Yeah, I know, I hate “Ten Best X” lists, too. Inevitably the attempt to condense a huge field–one that often contains multiple subgenres, and has decades, if not centuries, of history–down to just ten (or fifty, or let’s be serious even a hundred) items is going to end badly. It can’t really be adequately done, and anyone reading the list is going to find their favorites are left off, or declare that the listmaker has a laughable idea of what’s best and essential.
Science fiction has pretty much exactly this problem–a history of at least a century, arguably two if you’re in the “
was the first science fiction novel” camp. A multitude of subgenres. And even if a reader could more or less keep up with everything published as science fiction in the past, in recent decades there’s been so much more published that it’s impossible to have read everything significant that’s come out. Any attempt to list the ten best science fiction novels is doomed to failure.
So I’m not even going to actually attempt it. These are ten of my favorites. It is perforce an idiosyncratic list, and if your favorites aren’t here, either I had to leave them off because I’m only doing ten, or else we have different favorites. Which is the way things should be!
by Mary Shelley
Most of us were introduced to this story by one of the various movies made of it, or even just the image of Boris Karloff with flattened head and bolts sticking out of his neck, lumbering around and moaning. But Shelley’s monster was actually quite articulate, and able to speak at length and intelligently about the predicament in which it found itself. And while Shelley isn’t terribly specific about just how Victor Frankenstein brought his creation to life, it’s pretty clear that she was thinking in terms of scientific ideas of the time, taking the experiments of Galvani and Aldini and going one step forward with them–if applying electric current to a dead body does, indeed, give it some semblance of life, what then? What does that mean? You can make the argument that this isn’t really science fiction, if you really want to. But whether or not you think it counts as part of the genre, its impact on SF&F is undeniable. And it’s a good book. Not bad for an eighteen year old girl who basically wrote it for a holiday party game.
by Stanislaw Lem
It was my parents who introduced me to Lem. Which is a bit weird on the surface, because actually neither of them much liked SF and while they believed that I would eventually make a writer of myself, they would have much preferred I go for mysteries, which they loved, or at least some sort of thing they could think of as “literature.” Realizing this would never happen, they would occasionally gift me with books they understood to be actual quality (read “not really science fiction”) and hopefully more highbrow than my usual diet of pulpy adventure.
may or may not be highbrow, but it’s pretty darn trippy. An ocean-covered planet that may or may not be a single sentient being. If it is, it’s an utterly alien one, and the humans who try to study it find themselves confronting their own past traumas and, ultimately, learning nothing about Solaris itself. I’m given to understand this book exists in at least two translations from the Polish, the more recent much better than the older one.
The Secret of Sinharat
People of the Talisman
by Leigh Brackett
Really, I could put just about any of the Eric John Stark stories here. Brackett’s Mars owes a debt to Burroughs, and so does Stark–born on Mercury, his parents die and he’s adopted by Mercurians. I have this as an old Ace double, back to back (and upside down from each other), full of pulpy goodness–ancient technology, body-switching, tribes from the Drylands of Mars massing for war, a world with space travel and interplanetary mining concerns, where the light of the two moons of Mars glints off swords, spears, and mail. This is great, engaging adventure.
The Star King
by Jack Vance
I love Vance’s language, the careful, almost-ponderous formality that even his rogues sometimes use, with great ironic effect. He also does wonderful visuals, and has a wry view of human nature and culture that I enjoy tremendously. Some of Vance’s best moments are throwaways–footnotes, bare mentions of the customs of some city or planet his hero is visiting, and his stories are great fun. I’m hard pressed to pick a single one to recommend, honestly.
The Star King
is the first of a series of five in which Kirth Gersen sets about revenging his family, lost in a murderous slave raid carried out by the five super-criminal Demon Princes, each of whom gets a book. I’m sorely tempted to just quote passages at you, but I won’t. Just read some Vance if you haven’t already.
The Zero Stone
by Andre Norton
Norton wrote so much, and was read so widely, that it’s difficult to pick a single best, or to encapsulate her influence on the writers who grew up reading her
. The Zero Stone
is as good a place to start as any (and better than some–probably because she wrote so much, not all of Norton’s work is particularly good. I say that as a diehard fan). Apprentice gemologist Murdoch Jern has inherited one thing from his murdered father–a ring set with a mysterious stone, found on an alien corpse drifting in space. It’s an ancient alien artifact that several someones are willing to kill to get hold of, and Jern has no one but himself and a mysterious small furry alien to rely on. Pure, pulpy adventure goodness.
The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin
The “science” in “science fiction” isn’t just physics and engineering. It can also be linguistics, anthropology, and psychology. This is the story of Genly Ai, a man sent to talk the inhabitants of the planet Gethen into joining the interstellar civilization he represents. The genderless nature of the Gethenians is probably the most famous aspect of this book, but it is hardly the only notable thing about it. The cultures are carefully drawn, and there’s a reason everyone who reads it remembers Genly and Estraven’s desperate flight across the ice.
by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
, Roadside Picnic exists in English in two different translations (from Russian in this case). The most recent is reputedly the better, and it’s the one I’ve read. Sometime in the recent past, aliens visited Earth and then departed, leaving behind all sorts of mysterious and dangerous debris. Trash left behind after a roadside picnic, but the bodies and lives of the humans who come into contact with it are irrevocably affected. The man character is one of the people who make their livings scavenging the litter left over from this brief alien visit. It’s an unforgettable book, particularly the ending.
by William Gibson
This slickly written cyberpunk heist novel made a huge splash when it was first published in 1984, and its influence continues to this day, in common images and motifs, and in our everyday use of words like “cyberspace.” If you’re interested in science fiction and you haven’t read it, well, I urge you to make time to read it. You won’t regret it.
by C.J. Cherryh
There are several other Cherryh novels I might have included on this list instead–either of the Hugo-winners
, for instance–but this one is a personal favorite. A small population of humans lives on a world that’s majority humanoid Atevi. After a disastrous war, the only point of contact allowed between the two is the Paidhi, the chief Human translator, who oversees the handover of Human tech to the Atevi. Things have been going along fine for more than a hundred years, but suddenly things begin to unravel, and Paidhi Bren Cameron needs to figure out what’s going on fast before he gets himself–and every other Human on the planet–killed. This is a novel where on the surface everything is small-scale–we see only from Bren’s eyes, and seemingly trivial actions like choosing to drink a cup of tea (or not) have world-reaching consequences. It’s also a novel deeply concerned with language.
by China Mieville
Another novel deeply concerned with language, with some nods to Cherryh’s
here and there, in fact. The Arieki speak a language in which the map is the territory–lies or abstractions are impossible. They also have two mouths, and the only way humans can communicate with them is through identical twins who have been bred and raised for the purpose. The introduction of a non-twinned Ambassador causes chaos among the Arieki. I’m really not doing the novel justice with this short capsule. Seriously, just read it. Or check out
The City and the City
, also by Mieville, for an equally mind-tickling read.