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Science Fiction Novels

Arts & Lit | By Wes for The Top 13 on January 12, 2010

Science Fiction. These two words can send even the most level-headed bibliophile to the nearest exit. Admittedly the genre is littered with offal, and regrettably, for every masterful work, there are heaps of stereotypical dreck. So it's no surprise that the kneejerk reaction is refusal or derision, though these same observations may be made of other genres. Figuring out where to start in any unfamiliar territory can be daunting. Fortunately, we've separated the wheat from the chaff for you and present The Top 13 Science Fiction Novels.

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Frank Herbert - Dune


Frank Herbert - Dune


A bildungsroman like no other, Dune captures the hearts of young and old, alike. Paul Atreides' journey from boy to man, warrior, and finally, a god, commands your attention from the very first page. Few things are guaranteed in life, but Frank Herbert's classic, one of the most celebrated novels of all time - science fiction or otherwise - is enduringly readable, endearingly memorable, and entirely unforgettable.

John Steakley - Armor


John Steakley - Armor


"You are what you do, when it counts." - The Masao

Such is the essence of this novel. Though not nearly as painstakingly crafted as Dune, this novel grabs the second spot on the list by sheer audacity. There are many, many outstanding offerings of military science fiction that simply don't approach the rawness of this gut wrenching fable that warns of the sheer incompetence of the martial beast. So often we are reminded that soldiers are nameless numbers; they are cannon fodder, marching toward an inevitable end. But when the madness and the pressure of battle become too great for the mind to bear, survival finds a way.

Neal Stephenson - Snow Crash


Neal Stephenson - Snow Crash


William Gibson is considered the father of cyberpunk, but in hindsight Neuromancer reads drab and blurry, whereas Snow Crash is most visceral and radiant. With whip-smart wit, Stephenson brings Hiro Protagonist (yes, that's really the main character's name) to larger than life proportions, both in actual and virtual reality. Where Gibson flounders at describing virtual life, Stephenson excels. Indeed, the somewhat infamous Second Life software was inspired by Snow Crash. The Top 13 loves this tongue-in-cheek, playful chronicle.

Dan Simmons - Hyperion


Dan Simmons - Hyperion


Simmons is a consistently amazing author and his pen arcs well outside of the science fiction genre (see, for example, his recent historically based fiction). Yet Hyperion remains his most original work to date. Told as a frame story, an interlocking plot hesitantly emerges from the point of view of six pilgrims, though their recountings do not merge seamlessly. The murky picture that develops resembles a sort of Faustian Canterbury Tales.

Isaac Asimov - Foundation


Isaac Asimov - Foundation


Left to the hands of lesser men, a series of works about social engineering in the framework of science fiction would almost surely produce a dud. Thankfully, Asimov, one of the most brilliant and prolific science fiction authors of all time, penned this first entry in this mind-bending narrative (as well as six succeeding volumes). Asimov lends his unique and thoughtful intelligence to the story, consistently surprising and amazing even the most adroit reader. For those fearing entrapment in another huge series, fear not. The cardinal book stands alone.

Vernor Vinge - A Fire Upon The Deep


Vernor Vinge - A Fire Upon The Deep


At the risk of retrieving a tired turn of phrase, if any novel on this list is deserved of the label tour de force, Fire is the one. Vinge possesses that rare ability to devise characters so otherworldly and outside the realm of the familiar, while still flawlessly integrating them into an emotional and personal framework that we can fathom. In a nimble two-step, Vinge offers parallel threads, one panoramic, the other microscopic in comparison, spinning a yarn with uncommon mastery.

China Miéville - Perdido Street Station


China Miéville - Perdido Street Station


Miéville thrusts heroism on an unlikely subject, as a scientist confronted with his greatest challenge unleashes a nightmare upon his city. To put things right, he must take on the highest halls of government and the deepest depths of the criminal underworld. The prose is alternately gaudy and awkward, then beauteous and apt. Miéville does not cow to the editor nor should he; in Perdido Street Station he has created a lush and imaginative realm, filled with all manner of oddment and mutation, terror and wonder. His menagerie of characters and the intricacies of his setting leave a lasting, possibly scarring mental image.

Richard K. Morgan - Altered Carbon


Richard K. Morgan - Altered Carbon


The human conscience is able to be saved digitally. Beating death is simply a matter of uploading into a new body, if money is no object. This is something that killers might want to entertain, as those who have been wronged often seek retribution. Ostensibly a murder mystery, Altered Carbon combines noir fiction and cyberpunk in a dizzying concoction. Morgan effortlessly balances the pace of revealing the plot with scenes of incredible and frequent violence. His gift to us is one of the most hardboiled characters to ever grace the written page.

Philip K. Dick - A Scanner Darkly


Philip K. Dick - A Scanner Darkly


Many are familiar with the recent film version - which follows the novel almost exactly - though the tale loses its ferociousness on screen. Thematically, Scanner tackles drug use, identity, and corruption of the state. A semi-autobiographical work by Dick, dressed in the familiar trappings of science fiction (Dick feared low sales from a "normal" story), he dares us to imagine a future where America has lost the war on drugs. With the identity of undercover agents hidden, it is possible for them to remain fully anonymous to both law enforcement and the drug community - but drug addiction leads to interesting psychological consequences.

Iain M. Banks - Consider Phlebas


Iain M. Banks - Consider Phlebas


Equal parts espionage and space opera (imagine a James Bond story without earthly bounds), Consider Phlebas is the obvious wading pool for entering the sizable sum of Banks' Culture series. People and machines coexist peacefully in the Culture, though the common thread running through the series indicates there will be net loss for the biological characters and net gain for the mechanical. Take everything you know about predictable, comfortable, usual plot and throw it out the window. Expect nothing, as moral ambiguity and unforeseen plot twists run roughshod over your emotions. Banks is a merciless owner of his creations.

Stephen Baxter - The Time Ships


Stephen Baxter - The Time Ships


Morlock and Eloi, two words that strike a chord with even the most uninitiated to science fiction, are revisited and revamped in this update to the classic The Time Machine, which was recognized as an official sequel by the estate of The Time Machine author H.G. Wells. In an attempt to return to the original future to save one of the Eloi, the time traveler stops relatively earlier along the arc of the future and in another timeline. What follows takes us from the Paleocene to the furthest reaches of the future in a grand and sweeping tale. Baxter ties up all loose ends with aplomb.

Robert A. Heinlein - The Moon is a Harsh Mistress


Robert A. Heinlein - The Moon is a Harsh Mistress


Exploring and expanding on the subject of colonization, governmental power, and revolt, Heinlein develops the backdrop of a lunar colony tethered to the Earth by duty and run by a supercomputer gone self-aware. One of the computer operators stumbles upon this fact and, with the computer's help, is able to guide Luna to independence from Earth. Within this fantastic setting, Heinlein manages to interweave libertarian overtones and innovative cultural modifications brought about by the colonial inhabitants' rare environment, all while painting a wondrous picture of a frontier-town Moon.

Arthur C. Clarke - Rendezvous with Rama


Arthur C. Clarke - Rendezvous with Rama


The science fiction genre is often criticized for a lack of character development, but in Rama, it quickly becomes clear that the characters are minimized for a reason: Everything pales in comparison to Rama, a great craft that has appeared in our solar system, and the mysteries it holds. Clarke is a master of suspense, and while he is most often associated with his 2001 series, Rama is his most decorated novel. Perhaps it was so well received because it accomplished what many others have not; it introduces a mystery without revealing the man behind the curtain.

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Comments Leave a comment


I admit to having a lot of reading to do to be conversant in this genre. Only read Dune and A Scanner Darkly, both of which I recall enjoying.

10:06 AM   Jan 12, 2010

KungFuJay ★★

Bildungsroman? That's not a word. You made that up.

10:20 AM   Jan 12, 2010


What! No Ray Bradbury! I would also include J.G. Ballard, Harlan Ellison, H.P. Lovecraft, and Margaret Atwood. Admittedly some of these authors veer into other genres (fantasy, dystopian, horror), but Sci-Fi is a rather amorphous term that includes a pretty broad range of fiction. Interesting choices though.

10:54 AM   Jan 12, 2010


Overall, it seems like this list is too skewed away from pre-1960s SF. Why no H.G. Wells or _Frankenstein_ (which is awesome, btw)? What about Edgar Rice Burroughs or Theodore Sturgeon or Alfred Bester (I mean, seriously! Have you read _The Stars, My Destination_? It's incredible. Easily the best SF novel ever), as well as the writers holmessss mentioned.

Overall, these selections seem really strange. I haven't read _Armor_, but a lot of stuff I've heard about it suggest that it's pretty derivative of _Starship Troopers_ (which is awesome). Also, I can't imagine a better anti-war SF novel than _The Forever War_ by Joe Haldeman.

The biggest problem, for me, with this list is the inclusion of Richard K. Morgan. I mean, come on. I loved that book, but "best" "of all time"? Please. It's escapist & mindlessly violent, at it's best. The whole "we can move our minds around to different bodies" isn't that original & the SF + noir thing is kind of cool, but, again, it's been done. As much as I loved it, there's nothing redeeming or exemplary about the novel.

I would have agreed with this post-1960s bias a few years ago, but now that I've started teaching an SF course at a university, I've discovered that a lot of the best of the genre was written prior to 1970, and this list seems to ignore a lot of the classics from that period.

Also, why no women writers? Joanna Russ's _The Female Man_ is easily better than all the books on this list.

11:41 AM   Jan 12, 2010


First, let me say that we really appreciate your comments and input. To address your points: There is a rather obvious bias against pre 1960's Science Fiction, and the simple reason for that is that I'm not as familiar with it as the more recent material. While there is only one choice from that era, I feel that the picks from Clarke, Heinlein, and Herbert do justice to pre 1970's SciFi, and actually belong amongst the best. You mentioned a few specific books and concern for their not being included on the list. _Frankenstein_ is really borderline science fiction. Plus, it's almost universally known. One of the goals of this list was to provide unique, quality work that others may not have discovered yet. Along those lines, _Starship Troopers_ and _The Forever War_, while both excellent military SciFi, were turned away in favor of _Armor_. And while _Armor_ may not have the heft of those heavyweight names, or even the writing finesse, can you really say you care for their characters when the show's over? There's an emotional intensity to _Armor_ that's really lacking in those novels. In any event, give it a shot. You might like it. Alfred Bester, yes, I've read _The Demolished Man_ but not _Stars_, and was not impressed with the former, but I will gladly read _Stars_. I don't really understand the vitriol towards Morgan and _Altered Carbon_. Sure, he's doesn't have the subtle touch other authors might, but I find it hard to believe that you couldn't find anything about that story to be original. It's one of the most original recent works of the genre. I enjoy female authors, to be sure, but I can offer no real reasons why none rated on the list. A few I've really enjoyed are Nancy Kress, Connie Willis, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler, and Margaret Atwood (of course). I had not heard of Joanna Russ prior to your comment, but I will look into that book!

12:08 PM   Jan 12, 2010

ajay ★★

I've never gotten into science fiction novels, so I haven't read any of these. I was planning on reading Rendezvous with Rama because of the news that David Fincher would be directing a film adaptation, but that project was abandoned. However, I do fully intend on reading some of Isaac Asimov, so maybe I'll start with Foundation.

2:39 PM   Jan 12, 2010


Not a big sci-fi guy. Only read A Scanner Darkly on this list. I'm also not sure what the difference is between "sci fi" and "fantasy", but two of my favorites are Rant by Chuck Palahniuk (it strangely becomes a sci fi book about half way through, and it's comicly disturbing) and the entire Dark Tower Series by Stephen King, which is just an entertaining read, even if it isnt "literature"

12:56 AM   Jan 13, 2010


oh also, Bradbury needs to be on here

12:57 AM   Jan 13, 2010


Samuel Delany? No?

2:06 AM   Jan 13, 2010


When I said Delany, I was mostly talking about Babel-17 and also The Einstein Intersection...

2:18 AM   Jan 13, 2010


Of the books I have read, "Dune" is fantastic and "Foundation" (only the first 3) only slightly behind. "Armour" is solid and "Hyperion" is massively overrated. Quite bad and difficult to get through. "Consider Phlebas" is pretty good but nothing special. Apart from "Dune" and "Foundation" (only the first 3 of the series) to even suggest any of the others are better than "Ender's Game" is plainly absurd! "Ender's Game" is the best sci-fi novel.

9:41 AM   Jun 18, 2011

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