I have found it really useful to skim through the various top ten and top hundred lists of best sci-fi novels in search for new reading so I thought I’d put up one of my own here. This list appears to me to be in constant flux, but at this moment, my best of the best looks something like this.
1. Alastair Reynolds: House of Suns
I don’t know what it is about this Reynolds piece that really hit it off with me, but for some reason this is the book that has in the recent years stuck with me the most. Maybe it is the fact that it was in some sense something completely new for me, and yet without going to overt depths or difficulties with weird vocabulary or concepts.
The star struck love story of Campion and Purslane touched me to the extend that I wound up making a Lego stop motion animation about it.
2. Frank Herbert: Dune
Frank Herbert’s seminal novel tops the top charts all around the internet, and with good reason. The book is a treasure trove not only of possible futures, but also of deep and inspiring philosophical thought about identity, time, thinking and various other themes.
Being an intuition researcher in my day job, I especially connected with the division between the intuitive Bene Gesserits and the rational mentats – and the fusion of the two in the genius Paul Muad’Dib. As a side note, it is interesting that such fusion seems to have happened with practically all the great thinkers we usually call geniuses like Leonardo or Edison.
3. Arthur C. Clarke: Rendezvous with Rama
It was a tight call whether I would include Rama or Childhood’s End here, what with both being fantastic novels. But there is something that’s so real and gripping about Rendezvous with Rama that it won the draw.
The story about the handful of astronomers who explore the alien spacecraft that has entered our Solar System is a great look at both space travel, alien intelligence and political intrigue. And, like most of Clarke’s other works, it’s a really great read.
4. Dan Simmons: Hyperion
It is an outrageous idea: setting Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in space. And yet the hyper-literate Simmons pulls it off. The story teems with literary references; Simmons certainly wants to let us know he’s read books. But none of this matters, since it all fits like a glove.
And it’s a damn good novel to boot. The backstory, which grew out to be a series of three more independent novels is enchanting and grasping. And the stories-within-stories express a great range of various scifi tropes. Normally when somebody shows off their talent this much, the result falls somehow flat. Not so with Hyperion, one of the best scifi books I’ve ever read (twice).
5. Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space
Revelation Space was the breakthrough book by Reynolds, and with good reason. The book opens up what grew to be a long series of novels and short stories set in Reynolds’ idiosyncratic gothic scifi universe.
In this book, the scope is already reflecting what later grew to be Reynolds’ trademark. And the ending of the book with its quantum paradoxes has my brain still doing somersaults, which is actually quite fun.
6. Orson Scott Card: The Worthing Chronicle
I thought first whether I should include something from the Ender Saga here (the first one, probably), but then again, while they’re all great books (even the Shadow ones), there is something that doesn’t quite strike that last chord.
Whereas the Worthing Chronicle does. I’ve read the book set in an Asimovian universe several times, and just now started thinking I should read it again. More similar in tone to, say, Vernor Vinge or Asimov than typical Card, this is a truly enticing fantasy-meets-scifi tale. It is also supplemented with a number of great short stories wrapped up together with the novel in the book The Worthing Saga.
7. Vernor Vinge: A Fire Upon the Deep
When I first read this book as a kid, I understood maybe one third of it, and was still completely blown away. When I re-read it a couple of years ago, it felt conceptually much easier to grasp, but was still a great read.
Vinge explores themes like AI and swarm intelligence in an intriguing universe where the maximum speed for information dispersal and travel depends on the “zone” you’re located in the universe. The closer we are to the center, the dumber we are, in other words.
8. David Zindell: The Broken God
The story of the Neanderthal-cum-ace-pilot Danlo and the ice city Neverness is one of the more original pieces of scifi I have read. Even though the basic backdrop is typical space opera with space battles and political intrigue, Zindell’s epic spans vast proportions in both dramatic and conceptual scope.
It is also a part of a great trilogy plus a prequel Neverness, all definitely worth reading through. And the space travel trope is somewhat unique, what with the pilots being actually ace mathematicians solving complex equations quickly to navigate through space.
9. Iain M. Banks: The Algebraist
I was thinking that I should include one of Banks’ Culture novels in the list, because at the time I read them I was really blown away with practically every one of them. But the problem is that once I started thinking back to their impact, I could not really remember much of anything that took place in the books! It is weird: I have this meta-knowledge that they were great but no idea why.
The Algebraist is one of Banks’ rare science fiction novels that does not take place in the Culture Universe, and I think one of his best too. The story involves weird gas-giant dwelling creatures and an intricate Banksian plot. It has stayed with me for a long time.
10. Isaac Asimov: Caves of Steel
Perhaps one of the most important of Asimov’s robot novels, this introduces two of his most compelling characters, the detectives Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw. The latter is, of course, a robot, and Asimov succinctly explores the limits of what machine intelligence and robotics mean when the lines become blurred.
In the novel Asimov showed that you can use science fiction as the backdrop for another kind of genre novel, in this case the detective story.