Gordon's Favorite Science Fiction
Science Fiction, typically of the harder variety, is one of my favorite genres of literature. What follows are some of my favorites. This list is not intended to be a comprehensive survey of the history of SF, though a few works are included which are best enjoyed with a certain dose of, shall we say, historical perspective. There's a bit of fantasy to go with the SF here, but in general I avoid sword and sorcery (and lean towards the harder side of SF). This list also is primarily a survey of novels but a few shorter works also appear that I think are particularly noteworthy -- especially if they're from authors whose longer works are less outstanding. A few works are considered as series even though one or more of the series components may rank above the rest. Finally, this list is unabashedly personal; no consideration is given to supposedly "great" works which I didn't personally enjoy.
- The Boat of a Million Years.Anderson has been a prolific writer over the years and has written any number of enjoyable books. Perhaps because of my fascination with immortality tales, however, I think this one stands out. My only critical caveat is that it starts out strong with its intersecting tales of the immortal clan through history and ends up somewhat weaker as they head into mankind's future.
- The Foundation Trilogy. The Foundation Trilogy grew and grew and eventually merged with Asimov's robot novels and tried to bring together just about everything else he wrote as well. The books of the original trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Earth, and Second Foundation) remain the classic components of the series, however.
- "Nightfall." Nightfall's length at least comes close to squeezing into the novella or novelette category. In any case, I put it as his best short work, not to be confused with the later novelization published with Robert Silverberg. Like others of the "Golden Age" of SF, Asimov was probably stronger as a writer of shorter fiction and some of his most powerful works fell into this category such as "The Last Question" and "The Dead Past."
- Cities in Flight. Cities in Flight actually consists of four shorter novels: They Shall Have Stars, A Life for the Stars, Earthman Come Home, and The Triumph of Time but today are available only published together under the umbrella title. Cities in Flight envisions a time when earthbound cities take to migrant wandering among the stars (powered by spindizzies). Epic in scope, this tetralogy ends with the end of the universe and if, like many series, it isn't wrapped up in the most coherent or elegant way, it's still worth a read.
- "Surface Tension." Ignore Blish's Star Trek novelizations, but of his short stories, "Surface Tension" is a must read and is available as part of many anthologies.
- The Uplift Novels. This is an ongoing series which started with Startide Rising (which won the Nebula) and continued with The Uplift War. This series imagines a universe peopled by species united in a complex network of patronage resulting from species "uplifting" other species to sentience. Humans stand out as foundlings who apparently achieved sentience on their own. A fascinating concept well executed in novels of galactic intrigue. Other Brin novels such as Sundiver take place on the periphery of this universe.
- The Postman. A superb example of post-apocalytic SF. You'll see a few of them on this list since it's a sub-genre that I rather enjoy when it's well done.
Card, Orson Scott
- Enders Game, Speaker for the Dead. (The concluding books in this series - Xeonocide and Children of the Mind were a big step down in quality though I didn't hate Xenocide as much as some did.) A different view of an interplanetary war. I found these books to be Card's best work (though arguably the original "Enders Game" novella which may be hard to find packs the most punch of all).
- The Cyteen Trilogy. Cherryh's most complex and complete extended novel set in her well-realized universe of Union, the Fleet, merchanters, and the stations. I've enjoyed most of Cherryh's novels set in this universe (especially Downbelow Station) and think they're a good level above her fantasy and other works.
Clarke, Arthur C.
- Childhood's End. Clarke wrote many enjoyable novels but Childhood's End has a certain mythic quality which sets it apart. (Like many of the "golden age" authors, most of Clarke's novels could perhaps be described as "boys' adventure novels," albeit excellent ones.) Childhood's End, on the other hand, goes far beyond events which affect individuals to an entire transformation of the human race. (I would also recommend other Clarke novels such as Rendezvous with Rama, The City and the Stars, and The Fountains of Paradise. Even more strongly, however, I'd point new SF readers to short stories like "The Star," "The Nine Billion Names of God," and "Expedition to Earth.")
Forward, Robert L.
- Dragon's Egg. Had this list been compiled prior to 1980 (the publication date of Dragon's Egg), I would probably have included Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity as the quintissential example of traditional hard, hard science fiction in which a marvelous world is constructed and only incidentally populated with characters to give the world a chance to show off. Dragon's Egg is like that -- what would life be like on a neutron star anyway -- and if not a "great" novel in the scheme of things is probably today's best example of this type of work. (Rocheworld (expanded from Flight of the Dragonfly) is pretty good as well. Other Forward novels I've read are best left unread.)
- Neuromancer is one of the seminal cyberpunk works. In fact, it probably defines the sub-genre in the eyes of many. It forms a loose trilogy with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Gibson's collection Burning Chrome (along with many other cyberpunk anthologies, e.g. Mirrorshades edited by Bruce Sterling) includes two short stories which I actually prefer over Gibson's novels. "Johnny Mnemonic" distills seminal cyberpunk into a classic short story which is more concentrated than the novels (and which has little in common with the mediocre film). Perhaps his very best story (and one of the best SF short stories of all time), however, is "The Gernsback Continuum," a rebuttal or answer to the sparkling clean utopian spires and ideals of science fiction from the "golden age." Though it lacks the plot and setting of typical cyberpunk, this 1981 story embodies the underlying philosophy of cyberpunk as much as any story does.
- The Forever War is sometimes talked of as an answer to Heinlein's Starship Troopers, but more likely it was a response to the real-life Vietnam War in which Haldeman fought. It may be the definitive anti-war SF novel with the pointlessness of an interstellar war amplified by the mathematics of reletavistic time dilation. (Readers who appreciate The Forever War should also consider reading (or rereading) Erique Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, a classic (mainstream) novel set in the trenches of WWI.)
- The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Invoking Robert Heinlein's name is still one of the easier ways to get a good old-fashioned flame war going on one of Usenet's science fiction conferences (and NO, I am not suggesting that you do this). Nor do I especially have the time nor the interest to rehash any of those debates here. Suffice it to say that I think Heinlein is one of the best writers to come out of the science fiction genre. At the same time, he produced some stinkers. A couple of his later books succumbed to the Asimov disease that makes science fiction authors try to retroactively fit everything they've ever written into a coherent future history. Others among his later works were too preachy and heavy-handed, even for someone who largely agrees with his political philosophies. With that out of the way, I've come to feel that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is Heinein's most consistently readable among his adult (as in non-juvenile) novels while still containing all the elements which make Heinein's classic novels what they are. It is the story of a revolt by the citizens of Luna against Earth and clearly articulates the what might be called right-wing libertarianism which runs through all of his major books.
- For a long time, I would have put Time Enough for Love at the top of my list and it is truly wonderful in places. It takes off from "Methuseleh's Children," a novella in Heinlein's future history series (published in The Past Through Tomorrow) which introduces his perhaps most fascinating character - Lazurus Long, the world's oldest man. Time Enough for Love is structured as sort of a conglomeration of shorter pieces, some of which are truly outstanding ("The Tale of the Adopted Daughter") and others of which drag a bit. In the end, this inconsistency puts it below The Moon is a Harsh Mistress though it's still one of my favorite books. Heinlein's last novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, continues on from Time Enough for Love (in the sort of odd way in which his later novels were interconnected). To Sail Beyond the Sunset is not in the same class as the other two books listed here but, at the same time, was a comfortable and pleasant goodbye to a cast of characters we had come to know well.
- I do not include Heinlein's best known book to the general public (Stranger in a Strange Land) in this list. I never particularly liked it.
- Dune is a thoroughly original piece of science fiction written on an epic scale and built around possibly the most complete alien world and ecology ever created. Sandworms, "spice", navigators who could fold space, and many other elements take place against a backdrop of interstellar intrigue. It was then made into a really, really bad movie and was followed by a series of forgettable sequels. (At least I was never able to get into them, and the general opinion is unenthusiastic.)
Hogan, James P.
- "Code of the Lifemaker: Prologue" Hogan has written a number of fairly enjoyable science fiction novels (The Giants Trilogy, Thrice Upon a Time) but not one which deserves a "Best Of" listing (including the novel of which this prologue was a part and most certainly the novel's sequels). This prologue, however, is an absolutely fascinating account about how an ecology based on machine intelligences got started after an automated interstellar factory had a little accident. It's so imaginative that the novel which follows seems flat in comparison when the resulting civilization comes across as essentially human in thought and motivation.
Miller, Walter M. Jr.
- A Canticle for Liebowitz is arguably the best post-apocalyptic work of science fiction and differs significantly from the more common "Mad Max" model. The novel is set in a sort of Dark Ages hundreds of years after the holocaust and tells its story from the point of view of monks preserving knowledge as in the previous Dark Ages.
Niven, Larry and Pournelle, Jerry
- The Mote in God's Eye. Niven and Pournelle complement each other well. Niven is an incredible world builder and many of the short stories in his Known Space series (spread across several collections, which are in turn being republished in yet other overlapping collections) are fine indeed. On the other hand, Niven is weak in plotting and his novels don't fully exploit the material. Pournelle, on the other hand, gets overly wrapped up in military tactics and doesn't show the breadth of vision shown by Niven's books. The combination is great. I recommend The Mote in God's Eye to people starting out in science fiction. If someone doesn't like The Mote in God's Eye, I figure they don't like hard science fiction period. (A few people might get turned off by the political philosophies in the book but that's their problem. Pournelle and Niven create a rather well thought-out interstellar monarchy.) The novel itself is classic alien first contact. The aliens are the best that Niven has ever created and their characteristics play heavily into the plot. Niven and Pournelle wrote an interesting essay "The Making of the Mote in God's Eye" which talked to the technologies assumed for the novel and how they would drive certain social structures and other consequences. Interesting stuff. I like a lot of Niven and Pournelle's stuff (NOT including the sequel to Mote, The Gripping Hand). Favorites include Lucifer's Hammer and Beowolf's Children (the latter with Steven Barnes).
- Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion (and most recently Endymion which I haven't read yet). These are hard novels to describe. Suffice it to say that Hyperion takes the form of the Canterbury Tales as a group of "pilgrims" travel to the planet Hyperion and the time-traveling Shrike that lives there. But that description doesn't really do justice to these connected books. I'm normally as much a fan of hard science fiction as there is and these books are more metaphysical(?). But they're good. Read them. Simmons writes in the horror genre as well as science fiction. Both horror and s.f. shorts are collected in Prayers to Broken Stones which I recommend.
Smith, E.E. "Doc"
- The Lensman Series. This is the historical entry on this page; you really can't evealuate it by modern standards. But, if you can read with just a little bit of historic perspective, the Lensman Series will still reward you. It is space opera written on the grandest of canvases (it starts with galaxies colliding). The series includes (in internal series order): Triplanetary, First Lensman, Galactic Patrol, Gray Lensman, Second-Stage Lensmen, and Children of the Lens. Masters of the Vortex is sometimes included (and is set in the same story universe) but it isn't really part of the series.
- The Draka Series (esp. Marching Through Georgia and Under the Yoke) Marching through Georgia is a nice military and alternate history novel, but it's much more than that. The heros (protaganists at any rate) in Marching Through Georgia and its sequels are a culture called the Draka which expanded out from South Africa. The original British colonists were joined by the defeated loyalists after the American Revolution and by defeated Southern landholders after the American Civil War. They are deeply militaristic and strongly believe in the superiority of their race. Yet, in these novels, you're seeing the world through their eyes and you see a complex culture with beauty as well as evil. Marching Through Georgia and Under the Yoke are probably the best entries in the series although The Stone Dogs is worth reading if you were as impressed by the series as I was. The more recent Drakon didn't work for me; I think in part it was difficult to identify with the lead character which is what made the other novels work.
- The Lord of the Rings (of course) including The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. This list is primarily about schience fiction, but this trilogy is so well known, so influential, so meticulously planned, and, yes, so good that it wouldn't be fair to exclude it.
- A Fire Upon the Deep. It's probably dangerous to include such a relatively recent novel (1992) in such a rarified list. A Fire Upon the Deep was thoroughly original, however, and even if some parts worked better than others, the end result was the best new s.f. novel of the past few years. It's a modern space opera set against the backdrop of a threat to the entire civilization of the galaxy.
- "True Names," a novella in a collection of the same name is an imaginative and touching piece about cyberspace and virtual reality before such things existed.
- The Day of the Triffids. Hollywood made a film of this book as a conventional (and mediocre) horror movie starring the carnivorous Triffid plants, but that's not really the point of the book. This is a classic of the British "world destroyer" school where civilization needs to be put back together after a disaster happens (in this case most everyone goes blind and there are these big, bad old plants running around). Wyndham had other good ones also: Out of the Deeps (similar to and not quite as good as The Day of the Triffids), The Midwich Cuckoos (the basis of "Children of the Damned"), and Rebirth.
Honorable Mentions (besides those mentioned above)
- Connie Willis is a great new 1990's author whose works cover a great range from humorous to deadly serious (while still maintaining the comic touches that make them even realer). The Doomsday Book is her best novel to date (and it may be unfair to exclude it from above while including A Fire Upon the Deep). Impossible Things is a collection of (often wonderful) short stories. Postscript: I've most recently read her Bellwether and To Say Nothing of the Dog and I have to now say that that, if nothing else, Connie Willis is the funniest SF author I've ever read. The only criticism I have is that her humor sometimes goes on a few beats too long but, if you want a good laugh, pick up one of her books!
- Much of Larry Niven's Future History Series, especially short stories and Ringworld.
- Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. A murder mystery set in a role-playing game of the future. The role-playing game is the interesting part since it's played in a theme park with holograms, actors, etc.
- Many of Isaac Asimov's robot stories and novels
- David Brin's The Practice Effect. Perhaps this novel doesn't really belong in a list of "great" science fiction, but it features a very original concept. (Plus it turns out in the end to be an SF novel and not the fantasy novel that one might assume it is.) In any case, I enjoyed it as did a few other works on this list which made me smile. The same could be said of Larry Niven and David Gerrold's The Flying Sorcerors.
- Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. It's no doubt heresy that I've only given this book an honorable mention but it just never had any great effect on me.
- "Microcosmic God" by Theodore Sturgeon
- "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes
. A decent novel and film but great short story.