I began reading science fiction novels almost by accident. One day I saw an Alfred Bester book on the shelf at a book store. Viewers of Babylon 5 (the best TV show ever) will recall a character by this name. I had read many Star Wars, Star Trek, and Babylon 5 books, and I followed science fiction TV with ardor. So I assumed this book was in the same vein. It was not. The B5 character was named for a writer from the 50s.
Alfred Bester is best known for two novels: The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. They’re both amazing, and I recommend them. “The Demolished Man” works on a simple premise: how would someone go about getting away with murder in a society in which telepaths existed? “The Stars My Destination” (loosely based upon the Count of Monte Cristo) explores what would happen if people could transport themselves at will. How would prisons work? How would you prevent theft? “The Demolished Man” won the first Hugo Award in 1953. “The Stars My Destination” has been credited as perhaps the creator of cyberpunk.
After Bester, I was hungry for more. I scoured the web for lists of the best science fiction novels. Here is one good list of the top novels, though it is somewhat weighted towards older books. I also tried to read the winners and nominees of the Hugo and Nebula awards (you can find a list of wins by author here). Wikipedia lists the Hugo Award wins according to year here. I personally strongly prefer the Hugo Award books to the Nebula Award books, but you may find differently.
So after all that hunting, here are my top 5 science fiction novels:
- The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula LeGuin, 1969)– A human envoy visits an alien world, hoping to convince them to join an alliance. The aliens have no set gender, but phase in and out of male, female, and neuter. The book explores the culture of this planet, both due to the unusual gender of its people, and the extremely cold climate. For whatever reason, men tend to be unimpressed with this book, but women I’ve recommended it to like it. The book explores gender and cultural topics without getting heavy-handed or obvious. The two main characters are amazingly drawn. The book is filled with little amazing legends and folklore from the culture.
- A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, 1960)– A post-apocalyptic story with a very different twist. Broken into three parts at very different times, the first part opens in a Catholic abbey in Nevada several centuries after a devastating nuclear war. The novel has a charming humor and levity despite the settings. It explores religious themes (not very common in scifi).
- The Forever War (Joe Haldeman 1974)– A story about a man involved in a space war. As the battles are waged, centuries pass, and the man is isolated from his own life by a questionable war. Haldeman was a vietnam vet, and it shows. I have read at least a dozen novels by Haldeman, and I would recommend every single one. He writes science fiction with a focus on heart. “The Forever War” is one of the best science fiction love stories I’ve read.
- The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester 1956)– discussed above.
- Camp Concentration (Thomas Disch 1968)– a dark and twisted “Flowers for Algernon”. A conscientious objector is sentenced to prison. He is then subjected to experiments that greatly increase his intellect, along with a number of other prisoners. This book is very literary to the point of sometimes being maddening. I skipped through some of the literary aspects that I didn’t relate to. But the story and the science fiction and the humor are spot on and excellent.
You may notice the heavy slant to the 50s and 60s. This is no accident. These books are old enough to be reprinted and therefore available, but old enough for the reprints to be available used (used books are so wonderfully inexpensive!). Some more modern very awesome scifi books are “Snow Crash“, “Mathematicians in Love“, “A Fire Upon the Deep“, and “The Windup Girl“.
I could talk all day about science fiction, so drop a comment!