A few years ago I wrote a post titled "The Top Ten Science Fiction Books," and it's probably worth updating. I've read quite a bit since then, and while some of my favourite books haven't changed it seemed like there were a few new ones that I've been recommending to people that need to be added to the list.
I also think that, six years since the original post, Science-Fiction is more important than ever. Technology (and our reliance and use of it) is moving at an incredible pace. To me, sci-fi is the best possible way to start to understand the implications of this technology on ourselves, society, and the world. It might not necessarily answer some pressing questions of the 21st century but it gives us a framework to start thinking about them more deeply: How will climate change truly affect us? What does Artificial Intelligence mean for the concept of what it means to be human? Are humans truly unique and alone in the universe (and what are the implications for either answer)? Why is science important?
A few notes about this list
Many of the "books" listed below are actually series. I don't think it's fair to choose one book from the series, as the series will often form a full story that's worth reading.
I've also removed any sort of ranking (the previous list was 1-10), and have added some honourable (and dishonourable) mentions at the bottom without going in to too much detail.
Lastly, any list like this is going to be purely subjective. No two people will have the exact same taste in books, and my not liking a certain book says nothing about the quality of that book.
The Best Science-Fiction
The Mars Trilogy - Kim Stanley Robinson
I think I first read this trilogy when I was about 13 years old, and it made me fall in love with the potential for science. The quick plot summary is that in the mid 21st century, humans have been able to colonize Mars. The books follow the human drama, politics, relationships and science of some of the original colonists over the span of a few hundred years. Take out the science-fiction setting, and you've still got a great story of politics and drama. The space-age setting, so close to where we are now, adds a sense of optimism to the books and just makes them that much more interesting. I also don't think that you should consider yourself having finished reading the series unless you've also tacked on The Martians, Icehenge, Galileo's Drams and The Memory of Whiteness to the original Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars trilogy (I still cryevery time I finish reading Blue Mars). While they aren't officially once series, they feel like they're part of the same story, taking place thousands of years apart.
House of Suns- Alastair Reynolds
Most of Alastair Reynolds' books are hard to read: the characters are unlikeable. They're frequently in pain (or inflict exquisite pain on another character). Something terrible has happened to them, and they know something else will soon happen to them. This book is no different, but at least the two main characters have each other. Campion and Purslane are two "shatterlings," near-immortal clones of a woman named Abigal Gentian, who travel the universe, having new experiences, and meeting up with their fellow shatterlings about every 200,000 years to exchange memories. The pair fall in love (a shatterling taboo) and to atone for this they try and bringHesperus, a beautiful golden robot who is one of the machine people, to their next meet-up. Not everything goes as planned, and the book throws out some big ideas on a massive, cosmic scale. It's a beautiful story, and I know I'm not the only one that loved it.
While it seems that most lists of the top science-fiction books include one of Dan Simmons' books, more often than not they include Hyperion or Songs of Kali rather than this pair. I think that part of the reason is because this two-part series is just so hard to explain. The basic plot is that the Greek and Trojan armies are re-enacting the Trojan War according to the Illiad. The big thing is that the gods themselves are real here, but rather than supernatural beings, just post-humans powered by advanced nanotechnology. You're never sure what time period this takes place in, or where, but other characters include literature-loving robots that were once sent to explore the solar system, a mysterious Odysseus, naively innocent, yet technologically advanced, future humans, and Caliban. Yes, Caliban, from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Read this pair of books if you have an interest in Greek mythology and classic literature.
Ender's Game (The Ender Quintet) - Orson Scott Card
Ender's Game is the story of one Ender Wiggin, a young boy who is recruited at an early age for 'battle school' in orbit around Earth to learn about space strategy so that Earth can defend itself from the alien 'buggers.' It is definitely a great book of a boy growing up (I think "coming of age tale" is the proper term), but also mixes a sub plot of geopolitics (previously discussed on BlogCampaigning in the post "Peter and Valentine were the original bloggers") and the morality of destroying an alien race. One of the classics, for sure, and also one of the only books on this series that is part of a larger series, but of which I'm not recommending the rest of the series. Pick this book up for the educator or young adult in your life.
Neuromancer- William Gibson
I bet that a majority of the people reading this blog have read and been influenced by Gibson's Neuromancer - I mean, come on: he's the guy credited with inventing the word 'cyberspace.' I first read it when I was in university, and pretty much couldn't put it down. Despite the fact that it is nearly 30 years old, it still reads like it was written yesterday (though the absence of mobile phones is a bit of a problem) and is a great look at what our future could still become. I see the influences of this book in all sorts of sci-fi and popular culture (The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell, for starters). Follow it up with Count zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, the other two books in Gibson's 'Sprawl Trilogy.' I also think it is probably for the best that no one has been able to get a Neuromancer movie off the ground (try New Rose Hotel with Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe if you're jonesing for some Gibson on the big screen. Johnny Mnemonic is also based on one of Gibson's short stories).
Starship Troopers - Robert Heinlein
As is normally the case, the book is way better than the movie. In this case, they are also totally different. The book Starship Troopers is more about responsibility and what that means to be a man. The gist of the book is that a young Johnny Ricoleaves home after graduation to join the mobile infantry, gets shipped off to boot camp, survives it and grows into his role as the leader of his own squadron of troops.
The Demolished Man - Alfred Bester
According to Wikipedia, The Demolished Man was first published in 1952-53. The story is about an incredibly wealthy and successful businessman, Ben Reich, on a future Earth where telepaths take high-paying roles as consultants and lawyers. Reich's one-minded passion to commit the perfect crime fuels the book, and the book's frantic pace makes it hard to put down and makes it feel like it was written decades after books written by Bester's contemporaries. This is the type of old-school sci-fi that influenced the cyberpunkers of the 80s.
The Culture Series - Iain Banks
As with some of the others on this list, I didn't think it was fair to pick just one book from Banks' culture series. To fully understand that incredible world of star-faring humans, you have to read the whole series. None of the books are connected enough that you have to read them in a particular order, but reading them all will give you much better idea of the world Banks has constructed. The basic premise is that race of pan-humans has reached almost technological perfection. Rather than subliming into the ether to become something like gods as other races do when they reach a similar level of technology, The Culture spends their time on massive spaceships or orbitals pursuing a hedonistic lifestyle. These orbitals and ships are sentient, as are drones, constant companions to the characters in the books. The action takes places on the fringes of The Culture, with newcomers or outsiders to the society being the main characters. On a side note, Banks' non-sci fibook The Business is also a pretty good read. For a bit of a background on The Culture, read this post on io9. I also recommend 'A Few Notes On The Culture' by Iain Banks himself.
Anathem- Neal Stephenson
This is definitely another one of those books that falls in the "I can't explain it, you just have to read it" category. The first section of the book tells the story of a planet where the keepers of knowledge and science live spartan, cloistered lives like I imagine the monks of today might, while the rest of their society lives freely and worships a variety of gods and religions. Read the book to see what happens next, and be prepared for a lot of thinking.
Remembrance of Earth's Past Trilogy - Cixin Liu
I went in to this book with low-expectations. Sure, it had rave reviews but it was originally written in Chinese and there's no way that language and cultural barrier would result in good sci-fi for my Western sensibilities. The first 1/3 of the first book (The Three Body Problem) in the trilogy reinforced my feelings: this was slow-paced, Communist science-fiction. By the time I was halfway through that book, I realized just how wrong I was. Remembrance of Earth's Past might be one of the best pieces of Science-Fiction that I have ever read. The basic plot is that in the mid to late 20th century a Chinese engineer manages to contact a distant planet, and they send a fleet to Earth that will take 500 years to arrive. Is it an invasion fleet, or are they bringing a message of peace? How Earth responds forms a majority of the book, and the chapters describing the "Dark Forest" concept of galactic living sent chills down my spine. Read this trilogy.
Seveneves - Neal Stephenson
Yeah, I know - I've already got one Neal Stephenson book in this list but he's a great writer so I'm adding another. In Seveneves, the open page describes the moon being destroyed. The rest of the book is a race as humanity tries to save itself by going to space while pieces of the moon destroy the earth. It's extra-hard science-fiction, and I once heard it described as having orbital dynamics as a character. It can also be pretty dark at times, but it's a serious page-turner.
The Science In The Capital Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson
While not technically Science-Fiction (I've heard it referred to as "Climate Fiction" or "Cli-Fi"), this trilogy consisting of Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below Zero and Sixty Days and Counting has been hugely influential on some of the decisions about life I've made over the past few years. The story mostly follows a group of different people who are living and working in Washington, DC in the near future and amidst alarming climate change. It will (hopefully) make you look at what you can do to both improve the world around you and to live better with yourself and whatever situation you are in.
The Marrow Series - Robert Reed
An enormous, technologically advanced and incredibly old starship has been travelling around the galaxy for millennia, until it wanders through our solar system and humans hitch a ride. What follows are the stories of the people living on this planet-sized ship as it travels, and the other alien races that also live on board. Start with Marrow.
I'm not sure why I've never read any LeGuin until the last year or so, but these two books were beautiful and very well written. They're true literary pieces of science-fiction, and I'll definitely be reading more by her in the near future.
Luna: New Moon & Luna: Wolf Moon - Ian McDonald
I'm only half-way through the second book in this series, but its still a great read. Game of Thrones, but on the Moon and with family-led corporations.
Eifelheim - Michael Flynn
The plot: An alien ship crash lands in Germany during the black plague. The people in the town try and determine if they are demons, angels or men with souls like them. In the modern day, a scholar tries to determine what actually happened by reviewing ancient religious texts. Very well researched and written, short enough to enjoy on a long plane ride.
Aurora - Kim Stanley Robinson
I read Aurora at almost the same time I read Seveneves (listed above), and found them to be quite similar in the questions they raise: Can humans really survive away from Earth? If so, what are the implications? What will happen to us? Aurora mostly takes place on a generation ship on its way to a planet hundreds of years away from Earth as the ship's systems are gradually failing. While it might be a space adventure, the ship's computer is one of the best Artificial Intelligences I've encountered in fiction.
I know that Anne Leckie and the Ancillary series are darlings of the science-fiction community, but I really just couldn't get into them. The parts that weren't almost deliberately confusing felt like a ripoff of either Star Wars or The Culture.
I love most of what Alastair Reynolds writes, but I actually asked Amazon for a refund on Revengers it was so terrible. Some people like it, but it's so drastically different in tone from his other books that
What are your thoughts? What have I missed, or what else should I be reading? Leave a comment here, or hit me up on Twitter where I'm @ParkerNow