“There are only so many people capable of putting together words that stir and move and sing. When it became possible to earn a very good living in advertising by exercising this capability, lyric poetry was left to untalented screwballs who had to shriek for attention and compete by eccentricity.”
Mitchell Courtenay in Frederick Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants
I finally managed to track down every book on the above list, many are/were unfortunately out of print. But I did it. I’ve read them all. Mini-Reviews of all 50 are inside.
- The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. TolkienI’ve babbled on about this book and author far too much. Many people have no desire to read it because so many people go on and on about it. If anything, it belongs at the top of this list simply because its success as a publication showed publishers that money could, in fact, be made from science fiction and fantasy in book form. It wasn’t just for the pulps anymore.
- The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac AsimovNearly as impressive as LotR, The Foundation Series and Asimov himself are responsible for adding a new layer of complexity to science fiction, the genre matured from juvenile escapism in the pulps to complex political and historical narratives. The Foundation Series is a prime example of the effective use of speculative fiction as a reflection of our own society.
- Dune, Frank Herbert
I read this book my freshman year of high school. I remember not liking it. I probably missed some of the economic importance among all the messianic/prophetic hullabuloo and sandworm riding and nukes making people’s eyes melt. I should probably read it again, but I don’t particularly have any desire to do so. Lots of people like it and it was made into an awful movie, so I guess it has some worth.
- Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
One of the must-reads for the sexual revolution in the 1960s, Stranger in a Strange Land seems somewhat simple now that AIDS is everywhere. Nevertheless, the book is still quite powerful on many different levels, nature vs. nuture, sexual proclivities, cannibal taboos, you name it. Throughout the book the reader is challenged to evaluate each aspect of culture by seeing it through strange but similar eyes.
Recommended other reading: Starship Troopers
- A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin Anything written by Ursula K. Le Guin is worth reading. A Wizard of Earthsea is a great, easy-to-read coming of age tale with a non-white protagonist [quite the daring thing to do at the time] that delicately navigates the treacherous waters of adolescence and manages to impart a strong and healthy message without sounding parental.
- Neuromancer, William Gibson I’ve not read much cyberpunk, so I’ve not read much Gibson. This was one of the first books I read when I started the list. If I remember correctly, this techno-capitalist society is alot like organized crime, and the main character is a sort of junkie drug-runner equivalent computer hacker, lots of cool tech and cool-like antiheroism.
- Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke Arthur C. Clarke is the go-to guy when it comes to writing stories that turn deep tragedy into brilliant possibility. Childhood’s End is probably the best example of this. Transcendent humanity is mixed, inseparably with the destruction of almost everything we know as human. A compelling read.
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick isn’t the best writer, but his creativity is so full of mind-bending psycho-horror that his stories overcome their words. This book was made into the amazing Bladerunner [lots of Dick stories have been made into movies, Minority Report, Total Recall, Paycheck, Second Variety] and problems concerning creation and epistemology are ultimately deemed irrelevant in this existential masterpiece.
Recommended other reading: Selected Stories
- The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley The only strictly feminist book on this list, I didn’t like it too much. Of course, I’m not really the audience, but I thought that the women, while puissant-willed, ultimately became the things MZB was opposing. To me they seemed bitchy and manipulative, and while it could be argued that was their only way to have power, it still reinforces stereotypes. Nevertheless, more books with female protagonists would be welcome.
- Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury This book is standard high school reading list fare, but its worth lasts unto adulthood as well. The repressive society reminds me quite a bit of Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron but Bradbury’s tale ends on a slightly more hopeful note. I quite like Bradbury, his writing style hearkens back to science fiction’s founding fathers [Jules Verne, H.G.Wells] but he wrestles with timeless concerns and adds another dimension to his storys by doing so. NB: 1984 [searchable online version!] didn’t make this list because it was published before 1953.
- The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe [1, 2]
I hadn’t been too interested in reading Gene Wolfe, for no real reason. I’d been missing a lot. It seems like there are a lot of Catholics writing good science fiction and fantasy, and Gene Wolfe fits that mold. The Book of the New Sun is a four-volume metaphysical masterpiece that goes always in unexpected directions and has a nebulous sense of agency. One of the best books I read on this list.
My longer review of The Book of the New Sun.
- A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr. I think Einstein said that World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones, and the post-nuclear armageddon world in which Walter M. Miller puts us is a car wreck rubbernecking read that seems to say fear and jealousy will trump good sense as long as humans are humans. There are several morals here, at least one for everybody who reads it.
- The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov Where I, Robot mainly focused on the logical conundra of positronic robotics and the Three Laws of Robotics with a secondary focus on interactions with human emotion, The Caves of Steel offers more poignant stories where humans attempt to cope with the distrust and fear associated with creating something superior to them in all ways.
- Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
This book reads somewhat like any other mid-century childhood adventure book. Except all the kids in this one are supergeniuses and were ostensibly the inspiration for the X-Men. During the Atomic Age radioactive accidents didn’t always end horribly. A nice read, if a bit bland at times.
My longer review of Children of the Atom.
- Cities in Flight, James Blish This thick book is more a combined series of novellas than anything else. Early on it offers alternatives to the scientific method but as time passes, the mastery of anti-gravitic spindizzies turn humanity into the protectors of the galaxy, eventually even unto sacrificing themselves as new gods. A Magnum Opus indeed.
- The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett Finally, a bit of humorous fantasy! Terry Pratchett takes the typical absurdities of life, mixes in heavy doses of humor and enlightening satire and pours this sauce over interesting characters of myriad varieties. The result: Tasty treats of books that entertain and illuminate without and sense of heavyhandedness. There is always something to laugh about.
- Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison One of the most ambitious anthologies of all time, this book contains powerful story after powerful story, on all kinds of bizarre and challenging topics. 35 years later the stories might not seem quite so dangerous, but the writing and content still surprise and affect. Ellison introduces each author and each author has a bit of a footnote about the story at the end of each. A must read.
- Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison While Dangerous Visions was a masterpiece, this collection of short stories by Ellison didn’t do much for me. Each is concerned with humanity’s new gods, dark gods for the most part. I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as I enjoyed Ellison’s Strange Wine [and I only enjoyed half of that]. I think Ellison is just too brash for my taste.
- The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
This is a thriller, a journey into the purgatory of the mind and a thoughtful exploration of what telepathy might be capable of. A man with everything determines to commit murder and get away with it. If he does not succeed he will be Demolished. That is, have his personality utterly shattered. Will he succeed? Read the book to find out!
Recommended other reading: The Stars My Destination
- Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
In postmodern science fiction with a hankering toward shock and awe through sexual proclivities, discussions on the nature of art in a world of warping realities, in a city where buildings burn and are not consumed, and projected images seem more real that the gangs who control them, who better to guide you through this than a filthy amnesiac madman who writes poetry in the corners of a found notebook?
An excerpt from my favorite part of Dhalgren.
- Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey Anne McCaffrey has produced nearly innumerable novels about Pern. Dragonflight is the first one, and the only one I’ve read. As books go this one has some cool time and space warping dragons an interesting example of cultural evolution and a pretty believable female protagonist. It definitely blurs the lines between science fiction and fantasy and is definitely original in idea, if not exactly in style.
- Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card This is more military science fiction, but when it comes to thinking around things Orson Scott Card manages time and again in this book. Ender Wiggin, a genetically bred boy genius is trained to exhaustion in order to save humankind from an incoming alien invasion and certain annihilation. Another classic must read.
- The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson [1, 2, 3]
When it comes to atypical protagonists, the leprous and cowardly Thomas Covenant takes the cake. While this book could have dealt quite stunningly with the nature of madness and psychic trauma, it takes a different path and spends three books wallowing in its own mistery. Meh.
My longer review of The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.
- The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
In a sense this is more military science fiction, but it is also hard sci-fi, temporal relativity is the prime mover and cause of more mental anguish [kind of a trend here isn’t there? I wonder if it has to do with the time period these books were written in…] as a space soldier spends several years subjective time fighting in different parts of space, while thousands of years pass objectively. Haldeman is excellent.
Recommended other reading: All My Sins Remembered
- Gateway, Frederik Pohl Space travel, exploration and misunderstood alien tech are the heartwood of this beginning to Pohl’s tales of humanity and the Heechee. This is a danger-filled adventure tale like a walk through dark and strange woodland.
- Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, J.K. Rowling Despite its almost clichéd status in popular culture, the first book in the Harry Potter series was an unexpected delight for folks of all ages. Just enough humor, just the right mix of familiarity and strangeness and a very British feel to it make this book a quick and enjoyable read.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
Everybody should read the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Don’t Panic, it is more comedy than science fiction, so even if you typically associate sci-fi with Vogon poetry this book is funny enough for you to forgive it for being out of this world.
Recommended other reading: The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide
- I Am Legend, Richard Matheson Richard Matheson wrote lots of stuff for The Twilight Zone, so if you expect I Am Legend to be like that rockin’ series you’re both right and wrong. This book was made into a few movies The Omega Man is the one I’ve seen. Look, it is about the last man on earth when everyone else is a vampire. A great book.
- Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice Most folks have probably seen the movie. This is one of the rare cases where I like the movie and the book equally. Anne Rice does an excellent job showing us what life is like when you are a regretful hedonistic vampire.
- The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin The only reason I can think of that this book is so far down on the list is that Mrs. Le Guin already has a book in the top five. She seems to channel her anthropologist father Al Kroeber in this participant-observer tale of political intrigue in a land where the androgyne inhabitants can take on either male or female sexual characteristics depending on their environment. Like I said, anything she writes is worth a read.
- Little, Big, John Crowley One of the big surprises on this list is Little, Big. It is an ethereal, meandering, mysterious and quite potent meditation on relations between our world and Faery. You can almost pick it up at any place and start reading without missing much. A book to read more than once, for sure.
- Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny On a planet where an immortal oligarchy pretends to be the Hindu Pantheon, one god, the Lord of Light is constantly offed and reborn to oppose them. Should we be surprised that he is the Buddha? Not really. I don’t think I quite got this book. It was weird. I think I missed the point.
- The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick The weakest thing I’ve read by Dick, lots of people say this is his finest work. It is revisionist history as only sci-fi can do it. What if Japan and Germany had won World War II? That is a pretty cool idea but Phil spends too much time dicking around in mundane events and worries for my taste.
- Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement This is hard science fiction with a main character who is basically a big ole centipede. It is also a sea adventure, albeit on an ovoid planet with the strangest gravity imaginable. All the characters are out for their own best interests which makes for some interesting haggling and interaction.
- More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
I really like Theodore Sturgeon. His stories are deceptively simple. He hints at things that you only realize after you put the book down. More than Human is a story about half-wits and half-humans becoming greater than the sum of their parts, ultimately exceeding their humanity, despite or perhaps because of their innocence.
Recommended other reading: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon [10 volumes]
- The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
This book should be much higher on the list. It is a collection of all of Cordwainer Smith’s short stories. Mr. Smith is responsible for starting the science fiction careers of more than a few people on this list and his 30,000 year chronicle of humanity’s constant struggle toward even it doesn’t know what is original from the first page to the last one. A bit more from me on Cordwainer Smith and a review of Norstrilia.
Recommended other reading: Norstrilia
- On the Beach, Nevil Shute This book was perhaps the most surprising one that I read on this list. I think it should be much higher. It probably isn’t only because it isn’t quite as science fictiony as the others. It is a heartwrenchingly brutal contemporary mid-20th century story of post-nuclear annihilation in Australia. Australia hasn’t been hit, but the jet stream is slowly bringing the radiation to the continent. Everyone knows they are under a death sentence. It is an amazing and thought-provoking anti-war story that is quite effective at deeply personal level. I need to scrounge up one of the movies [1, 2].
- Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke This is more space exploration involving alien technology, only this time the humans are insidea mysterious and vast alien craft that confounds almost all of their attempts to explore it. How do you explore the inside of a sphere? of a cylinder?
- Ringworld, Larry Niven
To quote Niven:
“I myself have dreamed up an intermediate step between Dyson Spheres and planets. Build a ring ninety three million miles in radius—one Earth orbit—which would make it six hundred million miles long. If we make it a million mies wide, we get a thickness of about a thousand meters. The Ringworld would thus be much sturdier than a Dyson sphere.
“There are other advantages. We can spin it for gravity. A rotation on its axis of seven hundred seventy miles per second would give the Ringworld one gravity outward. We wouldn’t even have to have a roof over it. Put walls a thousand miles high at each rim, aim it at the sun, and very little air will leak over the edges.
“The thing is roomy enough: three million times the area of the Earth. It will be some time before anyone complains of the crowding.
- Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys A story of manipulation on multiple levels and in multiple places, Rogue Moon is the story of an explorer who must, by trial and error, find his way through an alien construct. The only problem is, each time he errors, he dies, and the psychological effects of this are just as unknown and incalculable.
- The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien The Silmarillion is my favorite work of Tolkien’s. It is grand mythopoetic subcreation, with incredibly rich and somewhat archaic language. It is easy to see why this was his life’s work and it would be quite interesting to see what it would have eventually become had he not died before completing it.
- Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut Even people who hate science fiction seem to like Vonnegut. Deeply satirical and simultaneously sentimental time-travel must have atavistic appeal to most humans. As anti-war books go, this one is probably one of the top five.
- Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson Snow Crash is a cyberpunk novel filled with archetypal characters with deliberately odd lives. Contemporary life is extrapolated into a future where sexy 16 year old sk8r grrls wear narcotic vagina dentata, pizza delivery guys who live in U-Stor-Its are gods of the internets, and large Aleutians with glass razors kill people like nothing. It was a good read, but a bit over the top.
- Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
This is a deeply personal book, you can really feel John Brunner’s soul being poured into it. Concerned with overpopulation, first world complacency, vicarious life through television, and a chronic andacute existential anomie, it ultimately admits its love for all of us, despite our imperfections.
My longer review of Stand on Zanzibar.
- The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
Alfred Bester has two books on this list for a reason, his science fiction is unlike anything you’ll ever read. He sort of prognosticates the cyberpunk genre, especially in this work, where a thug named Gully Foyle jaunts around seeking revenge for being abandoned in a derelict spacecraft.
Recommended other reading: The Demolished Man
- Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
I’ve read this book probably eight or nine times since I first nabbed it on this little quest of mine. It is said to be a rather conservative outlook on a military society, but I think it mixes just the right amount of pizzazz with quite thought-provoking civics lessons to come up with the best use of nationalism possible. This novel is approximately infinitely better than the batshit crazy movie adaptation.
Recommended other reading: Stranger in a Strange Land
- Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
This dark fantasy is driven by a protagonist who is inherently evil, an alien being who is motivated and wracked by shadowy emotions. It is violent, eschatological, and quite short. I didn’t particularly enjoy this book because Moorcock is so effective at creating twisted behavior, strange emotion and alienation that I had nothing to hold on to. Just because I didn’t enjoy it doesn’t mean it sucked though. Moorcock wrote many other books in the Stormbringer series.
- The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks This book should not be on the list. It is terrible. The only book I didn’t finish on this list. It is so unabashedly a cheap and lame and crummy Tolkien rip-off that I got 200 pages in, realized that plot point for plot point the novel was copying Tolkien and stopped reading. A large number of other science fiction and fantasy books could replace this one. I think it only made it because of its popularity. Even Terry Goodkind would have been a better choice.
- Timescape, Gregory Benford Hard science fiction with deeply personal characters, this novel deals with the inherent dangers of time travel, but only time travel communication, not physical time travel. There is a lot of physics in this book, but Benford makes it relatively easy to understand. The world is being destroyed due to pollution and a few scientists are trying to speak to the past in order to change the future. The efficacy and after effects of this are somewhat ambiguous, and Benford, like a good scientist, lays out the problem as he sees it, and lets the reader decide.
- To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip José Farmer Everyone who is dead wakes up on this Riverworld. No one knows why, or how. The main character seeks to find out why and how. He ends up getting killed, but then discovers that he just wakes up the next day somewhere else on the river. So, playing the odds, he loses any restraint on keeping himself intact and hops from death to death hoping eventually he’ll come to the end of the river. Along the way he runs into all kinds of famous people, Nazis, Neanderthals, you name it. A really fun book.
Ten Books I recommend you read from this list [in no particular order]:
- The Rediscovery of Man
- Dangerous Visions
- The Silmarillion
- Little, Big
- The Foundation Trilogy
- Starship Troopers
- On the Beach
- The Left Hand of Darkness
- The Book of the New Sun