Following my post last week about my top 5 science fiction novels, I’ve been getting a lot of hits on search engines. I too scour the web for good scifi lists, so I thought I’d add my top 20 science fiction novels to the mix. I weighed a little towards including some less-common mentions, so while I enjoyed both “Hitchhiker’s Guide” and “Hothouse”, two incredibly different books, nobody needs help in hearing about “Hitchhiker’s Guide”. So without further ado, my top 20 science fiction novels in no particular order.
Top Five (see last week for longer descriptions of each)
- Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula LeGuin, 1969)
- The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester, 1956)
- A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, 1960)
- The Forever War (Joe Haldeman, 1974)
- Camp Concentration (Thomas Disch, 1968)
- The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert Heinlein 1966)- The inhabitants of the moon attempt to revolt from the oppressive Earth with the help of a supercomputer named Mycroft. Mycroft is an awesome central character. The best of the grown-up Heinlein novels. 1967 Hugo Award winner.
- The Demolished Man (Alfred Bester 1953)- How does one get away with murder when telepathy is common place? Fast moving and surprisingly modern, the winner of the first Hugo award.
- The Absolute at Large (Karel Čapek 1922)- See a longer review I did here. The author hypothesizes that when the atom is split (a new concept at the time) that energy is released, as well as a pervasive religious fervor. As the atom-splitter spreads due to its phenomenal energy production, so too does the side effect of religiosity.
- The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula LeGuin 1971)- When one man dreams, his dreams can become reality. He fears this awesome power; when he enters therapy, his therapist begins to use his gift, imagining he will fix the world.
- Mathematicians in Love (Rudy Rucker 2006)- Totally awesome and wacky. Mathematics grads students compete to find the equation of everything, and win the affections of a cute girl. And there are enormous sentient venomous conch shells, intergalactic mathematicians, and parallel universes.
- Worlds (Joe Haldeman 1981)- A woman from a communist orbiting asteroid visits New York City on a scholarship. I love everything by Haldeman, but this is my favorite after “Forever War”. Very heartfelt and emotionally gripping. The rare female protagonist, and done phenomenally. This is the first of a trilogy, but I think it’s the best and stands alone just fine.
- The Door into Summer (Robert Heinlein 1957)- My favorite of Heinlein’s “children’s” books, which are all very intelligent, but have less of some of Heinlein’s more alarming interests like incest. A man is duped by his business partner, who steals the company and puts him into cold sleep. He awakens after 30 years, and tries to figure out how to get his life back. One of the main characters is the protagonist’s cat, always a plus.
- Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson 1992)- cyberpunk done properly with a sense of humor. A pizza delivery man, Hiro Protagonist, and a 15-year-old girl start investigate the propagation of a mysterious internet drug, snow crash. The plot line of this one gripped me less than the excellent fun had with a future world.
- Tau Zero (Poul Anderson 1970)- A crew on a near light speed ship is on a five-year journey to another planet. During the voyage, the deceleration mechanism is damaged. As they continue to go faster and faster, the time dilation grows and they travel farther. The best hard scifi book I’ve read.
- A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge 1992)- The best and most intelligent space opera I’ve read. Different laws of physics exist in different parts of the galaxy. People create a malevolent higher intelligence near the rim of the galaxy and must flee into the galaxy where the laws of physics preclude such an entity. They get stuck on a planet of sentient creatures composed of several animals in constant communication with one another. They are called the Tines, and they are hands-down the best alien I’ve read in scifi. Also read anything by Vernor Vinge. 1993 Hugo Award winner.
- Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner 1968)- At first I found this book a bit confusing; the chapters jump around to relatively random people doing random things as part of the world building. But after 50 pages or so you get your bearings. The world is over-populated, and child-limits have been instituted. The plot is complex and rich. The style is grimly funny. Hard to describe, and requires some effort to read, but one of the greats. 1969 Hugo Award winner.
- Hothouse (Brian W. Aldiss 1962)- Also called “The Long Afternoon of Earth”. In the distant future, the sun is bigger and hotter, and one side of the earth always faces the sun. Plant life, with so much energy available, has evolved in many ways, and all but overruns this half of the earth. There are plant birds, plant predators, and plant just about everything. A small group of humans tries to survive in this near-apocalypse Earth. Chock full of great imaginings. Aldiss doesn’t have the most sparkling characters, but he has engaging concepts, somewhat like Asimov. “Helliconia Spring” is another worthy read by Aldiss, but it is somewhat longer.
- The Caves of Steel (Isaac Asimov 1954)- My favorite Asimov book, partially because it is self-contained and relatively succinct. People of an overcrowded Earth live under steel domes, and never go outside. The story is set around the investigation of a murder.
- The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi 2009)- The 2010 Hugo Award winner. A biopunk story set in Bangkok. After the world has been devastated by engineered illnesses and crop-plagues, society is finally mostly recovered. Carbon emissions are strictly limited, so energy-efficient methods are desirable. The main character is an employee working at a start-up energy company as a front, but for one of the bio-engineering firms that creates genetically modified species actually. A rich world that incorporates biology well.
- Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson 1993)- A group of 100 brilliant hand-picked scientists is selected and sent to Mars to live there and begin terraforming it. These scientists are strong-minded, and don’t always agree how to go about things; political fractures form. The first book follows the political developments of the first 100 martians. “Red Mars” is followed by “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars” which occur over the course of a couple of centuries. Mars itself is the main character of the whole trilogy, and is described in the best scientific detail available at the time. Sometimes a bit long-winded, but very realistic, and an interesting exploration of terraforming.