who have tamed the mighty sand worms. Here we discover that Paul is the end result of an immense genetic breeding programme controlled by the Bene Gesserit designed to produce someone with awesome mental powers. As the messiah of the Fremen, Paul uses his mental powers to shape them into an incredible military force to challenge the Harkonnens and the Emperor.
It's an action-packed adventure story that grabs you by the throat and keeps pushing you on from first page to last. Once you pick it up, it's really very hard to put the book down. But alongside the action there's a potent ecological message that just gets more relevant as time goes on.
Frankly, this is the sort of book where you just want more. Which is actually part of the problem. Frank Herbert ended up writing five sequels to the original novel, and since his death his son, Brian Herbert, has collaborated with Kevin J. Anderson with a whole long list of sequels and prequels. The first sequel, Dune Messiah, is the shortest and best of these; it doesn't add much to the story but it keeps up the tension and the interest. After that, the rest of the original sequence, Children of Dune, God-Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune, go downhill pretty quickly; they get longer, slower, flabbier. As for the various volumes by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson, they are only worth reading if you are so addicted to the Dune universe that you'll take any new fix. Forget the sequels, just re-read the original novel, it's worth it.
Why It's the Top The List
Dune ranks #1 on our list...here's why. Dune won the Hugo Award and also the inaugural Nebula Award. It has been hailed as one of the monuments of modern science fiction, and Arthur C. Clarke said that he knew "nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings." No wonder Dune is the world's best selling science fiction novel, and, inevitably, top of this list. The cultural influences have been strong with the book inspiring a movie, an almost completed movie Jodorwsky's Dune -- which the costumes, story boards, set designs, artwork influenced the likes of many other sci-fi movie products such as Aliens, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Avatar and more movies -- TV shows, video games, and generations of science fiction writers. Few works have been as visionary in scope and as widely influential on the genre. And, it's damn exciting read to boot. If that's not enough to qualify this book as one of the best, if not the best, I don't know what is.
Books in Dune Chronicles Series (8)
The first volume in this quartet starts amid dark, forbidding towers, where young Severian is apprenticed to a Guild of Torturers. Sound like fantasy? Wrong! Because those towers are actually long-abandoned rocket ships. The picture of a man in armour that we see inside one of the towers is actually a famous photograph of Buzz Aldrin taken on the moon. This, we realise, is the far future, a future where the world is starting to run down and the people await a saviour who will renew the sun.
When Severian is expelled from the guild for putting one prisoner out of her misery, we follow him into a society that is crowded and colourful and mysterious. Here there are aliens, though for a while we don't realise they are aliens because everyone is so used to them that they don't pay them any special attention. Here there are augmented people, and strange technological advances, but knowledge of these has long been lost. As we pick our way through the story we realise that there is a huge amount of stuff going on that we only glimpse out of the corner of the eye, and each time you re-read the work you notice something else so that the story becomes ever richer and more rewarding.
Our narrator, Severian, has a perfect memory, but don't let that fool you into thinking he's a reliable narrator; he leaves things out so that there are always surprises awaiting the reader. But there is so much going on in the story that you sometimes don't notice when he's left things out, because there are wars and betrayals and miracles and mysteries and people raised from the dead, and Severian's journey includes companions who may or may not be reliable, assassins attempting to kill him for reasons he doesn't understand, attacks by terrifying creatures, and the staggering revelation that he is actually the next autarch.
Why It's on the list
Gene Wolfe is the finest stylist writing in science fiction, it is always a pleasure to read his books. But The Book of the New Sun marks the high point of his career, a subtle and brilliantly readable blending of science fiction and fantasy, which is reflected in the fact that all four volumes won at least one major award. The Shadow of the Torturer received the BSFA Award and the World Fantasy Award; The Claw of the Conciliator won the Nebula and Locus Awards; The Sword of the Lictor won the Locus and British Fantasy Awards; and The Citadel of the Autarch won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.
Books in The Book of the ... Series (9)
It is hard to dispute the fact that Robert Heinlein is the most important figure in the history of American science fiction. More than any other writer, his work embodied the hard sf aesthetic encouraged by John W. Campbell at Astounding. And for thirty years, from the 1940s to the 1970s, Heinlein was the dominant figure that every other science fiction writer looked up to. Year in, year out, he wrote novel after novel that became instant classics, so many, indeed, that it is hard to choose just one that represents his work at its very best.
But in the end the one that stands out for us is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It's the story of a revolt by a lunar colony that is mostly made up of criminals and political exiles. The hero is Mannie, a computer technician who discovers that the Lunar Authority's master computer has achieved self-awareness, and through the computer he learns that if the colony doesn't stop exporting hydroponic wheat to Earth there will soon be starvation. This is the background for a revolution, with the "Loonies" fighting for independence by dropping rocks on the Earth. Eventually, the colonists win, but the result isn't all that they had hoped for.
The novel provides a platform for Heinlein to discuss themes familiar from a lot of his work, including non-traditional social and sexual organisation (here, for instance, the idea of the line marriage, with new people joining the marriage at regular intervals so it is virtually unending), and libertarian politics. In later books, this philosophizing would come to overwhelm the work, but here he has it perfectly balanced with a dramatic plot. Which is why this is probably the best of his books. The novel also popularised the phrase TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch), which Heinlein used as the title for the last section of the book. Why It's On the List
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was the fourth of Heinlein's novels to win the Hugo Award, and also the second to with the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award from the Libertarian Futurist Society.
The Dispossessed has been acclaimed as a new approach to utopian literature, but we should pay attention to the subtitle that appears in most editions of the book: "An Ambiguous Utopia". Le Guin is never straightforward in her presentation of the various societies in her novels, there is always a subtlety, an ambiguity, which is what makes her undoubtedly one of the finest of all science fiction writers.
On the planet Urras, the societies reflect the time when Le Guin was writing the novel. There is one state, A-Io, that calls to mind the capitalist society of the United States, and another, Thu, that has something of the statist communism of the Soviet Union. In contrast, on the moon Anarres, there is a functioning anarchist society based on the teaching of Odo. But we should not read Anarres as utopian, there are all sorts of restrictions on life there, as our protagonist, Shevek, discovers.
He is a scientist working on a revolutionary new theory of time, and there are limitations on how far he can advance while on Anarres. So he travels to Urras in order to exchange ideas with the scientists there, only to discover that he faces different but equally frustrating restrictions there.
In alternating chapters we follow Shevek on Anarres and on Urras, incidents in one often being reflected in a similar incident in the other, so that we are constantly able to compare and contrast the different societies. And while the purity of the anarchist society is presented very positively, we also see ways in which the capitalist and communist societies of Urras have an advantage.
Why It's On the List
Beautifully written, vividly realised, and packed with ideas that make us constantly reassess our views on the different political systems in the novel, this is a prime example of science fiction as the literature of ideas. Little wonder that it won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards.
As an alternative choice for this spot on the list we can present Le Guin's other work as an alternative read if you want another choice. Ursula Le Guin is, deservedly, one of the most highly acclaimed writers in science fiction. Picking the best of her books it was an almost impossible choice between The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. This is another book that won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and Locus magazine ranked it number two in a list of All-Time Best SF Novels. Like The Dispossessed it is a part of the Hainish Cycle, and it also has a very serious political undertone, though in this case it is centrally concerned with gender politics. Set on a planet known as Winter, it describes a society in which people are gender neutral and only take on sexual characteristics once a month at a time known as kemmer. At this time an individual might take on the characteristics of either sex, so the novel works as a thought experiment about what it would be like to have no male and no female. The result is one of the most challenging and the most inspiring books in science fiction.
A fantastic Hugo-winning space opera that merges the narrative element of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales with a futuristic space opera set in the distant future. The whole series (not just the first book) is based on the assumption that man's conquering the stars is inevitable and the complexities and troubles this brings. It's a wild, wild ride and one of the best damn science fiction books/series ever written.
The sequence consists of two pairs of novels. The first pairing, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, introduces a group of six travellers who set out on a pilgrimage to the Time Tombs on Hyperion, a pilgrimage that is a certain death sentence. For these pilgrims are seeking out the Shrike, a god like creature that legend says will kill all but one pilgrim, granting the one survivor a wish. During the journey the travellers, like Chaucer's pilgrims before them, each tell a story, and through the stories we find out what drove them to this desperate journey.
The second pair of novels, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, is set nearly 300 years later and concerns a soldier, Raul Endymion who is unfairly condemned to death and rescued to perform a serious of hazardous tasks. The most important of these is to protect Aenea, a time traveller from the past who represents a threat to the all-powerful Church.
These are dark novels, exploring the suffering of the human soul -- both physical, emotional, and spiritual. Don't go reading this if you are looking for a light, happy go lucky read. Star Wars this is not, so don't think about this book if you want something happy.The entire sequence depicts one grand hall of suffering, from the decrepit, dying world that's on the verge of collapse, to the tortured pilgrims who've given up all hope and are gambling their lives on a pipe dream shot of hope, to the "messiah of hope" the pilgrims are seeking, which is in fact in itself a missionary of pain and suffering with less empathy than one of the Greek gods.
It's brilliant and I hazard to say the best damn space opera science fiction out there.The titles, and the appearance of a character called John Keat, show that this sequence is heavily influenced by the poetry of John Keats, and it is indeed a gloriously poetic work. But it is also filled with stark and striking science fictional imagery.
Why It's On the List
Hyperion won the Hugo and Locus Awards, Fall of Hyperion won the Locus and BSFA Awards, and The Rise of Endymion won the Locus Award. This is an ambitious, powerful and successful sequence that shows just how much science fiction can achieve when it sets its mind to it. Hyperion, even in 2016, still stands as the gold standard of how to do complex space opera right. And not just space opera, but deep space opera that explores real human themes. Simmons referencing the literary structure of the classic Middle English work 'Canterbury Tales' as the narrative structure for his character tales is a work of pure brilliance and literary finesses that's rarely found inside Science Fiction (the exception being a literary writer like Gene Wolfe in his Book of the New Sun series). Hyperion is a deeply human tale about flawed humans. But it's also a tale the covers the broad spectrum too -- romance, action, space battles, AI gone amok, time travel, and much more. The first two books are best, but the sequel duology -- which covers events many many years after the fallout from the first two books -- also explores some interesting science fiction concepts too. Look, just read the damn books -- they are the best of the best.
Books in Hyperion Cantos Series (4)
If you want to know the most influential science fiction novel of the last thirty-odd years, look no further than William Gibson's Neuromancer. The novel didn't invent cyberpunk; two films that came out a couple of years earlier, Tron and Blade Runner, had already introduced some of the themes of cyberpunk. And the term itself was invented by Gardner Dozois talking about a novel by Bruce Bethke. Nevertheless, it's safe to say that without Neuromancer, there would have been no cyberpunk.
Neuromancer wasn't the first science fiction novel set among the low life and street people of the near future, but Gibson inhabited the Sprawl with utter conviction, inventing a street slang that caught on in the real world. In this underground, Case is a washed-up hacker whose been treated with drugs to stop him accessing the Matrix ever again, while Molly is a street samurai who offers case a cure in exchange for his services.
Through a violent world of double-dealing corporations and government cover-ups, Case and Molly risk their lives in the bright and threatening landscape of cyberspace, following a trail that eventually leads them to Wintermute, a powerful AI at a time when machine intelligence is banned.
A heady mixture of computer know-how and grimy film noir action, Neuromanceris like no novel before it, a totally original and absolutely gripping take on the near future.
Why It's On the List
Neuromancer was the first novel ever to win the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick Awards. It also set the tone for cyberpunk and made Gibson one of the most acclaimed of modern writers. Neuromancer didn't just catch the zeitgeist, it created it, giving us terms like "cyberspace" and "ICE", and being instrumental in the way the World Wide Web developed.
Alternative ChoiceAlternative Choice for the Top 25 is:
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. In a balkanised Los Angeles, where everything is privatised and the economy is breaking down, a new computer virus appears that affects the users as much as their computers. A key part of this future is the Metaverse, Stephenson's futuristic version of the Internet where people "log on" via virtual goggles. Everything is conducted through the Metaverse, from business to dating. Stephenson not only presents us with a very realistic look at what could be, but there are some subtle social observations about the way things are different and the same.
Stephenson frames the modern social constructs intruding into this cyberworld; ones' social wealth is judged by the look of the avatar they use to interact with the Metaverse, with the wealthy being able to afford custom while the "poor" use off the shelf.This book has it all, from hacker heroes who wield Samurai sword destruction by night in the Metaverse and deliver pizza by day for the Mob, governments and police controlled by private corporations, and a conspiracy that might the world needs some saving from.
Books in The Sprawl Series (3)
Joe Haldeman has said: "Our field has produced only a few works of actual genius, and this is one of them." He was talking about The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (also published as Tiger! Tiger!), and he's right. This is an out and out brilliant novel that does things no science fiction novel had attempted before, and very few have attempted since. It took the sf field by storm, and it has had a greater effect on more writers than just about any other book.
It is basically The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas recast as space opera. The innocent man condemned to a lingering death is Gully Foyle, the sole survivor of an attack upon his ship, but when another ship passes by he is ignored. When he does manage to return to Earth he is anxious for revenge, and having unearthed a fortune he gets his chance.
This is a much darker novel than most of the far future space operas being written at the time. It's a violent story and Gully Foyle is no hero. But the rich and poetic language, the word play and the sheer fun of Bester's writing, the vivid colourful future, the breathtaking escapades, all keep us glued to the story and cheering him on.
Thirty years before William Gibson wrote Neuromancer, Alfred Bester was inventing many of the tropes of cyberpunk. The result is an unputdownable novel that demands to be read over and over again.
Why It's On the List
Samuel R. Delany claims that this is considered by many to be the greatest single sf novel, while Robert Silverberg insists it is on everybody's top ten list. It's an unforgettable tale that just gets better every time you read it. If that's not good enough for you then also consider it's widely regarded by most critics as a seminary science fiction novel and highly influential on the cyperpunk genre (a sort of nascent cyberpunk). And it's a gripping, very human, very disturbing tale about the extent men will go to for revenge, and the ultimate futility of the event. Read this one if you have not because you can't call yourself well read in the genre if you've missed it. And you might just be surprised how good the read is and how well aged it still is even in 2016.
Philip K. Dick was one of the most idiosyncratic and successful writers in science fiction. Okay, he's probably better known these days for all the films that have been based on his work, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau and heaven knows how many others. Certainly there have been many more films based on Dick's fiction than any other sf writer. But forget the films, even the great ones, like Blade Runner, can't begin to match the compelling weirdness of the novels.
Dick used to explore the same ideas in novel after novel. Reality was undermined, usually as a result of drugs; there was a truth under the illusion of the world, but it wasn't always good to learn that truth; things we trust turn out to be unreliable. And yet, the novels were far from samey, indeed the narrow range of obsessions resulted in an incredibly wide range of fiction. What's more, Dick wrote with a mordant wit that made his work consistently among the funniest of all science fiction.
Because he was so prolific, and because he hit the target so frequently, it is very difficult to choose just one book as a representative of his work. In the end we chose The Man in the High Castle, which in some ways seems a very untypical book because there is none of the pyrotechnic weirdness that often turns up in his fiction. Indeed, the novel seems like a fairly conventional alternate history in which the Axis Powers won the Second World War. As a result, in the 1960s of the novel, America is divided in three; Germany rules the East Coast, Japan controls the West Coast, while a narrow independent buffer state exists between the two.
But in the end it is far from conventional. The story is full of fakes and deceptions; several major characters are travelling under false identities, some of the characters are dealing in fake American "antiquities", and Mr Tagoma, the Japanese bureaucrat who becomes central to the plot, attacks a German agent with a fake Colt revolver. All of this leads us to doubt and question what is going on; and then we come to The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a novel written with the aid of the I Ching, which describes a world in which America did not lose the war; though the world described is not the same as the one we recognise.
Why It's On the ListOne of the great mysteries of Philip K. Dick's career is why he only ever won one of the major science fiction awards, but that was the Hugo for The Man in the High Castle. It's a wonderful book that remains one of the very best alternate histories. In 2015, The Man in the High Castle also made the jump to TV with a very well received series titles 'The Man in the High Castle.' Alternative ChoiceWe could easily swap in a number of other PKD works in here. If you want an alternative read, then we present you with UBIK, another classic and somewhat less popular PKD novel that represents all that's good about PKD.
Iain Banks burst onto the literary scene with his controversial first novel, The Wasp Factory, the violent story of a girl who had been brought up as an emasculated boy. He followed this with two novels that both displayed an awareness of and interest in science fiction, so it was no surprise when he added the middle initial and produced a straightforward science fiction novel. What was surprising was that it was a full-blooded space opera, full of battles and last minute escapes and epic explosions. What caught everybody's attention, however, was that the novel introduced a vast, interstellar, left-wing utopia, The Culture.
The Culture was an immediate hit, and over the next 30 years he produced nine more novels and a bare handful of short stories about the Culture, which grew into one of the most popular and interesting of all science fiction series. Typically, he would look at this post-scarcity universe obliquely while concentrating on the edges, where the Culture rubbed up against other space-faring societies, and the Culture's most disreputable organisation, Special Circumstances, operated. Occasionally we would be shown what it is like in a society without money, because everything is freely available, a society in which people could be whatever they wanted, changing sex freely and even, in one instance, taking on the appearance of a bush. It's a world of dangerous sports and comfortable living, but mostly we saw it only from the outside, through the eyes of those who did its dirty work.
The best example of this is Use of Weapons. Zakalwe is a mercenary, a bloody and effective soldier, who has worked for Special Circumstances on a number of occasions before, but now is called on for one last mission. In the odd-numbered chapters we follow this final mission; but in the even-numbered chapters we go backwards in time through his earlier missions and back towards the secret of his childhood. The final revelation about Zakalwe's true identity is brutal and breathtaking.
The unique structure of the novel is what makes this an especially powerful story. And it is told with a combination of cruel, unflinching violence and sparkling wit that is typical of Banks, and helps to explain his extraordinary popularity.
Why It's On the List
The Culture is one of the great inventions of science fiction, a communistic utopia that actually works. It is also a universe absolutely stuffed with amazing inventions, including the ships that are characters in their own right and have typically witty names (in Use of Weapons, for instance, we meet "Very Little Gravitas Indeed" and "Size Isn't Everything"). All of the Culture novels are worth reading, and Use of Weapons is easily the most rewarding of them. Some will recommend Player of Games as the 'best' intro to Bank's Culture novels as it's an exciting, action packed read that takes place a very personal level between characters. It's also introduces you to the greater world at large without being too overwhelming. Consider Phlebas is another good intro, and as Culture goes, is Bank's classic "Space Opera' entry into the series.
Books in Culture Series (10)
Asimov was, with Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, one of that triumvirate of star science fiction writers who first came to prominence in the late 1930s and continued to dominate the field for another 30 years. His magnum opus was this wide-ranging tale inspired by Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
We begin with a great galactic empire that has spread peace and civilisation far and wide across space. But Hari Selden has developed the science of psychohistory which combines sociology, history and mathematics as a reliable way of foreseeing the future, and thanks to psychohistory Selden predicts that the empire is due to collapse into a dark age that will last 30-thousand years. But if the light of civilisation can be preserved, there is a chance that this dark age will last only one thousand years, and so he establishes a Foundation at the extreme end of the galaxy from which a new empire might grow.
For a while things go as Selden had foreseen: the Foundation becomes a haven of scientific progress, is challenged by the declining empire but emerges triumphant. But then something is thrown into the mix that Selden could not have anticipated: a mutant, the Mule, who emerges as an unpredictable power within the galaxy. And the Mule has heard rumours of a Second Foundation at the other end of the galaxy, and he's out to find it and destroy it. But what is this Second Foundation, and where is it hiding?
Why It's On the List
Epic in scope, ambitious and readable, the Foundation Trilogy deservedly won the Hugo Award for the best ever series, the only time that award was ever presented. It is science fiction on a huge canvas, the very definition of sense of wonder. Foundation is one seminal 'Hard Science Fiction' novels -- a form of science fiction that aims at making the science as realistic as possible. It's science fiction that puts a lot of emphasis on the 'science' part of the word, rather than relying on the sciencey magical hand waving of science fantasy to describe the science.
In the course of all this belated expansion to the original conception, Asimov also managed to tie in his Robot stories to create, rather unconvincingly, a future history that united all of his major science fiction. This, of course, brings us to our Alternative Choice for a place in the Top 25:
The Robot Series was a sequence of short stories that Asimov wrote off and on throughout his career. The series introduced the Three Laws of Robotics, one of the best-known formulations in the whole of science fiction, which has had an influence on every single robot story written since, and which has also had an effect on the actual development of robotics.
The early stories all challenged the three laws in some way, with either a robot apparently disobeying one of the laws or a human agency attempting to subvert them, but the laws themselves always won out in the end. As the series went on, the focus changed from the three laws to the question of the increasing humanity of the robots, so that one of the later stories, "The Bicentennial Man", which won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novelette, actually concerns a robot that becomes human.
Books in Foundation Series (9)
In the early 1960s, Arthur C. Clarke was approached by the film maker, Stanley Kramer, to ask if he would be interested in writing a film. Clarke recalled a short story he had written some time earlier called "The Sentinel", in which a strange, alien object is uncovered beneath the surface of the moon, and thought this might make a good starting point for a film. And thus 2001, A Space Odyssey, one of the best and most famous of all science fiction films, was born. The novel, which was written at the same time as the film, differs in occasional minor details from the film, but essentially the two tell the same story.
The story is, surely, too well known to need repeating here. The black monolith whose appearance abruptly converts primitive man into a tool-using creature; the identical object unearthed on the moon that sends a signal towards Jupiter; the two spacemen contending with a computer gone rogue; the psychedelic journey through the star gate that ends in what appears to be a Belle Epoque palace, and the final mysterious appearance of the star child.
As in so much of Clarke's fiction, it's about humankind coming to the brink of a new evolutionary leap. In a sense the story is cold and intellectual, Clarke never was a writer of strong emotions, but if you love science fiction that appeals to the mind then this is the story for you. He wrote three sequels to 2001: 2010, Odyssey Two; 2061, Odyssey Three and 3001, The Final Odyssey; the first of these is good but the quality does fall off across the series.
Why It's On the List
Both aesthetically and intellectually, 2001, A Space Odyssey is one of the most influential films of all time, certainly it's effect upon all subsequent science fiction is incalculable. And let's not forget the movie by Stanely Kubrick was just as influential to film and general pop culture and generations of science fiction pop culture as the very book it was based on.
Arthur C. Clarke has been voted one of the all-time best science fiction writers, and he left plenty of work that deserves that title.
Here are three novels that could easily have been an Alternative Choice for our Top 25 list.
Alternative Choice 1: Childhood's End, which received a Retro Hugo Award, was Clarke's own favourite among his novels, and it's easy to see why. Aliens known as Overlords arrive suddenly over the earth and bring an end to war. For fifty years there is peace and prosperity, but it is finally revealed that the real purpose of the Overlords is to prepare humanity for the next step in their evolution, a merger with a cosmic mind.
Alternative Choice 2: The City and the Stars is set a billion years in the future when the people of the enclosed and computer-controlled city of Diaspar believe they are the last humans on earth. But one person leaves Diaspar and discovers another community, Lys, an oasis where people have rejected the technology of Diaspar. By bringing the two communities together, a new future in space is opened up.
Alternative Choice 3: Rendezvous with Rama, which won the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Locus, Jupiter and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards, is a story of alien contact without the aliens.An asteroid is spotted heading towards Earth, but when it is investigated it proves to be an uninhabited spaceship. The story tells of the exploration of the craft, and the deductions that can be made about the aliens without the aliens ever appearing. Clarke went on to produce three sequels written in collaboration with Gentry Lee, Rama II, The Garden of Rama and Rama Revealed, but these are nowhere near as good as the original, and the appearance of actual aliens in the later books rather spoils what was most interesting and effective about the original.
Books in Space Odyssey Series (4)
Books in The Forever War Series (3)
The titles of these three novels Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars illustrate the way the planet is transformed over the course of this long work, from desert to the first stirrings of life to open water. It's a magnificent conception, carried out with great attention to scientific plausibility as well as psychological insight.
The story begins with the arrival of the first hundred colonists, and from there chronicles their struggles to survive in an inhospitable environment, their arguments about the ethics of terraforming the planet and the best way of doing it, and their first tentative attempts to turn the world into a place where people can live openly.
Meanwhile, as resources become limited on Earth, transnational corporations come to dominate the planet and while a brief Martian rebellion flares, it is soon put down. But as terraforming proceeds over the succeeding years, so discontent about the authoritarian control from Earth grows, and another rebellion starts to brew.
Coincidentally, a catastrophic environmental collapse on Earth paves the way for Martian independence, but with the additional problem of refugees from Earth. With Mars now a planet where people can live openly on the surface, attention starts to turn towards populating the rest of the solar system.
A fourth volume, The Martians, is a collection of stories and other related pieces that link to the trilogy.
Why It's On the ListRed Mars won the Nebula and BSFA Awards, while Green Mars and Blue Mars both won the Hugo and Locus Awards. The trilogy as a whole is generally recognised as one of the finest and most scientifically literate works of sf of the last 30 years. She's written many other quality science fiction works but our Alternative Choice for a place in the Top 25, however, is:
2312 is a Nebula Award winning novel in which humanity has spread throughout the solar system, from Terminus, the great city on rails that moves constantly across the landscape of Mercury, to small terrariums built within asteroids that criss-cross the system. It's a glorious and fascinating vision of the different ways that humanity might find to live among our different planets.
The new scientific knowledge about Mars that we began to acquire during the 1990s, and the scientific literacy of the Mars Trilogy, also inspired a number of other books about Mars. Among the more interesting are White Mars by Brian Aldiss and Roger Penrose, which was written in response to the Mars Trilogy, but which is clotted with rather too many ideas in too short a space to be entirely successful; and Rainbow Mars, a novella by Larry Niven, in which Mars is found to be home to all the creations of Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells, Stanley Weinbaum and others.
Books in MarsTrilogy Series (3)
From the First World War onwards, as communist rule was established in Russia and fascism spread from Italy to Germany to Spain, writers started to explore the notion of dystopia. They were, invariably, states in which conformity was enforced, and in which individuality had no place. These dystopias were generally from authors not usually associated with genre, and were often (though not always) the only genre work that they produced. And yet they are works that have lasted, work that have become recognised as classics not just of science fiction, but of world literature.
The one that stands out for us is Brave New World, in part because it is more ambiguous about the world it portrays so that we end up having to think that bit more about the world presented to us.
Written among the disturbances of the Great Depression, Brave New World proposes that stability is the ultimate need of civilisation, and the World State of the novel is peaceful, all needs are met, and everyone is happy. Yet it is a world in which children are not born but decanted, and everyone is assigned at birth to a place within society that permanently limits what they can do or where they can live. But thanks to the drug, soma, there is no dissent, no unhappiness.
Into this perfectly ordered society is introduced John the Savage, who was born in a reservation outside the reach of the state and thus has none of the conditioning of every other citizen. By the end f the book we are having to choose between the artificial happiness of the controlled state, or the unhappiness of the natural state: a choice that is harder than you might imagine.
Nearly thirty years after writing the novel, Huxley brought out a non-fiction book, Brave New World Revisited, in which he argued that the world was approaching the state described in the novel more quickly than he had imagined. And in his final novel, Island, which was a deliberate utopian counterpoint to Brave New World, with a society in which science was at the service of humanity rather than in control.
Why It's On the List
Brave New World regularly appears on lists of the 100 best novels of all time. It is a perfect example of the sort of dystopian fiction written between the 1920s and 1950s, and even after all this time it is an exciting and an engaging read.
But there are two novels that clearly stand out as Alternative Choices.
Alternative Choice: We by Yevgeny Zamiatinwas smuggled out of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s to be published in the West. It is set in a world where people have numbers rather than names, everyone lives in glass houses so that nothing can be hidden from the state, and when there is a suggestion of rebellion our hero is subjected to a surgical procedure that makes him love the Great Benefactor.
Alternative Choice: 1984 by George Orwell is clearly based on We (which Orwell had reviewed) with additional elements drawn from his time working at the BBC during the Second World War. Here, "Big Brother is Watching You", and when Winston Smith embarks upon a forbidden love affair it is an act of rebellion. But because the state sees everything, Smith is soon captured and subjected to the terrors of Room 101, which of course makes him love Big Brother.
The Zones of Thought, which Vinge introduced in this novel, is one of the great original ideas in science fiction. He imagines that the galaxy isn't uniform, in our part of the galaxy we are limited to the speed of light and our thought too is subject to similar restrictions.
But if you go further in towards the centre of the galaxy you come to a zone that's even slower in terms of speed and thought, while if you go outward there are zones where speed and thought are much faster. The trouble is, of course, if you move from a faster zone into a slower zone, everything from travel to communication is hampered.
When researchers in the Beyond happen to unleash an entity known as the Blight, all they can do is flee. But that brings them into the Slow zone, where they crash onto the planet of the Tines, dog-like aliens that have a herd-wide group mind and a medieval level of technology. While the researchers on Tinesworld find themselves caught up in a war between rival packs, others out in the Beyond try to activate countermeasures that will halt the Blight.
A Fire Upon the Deep is one of those books that you either love or hate, but you have to read it. It's a book with an incredible vision of the galaxy and man's future among the stars, but it's also a rip roaring tale that doesn't get lost in all that "vastness". A perfect combination of story and ideas.
Why It's On the List
A Fire Upon the Deep is a fantastic read for anyone who loves old school Space Opera with plenty of science mixed in. Indeed, there's a hell of a lot thrown into the basket which includes physics, hard sci-fi technology, different races, galactic history, political wrangling and betrayals, conspiracy, a passionate war thriller, and even romance. It won the Hugo Award for best novel.
Books in Zones of Thought Series (3)
For its entire history, science fiction has been written across the globe, emerging from all sorts of cultures and all sorts of languages. But since the Second World War, those of us in English speaking countries can have been aware of hardly any science fiction that appeared in a different language.
Fortunately, that is starting to change, but for a long time it was a very rare and exceptional science fiction writer whose work was translated into English. Of these, easily the most important, and the most prolific, was Poland's Stanislaw Lem.
Solaris is set aboard a human space station hovering just above an alien planet. After decades of research, the humans have realised that the ocean which covers the planet is actually a single organism, but they don't really understand what this may mean, and they have no way of communicating with it. What they don't realise is that the ocean is also observing them, and has the ability to transform their secret, guilty thoughts into actual figures. So the scientists become haunted by characters from their past.
The first English translation of Solaris, the only one that most of us will have read, was actually translated from the French version of the novel and was not approved by Lem himself. This can make the novel hard to read, particularly as the ideas that Lem expresses are so subtle and complex. Fortunately, a new translation has become available that is much better.
Why It's On the ListLet us not assume that science fiction is an exclusively Anglo-American literature. It isn't, and never has been, and the work of Stanislaw Lem, often funny and philosophically challenging at the same time, is an example of just how good science fiction from other cultures can be.Alternative ChoiceRoadside Picnic by Arkady& Boris Strugatsky. Russia's Strugatsky Brothers are just as important in the world of science fiction as Stanislaw Lem. Of the three film versions of Solaris, the best known is surely that by Tarkovsky, and it is interesting that Tarkovsky also filmed Roadside Picnic, which he retitled Stalker. It's the story of an alien visitation which, like a roadside picnic, left various bits and pieces strewn about before they departed. Stalkers enter the zone in order to smuggle out this mysterious detritus, but the zone has a profound physical and psychological effect on those who enter it.
There's a time for everything. There's a time to read heavy novels filled with grand ideas about space, the universe, and the destiny of mankind, and there's a time to read meaningful discourse on the human condition. Then there's just a time to sit back and read something that's just pretty damn fun without having to think complex thoughts. Miles Vorkosigan is that read.
This is heroic, romantic space opera that has the best character writing and development in the entire genre.The series follows Miles Vorkosigan, a young man with a crippled body but a brilliant mind, as he rises through the ranks, taking on and conquering impossible odds with genius strategy. This is character-driven military sf that mixes comedy and tragedy, politics and romance in various proportions. Lots of action, lots of adventure, and always fun, this is one of science fiction's most endearing and enduring series.
Miles is the definition of an underdog, a man who's bound by serious physical limitations but with a brilliant mind. It's the juxtaposition of Mile's clear physical inadequacies (his bones are fragile as glass and he's under five feet tall) and the strength of his mind that fuel the emotional conflicts of this novel. Miles is forever the underdog, both in physical contests and strategic ones; he also faces serious prejudice because of his physical appearance, prejudice he is able to overcome through his own heroic efforts, though he must deal with them at an emotional level.
To date, there are 16 novels in the sequence, plus a variety of novellas and short stories. If you want science fiction that's unfailingly entertaining, romantic and exciting and full of action, you really can't go wrong with Lois McMaster Bujold.
Why It's On the ListLet's see, Falling Free won the Hugo and Nebula Awards; The Vor Game won the Hugo; Barrayar and Mirror Dance both won the Hugo and Locus awards. In short, there aren't that many authors who have collected as many of the major sf awards as Lois McMaster Bujold.
Books in Vorkosigan Saga Series (26)
It's easy to understand why H.G. Wells has been called the father of science fiction. Starting with his first novel in 1895, he wrote a sequence of books which effectively defined some of the most familiar and important aspects of science fiction, from time travel to alien invasion. Any one of these five early books would fully deserve a place in our list, but we have chosen to go with the first of them.
The Time Machine was the first novel to consider the idea of time as a dimension, and therefore devise a machine that would allow you to travel at will through time. The novel begins in late Victorian Britain, when a small group of acquaintances are summoned to meet at the house of an eccentric inventor. When he finally bursts in, late, the inventor has an amazing story to tell, for he has invented a device that will allow him to travel through time.
He describes gradually speeding up, so that the sun crosses the sky faster and faster until it becomes a blur, a cinematic effect before cinema itself had done anything like that. He sees future cities rise, devastating wars, buildings giving way to nature once more.
Finally, hundreds of thousands of years in the future, he arrives in what seems like a peaceful meadow in which beautiful, innocent people, the Eloi, live in peace. But there is a dark secret in this world, the monstrous Morlocks who live underground and emerge only to feast upon the Eloi.
The Time Traveller realises that the Morlocks are the distant descendants of the working class, forced into a dismal subterranean world by uncaring industry, while the Eloi are the descendants of the wealthy and carefree. Escaping the Morlocks, the traveller goes further forward in time to witness the eventual death of the Earth, before returning to tell his story in Victorian London.
Why It's On the List
There can be very few more influential works in the entire history of science fiction. Before this, time travel had been a form of magic or dream, but now it became something we could control. Effectively, modern science fiction starts here.
Science fiction likes to play with history. Look how fragile our world is, just one small change there, or there, or there, and things would be ever so much worse. Of course, because we like doing it doesn't always mean that we do it well. But here's a book that does it very well indeed.
Robert E. Lee won the Battle of Gettysburg, and as a result the Union surrendered and the United States were split in two. In the south, the Confederacy is now a global powerhouse gearing up for a war with the German Union (which won this version of the First World War), a war that will almost certainly be fought out in the territory of the United States. In the north, what remains of the United States is impoverished and kept subdued by the South.
The story concerns Hodge Backmaker, who arrives in the backwater of New York in hopes of getting into a university to study history. He is robbed of his possessions, and ends up working in a bookshop that is the cover for an underground organisation aimed at restoring the North. In time, Hodge comes to the attention of an eccentric community near the former battlefield of Gettysburg, a place where they have invented a time machine.
While studying the War of Southron Independence, Hodge is given the opportunity to travel back in time and witness the climactic battle. But when he gets there he accidentally delays the Confederate forces on their way to Little Round Top, and changes the outcome of the battle.
Why It's On the List
There had been occasional works before that imagined a Southern victory in the Civil War, but it was only with Bring the Jubilee that this became one of the key themes in alternate histories. This was one of the most influential of all alternate history novels, at the same time shaping the subgenre and showing how it should be done.
It is the 1970s. Joanna lives in a world much like our own, where the feminist movement is just beginning. In Jeannine's world, however, there was no Second World War because Hitler had been assassinated, but the Great Depression is still going on. Janet lives in a peaceful, utopian world known as Whileaway, where the mendied of a plague 800 years ago and women give birth by parthenogenesis. Jael is in a world where there is a literal battle of the sexes, a war that has been going on for 40 years already.
The four are versions of the same woman, and when they are brought together it gives Russ the opportunity to dramatically examine the different relationships with men and with other women experienced in the various worlds. The novel displays both the anger and the irony that are characteristic of her work at its best. James Tiptree once wrote to her: "Do you imagine that anyone with half a functional neuron can read your work and not have his fingers smoked by the bitter, multi-layered anger in it?" The result, often violent and always challenging, is the most powerful work of feminist science fiction ever written.
Why It's on the List
Always controversial, The Female Man is credited with starting feminist science fiction. It is one of only three novels to have been awarded a Retrospective Tiptree Award.
Kindred by Octavia Butler is another work that poses complicated questions about gender, but with the added puzzle of race. It is a time travel story of a young black woman who moves between contemporary California, and pre-Civil War Maryland, where she meets her ancestors, a black slave woman and a while slave owner. Ever since it was first published, Kindred has been a mainstay on both women's studies and black literature courses.
By the 1990s, the world was changing more rapidly than ever. The digital age foreseen by the cyberpunks was already becoming more complex as writers began pushing the ideas forward into areas of posthumanity and nanotechnology among others. At the forefront of this advance was Neal Stephenson, whose vision of the world incorporated a vast slew of notions ranging from economics to artificial intelligence to social structure and more. All of these various elements came together in The Diamond Age.
In a future that has been radically transformed by nanotechnologies and ever greater advances in computing, tribes or "phyles" have now become the dominant social structure. Phyles are groups of people brought together by shared values, ethnicity or cultural heritage, while old groupings like the nation state are withering away. To be outside a phyle, therefore, is the lowest of the low. That is the fate of Nell, until she acquires a copy of an interactive book, The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, which was intended for someone else. By following the advice in the book, Nell is able to rise in the world until, by the end, she has founded her own phyle.
Following Nell's story gives Stephenson the chance to show us all the various workings of this world, and how different it is both in technological terms and in its assumptions, from our own. If you want a vision of the future that will stop you dead in your tracks, a vision that is so brilliantly interconnected that it is absolutely convincing, then look no further. From hive minds linked by nanotechnology to the limits of artificial intelligence, this is a world that is different from our own at every point, even though we can see how we might get there from here.
Why It's on the List
The Diamond Age won both the Hugo and Locus Awards. But really it glitters like the title, this is a diamond of a novel, filled with incalculable riches. Stephenson has many fantastic and ambitious works, but The Diamond Age is perhaps his best work to date.
For alternative choices, we'll stick with Stephenson's 3 other most regarded works. Each of these could take this spot on the list, and truth be told, your preference will depend on your personal taste as each of these books offers quite a different experience.
Alternative Choice 1: Snow Crash is almost the apotheosis of the cyberpunk novel, the book that took the idea about as far as it could possibly go, then sent it spinning off in an entirely new direction. Set in our near future, and perhaps 100 years before The Diamond Age, this is a story of a computer virus that affects people, because the virus is language itself. This is 'early Stephenson' but of his his works, it's probably his most easily digestible, most action-packed and 'fun' to read. If you want to start reading Stephenson, this is a good book to start with. It's also a seminal work in the Cyberpunk genre.
Alternative Choice 2: Cryptonomicon. Is this even science fiction? Who Knows? Who cares? It's big and fat and brilliant. Ranging from code breaking during the Second World War to the establishment of a data haven in the present day, and including an entirely mythical island, it's a novel that's all about the ways that digital information and cryptography insinuate their way into our very lives.
Alternative Choice3 : Anathem is set on the world of Arbre, where technology is strictly controlled and knowledge is limited to the inhabitants of highly regimented secular monasteries. But when an alien spaceship appears overhead, a revolution in ideas is precipitated. Okay, the writing is baggy at times and the made-up words can be infuriating and silly, but if you want ideas-driven science fiction, look no further, this is the place. Philosophy, mathematics, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, this is heady stuff. This is his 'best' most recent work. Stephenson recently released in 2015 his Seveness -- an ambitious work but also overly dry. Anathem is a better work in every regard.
Every so often, someone will come along and have a staggering impact on the genre with their very first novel. Think of William Gibson's Neuromancer, for example. Well the most recent case is Ann Leckie, who won just about every award going with this superb novel.
In a sense this is a very traditional space opera. There's an empire, the Radch, who are spreading their control across the galaxy. Their foot soldiers are made up of fragments of a starship's consciousness downloaded into human bodies, ancillaries, so that the members of any force are always in contact with each other and know what everyone is doing. But as the story opens, Breq is the only surviving ancillary of a starship, Justice of Toran, which was destroyed 19 years before. The narrative shifts between Breq's quest to find out what happened, and then to seek justice, and the earlier events that led up to the destruction of the starship.
One of the more interesting aspects of the story is that the Radch do not distinguish by gender, and so they use the same (female) pronouns for everyone. This can be disorienting, but it does have a very interesting effect in making us, in the main, neither see nor care whether individual caracters are male or female.
Why It's on the List
Ancillary Justice won the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Arthur C. Clarke and Locus Awards, an unprecedented sweep, which shows how successfully the novel captured the zeitgeist. If winning all these awards in a grand sweep in 2014 isn't enough for you, then there's nothing I can say that will convince you. But might I add that it's a work that will blow your socks off.
Books in Imperial Radch Series (3)
One of the things that has become apparent in recent years is the increasing sophistication of computer games. Without quite becoming the virtual reality that science fiction once predicted, they build worlds that are increasingly convincing, increasingly immersive. And this, in turn, has had an effect on science fiction, which has built the game into the structure of near-future worlds. That's exactly what Ernest Cline, who has been dubbed "the hottest geek on the planet right now", did with Ready Player One.
Wade is a poor orphan from the sticks who escapes the misery of his everyday life in the computer reality known as OASIS. Within OASIS are hidden keys which will lead towards a prize: which includes control of OASIS and the fortune of the game's creator. Wade is the first person to discover the first of these keys, and becomes a hero within the world of the game. With a group of online companions (complicated by their real life relationships) Wade sets out to find the rest of the keys and win the big prize. But he finds himself up against a multinational corporation who also seek control of OASIS, and will stop at nothing, including murder, to get there.
This is a novel that is every bit as immersive, as gripping, as any computer game. You won't want to stop turning the pages, pushing on to the next level.
Why It's on the ListYou want a story that's as slick, as fast, as enthralling as a computer game. Then this is it. It's a great read; the only thing wrong with it is that you'll want to get into OASIS yourself. But then, Cline has hidden his own keys within the novel.
Our Version of the List
At a Glance
- 1 Dune (Frank Herbert)
- 2 The Book of the New Sun (Gene Wolfe)
- 3 The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (Robert A. Heinl...
- 4 The Dispossessed (Ursula K. Le Guin)
- 5 Hyperion (Dan Simmons)
- 6 Neuromancer (William Gibson)
- 7 The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester)
- 8 The Man in the High Castle (Philip K. Dick)
- 9 Use of Weapons (Iain M. Banks)
- 10 The Foundation Trilogy (Isaac Asimov)
- 11 2001: A Space Odyssey (Arthur C. Clarke)
- 12 The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)
- 13 Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
- 14 Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
- 15 A Fire Upon The Deep (Vernor Vinge)
- 16 Solaris (Stanislaw Lem)
- 17 Falling Free (Lois McMaster Bujold)
- 18 The Time Machine (H. G. Wells)
- 19 Bring the Jubilee (Ward Moore)
- 20 The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury)
- 21 The Female Man (Joanna Russ)
- 22 The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson)
- 23 Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie)
- 24 The Martian (Andy Weir)
- 25 Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)
Publicly Ranked Version of the List25 items >>
- Dune (Frank Herbert)
- Hyperion (Dan Simmons)
- The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)
- Solaris (Stanislaw Lem)
- The Martian (Andy Weir)
- Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
- Neuromancer (William Gibson)
- Use of Weapons (Iain M. Banks)
- The Time Machine (H. G. Wells)
- The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady...
- Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
- Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie)
- Bring the Jubilee (Ward Moore)
- The Female Man (Joanna Russ)