By Attack of the Books!
What are the best science fiction novels of all time? In a genre that has constantly evolved since before the days of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, science fiction novels are as much a product of the time in which they are written as the future they try to predict. As writing standards change–and reader’s interests shift–so does the genre. Classic novels from the golden age of science fiction are big on ideas while modern novels tend to look to character and story, borrowing elements from other genres to become better reads. The upshot is that today more people than ever before are reading and enjoying science fiction, largely because the books are better reading. The ideas are still there, but they share space on the page with thrilling descriptions, intricate plots, strange and empathetic characters and creative new settings. But don’t be deceived by this – what the classics may lack in modern storytelling they more than make up for in influence on the genre. Without further ado, then, here are my picks for the top 25 science fiction novels of all time. I’d love to hear your feedback, comments and top 25 lists in the comments.
25. Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey. Sometimes you need big ideas. Sometimes you just need spaceships, aliens and laser gun fights. For those, and an idea or two to boot, pick up Leviathan Wakes.
24. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. I’ve never had to turn to Google so many times to figure out what an author’s vocabulary meant. Once I did, though, The Quantum Thief and its sequels proved to be mind-blowing, exciting and gripping storytelling.
23. A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. This is one of the more recent novels I’ve read, but I think it deserves a place on the list. Vinge is both creative, innovative and vast in his scope.
22. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Maybe it’s unfair to include two by Wells, but he did it first, so I think he deserves credit.
21. Ringworld by Larry Niven. Circling a star is an artificial ring about 1 million miles wide and approximately the diameter of Earth’s orbit (which makes it about 600 million miles in circumference). If that doesn’t perk your interest, what will?
20. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursala Le Guin. I admit that I’m including a selection on this list that I’ve never read… and I keep planning to read. However, I bump into it so often that I felt like I had to fit it in somewhere. And I promise: I’ll read it. Soon.
19. On my way to Paradise by Dave Wolverton. It took me years to find this gem, and it gets far less clout than it deserves, but it is one of my favorites. More than just spaceships and interstellar colonization, it is a deep and powerful story about redemption.
18. War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Alien invasions have been done many times, but few have surpassed the Wells’ influence.
17. Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. This choice is new, compared to most of the other selections on this list, but it does such a great job of combining the galactic and the small that I had to include it.
16. The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. I was already in love with sci-fi when I discovered the Moties, but Niven and Pournelle showed what could really be done by masters of science fiction and storytelling.
15. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. It doesn’t get enough credit, even though most of us read it in grammar school.
14. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. Perhaps more of Heinlein should be on this list, but I’ll settle for just one selection. Another of my favorites is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
13. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Inspired by the Vietnam War, The Forever War follows a recruit in a war against an alien foe that, due to time dilation during travel at the speed of light, lasts for thousands of years.
12. 2001: Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. 2001 was written in cooperation with Stanley Kubrick’s development of the movie by the same name. In it, man’s technological advancement appears to be prompted and initiated by an alien artifact. Meanwhile, our efforts to investigate are complicated by HAL, an artificial intelligence.
11. 1984 by George Orwell. Together with Brave New World, it’s hard to find any novels that have defined dystopian fiction — a subgenre of sci-fi, usually — quite as much as 1984. Whether it is Big Brother, omnipresent surveillance, Newspeak or thought control, it’s here. Not the most enjoyable read, but what it lacks in readability it more than makes up in ideas.
10. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. While 1984 gets more press time and reference in this the heyday of the surveillance state, George Orwell’s professor, Huxley, probably predicted the future better: modern society is more likely to fall to pleasure, popping pills and engaging in orgiastic excess than to oppressive and controlling government.
9. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. Definitely a darker addition to this list, Bester is perhaps also one of the more forgotten authors from sci-fi’s golden age. Often seen as anticipating the cyberpunk movement, Bester also prophesied the rise of mega-corporations stronger than national governments.
8. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. No list would be complete without something from Asimov, and though a lot of people will rank the Foundation series higher, I prefer I, Robot. It gave us Asimov’s laws of robotics (“A robot may not injure a human being[…]” and so on), which have permeated science fiction since.
7. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Dick’s noir examines the difference between androids and humans and was the inspiration for the movie Blade Runner.
6. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Before Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Roy in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or the perfect woman designed by two high school nerds in Weird Science, there was Doctor Frankenstein’s monster. Although it has been more associated with the horror genre, paired up with — and against — Count Dracula and the Wolfman, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is all science fiction, asking the big question before anyone else: what does it mean to be human?
5. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Someone once said that Bradbury had predicted more modern technology earlier than any other writer, and few of his books demonstrate his foresight as well as Fahrenheit 451. Even if that number isn’t actually the temperature at which paper burns (it depends on the type of paper, and even then it’s probably a lower number), Bradbury was an “ideas guy,” and his ideas are clear in Fahrenheit 451.
- Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons. After I read Hyperion, I raced to find the next book in the series — and then the next — and in short order consumed all three. Where many series drop off in quality after the first book (for example, sequels to Dune and Ender’s Game are, with rare exception, not as good as the first novel), I enjoyed every novel in Hyperion Cantos. Due to Hyperion‘s structure as a collection tales by pilgrims on a common voyage, Jo Walton compares Hyperion to The Canterbury Tales, and the description is a good one. Simmon’s Illium and Olympos are also fantastic stories and are well-worth reading.
3. Dune by Frank Herbert. Although Herbert struggled to get Dune into publication, it stands as one of the most influential sci-fi novels of all time. Many lists will put it closer to the top, if not at the top. In my estimation HG2G and Ender’s Game only get higher position because of their relative place in modern memory and because, dare I say?, they are far more enjoyable reads.
2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. You either love it or you don’t get it. While some “best science fiction” lists will completely ignore HG2G, it’s hard to find a more enjoyable, more entertaining and more quotable piece of science fiction.
1. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Balancing an exciting an action packed story with interesting ideas and issues, Ender’s Game in many ways typifies the modern science fiction novel, and it remains a fan favorite decades after it first appeared on the scene. Card’s follow up, Speaker for the Dead, is just as good.
Attack of the Books! is an Official Salt Lake Comic Con Blogger.